The holidays are a wonderful time of year. We bring out the decorations and fill our houses from floor to rafters with greenery, sparkling lights and colorful balls and baubles. Our houses aren’t just beautiful with shiny decorations, they also smell wonderful. With greens on the mantle and a magnificent tree in the corner, the house is filled with the fresh scent of pine.
Throughout December the kitchen bustles with activity. We track down stained and faded index cards with treasured family recipes. Or in need of a little change, we scour foodie magazines for new ideas to delight our family and friends. From spicy gingerbread to savory roasts and succulent stews, glorious aromas waft their way out of the kitchen through the house.
More than any other month, December is filled with holiday parties from intimate gatherings to big open houses. Office parties, cookie swaps, fundraising events and neighborhood and family get-togethers fill the month. While my claim to fame and tradition has always been Thanksgiving Dinner, my friend Julie is famous for kicking off the holidays. Her birthday falls in early December and throughout her childhood her family celebrated the start of the season with a combined birthday and Christmas party.
Even after she moved to Switzerland, Julie continued this family tradition and has made it her own. I met Julie when we were young, single and lived in apartments the size of shoe boxes. Early on her party was a table of eight or twelve friends in a restaurant. As she gradually moved to bigger and better digs, Julie moved the party home.
Over the years the party has expanded from a small band of revelers to thirty or more. Not to worry, Julie is in her element when it comes to throwing a Christmas Party. She takes decking the halls very seriously and her home sparkles. An enthusiastic baker, Julie pulls out all the stops for her yuletide gathering. She also has an able crew to assist her. Her two children pose as pastry sous-chefs and help her sift, stir and roll out dozens of cookies. Her husband makes a knock-you-out-of-your-socks eggnog.
But forget the food, forget the eggnog, the best thing about celebrating the season with Julie is the piano. An accomplished pianist and teacher, she has a grand piano tucked at one end of her living room. Scrooges and blasé sophisticates may find it boring or trite, but I love to sing Christmas carols. I am tone deaf and can not sing a single sweet note, but what I lack in quality I make up in enthusiasm. I take pride in knowing that I can still remember the first verse of every carol ever written.
These are difficult times. Many of us are looking for ways to economize this holiday season and throwing a party might just slip off our list of priorities. Looking on bright side, tough times free us to ignore all the stuff and focus on what’s really important: family, friends and togetherness. Forget the fuss and bother of an extravagant party. Why not gather everyone together for a comfortable and cozy potluck? Need entertainment? Singing, on key or off, is a cheap and cheerful way to celebrate family, friendship and the spirit of the season.
I wish you a wonderful holiday and may all your celebrations be filled with joyful noise! Enjoy!
Chicken with Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Penne
This economical dish is great for a party. You can easily double it for a larger group. Enjoy!
2 onion, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup red wine
4 cups crushed tomatoes
1 cup chicken stock
3 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1 1/2 pound penne pasta
Grated parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Heat a little olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat, add the onion, bell pepper and mushrooms, sprinkle with pepper flakes, salt and pepper and sauté for 10 minutes. Add garlic and sauté for an additional 2 minutes. Add the red wine, tomato sauce and chicken stock and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, season the flour with salt and pepper. Lightly dust the chicken with seasoned flour. In a large sauté pan over medium heat, pan-sear the chicken in batches in a little olive oil until golden brown, about 2 minutes per side.
3. Add the chicken to the tomato sauce and simmer for about 20 minutes on low heat.
4. While the chicken is simmering, cook the penne according to package directions.
5. To serve, remove the chicken from the sauce and cut in thick slices. Stir the basil into the sauce. Drain the pasta and put it in a large serving bowl, add a little sauce and toss to combine. Arrange the chicken on top of the pasta, spoon a little sauce over the chicken. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with extra sauce and a little grated parmesan cheese.
This chicken can be made a day or 2 s ahead through step 3. Let cool to room temperature, keep covered and refrigerate. To reheat, bring the dish to a simmer on top of the stove and cook until the chicken is warmed through.
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