the Norman Rockwell family gathering is a notion we hold dear. Problem is, when the whole clan gets together, it's often more of a Norman Bates affair. No one dies, but there are some looks that could kill. • Still, we hope that we can all get along, at least for a few hours. • The holiday season, which begins in earnest later this month and lasts at least through New Year's Day, is the time for multigenerational gatherings. From wee ones to old ones, this may be the only time of the year that they all come together, and that puts extra pressure on the host to make everything nice-nice. • But hosting a family dinner doesn't have to be fraught with peril if you keep the menu simple. Remember, people are often happy just to be invited and aren't necessarily judging the food Top Chef-style. At least not until they get home.
For this year's gathering of the clan, consider a Greek-inspired menu anchored by the baked meat-macaroni-and-cheese casserole called pastitsio. It is a bit labor-intensive, though not difficult, but it gets bonus points because it can be baked a couple of hours before the guests arrive. Cover loosely with foil and it will stay hot.
When guests arrive, put out a couple of finger-food platters. Take advantage of convenience products and take-out items for the platters. Lemon-spiked dolmades — stuffed grape leaves — can be purchased at Greek restaurants and will suffice for vegetarians, provided they aren't made with ground beef. Other offerings can include hummus, pita chips, olives and cheeses (kasseri is Greek, but provolone is a good substitute).
With the pastitsio, serve a big Greek salad with feta. Young diners, or their parents, can pick around the bits they don't like. Pastitsio and bread should be enough for nonsalad eaters.
For dessert, scoop vanilla ice cream over homemade lemon cake and set out a variety of Greek cookies that can be purchased at a Greek bakery. If you don't have one near you, buttery Italian cookies from a deli or a grocery store work well.
Beverages? You know your crowd, but keep in mind that liquor escalates issues quicker. One surefire way to ruin a party is for people to get drunk, especially when there are children around. Keep drinks simple and stock plenty of nonalcoholic options.
food and drink
• Plan on eating within about an hour of the guests' arrival. This gives everyone time to visit, have a drink and a few hors d'oeuvres.
• Have the eating situation set up before guests arrive. If you want people seated at the table, set it. If it's going to be a buffet, arrange all the plates, napkins and utensils beforehand.
• Pick a date and invite guests ASAP. This is the busiest time of year for social obligations, so give family plenty of notice.
• Just because it's the holidays doesn't mean your gathering has to be on a holiday. Having a family dinner a week before Christmas takes some pressure off, and with blended families, it might be easier to commit.
• Take care of children first. Don't expect them to wait until the adults eat. If they are happy, everyone is happy.
• Don't orchestrate everything. If people are congregating in the foyer and having a good time, let them be.
• Have cards and board games for people to play after dinner. Do not force anyone to play.
• Consider renting plates, glasses and utensils if you don't have enough. Glasses and entire place settings can be rented for as little as 60 cents each.
• Bakeware that can go from the oven to the table makes a nice presentation.
the family dinner party menu
Meze platters with dolmades, olives, kasseri
(or provolone) cheese and hummus with pita chips
Lemon Cake with
Vanilla Ice Cream
Assorted Greek Cookies
Lemon Cake With Vanilla Ice Cream
3 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 cups white sugar, divided
1 cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup plain yogurt
Vanilla ice cream, for serving
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease one 10-inch tube pan.
Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together. Set mixture aside.
Separate the eggs. In a large bowl, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Gradually add ½ cup of the sugar, beating until stiff, glossy peaks form. Set aside.
Cream butter, 1 ½ cups sugar, egg yolks, lemon zest and lemon juice together until fluffy. Add flour mixture alternately with the yogurt to the egg yolk mixture. Gently fold in the egg whites and pour the batter into the prepared pan.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes. Let cake cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to finish cooling. Serve with vanilla ice cream.
There are many variations of what is essentially baked Greek macaroni and cheese, including arranging pasta, then meat sauce then white sauce to make three distinct layers. This version mixes the meat sauce and the pasta plus adds a little meat sauce to the white sauce for color and taste. Not wrong, just different and still delicious.
For the tomato meat sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ cups chopped yellow onion
1 pound lean ground beef
1 pound lean ground lamb (or use all ground beef)
½ cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 large cloves)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes in puree
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the white sauce:
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan or kasseri cheese, divided use
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
¾ pound small shells or penne rigate
For the sauce, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add the onion and saute for 5 minutes. Add the beef and lamb and saute over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until it's no longer pink, crumbling it with the back of a wooden spoon. Drain off any excess liquid, add the wine, and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the garlic, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, and cayenne, and continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 45 minutes. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
For the white sauce, heat the milk and cream together in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until simmering. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly for 2 minutes. Pour the warm milk and cream mixture into the butter and flour mixture, whisking constantly. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until smooth and thick. Add the nutmeg, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Stir in ¾ cup Parmesan cheese and ½ cup of the tomato and meat sauce, and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the eggs and set aside.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water until al dente. Don't overcook because the pasta will later be baked. Drain and set aside.
Add the pasta to the meat and tomato sauce, and pour the mixture into a baking dish. Spread the white sauce evenly to cover the pasta, and sprinkle with the remaining ¾ cup Parmesan cheese. Bake for 1 hour, until golden brown and bubbly. Set aside for at least 10 minutes and serve hot. Cover with foil, and the dish will stay warm for more than an hour.
Serves 8 to 10.
Source: Adapted from Ina Garten, Food Network
Make the common Americanized Greek salad in the style of Tarpon Springs by adding a big scoop of potato salad in the center before adding feta. Make your own dressing or buy a prepared version.
Greek salad dressing:
? cup olive oil
? cup wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon oregano
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 head of iceberg lettuce, torn or shredded
¾ pound tomatoes, seeded, diced (about 2 cups)
2 cups diced seeded peeled cucumber (from about 1 large)
1 cup diced green bell pepper (from about 1 large)
¼ cup diced red onion
¼ cup pitted kalamata olives or other brine-cured black olives, halved
¼ cup crumbled or sliced feta cheese (about 2 ounces)
To make dressing, put all ingredients in jar and cover. Shake well.
To assemble salad, arrange lettuce in a wide, shallow serving bowl. Gently toss with tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell pepper and onion. Toss with vinaigrette.
Scatter olives and feta over all and serve. (Can be made ahead and dressed at the last minute.)
Serves at least 8.
Source: St. Petersburg Times