Chatelaine Kitchen

Ask Claire: Easy holiday appetizers, edible hostess gifts and perfect gravy

Chatelaine's food editor, Claire Tansey, has solutions to all your holiday cooking and entertaining questions

Chatelaine’s food editor, Claire Tansey, finds solutions to all your holiday cooking and entertaining questions

Dear Claire,
I’d like to prepare a couple of appetizers to keep on hand when holiday company unexpectedly shows up. Can you offer a few options?

A: Instead of stocking the freezer with fussy hors d’oeuvres, keep the ingredients for a few five-minute appetizers on hand. The less complicated, the better! My current obsession, spiced fruit and nut popcorn, is made up of stuff I always have in my pantry. So when company appears, I just pull out my air popper and whip up a batch. Trust me, your pals will love this one – just serve it with plenty of napkins!

Some other great options are gourmet crostini like these gorgonzola walnut toasts. Keep sliced baguette in the freezer, and a piece of gorgonzola in the fridge. Add some nuts and honey at the last minute and you’re good to go. One more super-fast idea: marinated mushrooms. Make a batch or two one Sunday when you have 10 minutes, then just toss together with some easy bruschetta or skewers when the doorbell rings.

Dear Claire,
I like the idea of bringing a delicious, homemade item for a hostess gift. What do you suggest?

A: Bring something pretty and delicious and your friends will adore you! At this time of year, you can’t go wrong with cookies. I can’t get enough of these easy icebox cookies; it’s the hint of lemon zest that makes them unforgettable. I keep a few logs of the dough in my freezer. Then when it’s time to go to a party, I just bake up a small batch. Check out the simple and pretty way we packaged them up for the photo.

But cookies aren’t your only option. How about a candy-shop-worthy sponge candy (remember Crunchie chocolate bars?). It takes less than half an hour. The only problem you’ll have is not eating it all by yourself.

One more delicious and unusual gift idea: decadent chocolate-hazelnut butter. Mmm!

Dear Claire, I’m so tired of turkey, potatoes (sweet or regular) and Brussels sprouts! Can you please give me a few suggestions for a menu to mix things up this year? I’m not looking for anything crazy, but I need a change.

A: While the same-old meal can be familiar and lovely, there definitely comes a time for a change. So how drastic are we talking here? If you’re still going to roast a turkey, change up your stuffing (I just love the water chestnuts in this one) and sub in a great new side like kohlrabi, roasted cauliflower (a personal fave) or spicy squash. I still think mashed potatoes are a must with turkey, but try adding celery root for a tasty change.

But if you’re really ready to mix it up, how about a gorgeous roast beef tenderloin? Served with the crispiest roast potatoes and lemony Swiss chard, it’s pretty spectacular – and carving is such a breeze you may never go back to turkey!

Dear Claire, I haven’t mastered gravy, can you give me some tips?

A: I’ll never forget the Christmas I spent with my then-boyfriend’s family: his sister asked me to make gravy… then handed me a Mason jar. I was completely perplexed! Apparently she expected me to shake flour and water together in the jar.

Clearly there are a few misconceptions about gravy out there. But it should be a simple formula: blend fat with flour, then add liquid.

Gravy has to start with fat, usually the drippings from the roast you’ve just pulled out of your oven. Transfer the bird to a warm platter (and tent it with foil) and check out what’s left in the pan. Spoon out all but about ¼ cup of the fat, and leave any of the lovely browned bits in the pan. Put the pan over 2 burners if necessary to get the whole thing hot and then sprinkle in about ¼ cup all-purpose flour. Stir the flour into the fat until it’s completely incorporated and the mixture starts to sizzle a bit. Now whisk in a bit of white wine or turkey stock. Whisk in a little at a time, scraping up the brown bits and blending the liquid with the flour mixture very well. Now just cook it until the whole thing thickens and becomes gravy. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

If your gravy still doesn’t thicken, try this trick: mash about 2 tbsp soft butter with 2 tbsp flour in a bowl. Whisk in about ½ cup of the hot gravy until it’s smooth. Now pour the butter-flour-gravy mixture back into the big pan of gravy and whisk over medium heat until thickened.

Try: our easiest roast turkey gravy.