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A Holiday Surprise From Yotam Ottolenghi

It’s a funny time of year. On one hand, we’re expected to kick back and relax — it’s the party season! On the other hand, it’s easy to feel surrounded, hemmed in even by the advice on how to best navigate it all.

This is not a new thing. In fact, we like to think that it’s less of a thing than it used to be, say, 30 or 40 years ago, when hosting a party seemed to be an altogether more straightforwardly formal thing to do. I recently came across an article in The Financial Times that examined hosting etiquette over the years.

The article led me to the 1961 entertainment manual “Hostess,” by Constance Spry, the midcentury florist to Queen Elizabeth II, among others. Along with Rosemary Hume, who provided the recipes for the book, Spry suggests to readers a whimsical preparation for “tomato niçoise.” After first scalding and peeling the tomatoes, aspiring hosts should “Cut a slice off the top, i.e., the rounded end. Carefully scoop out the seeds. Season the inside. Flake the tunny fish, shred the olives, mix together and moisten with French dressing. Season well and fill into the tomatoes.”

5 Holiday Movies to Watch This Season

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‘Falling for Christmas.’ This Netflix holiday romance turns to a classic formula: A blue-collar widower strikes up an improbable romance with a stuck-up heiress betrothed to a cocky himbo. The twist? The heiress, played by Lindsay Lohan, comes down with amnesia after a skiing accident.

‘Something From Tiffany’s.’ The premise of this movie, streaming on Prime Video, is charming. Gary buys his girlfriend, Rachel, a pair of earrings for Christmas. Ethan buys Vanessa, his girlfriend, an engagement ring. After Gary is hit by a car and Ethan comes to his aid, the two unknowingly swap gifts. Hijinks ensue.

‘Scrooge: A Christmas Carol’ Luke Evans, Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley lend their voices to this animated take on the holiday classic streaming on Netflix. The animation waxes psychedelic. The songs, arranged by Jeremy Holland-Smith, often have an auditioning-for-Broadway belt to them.

‘Spirited.’ This Apple TV+ musical film is yet another adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” A disillusioned Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Will Ferrell, helps guide a cynical marketing executive through his Dickensian journey. Along the way, the ghost comes to terms with his own past.

‘The First Noelle.’ This romantic comedy for BET+ follows a book editor named Noelle who tries to win back her ex, after he returns home for Christmas with a new girlfriend, also named Noelle. (The former goes by Noe, while the latter goes by Elle.) When Noe’s boss expresses interest in signing Elle as an author, Noe struggles to balance her love plan with her work aspirations.

Of course, this is back in the days of polishing silver and glasses, devising themed menus, trimming flowers to below eye level. Some hosts even used to go so far as to match their outfits to the food they were serving, minimizing the effects of any spills. All the ways in which pomp and ceremony were injected into a party to make it feel special.

Such formalities seem a long way from today’s party expectations. Today, quite frankly, we feel as if we’re smashing it just by turning up, plunking down and listing all the Netflix series we’ve been watching recently. We don’t even need to say what we think; we just need to list them.

There is something, though, about the image of Spry’s needlessly stuffed tomatoes that stays with me. They make me think that, give or take a few formalities, the spirit hasn’t changed all that much. The thing that those tomatoes have — that all “fun” get-togethers so often have — is that surprise element of “ta-da!” The anticipation, the not knowing what’s inside something, is half the fun.

“Ta-da!” can mean different things to different people, but whatever the occasion, it’s so often there if you look for it. It’s there in the pulling of Christmas crackers or the crumbling of a fortune cookie, to reveal the message or joke inside. It’s there in every red envelope and stocking filled — be it Lunar New Year or Christmas Eve — and every present wrapped. It takes something that could be presented functionally (I knew you needed a new saucepan, so I bought it for you) and makes it surprising and a bit dramatic.

And so, too, with food. Constance Spry did not need to pile what is essentially a salade niçoise into a tomato and put the lid back on it, but the fact that she did brought something special to the table. I’ll be thinking of her stuffed tomato as I drape a layer of pastry over the chunks of squash, sautéed leek, chard, rich cream cheese and tangy feta that I’ll be serving to friends and family this holiday season. All these ingredients work so well together that they don’t need to be in a pie, hidden from view until the first slice reveals all. But doing so means there is a moment of anticipation, of delayed gratification, as the dish is brought to the table. “Ta-da! Look at what’s inside. …”

Introductions won’t be formal, and I can’t promise the flowers will be trimmed to just the right level. I can’t imagine there will be anything as organized as a seating plan, let alone the instruction that anyone sits down ahead of anyone else. But you never know, I might well be wearing my butternut squash-colored sweater to hide all the crumbs that will surely fall, as we all tuck in.

Recipe: Butternut Squash, Leek and Za’atar Pie

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