Embarking on the holiday season can feel like joining a festive army: Decorations must be just so. Gifts must be perfect. Everything gets a little bow on top. But food writer Nigella Lawson says that keeping things warm and welcoming doesn't require endless preparation or complicated dishes.
Keep things simple, she says, and serve food that will make you feel good.
"I construct my holiday season in a very informal way," Lawson tells Renee Montagne. It's an intentional effort to combat the tendency Lawson sees around this time of year to turn each gathering into a production.
"Somehow we've got in our heads the idea that Christmas should be bejeweled and enormously formal, and we should go to great lengths to create spectacular dinners," she says. "Well, that may be very nice, but it's not reality. And that makes people dread having any sort of entertaining plans because it asks too much."
Lawson says her ideal holiday meal is "friends over [for] food that maybe you've cooked in advance. " Or else, she says, you can serve "comforting food rather than impressive, status-symbol food."
Achieving both of those criteria is Lawson's recipe for a dish that might raise eyebrows at the holidays, but which, by her count, holds up well to the demands of the season: Chocolate chip chili.
Lawson says her secret ingredient takes some by surprise.
"It sounds odd to say 'put chocolate chips in your chili,' " she says. "But actually, cocoa is used routinely. It just adds a kind of thickness and a velvetiness. ... It's warming food, but it's family food."
And Lawson says the dish packs a bonus: "I do think that at this time of year, people are probably going to drink more than they might at other times of the year, so it somehow soaks up some of the seasonal excess."
While you're indulging, Lawson suggests pairing her playful take on chili with fully loaded potato skins. Perhaps not a holiday classic, but irresistible nonetheless. Which makes it perfect, Lawson says, for a season that can carry more than its share of stress alongside festivities.
"Sometimes if you cook in a complicated way, your tension translates to your guests," explains Lawson. "They'll have a much better time having chili and baked potatoes than they would if you did roast duck with a wild cherry sauce and then had to lie down and cry for a while."
Desserts To Share
Of course, with some dishes, a new outfit is just what the holidays call for.
For dessert, Lawson dresses up Rocky Road, the endlessly malleable kitchen-sink classic — not the ice cream — with candied cherries and amaretti cookies, plus a generous dusting of powdered sugar.
Her holiday take on the recipe looks the part — a cross between brownies and fruitcake — and just as important for Lawson, it hits the same pleasure centers as her other comforting holiday food.
"It is an indulgent dessert," she says. "You can make it and wrap it and tie it with a little bow, and it makes a great gift. I'm a great believer in edible presents at Christmas. I think it's, in a way, an old-fashioned tradition, but one that probably should be resurrected."
Anything to bring friends and family in from the cold, Lawson says, especially when the season is so bright and the food is so friendly.
"Somehow people are so predisposed to having a good time, it makes one want to invite them," she says. "It sounds like I'm saying, 'Have a dinner party every night.' But really, I'm just saying, 'Have people round.' "
I've always made chili with ground meat and added a dash of cocoa to bolster. This time, I wanted to play a little, to achieve something more along the lines of a dark, spicy-sauced cassoulet: that's to say, together with the beans, I use beef, cut into fairly small chunks, and fiery Spanish sausages. In place of the cocoa there is a sprinkling of dark, dark chocolate chips, which adds real depth and a velvety savoriness. This chili is not for light eaters, but something spicy and substantial that is just what you need to soak up seasonal excess.
If you're not buying your meat from a butcher, you can use regular stew meat from the supermarket, but you'll need to cube it smaller and it is unlikely to get quite as tender as shin. I often buy shank.
Make ahead Tip:
Cook the chili in the oven for 2 1/2 hours only. Cool, cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. When ready to use, tip the chili into a pan and bring slowly to the boil on the stove top, stirring occasionally. Cover tightly and return to the oven for 1 hour until piping hot.
Freeze ahead tip:
Cook the chili for 2 1/2 hours only. Cool and freeze. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then reheat as above.
Under normal conditions, I'd also dollop out an unchiled guacamole with this, but I worry about having avocados sitting around going grungy, so only make this if you know it won't be hanging around: simply mash 3 ripe avocados with 3 finely chopped scallions and add the juice of a lime or two and some salt to taste, stir in 3 tablespoons of chopped fresh cilantro, spoon into two or three bowls, and sprinkle a little extra cilantro over.
10 (or 5 linked pairs) chorizo sausages (not the salami sort), approx. 1 1/4 lbs 3 1/4 lb boneless beef shank, cut into 3/4 inch cubes 3 onions (about 1 lb), peeled 3 cloves garlic, peeled 1 fresh long red chile, seeded 1/4 cup vegetable oil Seeds from 3 cardamom pods 2 teaspoons ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground coriander 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes 1/4 cup tomato paste 1/4 cup tomato ketchup 4 x 15 oz cans red kidney beans, drained 3 x 14 oz cans diced tomatoes 1/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips 1 cup water (swished out in one of the diced tomato cans)
-Preheat the oven to 300 F.
-Finely chop, or process the onion, garlic and chile.
-Heat the oil in a large ovenproof pan (with a lid) or cast-iron or enameled Dutch oven and fry the onion, garlic and chile until soft, on low for about 10 minutes, then add the cardamom sees, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and red pepper flakes.
-Stir the oniony spiced mixture together and then add the chorizo, sliced into 1/4-in. coins, letting them ooze their paprika-orange oil.
-Drop in the cubes of beef, turning them in the pan with the chorizo and onion mix, to brown the meat.
-Stir in the tomato paste, ketchup, drained kidney beans and diced tomatoes. Add the water and bring the chili to a boil.
-Once it's started bubbling, sprinkle the chocolate ships over the chili and give it a good stir. Put on the lid and transfer to the oven.
-Cook at this low heat for 3 hours. Once cooked it is best left overnight to improve the flavor.
It's not that I felt my usual Rocky Road Crunch Bars needed any improvement (though fiddling with recipes is one of life's pleasures) but I thought they would benefit from seasonal adjustment. So, out go the plain cookies and in come amaretti cookies and — in the seasonal spirit –- I've crammed in some Brazil nuts and candied cherries (as red as Rudolph's nose), along with snowy mini marshmallows. The fresh snowfall of confectioner's sugar on top might seem seasonal enough, but not for me. So I add some edible glitter in Disco Hologram White.
If you want to, there's nothing (except dexterity in my case) to stop you cutting these into tiny petit four-sized pieces, in which case you could almost double the number.
Make ahead tip:
Make the Rocky Road and refrigerate to set. Don't add the confectioner's sugar yet, but cut into bars, then store in an airtight container in a cool place for up to 1 week. Decorate with confectioner's sugar and edible glitter about 1-2 hours before serving.
Freeze ahead tip:
Make the Rocky Road as above and freeze for up to 1 month. Thaw overnight in a cool place. Decorate as above.
1 1/4 cups (8 oz) bittersweet chocolate, chopped or chips 3/4 cups (6 oz) milk chocolate, chopped or chips 1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) soft butter 1/4 cup golden syrup, such as Lyle's, or light corn syrup Approx. 4 cups (7 oz) amaretti cookies (not the soft ones) 1 cup shelled Brazil nuts 2/3 cup candied or glazed cherries 2 1/2 cups mini marshmallows 1 tablespoon confectioner's sugar Edible glitter (optional)
Put both chocolates into a heavy-based pan to melt with the butter and syrup over a gentle heat.
Put the cookies into a freezer bag and bash them with a rolling pin to get big- and little-sized crumbs; you want some pieces to crunch and some sandy rubble.
Put the Brazil nuts into another freezer bag and also bash them so you get different-sized nut rubble.
Take the pan off the heat, and add the crushed cookies and nuts, whole candied cherries and mini marshmallows. Turn carefully to coat everything with syrupy chocolate.
Tip into an aluminum foil pan (I use one 9 1/4 x 12 inches), smoothing the top as best you can, although it will look bumpy.
Refrigerate until firm enough to cut, which will take about 1 1/2-2 hours. Then take the set block of Rocky Road out of the pan ready to cut.
Push the confectioners' sugar through a small strainer to dust the top of the Rocky Road. Then, if you like, add sprinkling of edible glitter for some festive sparkle.
With the long side in front of you, cut it into 6 slices down and 4 across, so that you have 24 almost-squares.