While Thanksgiving trends toward tradition, Christmas dinner is a tabla rasa for family chefs. Christmas tradition includes anything from prime rib to lamb. Ham is an acceptable choice, as is Thanksgiving turkey revisited. A brunch gathering instead of dinner, or pizza delivery. A buffet spread can trump a sit-down dinner as family members come and go.

And then there's pasta. My Italian heritage is the backbone of my Christmas dinner planning. Christmas is a perfect time for my "signature" lasagna or my Grandma Mary's raviolis and meat sauce &

to this day my favorite meal that dates back to my grandparents' restaurant, The Big 4, in Arcata, Calif.

The endless possibilities make menu planning both fun and challenging. I dove into the project this weekend, visions of culinary delights dancing in my head.

When I was growing up, my grandmother would make a big Sunday dinner whenever we came to visit. That meant an antipasti plate by the barbecue with my Uncle Phil and a big green salad with Big 4 Italian dressing. It also meant raviolis followed by steak. You ate for hours and were stuffed, a pleasant memory I thought about recreating for Christmas.

This year, all four of our kids will be home, but no grandparents are expected. Add in a likely visitor or two, and I could plan for eight, easily seating everyone at the table. So, I decided to go all out, with a four-course, formal candlelight Christmas dinner that combines some Old World Italian, with lighter, modern dishes. I'll even send e-vites to all the kids to set the right mood for the fancy dinner. It will be a nice change from our more casual Christmases of years past.

Menu planning starts with the star of the show. Since it will be fancy affair, I want something a bit different than ravioli and steak, but I want to recapture some of those Italian memories. So I settled on prime rib as the main course and surrounded it with full-flavored Italian sides.

After jotting down some preliminary ideas, I began my research.

Christmas — First Course — — 1999 Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc — Antipasti plates — Sourdough bread with rosemary — infused olive oil



Second course — — 2005 Cakebread Reserve Chardonnay — Orange, radish and mint salad — Classic cioppino "light"



Third course — — Rotisserie Prime Rib with horseradish, garlic glaze — Bacon-braised brussels sprouts — Rissoto al’ Pinot — Calera Selleck Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir, 1988



Fourth Course — — Old World eggnog pie — Molten chocolate tarts



The Food Network's holiday specials are playing around the clock right now, so this weekend I watched several shows looking for ideas. I love the Food Network. Though I rarely follow a recipe, I use the ideas from the cooking shows to jump into new tastes and dishes I wouldn't normally try.

Because I personally want to enjoy the sit-down formal nature of the dinner, I had to choose menu items carefully. I needed dishes that can be done early, or things that will cook "low and slow," as cooking show host Tyler Florence likes to say. Planned carefully, much of the clean up will be done before dinner, and the last-minute preparation is kept to a minimum. With four courses, I'll plan small plates and focus on creative plating and presentation.

The hardest part in any meal preparation is paring down the ideas. For instance, I'm still stuck on three different desserts, which I know we can't possibly eat.

Every year during the holidays, we make Non&

233;'s Nog, my grandmother's Old Country eggnog featuring brandy, Canadian whiskey and rum. It's sinfully good.

But it's too heavy for this menu, plus we always make it at Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. I didn't see how to get in on the menu. But, while watching a holiday show, I saw a recipe for a very simple, chilled eggnog pie. Perfect! I can use None's Nog for the filling, make the pie early and chill it.

I also wanted to make a molten chocolate tart recipe I found in Bon Appetit months ago but haven't yet had a reason to make it. So that's two. But then Saturday night I watched Ina Garten make a pumpkin mousse that looked easy and delicious. Christmas is pumpkin's final hurrah until next fall. What to do, what to do?

The first course was easier than the fourth. Champagne (and apple cider) is a must, a tradition I've shared with the kids on Christmas since they were young. I added a classic antipasti plate that I remembered from my youth, along with crusty bread and olive oil dip. All of this can be prepared and plated a day ahead.

I knew I wanted a fish dish in the second course. Again, inspiration came from a TV show. Giada De Laurentiis made a ciappino that I'll use as a spring board to my own tastes. I'll cut the tomatoes in half and use a light hand on the spices to highlight the natural flavors of the fresh fish. The base of the stew can be done a day ahead and chilled. Just warm it and toss in the fish for a few minutes to get it ready quickly before serving.

Next, I struggled with the decision to roast the prime rib, or use my rotisserie. Roasting allows for a thicker rub and vegetables tossed into the pan to flavor the meat. But the rotisserie has proven to leave the meat the juiciest and most flavorful. Go with your strengths for a big dinner. I chose a simple spice rub on the prime rib, cooked in "the spinner." The last 30 minutes I'll rub a horseradish and garlic glaze on the outside that will caramelize a bit and give the outside a nice crust, leaving the inside pink and juicy.

The raviolis will be too heavy for this already huge meal. But recently, I've been experimenting with risotto. On Sunday morning I watched Napa Valley chef Michael Chiarello make Risotto al' Cabernet, which I quickly added to my list. Except, I'm probably going with Pinot Noir, so I'll call it Risotto al' Pinot. Risotto requires a lot of stirring, but the wine will allow me to mostly cook it early, and keep it moist with the wine, thus minimizing the last-minute cooking during the second course.

For a final plating touch I want to add a green vegetable, but how many times can you cook green beans, broccoli and asparagus? Earlier this week when my wife and I shared a quick dinner at Omar's in town, we had Brussels sprouts for the first time in probably 20 years. I thought I hated them, but well, I'm not a kid any more. They tasted great and a bacon-braised version that gets them in the oven, "low and slow," made my menu.

I spent Sunday afternoon browsing a few more cookbooks, crossing off a couple of ideas and making the final decisions. I perused the wine cabinet for choices to match the special occasion.

Sunday night, Christmas dinner is shaping up into what should be a memorable family time, with food to match.