It's late afternoon on Dec. 24 in Las Cruces, N.M., where my sister recently relocated. I'm at an AirBnb on a shrubby desert hillside, chopping an onion with a dull chef's knife on a glass cutting board. I flinch a little with each queasy scrape of the blade against the glass, but all 10 fingers remain miraculously intact.
I tip the rough-hewn pile of onions into a wok with a couple of smashed garlic cloves and a glug of olive oil, pressing ahead with the tomato sauce for my annual Christmas Eve spaghetti and meatballs. As garlicky pork-and-beef meatballs sizzle away on a flimsy sheet pan in the oven, I add spaghetti to the biggest aluminum pot I can find; sadly, it's not large enough to prevent a third of the pasta from protruding out the top and eventually fusing into half-cooked clumps.
When we finally tuck into dinner — half of us with little salad forks — my ad-hoc, slightly crunchy pasta tastes as rich and sustaining as ever. Its quirks are a hallmark of the small reunion holidays I plan throughout the year with a few close friends and family in a smattering of home rentals across New Mexico and the Midwest.
Baked pasta and wine line a dinner table in Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hennessy)As years pass and lives inevitably disperse (even when lived nearby), quality time comes in ever-shorter supply. Beyond hasty catch-ups over dinner or Zoom once a month, my chosen family and I like to convene for a few long weekends each year to cook, eat and drink; play games; build fires; stay up late; and laugh until we can't breathe. COVID only supercharged the notion that holidays can occur whenever and wherever friends gather — especially when circumstances out of our control keep us necessarily apart. Over the past two years, we've toasted missed birthdays, holidays and anniversaries and the months-ago start of a new year that fused indistinctly with the last.
Over several years of cobbling meals together in an assortment of home rental kitchens, I've learned a few tricks. If I'm driving and have space in the car, I'll carefully wrap up my chef's knife and nestle it into my favorite dutch oven along with my three other essential kitchen tools: a zester, a stick blender and a pepper grinder. I've come to embrace loose menu planning — as in, "buy enough eggs for scrambling on Saturday and shakshuka on Sunday; buy enough bread for BLTs, tuna melts and big salad croutons" — but I also accept the inevitability that one big shopping trip may not cut it.
A wreath hangs on the door of an A-Frame home in Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hennessy)
Oh, and I always pack an extra wine opener.
I've discerned that grilling is a cook's best friend for a quick and satisfying dinner spread, no matter the weather outside. My go-to meal for the first night when everybody trickles in at different times typically involves marinating a mix of sturdy veggies and meats in herbs and garlic and parboiling cubed potatoes. Once everyone arrives and has a drink in hand, I throw the whole melange on the grill, along with a few thick slabs of bread rubbed with oil. A drizzle of chimichurri or lemon juice and herb oil over everything makes the charred flavors sing.
A look at the author's Christmas 2020 snack spread (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hennessy)Another easy crowd pleaser that feels lush is ricotta gnudi. The flour, egg and ricotta dough comes together in minutes; plus, I like recruiting idle hands to roll it into ropes and cut gnudi out in between sips of wine. After boiling, toss them in garlic butter and herbs or quick pomodoro sauce for a comfy, veg-friendly feast.
And while we're on the subject of group prep, might I suggest smorrebrod aka Danish open-faced sandwiches? Divvy up toppings for everyone to pile on slices of toasted rye, such as smoked fish, dill and horseradish mayo; seared steak and arugula; caponata and feta; or blue cheese, pear and a drizzle of honey. Paired with crudites, olives and mini squares of tortilla española made the day before, it's a handheld feast fit for grazing on while you tackle a 1,000-piece puzzle.
Smorrebrod is part of the snack spread on this table in Cloudcroft, N.M. (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hennessy)The most crucial things to remember when cooking for a crowd in a strange place are to roll with the punches and enjoy it. Nothing teaches you to improvise better than working in an unfamiliar kitchen. My largest stainless-steel water bottle has doubled nicely as a rolling pin in a pinch. My go-to quick pesto now involves mashing each ingredient together with the side of my knife on a big cutting board. (I'll often dribble over some vinegar or add minced chiles while I'm at it.)
I've found that manchego and black pepper gougeres bake up rounder and taller in higher altitudes; likewise, your focaccia will never impress more than when you bake it in a high desert oven. On the other hand, you may have to adjust the liquid content up in your holiday cookie recipe to prevent cracks; the dryness is real.
Manchego and black pepper gougeres (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hennessy)Still, even the most Type A among us can't prevent the occasional, often spectacular mishap.
Say you're new to the whole electric cooktop thing, and you accidentally melt the (plastic) spoon rest, plus the handle of your sole (also plastic) serving spoon. Or perhaps your first-ever attempt at smoking brisket occurs using a finicky smoker on a brutally windy day in Las Cruces. (Did you know it gets quite windy there?) Eleven hours (plus one in the oven to get the damn thing up to temp), a whole box of Cheez-Its and a case of Santa Fe Brewing Co. pilsner later, you tuck into succulent, richly smoky beef and somewhat over-roasted potatoes. (By the way, the next day's leftovers made for a sublimely flavorful ragu.)
Another time, someone in your party may slightly underestimate the bake time and temp on his famous garlic bread, and the dramatic unveiling from its foil jacket reveals fat slivers of uncooked garlic and still-solid butter. On that same trip, half a dozen resident barn cats could slip into the house at odd hours to ravage the cold cuts shelf in the fridge and climb all the way into the potato chip bags.
Runty examines the fridge in Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hennessy)Or maybe you book a cozy, lakeside AirBnb in rural Wisconsin without knowing that wall-to-wall carpeting doesn't only include the living room and both bedrooms but also the bathroom and kitchen. There's nothing quite like wobbling a platter of saucy braised chicken all the way to the table over a berber kitchen carpet after 1.5 Manhattans.
Then again, these are the sorts of memories that will sustain you, however many miles, months and obligations separate you and your nearest and dearest, until the next gathering with its inevitably strange miscellany of cookware.
Tiny holidays in Northern Michigan (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hennessy)
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