Just because you don't want to spend a lot over the holidays doesn't mean you don't want to enjoy yourself. In her book Nigella Christmas, chef Nigella Lawson has plenty of tricks for making food festive yet frugal.
"At key times of the year like the holidays, what one really wants are the simpler, more traditional foods," Lawson tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "I don't know that I want anything giddyingly fancy."
When you're cooking for a family of all ages, it's hard to please everyone. Lawson says that when you're feeding both a 7-year-old and a 70-year-old, keep it simple and "multigenerational."
For an appetizer, Lawson suggests "fully loaded" potato skins — with sour cream, grated cheese, scallions, Worcestershire sauce and bacon bits. "I think you need a lot of carbohydrates. [It] may be unfashionable, but it's cold, and maybe you're drinking a lot," Lawson says.
For a main dish, Lawson offers the recipe for a crowd-pleasing pumpkin and goat cheese lasagna (recipe below). There's no meat, which will please the vegetarians at your table, and will also cut back on costs. It's inexpensive, but it still looks pretty on the table.
"A huge tray of lasagna always is pretty festive," Lawson says. "... It's very basic, the sweet and the sharp ... there's the tangy sauce and then of course that incredible comforting smoothness of a lasagna."
Frugal holidays don't have to mean sober holidays either. Lawson recommends the "Poinsettia" — a straightforward drink that won't force you to go out and buy half a dozen different liqueurs. All you need is a bottle of Prosecco (or any fizzy dry wine), a half cup of any orange liqueur and two cups of cranberry juice.
"With the orange liqueur in it, not only is it fantastic, but the dangerous thing is it doesn't taste alcoholic," Lawson says. "I'm just warning everyone now."
No holiday dinner is complete without dessert — Lawson suggests trying a sticky gingerbread (see recipe below.) It's very easy to make. ("You just put all the relevant ingredients into a saucepan, you heat it, and then stir everything together," Lawson says.) And it's OK to bake ahead of time — leaving it sitting for a day or two will just make it stickier. "It's so wonderful just with a cup of tea or coffee," Lawson says, and it's easy to bring over as a gift if you're visiting friends.
If you're serving the gingerbread at a dinner party, Lawson suggests classing it up a little with "a taste of the tropics." Cube some mangos and sprinkle a little powdered sugar on top of the gingerbread.
And here's a little secret: "If you dust a bit of powdered sugar through a sieve on top of anything, it suddenly looks more expensive," Lawson says.
There you go. Merry Christmas.
Recipe: Pumpkin and Goat's Cheese Lasagne
For the pumpkin filling:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
8 sage leaves
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
12 cups cubed pumpkin flesh (this is from a 5 lb pumpkin or about half a decent-sized pumpkin, a proper eating one not the Halloween king, peeled, seeded and cut to 1-inch rough cubes)
1/3 cup dry vermouth or white wine
1/4 cup water
1 x 14 oz can diced tomatoes
salt and pepper
Heat the oil and butter in a shallow Dutch oven or cast-iron braiser and fry the sage leaves over a gentle heat for about 2 minutes.
Add the chopped onion and minced garlic to the pan and fry gently for another 10 minutes or so.
Add the pumpkin pieces, turn well in the oniony oil and, after about 5 minutes, add the vermouth (or wine), the water and diced tomatoes. Simmer, covered, for an hour, stirring occasionally so the pumpkin cooks evenly. Taste for seasoning – I tend to add quite a bit of salt here – and leave to cool.
For the tomato sauce:
3 cups canned or bottled tomato sauce, pref. organic with no added salt
2 cups water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons kosher salt or 1 tablespoon table salt
good grinding of pepper
Simply pour the tomato sauce and water into a large jug or bowl, and stir in the sugar, salt and pepper, whisking it all together.
For the cheese layer:
1lb soft fresh goat's cheese (chevre)
13/4 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
good grating of fresh nutmeg
12 fresh lasagne sheets (approx. 1 1/4 lbs)
1/2 lb fresh mozzarella cheese
1 cup pine nuts, toasted in a hot dry pan
salt and pepper
In a separate bowl beat the goat's cheese and ricotta with the eggs, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat the oven to 400F, slipping in a large cookie sheet as you do.
To assemble the lasagne, begin by putting 2 cups of the cold tomato sauce in the bottom of a roasting pan (measuring approx. 14x10x2 1/2 inches).
Then layer with a third of the lasagne sheets, overlapping them well (Italians do it with the pan horizontal but the pasta vertical, if that makes sense, but I don't know that it truly matters ...). Leave the rest of the tomato sauce aside for the time being.
Layer a third of the pumpkin filling over the lasagne, and dollop on a third of the cheese mixture, coaxing with a rubber spatula. It won't cover completely; think more of spreading blobs about. Then start again with a layer of lasagne, followed by pumpkin, then the cheese. Repeat once more – lasagne, pumpkin, and the last of the cheese mixture.
Pour the remaining cold tomato sauce over, letting it sink down and be absorbed in the layers.
Slice and chop the mozzarella and dot over the top.
Bake in the oven, on the cookie sheet, for 1 hour. Once baked, take it out of the oven and let it stand for 15-30 minutes to make cutting and serving easier. (I love this when it's stood for an hour or so, too.) As you cut and slice, you will notice a shallow tomatoey cheesey pool at the bottom of the pan; bread dunked into this is gorgeous.
Sprinkle the toasted pine nuts over the lasagne, and cut into squares to serve.
Side Bar: I use a soft goat's cheese log, often sold as chèvre, that has no skin and a texture more like that of a goat's curd cheese.
Make ahead tip:
Up to 2 days ahead, make the pumpkin filling, leave to cool and keep, covered, in the refrigerator. Make the cheese layer and keep, covered, in the refrigerator. When ready to use, assemble the lasagne and cook as directed.
Freeze ahead tip:
Cook, cool and freeze the cooked pumpkin for up to 1 week. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator. When ready to use, assemble the lasagne and cook as directed.
Recipe: Sticky Gingerbread
Makes 20 squares
1 stick plus 3 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup dark corn syrup
3/4 cup molasses
2/3 cup packed soft dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons finely grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in 2 teaspoons warm water
1 cup whole milk
2 eggs, beaten to mix
2 cups all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 350F and line a roasting pan or ovenproof dish (approx. 12 x 8 x 2-inches) with aluminum foil or parchment paper (if using foil, grease it too).
In a saucepan, melt the butter over a lowish heat along with the sugar, syrup, molasses, fresh and ground gingers, cinnamon and cloves.
Take off the heat, and add the milk, eggs and dissolved baking soda in its water.
Measure the flour into a bowl and pour in the liquid ingredients, beating until well mixed. It will be a very liquid batter, so don't worry. This is part of what makes it sticky later.
Pour it into the prepared pan and bake for 45-60 minutes until risen and firm on top. Try not to overcook, as it is nicer a little stickier, and anyway will carry on cooking as it cools.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let the gingerbread cool in the pan before cutting into 20 squares, or however you wish to slice it.
Make ahead tip:
Make the gingerbread up to 2 weeks ahead, wrap loosely in parchment paper and store in an airtight container. Cut into squares as required.
Freeze ahead tip:
Make the gingerbread, wrap in parchment paper and a layer of aluminum foil then freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw at room temperature for 3-4 hours and cut into squares.
Recipes reprinted from the book Nigella Christmas by Nigella Lawson. Copyright 2011 by Nigella Lawson. Published by Hyperion Books.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Holiday spending is up a little bit this Christmas season, but many people remain on tight budgets. And the truth is that many of us don't like spending too much at Christmas anyway, which doesn't mean we don't want to enjoy it.
And that's where Nigella Lawson comes in. She's offering us some suggestions from her book "Nigella Christmas," on how to do Christmas pleasantly on a budget. She's a regular guest on this program, a TV chef.
NIGELLA LAWSON: Hello.
INSKEEP: And welcome back once again. Let's start, I suppose, with an appetizer. You have a recipe here for, well, potato skins.
LAWSON: I do. And I have to say straightaway that these recipes came to me just out of greed, not out of budgetary concerns.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LAWSON: And I think, in a way, this is quite important because, you know, one should always try and do food that is just as good as any luxury dish would be. And actually, so they are potato skins and my fully loaded potato skins. And this time of year makes sense because I think you need a lot of carbohydrate - maybe unfashionable but it's cold and maybe you're drinking a lot. But I - I mean this is quite strange, âcause I'm giving you back a recipe that I got via America. So, it's really my thank you present.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is a very American dish - potato skins.
LAWSON: It really is. And so, really, it's just a question of, you know, baking potatoes, splitting them in half, taking out all that, you know, soft cooked potato meat. And then let the potato meat get cold - or flesh maybe it is really, more than meat. You let that get cold. You let the husks sort of dry out a little so that they become vessels for eating the rest of the potato later.
I let them dry out, because the great thing about this is you can do mostly in advance, or all of it. And then on the day you've got your friends coming over, I mix - I like sour cream and some grated cheese and maybe some scallions and a bit of Worcestershire sauce. Now, I pop those back into their skins and put them in the oven.
Now, I actually like them with bacon, as well. So I think you either can do little bacon bits and put them on top. Or you can put them in cute little bowls for people to pass around.
INSKEEP: Now, you said that greed attracts you to these particular dishes. Is that partly because some of the simpler dishes, the less expensive dishes, you can just make more and more and more of it?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LAWSON: Well, I suppose so. But I do think that, really, at key times of the year like the holidays, what one really wants are the simpler, more traditional foods. I don't know that I want anything giddyingly fancy. And I think also, food tends to have to be multigenerational. So it's absolutely pointless cooking something that if you've got a seven-year-old and a 70-year-old, you know - you want to make everyone happy.
INSKEEP: I wonder if this lasagna that you've suggested here would have the same effect.
LAWSON: Well, the lasagna I adore. Now, it's a pumpkin and goat's cheese lasagna. I love this because it's not only is, you know, vegetarians like it which isn't obviously my main concern as a meat eater. But again, it's something you cook ahead. And obviously if you're dispensing with meat, you're probably doing away with the most expensive part of any meal.
But there's something so festive about this. I suppose a huge tray of lasagna always is pretty festive. But the scent of the spiced pumpkin and that sharpness of the cheese, and it creates a slight lake at the bottom so you have to give people bread to mop it up. And even as a pumpkin lasagna, if it's easier for you to chop up some butternut squash, I mean by all means do that. I'm pretty easygoing about that.
But the reality is it's very basic. There's sweet and there's sharp, and then there's the tangy sauce, and then of course that incredible comforting smoothness of a lasagna. And I don't make my own pasta here, though I could. And I would encourage anyone to, but I would also encourage anyone who hasn't got the time to buy some soft, as it were, fresh lasagna. So you don't have to pre-boil it.
INSKEEP: So, isn't it time - maybe past time for a drink?
LAWSON: I know. I wondered when you were going to offer me something to drink. Or rather I - ask me to offer you one.
INSKEEP: Oh, please.
LAWSON: Okay, do you want to - this is what I give everyone before they come for lunch on 25th of December, and was very useful one year because one of my ovens broke. And so that lunch was at four rather than at two. And it's called - I call it a Poinsettia, because obviously it's a very seasonal plant and this is a red drink. And I will give you the wherewithal to make it and make one bottle of fizz, you know, stretch so it's delicious but I'm going to pretend now it's this really, really good economical sense...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LAWSON: ...which it is, but that's secondary.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LAWSON: You're not having to go out and buy, you know, eight different liqueurs.
INSKEEP: It's straightforward.
LAWSON: It's straightforward. So, you have a bottle of prosecco - any fizzy dry wine - it doesn't have to be premium. And then for that, a half a cup of any orange liqueur, which you can get pretty - orange liqueur is not a fancy one - and then two cups of cranberry juice.
Now, if you wanted to, there's nothing to stop you really missing out, you know the orange liqueur - it would still be delicious. But let me tell you, with the orange liqueur in it, not only is it fantastic, but the dangerous thing is it doesn't taste alcoholic. I'm just warning everyone now, please.
INSKEEP: Oh, have four or five before you know what you're...
LAWSON: Well, all I can say is no one even noticed lunch was two hours late when my oven broke.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LAWSON: And that is the truth.
INSKEEP: Oh, that's great. Now, let's move onto one more thing here, if we've still got a little bit of room for some gingerbread.
LAWSON: I think you have to have gingerbread; not at least it smells so wonderful. You know, the ginger, cinnamon, cloves, molasses, butter - oh, it's so delicious. But the reality is with this gingerbread is, it's very easy because you make it all in a pan. So you're not actually creaming anything. You just put all the relevant ingredients into a saucepan. You know, you heat it and then stir everything together.
And then I throw everything into - I use a foil tin because it's easy. You can store the gingerbread in it afterwards, as well. And you just bake it for about - I don't know - 45 minutes, 60 minutes, depending on how hot your oven runs. And if you can bear it, you know, leave it for a day or two and it will get stickier and stickier.
But it's so wonderful just with a cup of tea or coffee. And, of course, it doesn't hurt at this time of year to have something you could take over to friends where you're visiting.
INSKEEP: So, will you be making the Sticky Gingerbread for your guests this Christmas?
LAWSON: Always - absolutely always. And also, even though it's completely my going into a different register, because after all ginger is the taste of the tropics. It's a fantastic - if you want to upscale it somewhat to a dinner party dessert, I get some cute mangoes and cube them and serve that with it. And then a little bit of dusting of - you know, if you just a bit of powdered sugar through a sieve on top of anything, it suddenly looks more expensive. That's what you do.
INSKEEP: Nigella Lawson, it's always a pleasure talking with you.
LAWSON: And you.
INSKEEP: Her many books include "Nigella Christmas." And you can find recipes for Pumpkin Goat Cheese Lasagna and Sticky Gingerbread at NPR.org.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.