Given the four dozen-plus people who converge for our family Christmas dinner, we're talking a buffet and eating from our laps. I can't recall ever dining at a table set with fine china, candles, and tented napkins.

This may be why I dreamed the other night that I carved the customary ham in my sister's kitchen, and then left the room to stake out a chair so that I would not have to sit on the floor. I returned to find the ham slices missing. After hurling accusations based on injustices bestowed upon me by my elder sister, oh, maybe 30 years earlier, I opened the pot holder drawer and there was the ham.

I woke up and thought: Weird.

I believe this dream reflects my desire for a small, dignified, and hamless holiday meal.

Given the horde attending my family's celebrations and the hallowed status of its smoked pork, I'll fulfill this fantasy with a genteel feast beforehand in my own home.

But, certainly, if you are fortunate enough to experience Christmas dinners more in the Martha Stewart/Norman Rockwell style, prepare this menu then.

The requirements for any holiday meal, which implies a certain amount of rest, are that it include something that can languish in the oven all day, warming the house with both heat and the aroma of caramelizing meat, onions, and vegetables. In other words, it must be something that is "working" while I am not. It must be something company-worthy, a bit special, and memorable for its originality and flavor.

Coffee-braised Spoon Lamb (see recipe), which requires sporadic attention for only about an hour before it must be ignored for five, is a perfect choice. The meat comes out incredibly tender - hence the name - and gets a blanket of coffee-flavored gravy before serving. It has a Turkish feel to it, which is appropriate since early Christian history locates the primary inspiration for Santa Claus to be a bishop in Byzantine Anatolia.

Potatoes must be involved for two reasons.

First, the gravy needs a sponge. Second, I am giving up potatoes (again) for what I am vowing (again) will be a lower-carb-and-calorie 2011. My long goodbye in 2010 includes Creamy Mashed Celery Root and Potatoes that employ decent amounts of half-and-half and butter, which I am also giving up in the new year (again).

Because persimmons are seasonal, now's the time to take advantage of them in a salad that mixes them with soft pears and crunchy almonds. Learn from my experience - I once mistook Hachiyas for Fuyus, and there were puckered faces all around - and choose the persimmons carefully.

Fuyus are the round variety with flat bottoms. They are firm, crunchy, and slightly sweet. You can eat them like an apple.

Hachiyas have pointy bottoms and are inedible until their tannins have broken down. This happens only when they seem overly ripe and are squishy.

You need nothing more than a simple lime-juice vinaigrette to pull the vegetables, fruits, and nuts of the salad together. (You can chop the persimmons and pear ahead of time, but make sure to coat them in either lime juice or a splash of the dressing itself to retard browning.)

At this point in the holiday season, nobody really needs dessert, but there's no better time to make an excuse to have it.

What is left of the Christmas cookies will be put out on three-tiered trays. Chocolates - likely salted-caramel-somethings this year - will be passed, and peppermint candy will be expected.

Here's where you can innovate again.

Serve ice cream topped with a sweet and spicy cranberry topping.

The ruby-colored mixture, a type of chutney if you will, has actually pushed canned cranberry sauce off the table in my Midwestern hometown on occasions when turkey or ham is served. Still, I like it so much that I use it as a topping for ice cream or Greek yogurt.

It's a dreamy ending for any Christmas meal - even one that is eaten ahead just to see if it isn't too very weird to celebrate the day with your own chair and a set table.

Coffee-Braised Spoon Lamb

Makes 8 servings

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6 garlic cloves

1 bone-in leg of lamb (about

   7 pounds), fat trimmed

Kosher salt and freshly

   ground black pepper

1 large onion, quartered

4 large carrots, cut into

   chunks

2 shallots, peeled

1 ripe tomato, cored and

   quartered

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup dry red wine

3 cups freshly brewed

   strong coffee, divided

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf

   parsley

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1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mince 2 garlic cloves and rub over lamb, spreading evenly. Generously sprinkle lamb with salt and pepper. Put lamb on a V-shaped rack in a large roasting pan. Surround rack with onion, carrots, shallots, tomatoes, and remaining 4 garlic cloves. Drizzle oil over vegetables and lamb. Roast 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and cook another 30 minutes.

2. Reduce oven temperature to 250 degrees. Transfer lamb to a plate and remove rack from roasting pan. Set pan on a burner over high heat; add wine and boil, using a wide metal spatula to stir and scrape up caramelized vegetables from bottom of pan, until wine has reduced by half. Stir in 2 cups coffee. Remove from heat. Set lamb back in pan (without rack); spoon juices over it. Cover tightly with foil.

3. Return pan to oven and cook until lamb is tender and pulling away from the bone, about 5 hours, turning lamb halfway through cooking.

4. Transfer lamb to a platter and cover with foil. Reheat remaining 1 cup coffee. Pour with liquid and vegetables from pan into a blender and pulse until smooth, working in batches if needed. Pour sauce through a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl, using back of a spoon or ladle to push it through if needed. Season sauce with salt and pepper. Pour half the sauce over lamb and serve the rest in a bowl. Sprinkle lamb with parsley.

- From The Sunset Cookbook (Oxmoor House, 2010)

 

Per serving: 477 calories, 59 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 181 milligrams cholesterol, 443 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText

Creamy Mashed Celery Root and Potatoes

Makes 8-12 servings

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4 pounds celery root (about

   8 medium celery roots),

   peeled and cut into

   2-inch chunks

21/2 pounds Yukon Gold

   potatoes (about 6 pota-         toes)

1 cup half-and-half

8 tablespoons (1 stick)

   unsalted butter

Sea salt and freshly ground

   black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons chopped,

   fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh

   celery leaves

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1. Place the celery root and potatoes in a saucepan with enough water to cover by 2 to 3 inches when the vegetables are pushed down with your hand. Bring to a low boil over high heat. Then lower the heat and boil for 30 to 35 minutes, until the vegetables are tender when pierced with a fork.

2. Drain and return the celery root and potatoes to the pan. Add the half-and-half, butter, salt, and pepper. Mash with a potato masher or process through a food mill until the vegetables are smooth and creamy. Stir in the chopped parsley and celery leaves, taste for seasoning. Serve immediately. These may sit for an hour or so, but you may have to add more half-and-half to loosen the puree or make it fluffy again.

- From Fresh Every Day by Sara Foster (Potter, 2005)

 

Per serving (based on 12): 208 calories, 4 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 29 milligrams cholesterol, 202 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.EndText

Asian Pear, Persimmon, and Almond Salad

Makes 4 servings

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1/4 cup fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon roasted almond

   oil or extra-virgin olive

   oil

2 tablespoons honey

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 ounces small, whole

   tender lettuces or salad

   mix (about 1 loosely

   packed quart)

1 large Asian pear, cut into

   thin wedges

2 firm-ripe Fuyu persim-            mons, cut into thin

   wedges

1/3 cup sliced almonds,

   toasted

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1. In a medium bowl, whisk lime juice, oil, honey, salt, and cayenne until blended.

2. In another medium bowl, gently mix lettuces with 1 to 2 tablespoons dressing and toss gently to coat. Divide lettuce among salad plates. Top with fruit and almonds; serve remaining dressing.

- From The Sunset Cookbook (Oxmoor House, 2010)

 

Per serving: 186 calories, 3 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, no cholesterol, 162 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.

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Cranberry-Dried Fig Topping for Yogurt or Ice Cream

Makes about 6 cups

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2 12-ounce bags fresh

   cranberries

2 oranges, washed, seeds

   removed, chopped (to

   the size of a thumbnail)

   with peel left on

1/2 cup thinly sliced green

   onions, white and green

   parts

4 tablespoons unpeeled, very

   finely julienned fresh

   ginger

2 sticks cinnamon, each 3

   inches long, broken in

   half

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups sugar

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons mustard powder

1/2 cup chopped pecans,

   walnuts, or pistachios

1/2 cup quartered dried figs

1/4 cup currants or dark

   raisins

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1. Combine all ingredients well in a nonreactive (enamel, stainless steel, or glass) pan and cook over moderate heat, stirring now and then, until sugar dissolves and the resulting chutney comes to a boil, about 10 minutes. Do not overcook or stir constantly or the mixture will look pasty and unattractive.

2. Remove from cooking vessel to a plastic container. Cool and refrigerate until needed. Serve over ice cream or Greek yogurt, making sure to spoon some of its thick, ruby-colored syrup as well as fruit and nuts onto each serving. Makes about 6 cups and keeps about a week or longer refrigerated.

Note: This is also excellent as a side dish for poultry or ham or as a condiment in sandwiches.

Per two-tablespoon serving: 73 calories, trace protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, no cholesterol, 49 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

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