By Emma Kobolakis
Winter dinners are inherently cozy. The air is colder, so the food is heartier. Some of us close our eyes and imagine a beautifully browned bird with bountiful sides of stuffing and sauce, a la Thanksgiving dinner. Others salivate at the thought of glazed ham or roast vegetables. That’s the grand thing: Our preferences are unique to each of us, and those preferences are built on shared experiences. The nostalgia felt when revisiting those experiences builds our anticipation to indulge, year after year, with friends and family.
That’s the grand thing: Our preferences are unique to each of us, and those preferences are built on shared experiences.
What’s your fondest holiday memory? Perhaps it was the time that you snuck handfuls of marshmallows and ate them in front of the TV while mom was making sweet potato casserole. Or the time that you and your friends decided to buck tradition and host a potluck, where you had a bite of everything and collapsed, moaning, on the couch. Or that one year when you decided you were the second coming of Martha Stewart and resolved to cook the entire feast, yourself — only to be saved from certain disaster when guests arrived to help. Or perhaps you carried it all off with a flourish.
If you’re a nervous home cook, it isn’t easy to devise a winter-worthy side or main course, which is why many of us do tend to play it safe and stick with the tried and true. However, there’s much to be said about taking something basic and adding some new flavor to it. The idea is to cook seasonally, with an eye on what’s readily available, as that usually has the best flavor. And it’s just as important to highlight those flavors in a harmonious way. Try to think outside the box of root veg and roasted meat; you might be pleasantly surprised.
In order to riff successfully on a classic, start with the basics and change one or two elements. Stuffing is fine and dandy, but what about stuffing a squash with a heady mixture of pork, sage and bread crumbs? And it wouldn’t be right to disregard those of us who don’t eat meat at all. Try a steak — a cauliflower steak, caramelized and served with a hearty relish. Or if you’re tired of the typical protein-heavy main courses, how about pastitsio, a Greek meat and pasta pie that will induce the same itis in your guests. They’re designed to serve at least four and are easily doubled (or tripled) to feed a crowd.
—Holiday dinner recipes—
Butternut squash stuffed with pork, sage and bread crumbs — Serves 4
Active Time: 30 minutes — Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
INGREDIENTS: 2 tablespoons butter; 1 teaspon olive oil; 2 stalks celery, diced; 2 shallots, sliced; 2 cloves garlic, sliced; 1 pound sweet pork sausage, casings removed; 1 small bunch sage (chiffonade); 1/2 cup bread crumbs; 2 medium-sized butternut squash, sliced in half lengthwise and seeded; 1/2 stick butter, melted; salt
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and a glug of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Sauté the celery, shallots and garlic until translucent.
3. Add the sausage, breaking up with a spatula into small pieces.
4. Once browned, add sage. Salt to taste.
5. Remove from saucepan, place in bowl. Add bread crumbs until desired consistency is reached.
6. Brush butternut squash with melted butter and sprinkle with salt.
7. Mound stuffing into squash hollows and sprinkle with more bread crumbs and melted butter.
8. Roast until the squash is soft when poked with a knife, about 45 minutes.
Pastitsio — Serves 8
Active Time: 1 hour — Total Time: 2 hours
INGREDIENTS: olive oil for frying; 1 large onion, chopped; 3 cloves garlic, minced; 2 pounds ground beef; 1 teaspoon cinnamon; 1 teaspoon oregano; 1 teaspoon thyme; 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes; salt; bread crumbs, for garnish; 1 pound ziti; 1/2 stick butter, unsalted; 1/4 cup flour; 2-1/2 cups whole milk; 1 cup Parmesan (+ 1/2 cup for topping); nutmeg
In order to riff successfully on a classic, start with the basics and change one or two elements.
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Prepare meat sauce: heat olive oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and sauté 2 minutes. Add beef and sauté until no longer pink. Add cinnamon, oregano and thyme. Add crushed tomatoes. Salt to taste, and let simmer for 45 minutes.
3. Prepare béchamel: Melt butter. Add flour and cook until golden-brown and nutty. Stream milk in slowly while whisking. Whisk every so often until béchamel is thick. Salt to taste. Grate nutmeg into it, about 1 teaspoon’s worth.
4. Prepare pasta: Boil pasta until al dente; it’ll be baked again. Combine pasta with meat sauce.
5. Pour pasta and sauce mixture in 13- by 9-inch buttered baking dish, topping with béchamel. Sprinkle with bread crumbs and extra 1/2 cup Parmesan. Bake for 1 hour, until golden brown and bubbling. Serve hot.
Curry cauliflower steak with roasted red pepper relish — Serves 4
Active Time: 30 minutes — Total Time: 1 hour
INGREDIENTS: 1 head cauliflower; olive oil; 2 tablespoons curry powder; 2 roasted red peppers; 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped; red wine vinegar; honey; salt; 1/4 cup chopped peanuts
1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Slice cauliflower head into 1/2-inch thick “steaks.” Rub with oil and dust with curry powder.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in cast iron (or ovenproof) skillet. Fry on both sides until browned, then move to the oven for 15 minutes, or until tender.
4. Meanwhile, prepare the relish. Chop red peppers and parsley.
5. Whisk red wine vinegar, honey and salt in a bowl. Stream in olive oil until emulsified.
6. Add peanuts and salt to taste.
7. Serve steaks with relish on top.
Emma Kobolakis is a professional cook, food writer and recipe developer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Serious Eats and on the tables of diners in Brooklyn.