Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmukkah 2013: Tips for Entertaining

Sorry for being lame and going so long between posts, but I know you'll understand, because everyone's so busy! This late Thanksgiving thing really puts the squeeze on holiday entertaining!

It's been crazy around here, and we actually had Christmukkah earlier this year than usual, since Hanukkah was so early.  I have to admit that I didn't do anything very original this year in terms of food, but I'll post links below to everything I made.  This post is going to be more about tips for entertaining than actual cooking, because, honestly, what's better than having family and friends over, talking and laughing over good food?

So here are my tips for entertaining:

1) Don't worry so much about your house -- how clean it is, how "undecorated" it is, or anything else. Why? Because your friends won't care.  And if the people you invite over are going to judge the type of furniture you have or the size of your house, are they really worth keeping as friends?  Personally, I don't spend a whole lot of time actually cleaning before people come over, because everything's just going to get dirty again anyway. Which leads me to my next tip:

2) Don't waste your time washing the floor and cleaning under the refrigerator (people actually do that).  Just do a once-over with with a dust cloth and the vacuum, and wipe down the bathrooms with Chlorox (or other cleaner) wipes. I do, however, put away as much clutter as I can, so people have places to set their drinks or plates as they walk around. Save the really big cleaning for after everyone leaves.  :-)

3) Do make sure bathrooms have extra toilet paper and clean towels/guest cloths, for obvious reasons.

4) Do make more food than you think you'll need.  Every year I end up with food that I don't even put out on the table because people bring food with them.  However, I know that the one year I under-provide will be the year that everyone brings wine and beer instead of food (would not be a horrible party in any case, but still).

4a) make sure the extra food is shelf-stable (crackers, smoked fish, pickles) or freezable.  That way, if you end up not using it, you can keep it until your next get-together.

5) Consider your guest list and match it to the size of your space and the "feel" you want.  Christmukkah has turned into a nearly neighborhood-wide event, which is why we turned it into an open house at this point.  The first couple of years we kept it small and actually had real food and sat down to eat, but as our guest list grew, we've had to switch the format to accommodate more people.  I'm a "more the merrier" type of person, so more people showing up makes me happier than fewer.  BUT, that type of entertaining isn't for everyone, so think about what you want to get out of it, as well as your guests.

6) Match the types of food you'll serve to the amount of people invited. What I mean by this is, the more people you have coming, the simpler the food prep should be, with dishes that can be made ahead of time being REALLY important.  There is no shame in having a nice cheese platter or vegetable tray, especially if you have some interesting cheeses/crackers or dips to go with it.  Not everything needs to be individually served and elaborately hors d'oeuvres-y.

7) Focus on one "wow" offering (if that's your thing). This year, mine was going to be the Zucchini Cakes with Smoked Trout, but I never got to serve it...Going back to tip 4a, the zucchini cakes are freezable and the smoked trout came in tins, so I'm saving it to serve on New Year's Eve.  See how that works?  That being said, everyone was happy, and eating and drinking, so I didn't sweat it that I didn't get to put out my "fancy" hors d'oeuvres.  :-)

8) This is supposed to be fun, and no one will be happy if the host is not having fun.  So be sure to enjoy yourself, and if that means serving lasagna and salad because you can make it all ahead of time, then so be it.  If you thrive on wow-ing your guests with something elaborate, go for it.  But you shouldn't stress out about having people over, since, like I said, it's supposed to be fun and enjoyable.

So, my advice to you is to just start having people over more.  It's fun. It's less expensive than going out for a meal, plus you get to pick your own music.  :-)

I forgot to take pictures during the party (are you really that surprised?), but I did get a snapshot off of the food tables before people got here. Plus I took a couple of pictures of some foods I made, after the fact.  Sorry, but I was having too much fun talking to my guests.  LOL

Cranberry Cheesecake                                                 Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

Christmukkah 2013 Menu:

Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce (I used the recipe from "Savoring the Seasons of the Northern Heartland". The lingonberry sauce was store-bought, 'cause nobody got time for makin' lingonberry sauce from scratch…especially when you don't have access to lingonberries)

Picture of Lemon-Garlic Chick Pea Dip with Veggies and Chips Recipe

Lemon-garlic Chick Pea Dip

Zucchini Cakes with Smoked Trout recipe

Zucchini Cakes with Smoked Trout

Stuffed Dates - I did change this up a little and used orange peel, rosemary and thyme in the goat cheese. Since dates are so sweet, I wanted to cut through that a little bit. Also, instead of nuts, I did do the pomegranate seed variation.

Cranberry Cheesecake Recipe

Cranberry Cheesecake

Almond Cardamom Thumbprint Cookies

All of these were delicious (the photos are copied from the linked websites -- they're too nice to be my work!) and I would make any of them again.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Caramel Apple Crisp Bars

So, if you are following along with my previous posts, you probably have boatload of apple butter.  I know I did.  And, after a while, putting it on toast or muffins (insert your own joke here…) isn't cutting it anymore.  We still have some in the freezer, too.  So I came up with Caramel Apple Crisp Bars to help use some of it up.  They're really yummy.  You should make them.  :-)

I realize that you can't really see much of the bar underneath the mound of ice cream, nuts and caramel sauce, but my older son had this serving idea, and it was delicious, so I thought I would give you another idea to use (and reason to make this recipe).

Caramel Apple Crisp Bars

1 1/4 c. old-fashioned oats
1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/3 c. butter, cold
1/2 c. walnuts, chopped
3/4 cup apple butter (homemade or not)
1 small apple, peeled and chopped (about 1/2 cup chopped)
1/2 c. caramel sauce (you can use anything you have on hand, but I highly recommend this recipe for Apple Cider Caramel Sauce from Southern Living)

Combine oats, flour, and sugar in a medium bowl, breaking up and clumps of brown sugar.  Cut the cold butter into cubes, then add to the bowl. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, incorporate the butter until the mixture is uniform sizes and crumbly.  Add walnuts and stir to combine. Set mixture aside.

[Alternate method: put oats, flour, sugar, butter and walnuts (chopped or not) in a food processor.  Pulse about 5-6 times to combine.  Butter pieces should be the size of small peas.]

Combine apple butter and chopped apple in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Butter the bottom of an 8x8 inch pan, then pour half of the oat crumb mixture in the bottom of the pan and pat down a little.  Drop spoonfuls of the apple butter/apple mixture on top of the crumb mixture, then gently spread around to evenly distribute over the crust. Combine the caramel sauce with the remaining crumb mixture, then drop by spoonfuls over the top of the apple butter layer.

I need to confess something on this step.  Initially, I put the rest of the crumb mixture on top and was going to drizzle the caramel sauce over it, but then I thought the caramel might burn before the bars were done baking, so I scraped off what I could and put it back in the bowl, then stirred the caramel sauce in to what I had.  That's why it looks kind of funky, but yours will be much prettier!

Put in a pre-heated 325 degree oven for 35-40 minutes (top should be golden and edges will be bubbling.

Cool completely.  Cut into squares and serve.  Makes about 16 (if you like them bigger) or 20 (if you like them smaller).  :-)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Fresh Market Opens at One Loudoun in Ashburn

Open for business!

Gorgeous produce!

I seriously wanted to try a little of everything in that case!

(above photos copied from The Fresh Market's Facebook page)

Some of my friends have been buzzing about The Fresh Market ever since they announced earlier this year that they would be opening a new location at One Loudoun in Ashburn.  I was lucky enough to get there on opening day and it was a lot of fun!  Lots of specialty items that I haven't been able to find in other stores (high quality tuna in oil or different varieties of capers, for example) and just a beautifully laid-out market.  Because the store is on the smaller side, by necessity the items they carry are well-edited, even if some are on the pricey side.  I've signed up for their weekly specials newsletter, because the specials they were running were really good (BOGO on quick bread loaves -- I bought the banana chocolate chip and the pumpkin), but generally the prices do run a little higher on a lot of things, but seems comparable on others.  Go take a look and see what you think!

Check out all the fun things I bought!

It will be really fun to go back when I need to put together any foodie gift baskets for friends or other winter events coming up!  I could also see popping in there to pick up fun items for a picnic lunch (go out and enjoy this beautiful fall weather) or when you need some quick appetizer ideas.  I stocked up on some Stonewall Kitchen jellies and jams (also a BOGO special) to have on hand.  Their red pepper jelly spread over a block of cream cheese makes a delicious and easy appetizer if you need one at the last minute.

Now, it would take a lot to tear me away from Wegmans as my main grocery store, but here is what I will go back for regularly at The Fresh Market:  Nueske bacon (if you've never had it, you are so missing out), their peanut butter power chews (bulk food bins), chili lemon rounds (rice crackers - also found in the bulk food section), their cucumber salad (at the olive bar) and their coconut shrimp with mango dipping sauce.  Nom, nom, nom.

Because I am a baker, and have lived in France, I do have a quibble with what they call "napoleons." The Fresh Market version looks like cake layers with cream and fruit layered between.  A true napoleon (or mille-feuille in French), in my opinion, has to have the puff pastry layers.  I am a traditionalist like that, and I want to make sure we Americans know the real thing.  :-) They do, however, have lovely baked goods that would be a hit at any dinner party, or just a sweet treat (they have many single-serve options)!  I tried their apple pie (very tasty, although I like mine with lots of cinnamon), banana chocolate chip bread (yum!) and pumpkin nut bread (good, but needs more nuts) and two types of cupcakes -- a chocolate and vanilla (with swirled frosting) and their cannoli cupcake.  Both were really good!  They had a lot more varieties that I will want to try...

I also wasn't a big fan of their sushi. I got their spicy tuna roll, but thought the rice on their version was too soft and "glue-y" and the tuna wasn't all that flavorful.  My husband and son, on the other hand, liked the tuna, even though they agreed with me on the rice issue. Just a matter of opinion, of course.

I bought some of their name brand items to see how they compared to what I would make, and we really enjoyed their cornbread stuffing mix and their "Anything Goes" spice rub.  I used the spice rub on their chicken breasts (a good deal at $2.99/lb) and baked them in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes (until the thermometer registered 170 degrees).  Supper tasty and moist. I think the spice rub would taste even better on pork, so that's up next.  I highly recommend getting a tin of it, and this is coming from a Penzey's girl.  :-)

Below is my take on their cornbread stuffing:

The Fresh Market Cornbread Stuffing, Marna's Way

Adapted from The Fresh Market Basic Stuffing Recipe

3 slices of Nueske bacon
One medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
3 stalks celery, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 2/3 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 Box of The Fresh Market Cornbread Stuffing Mix
Pepper to taste

Cut bacon cross ways (across the short side) into 1/4 inch strips.  Heat a large skillet and sauté bacon until the fat starts to render, but before it is crispy.  Add celery and onion and cook together until the bacon is crispy and the onions are soft and translucent.  Add butter and chicken stock and cook until butter is melted.  Take off heat and set aside. Open stuffing mix box and pour onto a large, heat-proof bowl.  Add the onion/celery mixture to the dry stuffing mix and stir until all the stuffing has been moistened (you might have to let it sit a few minutes to soak up all the broth). Put the stuffing in a buttered baking dish (the one I used was 10x12 inches) and bake, covered with foil, for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. If you like your stuffing with a little crispity crunchiness on top, remove the aluminum foil for the last ten minutes of baking. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Freakin' Awesome Apple Butter

Who's gone apple picking and, deluded (mesmerized??) by the Rockwellian outdoorsy perfection of it all, came home with 40 pounds of apples?  This gal!  Don't get me wrong. I love apples.  But after weeks of making apple cake, apple muffins, pork roast with apples, and, of course, eating them raw (many, many raw apples), you start running out of ideas.  What uses up a lot of apples, tastes delicious, and is freezer-friendly?  Apple butter!  If you're the canning sort, you could can this and give as gifts.

I don't have pictures of the process, because, well, it's me and I forgot. No worries, though, because it's kind of hard to screw up boiling and pureeing.  BUT, I do have a picture of the finished product:

I've never made apple butter before, so I went looking for recipes and found one that boils the apples to soften them, then bakes the puree in a "slow" oven (old-timey phrase to describe an oven that's not really hot) for a long time.  This method creates a wonderfully deep flavor, so I really recommend giving this a try, despite the time commitment. Even I was skeptical, but the results are absolutely fabulous!  When my husband tried it, he actually said, "This is freakin' AWESOME!"

Marna's Freakin' Awesome Apple Butter

10 apples (I used a mix of different kinds), peeled, cored and cut into chunks
1 1/2 cups apple cider
2/3 cups sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp dried, ground ginger

Combine diced apples (the apples don't really have to be uniform size, this is a pretty forgiving recipe), apple cider, and sugar in a 4 or 5 quart pot.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then turn down to medium-low and simmer about 30 minutes, or until apples are tender.  When apples have cooked, blend (using an immersion blender) or mash (using a potato masher) until smooth.  Again, if there are chunks, that's okay, because it's going to cook more. Add the cinnamon, cloves and ginger, then stir to combine.

Lightly butter a baking dish large enough to hold the the apple puree, approximately 2 inches deep (I used a 10 inch x 12 inch dish, but an 11x7 inch dish would work, too). Bake puree for 4 hours at 275 degrees, stirring every hour, or until thick and of a spreading consistency.  Let cool for about an hour, then cover and chill.  Makes about 3 cups.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Baklava -- It's Easier Than You Think

Want to become a pastry chef without actually making pastry?  Use phyllo dough.  Unlike puff pastry (a pain to make, to be honest), I don't know anyone who actually makes their own, so no chef can "one up" you by saying they make their phyllo dough "in house."  :-)

Once you get the hang of it, phyllo is pretty easy to use.  Plus, if it rips, it's no big deal -- just layer it on anyway and brush with a boatload of butter.  Fool proof!  The original recipe I found didn't use enough cinnamon, in my opinion, so I upped the spice.  Plus more honey.  More flavor, more goodness. Also, there's no way I wanted an entire large pan of baklava sitting around our house (the original recipe made a 9x13 pan) -- the temptation would be too great to eat it all in two days.  As it was, we ate this smaller pan in 2, and we only gave away 4 pieces to our neighbors.  I have no willpower...


Baklava My Way

Adapted from a recipe found on

1/2 package of phyllo dough
2 cups finely chopped walnuts
1 Tbsp cinnamon
2/3 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup honey
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter the bottom and sides of an 8x8 inch pan.  Combine finely chopped walnuts and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Unroll phyllo dough, and place a damp, clean towel on top of it to keep it from drying out.  Take a couple of sheets and line the bottom of the pan.  Brush with melted butter.  Layer another sheet, brush with butter. Repeat until you have about 8 layers on the bottom. Spread 1/3 of the walnut mixture on top of the phyllo layers.  Layer and butter 3 more phyllo layers, then spread the second 1/3 of walnuts, then another 3 sheets with butter.  Top with the remaining sheets, buttering in between each layer.  Carefully cut the baklava into 9 squares, then cut each square in half, making 18 triangles.

Bake for about 50 minutes, until golden brown.  While the baklava is baking, combine water and sugar in a small saucepan, heat until sugar dissolves, then add honey.  Bring mixture to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes until thickened and syrupy (you should still have about 1/2 cup of syrup).  Take off heat and add vanilla.

After baklava has finished baking, remove pan from oven and drizzle honey syrup over the entire pan of baklava.  Let cool for at least an hour (2 hours is best, if you have the willpower), so that the pastry can soak up the syrup.

Makes 18 servings (or 9, if you're my family, because you can't eat just one piece).

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pintester Challenge: Meat. Balls.

So, it wouldn't be a Pintester Challenge without inappropriate references and childish sniggering over innocuous words (like, "duty" gets me every time).  So today I made meatballs.  Let the sniggering begin.

I have to admit that I'm pushing up against the Sunday, Sept. 22 deadline, so I can't be very witty or snarky. I just need to get this shit done, so here's what happened:

I found this pin for Thai Green Curry Meatballs on Mel's Kitchen Cafe:

Thai Green Curry Meatballs

I mean, who doesn't like a good meatball (snigger)?  And I like curry, especially green curry, so I thought I'd give it a try.  Here's the deal. They were delicious!  Sorry, no fails, no ball-rolling nightmares (har har).  Just full on goodness. :-)  I did change up the recipe a little by decreasing the oats (hate too much filler) adding finely minced carrots (I try to get veggies into my kids any way I can) and baking the balls (ha!), 'cause mama ain't got time for sauteing in batches. But other than that, made it just like the pin. ;-) True confession, though. One of my kids didn't like the sauce, but liked the meatballs.  I still count it as a win.

Here's my version:

Thai Green Curry Meatballs (adapted from Mel's Kitchen Cafe)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef or turkey
  • 1/2 cup finely minced carrots
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon Thai green curry paste
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 3 green onions, white and green parts finely chopped
  • Sauce:
  • 2 cans (13.5-ounce each) unsweetened coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons green curry paste
  • 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp cornstarch stirred into 1 tsp cold water to make a slurry
  • 1/4 cup lime juice (from about 2-3 limes)
  • Hot cooked rice for serving
  1. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, oats and milk. Let the mixture stand and soak for 5-10 minutes. Add ground beef or turkey, carrots, ginger, curry paste, fish sauce, sugar, cilantro, salt, garlic and green onions. Mix to combine and distribute all the ingredients through the meat. The best way to do this is to use your hands. Really.  Just get in there and squish everything around.
  2. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Roll meat mixture into balls (about golf-ball size - I like big meatballs) and place onto lined baking sheet.  Once all the balls have been rolled and placed on the sheet, bake in the oven for about 20 minutes.
  3. While the meatballs bake, heat a large skillet to medium heat and stir in the coconut milk, green curry paste and sugar. Bring to a simmer, then add the cornstarch mixture and stir to combine.  Cook on low heat until thickened.  
  4. When the meatballs are done baking, pull them out of the oven and place the meatballs in the skillet with the sauce. Go ahead and pile them all in, trying for a single layer. Simmer the meatballs and sauce for 8-10 minutes until the meatballs are cooked through, flipping the meatballs once or twice.
  5. Stir in the lime juice. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve over hot, cooked rice.

See? These directions just write their own jokes, really.  Giggle away, friends!

Does this qualify for the Pintester Movement? I'm pretty sure Sonja, the original Pintester, didn't make this, but I don't have time to search through her pins and find it (or another pin she DID do), so I'm submitting this anyway. It IS something that I pinned, but I'm not sure that counts. Personally, I consider this a public service, because it's one less dinner you have to think about.  You're welcome. Seriously, though, you have to make these Thai balls (snort)!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Flippin' Cornbread

So here is why I'm kind of a nightmare cook - and a horrible blogger:  I wanted to make cornbread quickly (i.e., no extra trip to a store). Why did I need it quickly, you might ask?  Well, I had just made Chicken Marabella (my all-time favorite chicken dish, BTW), pulled it out of the oven, and realized I had nothing to sop up the super-delicious sauce, which is the best part.  Instead of making rice, I got it into my head that I should make cornbread (I could have made biscuits, but that seemed fussier, for the single reason of having to roll the dough out). The good news is that Chicken Marabella can hold and even be served at room temperature, so I had a little time to make the bread.

The problem?  I didn't have enough cornmeal, no buttermilk, no self-rising flour (these were all needed for any one of the recipes I found in my cookbooks). So I used what I had: whatever amount of cornmeal (about 1/2 cup), wheat flour to make up the difference, sour cream, honey (instead of sugar), barely enough baking powder. Didn't have time to mess with completely melting the butter, so I just stirred it up to soften the not-quite-melted parts and dumped it in with the wet ingredients. No time for getting things to room temperature or sifting or such.

After I stirred everything together, it seemed a little stiff, so I added a little milk.  Still thick, but I didn't have time to mess with it anymore, so I threw it in a greased, heated cast iron skillet (I put the greased skillet in the oven while it pre-heated), spread the batter around and hoped it would taste okay.

Here's why I'm a bad blogger about it: no pictures, no actual measurements (good luck recreating this monster), no real technique (stirred wet stuff together, then dumped dry stuff on top and mixed it all in one bowl).  So, sorry about that, but thank you for sticking with me!

The result was surprisingly good, if a little sweet for my taste (note for future attempts: use less honey).  I did manage to snap a photo when it came out of the oven:

Um, yeah. Here is the afterthought picture:

Not too helpful, is it?  I was just one drink in, so I can't blame the nearly empty glass in the background for my lame blogging. ;-)

The lesson is this: baking is not as exacting as people make it out to be, so don't be intimidated by it. I do suggest you follow an actual recipe until you get the hang of things, though. I still do, sort of...   :-)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Labor Day the Easy Way

By the time Labor Day rolls around, I am so ready for school to start. Not that I don't love having my boys around, but it gets really tiring to figure out 3 meals a day for 13 weeks! Once we get to September, I am done with cooking.  Breakfasts, which began with fun smoothies, breakfast burritos, and the like, are now reduced to cereal or toaster waffles.  Lunch is down to PB&J. I am serious.  Total kitchen ennui, people.  Lately, we've been eating soups that I'd frozen months ago. Soup is not exactly "seasonal" for August (at least not hot soups), but I am past caring. 

Labor Day found me wanting to spend even less time in the kitchen. So it's kind of awesome that we have a gourmet grocery store near us with fabulous meats.  The Wine'ing Butcher has all sorts of interesting stuff, but it's the meats that draw us.  Normally we get their steaks or sausage, but we had an Amazon Local coupon for some of their marinated meats.  Now, I'm a little leery of buying already-marinated meats because I can make my own damn marinades, thank you very much.  BUT, as I learned when I talked to one of the staff there (they were selling me hard, but not in an obnoxious way, more in an enthusiastic-about-their-product way), they vacuum-seal the meats with the marinades, which lets the flavors to penetrate the meat better and makes it very, very tender!

I'm telling you, people, the folks at the Wine'ing Butcher in Ashburn did not steer me wrong!  Even the kids liked everything...and they don't usually like steak/beef.

We got the Key West marinated chicken, the Smoke House steak tips, and the Steak House steak tips. All were delicious! Personally, I thought the Smoke House marinade was a little on the sweet side, but everyone else said those tips were their favorites. We also got the red bliss potato salad and the coleslaw.  To round out the meal, I made a quick cherry tomato-cucumber salad (just cut cherry tomatoes in half, cut a cucumber in bite-sized chunks and toss with salt, pepper and a balsamic vinaigrette -- homemade or store-bought -- I won't judge), grilled mushrooms (clean some mushrooms, toss with some olive oil, salt and pepper, then grill along with your meats), and some corn on the cob (with butter, of course).  Super easy, pretty healthy, as far as dinners go, and we had some great leftovers to make steak salads the next day!

Just as a side note: before you think I've totally gone off the deep end and eschewing the kitchen and decent food entirely, below is a picture of a dinner from last week, with butternut squash soup (I used apple juice instead of cream or milk) from the freezer, thick slices of home made honey wheat bread, and a salad with mixed greens, walnuts, figs, bleu cheese and a drizzle of lime olive oil and ginger/honey balsamic vinegar).

With all the things already made (mostly), the entire meal took about 15 minutes to put together. This is why I implore you to double your soup recipes when you're making them and freeze the leftovers, because they come in so handy on those days you're just not up to cooking.  Believe me, it DOES happen.  :-)

Friday, August 23, 2013

Tuna Melt O' My Heart!

What is it about tuna melts?  They are so comforting and delicious, but I rarely make them. Maybe I just sort of forget about them, until I need something for dinner when I haven't planned anything else.  Tuna melts to the rescue! And please don't get on me about the dry mini-carrots. I told you, I didn't have much else, so we had to do with what we had. Deal, people.  My life is not picture perfect.  :-)

I don't usually have English muffins on hand, so that was really the only thing I had to buy specifically for this recipe. If you don't have actual English muffins, you could do this just on regular bread, too.  Same technique will work for both.

Surprisingly, even my picky eater ate two of these, so you might want to try it with your kids (they even at those dry carrots).  Make sure they wait a little for the cheese to cool, otherwise they might burn the tops of their mouths.  Happens to me almost every time!  :-)

For a non-dairy variation, I broiled one without cheese, then added sliced avocado after I took them out of the oven.  It was delicious, and I didn't miss the cheese (much) at all!

And, in case you don't have either of these tools, you really need to get them if you like to eat tuna salad.  The Pampered Chef can opener and can strainer are fabulous!!

Tuna Melts, My Way

2 cans white albacore tuna, packed in water, drained
two big spoonfuls of mayonnaise (approx. 1/3 cup)
1 stalk celery, small (1/4 inch) dice
2 green onions, chopped fine
1 heaping Tbsp sweet relish, or about 5-6 sweet midget gherkins, diced small
a squirt of fresh lemon juice
Salt, pepper (to taste)
3 English muffins, split
6 slices of cheese (I use American because it melts smoother)

Combine the first 6 ingredients in a bowl (or you can just use your own favorite tuna salad recipe). Stir together to completely incorporate (you might have to smash through some of the larger chunks of tuna).

Turn on broiler.  Place English muffins on a rimmed baking sheet.  Butter lightly (you can skip this part and just toast them dry if you want).  Toast muffins under broiler (pan should be about 4-6 inches away from the heat), about 1-2 minutes.  You just want a little color on them so the middle doesn't get too soggy when you put the tuna on it.  Pull the muffins out of the oven.

Top the muffins with the tuna salad, then top with slices of cheese. I cut the squares down a little smaller, because I don't like having the cheese melt over the sides, dripping down and then burning on my pan, but that's just my Type-A quirkiness shining through.

Put the tuna melts back under the broiler for about 2 minutes, but keep an eye on them. You don't want the cheese to burn, just melt (hence the name of the dish).  :-) When the cheese starts to brown and bubble, pull the tuna melts out and serve.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Fall Wreath Craft

Don't hate me. I don't control the hands of time, but the inevitable march towards Fall is upon us, so I thought I'd share a wreath I made last year.  Of course, I didn't actually make it until October, so it was kind of late to post back then, so here it is, almost Fall again and my timing is now better for those of you who are actually thinking of decorating for the next season already.  I am not usually one of them.  ;-)

This was pretty easy to make, considering I usually am a crafting failure.  How can you tell I'm not a crafter? Instead of going to the store with a plan, I re-used a couple of fake leaf "bouquets" that I was tired of, paints that I inherited from someone else ("Sure, I guess I'll figure out a use for them...") and ribbon that I bought a long time ago (like 6 years) only because it was on sale and, "You never know when you'll need some ribbon." Luckily all the colors matched fairly well, otherwise this would have been a disaster...Confession: I actually had to go out and buy the letter and the styrofoam.

 You will need:

a styrofoam form for the wreath
cardboard for the back 
a wooden letter
a length of wide ribbon
a shitload of fake Fall leaves
tacky spray (to adhere the cardboard to the wreath form
staple gun 

First, paint the letter in the color you desire. I can't tell you exactly what colors I used, because they were from a bunch of paints someone gave me a while ago.  I kind of did a double coat, blending two different paint colors.  Turned out that it almost exactly matched that ribbon I bought a while back.

While the letter dries, prep the styrofoam form.  Attach cardboard to the back of the styrofoam using the tacky spray.  Mine looks a little trashy because I used parts of some cardboard decorations (cowboy boots, to be exact) that had been hanging up on the back porch for a couple of years. It was time to "repurpose" them, don't you think?  ;-)

Not a big deal, because you really don't see that part.  I used masking tape to hold the cardboard down until the tacky spray had dried.

Turn the form over and start attaching leaves. I had to experiment at first to get the leaves to stay on. The tacky spray didn't work, so I ended up putting glue on the ends of the leaf stems (first trimming the stems to a pointy end if necessary), then sticking the stems into the styrofoam.  I started at the bottom, using a miniature pumpkin to camouflage the point where the first leaves overlapped, then worked my way around each side until the wreath was completely covered.

 Next, take your painted wooden letter (make sure it's completely dry) and the wide ribbon.  The length of the ribbon you use will depend on how low you want the letter to hang in the middle and how long you want the ribbon hanging from the top. I used about 18 inches for the long piece, then 6 inches for the shorter piece.  Take the longer piece of ribbon and staple one end to the back of the letter.  Lay the letter in the middle of the wreath to place it where you want it to hang.  Then make a big loop so that the other end of the ribbon goes over the top of the wreath, then back down underneath the wreath. The ribbon should be laying flat.  Staple the other end of the ribbon to the back of the styrofoam and cardboard backing.  To make the loop on top from which to hang the wreath, take your second, shorter piece of ribbon and tie it around the longer piece of ribbon, just above the top of the wreath, to form the closed loop. You will have to tuck the front part of the ribbon underneath the leaves to they hide it.

Sorry I don't have any pictures of the ribbon-attaching process.  I was in full crafter mode and forgot to take any more until the thing was done.  Here's the finished product:

Happy Fall, y'all!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

My Favorite Summertime Dinner


I don't know when I started to love mussels, but it's my favorite meal in the summer. Some might be intimidated to make them, but mussels are a super easy, quick dinner to make.  The most labor-intensive part is the cleaning process, but it's not hard.

The key to preparing mussels (as with all seafood, really) is to make sure they're fresh. Now, I don't know how fresh they can be, getting PEI mussels in northern Virginia, but I've had pretty good luck at our local Wegman's.  In a 2-lb. bag of mussels, nearly all are good (I think I had to throw out 6 or 7).

Plus, this dinner doesn't require a whole lot of ingredients, most of which I usually have on hand (why, yes, of COURSE I have an open bottle of white wine...).

Here's what you need:

2 lbs mussels (for 4 people)
one shallot, chopped fine (you can add or substitute 2 cloves of garlic if you want)
approx 1/4 cup white wine (two good glugs)
1/4 cup water
a handful of fresh thyme
approx. 2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley (flat leaf or curly, whatever you've got)
Salt and pepper (optional)
a squeeze of fresh lemon (optional)

This picture doesn't show the thyme, because I hadn't run outside to get some, yet, so...Sorry.

Anyway, while my pan heated up, I cleaned the mussels.  The ones I buy are actually pretty clean. All you really need to do is pull out the beard, if they have them, but you might also want to scrub the outside with a soft brush to get any sand/dirt that might be stuck on the shell.  Also, sometimes I'll use the flat part of a paring knife to help me leverage the beard out (trapping the beard between my right thumb and knife blade), because they can be really tough to pull out. This is what the beard will look like:

If any of your mussels are open when you clean them, and they don't shut if you gently squeeze them, then throw them out.  You do NOT want to eat that.  On the other hand, you also don't want to eat any mussels that don't open once you've steamed them. Food for thought, that.

Anyway, here's an example of what you need to throw out during the cleaning process.

Sorry for the picture quality. My little point-and-shoot can be a little ornery sometimes, and it wouldn't focus on the stupid shell I had in my hand...but I digress.

Once you've cleaned your mussels, set them aside for the moment and turn your attention to the pan heating on the stove.  Add 2 Tbsp of butter and your chopped up shallots.  Let those cook a bit until the shallots are soft (about 3 minutes).  Add water, wine, and thyme and let that bubble up, then turn down to a simmer (surface of the liquid should ripple but not have lots of bubbles).

Dump all the mussels into the pan, then cover with a tight-fitting lid.  Let the mussels steam for approximately 8 minutes.

You might want to stir them around about 4 minutes in, just to get the mussels that were on top down to the bottom and into the cooking liquid for a couple of minutes).  After 8 minutes, check to see if the mussels have opened up.  If most of them are open (remember, don't eat mussels that haven't opened after they've been steamed), take the mussels off the heat.  Sprinkle with parsley, add salt and pepper to taste, if you like (I think the mussels add their own sea-saltiness, so we didn't add any) and a squirt of lemon if you can't have seafood without lemon.  We forgot to add it and I prefer that hit of acid, but my husband said he thought it tasted great without it. :-)

Be sure to serve the mussels with plenty of bread (I prefer a baguette) to sop up the tasty cooking liquid.  That's my favorite part.  I also served them with a side of a simple chopped vegetable salad (green pepper, tomato, cucumber, parsley drizzled with olive oil and a little salt and pepper), but traditionally, mussels are served with french fries (moules-frites).

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Baby, it's hot outside!

I live in Virginia, where the summers are hot and humid.  Both of those conditions were in full force this week, which made me not want to use the stove AT ALL.  Actually, I didn't do much of anything, because the heat just drains all the energy out of me.  It doesn't matter that I spent much of the time either in my air-conditioned home or my air-conditioned car. Oh no.  It is still an excuse, because I had to take one son to his swim practice every morning and swelter on the pool deck, and take my other son to his week-long camp, so the car sits out just long enough to get oven-baking hot, yet the A/C doesn't really cool things down before we're home.

Yes, yes. I know you're saying, "Boo hoo, whine, whine. What does this have to do with food?" Whatever, peeps.  My blog, my whining. But I promise to get to the food.

My kids love it when we do a smorgasbord of random things that they get to put together themselves and call it a meal.  Cheese, crackers, lunch meats, veggies, dips and fruit.  Or whatever. This week, I did a little more prep than I usually do for something like this, and I did actually turn on the stove (and oven). These recipes are not my own, but they were delicious, so I'll provide the links for you to try them as well.

I had been thinking about chilled soups which, generally, are not my favorites (gazpacho tastes like I'm eating runny salsa, IMHO), but I do like vichyssoise (potato and leek soup).  Surprisingly, none of my cookbooks actually had a vichyssoise recipe, but I did have one that had a recipe for "Potage Parmentier", which had leeks and potato and cream in it, so I figured it had to be pretty much the same thing. [And yes, I realize I could have just looked up a recipe online, but I was stubborn enough to think I had to have an acceptable recipe in my cookbook collection]  Williams-Sonoma's blog recently provided a long list of chilled soups that I am eager to try out.

The rest of the meal consisted of White BeanTapenade and Marinated Summer Vegetables, both from the June 2013 issue of Bon Appetit magazine, antipasto peppers, a cured Italian sausage, some deli meats and cheeses, mustards, sweet gherkins, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls (perline) and a variety of crackers.

Here's what the spread looked like:

I apologize that I didn't get a good shot of the soup.  I took the picture after the boys started eating. :-)

Now, as I mentioned before, I did have to actually turn on the stove to make the soup and the oven to cook the veggies for the marinated salad, so if you're really sweltering, this particular line-up won't help you.  BUT: I did both in the morning before it got really hot and I got too tired to do anything but make sandwiches.  You could also grill the veggies, so at least you're not heating up the house, or if you are grilling a meal earlier in the week, you could grill up extra vegetables to use for the salad later.  Lots of possibilities there. There's also the option of just buying a variety of salads, dips, spreads, meats and cheeses from the prepared food section of the grocery store and setting it out for everyone to taste.  I get that it's hot, people are tired and cranky and food needs to get on the table. I'm not judging.

For the marinated vegetables, I used a lemon olive oil, which gave it a nice citrus punch. If you don't happen to have that, you could add a little lemon zest instead (or leave it out -- the original recipe doesn't call for any sort of lemon).  I also didn't have oregano, so I used fresh thyme (I have a nice patch growing just outside my back door). You know me; I make do with what I've got, and I hope it gives you ideas how you can play with your food, too.

What are your favorite meals to fix when it's too hot to cook?

Here's the recipe I used for our chilled soup:

Potage Parmentier

Adapted from Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells (I highly recommend this book for delicious, yet simple, French bistro basic recipes)

3 large potatoes (I used Russet), peeled and quartered
2 leeks, just the white and pale green parts, sliced
1 quart of water
1 cup beef stock (you could also use chicken stock, but beef is what I had)
3/4 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons chopped chives, for garnish (optional) - the original recipe suggested chervil or tarragon

Combine the potatoes, leeks, water and broth in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to simmer and cook until vegetables are meltingly soft, 35-40 minutes.

Using an immersion blender, blend vegetables in the pot until smooth. Add cream and heat through.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  If you don't have an immersion blender, you can use a regular blender, in batches (be sure to keep the small hope at the top of your blender cover open to let heat escape) or a food mill

Serve either warm or cold (it's delicious either way), garnished with fresh herbs, if you like. Note: It took a while for the soup to chill (about 4 hours in the fridge, and it still was more lukewarm than chilly), so be sure to factor that in, time-wise.

Serves 6 to 8

Tip: To get all the sand out of leeks, I fill my sink with water, then put the leeks, already sliced into rings, in the water.  I then separate all of the rings, swishing them around and then letting the sand fall to the bottom of the sink. Then I scoop up the leeks either with my hands or a medium-mesh (not fine) sieve.