Food At The Ready: Preparation and Versatility are your best Holiday Friends

Beef Wellington with VegetablesThere’s a book that I’ve heard a lot about lately; it’s about changing your life by discarding any possession that doesn’t make you feel joy. Evidently, people experience great peace by throwing away their clutter. I haven’t read the book myself (I don’t know if I’m ready to make that move!), but I’m thinking about writing my own book with the assertion that having the right food and drinks in your pantry and freezer during the holidays will make you feel great peace—and give you the urge to invite everyone over!

As the holidays approach, I think of getting prepared in the kitchen. I stock up on a favorite red and white wine, and make sure I have some beer in the pantry and nice cocktail napkins. My brother-in-law drinks martinis, so I make sure I’ve got good olives. Last year, we had fun creating a signature cocktail for the holidays, and served it through the season. Ours was spicy ginger ale with a splash of fresh lime juice, pomegranate juice and vodka, but you could make up one of your own. We made sure to have the ingredients on hand, so that we were ready to make one for whoever stopped by—or if we decided to indulge at home.

In my holiday prep, I look through the pantry and make sure that I have lots of crackers, toasts and chips in stock. Each of those things lasts for more than a month unopened, so you’re safe to stock up. I usually pick up some local jams or chutney at the farmers market and seasonal festivals; they also make a nice addition to my cheese platter. I find that I can usually find a pretty good fall sale on whole nuts—pecans, almonds, macadamia nuts—and I put a few bags away to use in cookies, or to toast with spices or just sea salt for cocktails.

For the freezer, I feel unprepared without frozen shrimp. I buy the largest peeled, deveined, individually frozen kind. They can be defrosted in cold running water in 10 minutes, and cooked in three or four more. I spice up some bottled cocktail sauce by adding more horseradish and fresh lemon juice, and a party is born!

Your favorite cookie dough is usually safe in the freezer for a month; scoop the dough into balls and freeze on a baking sheet. After it’s completely frozen put the balls into a zip-lock bag. The dough for cheese crackers can be rolled, wrapped and frozen in logs, to be sliced and baked in batches later. Your favorite hot dip (crab, artichoke and spinach, or the Bacon and Gruyere recipe I’m including here) can usually be made ahead and frozen until needed (although you may need to substitute cream cheese for the mayonnaise if your original recipe has it, as mayo tends to get greasy after freezing). Thawed dips can be baked in a casserole, or spooned into phyllo cups and baked as smaller appetizers.

I’ve also included a recipe for individual Beef Wellington—an update of a fancy restaurant staple from the “Mad Men” era. These packages of filet mignon, spinach and mushrooms will hold in your freezer for a few weeks—and make you look like a genius! Happy holidays and happy cooking!

LUCYCOOKcBacon and Gruyere Dip
(makes about 2 cups)
Great served with toasts or crackers, or as a filling for mini phyllo cups.
2 tablespoons butter
2 Vidalia onions, sliced about ¼ inch thick
2 tablespoons dry sherry
8 ounces cream cheese
¼ cup mayonnaise
Salt and pepper
4 slices thick-cut bacon, cooked and chopped
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a heavy-bottomed skillet, melt the butter. Add onions and cook slowly, stirring often until brown and soft, about 10-15 minutes. Add sherry and cook another minute. Remove from heat.

Add remaining ingredients to the pan and stir to combine. Place in a small casserole dish and bake for 20 minutes, until brown and bubbly. Can be frozen and baked after thawing.

Individual Beef Wellingtons (makes six)
The original recipe for Beef Wellington is a large portion of tenderloin with chopped mushrooms and pate wrapped in puff pastry. By making these as individual portions, some of the problems with cooking the meat well are resolved, and I’ve substituted spinach for pate as an update. Although the instructions look long, they are just detailed and not difficult. This recipe is definitely worth the effort—AND it is
a do-ahead!

Beef steak.6 5-6 ounce portions of beef tenderloin (filet mignon)
1 pound fresh spinach, picked through and stems removed
2 medium sweet onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound domestic or wild mushrooms (or a mixture), cleaned and chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
3 pounds purchased puff pastry, defrosted according to package directions
1 stick of butter
About 1 cup of olive oil
Salt and pepper
¼ cup of flour
2 eggs, beaten with 1 tablespoon water (egg wash)

Season filets generously with salt and pepper. Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a heavy skillet (cast iron if you have it!). When the oil is almost smoking hot, add two filets and sear for two minutes on each side. Set the meat aside on a rack to cool, and repeat for the remainder of steaks. (Don’t worry; the meat will get cooked more thoroughly in the last step!)

Make an ice bath by putting ice and water in a large bowl. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a clean skillet. Add 2 tablespoons of water. Working in two or three batches (depending on the size of your skillet), sauté the spinach until just wilted. Immediately put the spinach in the water bath to cool, then drain, squeezing well so that no moisture remains. Fluff, then set aside on a dry paper towel to absorb any additional moisture.

LUCYCOOKfWipe out the skillet and melt 2 tablespoons butter and sauté the onions, stirring constantly until browned and limp. Salt and pepper to taste. Put on a paper towel on a plate and set aside to cool.
Wipe out the skillet again; melt another 3 tablespoons butter. Add the garlic, mushrooms and thyme and cook, stirring until browned and soft and all liquid has cooked off, about 10 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside in a colander over a bowl to cool and drain.

One at a time and working quickly, roll out the puff pastry sheets until they are ¼ inch thick. Using a dinner plate as a guide, cut a 10-inch circle out of each sheet. You may cut decorations out of the scraps for the tops of the Wellingtons; leaves or strips look nice. Layer the circles between plastic wrap and store in the freezer until you’re ready.

Baby SpinachAt this point you should have everything (filets, spinach, mushrooms and onions) cooked, thoroughly cooled, and as dry as possible. (Squeeze the spinach one more time to make sure!) Portion the spinach, mushrooms and onions into six piles.

On a lightly floured board, place a frozen round of puff pastry. Spread with ½ a portion of spinach, one portion of onions, one portion of mushrooms. Top with the seared filet and the remainder of spinach. Carefully bring up the sides of the pastry, stretching and overlapping, using clean kitchen scissors to cut off the bulky corners of dough that form. Carefully smooth out the pastry, pinching and sealing each seam (if you have trouble sealing a seam, use the egg wash as glue). Flip the pastry over so that the seams are on the bottom, and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment or wax paper. Brush with the egg and water mixture; decorate as desired with pastry scraps. Brush again with the egg mixture and place the pan in the freezer. Repeat the stacking and packaging process with the other five steaks, placing each on the sheet tray in the freezer as you finish.

After they have been in the freezer for at least an hour, wrap them individually with plastic wrap and return to the freezer. Keeps for 2 weeks in the freezer; for best results, they need to be frozen at least 8 hours before cooking.

When you’re ready to cook them: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, keeping the Wellingtons in the freezer. Make another egg wash, this time using 2 egg yolks and 2 tablespoons water. Lightly butter a rimmed baking pan. Brush the frozen Wellingtons with another coat of egg wash, then place them on the pan. Bake for 20 minutes at 400, then reduce the heat to 350 and bake for about another 35 minutes, until the center of the beef reads 110 degrees with an instant-read thermometer. Serve immediately and accept all compliments!

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