"Happy Holidays from the Diva of Do-Ahead: A Year of Feasts to Celebrate with Family and Friends" by Diane Phillips (Harvard Common Press, $14.95).
Like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, "It's a Wonderful Life," the Jimmy Stewart Christmastime movie or the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, Diane Phillips' "Happy Holidays from the Diva of Do-Ahead: A Year of Feasts to Celebrate with Family and Friends" is a holiday classic you will probably yearn to turn to every year. I know I do, but it has a twist. It's my favorite cookbook that fills my calendar each month with memorable treats.
You may agree that Phillips' fat and sassy cookbook should have a perennial spot on your holiday menus. In fact, it's the popularity of the San Diego-based author's "Do-Ahead" Thanksgiving and Christmas classes that inspired the book.
Dishes from both classes fill chapters with "Do-Ahead Diva Tips" woven into the recipes, similar to the rest of the tome. When an author has a tempting gimmick, like do-ahead tips, it's easy to just rest on those laurels without creating inspired recipes to boot; however, Phillips, the author of "Perfect Party Food" and other award-winning cookbooks, is the opposite.
Innovative twists and turns that create memorable yet easy dishes are her house specials. Pecans dot Halloween chocolate-caramel apples, which have been sliced and skewered for individual dessert treats. Caramelized shallots and roasted mushrooms crown a wonderful winter holiday green bean dish. Helpful recipe-stretching variations also abound — add red wine vinegar and serve the green bean mixture as a delicious room-temperature salad.
Although "holidays" are often just from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day in cookbook lingo, the real treat of this keeper is that the fun and strategic cooking lasts all year-round; it includes many holidays that other authors would surely snub. This means you can cook for your sweetie on Valentine's Day, make Memorial Day more memorable, as well as light a few feast-worthy fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Get a head start on the upcoming fall holidays by perfecting this anything-but-scary Halloween treat:
HALLOWEEN PECAN AND CHOCOLATE CARAMEL APPLES
8 large Granny Smith apples, wax scrubbed from skin, cored and sliced into 8 wedges
64 (6-inch) wooden skewers (see Note 1)
1 (14-ounce) bag Kraft caramels
2 tablespoons water
12 ounces milk chocolate, chopped (see Note 2)
1 1/2 cups toasted chopped pecans
Yields about 10 servings.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, aluminum foil or silicone baking liner. Skewer each apple wedge with a 6-inch wooden skewer.
In small saucepan, melt caramels over low heat; add the 2 tablespoons of water. Carefully dip each apple wedge into warm caramel, allowing any excess to drip back into pan. Arrange wedges on baking sheet; refrigerate until firm.
Melt chocolate in microwave or on stovetop over simmering water and then place pecans in wide shallow bowl. Line another baking sheet with parchment paper, aluminum foil or silicone baking liner.
Carefully dip cold caramel-dipped apples into chocolate, allowing any excess to drip off into warm chocolate. Dip each end of apple in pecans, arranged on prepared baking sheet. Refrigerate until firm. Diva Do-Ahead Tip: At this point, you can cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Remove from refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving.
Note 1: Phillips likes to leave skewers in apples so that guests have a "handle." Otherwise, heat from their fingers will melt chocolate and a sticky mess will result.
Note 2: Phillips prefers the flavor of milk chocolate in this recipe, but writes that fans of semisweet can make the substitution. Those who can't decide can melt six ounces of each.
GREEN BEANS WITH CARAMELIZED SHALLOTS AND ROASTED MUSHROOMS
2 pounds green beans, ends trimmed and halved
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
10 medium-size shallots, halved
1 1/2 pounds mushrooms, such as cremini, shiitake, white or a mixture, quartered (see Note)
1/2 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
Yields 10 servings.
Fill steamer pan with water to about 1/2 inch below steamer insert. Place insert in pot, cover, and bring the water to boil.
Spread out beans evenly in steamer with a long-handled spoon. Cover and cook until beans are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Remove steamer with oven mitts and shake beans dry in basket. (If you are steaming beans ahead of time, plunge into cold water; drain immediately so they will retain color.)
Sprinkle with 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Diva Do-Ahead Tip: At this point, you can place in zipper-top plastic bag; refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line baking sheet with aluminum foil or silicone baking liner.
In large bowl, toss together shallots, mushrooms, olive oil, remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper and thyme. Spread mushroom mixture over baking sheet; roast for 20 minutes, turning once. Diva Do-Ahead Tip: At this point, you can cool and transfer to zipper-top plastic bag; refrigerate overnight.
If beans have been refrigerated, poke 3 holes into plastic bag with beans; microwave on high power for 2 minutes. Remove beans from bag and arrange in serving bowl. While beans are warming, reheat mushrooms if necessary in a medium-size skillet over high heat, carefully tossing until heated through. Pour mushrooms over beans; serve warm or at room temperature.
Variation: This dish also makes a great room-temperature salad, with addition of 2 to 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar tossed with finished beans and mushrooms.
Note: Phillips writes that cremini mushrooms are her favorite in this dish.
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Lisa Messinger is a first-place winner in food writing from the Association of Food Journalists and the author of seven food books, including "Mrs. Cubbison's Best Stuffing Cookbook" and "The Sourdough Bread Bowl Cookbook." She also writes the Creators News Service "After-Work Gourmet" column. To find out more about Lisa Messinger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.