In addition to keeping the menu simple so that I can spend more time with my guests and less time in the kitchen, the main thing I have discovered about holiday entertaining is that it is best to blend family and friends. Having a dinner comprised solely of family is no good; you need outsiders to lighten the feel, even among the happiest of families. Any holiday, because of the great potential for joy, contains the capacity for high emotions, old baggage, and general disappointment. Diversifying your portfolio of guests is an excellent way to ensure that the mood stays festive.
Plus, it can be interesting to mix people up. This year, we had my mother, two friends from the neighborhood, and another friend who used to live in the neighborhood but left us for a fancier zip code. These friends sort of knew each other, though not well. Because everyone was getting acquainted, the conversation skipped some of the dullness you sometimes fall into with people you know well: How is your job? How is so-and-so, our mutual friend? With (socially adept) strangers, the conversation veers toward the less personal and more fun: politics, movies, food, dogs, travel.
So went our Christmas dinner. The food was good and stress-free, there was plenty of wine and a Growler of beer from Magnolia, and lots of lively banter. The pork roast and gratin went over nicely and we finished dinner with our friend Liz's delicious mixed berry crumble, a perfect sweet-tart ending to the meal.
Saturday was spent recovering, eating ramen at Tanpopo and going to the movies.
By Sunday I felt like cooking again, but nothing laborious. Something simple like Marcella Hazan's pork sausages with red cabbage, served over soft polenta, fit the bill.
As you know, Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking is a favorite of mine. If I could only cook from one book for the rest of my life (what an absurd idea!), this would be it. I've already mentioned her chicken with marsala and porcini mushrooms, her bolognese sauce, and you're probably sick of hearing me wax poetic about her chicken with two lemons. Add this to my list of recipes I could not live without, the ingredients for which simply read: pork sausages, red cabbage, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper.
The cabbage is cooked low and slow for close to an hour, turning it soft, sweet, and deeply purple. Served over creamy pale yellow polenta, it's the perfect contrast to the slightly salty pork sausages.
We haven't yet entered the obligatory healthy eating mania that often follows the holidays, I suppose because the holidays aren't quite over. No doubt New Year's will require something a little decadent to go with a sparkly drink. But the fancy part of the holidays are over, to me at least, and this is the kind of rustic food that is best enjoyed without tinsel, gifts, friends or fanfare, just a good bottle of wine.