Holiday parties can be lavish affairs fraught with the anxiety for the host. Kerry Mills, an art history professor at Mary Baldwin College, avoids all that by asking her guests to bring something that's a part of their own family's tradition.
"I think there's a level of community when you do it that way that doesn't exist if I do it all myself," she says.
Children aren't just welcome, but encouraged, or, as some parents might point out, enticed. Mills always has a project for them, like decorating cookies, that's not only fun, but gives the grown-ups space to talk and catch up with old friends. "The kids have a blast and we can actually eat!" Mills says.
One of the best parts of being a guest at Mills' house is the way her musician husband, Pippin Barnett, and friends Barry Bless, Nick Lewis and Dave Yohe — otherwise known as the Happy Lucky Combo — can turn an already hopping party into an outright throw-down.
"People always tell me, ‘Kerry, every time I come to your house for one of your parties, it feels like home.' " And that, to her and her family, is the most important thing of all.
Shrimp Fra Diavalo
Mills and Barnett serve this every Christmas Eve.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
40 shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup white wine (not cooking wine), plus 2 cups more reserved
8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
4 shallots, peeled and chopped
2 32-ounce cans of San Marzano tomatoes
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, plus 1/2 teaspoon more reserved
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 pound linguini
- Put water on to boil for the pasta. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shrimp, spreading them evenly over the bottom of the pan. Add 1/2 cup white wine, then half of the chopped garlic and 1/4 teaspoon of crushed red pepper. Stir gently. Cook the shrimp until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Transfer the shrimp (leaving the liquid in the pan) to a bowl for later.
- Add the rest of the garlic and the shallots to the pan liquid. Cook until soft. Add the tomatoes, one can at a time, the remaining 2 cups wine and oregano. Add salt and pepper to taste. Let this simmer (uncovered), stirring once in a while until the sauce is thickens, about 25 minutes.
- While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta in a large pot with plenty of salt until al dente. Before draining, reserve a half cup of the pasta water.
- In a large, shallow bowl, add the sauce, parsley, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, the pasta and the half cup of reserved pasta water. Toss to mix well. Arrange the shrimp on the top, and let sit a minute for the shrimp to warm up. Serves 4 to 6 .