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Christmas dinner for two

There’s a good chance you’re staying home for Christmas this year. If you’re like us, you may not be able to fill the seats, but at least you can fill the table.

You still want a holiday feast that’s a step up from the usual weeknight dinner. But you don’t want to end up with more food than you need. And dining out may not be your choice because of the pandemic.

To help you create a dinner that’s special without breaking the bank or forcing you to toil for hours in the kitchen, here are some tips and easy recipes for tasty Christmas sides that are more to scale — with a yum factor that’s sure to please.

Many of us will miss the warm and fuzzy camaraderie of dining with family and friends. But when it’s dinner for two, you can cook to please yourselves.

There’s no recipe here for a main dish. Go with your favorite — turkey, prime rib, ham, a Christmas goose. If we do turkey this year at our house, we’ll roast a breast, but one large enough to provide leftovers for turkey sandwiches on the weekend.

These recipes are designed for two, but can be adjusted if there are more of you in your household.

Rustic soup for 2

A nice first course is a rustic soup, warm and comforting on a cold winter day. You can make your favorite — butternut squash, mushroom, vegetable. But if you don’t want to spend the time on a homemade masterpiece, here’s a technique that will make a star out of canned cream of mushroom soup. And if you choose to make a soup from scratch, the puff pastry topper adds an elegant, rich touch.

1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup

2/3 can milk, cream or chicken stock

2 teaspoons butter, divided

2 tablespoons onion or shallot, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg OR splash of sherry

1/2 cup fresh mushrooms

Pinch of salt

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

1 sheet puff pastry

1 egg, whisked

2 ramekins or oven-proof soup bowls

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a saucepan over medium heat, combine a can of soup concentrate with 2/3 can of milk, cream or low sodium chicken stock, depending on how rich you want it. Don’t use water because it will dilute the flavor. Whisk until it’s smooth, bring to a boil and set aside.

In a small pan, saute the chopped onion over medium heat in a teaspoon of butter until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add minced garlic and continue cooking until fragrant, about 1 minute more. Set aside. Remove mushroom stems and toss (or save for another dish). Saute mushrooms in the same pan in a teaspoon of butter with a pinch of salt. Stir to coat the mushrooms, then spread evenly in the pan and let sit undisturbed until moisture has evaporated, 4-6 minutes. Set aside.

Add the onion and garlic mixture to the pot of soup, along with a splash of sherry (if you want to enrich the flavor without adding a bunch of calories) or 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (for a warm, aromatic note). Don’t add both, just one or the other. Stir to combine. Pour into ramekins or oven-proof bowls to about a half inch from the top. Place some sauteed mushrooms on top of the soup and sprinkle each cup with a tablespoon of grated Parmesan.

Cut 2 squares of thawed puff pastry to fit over the ramekins. Cut 2-3 slits in the middle of each square with the point of a knife (to let steam escape), then place over ramekins, pressing on sides to secure. Brush with egg wash.

Place on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 15 minutes until puff pastry is golden brown.

Green beans, dill and hazelnuts

Sure, your grandma’s green bean casserole with mushroom soup and fried onions is a reliable standby. But maybe it’s time for a change. A recipe of this delicious version of haricots verts by Ina Garten originally appeared in her book “Cook Like a Pro.” Here is a reduced recipe for two.

1/3 cup roasted whole hazelnuts

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/2 pound French string beans, stem ends removed

1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons finely minced fresh dill

Buy roasted hazelnuts, available at most stores. Or toast your own in a small, dry skillet over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, shaking occasionally, and transfer to a clean kitchen towel, rolling them around until some of the skins come off. Roughly chop the hazelnuts, or place them in a sealed small plastic bag and tap them with the back of a wooden spoon to break them up a little.

Fill a large pot with 2 quarts of water, add 1 tablespoon salt, and bring to a boil. Drop the beans into the water and cook for 5 minutes until tender. Drain immediately, plunge into a bowl of ice water, and set aside.

When ready to serve, heat the butter and olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the string beans, a couple pinches of salt, and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. Cook for about 3 minutes, tossing the beans with tongs until coated and heated through.

Off the heat, stir in the dill and hazelnuts and taste for seasonings. Serve hot.

The hazelnuts add a nice crunch and the dill gives a bright, grassy, herbaceous note.

Quick and easy cranberry relish

Don’t buy a can of jellied cranberry sauce when you can have fresh, homemade cranberry relish in two minutes that will zing your tastebuds with its fresh, sweet and tangy taste.

12 ounces fresh cranberries

1 seedless orange

1/2 to 1 cup sugar to taste

In a food processor, grind the cranberries, sugar and orange (rind and all). Start with 1/2 cup sugar, taste and add more if you prefer the relish less tart. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. This will be your new favorite.

Crispy new potatoes

If you can forego mashed potatoes this year, try this scrumptious, crispy roasted potatoes recipe. There will be enough for four people. If there are just the two of you, chop the leftovers and fry in butter with onion, green pepper and Parmesan for a nice breakfast side with your scrambled eggs the next morning. The seasonings and herbs add a savory complexity, but the potatoes are still the star.

1 pound of new potatoes, about 1.5 inches in diameter

Flaky sea salt to taste

2 teaspoons cornstarch

Freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

If the new potatoes are larger than about 1.5 inches in diameter, cut into pieces about that size. To remove excess potato starch, place potatoes in a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, and then cook for 5 minutes. Drain the potatoes in a colander, return to the pot over medium low heat, tossing them gently with a wooden spoon for a minute to roughen them and evaporate excess moisture.

Place potatoes in a large bowl, drizzle with the olive oil and toss to coat.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch, garlic powder, chopped rosemary, and a few grinds of fresh black pepper. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the bowl of potatoes and toss until they’re evenly coated and the cornstarch has soaked into the oil.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil and spread the potatoes evenly, not overlapping.

Bake for 20 minutes. Remove pan from oven and carefully stir the potatoes. Rearrange again to make sure they don’t overlap and roast for 20-30 minutes more until potatoes are brown and crispy on the outside.

Remove from the oven and sprinkle generously with flaky sea salt and chopped parsley. Serve while hot.

Christmas fruit salad

This salad is beautiful to look at and tastes even better, adding a fresh, citrusy note to your Christmas menu. A handful of dried cranberries provides a bit of chew.

Serves 4.

2 red apples, cored and diced

1 Asian pear, cored and diced

3 Clementine oranges, peeled and separated into segments

3 kiwi fruit, peeled and sliced into thin rounds, and then sliced into quarters

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1 cup pomegranate seeds

Maple lime dressing:

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 tablespoon lime juice, freshly squeezed

Combine all salad ingredients (except the dressing ingredients) in a large bowl. If you can’t find the smaller Clementines, use a couple of mandarins and cut the sections in half.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the dressing ingredients. Pour the dressing over the salad and gently toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Sausage stuffing tip

If you want to take your favorite sausage stuffing recipe to another level, add toasted pecans and dried cherries. How much? If you’re using 6 cups of croutons for your dressing recipe, add about a cup of toasted and chopped pecans and a half cup of dried cherries. Adjust quantities for smaller or larger recipes accordingly.

My mouth is watering already.

Reach Ashland writer and amateur chef Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Crispy new potatoes are a tasty alternative to the traditional mash. Fry the leftovers in butter with onion, green pepper and Parmesan for a breakfast side the next morning. Jim Flint photo
You may never go back to the casserole after you try these French green beans sauteed in butter and olive oil with chopped fresh dill and hazelnuts. Jim Flint photo