By Jess Thomson
Knowing that I’m a cookbook author with culinary school cred, people look forward to eating at our home during the holidays, but it brings a certain amount of pressure. My guests expect interesting, delicious home-cooked food. What they often don’t realize is that, as with many people who have arthritis, the combination of December weather and holiday stress usually means my lupus symptoms flare right when I need my body to cooperate. Holding a knife can be downright painful.
So when I’m trying to fit party prep into my schedule, I make a few rules. First, I plan a menu with tasks I can do ahead, so I’m not spending more than about an hour per day in the kitchen in the days before the party. I pick dishes I can complete before friends arrive. I also buy great basic ingredients, like good extra-virgin olive oil, so the flavor comes from the food instead of from a finicky cooking process. Most important, I try to avoid movements that are harsh on my body, like chopping.
Before you host a party, make your own rules, get enough rest and have a friend help you shop. Then tackle these make-ahead holiday party dishes; they serve enough for a small crowd and are designed to be served casually on a small buffet table, so no need for a fancy table setting or dishwashing marathons. Don’t refuse help at your party, especially if it helps you avoid something that may be hard on your joints, like opening wine or cutting bread.
This menu balances food that’s interesting and nutritious with a little holiday indulgence. It is designed around one oven temperature, so you’re not juggling oven space or struggling to remember what bakes at which temperature. It also offers simple shortcuts, so throwing a party isn’t something you’ll regret the next day.
Roasted Dates With Honey and Sea Salt
Serves 8 to 10 | 5 minutes active time
Look for fresh dates in the produce section of a grocery store or in packages near the raisins. Warmed and drizzled with honey, they require very little prep.
- 1 pound dates
- 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp. honey
- ½ tsp. large-flake sea salt
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In a baking dish, toss the dates with oil. (You can do this up to 8 hours in advance and leave at room temperature until just before guests arrive.) Roast dates for 10 minutes. Drizzle with honey, sprinkle with salt and serve right in the baking dish, warm or at room temperature, with a bowl for the pits.
Baby Kale and Cremini Mushroom Tart
Serves 8 to 10 | 25 minutes active time
This beautiful tart, which uses premade crust, pre-chopped vegetables and grated cheese, is a great way to make a culinary statement without suffering extra joint pain the following day.
You will need a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
- 1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
- 8 ounces sliced cremini (or white) mushrooms
- ½ tsp. kosher salt, divided
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 (5-ounce) package baby kale (or 6 packed cups chopped kale)
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 6 large eggs
- ¾ cup whole milk
- Canola oil spray
- 1 roll frozen, premade pie crust, fully defrosted, refrigerated
- 2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add oil then mushrooms, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until mushrooms have released their water and are beginning to brown. Add kale and cream. Stir, cover and cook another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until kale has wilted completely. (You may have to add the kale a little at a time.) Remove cover and cook mixture another 3 to 5 minutes or until all the liquid has evaporated from the pan. Transfer vegetables to a large plate and let cool for 5 minutes. (You can make the vegetable mixture up to three days ahead. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use.)
Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk eggs until well blended and frothy. Add milk, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt and pepper to taste, and whisk again. Set aside.
Next, place a 9-inch fluted tart pan (with a removable bottom) or pie plate on a baking sheet. Spray the pan lightly with oil, taking care to get into the crevices on the sides. Center the cold pie crust over the pan and, working carefully, fit the crust into the pan, pressing gently into the corners and allowing extra crust to drape over the top edge. Using your fingers, press off any crust that drapes over the edge, so the crust fits neatly inside the pan. (If you’re using a pie plate, crimp the crust edges if desired.)
Scatter half the Parmesan cheese onto the crust, then spread vegetable mixture in a roughly even layer and top with remaining cheese. Carefully pour egg mixture over vegetables (it should come right to the top of the pan). Bake (on baking sheet) on the middle rack for 30 to 35 minutes, or until puffed and browned at the edges.
Let cool for 10 minutes, then remove the outside ring from the pan and transfer the tart (still on the bottom metal round, if desired) to a plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Tip: Frozen pie dough rounds are easiest to work with if you thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. Keep the dough cold until you use it.
Sautéed Shrimp with Tangy Lemon-Yogurt Dip
Serves 8 to 10 | 30 minutes active time
Dunked in a low-fat dip (that also goes great with raw vegetables) these garlic-tinged shrimp taste best cold, which means you can make them the night before. The recipe starts with fresh raw (or well defrosted) shrimp, but if you’re pressed for time, simply make the dip and purchase cooked shrimp.
For the shrimp
- 2 pounds “jumbo” shrimp (usually 26 to 30 shrimp per pound), defrosted completely
- 4 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
- 2 tsp. minced garlic (fresh or jarred), divided
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
For the dip
- ¼ cup lemon juice (from 2 small lemons)
- 1½ cups plain low-fat Greek-style yogurt
- ½ tsp. kosher salt
- Zest of 1 small lemon
Pat shrimp completely dry with paper towels.
Heat 2 Tbsp. oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Scatter half the garlic in the pan, then add 1 pound of shrimp in an even layer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook about 5 minutes total, turning shrimp individually once they have turned pink and release easily from the pan; rearrange them so all sides are cooked. When shrimp are curled and pink, transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel. Carefully wipe the pan out and repeat with the remaining oil, garlic and shrimp. Set aside to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for up to a day, covered, in a paper towel-lined container.
Next, make the dip: In a small bowl, stir together the lemon juice, yogurt, salt and lemon zest. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to serve. (Make up to three days ahead.)
Tip: Zesting is easier on joints with a microplane-style zester. Hold it sharp side down in your dominant hand and scrape it down the lemon, collecting the zest in the blade, turning the lemon with your non-dominant hand.
Baked Feta with Warm Olive Salad
Serves 8 to 10 | 10 minutes active time
When feta cheese is baked, it turns spreadable but not gooey, which makes it perfect for smearing on bread. You can prepare the cheese up to two days in advance, refrigerate it, and then warm it just before guests arrive.
To save effort, place a fresh baguette on a cutting board next to the warm feta, and let guests slice their own.
- 2 (roughly 8-ounce) blocks feta cheese, drained if necessary
- 1 cup pitted Kalamata olives
- 1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
- 2 tsp. minced garlic (fresh or jarred)
- Zest of ½ large orange
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the blocks of feta (of roughly the same size, if possible) side by side in a small baking dish.
In a small bowl, stir together olives, thyme, garlic, orange zest and a grinding of fresh pepper. Add olive oil, stir again, then pile the mixture on top of the feta. (If making the feta ahead, top the baking dish with plastic wrap, refrigerate for up to two days, then bring to room temperature before baking.)
Bake cheese 12 to 15 minutes or until olives are sizzling and cheese is soft in the center, up to 1 hour before guests arrive. Serve with sturdy crackers or baguette slices.
Tip: Instead of chopping tough thyme stems, pick the leaves off the stems with your fingers.
About the Author: Jess Thomson is a Seattle-based freelance writer, cookbook author and recipe developer.
- Balancing Arthritis Care & Holiday Cheer
- 10 Tips for Cooking with Arthritis
- Preparing a Joint-Friendly Holiday Meal