The holiday season is a time when I want to impress friends and family with a special meal, but I don't want to miss all the fun and socializing and arrive at the table sweaty and exhausted.

Since I want the meal to register a notch above a typical supper, I've learned it's best to plan a menu that can be prepared largely ahead of time, with a few quick trips to the kitchen during cocktail hour.

Rich, indulgent ingredients like red meat, red wine, cream, and chocolate can make the simplest dishes taste extraordinary, and they're the perfect way to savor a celebratory meal during a cold, dark winter evening. Plus they need little dressing up, meaning fewer steps to prepare something delicious.

This roast beef tenderloin recipe is exquisite, melt-in-your-mouth - and so easy. It's called "marry me" roast beef tenderloin because actress Jennifer Grey, of Dirty Dancing fame, had to be careful whom she cooked it for, as any man who ate it asked for her hand in marriage.

My husband of nine months was impressed with the roast, but he didn't lose his senses until dessert: chocolate cream puffs with mascarpone filling. That's when he started talking about a trip to Italy and a second honeymoon. Maybe the effects of the roast take a little while to kick in.

I paired the beef with roasted squash filled with porcini cream and a simple green salad dressed with tarragon vinaigrette, a palate-cleansing, tangy reprieve from an otherwise decadent meal.

The best part about this meal: Besides the fresh meat and produce, it's made with common ingredients that you're likely to have in your kitchen. And if you don't, you can be sure these basics are useful enough that they won't gather dust in your pantry.

Timing is a snap with these recipes. By the time your roast is in the oven, you can have everything else ready to go and enjoy a glass of wine with your guests.

In the true spirit of indulgence, I suggest making dessert first. The cream stays in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve dessert, and the cream puffs must cool to room temperature before they can be filled.

While the cream puffs are cooking, prepare the squashes. I used carnival squash, a hybrid between acorn and dumpling squash. Carnival squash has a mild flavor best enhanced by roasting, which softens the somewhat firm and dry orange interior and releases a sweet, buttery taste. The cream keeps the squash perfectly moist as it cooks and the mushrooms add an earthy element. Make sure to season the filled squash before serving - the Parmesan cheese adds necessary saltiness, but I found I needed additional salt and fresh pepper.

My squash had long woody stems that were impossible to remove without cutting a hole in the top, which would have made it impossible to fill the upper half with cream. Instead of cutting the squash in half, I chopped off the top like you would for a stuffed pepper and filled two squashes whole, discarding the tops.

When the cream puffs have finished cooking, the oven is ready to go at 375 degrees to cook the squash. I used a slightly longer cooking time of about 50 minutes for the squash since I was cooking them whole rather than cut in half.

While the squash cooks, you have time to mix the tenderloin rub and marinate the meat. If you can't cook everything at once and need a longer lead time for the roast, you can let the roast marinate in the fridge, but be sure to let the roast return to room temperature before cooking. You'll need to check on the roast a few times while it cooks, but close monitoring is necessary only for the final 10 to 20 minutes, when you'll want to check the temperature and cook it to your liking.

I paired the meat and squash with a simple salad of mixed greens dressed with tarragon vinaigrette. I happened to have tarragon vinegar that I bought at a farmer's market, but you can use fresh chopped tarragon instead, or add some thinly sliced fennel bulb to your salad. The mild licorice taste paired with a little Dijon mustard in the dressing makes the salad bright and refreshing without taking anything away from the main dishes.

I'd never made cream puffs before and I was thrilled at how easy this recipe was. The cream was divine, rich but not heavy or cloyingly sweet. The chocolate was nearly undetectable at first bite but gave a long, lovely aftertaste. It would go well with black coffee or espresso.

I didn't use rosewater or red food coloring, as the recipe suggests, but I sprinkled red sanding sugar over the filled cream puffs to give them a holiday tint. I served these alongside a bowl of fresh raspberries, which we ate between cream puffs to round out the chocolate flavor with a hit of tart fruit.

Tarragon Vinaigrette

Makes 2-4 servingsEndTextStartText

4 teaspoons sherry vinegar (or tarragon vinegar if available)

2 teaspoons chopped fresh tarragon

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

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1. Mix all the ingredients.

- From Joelle Farrell

 

Per serving (based on 4): 111 calories; trace protein; trace carbohydrates; no sugar; 13 grams fat; no cholesterol; 81 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.

Jennifer Grey's 'Marry Me' Roast Beef Tenderloin

Makes 6 servingsEndTextStartText

21/2 pounds beef tenderloin

2 extra-large beef bouillon cubes

2 cloves garlic, minced

11/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup boiling water

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3/4 cup red wine

1 tablespoon dry sherry

1 cup low-sodium beef or low-sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons cold water

Roasted green beans (optional)

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1. Poke the meat with a knife or thick skewer to make small holes all over. Set aside.

2. In a small mixing bowl, combine the bouillon cubes, the garlic, mustard, tomato paste, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, and the Worcestershire. Pour in the boiling water to dissolve the bouillon. Using the back of a wooden spoon, crush the bouillon cubes. Keep crushing and stirring until you've made a nice thick paste.

3. Rub the paste all over the meat, rotating it to coat all sides well. Transfer meat to a roasting pan, cover loosely with foil, and marinate at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour.

4. While meat is marinating, set a rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees. Pour enough water into the roasting pan to come to a depth of 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Place pan in oven and roast, covered, 15 minutes.

5. Remove foil and rotate pan. Continue cooking and check after 10 minutes that there is still liquid in the pan; add ¼ cup hot water if needed.

6. Roast an additional 5 minutes for rare, an additional 15 minutes for medium-rare, and an additional 20 minutes for medium, or until center of roast registers the desired temperature on an instant-read thermometer. Rare: 125 degrees (total cooking time about 30 minutes); medium-rare: 130 degrees (about 40 minutes); medium: 140 degrees (about 45 minutes).

7. Transfer roast to cutting board, cover with foil to keep warm, and allow to rest.

8. Prepare gravy: Place roasting pan with drippings on a burner over medium heat. Scrape up the brown bits with a wooden spoon. Add butter and stir.

9. Whisk in the wine, sherry, and beef broth. Add the cornstarch-water mixture, whisking until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes.

10. Slice the roast. Serve on a platter over roasted green beans (if using). Serve gravy separately.

- From The Pollan Family Table (Scribner)

 

Per serving: 450 calories; 56 grams protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram sugar; 19 grams fat; 179 milligrams cholesterol; 378 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.

Roast Winter Squash With Porcini Cream

Makes 4 servings

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2 small winter squash (sweet dumpling or butternut)

3/4 to 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

Butter, softened

Salt and pepper

1/2 to 1 cup heavy cream

1/3 to a scant 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

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1. Halve the squash and scoop out the fiber and seeds. Cover the dried mushrooms with boiling water and leave to soak for 15 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2. Place the squash in a roasting tray and smear butter on the inside and around the flesh at the top. Season. Drain mushrooms and divide them between the squash halves. Pour cream into the cavity (1/4 of the cream in each) and season again. Cook in the preheated oven for 30 to 45 minutes, or until completely tender. You may need to top up with cream if you are using a squash that takes a particularly long time to cook. Sprinkle cheese on each squash about 15 minutes before the end of cooking time.

- From Roast Figs Sugar Snow (Mitchell Beazley)

 

Per serving: 321 calories; 10 grams protein; 43 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams sugar; 15 grams fat; 46 milligrams cholesterol; 265 milligrams sodium; 8 grams dietary fiber.

Chocolate Cream Puffs With Mascarpone Filling

Makes 15 puffsEndTextStartText

For the puffs:

½ cup all-purpose flour

1½ tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

1/3 cup water

¼ cup whole milk

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in chunks

1 tablespoon sugar

¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

2 large eggs, at room temperature

For the filling:

½ cup mascarpone, chilled

½ cup very cold heavy cream

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or rose water to taste

Red food coloring (optional)

Confectioners' sugar, for dusting EndTextStartText

1. To make puffs: Center a rack in the oven. Preheat to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

2. Sift flour and cocoa together into a small bowl.

3. Put the water, milk, butter, sugar, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the flour and cocoa all at once, lower the heat to medium-low and, using a wooden spoon or sturdy heatproof spatula, stir like mad. The mixture will come together in a ball and there will be a film on the bottom of the pan, but don't stop stirring - give it another minute of energetic beating.

4. Transfer the hot dough to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl for using a hand mixer). Let rest for 2 minutes.

5. Beat the dough for 1 minute, then add the eggs one by one, beating very well after each egg goes in. You'll have a smooth, shiny dough.

6. Place mounds of dough on the baking sheets using a small cookie scoop (one with a 2-teaspoon capacity, my tool of choice) or dropping the dough by small spoonfuls; leave about 2 inches between them.

7. Slide the baking sheet into the oven, then immediately reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees F. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, rotating the sheet at the midway point, or until the puffs feel hollow and lift off the paper or mat easily. Cool to room temperature on a cooling rack before filling.

8. To make the filling: Put the mascarpone in a medium bowl and, using a flexible spatula, stir it gently to loosen it. Beating makes mascarpone grainy, so go easy.

9. Whip the heavy cream in a small bowl just until it starts to thicken. Beat in the sugar and vanilla and continue to whip until the cream holds medium peaks. If you're using red food coloring, add a drop and mix it in, then add more coloring, if needed. Continue to mix until the cream holds firm peaks. Stir a spoonful of the cream into the mascarpone to lighten it, then gently fold in the remainder. (The cream can be made a few hours ahead and refrigerated.)

10. To fill the puffs: Just before serving, cut or carefully pull the cream puffs apart at their middles. If you like, you can hollow out the base of the puffs by removing the custardy interior. (I like the creamy center and always leave it.) Spoon or pipe some filling (using a pastry bag with a plain tip or a zip-lock plastic bag from which you've snipped off a corner) into the base of each puff; replace the tops. If you'd like, the puffs can be chilled for about 30 minutes.

11. Dust the puffs with confectioners' sugar just before serving.

- From Baking Chez Moi (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt)

 

Per puff: 97 calories; 3 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams sugar; 7 grams fat; 43 milligrams cholesterol; 73 milligrams sodium; no dietary fiber.