There’s no last-minute fussing in this entirely make-ahead holiday menu, and it includes dishes that actually improve after a day or two in the fridge.
A few years ago, in the midst of preparing an elaborate Christmas Eve dinner, I realized I’d forgotten the bacon for the clams casino. I raced to the market, but of course, traffic was miserable, and the store was mobbed. By the time I got home, I barely had time to finish dinner, much less dress before my company arrived. AsI lay in bed that night, it wasn’t visions of sugarplums that danced in my head. It was a plan to do things differently next year.
These days, I sit down weeks ahead of time and calmly dream up a befittingly elegant menu, taking care to choose recipes that require very little last-minute fussing. In fact, I look for dishes that actually improve after a day or two in the refrigerator, like the ones in this menu: delicate potted shrimp (a classic British spread), spice-rubbed beef tenderloin, creamy potato and rutabaga gratin, satiny braised fennel, and a luxurious gingerbread trifle.
Mapping out a schedule for getting everything done—including shopping—is the key to never being a harried host. For this menu, I start by dividing the grocery shopping into two trips. A week ahead, I buy all the pantry items and less-perishable fresh foods, and then I just need to pick up the shrimp and beef two days before the party (if you pre-order these, you can farm this errand out to a willing family member).
The actual cooking begins three days before the party. That’s when I make the ginger syrup for the trifle. The next day, I turn my attention to the shrimp, the gratin, and the fennel, and make the gingerbread cake. The day before the party, I prep the salad for the shrimp, season the beef, make the wine sauce, and finish the trifle. By breaking up the work, the menu feels entirely manageable, and my kitchen never looks as though it’s eligible for federal disaster relief.
On the day of the party, most of the work is already done. A couple of hours before my guests arrive, I remove the beef and side dishes from the refrigerator—they heat more evenly from room temperature than from refrigerator-cold—and turn on the oven. As guests appear, I reheat the gratin and put the tenderloin in to roast (it takes just under an hour), which leaves a nice window for cocktails and pre-dinner mingling. The other side dishes take just a few minutes to get ready for the table, and as soon as the beef is done, I serve the shrimp; this allows the roast time to rest so that it carves up juicy and rosy. Since the gingerbread trifle is at its best at least a day after you make it, it’s entirely ready to go. And as the host, so are you.