Embarking on the holiday season can feel like joining a festive army: Decorations must be just so. Gifts must be perfect. Everything gets a little bow on top. But food writer Nigella Lawson says that keeping things warm and welcoming doesn't require endless preparation or complicated dishes.
Keep things simple, she says, and serve food that will make you feel good.
"I construct my holiday season in a very informal way," Lawson tells Renee Montagne. It's an intentional effort to combat the tendency Lawson sees around this time of year to turn each gathering into a production.
"Somehow we've got in our heads the idea that Christmas should be bejeweled and enormously formal, and we should go to great lengths to create spectacular dinners," she says. "Well, that may be very nice, but it's not reality. And that makes people dread having any sort of entertaining plans because it asks too much."
Lawson says her ideal holiday meal is "friends over [for] food that maybe you've cooked in advance. " Or else, she says, you can serve "comforting food rather than impressive, status-symbol food."
Achieving both of those criteria is Lawson's recipe for a dish that might raise eyebrows at the holidays, but which, by her count, holds up well to the demands of the season: Chocolate chip chili.
Lawson says her secret ingredient takes some by surprise.
"It sounds odd to say 'put chocolate chips in your chili,' " she says. "But actually, cocoa is used routinely. It just adds a kind of thickness and a velvetiness. ... It's warming food, but it's family food."
And Lawson says the dish packs a bonus: "I do think that at this time of year, people are probably going to drink more than they might at other times of the year, so it somehow soaks up some of the seasonal excess."
While you're indulging, Lawson suggests pairing her playful take on chili with fully loaded potato skins. Perhaps not a holiday classic, but irresistible nonetheless. Which makes it perfect, Lawson says, for a season that can carry more than its share of stress alongside festivities.
"Sometimes if you cook in a complicated way, your tension translates to your guests," explains Lawson. "They'll have a much better time having chili and baked potatoes than they would if you did roast duck with a wild cherry sauce and then had to lie down and cry for a while."
Desserts To Share
Of course, with some dishes, a new outfit is just what the holidays call for.
For dessert, Lawson dresses up Rocky Road, the endlessly malleable kitchen-sink classic — not the ice cream — with candied cherries and amaretti cookies, plus a generous dusting of powdered sugar.
Her holiday take on the recipe looks the part — a cross between brownies and fruitcake — and just as important for Lawson, it hits the same pleasure centers as her other comforting holiday food.
"It is an indulgent dessert," she says. "You can make it and wrap it and tie it with a little bow, and it makes a great gift. I'm a great believer in edible presents at Christmas. I think it's, in a way, an old-fashioned tradition, but one that probably should be resurrected."
Anything to bring friends and family in from the cold, Lawson says, especially when the season is so bright and the food is so friendly.
"Somehow people are so predisposed to having a good time, it makes one want to invite them," she says. "It sounds like I'm saying, 'Have a dinner party every night.' But really, I'm just saying, 'Have people round.' "