Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving hits, no misses

I don't have years of experience making Thanksgiving under my belt....but I have years of tasting and observation thanks to my aunt. Up until about five years ago we would travel over the river (Green River) and through the woods (open prairie), to my aunts house we would go.

My aunt would entertain at least 100 of us, you heard me right...100+. What I learned from her I still use today in my own preparation for Thanksgiving. The golden rule of you can never have too much food. For her, that would mean two turkeys (one wild that they hunted and was full of dark meat and one store bought full of white meat), as well as a ham. And of course all of the guests brought a dish to pass as well. You can only imagine how much food was in one kitchen!

So now when I make Thanksgiving dinner for my family and my parents for a total of 7, I still adhere to that golden rule....you can never have too much food. But in order to be in line with my busy lifestyle, I have learned to cut corners without anyone knowing.
1. This year I made a smoked turkey. My favorite part...it was precooked so no special parts in plastic bags to take out (or forget) in the cavity.
2. I found side dishes at Sam's that were already precooked and only needed reheating. That would mean a sweet potato casserole (I added the mini marshmallows for the homemade touch) and already prepared mashed potatoes.
3. Breads from our local gourmet breads stores.
4. Gravy in a jar. I know this sounds sacrilegious, but I heated it up and added some of my turkey drippings and it tasted homemade without the lumps!
5. Pie crust that I get from a box for the pies....Only the pie crust experts would know that it wasn't made from scratch. The best part is that you put it in your own pie plate, and who would know that you didn't slave over adding just the right amount of ice water to the flour (if you have made pie crust, you know what I am talking about)

What I did focus on were the pies (minus the homemade crust) and stuffing....my favorite parts of the meal. I would pass on all of the other parts of the meal and be quite content with these Thanksgiving traditions. I did make the traditional pumpkin pie but added a to die for pecan pie that I found from Paula Dean as well as two stuffings; a ciabatta stuffing with pancetta and Savory Spinach and Artichoke stuffing....which tasted just like spinach and artichoke dip, thanks Emeril. The two favorite of these are going to be pulled out and used for other times of the year, it is just not for Thanksgiving anymore!

Savory Spinach and Artichoke Stuffing
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 1/2 pounds spinach, washed (3 cups cooked and roughly chopped)
2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 tbs. rough chopped garlic
1 Tbs. plus 2 tsp. Italian seasoning
2 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/4 tsp. black pepper
3 (8 1/2 oz. cans quartered artichoke hearts
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups chicken stock
2 tbs. lemon juice
12 to 14 cups cubed day old French bread
1 pound Brie, rind removed and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and Grease a 9 by 13 inch baking dish with olive oil

Steam the spinach and wring it out and finely chop it, set aside. Heat 1 Tbs. oil in large skillet over medium heat, add the onions and cook until golden brown (about 5 minutes), add the garlic and 2 tsp. of Italian seasoning, sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the artichokes and spinach and continue stirring for about another 2 minutes, set aside.

Combine the eggs, cream, chicken stock, lemon juice, remaining Italian season, salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl. Whisk to combine. Add the bread, vegetable mixture, brie, 1/4 cup Parmesan and parsley. Stir to combine. Let it rest until all liquid is absorbed.

Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese and drizzle with 2 tsp. olive oil. Bake until firm in center and golden brown, about 1 hour.

Mystery Pecan Pie
Topping:
3 eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Pie:
1 (8 oz.) package of cream cheese, room temperature
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 egg
1 unbaked deep-dish (9- inch) pie shell
1 1/4 cups chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine all topping ingredients in a medium bowl, set aside.

In medium bowl, combine cream cheese, sugar, salt, vanilla, and egg until combined. Pour into pie shell. Top with chopped pecans. Pour topping over pecans. Bake for 45 minutes. Chill and serve the next day.

Remember to take a few short cuts so that you can spend time with your loved ones and not in the kitchen! It is the time spent with friends and family that they and you will remember most....unless you leave the bag of parts in the cavity of the turkey.....unless you cook your turkey upside down (all of which I have done).

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Throw a party...no way!

Often when you are faced with the idea of throwing a party, two thoughts instantly jump to mind: 1. my house is a mess and 2. I have nothing to make. Well I have found some simple steps to help get around those problem areas.

"My house is a mess!"Pay attention to the areas of your house that will get the most eye contact from your guests. Often times it is the entry way, the room where the party is going to be held and the guest bathroom. Focus 80% of your cleaning time in these three areas and spend the other 20% on the rest of your living space. Remember it is okay to shut doors to the chaos that may be lurking in some of those rooms! In our home, it is our master bedroom walk in closet that holds all of our secrets. In goes the extra clutter from the kitchen counters, my paperwork from current projects I am working on (my kitchen is also my home office), as well as back up supplies for the party.

Many people are so embarrassed by their home they don't even want to have people stop in. What I have found that life is too short, have those friends over, put on that kettle of tea. If your house is clean, most people overlook the clutter that you see. If it bothers you enough, hire a professional organizer...you would be surprised how much letting someone help you through that clutter becomes a life changing freeing experience (I may just know one for you to hire).

"I have nothing to make!"I recently threw a party and will probably throw one next week, so I am always looking for great appetizer recipes. My keys to success for appetizers are to make sure that they are ones that can sit out and be left unattended. This means to put the hot items in a crock pot or chaffing dish, and to find other food items that can be served at room temperature. I usually only select one appetizer that needs my attention during the actual party. I want to enjoy my guests and I don't want to have to be preparing food while my guests are at my house. I also try to find recipes that can be prepared the day before. Please enjoy some of the hits of the party.

Jalapeno Popper dip
2 8oz. packages of cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 small can (or to taste) of diced jalapeno peppers

Combine all above ingredients and place in baking dish. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Bake in a 350 degree oven until warm (about 15-20 minutes)

Buffalo Chicken dip
2 8 oz packages of cream cheese
2 cooked and shredded chicken breasts
1 cup ranch or blue cheese prepared salad dressing
1/3 cup Frank's red hot sauce (or to taste)
1 1/2 cups shredded co-jack cheese

Combine and place in crock pot and heat. Serve with Frito Scoops or corn chips

Brie Pastry cups (need to attend to during the party)
1 sheet frozen puff pastry
1/3 to 1/2 cherry preserves
4 oz. Brie cheese cut into 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch pieces (36)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Spray 36 miniature muffin cups with cooking spray. Cut pastry into 36 squares. Slightly press each square into Muffin cup, press center with finger.

Bake 10 minutes. Press center of each with handle of wooden spoon. Bake 6 to 8 minutes longer or until golden brown. Immediately press again in center. Fill each with about 1/2 teaspoon preserves. Top with cheese piece. (for my party I stopped at this part and then proceeded to the next step and prepared as the demand dictated)

Bake 3 to 5 minutes or until cheese is melted. Serve warm.

Asian Sugar Snap Peas
1 pound sugar snap peas, trimmed
3 tablespoons garlic flavored olive oil
1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
2 drops chili oil
1/4 teaspoon packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Preheat the oven broiler, and move oven rack into the top position.

Place the snap peas onto a baking pan, drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Spread the snap peas out into a single layer.

Broil the snap peas in the preheated oven until tender, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together the soy sauce, sesame oil, chili oil, brown sugar, and sesame seeds in a large bowl. When the snap peas come out of the oven, toss them immediately with the sauce.

Fruit Bruschetta
1 package frozen pound cake loaf cut into slices
2/3 cup cream cheese with strawberries
1 can mandarin orange segments well drained
Assorted bite size pieces of fruit (stay away from fruit that browns easily)

Set oven to broil. Place pound cake slices on rack in in broiler pan. Broil with tops 4 to 5 inches from heat for 3 to 5 minutes (watch carefully because with the sugar in the cake, they tend to burn quickly)

Spread each slice with about 2 teaspoons cream cheese. Cut slices diagonally in half and spread cream cheese and top with fruit. You can also drizzle chocolate syrup on top as well.

Key lime Mini-Tarts
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup Key lime juice
1 container (8 oz) frozen whipped topping, thawed
4 packages of frozen mini fillo dough shells

Beat milk and lime juice in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until smooth and thickened. Fold in whipped topping.

Spoon heaping teaspoonful lime mixture into each fillo shell. Cover and refrigerate tarts at least 1 hour or until st but no longer than 24 hours.

Bon Appetite! Enjoy life to the fullest and spend quality time with friends and family....take some shortcuts and add to that quality (and quanitiy). I hope I can give you some shortcuts in order to gain back some of that precious time!

Melissa

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Crock pots are like children

When the leaves start to fall off of the trees there is one item in my kitchen that begins to make frequent appearances......I'll give you a hint, it is not my husband. Well if you guessed my crock pot you are right. I not only have one crock pot, I have three. Kind of sick, I know, but they have different functions and quite frankly, some look prettier than the others (kind of like my children). I love them all differently and for that reason I can't find the will to get rid of any of them (kind of like my children).

My first crock pot was a gift from my in-laws, it is large and ceramic and can hold a roast or a ham or any other large cut of meat. My second crock pot I bought myself and was smaller and stainless steel and is great to make a soup or heat appetizers in for parties. My newest one I bought for myself as well and is a larger oval stainless steel one with a number of different timing settings, it even has a hinged lid...genius! (Unfortunately the hinge has now broken but I am hopeful that I can find a replacement on-line)

For me the hunt is always on for some good crock pot recipes that I can start earlier in the day and walk away to take that Calgon bubble bath that I am always dreaming of. I like recipes with few steps and the most work I want to do is open a few cans and dump. Here are two of my favorites:

Brown Sugar Baked Ham

1 pit ham, large enough to feed your family (this must be a pit ham, anything else does not release enough juices and can burn)
Half a bag of brown sugar

Cover the bottom of the crock pot with the brown sugar and place the flat side of the ham on top of the brown sugar. Cook on low for 8 hours. My kids like it when I cut slits into the flat side of the ham so that the juices run up into the ham. We also never have any leftovers of this one.

Chicken Enchilada Casserole

8 flour tortillas
1 large can of chicken
Can of cream of chicken soup
Can of chopped green chilies
16 oz. light sour cream
8 oz. shredded cheese of your liking

Mix the chicken, cream of chicken soup, chilies and sour cream together. Layer 4 of the tortillas (torn up) on the bottom of the crock pot. (I like to use a large oval crock pot for this meal). Then layer half of the chicken mixture and half of the cheese. Repeat the process ending with the cheese. Place setting on low and cook for 4 hours.

Enjoy!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Cook for Two Hours...Eat for a Week

I have always been fascinated with the ability to spend less time in my kitchen during the work week so that I can spend more time with my family at the dinner table. I have been researching this cooking method for probably the last six years and I think I am getting close to perfecting it. You can find detailed recipes and how to's for this method in some cookbooks that are listed on Amazon under "Frozen Assets" or visit one of my favorite sites at http://www.savingdinner.com/ for more complete ideas or my all time favorite site for recipes http://www.allrecipes.com/ The cook books and web sites specific to freezing meals give detailed advice as to what foods freeze well and which foods do not (lettuce would be one of them). I do have a few demands while hunting for recipes:
  1. I look for recipes with few ingredients and few steps after they are unthawed. For example, I want to throw something on my grill, in the crock pot or in the oven. I do not want to be sauteing then placing something into the oven.
  2. I am not looking for recipes that require me to make only one pan dirty when they are prepared.
  3. I also do not like to have to precook the meat in order to then assemble and freeze it.
  4. Most of my marinades for meats are simple and can work with this process very easily, look through your collection of favorite marinades.
So needless to say I am pretty specific in my demands!

After I compile my recipe list with the needed ingredients I head to the store. I usually head to our local Sam's club in buy chicken breasts and pork chops in bulk along with a cooked rotisserie chicken. I make sure that I have plenty of freezer bags and I also love to use either a food saver found at stores or at http://www.foodsaver.com/ or Reynolds Handi-Vac found at your local grocery stores or http://www.handivacoffer.com/ Also make sure that you have Sharpie markers for labeling the bags. Helpful hint, label the bags before you place any food in them. Another great hint is to double the recipes, one for this week and then another for next week.

I assemble all of my needed items on the counter and I start loading the ingredients in the freezer bags. Here are some of my all time favorite recipes to use:

BBQ Chicken for the crock pot
3 boneless chicken breasts cut in half
1 cup ketchup
2 Tbs. brown sugar
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. cider vinegar
dash of red pepper flakes
dash of garlic powder

Combine in freezer bag. Freeze.
To prepare: Unthaw and place in crock pot for low 6 to 8 hours . Towards the end of the baking time shred with two forks and leave in the sauce. Serve on buns.

Drunk Pork Chops
5-6 pork chops (the right number for your family)
1 1/2 cups of ketchup
1 can of beer
8 Tbs. brown sugar

Combine in freezer bag. Freeze.
To prepare: Unthaw and place on grill till tender and juices run clear.

Lemonade Chops
5-6 pork chops (the right number for your family)
can of lemonade concentrate
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed

Combine in freezer bag. Freeze.
To prepare: Unthaw and place on grill till tender and juices run clear.

I hope these receipes help you get dinner on the table a little faster. I will continue to post helpful hints and recipes as I find them because we can find more hours in our day, we just have to spend some time planning!

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