Here's a compound word destined to make holiday meal planning and seasonal entertaining a gift: takeout. It's working for me, now that I've gotten over my galley-slave guilt and learned to lean on local gourmet takeout sources for the Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza season. You can find everything from tapas to turkey dinners with all the trimmings, and with a few trusty techniques, you can turn those bags and cartons into meals to remember.
As soon as you get the food home, transfer it to your prettiest baking dishes and heat it in the oven. Glorious aromas will soon emanate from your kitchen. Then assemble some stylish serving dishes; now is the time to find that holly-rimmed platter. You would never do this, so I'll say it to your daughter-in-law: Avoid serving takeout with the plastic utensils and paper napkins that come in the bag. It's an uninspired giveaway. Chopsticks, of course, are an exception. Tie them with red ribbon when you place then on a napkin.
And garnish your takeout. Consider paper-thin lemon slices, tiny bouquets of tender fresh basil, sprigs of rosemary, ribbons of parsley, a confetti of minced chives or dill. Once you've properly plated and lavishly decorated your takeout selections, the food becomes a festive product of your own imaginative kitchen and it's ready to be served with a flourish.
Just about any restaurant will prepare meals to take home, of course, but I've confined my prospecting mainly to markets and restaurants with counter cases and a brisk business in takeout.
Let's start with ideas for breakfast and brunch. A ready-made quiche is a lifesaver-great on the breakfast buffet table or for a sit-down luncheon when served with a salad or fruit slices. The quiches at The Broken Egg on Siesta Key (346-2750) are legendary and for good reason. The baker uses French pastry dough and a springform pan to create a quiche that's soufflé light, three inches tall and pretty as a picture. A nine-inch quiche will feed 12 and costs $22. Drop in and take home the quiche-of-the-day from the cold case or phone a day ahead and order a custom one. Choose from bacon, ham, shrimp, veggie-combo, crab, nearly anything you like.
Want a Continental repast? Then compose a tray of savory breads and sweet baked goods from the Sugar Loaf bakery counter at the popular restaurant of the same name on Tamiami Trail in Sarasota (365-0776). Everything fresh every day. The muffins are huge and reasonably priced at $1.50. Try the olive bread or a loaf of the Tuscan white with rosemary. If your tastes are more French, dash into C'est La Vie on Main Street in Sarasota (906-9575) and find flaky croissants, baguettes, brioches, and fruit-stuffed pastries perfect for a fancy breakfast on the terrace. Make sure the coffee is hot and very strong.
The new Panera Bakery-Cafe in the Pavilion Mall at Gulf Gate in Sarasota (924-0800) excels in cranberry scones, pumpkin bagels, strudel, and all kinds of fresh breakfast sweet rolls as well as great fresh loaf bread including a nice focaccia (2.49), three-seed sourdough and a wonderful asiago cheese bread. Panera also has a helpful selection of takeout sandwiches (chips and pickle included) and salads. Prices are reasonable-for example, $1.69 for a scone, $2.49 for a round of focaccia.
For impromptu little luncheons, I like to pick up some gazpacho in the takeout case at Morton's Gourmet Market (955-9856). It's so popular that the little sign above it proclaims "our famous gazpacho." Chef isn't bragging. I made a study of gazpacho in several cities in Spain recently and I'll put Morton's preparation up against any Iberian recipe. A pint is $4.67 and fills two bowls. Serve the gazpacho with a dollop of sour cream and seasoned croutons or do as the Spanish do: Make up little bowls of condiments and pass them around for guests to compose their own cold soup meal. The condiment tray should include some of the following (all minced): hard-boiled egg, cucumber, green pepper, onion, and tomato. A separate bowl of assorted green olives would also be appropriate. And do uncork a bottle of Riojo wine.
Want something more traditional? Any of the sandwiches at the Main Bar on Main Street in Sarasota (955-8733) should satisfy. But if you're only choosing one, it must be their version of an Italian submarine. Cost is about $6. Messy, spicy, with peppers and onions that defy breath mints, this concoction is a local tradition. With chips on the side and a cold beer, you've got a deeply satisfying noonday meal to enjoy on the boat or in the back yard. If you're entertaining out-of-town visitors, tell them they've just eaten a genuine souvenir, a Main Bar sandwich. Order ahead by phone and take someone with you to pick up the sandwiches. One to run in and the other to drive around the block, because you'll never be able to park on the street at lunch time.
A less spicy sandwich that generously feeds 10 can be ordered from any Publix deli counter. Call a day ahead and then pick up the four-foot sub for $40. It comes in a big circle ready to cut and is nicely garnished with greens, olives and pickles. Choose a deluxe ring (several meats and cheeses) or a roast beef, turkey or ham sandwich. If you don't have time to phone ahead but need it now, the old standby lemon pepper rotisserie chicken never disappoints. It's about $6.50 and will serves four if you pick up some vegetable or salad selections from the deli case to pair with the bird.
At Casa Italia on Constitution Avenue in Sarasota (924-1179), you can wander in and leave with luncheon selections such as boxed salads for two of baby octopus or squid ($6.50). There are also jumbo white and dark marinated anchovies (think of the Caesar salad you could make with those monsters), grilled bell peppers, stuffed peppers and all manner of delectable imported Italian meats and cheeses, which can allow you to invite guests to make their own sandwiches or salad plates. This Mediterranean gourmet market/takeout also has an amiable wine cellar.
And now onto dinner. The suppertime takeout choices at Morton's Market are vast. Most come packaged to satisfy one or two people depending upon appetite. I'm partial to the stuffed cabbage rolls (two large ones in a clear pack for $7.49). They're stuffed with meat and rice and simmered in a light tomato-based sauce. Zap in the microwave for about three to four minutes and serve. Other options in the case are stuffed shells, eggplant rollatini, chicken breast with rice and vegetables. The inventory goes on and on.
The owner of the Chicken Pot Pie Company at 6639 Superior Ave. in Gulf Gate Village, Sarasota (929-9893) is Brazilian, so her takeout menu has a Latin flair, meaning you can take home full meals of picadillo, feijoada, and chicken vevica as well as the more familiar herb-roasted pork, lasagna, snapper picatta or hearty beef stew. Each meal comes with two sides and rolls. The average price is $6.95.
But the chicken pot pie is how the business made its enviable reputation. A whole pie ($14) has no filler, just chicken and vegetables. It comes with a container of rich gravy for you to add when serving. Pick up your pie hot, unbaked, or frozen. You make the call. And do take home a bag of frozen cheese rolls to bake in your own oven. These cloud-light yet surprisingly substantial rolls are bigger than a golf ball and smaller than a tennis ball. Be careful not to stock too many (even though they keep for months in the freezer) because you'll swiftly get addicted to the divine taste and texture and that will be just one more thing you'll have to make a New Year's resolution about. The Chicken Pot Pie Company delivers.
For something exotic and authentically ethnic, consider a foray into the Sahara Cafe and Market in Saba Plaza (954-1423 for the café; 316-9541 for the market). One room is the market, with a huge assortment of spices, canned goods, cheeses, olives and other staples, and the adjoining room is the café. Be sure to try the café's stuffed grape leaves and the addictive little falafel balls, made of ground garbanzo beans, parsley, onions and spices. They're both great if you're serving vegetarians, though meat eaters also go crazy over them. Add to your basket some fresh-baked pita bread, a quart of tabouleh (a refreshing minced salad made with bulgur and mint) and containers of humus and baba ghannuj for dipping and spreading. Finally, grab a few orders of Greek salad and some extra feta cheese. Arrange on platters and set it all out on your dining table as a genuine Bethlehem Buffet. Travelers were eating variations of just this kind of Middle Eastern food in Biblical times.
If you have 20 minutes to spend waiting for dinner to make itself, Nanette Galloni, owner of Casa Italia market, has the meal for you. From her freezer case take a six-tube package of manicotti stuffed with ricotta cheese. ($3.75). Then buy a can of Bella Rosa marinara sauce ($2.25). When you get it home, put the pasta in a baking dish, pour sauce on top and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 20 minutes. To serve, sprinkle with parmesan cheese, garnish with parsley and plate it. A field green salad and a bottle of Cecchi Sangiovese De Toscana ($7.49) completes the meal.
As for dessert, with all the options around, I'm not sure why anyone would ever make one at home. The signature dessert at Sugar Loaf is the white chocolate velvet cake. It's a moist sponge cake embellished with alternating layers of white and milk chocolate mousse capped with deep, dark chocolate icing. Take the whole thing home for $24.95 (serves 12) or purchase individual slices. Another good choice from the same takeout case is the triple chocolate mousse, a cake that will take care of a dozen sweet tooths for $24.95. Call ahead to reserve the whole cakes and pies at the bakery or take your chances when you drop in. This bakery/restaurant is open on Christmas Day.
The key lime pie from the Caribbean Pie Company at 2820 Clark Road in Sarasota (926-9399) is always welcome on the dessert menu and makes an especially nice treat for Northern visitors enjoying a tropical Yule. But there are other pies in the takeout case, apple and cherry, chocolate or peanut butter waiting to be whisked away.
French pastries will elevate any takeout meal, so get your sweets where you can also pick up Beluga caviar, chestnuts, goose liver pate, and glossy terrines that are velvety rich inside. The place is French Affair at 2637 Mall Drive in Sarasota (925-3414). This award-winning restaurant/catering company stocks a wonderful dessert case full of fruit tarts, Napoleons, eclairs, and French cakes, chocolate mousse and creme brulée.
At this time of the year, the French Affair pastry chef makes his traditional French Yule log in chocolate or mocha. The logs start at six inches and grow to suit the size of your dinner party. Order ahead or take your chances when you drop in. And do select a few cheeses for your European dessert experience and a bottle of dessert wine. The French Affair is a reliable place to purchase wine because the selection is varied, the advice is good and the prices are reasonable. When you get home, whip out the doilies, a round silver pastry tray and know that even Martha Stewart would bless your holiday cleverness.
HOLIDAY EMERGENCY KIT
Make sure you keep these choices in your pantry or freezer for impromptu cocktail parties and at-home holiday cheer.
- Large can of mixed nuts
- Cheeses: cheddar, brie, chevre, whatever. Also, put aside a couple packs of that flavorless sliced American cheese. Almost all little children will eat a grilled cheese sandwich, but they like the mild cheeses. If you're catering to kids over the holidays, lay in a few boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and a box of Cheerios which tykes will enjoy dry as a snack or with milk as breakfast cereal.
- Deli olives, black and green. Kash 'N Karry now has a really nice olive section with at least a half dozen varieties. Another reliable olive source is the Sahara Market. And Casa Italia is olive paradise.
- Crackers, including my new best friend, Perel cuisine dipping crackers. They're made by a company in San Rafael, California, which produces wine-inspired foods such as Cabernet Sauvignon fudge and Zinfandel orange mustard. Shaped like grape leaves, the wheat crackers are slightly bowl-shaped so that spread or dip stays in the center with less chance of spills from tray to mouth. A box retails for about $4 and can be found at Morton's Market, The Butcher Block on 17th Street in Sarasota and at Michael's Wine Cellar at Midtown Plaza in Sarasota.
- Spreads and dips: Transfer from the plastic container into one of your pretty holiday bowls. The salmon spread at Morton's is mild and satisfying. Horseradish and bacon has more bite. All the patés and terrines at French Affair are worth taking home.
- Snack mix: There are several blends in varying degrees of spiciness and Pepperidge Farm makes pretty good ones. Many hosts choose blends that omit peanuts because of allergy possibilities. You can buy huge bags economically at Sam's or B.J.'s clubs.
- Olive bread from Sarasota Bread Company at Southgate Plaza. This bread is great the way it is for sandwiches or for making your own crostini to serve with cocktails.