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A Carefree Christmas

December 17, 1987|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

The weeks for preparation have dwindled down to a few days, and, as Christmas approaches, careful planning becomes the key to enjoying the wonders of the season . . . and a relatively carefree, delicious meal.

With the holidays just beginning to cruise in high gear, this is the time to decide on a menu for Christmas dinner. In just a day or two, most of us will begin counting the hours instead of the days left until the big day. It's enough to make you wonder why you ever thought the holidays could be fun.

So beat the system. Snag a few quiet moments for yourself right now and do some realistic figuring. Just how much time are you honestly going to have to spend in the kitchen preparing the celebration meal? Trying to cook and set up the holiday table while answering the door and the telephone and visiting with welcome but inconvenient visitors can turn what should be a happy occasion into a nightmare. Christmas is supposed to be joyous, but if you're disorganized, it quickly will become onerous.

Also, be realistic about how much help you're going to have from other family members or friends. It's wonderful to want to prepare everything with your own talented hands, but not at Christmas. There are too many other things going on.

If you can arrange to do the meat portion of the menu yourself and parcel out the rest of the meal for others to prepare in their own, less chaotic kitchens, fine. Just be sure to assign vegetable side dishes, salads, breads and desserts that travel well to whomever can do them best. Speak up now and ask for help from whomever will be joining you. That way everybody--even you--will enjoy both the wonders of the day and a delicious meal.

The first step in organizing a relatively carefree holiday menu is to decide what the piece de resistance will be. Then you can suggest portable accompaniments that will be compatible. You can, of course, again opt for turkey as the focal point of the celebration meal, but why not branch out a bit. There are other easy-to-prepare meats that will make life a little easier to face at the last minute.

A standing beef rib roast always is a winner at Christmas. But so are other red meat roasts. A full cut leg of lamb is easy to do and looks very festive when accompanied by a rich Tabbouleh, a bulgur-based Middle Eastern salad flavored with mint leaves, cucumbers and other diced vegetables.

Still another good main dish choice is pork tenderloin. Roast enough tenderloins to serve the number being fed and serve them thinly sliced with a tangy green peppercorn sauce. If you're lucky enough to have any leftovers, any or all of these meats will make wonderful snacks and sandwiches when hunger pangs strike again.

Whether you choose to try one of these suggestions or settle for an old family favorite, don't delay making the decision on what your menu will be. Then you'll have plenty of time for the real worries of the holiday, such as whether Aunt Mabel's present will arrive on time--or, for that matter, whether Aunt Mabel herself will arrive on time.

STANDING RIB ROAST

1 (4- to 5-rib) standing beef rib roast

1 to 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

Salt, pepper

Flour

Yorkshire Pudding

Cumberland Sauce

Horseradish Cream

For easier carving have butcher loosen chine bone by sawing across ribs and then tying roast. Rub beef with Dijon mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle outside fat with flour and pat lightly.

Place rib roast, fat side up, on rack in open roasting pan. Insert meat thermometer so bulb is centered in thickest part of roast. (Do not add water and do not cover.)

Roast at 325 degrees to desired degree of doneness. Remove from oven, place in warm spot and cover lightly with large piece of foil when thermometer registers 135 degrees for rare, 155 degrees for medium, 165 for well done. Let stand 15 to 20 minutes before carving. (Since roast continues to cook during standing time, internal temperature usually rises approximately 5 degrees, reaching 140 degrees for rare, 160 degrees for medium and 170 degrees for well done.)

Transfer roast to serving or carving platter with largest end down to form solid base. Garnish as desired and serve with meat juices.

To carve, insert fork between two top ribs. Starting on fat side, carve across grain to rib bone. Use tip of sharp knife to cut along rib bone to loosen slice. Be sure to keep close to bone to make largest serving possible. Slide knife back under slice and steadying with fork, lift slice to side of platter. If platter is not large enough, place slices on additional heated platter.

Serve beef with Yorkshire Pudding, Cumberland Sauce and Horseradish Cream. Allow 1/3 to 1/2 pound per serving.

Yorkshire Pudding

3 eggs

3/4 cup milk

1 1/2 cups flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup water

Hot beef drippings or melted butter

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