Merry + Bright

Some couples like to labor over their holiday dinner — waking at 5 a.m. to dress the goose, constructing elaborate hors d'oeuvres, deglazing sauces by hand. Natalie van Dijk Carpenter and her husband, Curt Carpenter, have cooked up another way to celebrate. As owners of Lekker-Unique Home Furnishings in the South End's burgeoning SoWa (South of Washington) section, the Carpenters often barely have time to eat, let alone slave over a meal. They've found a secret to holiday entertaining — one that's no less personal, intimate, or fun.

“We put our friends to work,” says Natalie, a hint of accent revealing her upbringing in the Netherlands. “Our friends in the neighborhood are unusually talented, so putting them in charge of one area — in this case, the food and the flowers — keeps everything stress free.”

It helps when your friends include a world-class chef. Since moving to the South End four and a half years ago and opening Lekker a few blocks away, the young couple has become close to Barbara Lynch, who owns, in addition to the acclaimed No. 9 Park, the South End's more casual B & G Oysters and the Butcher Shop. “Curt and Natalie are in the Butcher Shop a couple of times a week,” says Lynch. “And I'm in Lekker a lot. When you're just right around the corner from someone, you get to know each other fast.”

So when the Carpenters decided to host a casual holiday dinner party in their cozy third-floor condo, they got together with Lynch to dream up the perfect early winter menu. Lynch's husband, Charlie Petri, offered to shake up the cocktails, while another friend, Jon Mongeau, (owner of Artemisia floral studio) volunteered to bring fresh flowers. “We almost always want to go for the most unpretentious, but still sophisticated, gatherings possible,” Natalie says. “That's how we wind up having the best celebration.”

That balance of sophistication and unpretentiousness was, in fact, one of the main reasons the Carpenters got to know some of their guests in the first place. “I really think we all share a kind of view of living,” says Natalie, clearing off space on the long teak table that will seat everyone later. Lighting candles on top of a Chinese armoire the couple snagged for themselves from Lekker's furniture collection, Curt chimes in: “Barbara is just such an unpretentious person. We met last fall, right before she opened the Butcher Shop. She came into Lekker one day, looking for serving platters for the restaurant. And cool as can be, she picks up a serving dish and says, 'Hey I like this a lot. I want 40 of everything. How fast can you get it here?'”

Lynch's take on the neighborhood ethos echoes that. “Just because something is relaxed doesn't mean it shouldn't be excellent quality,” says the chef who is equally famous for highbrow dishes like prune-stuffed gnocchi (at No. 9 Park) and simple fixings like steak tartare and top-quality hot dogs (at the Butcher Shop). When she opened the Butcher Shop, Lynch says, she “wanted a friendly place for people to just hang out, have a drink and snack.” In other words, a neighborhood restaurant in the truest sense.

The Carpenters aim for the same feeling of down-to-earth sophistication at their store. Lekker (“enticing” in Dutch) is a carefully edited collection of sleek plates, minimalist flatware, and handmade pillows from Holland, mixed with hand-carved Chinese tables and cabinets. “The Dutch are historically world travelers,” says Natalie, who was raised in Amsterdam before moving to New York, where she worked for Ralph Lauren Home. “So there you always find funkier modern pieces in a room next to furniture from the Far East and Indonesia. The more international pieces warm up the modern things, and the modern things keep everything else from getting too stuffy.”

It's a philosophy that extends to the Carpenters' home. The high-ceilinged, two-bedroom condo the couple bought and renovated four years ago is a streamlined mix of dark woods and contemporary accessories the couple has either bought while traveling or received as gifts. Behind the dining table hangs a painting of a gigantic red pear — a wedding present made for Natalie and Curt by an artist friend.

The neighborhood, with its small boutiques and specialty food shops, provides its own inspiration for holiday gatherings. “Our little street reminds me of Amsterdam and Europe — you know, independent shops, no high-rise buildings, and everybody helps each other out,” Natalie says.

As if to prove this point, Lynch calls Natalie over to inspect the roast duck she's just pulled from the oven. The two worked together to design a menu filled with Lynch's favorite ingredients and traditional Dutch foods of Natalie's childhood holidays (such as a predinner plate of Gouda with grainy mustard). Mongeau, meanwhile, is tucking bits of pine into an arrangement of white hydrangea. The Carpenters have brought out long white serving plates — the same kind Lynch uses at the Butcher Shop — and red crystal glasses to add some more festivity. Lynch and Natalie agree on the serving plan as another friend, Claire Hilbrand, arrives.

When it suddenly starts snowing halfway through the cocktails, Curt announces it's time to take an impromptu trip to the roof deck. Without ceremony, the group makes the trek up one flight, drinks in hand. Part snowball fight, part chilly al fresco cocktail interlude, the break gives everyone the chance to make another toast and survey the neighborhood.

It's hard to imagine more formal dinner parties being so spontaneous. “See, this is what I mean,” says Natalie: “Keep things casual, and everyone feels relaxed enough to really enjoy themselves.”

Braised endive

Serves four to six

3             heads endive, sliced in half lengthwise
1             teaspoon olive oil
2             sticks of butter
1 /2             cup brown sugar
1 /2             cup chicken stock
salt and pepper

Put olive oil and endive in a skillet and cook over medium heat for about three minutes. Add sugar and butter and cook over low heat until the mixture begins to brown. Add chicken stock and salt and pepper. Continue to cook until the stock is reduced to about half a teaspoon.

Chestnut Gnocchi

Serves 10

3            large russet potatoes peeled and quartered
1             egg
1 /2             cup chestnut flour
1             cup all-purpose flour
1             stick of butter
2             cups fresh chanterelles
2             whole shallots, peeled and minced
1             cup chicken stock
4             sprigs of fresh thyme
2             tablespoons crème fraîche
salt and pepper

1. For gnocchi: Boil potatoes with 2 tablespoons salt until tender. Drain and push the potatoes through a ricer.

2. Place cooled potatoes on a floured surface. Make a well in the center and add beaten egg and some salt, then sprinkle with both kinds of flour. With hands, knead flour and egg into potatoes.

3. Portion dough into four parts and roll each into a rope three-quarters of an inch wide. Cut into half-inch sections and roll each piece into a ball. Use fork to make indentations. Freeze until ready to cook.

4. For the sauce: Over medium heat, add butter and sauté chanterelles until tender. Add shallots and chicken stock and reduce to three-quarters of a cup. Add the thyme and crème fraîche and serve over boiled gnocchi.

Whole roast duck stuffed with foie gras and Armagnac prunes

Serves four to six

2             cups Armagnac

15           dried prunes, cut in half

2             tablespoons olive oil

2 1 /2      pounds of foie gras lobes

1             tablespoon butter

2             sprigs of fresh thyme

2             whole shallots, peeled and sliced

1             whole duck, boned

1. Heat Armagnac about 4 minutes. Pour over the prunes and let steep overnight, then pour off the excess liquid and reserve.

2. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to sauté pan and season foie gras with salt and pepper. Add to hot pan and sear. Add 1 tablespoon of butter, thyme, and shallots and baste 3 minutes on each side, forming a golden crust. Let the foie gras cool.

3. Slice the foie gras down the middle, about three-quarters of the way through, and stuff it with the prunes. Place it in the center of the duck and tie it all together with butcher's twine, making sure to secure the foie gras in the center. Sear the duck in a hot pan over medium heat, about 4 minutes for each side. Finish in the oven at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes. Slice widthwise into half-inch slices and serve with braised endive.

Paris-brest with frangipane and winter fruit compote

Serves four to six

For the pâte brisée

2             cups flour

2             tablespoons sugar

1 /2             teaspoon sea salt

1             cup butter, cubed and chilled

1 /2             cup ice water

1             egg

1. Mix dry ingredients with butter until butter is size of small beans. Add ice water. Mix to combine, but do not overmix. Chill dough for 30 minutes.

2. Divide dough in half. Roll each half into two rounds, about a quarter-inch thick. With a round cutter, make circles, then use smaller cutter to cut another circle
in the middle of each disc, leaving a rim two inches wide. Brush with egg wash and bake at 325 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes.

For the winter fruit compote

1 1 / 4     cups amaretto

1           vanilla bean

1 /2        cup dried chopped prunes

1 /2            cup dried chopped apricots

1 /2             cup dried halved apples

Bring the amaretto and the vanilla bean to a boil. Remove from heat, add the fruit, steep for one hour, and remove bean.

For the frangipane

4             cups milk

10             tablespoons flour

12             tablespoons sugar

12             egg yolks

1             whole vanilla bean

4             tablespoons butter

6             finely crushed Italian macaroons                  

1             tablespoon amaretto

1. Scald the milk. Combine yolks, vanilla bean, flour, and sugar, and temper with milk. Return to heat and cook until thick. Do not boil.

2. Add butter. Strain mixture through a chinoise. Cover with plastic. When cool, fold in macaroons and amaretto.

To assemble

When pâte brisée is cool, place one disc on platter. Pipe frangipane filling around the rim. Top with the other disc so it looks like a doughnut. Fill center with warm fruit compote and dust with powdered sugar. Serve with crème fraîche or whipped cream.