By Joëlle Laffitte
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Paris
When I was a little girl, the holidays always included at least one huge Christmas dinner, with all of the family gathered around a table that invariably featured a very large bird and his assortment of holiday side kicks (stuffing taking the lead). That meal, delicious and heavy and happily chaotic, would again be repeated on New Year’s Day, making it the third of its kind if Thanksgiving is included in the lineup. It’s really no surprise that everyone felt a bit put off by the thought of mashed potatoes and gravy by January 1st, and, let’s be honest, a little bit bloated too.
As I grew older, my parents eventually shrugged off the big meal and instead began hosting parties to mark the New Year. This was much to my delight and anticipation, especially when I was actually allowed to attend the parties, mingling among adults who knew how to so deftly balance a cocktail in one hand, food in the other. I was elated by the idea of getting to stay up late and sip champagne, as every young girl would be, but it was the hors d’ oeuvres that really put me in the holiday spirit. Those bite-sized tastes of so many different flavors floating by on silver trays were exactly what my palate had been clamoring for all season, and it was the very opposite of a boring mound of food heaped upon a single plate. I was thrilled by tiny sausage balls and spicy port cheese rolled in nuts, a glistening spread of caviar, a crispy shrimp dressed in toasted coconut.
I always wished we could eat like this all year, or at least all throughout the holidays. Unlike Thanksgiving and Christmas, this was food I could savor while slipping in and out rooms and conversations, food that didn’t require the burden of plate, knife or fork. It was liberating. And it also made the celebration seem to last longer, instead of a meal promptly gobbled down and finished. I always did like to prolong a holiday as long as possible, gleaning it for all it was worth. I still do.
These days, because my family has gotten smaller and has spread out across the globe, it is nearly impossible to assemble everyone together at the same time for a traditional sit down dinner. Instead, the holidays are about people coming and going, from the beginning of December and on through the new year. This works out to my advantage, since I can host friends and family in manageable bite-sized portions, rather than all at once. It is the perfect set-up for small plates and amuses bouches. Don’t be put off by the overly fancy variety, because beautiful and tasty hors d’oeuvres need not be complicated or a cause of holiday stress. Fortunately, I have learned from some very wise French cooks the art of creating simple, elegant hors d’oeuvres, and after all, since the French did invent the word, surely they ought to know best.
In bountiful supply here this time of year are those beautifully green and golden comice pears, which need only to be sliced and speared with a toothpick that has already picked up a morsel of Roquefort cheese. It is quick and flavorful and tastes heavenly with a glass of Chablis. Served with roasted and buttered nuts, you have a perfect aperitif for when friends, or the postman – drop in for a toast.
When my mother flew in from the States, we nibbled on delectable prunes from Agen, a town which, incidentally, is home to the notable prune museum. They were just begging to be wrapped in smoked bacon and baked until hot ( just don’t forget to remove the pits). They are even better when also stuffed with chevre, and from my experience have always been a crowd pleaser.
Because kale is scarce in Paris, I drizzled good olive oil on salt-sprinkled leaves of Swiss chard and baked them on high just until crispy and dark. We enjoyed a simple plate of local cheeses and grazed on bright green olives. When friends stopped by a few days later, my husband made a delicious and deceptively easy assortment of sushi, and some lucky Parisians got to sample his spicy curry mayonnaise and crunchy salmon rolls.
There were no place settings and no roasting pans to scrape clean. We didn’t spend all day laboring over a hot stove; we simply gathered the best ingredients the season has to offer, and paired them together for an evening of good cheer. Kind of like what happens at a great party, when there’s no pressure and no expectations, just people having a good time, one bite at a time. It almost makes me wish the holidays could go on forever. In France, the winter festivities will continue until January 6th, marking the celebration of Epiphany. Another week to prolong clusters of family and friends coming together for a toast, another round of joy in this season of togetherness, savoring every taste, stretching it out as long as we can.
Bacon Wrapped Stuffed Prunes
For a platter of twenty-four hors d’oeuvres you will need:
12 long slices of smoked bacon, cut in half
12 preserved prunes, pits removed (pitted dates or fresh figs also work very well)
Chevre (about 4 ounces)
Preheat the oven to 180 C or 350 F. In a pan, gently cook the strips of bacon until almost, but not quite, done. Do not crisp. Remove from the pan and arrange on a paper towel to drain. Line a baking sheet with a sheet of baking paper. Wrap each prune in a slice of bacon and place folden side down onto the tray. If using chevre, stuff each prune with a small amount of the cheese before wrapping. Bake for about ten minutes or until hot throughout and the bacon begins to crisp. Spear each piece with a toothpick and serve while warm.