Get Back To The Table
Donatella Arpaia on Holiday Mealtime Traditions, Christmas Breakfast and Impromptu Entertaining
Dec 06, 2016
A Q&A Discussion with the Iron Chef America Judge, NYC Restaurateur and Mother
Can you share a few holiday mealtime traditions that are unique and special to your family?
In our home, I would call it a long feast rather than just a meal! It always begins at 3pm. Since it’s typically a 7-course meal, we rest in between courses, then eat again. There is a lot of reminiscing and storytelling, and towards the end of the evening, we break out the old films of when we were growing up.
Christmas on the whole is about being around the table enjoying the food and reminiscing. The kids’ table is the place to be at my house! Crafts, crackers/poppers and plastic champagne glasses filled with sparkling cider make them feel special! We give a big toast and everyone goes around the table and gives thanks as we eat our meal.
What is your favorite classic holiday dish to serve when you’re entertaining and why?
Italians eat a variety of fishes on Christmas Eve, so Christmas Day is all about the meatballs! They’re cooked with a slow braised ragu and we top our homemade pasta with the red sauce from the meatballs. It’s a classic everyone craves, including all the non-Italians we invite over! Everybody loves meatballs—they’re the ultimate family celebratory comfort food.
Holiday dining is almost exclusively focused on the big dinner (or late lunch). But breakfast is important too! What do you usually like to serve on mornings before the big meal?
I actually make a point of having a good breakfast! Many people skip breakfast because they want to overindulge later on, but that just makes you ravenous by mealtime. I make scrambled eggs with shallots and truffle zest for me and my husband. On Christmas morning only, I make Elbe skivers – the Danish pancake – with confectioner’s sugar. My son calls them “elf “pancakes!” Great coffee and freshly squeezed juice round out the morning.
Holiday meals typically involve tried-and-true family recipes. But sometimes it’s fun to add a new twist to old favorites. Any tips for jazzing up the classics?
Yes, I pretty much stick to the classics that my mom made for holiday meals, but I love to experiment with salads. I recently added a new twist to one with my Green Bean and Blood Orange Salad!
Many of us may be trying to plan a holiday menu for both meat eaters and vegetarians. How do you suggest balancing everyone’s demands?
Write the menu down before the meal and count how many items are vegetarian versus meat. Menus should always be balanced. I like to include a vegetarian dish that’s hearty and that has some protein like my Vegetable Fried Rice — the egg adds a nice protein for the vegetarians!
When playing the holiday hostess, what are your essentials for creating a warm, inviting ambiance?
Creating a calm, clean environment for guests is the first step. The temperature of the room, background music and lighting are all important elements. Make sure you dim the lights a bit, and I personally love to have lots of lighted candles all around! But the most important thing is that even if you’re stressed or a recipe didn’t turn out the way you wanted, when guests arrive, let it go! The holidays are about being together and making memories, and your guests feed off your energy. Be happy and warm and your guests will feel welcome. After all, a happy host is the best kind. Lastly, a welcome cocktail never hurts. 🙂
Unexpected visits from family, friends and neighbors tend to happen more often this time of year. Do you have any tips for fabulous, fast appetizers to feed a hungry crew?
My family is famous for arriving on Christmas a little early and starving! Dinner often isn’t ready, so I like to create appetizers that won’t ruin their appetites, like this Peas and Ricotta Crostini. It’s satisfying without being too heavy and is also so elegant and easy to make!