Easy Holiday Entertaining

For holiday entertaining this close to Christmas, it is wise to keep things easy in order to remain festive and in good cheer. Greeting guests at the front door with a glass of wine in hand both sets the tone for a casual event and is more enjoyable than running yourself ragged in the kitchen.

Here, to get you started on a cozy Christmas Eve of your own, a recipe for classic shepherd’s pie, taken from “The Fabulous Baker Brothers: Glorious British Grub”cookbook by Tom and Henry Herbert ($12, Headline Publishing Group).

Shepherd’s Pie
Yield: 6 servings

Olive oil
2 onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
2 carrots, chopped
2 sticks celery, chopped
2 sprigs rosemary, leaves picked, plus additional sprigs for garnish
750 grams good-quality lamb mince
2 large glasses of red wine
500 milliliters chicken or beef stock
Good splash of Worcestshire sauce
2 tablespoons tomato purée
Splash of sherry vinegar
Salt and Pepper
1 kilogram Desiree potatoes, pelled and cubed
50 grams of butter
100 milliliters of milk
1 egg yolk

1. Heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Heat some olive oil in a large pan and add the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and rosemary. Cook on a medium heat for about 10 minutes until sweet and soft.
2. Add the lamb mince and cook until brown, then add the red wine and simmer down.
3. Add the stock, Worcestershire sauce, tomato purée and vinegar, season with salt and pepper, and simmer down until almost all the liquid has disappeared.
4. Meanwhile, boil the potatoes until soft, then drain and allow to steam dry in the colander for a few minutes. Melt the butter in a saucepan with the milk. Mash the potatoes until smooth then add the hot milk mixture, egg yolk and seasoning, and beat until smooth.
5. Put the lamb mixture into a deep casserole or pie dish and top with the mashed potato. Poke little sprigs of rosemary into the top of the mash, then bake in the hot oven for 35 to 40 minutes.

This year, my husband and I are entertaining a dozen friends and family on Christmas Eve in our small Welsh hillside cottage, where there is no electricity. It’s not quite as heathen as it sounds, and what could be more Christmassy than a dwelling lit by candles and warmed by open fires?

In the small space with limited cooking facilities, it becomes very necessary to keep the menu simple. And from our guests’ point of view, it will be a welcome reprieve before the onslaught of rich food coming the next day. First, I will be serving shepherd’s pie, a hearty British favorite that begins with a base layer of seasoned minced lamb and vegetables, which is then topped with a thick layer of buttery mashed potatoes that should ideally be crisp on the top. The great thing about the dish is that you can prepare it in advance, stow it in the fridge for a couple of days and then quickly bake it off when everyone’s hungry.

Serving it couldn’t be any easier either. Put it straight from the oven onto the table next to piles of pretty plates, a stack of forks, basic condiments — ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, hot sauce, Maldon sea salt — and a steaming pot of buttered peas. With a couple of large silver serving spoons, guests can help themselves and eat while curled into the sofa, standing near the fire or, if they’re lucky, seated at a proper table — all without the hassle of knives or other fancy utensils. It is a low-maintenance crowd pleaser that also makes for splendid leftovers in the days to come.

If you’re letting your guests roam about with their plates, be sure to stock up on large linen napkins, a strategic maneuver to defend pretty upholstery and rugs. I have ordered a large stack of classic Linen Union tea towels this year. But disposable gingham napkins on a roll would also do the trick without adding to the laundry pile. They’re classic, terribly useful and affordable — a roll of 20 napkins will set you back only $30 (casa.com).

Serve a truckle of cheddar afterward. It feels more festive than a slice or even a selection of cheeses, and what’s left over will be happily picked at in the days to come. I always think that the confidence of serving one thing in a generous quantity is very chic. This should be accompanied by a crunchy green salad, a dish of rough oat cakes and a jar of chutney. For the salad, I usually crush a couple of cloves of garlic in the bottom of a salad bowl before pouring in a few generous slugs of good olive oil and a large pinch of Maldon sea salt. Then I just have to drop in the greens, and set the bowl aside until it’s time to eat, at which point the salad just needs tossing. The garlicky dressing is so good paired with cheese.

A case of good claret set up next to some stemmed glasses brings it all together. I won’t even bother with pudding other than a large bowl of small, sweet clementines. But there will be flasks of coffee and heaps of chocolates, crystallized ginger, chocolate-covered orange rind and peppermint creams for an extra-sweet dose of holiday cheer.

This article originally featured on New York Times T Magazine blog.