In one of the many holiday food magazines I bought this year, I found a recipe for Stuffed Brussel Sprouts. This completely floored me. First of all, why would anyone want to stuff a Brussel sprout, and secondly, how on earth do you accomplish it without going completely insane? Brussel sprouts are tiny for heaven’s sake, and not a lot of people even like them. Anyway, why fuss over a vegetable that is frankly at its best when lightly steamed and then sautéed with some pancetta? However, this recipe insisted that if you carefully cut out the core of the sprouts after cooking and allowed them to drain on paper towels, you could then stuff them with a cheese mixture that would turn them into delicious appetisers.
For me, this recipe perfectly illustrated why so many people find themselves close to a nervous breakdown at this time of year. Although the main event – Christmas - may be over, most people spread their celebrations throughout the week, and of course New Year celebrations can be every bit as exciting as those held over Christmas. Everywhere people are still celebrating and feasting, and where there is feasting there is always someone (or even several someones) working hard behind the scenes.
Those of us who enjoy entertaining often bite off more than we can chew this time of year, hence someone even inventing a recipe for Stuffed Brussel Sprouts. There is a certain point most of us reach while we are planning holiday entertainment that makes us wildly underestimate the effort some recipes take, or wildly overestimate the speed at which we can work. All this is often born out of our wish to recreate the memories we have of holidays past, which this time of year, are almost always seen through rose coloured glasses.
So instead of taking the easy route of preparing recipes we know and love, or even asking for help in the kitchen, we formulate entertaining plans that even a professional caterer might struggle to accomplish. Unfamiliar recipes, new and untried food combinations and a fear of under-catering lead many of us to the brink of meltdowns in the kitchen and the curious phenomenon of hostesses (and even hosts) practically in tears.
Why do we do it to ourselves? We have had all year to try new things. But no, we wait until the busiest time of the year to try the recipes we would not even consider were we not so fully immersed in the holiday spirit. Multi-course feasts and impossible canapés bring us to the edge of reason. Glossy magazines that insist they aim to assist us do not help either, as they show us airbrushed hostesses beaming over tables of food they have allegedly prepared themselves. “If they can do it, why can’t I?”, we wonder – temporarily forgetting the army of cooks and food stylists behind many magazine photo shoots.
I think that is why cooks like Nigella Lawson are proving so popular at the moment, as they freely admit that holiday entertaining is by its very nature stressful and that anything you can do to make it easier is something that should be readily embraced. And stuffing a brussel sprout is not something that can possibly make your life easier.
Furthermore, although most of us entertain regularly throughout the year, there is no probably no other time save the holidays that we entertain so much. Many people host a traditional Christmas Eve cocktail party, then Christmas dinner, followed by Boxing Day brunch, so it is pretty certain that by 27th December they will find themselves more than a little exhausted – with only a couple of days to recover before the New Year celebrations start.
So although preaching restraint is never a popular a holiday theme, and it may be too late for this year anyway, I have devised a plan for years to come. While it might not completely avoid nervous breakdowns in the kitchen, it might at least take some of the pressure off. First of all, decide what holiday entertaining you plan to do and then immediately cut it in half. For example, if you are cooking Christmas dinner, ditch Boxing Day brunch completely. If you feel you simply cannot do that, decide to make it a potluck affair where everyone brings a dish. Buy glossy magazines that offer short cuts and easy recipes - like Rachael Ray's wonderful magazine. Enjoy the other magazines for what they are – sources of ideas, not a template. Make it a rule not to try any new recipes for guests from the 1st of December until the end of the year. And please, whatever you do, don’t be tempted to try that recipe for Stuffed Brussel Sprouts. The road to holiday hell is paved with them.