The banes and blessings of the holiday season:
The tradition that sets a turkey at the center of every Thanksgiving table is also responsible for the fact that, when the board groans, it is probably bending under years of culinary accumulation, as each member of the family insists on the presence of a certain dish.
Last Thanksgiving, faced with a meal that included only turkey with chestnut stuffing, brussels sprouts, acorn squash, pure'ed rutabagas, broccoli and two kinds of cranberry sauce -- people divide evenly between those who feel that the berries must be whole and those who feel the sauce must be jellied -- prompted one guest to complain: "Ah, I see that this year you decided to only do the basics."
He obviously felt that Thanksgiving wasn't Thanksgiving without (choose one) peas, potatoes, green beans, creamed onions, cornbread stuffing, sausage stuffing or spinach.
Another guest, age 13, went into a sulk because the pie had been made with a pure'e of butternut squash instead of pumpkin, and yet another was aghast that in honor of health and heft, the soup course had been omitted and the meal failed to start with a consomme'.
There is a way to cope with this insistence that the holiday meal must be a cornucopia and that is to remember that all good harvest festivals require contributions from those sharing the feast.
When you invite your guests, ask each to contribute to the dinner. One may safely assume that they will offer to bring the dish that they cannot live without. This not only assures that each guest will feel they have dined in proper fashion, but you, as host or hostess, may actually make it through the meal without falling into an exhausted stupor.
If the number of dishes demanding their place at the feast becomes unwieldy, so often do the number of guests. Just as dishes, once established, are rarely discarded, so guests, once invited, tend to be invited back year after year -- until what began as a mutual pleasure becomes a mutual obligation. An easy way to break the cycle is to temporarily abandon your role of holiday host, informing your usual guests that this year you will be dining out and that they must pull up their chairs around someone else's turkey.
Another problem to contend with during the holidays is the question of eggnog. Containers are already appearing in the supermarket, and the annual debate between store-bought and homemade is sure to begin. Those advocating the former usually grew up on the packaged product and have no idea what real eggnog tastes like. Helping their argument is the fact that homemade eggnog takes a great deal of effort, and that if you put enough whiskey or brandy in the artificial product people may not be able to taste it anyway. None of these arguments works with the proponents of the real thing who hold out for the heavy richness of a drink made with eggs and cream. To avoid being in the middle, serve hot buttered rum.
A herald of the holidays and the bane of many a cook are the chestnuts, which also have begun to appear in the supermarkets. Before you can pop them with such declicious effect into stews and stuffings, mate them with red cabbage or brussel sprouts, pure'e and sweeten them for rich desserts you must get the damn things out of their shells.
When a naive guest offers to help, a cunning cook will often say, oh so innocently, "Well, yes, you could peel the chestnuts," which is the culinary equivalent of asking someone to clean out the garage. It is also a mistake. Unless you make sure that the guest understands exactly how to go about it, each chestnut will take 10 excruciating minutes and when you need them, they won't be ready. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, far from being happy when the cook steps in and finishes up, the guests almost invariably feel slighted.
There is a way to peel chestnuts easily: Cut an X on the front of each one and place a dozen or so in a pie tin or on a cookie sheet in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes. When the crosses have popped open, they're ready. Take them from the oven and -- gingerly, they're hot -- scrunch them one at a time between the palms of your hands. The shell will split open and peel off with no trouble at all. If you are very lucky, so will the inner skin. If it doesn't, don't try to skin the chestnut with a knife. It will take forever, drive you mad and leave you with only a nubbin of nut. Instead, put the chestnuts back in the oven for about five minutes, until the skin turns papery and crinkles right off.
And to make your holiday happy, always buy more chestnuts than you need.