How to start off Christmas dinner right

Hot, crispy potatoes; crunchy nuts; and a festive cocktail to serve with them both.
(Dylan + Jeni/For the Times; prop styling by Kate Parisian)

When I entertain friends at my home, I want them to walk in the door and immediately feel like they never want to leave. That’s especially true for Christmas dinner. By the time guests show up, they should hear music on the stereo and the sound of ice rattling in a cocktail shaker. My partner hands them a cocktail, and everyone immediately is directed to the appetizers.

Because I know guests often show up starving to a dinner party, Christmas or not, I always have at least one thing that can be made ahead and sitting there when they arrive. Olives and cheese are great, but for Christmas — and with a cold drink — I want some spiced nuts. I keep it classic with a mix of almonds, cashews, pecans and walnuts — you could also just buy the tin of “deluxe” mixed nuts — and coat them in maple syrup, chile flakes and lots of salt. I shower them with fresh rosemary halfway through baking to keep the flavor of the herb from getting too toasted in the oven. Once out, they get another showering of flaky sea salt over the top. I like the mixed nuts to be heavily savory to wake up my guests’ taste buds, pair well with a sweet(-er-than-usual) drink and shake off any chill there might be in the Southern California air.

For that drink, I typically go with eggnog because to me, the nutmeg screams “holiday!” On a recent visit to Atrium restaurant in Los Feliz, though, I drank a fantastic holiday-time cocktail that drinks like eggnog, milk punch and a Manhattan combined but is lighter and more spirit-forward. Called Your Place, or Mine?, it’s a cheeky cocktail from beverage director Amy Koffsky that combines whiskey with almond milk, orgeat, maple syrup and chocolate bitters. A float of Scotch whisky keeps the sweetness in check perfectly, and an orange twist and fresh grating of nutmeg nails the holiday vibe.

Once everyone is chomping on nuts and sipping their drinks, I like to surprise them with something really hot, really salty and not at all what they were expecting. At regular dinners, that might be a socca served piping hot from the oven for guests to tear at while it burns their fingers (in a fun way). But for Christmas this year, it’s English roast potatoes. They’re the kind that are parboiled, drained and then roughed up a bit in the pot to create lots of craggy edges that, when fried, cook up exceedingly crunchy. But instead of deep-frying them, I heat some duck fat in a roasting pan and then topple in the potatoes. Shallow-fried in the oven, they’re hands off and cook through to a pillowy interior with a crackling-like outside.


Once they’re ready, I drain them briefly and then run them out to my guests on a platter and serve them like knobbly French fries alongside a platter of chilled celery sticks, cucumber spears and fennel wedges so people can chase the steaming-hot potatoes with a cooling, crunchy-water vegetable. And to go with both temperatures, I make a rich sour cream dip flavored like Caesar salad. Minced anchovies, Worcestershire sauce and garlic imbue the sour cream with a warming savoriness that complements that of the potatoes or contrasts beautifully with the cold crunch of the veggies.

Once everyone has had a few potatoes and handfuls of nuts, the hunger pangs subside. Now’s the time to catch up on life and settle in for the big dinner later in the evening.

Fried Potatoes and Crudité With Caesar Sour Cream

Time2 hours, mostly unattended
YieldsServes 8 to 10

Classic Spiced Nuts with Rosemary

Time40 minutes
YieldsServes 8 to 10

Your Place, or Mine?

Time5 minutes
YieldsMakes 1 cocktail

This article is part of cooking columnist Ben Mims’ Christmas menu story for 2021.