What, Me Cook? 

A quartet of simple recipes to help you throw an impromptu holiday party.

The holidays are here already, and that means entertaining. The first Christmas dinner in your new home. Hanukkah with your in-laws from New York City. An after-work cocktail party with colleagues. A holiday Yankee swap with good friends.

Sooner or later, it will be your turn to invite others over and show them a good time. You will have to clean the house, make things festive, serve warm, good eats with friends and family, and actually enjoy the holiday season — all while working your 8-to-6'er, getting the kids to soccer, and finding a moment to shop for gifts.

For many people, cooking is not the least bit entertaining. It's daunting and overwhelming, and just plain easier to go to Trader Joe's or Whole Foods and pick up some ready-made treats. And that is certainly one option. For me, though, food is more than something that we buy and make pretty on a plate before eating. It speaks of comfort and love and community. And it's hard to get all that out of a cellophane package.

Good food doesn't have to be complicated; it just has to be honest. Nor must it be fancy. It just needs to taste good. The following recipes are delightfully easy, and they'll wow your friends and family, whether they're coming over for drinks and apps before rushing off to the next party, or for a cozy, casual, last-minute dinner. And they won't break the bank or keep you stuck in the kitchen, using every pot and pan you own, wondering who is going to clean up the mess.

Everyone loves cheese. When paired with chutney or jam, it makes a delicious sweet-salty combo. The only thing better? Hot melted cheese with jam. This baked brie recipe is perfect for the holidays. It's easy, festive, feeds many, and can be made ahead of time. Just bake before serving. And if you have just a few people coming over, try putting a wedge of brie in the pastry for a smaller portion. But this is so good, you won't have leftovers.

Mussels are a favorite of many, too. But they are rather mysterious, so people often shy away from cooking them. In reality, though, mussels are inexpensive and cook in minutes. They are, moreover, an impressive, restaurant-level food, and when fresh need very little to make them a delicious appetizer or main meal, rounded out with a winter greens and pear salad. And who can resist chunks of crusty bread to soak up the wine broth? Your guests will love to eat this dish family style, with the big steaming bowl of mussels set out in the middle of the table or counter.

Puttanesca sauce is an old Italian recipe literally meaning "sauce of the whore," because, so the story goes, prostitutes often needed to make their customers a post-coital something to eat. The essential ingredients are tomatoes, anchovies, olives, capers, and garlic, all staples, easily found in any Italian kitchen. They should be in your kitchen as well; and then, to make this version of Puttanesca (shhh, don't tell Nonna; anchovies don't really fit this time, but artichokes do), all you'll need are some chicken thighs or breasts (or both) and a few hungry friends. And while this recipe does take time to bake, once it's in the oven, you're free to enjoy your company. You even can make it the day before and just heat it up on low when people arrive. Oh, and the aroma. Nothing can compare to a big pot of delicious smells to warm a home during the holidays.

And what gathering would be complete without a special cocktail to toast all that we wish to come? Try this liquid candy cane for something different. Garnished with crushed peppermint and a pretty red hue, it's sure to cheer up even the mean ol' Grinch.

So go ahead, let your sister bring her boyfriend's best friend and his crazy neighbors over for a little holiday cheer. While it is a little crazy that we all go to more parties in one month than many of us do the entire rest of the year, the holiday season is a great time to see old and new friends, toast the new year, and, most of all, be grateful for all the wonderful people in our lives. Don't let the prospect of serving food scare you away from opening your home.

Baked Brie in Puffed Pastry with Mango Chutney

1 small brie wheel, about 8 oz.

1 sheet packaged, frozen puffed pastry

1 jar mango chutney, raspberry preserves, or other interesting jam

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Remove one sheet from box and thaw puffed pastry, in package, at room temperature for about 30- 40 minutes. Roll out pastry a little on lightly floured surface with rolling pin or wine bottle, until about 1/8 in thick. Place whole brie in center of pastry and wrap pastry around dough, trimming off excess and then seal edges on top by pinching dough slightly. At this point, brie can be refrigerated for up to one day, wrapped in plastic. When ready to serve, turn over and place on a lightly buttered baking sheet, seam side down. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until golden brown.

Set on serving platter, larger than the round, and let stand about 15 minutes before cutting, otherwise, the cheese will be so hot it will run all over the place. Pour chutney or jam over top and allow it run down sides. If preserves are too thick, thin with a little water first.

Cut into pastry right before serving and serve with sliced bread and apples. The cheese will still run and be a little messy, but who cares?

Steamed Mussels in White Wine and Tomatoes

1-2 T. olive oil

2-3 cloves garlic, sliced thin

1-2 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced, or in winter, about 20-30 cherry tomatoes, halved

1 c. white wine

2 T. chopped parsley + 1 T. for garnish (chopped)

2 lbs. mussels, cleaned, and debearded*

Salt and pepper to taste

1/8 t. crushed red pepper (optional)

Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic and sweat, 1-2 min. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, and cook 1-2 min. Add wine and parsley and bring to boil. Add mussels and cover. Cook until mussels open, about 4-5 min.

Remove from heat, put mussels in bowl and pour liquid over. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with baguette slices, preferably toasted and rubbed with garlic.

Serves 4 as an appetizer.

Throw away any mussels that haven't opened. They weren't alive when you started cooking them and are NOT good to eat. Don't try and open them!

Try this with different alcohol, beer, sake, tequila. You can add more tomatoes if you so desire or take them out if they are not your thing. Either way, this dish is scrumptious.

* To debeard mussels, pull or cut off the hair-like beard that sticks out of the mussel. Many mussels are cultivated these days and the beard has already been removed.

Puttanesca Braised Chicken

3 T. olive oil

1 onion, diced 1/4 inch

2 stalks celery, diced 1/4 inch

1-2 carrots, diced 1/4 inch

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 c. flour

2 lbs. skinless, boneless, chicken breasts or thighs (or 2 thighs per person or 1 breast per person, cut in half, crosswise)

1/2 c. white wine

1 c. chicken broth

1 14 oz. can ground or diced tomatoes

(28 oz. if using sauce for pasta)

1/4 c. kalamata or black olives, pitted

1-1/2 T. capers

2 T. chopped parsley

Salt and pepper to taste

Cooking equipment: large heavy skillet and a Dutch oven or 9x13 pan

Preheat oven to 325 F.

In large skillet, heat 1 T. oil over medium-low heat. Add onions, carrots, and celery. Sauté for 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another 3 minutes, until softened. Transfer to 3-quart casserole dish or Dutch oven.

Put flour on plate and season with salt and pepper. In same skillet, heat remaining oil over medium heat. Dredge chicken in flour, shaking off excess. Turn heat to medium high, add chicken to pan, and brown on both sides about 3-4 min. each side. Do not cook the chicken, this is only to brown the outside. Add more oil if necessary. Arrange chicken on top of vegetables. Lower heat and add wine to deglaze pan, scraping up all brown bits (fond). Add chicken broth and bring to boil. Add tomatoes, olives, capers, and parsley and bring to boil. Season with salt and pepper, keeping in mind the olives and capers are salty. Pour mixture over vegetables and put in middle of oven, covered, for 1 hour. If using baking pan, cover tightly with foil. Check every so often and spoon mixture over chicken if necessary.

Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve over couscous, rice, or pasta.

Serves 4. Can be doubled easily, just make sure you have a pot big enough for the all the chicken.

You can also put more tomatoes in and use sauce over pasta as first course or side dish.

Can be made one day ahead. To reheat, heat oven to 250-300 degrees and cook slowly, checking occasionally and carefully turning chicken pieces over to warm through, about 45 minutes. Make sure the chicken is hot on the inside as well.

Candy Cane Cocktail

1 oz. vodka

1 oz. peppermint schnapps

1 oz. crème de cacao

Splash of grenadine (more for a little sweeter drink)

7up or soda water

1 candy cane, crushed*

Mini candy canes, unwrapped

Place crushed candy on small plate. Dip highball or martini glass in a small bowl of the schnapps or crème de cacao. Then dip the rim in the candy.

In a shaker filled with ice add the vodka, schnapps, crème de cacao and grenadine. Shake well until chilled. Pour into candy rimmed glass, and top with a little soda. Serve with mini candy cane as garnish.

* To crush candy canes, place a few in a sealable bag. Using rolling pin, or wine bottle, gently crush candy, until fine. Great way to get aggression out, but take care not to break the bag. If you can't be bothered with crushing candy canes, either ask one of your guests to do it, or leave them out. It will taste great regardless.


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