Esther Earl died at age 16 from cancer. Her parents have published a collection of her writings.
Holiday entertaining can be stressful. As Here & Now resident chef Kathy Gunst tells host Meghna Chakrabarti, “The problem is that people worry about everything and they psych themselves out and they don’t want to do it.”
Gunst suggests a few key points: be organized, make things in advance, and don’t feel that you personally have to make everything your guests eat. She also says this may not be the time to experiment with new recipes.
“You want to rely on things you know are going to work,” she says. However she calls these five recipes “foolproof.” Gunst recommends the poached pears for an open house, the chicken stew for a family celebration and the chowder for an intimate dinner for two.
Kathy’s Note: It was New Year’s Day and friends were coming to dinner. After all the holiday festivities it was too much to think about baking a cake or serving anything rich for dessert. A basket of ripe winter Bosc pears sat on the counter alongside a half-drunk bottle of Champagne from the previous evening’s party. Why of course: poached pears in Champagne, flavored with aromatic winter oranges and slivers of fresh ginger.
3 cups Champagne, white or red wine, or water
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar, or Vanilla Sugar*
6 large Bosc pears
2 tablespoons julienned fresh ginger*
2 tablespoons julienned orange zest (the zest from 1 large orange)
*To make Vanilla Sugar: cut a vanilla bean down the center lengthwise. Place it in a sugar pot and let it “flavor” the sugar for 24 hours and up to several months. Vanilla sugar is delicious in all kinds of baked goods where vanilla extract would be used.
To make the syrup, in a pot that is large enough to hold all the pears on their side, mix the Champagne (or wine), water, and sugar together. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, stir well to dissolve the sugar, and simmer for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel the pears, leaving the stems attached. Use a small, sharp knife to remove the core from the bottom of the pear. Work the knife up into the fruit, and scoop out the core. Cut off a very thin slice from the bottom of the pear so that it will stand up straight.
Add the ginger and orange zest to the syrup and gently place the pears in the pot; the pears should be lying down on their side. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, cover, and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the pears, flipping the pears from side to side every 10 minutes or so. To test the pears, gently insert a small, sharp knife into the thickest part of the fruit. It should feel soft and yielding and come out of the pear without resistance. Remove the pears with a slotted spoon to a serving bowl.
Very carefully taste the syrup in the pan; it will be hot. It should be sweet and full of rich pear, ginger, and orange flavors. Reduce the syrup over medium-high heat for about 5 to 10 minutes to thicken and further reduce and concentrate the flavors. It should be almost thick enough to coat a spoon. Pour the hot syrup with the julienne strips of ginger and orange over the pears and let cool. Refrigerate until ready to serve. (The pears can be made up to 8 hours ahead of time.)
From “Notes from a Maine Kitchen” by Kathy Gunst
Kathy’s Note: This chicken stew, very reminiscent of the classic French Coq au Vin, is best made at least a day ahead of time, but will work just fine if you cook it a few hours before serving. We had leftover stew for two days and, trust me, it only gets better.
Serve it with parsley-flecked potatoes, potatoes gratin, mashed potatoes, polenta, or egg noodles. A good wintry salad—mixed greens, watercress, tangerine sections and a crumble of blue cheese – would also be great, along with some crusty bread for sopping up all those red wine juices. You can easily double the recipe to serve a bigger crowd.
2 strips bacon
About 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
About 2 tablespoons canola oil
1 leek, dark green section discarded, and white and pale green section cut in half lengthwise and then into 1-inch pieces
4 scallions, ends trimmed and cut into ½-inch pieces
12 pearl onions, peeled and left whole*
2 large carrots, peeled, and cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1 ½ teaspoons dried and crumbled
About 1 cup flour
One 3 1/2 to 4-pound roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces
3 cups dry red wine**
1 bay leaf
½ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
11 ounces crimini mushrooms, or button mushrooms, washed gently and cut in half***
*Or 4 medium size sweet onions, peeled and quartered
**You want a really well rounded red wine, not too fruity. Choose something you would like to drink with dinner or a lesser wine made from the same grape as what you’ll serve with the stew.
***Don’t place the mushrooms under cold running water to clean. Use a vegetable brush and lightly scrub the mushroom caps clean using just a tiny bit of water. Excess water will be absorbed by the mushroom creating a watery dish.
In a large, heavy skillet pot or casserole, cook the bacon strips over moderate heat and let them crisp up; drain the cooked bacon on paper towels. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon grease in the skillet. Add ½ tablespoon of the olive oil to the bacon grease and place over low heat. Add the leek, scallions, pearl onions, carrots, salt, pepper, and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the flour on a large plate and season liberally with salt and pepper. Dry off the chicken pieces with a paper towel and then dredge them in the seasoned flour, making sure all sides are well coated.
In a large, heavy skillet, heat 1 tablespoon canola oil and ½ tablespoon of the olive oil over high heat. Brown the chicken, a few pieces at a time, about 3 minutes per side, being careful not to crowd the skillet, adding the additional oil if needed. If the chicken or the oil starts to burn reduce the heat to moderate. Remove the browned pieces of chicken to paper towels or a brown paper grocery bag to drain off any excess fat.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
When the onions are tender sprinkle in 2 tablespoons flour from the flour you used to dredge the chicken. Let cook 2 minutes. Raise the heat to high and add the wine, and the bay leaf, letting it come to a rolling boil. Add the chicken pieces, spooning the wine over the chicken so it is almost completely bathed in it. Sprinkle on half the parsley. Cover the casserole and place on the middle shelf of the preheated oven. Bake for 1 hour, basting the chicken pieces once or twice during that time.
After an hour, add the mushrooms, baste the chicken making sure the mushrooms are in the wine sauce, cover and bake another 30 minutes. Remove from the oven.
Serve hot, sprinkled with the remaining parsley.
Kathy’s Note: This is a classic accompaniment to any stew.
1 ½ pounds Maine potatoes, white or yellow fleshed, peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley
Bring a medium size pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the potatoes, cover, and let cook about 12 to 14 minutes, depending on the variety, or until just tender when pierced in the center with a small, sharp knife. Drain.
Place the potatoes back in the pot and toss gently with the butter, salt, pepper and parsley. Serve hot.
From “Notes from a Maine Kitchen” by Kathy Gunst
Kathy’s Note: The Jerusalem artichokes give this Maine shrimp-based chowder a great crunchy texture and sweet flavor. This year Maine shrimp season may be called off so you can substitute with large shrimp cut into ½-inch size pieces.
The chowder can be made a few hours (or a day) ahead of time and simply reheated over low heat until bubbling hot. You can easily double the recipes for a crowd.
Serves 4 to 6.
3 strips bacon, optional
About 1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried and crumbled
1 pound potatoes, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes, Yukon Gold works well
½ pound Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes
1 pound haddock, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 to 1 ½ tablespoons flour*
1 pound peeled whole Maine shrimp
1 ½ cups low fat milk
1 cup cream*
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
Pinch cayenne pepper
*You need one tablespoon of flour as a thickener, but if you prefer a thinner chowder only add this amount. If you want a thicker, more stew-like soup add 1 ½ tablespoons flour.
**You’ll need 2 ½ cups dairy—for a lighter chowder add all milk and for a richer one add the cream. You can play with the proportions of milk and cream depending on how rich you like it.
In a large soup pot cook the bacon until crisp on both sides; drain on paper towels. Crumble the bacon into small pieces and set aside. Remove all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon grease.
Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to the bacon grease (if you choose not to add bacon work with about 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil instead). Add the onion to the hot oil and cook, stirring frequently, over low heat for about 8 minutes, or until the onions are soft and just beginning to turn color. Add salt, pepper, and half the thyme and stir well. Add the potatoes and artichokes and cook, stirring, for about a minutes to coat the potatoes and artichokes thoroughly with the spices and onions.
Meanwhile heat the milk and cream in a small saucepan over moderate heat until just simmering.
Add the haddock to the pot with the onions and potatoes and stir well. Sprinkle on the flour and stir gently to coat all the ingredients. Let cook about 2 minutes. Add half the crumbled bacon (if using), the remaining thyme, and then the warm milk/cream. Raise the heat and bring to a gentle simmer. When the chowder simmers reduce the heat, add half the parsley, and the cayenne; cover, and let cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Add the shrimp and cook for about 4 to 5 minutes, or until they firm up. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper and cayenne if needed.
Serve hot with a sprinkling of parsley and some of the remaining bacon on top.
Kathy’s Note: Add a heaping tablespoon of this syrup to Champagne, sparkling wine, rum or vodka drinks. You can also add it to seltzer for a sweet natural soda.
Make a simple syrup: mix 1 cup water and ¾ cup sugar in saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and let simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the syrup beings to turn a pale gold. Add 3 cups frozen wild blueberries and remove from the heat. Let sit for 15 minutes. Then strain the syrup, pressing down on the berries to extract all the flavor. The syrup will keep for at least a week refrigerated or can be frozen for 6 months.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
And 'tis the season for holiday entertaining. That time of year when we open our homes to family and friends and want to serve them something warm, welcoming and delicious. HERE AND NOW resident chef and, for this season, party planner Kathy Gunst is here to help. Kathy, welcome as always.
KATHY GUNST, BYLINE: Hello, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's start off with maybe what some people worry about with holiday entertaining, and that is that you have to do a lot of cooking and entertaining and maybe you yourself won't have such a good time.
GUNST: The problem, I think, is that people worry about everything. And they psyche themselves out so much that they don't want to do it. But I'm going to try to bring it back to just the table and simple food and just hanging out with people that you love or maybe like or maybe you're related to or maybe all of those things.
CHAKRABARTI: OK. So I'm glad already, I have to say. I'm glad to hear that we don't have to be domestic divas here for a great holiday party.
GUNST: Well, that's part of the problem is that we see all these visions of perfection on TV and in magazines, and we think, no way. My house is a mess. But here's the thing: The whole key to this is being organized. So you want to pick dishes that don't require last-minute cooking. Maybe one or two things have to be done when people are there. But the best kind of entertaining is a dish that you can make a day or two ahead of time. So that night, what are you doing? You're reheating. You can handle that, right?
CHAKRABARTI: I can totally handle that.
GUNST: Yeah. OK. So there's not a lot of last-minute prep. That will make you more present. This also sounds neurotic, but this is really helpful: get everything ready. As in what are you going to serve that salad on? What are you going to toss it with? Where are you going to put those chesses on? You want to take all those plates out, and it does - it sounds like crazy kind of like, oh, wow, that's like really weird, but it's not because at the last minute, when you can't find the special knife that cuts your cheese or the things that tosses your salad, it can make you crazy and take you away from why you had friends over, which was to be with them, not to be the perfect host or hostess.
Another tip, even though I'm going to give you some great, foolproof recipes, this is not a great time to start experimenting.
GUNST: This is not the first time to make pate or, ooh, a souffle would be cool. I've never done one. Not really the best time unless it's just a great group of trusted friends and you're all going to laugh if and when a disaster happens. But you really want to - this is the tried and true time. This is the comfort foods. It's holiday time. You want to rely on things that you know are going to work.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. OK.
GUNST: And that you know your skill set is up to. Let's be honest about that. If you only cook four days of the year, let's take this real slow, and I would encourage you to cook at least 14 days of the year, and we'll build it up from there. But there's a bunch of different ways to entertain.
CHAKRABARTI: OK. So give yourself the gift of realism. I love that.
GUNST: I like that.
CHAKRABARTI: But let's talk about some stuff specifically regarding, say, a holiday open house where a bunch of people coming in and out all day long, wonderful food, maybe some drinks. What would you suggest?
GUNST: Yeah. And open house is really popular way of entertaining this time of year. It's kind of like come between one and five so the timing is loose. It's not a sit-down meal. You maybe invite more people than you can handle, but you figure there's like a flow of people. I like to do what my daughter calls half-homemade where you buy some quality ingredients, and then you make some things. So maybe you get some beautiful smoked salmon, you have some bagels, some capers, some onions. And then you get some cream cheese, and you make up different mixtures - one with scallions and lemon zest, one with roasted nuts. Beautiful cheese platters, how do you make that different? Really nice herbal honeys, dried fruit preserves, finger lemon preserve. Just great way of taking normal food and elevating it a little.
And then keep it really simple for dessert. You could have some fabulous chocolates. And then I love - this time of year, pears are gorgeous, very seasonal fruit. I love poaching them in champagne - very celebratory - or leftover wine from a holiday party with some really wonderful spices like cinnamon. And you just poach it and they're done, and you let them sit overnight, and they're in this delicious, sweet, champagney syrup. You will have a good open house. Trust me.
CHAKRABARTI: That sounds wonderful. What about, say, for something smaller and more a sit-down kind of meal, like a holiday dinner party with family and friends?
GUNST: OK. Well, the holiday dinner party is here to stay, I hope. My favorite, whether it's your family, your extended family or just a group of friends, what you really want to do is you want to have a centerpiece dish. You want to cook one dish. And as I mentioned, you want it to be something that can be done ahead of time. One of my favorites for this time of year is - it's a take on a coq au vin, a French chicken with red wine. And in this chicken stew, I used baby onions and winter mushrooms and lots of red wine. And I'm telling you something. If you make it two days ahead of time, it will be superb. So you - maybe you make it on Sunday, and then you have it on Christmas eve or you have it whenever you're going to do it over this holiday season. But the work is done.
And then you get a beautiful crusty bread and maybe some parsley potatoes - nothing fancy - and a green salad. And you buy a chocolate tart from the store, and then you've got this gorgeous main course. But it's a beautiful dinner party, and you haven't gone nuts. Don't go nuts.
CHAKRABARTI: Don't go nuts.
GUNST: Don't add nuts.
CHAKRABARTI: We're talking about holiday entertaining with HERE AND NOW resident chef Kathy Gunst. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
Well, we talked about parties and open houses. But what about, you know, just an intimate dinner with someone special or one-on-one?
GUNST: Yeah. That's kind of the best, right?
GUNST: It's just you and that person. You know, the biggest cliche when you think of dinner for two is maybe oysters on the half shell. But I like cliches. But instead of just raw oysters, how about sprinkling it with pomegranate seeds and grated ginger and lemon juice? Or, again, the idea being you make one special dish, a winter chowder. We're in New England. We're big on chowders. But all across the country in the world, people love chowders. I made for you.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, yes. It's been sitting here teasing me.
GUNST: It's sitting here. It's probably cold. This is a haddock and shrimp and Jerusalem artichoke chowder. Now, Jerusalem artichokes are also very seasonal right now. They're crunchy like water chestnuts, and they add a sweetness to the chowder that makes it really different. And people have a bite, oh, good, chowder. And then they're like, whoa, what is this? So very dimensional.
CHAKRABARTI: All right. Let me see if I have that whoa. And I have to say it smells absolutely delicious.
GUNST: And I quickly want to say that, this year, I normally make this with Maine shrimp. And this year, there is no Maine shrimp season. It's been canceled. So I used regular shrimp cut up. And do you taste the sweetness in that (unintelligible)?
CHAKRABARTI: It is delicious.
GUNST: Isn't that nice?
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, my goodness.
GUNST: So, again, a winter salad, maybe with arugula and tangerine sections and some crusty bread. And if you started with those oysters, I think you're dinner for two is going to be pretty lovely.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm hearing the you can't really go wrong with comfort food.
GUNST: Well, it is winter, and we do crave that. And the holidays, I personally don't want to try cutting-edge food at the holidays. I want that traditional sense of dishes that are tried and true.
CHAKRABARTI: And, finally, Kathy, do you have any more tips for would-be entertainers, even, you know, first-time entertainers?
GUNST: Yes, I do. I mean, we can go back to that choose recipes that are doable for your. Don't feel that you have to be make-everything-homemade. And feel free to reach out to your friends, that potluck notion. You don't have to do a whole potluck party. But if you have a friend who's a great baker, don't worry about saying to your cousin or your best friend, how about you bring dessert? That would really make things easier for me. And then you get to focus on your people.
CHAKRABARTI: Come out of the kitchen and be with the people that you love.
GUNST: Absolutely, or invite them all into the kitchen. Just make sure you're hanging out.
CHAKRABARTI: The true center of the house. Well, HERE AND NOW resident chef Kathy Gunst is author of "Notes from a Maine Kitchen: Seasonally Inspired Recipes." And we've got some recipes that Kathy talked about today at hereandnow.org. Kathy, thank you so much as always. And I'm just going to get back to this chowder.
GUNST: Go back to your chowder. Happy holidays.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CELEBRATION")
KOOL AND THE GANG: (Singing) There's a party going on right here, a celebration to last throughout the years. So bring your good times and your laughter too. We going to celebrate your party with you. Come on now. Celebration.
CHAKRABARTI: Jeremy, I know I probably should've shared some of that chowder with you, but tough luck.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Yes, you can save some. Save some for me.
HOBSON: And, by the way, I think this is the only time we're going to hear this song this holiday season. I didn't realize this was good for holiday parties as well.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, we celebrate regardless of the decade. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.