Entertaining: Trees


Planning to chop down your own Christmas tree this year? Take a page from this family’s playbook and hold a tailgate picnic.

Megan Panson and her three sisters can turn just about any occasion into an excuse for a party.

Like getting a Christmas tree. Each December, the four women and their families pile into cars and head out to a Christmas tree farm in the foothills for a day of fun, capped off with a tailgate lunch.

“Our family is food-obsessed,” Panson explains. “We get together frequently, and food is always part of the deal.”

Their annual tree excursion is the epitome of easy entertaining. On a Sunday morning in mid-December, the sisters, along with their husbands and children (11 of them, ranging in age from 4 to 12), meet at a Sacramento cafe for coffee, then caravan up Highway 50 to a cut-your-own tree farm in Apple Hill.

While the cousins run off into the woods, their parents hide candy canes for the kids to find. Then they get down to business, searching for the perfect trees. After each family has cut down a tree, they’ve all worked up an appetite. “The kids are usually starving,” Panson observes.

The adults break out picnic hampers and set up a staging area from the back of one sister’s SUV. Everyone pitches in to produce food for the feast, so no one is stuck with all the work. While Panson covers a wooden picnic table with a cheery holiday tablecloth, sister Greta Garverick (a caterer) brings out a platter of cheeses and a simple hors d’oeuvre: pear slices topped with goat cheese and wrapped in prosciutto. Another sister, Sheila Condon, supplies tomato-and-mozzarella sandwiches for the grown-ups while brother-in-law Rick Alfaro (married to sister Amy) serves up a family favorite: homemade tortilla soup, ladled piping hot from a thermos into mugs.

The kids, meanwhile, grab turkey-and-cheese sandwiches cut into star shapes (perfect for little hands). For dessert, there are home-baked goodies—iced buttermilk sugar cookies, gingerbread men and brownie bites—along with hot chocolate and warm apple cider to take away the chill.

After the meal, the grown-ups watch while the kids toss around a football. Finally, as the afternoon shadows lengthen, they climb back into their cars for the trip home.

All the while, grandmother Sue Whetstone watches the festivities with an indulgent eye. “This is a fun way for us all to get together,” she says.

Tortilla Soup

1    tablespoon olive oil
1    large yellow onion, chopped
1    4-ounce can diced
    green chilies
1    teaspoon chili powder
1    teaspoon cumin
1    large garlic clove, chopped
1/2    teaspoon dried oregano
1/4    teaspoon cayenne pepper
6    cups chicken stock or canned chicken or vegetable broth
1    16-ounce can diced tomatoes
3    large carrots, peeled and diced
1    cup frozen corn
3    large zucchini, diced
1/3    cup chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper
1    cup vegetable oil
1    package white or yellow corn tortillas, cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips
11/3    cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add chilies, chili powder, cumin, garlic, oregano and cayenne pepper. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the stock, tomatoes and their juices and carrots and simmer until carrots are tender. Add corn and zucchini and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in cilantro and season with salt and pepper to taste.

While the soup is simmering, heat the vegetable oil in a large saucepan over moderately high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Fry the tortilla strips in batches until crisp, about 30 to 45 seconds, and transfer them with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Season with salt.

Ladle the soup into mugs and garnish with a generous handful of cheese and tortilla strips. Serves 10.


Tailgating Tips 

Many hands make light work: Divvy up the workload by asking everyone to bring a dish.

Presentation counts: Dining outdoors doesn’t mean you have to rough it. Serve sandwiches on a pretty platter and soup in ceramic mugs. For a touch of home, bring along a festive holiday tablecloth, cloth napkins and real wine glasses.

Some like it hot: Soup, cider, coffee and cocoa are great antidotes to chilly December temperatures. To keep soup and drinks hot, transport them in thermos bottles.

Iced Buttermilk Sugar Cookies

5    cups flour
2    rounded teaspoons
    baking powder
1    teaspoon baking soda
1/2    teaspoon salt
2    cups sugar
1    cup Crisco
2    eggs
1    cup buttermilk
1    teaspoon vanilla extract

Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl, beat together the sugar and Crisco with an electric mixture. Beat in the eggs, buttermilk and vanilla extract. Reduce speed to low and add the flour mixture, mixing until just combined. Form the dough into two balls and refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to 1/4-inch thick. Cut out cookies with cookie cutters and place on ungreased baking sheets, arranging cookies about 1 inch apart. Bake until edges are golden, about 10 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool. Once completely cooled, frost with icing. Makes 5 dozen cookies.


6    tablespoons butter
41/2    cups powdered sugar
1/4    cup milk
11/2    teaspoon vanilla extract
Food coloring

Place butter, powdered sugar, milk and vanilla extract in a large bowl and mix with a hand mixer until blended. Tint with food coloring.

Let icing on cookies dry completely, about 1 hour, before storing.