Holidays and special occasions are the yearly markers on our revolving calendar that signal seasons, celebrations, and anticipated gatherings. Without them, the year would be a free fall with nothing to catch us, slow us down, or cause us to remember.
While my appreciation for food and its tie to community was nurtured at the family dinner table, the special gatherings also stand out in my mind. This is, of course, by design. For most of us the run-of-the-mill chicken and vegetable dinners we ate a thousand times as kids blur together even though these were the building blocks of our health and formation. But our memories pop with vivid color when it comes to the pastel chocolate eggs nestled in our Easter baskets. We can still taste the homemade peach ice cream we ate on the Fourth of July and the sweet potato casserole with the toasted marshmallows on Thanksgiving.
The foods we remember eating on special occasions stand out precisely because they were novel dishes, typically served on special days by special people. It was at these annual gatherings that I began to unwittingly associate certain family members with the dishes they were known for. My grandmother on my dad’s side was the queen of the twice-baked potato, though in her later years and with her trademark sigh, she was big on letting us know how much trouble they had become — I think it was the twice part. She and my grandpa, who lived in Annapolis, Maryland, were also the purveyors of our seafood. Crab imperial, crab dip, and plump shrimp were regular attendees at our holiday celebrations.
I learned at an early age that at Minter family gatherings, family members had important roles that couldn’t be forsaken without significant backlash. It was incumbent upon my Aunt Carol Minter to bring her famous mashed potatoes (secret ingredient: horseradish). My Uncle Charlie oversaw the cooking of the tenderloin; it had to be the perfect state of rare, which was exactly one degree past still-mooing. My Uncle Jim had the lock on homemade eggnog at Christmastime. Aunt Meredith, from whom I take my middle name, selflessly concerned herself with what gap she could fill rather than what dish she wanted to make. You could always count on her for something classy.
Cooking and serving meals to our own family and friends become a tangible display of what we, too, hope to be known for. One way I combat unrealistic expectations that inevitably come with holidays and special occasions is to proactively set my attention and affection on Jesus. I try to let Him set the narrative. If I’m practicing thankfulness, looking for ways I can serve others, and contenting myself in Him while I go about my preparations, my experiences are generally filled with peace and joy. And when they’re not, I’m honest with Him about the sensitive places on which these seasons tend to tug. Talking to Him while cooking is a balm to my soul.
With these few loving pieces of advice in mind, here are some of my favorite recipes that will make any special occasion memorable.
Mom’s Romaine Salad ▶ Makes 6–8 servings
10 c. Romaine lettuce, torn into small pieces
1 c. pecan halves
3 Tbsp. maple syrup
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. shallots, finely chopped
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper, freshly ground
2 Tbsp. maple syrup
2 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
6 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil two baking sheets with vegetable oil. Tear romaine lettuce and place in large salad bowl.
FOR PECAN TOPPING: In small bowl, combine the pecans and maple syrup and toss gently to combine.
Spread pecans in single layer on one of the sheets. Roast in preheated oven, stirring once, until syrup is bubbling, about five minutes. Immediately scrape the pecans onto the other prepared sheet, spreading them out to cool.
FOR VINAIGRETTE: In small bowl, whisk together the garlic, shallots, salt, pepper, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, and red wine vinegar. Whisking constantly, slowly add the vegetable oil in steady stream.
TO ASSEMBLE SALAD: Drizzle salad with vinaigrette dressing and sprinkle roasted pecans on top.
My mom is such a good cook but she’s one of those people who doesn’t write anything down. She just does a little bit of this and a little of that, and you never know quite how. I begged her to put her recipe for Romaine Salad down on paper so I could pass it along to you. The dressing is worth the price of this recipe.
Asparagus with Pine Nuts and Parmesan ▶ Makes 6-8 servings
1 c. pine nuts, toasted
2 lbs. asparagus
salt and pepper, to taste
4 Tbsp. butter
Parmesan cheese, large shaved pieces
lemon, cut into wedges for serving
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Toast the pine nuts on a baking sheet in oven (or use a frying pan, stirring constantly) until lightly colored and fragrant. Set aside.
Cut off any tough, white, or woody ends of the asparagus and discard. To make your asparagus al dente, put them on a microwave-safe platter and microwave on high for five minutes (more if needed), depending on your likes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Brown butter in skillet and pour over asparagus. Add the pine nuts and shavings of Parmesan cheese. Serve with lemon wedges.
Sun-Dried Tomato and Bow-Tie Pasta ▶ Makes 4 servings
2 packages sliced sun-dried tomatoes
16 oz. bow tie pasta
2–3 Tbsp. olive oil
10 cloves garlic, minced
½ c. pine nuts
16 oz. Feta cheese, crumbled
16 oz. can black olives, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
Optional: 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into small pieces
Soften the sun-dried tomatoes according to the package directions. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta; set aside.
While the pasta cooks, if you’re adding chicken to this recipe, cut chicken into bite-size pieces and set aside.
Heat olive oil over medium heat in a sauté pan. When the oil is warm, add garlic and sauté for two minutes. Add sun-dried tomatoes and sauté for another two to three minutes.
If using optional chicken, add the chicken to the sauté pan and cook until done. Add chicken and sun-dried tomato mixture to the pasta, sprinkle with pine nuts, Feta cheese, and olives. Serve immediately.
I’ve been making this pasta dish for years. Whether just for myself or for my friends, this is one of my favorite recipes because of how easy it is to make while being uniquely delicious. I chalk this up to the sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts.
Berry Trifle ▶Makes 6-8 servings
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 cans whole milk (use the empty sweetened condensed milk can for this)
4 egg yolks
¾ tsp. vanilla
2 Tbsp. corn starch
8 oz. can table cream
2 c. whipping cream
BERRIES AND CAKE
4 Tbsp. sugar
2 c. strawberries
2 c. blueberries
1 c. raspberries
1 c. blackberries
1 pound cake, cut into 1-inch squares (can be homemade or store-bought)
berries and mint leaves for garnish
FOR CUSTARD: In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, whisk together sweetened condensed milk, milk, egg yolks, vanilla, and corn starch. Whisk constantly and cook until the custard thickens into a pastry-cream consistency. Pour the custard into a bowl and add the table cream. Mix well and cover with plastic wrap, pressing it directly onto the surface of the cream to avoid forming a skin. Place in refrigerator to cool.
FOR WHIPPING CREAM: Use an electric mixer to whip the whipping cream until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
FOR BERRIES: Mix the sugar and all of the berries in a large bowl. To macerate and bring out the juices of the fruit, let the berry mixture stand for 30 minutes.
TO ASSEMBLE TRIFLE: Add a layer of custard to the trifle bowl first. Then add a layer of cake, followed by a layer of the berry mixture and three tablespoons of fruit juice. Then add a layer of whipping cream. Repeat the prior step. Once the final layer of whipping cream is at the top of the trifle bowl, garnish with some berries and mint leaves. Set completed trifle in refrigerator for one hour.
Kelly Minter is passionate about teaching the Bible and believes it permeates all of life. When she’s not writing, speaking, or singing you can find her picking homegrown vegetables, cooking meals, enjoying her six nieces and nephews, or riding a boat down the Amazon River with Justice & Mercy International.