Archives for Celebrations, Holidays, & Entertaining

Post-Christmas sale items that can be helpful for future gift giving

I enjoy giving two types of gifts and often I can find at least some of the items necessary to give these types of gifts on discount during post-Christmas sales. The first is the personal gift, which is often representational of the shared history between the recipient and myself. These are the gifts I’ll eventually give to my closest friends and relatives, so I hunt for these items all year long, irrespective of the sale season.

The second type of gift, which I give far more often, are homemade food goodies. These treats are individually wrapped up in bags or boxes then decorated with little touches of festive color to create visual interest. Over the years I’ve made cookies, fudge, chocolate covered pretzels, peppermint bark, and spiced nuts in both salty and sweet varieties. Some of these are shipped to family members in other states, which is why most of my creations are slow-to-perish.

Sending these types of gifts is also cost effective and versatile. I primarily buy my containers cheaply after Christmas and in large quantities — I’ll browse places like The Container Store for any specialty jars I might need in the coming year. Finding recipients for these gifts never seems to be a problem for me. Who would turn down tasty treats in pretty wrapping? This makes them incredibly handy for spreading extra cheer when I unexpectedly want to give a gift.

When the times comes to use the jars or bags or whatever supplies I found on discount after Christmas, I’ll use them throughout they year on one of these treats:

  • I’m a fan of the highly addictive Spiced Nuts. Recipes like these are great for adaptation as well, so feel free to make your own substitutions. (And, obviously, don’t give them to anyone who is allergic to nuts.)
  • You can also use Martha Stewart’s Spiced Nuts recipe as a base for other flavors. You can mix up the spices to suit your taste, producing nearly infinite variations. You could also grab the biggest mixing bowl you own and whip up a double batch of just the nuts, salt, sugar, and egg whites to create a base-mixture for further seasoning after individually dividing it into additional bowls. This year I have been using almonds with smoked paprika, cumin, and allspice.
  • Gingerbread Cookies, Brigadeiros, Golden Rugalach — I like to keep my cookies as small as possible since larger cookies are harder to package. Bigger cookies also break easier than small ones when shipped.
  • Vanilla Sugar — This sugar recipe is so simple you’ll wonder why you haven’t made it yet. In my opinion vanilla sugar is best used as a wonderfully easy way to add sweetness and depth to a morning cup of black tea.
  • Holiday Pretzel Treats — For the younger gift recipients, these little pretzel treats get devoured thanks to lots of gorgeous color from the M&M candy centers.

I prefer to keep everything handmade when it comes to my non-edible gifts as well. This great list from getrichslowly.org is bursting with inspirational gift ideas to help come up with the perfect personalized present. The craft section on marthastewart.com has a wealth of great ideas too.

What kind of gift giver are you? Is your kitchen a bustling factory of edible treats? I’d love to hear what gift package experiences you’ve had and where you find deals to stock up on gift-giving supplies.

Pre-Thanksgiving link round up

We’re a little overwhelmed by all the Thanksgiving cooking talk. Instead of rehashing our version of how to create the Thanksgiving meal, we’ve decided to share with you some of our favorite links for the big day — and a number of non-Thanksgiving links, to help you keep your sanity. Happy turkey day!

  • Cook’s Illustrated has put together a Survival Guide to get you through making a gigantic Thanksgiving meal.
  • This Sweet Potato and Marshmallow Biscuit recipe from Smitten Kitchen made our mouth water just looking at the images.
  • Using a slow cooker for some of your side dishes can be a great and simple way to save time (and energy) in the kitchen. Check out The New York Times’ guide to “Which sides can be adapted for a slow cooker.” This is nice even for non-Thanksgiving meals.
  • I haven’t tried it, but Michael Ruhlman’s Roasted Braised Turkey recipe looks amazing.
  • Now on with some non-Thanksgiving links: The internet sure knows how to eat! Some tasty recipes end up as trendy sensations when they gain popularity through word of mouth (and stomach). Saveur magazine takes a look at eight great recipes that rocked the internet, including the swoon-worthy butter and onion tomato sauce.
  • As the weather cools down my taste buds remember crisp Octoberfest evenings where I’ve happily munched fatty bratwursts and drippy saurkraut, then washed it all down with some delicious Spaten beer. Why not relive Octoberfest 2011 with this simply wonderful mustard-glazed red cabbage with apple from Serious Eats?
  • Does your kitchen have a corner cabinet that never seems to work well for storage? Why not try this useful organizing idea for your pots and pans to transform that poorly used space into something wonderful?

Be brave! Make a fancy cake

For my son’s first birthday last year, I made this:

If you aren’t familiar with the children’s television show Dinosaur Train on PBS, this is what the cake is supposed to resemble:

I started by baking a standard chocolate cake in a set of Wilton Choo-Choo Train cake pans a day before my son’s birthday. I poured the batter into one side of the cake pan, put the second pan on top, tied the two pans together with cooking twine, and baked the cake a little longer than the recipe recommended (roughly 7 to 10 minutes more). Once finished, I took the pans out of the oven and let everything cool.

The next day, I took the cake out of the pans, carefully set it on a cardboard cake circle and turntable, and decorated it with icing using a star tip. I bought the icing at my local grocery store, and my star tip attached directly to the tube.

I had never decorated a cake before that day, so it took me three hours to get all of the icing onto the cake. It wasn’t difficult, but I did have to continually reference the image I’d printed of the train from the internet. I had considered making miniature Buddy and Tiny characters out of fondant icing (the way they do on all the fancy cake shows), but since it took me so long to ice the cake, I just put some dinosaur figures on the turntable and called it done.

Honestly, I was incredibly surprised by how simple the cake was to make. Sure, it took some time, but it wasn’t hard like I thought it might be. And, when I did mess up, I just wiped off the mistake with the tip of a butter knife and redid the area. If you’ve wanted to make a fancy birthday cake but were nervous to try, I suggest going for it. Worst case scenario, you’ll get a funny story out of the experience and rush to your local bakery to buy a replacement. Best case scenario, you’ll get an amazing cake.

Customizable braised chicken lettuce wraps

Living in an RV means I don’t get to entertain guests very often. At the most, I’ve had a total of four people at once in my little home on wheels. However, it’s hard to ignore the joy I feel when I can help create a happy atmosphere of good food, kickin’ tunes, and drinks to keep the party going. A few weeks ago, I got to cook for a little get together at my friend’s place in Phoenix, using their kitchen to prepare dinner. I brought most of my own ingredients and the evening ended with wide smiles and full bellies.

Some concepts about entertaining began to flower in my head after that night, which is also where I got the idea to write about simplified menu construction for parties. Here are some more tips which have sprouted from that experience.

  • Get your guests involved and speed up the prep of vegetables by asking for help. Assuming you know your guests, it shouldn’t be too tough to round up some assistance. Using your own knife and cutting board first, demonstrate the size, shape, and cutting technique that your helper can copy. Give them a knife and cutting board and watch how quickly the prep gets done.
  • Demonstrate a technique or cooking process, stopping at important parts to show guests what’s going on in your pan. Talk about how you like to develop flavors in your cooking and what ingredient combinations you’ve enjoyed lately. Encourage guests to share as well.
  • Let guests taste as you go to whet their appetites and build anticipation for the finished product.
  • Create a meal with plenty of personal customizations so your guests can build exactly what they want. Recipes like tacos, fajitas, or lettuce wraps are all perfect for this because you can include a wide assortment of additions for endless adaptations.

This last point is directly related to the dinner I created for my friends a few weeks ago, which was when I put together some braised chicken lettuce wraps. I wanted to create a super moist and flavorful chicken filling with lots of optional additions to make the wraps customizable.

I accomplished this by including little bowls of diced cucumber, tomato, sliced green olives, and some hummus I whipped up earlier using a modified version of Erin’s recipe. My friends provided some of their own additional condiments as well, like some Sambal Oelek (a spicy chile and garlic sauce) which gave the wraps a welcome kick. The customizable nature of the wraps let us try different amounts of each ingredient which is something we all loved.

Braised Chicken Lettuce Wraps

(makes roughly 15 – 20 wraps)

  • 3 tsp coriander seed
  • 3 tsp cumin seed
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp pepper
  • 1 whole chicken, skin removed and cut into eight pieces (or 4 leg portions separated into drumsticks and thighs)
  • 2 tsp canola oil
  • 1/3 cup water or chicken broth
  • 1 head butter lettuce, washed and separated into individual leaves
  • 2 cups hummus
  • 1 1/2 cups diced cucumber
  • 1 1/2 cups diced tomato
  • 1 cup sliced green olives

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

Toast the coriander and cumin over medium high heat in a pan until fragrant (about two minutes) then transfer to a coffee grinder and pulse until powdery. Mix this with the salt and pepper then rub into the chicken pieces.

Heat a dutch oven over medium heat on a stove burner and add 1 tsp canola oil. Cook chicken pieces in two batches until each side is golden brown (roughly four minutes per side, flipping once), using more oil as needed. If using a whole chicken, cut into pieces, arrange dark meat as the bottom layer of the dutch oven, then add white meat on top. No specific layering is needed if you are only using leg portions. Add the water or broth, cover, than transfer to the oven. Allow to braise for 45 minutes, or until chicken is falling off the bone.

Meanwhile, gather and arrange all other ingredients using individual bowls, lining them up for easy lettuce wrap assembly. Leave a space at the beginning of the line for the chicken when it comes out of the oven.

When chicken is done, transfer it to a cold plate and roughly break apart the largest pieces using two forks. When it has cooled enough to touch, use your fingers to remove and discard bones and cartilage while further breaking up the meat. Return meat to dutch oven with braising liquid and place with the other lettuce wrap ingredients. Enjoy with friends.

Simplified menu construction for parties

Ever been to a dinner gathering where some friends cook and you can choose what you want from a menu that they’ve created? I seriously love this kind of party. Back in the day, a friend of mine prepared and served up made-to-order sushi for guests at a New Years Eve party. Along with great drinks and a wonderful atmosphere, the occasion was made extra special by those little printed menus and his simple but beautiful food presentations. Giving guests an option seems to keep everyone happy.

That is, of course, unless your menu is overly complicated. It may sound appealing to provide your guests with a list of all of your favorites to accommodate as many preferences as possible, but if you include too many wildly different options you’ll end up going crazy with all the preparation and planning. But, there’s a solution to keeping it simple while maintaining the happy variety of a menu.

Plan out entree and appetizer ideas that could share a base recipe, providing the central ingredients used for all the menu options. Cooking a large quantity of the base recipe gives you a platform from which you will build variations and menu choices. Here are some examples:

The following dishes use roasted tomatoes and garlic

  • Penne with Parmesan Sauteed Zucchini and Roasted Tomato Sauce (vegetarian)
  • Crispy Baked Trout Topped with Yogurt and Dill on a Bed of Arugula with Roasted Tomatoes

These recipes are listed at the end of this post.

The following dishes use oven braised chicken

  • Linguine with chicken and mushrooms in a tomato cream sauce
  • Chipotle chicken tacos with tomato-lime salsa and sour cream
  • Braised chicken and and Monterrey Jack cheese stuffed enchiladas topped with red and green chile sauces

These three recipes will appear in an upcoming SimpliFried post.

Look to your favorite restaurant menus for inspiration when writing your own. Be descriptive, so your menu can build anticipation in your guests when they read a detailed explanation of the care that goes into your cooking.

My first example above benefits by accommodating a vegetarian option, so I thought I’d use it to show how these recipes come together. What’s more, the base recipe can provide a theme for your gathering.

Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic

(makes roughly 4 portions for use in either dish)

  • 6 large tomatoes
  • 6 large garlic cloves still in their peel
  • 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 325ºF and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Remove stem from tomatoes, then cut them in half across their equator. Scoop out and discard seeds and pulp. Arrange tomatoes on baking sheet cut side up. Scatter garlic cloves on baking sheet as well. Evenly drizzle olive oil on tomatoes, then add salt and pepper.

Bake for one hour, or until tomatoes are browned, wilted, and are starting to fall apart. Cool and reserve for further applications.

Penne with Parmesan Sauteed Zucchini and Roasted Tomato Sauce (vegetarian)

(serves four)

  • 1 lb box penne pasta
  • 3 large zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch coins (roughly 1.5 lbs)
  • 1.5 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbs Italian seasoning blend
  • 3 cups roasted tomatoes
  • 6 cloves roasted garlic
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

In a large pot, bring some salted water to a boil and add the penne. Cook for nine minutes, or until al dente.

Meanwhile, combine Parmesan cheese with Italian seasoning blend in a bowl and mix well.

Bring a pan up to temperature over medium heat. Add the zucchini in one layer (working in batches), then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a big pinch of the cheese mixture to the tops of each piece of zucchini. Cook for five minutes, then flip each piece of zucchini so the cheese mixture is touching the pan. Cook for another two to three minutes, then use a plastic spatula to remove zucchini from pan. The cheese mixture should adhere and become crispy. Slice each piece in half and reserve.

Strain pasta and reserve a half cup of the cooking water.

Add the roasted garlic, roasted tomatoes, and reserved pasta water to the pot used for cooking the penne and bring to a simmer over medium low heat. Using a stick blender, puree into a slightly chunky sauce. Turn off heat, adjust seasoning, then add the red wine vinegar.

Divide pasta between the plates, add the sauce, zucchini, and any remaining cheese mixture.

Crispy Baked Trout Topped with Yogurt and Dill on a Bed of Arugula and Roasted Tomatoes

(serves four)

  • 1 lb trout filet cut into 1/4 lb portions
  • 3 Tbl extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice from half a lemon
  • 3 roasted garlic cloves
  • 10 cups arugula
  • 2 cups roasted tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh dill, chopped fine
  • 3/4 cup unflavored Greek yogurt
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper

Preheat oven to 500ºF and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Evenly arrange trout portions on baking sheet, leaving a two inch gap between each. Liberally rub 1 Tbl of the oil into each trout portion, then season with salt and pepper. Bake for roughly 11 minutes, turning once, or until the fish flakes easily. The surface should be bubbling and crisp. Let cool uncovered for four minutes.

In a large mixing bowl mash the roasted garlic into a paste using a fork. Then whisk this with the lemon juice and remaining 2 Tbl olive oil and a dash of salt. Add the arugula, roasted tomatoes, and dill. Toss to combine.

Divide the arugula mixture between the plates then add the trout. Top each portion with a generous dollop of the Greek yogurt and garnish with more dill.

Embracing or ignoring the tradition of two sets of dinnerware

I went to a tea party this past weekend in honor of my friend Caroline who is having her second child. The hostess of the party took her china down from the top shelves of her kitchen cabinets for the event and said she was glad to “have a chance to use it.”

I know having two sets of plates is common practice in the U.S., one for using every day and one for using on special occasions, but I’m not a practitioner of this tradition. For starters, we didn’t have cabinet space in our previous home to store more than one set. And, the second reason is because I would rather use my china every day.

Our china is made by Wedgwood and is their White pattern:

The pattern has been produced by Wedgwood since 1920 (not surprisingly, around the same time wedding registries became popular through department stores), so if we need a replacement piece it is extremely easy to find one on Replacements.com. In 10 years, though, we’ve only had to replace one plate. It’s also dishwasher and microwave safe, and bone china is more durable than porcelain and stoneware. Plus, we’ve never had a problem with it staining.

Our 21-month-old son even eats off it.

Most bone china is similar and is made to be used every day. In fact, it can last many lifetimes. The exception to this is bone china with platinum, silver, or gold bands that have to be hand-washed and are unsafe in the microwave.

If you have china in storage, what keeps you from using it? Are you like me and have ignored the tradition of having two sets of dinnerware? I’m interested in knowing what resides in your cupboards.

To cook or not to cook: When guests arrive

I greatly enjoy cooking for other people. I think a good meal has the ability to bring people together, tell a story, introduce new flavors, and can be a lot of fun. It’s my way of sharing a part of me with my friends and family.

Unfortunately, cooking for other people can be stressful if you are pressed for time and ideas. The demands of the task can especially feel overwhelming when a recipe goes awry or when trying to coordinate plates to come out at the same time. The first time I cook for someone also affects my nerves more so than the fifth or tenth time I’ve had someone to dinner.

I’m of the opinion that a host or hostess should be with guests during a dinner party instead of in the kitchen, tending to the stove. A gathering should be fun for everyone, not everyone except for the cook. So, before creating a menu, I ask myself questions such as:

  • Why are we having the party?
  • Can I make a meal that shares who I am with my guests?
  • Do these recipes work together, can I easily obtain the ingredients, have I made these items before, is this a menu everyone will enjoy?
  • Will I stress out so much that I won’t have a good time, too?
  • Will my guests be offended if I don’t make the meal?
  • Would a restaurant or carry out do a better job than I would in this specific situation?
  • What is my schedule like tomorrow? Can I stay up after guests have gone to clean up, or do I need to go to bed right away to get as much sleep as possible?

Most times I end up cooking the meal, but sometimes I let a restaurant take care of the heavy lifting. How do you decide if you will cook a meal or treat guests to dinner at a restaurant? I’m interested in reading your thoughts on this issue in the comments.

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