Food, family, friends and fun often end up at the same table together, whether it’s in sharing a homey pot of spaghetti and meatballs, a tray of knockout appetizers that promises an even more spectacular meal to come, or an intimate celebration of a special anniversary or other event. The key is that good food and drink, lovingly prepared and served, are the body and soul-satisfying threads that knit us together. Join me as we look at three very different books all covering the same subject: The celebration table.

Everyone Can Cook for Celebrations; Seasonal Recipes for Festive Occasions
By Eric Akis
Published by Whitecap Books 2009, softcover, $24.95; 261 pages

This is Akis’ fifth book and carries through on the appealing and easily accessible dishes that have made his previous books so popular. Akis, a trained chef and food writer for the Victoria Times Colonist and other CanWest newspapers, knows that the average cook wants to create dishes that are relatively easy to prepare with ingredients that are easy to find and yet ones delicious and impressive enough for even the most finicky table mates.

He goes the extra mile, too, in adding helpful hints on what can be prepared ahead or substituting ingredients that might be more popular with your crowd. The book is arranged seasonally, beginning with winter gatherings and ending with the year-end holidays in which we now find ourselves.

In between, he offers recipes and menus for romantic dinners, spring celebrations and those long and lazy summer weekends that we always hope will never end. But, alas, they do and in this season of short days, we turn inward to share a tipple, defy the darkness with blazing light displays and prepare tables laden with the rich harvest of just-past seasons.

Want a taste of what’s on offer here? Shrimp Bisque with Curry, Wild Rice Salad with Mixed Fruit and Nuts, Turkey Tourtière with Yams and Cranberries, Creamy Cheesecake with Eggnog and Spice.

Here are several recipes from the book.

SMOKED SALMON TARTARE ON CUCUMBER ROUNDS
¼ lb. smoked salmon, finely chopped
3 tbsps. finely chopped red onion
1 tbsp. capers, finely chopped
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsps. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tsps. chopped fresh dill
20 English cucumber slices, cut ½-inch thick

Place salmon, onion, capers, oil, lemon juice, mustard, pepper and dill in a bowl and gently mix to combine. Use a small spoon or melon baller to scoop out some of the centre portion of each cucumber slice. Mound 2 tsps. of the smoked salmon tartare in the centre of each cucumber slice and arrange on a serving tray. Makes 20 pieces.

Eric’s Options: These bites can be made several hours in advance; cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. You can also use smoked tuna in place of the smoked salmon.

CHOCOLATE GUINNESS CAKE
1 cup butter, cubed
1 cup Guinness beer
2/3 cup cocoa powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1¼ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
½ cup sour cream
Cocoa powder or icing sugar, for dusting
Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream

Place butter, Guinness and cocoa powder in medium pot over medium heat. Cook just until butter melts, whisking to combine it with the Guinness and cocoa. Remove from heat. Cool mixture to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 10-inch springform cake pan. Cut a circle of parchment paper to fit bottom of pan and place in the pan. Whisk the flour, granulated sugar, baking soda and salt in a bowl until combined. Add beer mixture and beat thoroughly. Add eggs and sour cream and beat until well combined. Spoon and spread batter into the prepared pan. Bake 70 to 75 minutes, or until cake springs back when gently touched in the centre. Cool cake on baking rack to room temperature.

Unmold cake and place on cake plate. Dust top lightly with cocoa or icing sugar. Serve wedges of cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream. Makes 12 servings.

Eric’s Options: If serving the cake with whipped cream, make it extra rich by flavoring the whipping cream with a splash or two of Irish cream liqueur.

-From Everyone Can Cook for Celebrations


The New Thanksgiving Table; An American Celebration of Family, Friends and Food
By Diane Morgan
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2008, hardcover, $32.50; 223 pages.

For Americans, their late November Thanksgiving kicks off more than a month of visiting and feasting that eventually brings the year to a close, hence the emphasis on their holiday as the segue into the Christmas season.

In her book, Morgan travels the 50 states to find the regional foods and ethnic influences that each area has incorporated into its celebration menus. Thus Tex-Mex Honey Pecans (Texas is a huge producer of pecans) share the appetizer platter with Pacific Northwest-inspired Wild Mushroom and Goat Cheese Puff Pastry Pockets and an East Coast favourite, Warm Maryland Crab Dip with Lemon Panko Topping, while side dishes might include Honey and Chipotle Glazed Sweet Potato Spears with Lime and the turkey itself might be stuffed with Southern Corn Bread and Oyster Dressing (as it’s called there) or a Pan Asian Rice Dressing sometimes favoured by Asian cooks.

Even turkey leftovers get the royal treatment in Turkey Enchiladas with Creamy Tomatillo Sauce, Classic Turkey Tetrazzini and Turkey and Andouille (a Cajun smoked sausage) Gumbo.

But to my mind,  the best part of the book is the main course chapter, where there are 11 different turkey recipes, four of them for brines. We had a big apple crop this year, so we tried the apple cider and ginger brine and were rewarded with a succulent, flavourful bird for our own Canadian Thanksgiving. For those not partial to turkey, Morgan also includes recipes for a Jack Daniels and Brown Sugar Crusted Ham and a Pumpkin and Sage Lasagne, the latter a delicious vegetarian alternative. There are recipes here for soups, salads and desserts, too, plus suggestions for full menus, planning tips and preparation timelines. In all, a lovely inspired book for anyone interested in expanding their own holiday menus.

Here are several recipes from the book.

CROSTINI WITH FIG AND KALAMATA OLIVE TAPENADE
1½ cups finely chopped, dried black mission figs, stems removed
½ cup water
½ cup kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
½ cup pine nuts, toasted (see cook’s note below)
2 tbsps. balsamic vinegar
2 tbsps. small capers, rinsed and blotted dry
1½ tbsps. chopped fresh oregano leaves
½ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Crostini

Place figs and water in small saucepan and bring water to a simmer over medium heat. Cook until the figs are softened and liquid has evaporated, about 7 minutes. Transfer figs to medium bowl. Add olives, pine nuts, vinegar, oil, capers, oregano, salt and pepper. Mix gently to combine. Transfer to a serving bowl, cover and set aside at room temperature for 1 hour to allow flavors to meld. Serve with crostini. Makes 1½ cups.

Cook’s Note: Place small, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When it is hot, but not smoking, add pine nuts. Stirring constantly, toast them for 3 to 5 minutes until nicely browned. Transfer to a plate and set aside to cool.

CROSTINI: Position one rack in centre and one rack in upper third of oven and preheat to 350°F. Cut a baguette into slices, 1/3-inch thick and arrange in a single layer on two baking sheets. Brush lightly on both sides with olive oil. Bake for about 7 minutes until lightly browned on top. Turn slices and switch position of baking sheets. Bake for about 5 minutes longer until the crostini are lightly browned on the second side. They should be crunchy but not brittle. Serve warm or at room temperature. These can be made up to 3 days ahead. Store in airtight container at room temperature. Makes 24.

HONEY AND CHIPOTLE GLAZED SWEET POTATO SPEARS WITH LIME
4 lbs. uniform (medium) sized dark-orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled, cut in half crosswise, then cut into ½-inch wedges
1 tbsp. plus ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tsp. chipotle powder
½ cup honey
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1 tsp. kosher or sea salt

Preheat oven to 400°F. Place sweet potato wedges in large bowl. Coat a large rimmed baking sheet with 1 tbsp. butter and set aside.

In small saucepan over medium heat, melt ½ cup butter. Whisk in chipotle powder, then add honey, lime juice and salt. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly; continue simmering for 3 minutes to meld the glaze.

Pour glaze over sweet potatoes and toss until well coated. Arrange them in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the bowl, drizzling any remaining glaze over the potatoes. Cover pan tightly with aluminum foil. Roast, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove foil and baste potatoes. Continue to baste, basting every 10 minutes, for about 20 minutes longer until tender, nicely browned, and caramelized at the edges. Serve immediately, or keep warm in a low oven for up to 30 minutes. Baste just before serving. Serves 10.

Note: Sweet potatoes can be roasted up to 1 day in advance. Refrigerate, covered, and bring to room temperature 2 hours before reheating for about 12-5 minutes in 350°F oven. Alternatively, they can be roasted up to 4 hours in advance and set aside at room temperature. Reheat before serving, basting with the glaze.

-From The New Thanksgiving Table

I Can Cook . . . Turkey Dinner
By Veena Thompson, self published, 2009, 29 pages; $14.95 plus $4.95 for shipping and handling

This is not your usual cookbook. Instead, Surrey author Veena Thompson has created a unique hand-holding guide for anyone who wants to pull of a full holiday dinner with the perfectly cooked bird as the centrepiece, and all the side dishes that make for a true feast.

I first met Thompson more than 10 years ago when I was Food Editor at The Province. She arrived at our newsroom with a pan full of home-made cinnamon buns and her first cookbook, A Practical Dinner Guide for Real People. She self-published that book, too, and has since sold 1,960 copies of the 2,000 she had printed, so she seems to know what she’s doing.

Fiji-born Thompson is a trained chef currently working as manager of food service for 170 residents at a seniors’ home. She came to a love of cooking at an early age, making her first batch of those fabulous cinnamon buns at age eight. She cooked her first turkey dinner at age 12, so she’s had plenty of practice.

After the release of her first book, Thompson says she received requests to create a guide for novice cooks on how to do a special dinner. “I chose a turkey dinner and I kept the readers’ request in mind with a simple menu. It really is for anyone who is intimidated by the task. Not everyone can get the whole timing thing down while cooking and there are not too many books that can do that. Individual recipes are available but timing is everything for a large dinner.”

Amen to that! As any cook with any experience can tell you, organization and timing are everything, and when you’re faced with preparing half a dozen or more dishes, it’s crucial to do some pre-planning.

Everything you need to know is packed into this slim volume, from cleaning out the fridge to make room for the turkey and other components of the meal (yes, that bird takes up a lot of space!), to equipment you’ll need, to shopping tips, to fully illustrated instructions on how to carve the beast. There’s even a helpful diagram on how to set an elegant table.

The book includes a plasticized shopping list with everything you’ll need to buy when you go grocery shopping for your big meal. And there’s a precisely scheduled list of  what needs to be done on the big day — including a brief nap before your guests arrive — to get your dinner on the table, perfectly cooked and at the appropriate time.

The recipes are fairly simple, which leaves room for substituting your own family favourites. On the menu are roast turkey, sage stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts and mushrooms, corn niblets, glazed carrot sticks french cut green beans and cranberry sauce. To keep things simple, Thompson suggests using frozen corn and green beans and canned cranberries. “It doesn’t have to be completely gourmet to be delicious,” she writes in the book. “Using ready-made items like canned cranberry sauce and frozen vegetables will save time without sacrificing taste. I’ve always used these items when I cook turkey dinner and never had any complaints . . . or anyone brave enough to complain.”

For more information or to order the book, go to http://www.veenacooks.com.