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23 Dec

We’re hosting Christmas dinner this year for both sides of our family. And that’s wonderful. I love having a house full of people on a holiday and I have a lot of fun preparing for the main meal. But it does take a little thought and preparation to do it without being a slave to the stove while everyone else parties away in the next room–you want to be part of the festivities too, right?

Every year, I serve lasagna as the main course. Part is that it’s become our family tradition. But it’s mostly because I can prepare the lasagna on Christmas Eve, layering noodles and sauce and cheese, and pop it into the fridge until the next afternoon. An hour before we want to eat, the casserole dishes go into the oven, and I go back to the living room to enjoy everyone’s company while they cook.

On the side, we have a caramelized onion, green bean, and cherry tomato tian. It is out of this world good–a little sweet, a little savory, with just enough crunch to make things interesting. This, I put together Christmas morning after gifts are opened and breakfast is done, and then it goes into the oven for awhile with the lasagnas.

I ask other people to take care of the rest of the meal–one person is bringing garlic bread, one is in charge of salad, and someone else brings soda and wine. For dessert, I do a very easy and light chocolate cake that starts with a mix (but you’d never know) and doesn’t need any icing. It’s a family favorite and people ask for it throughout the year.

Christmas breakfast is equally simple. On Christmas Eve, I make cinnamon rolls that are divine–I’ll share that recipe with you soon, I promise. Christmas morning, I warm them and ice them quickly, scramble a few eggs in a large pan, and pour the coffee and juice.

Christmas Eve? Chinese take-out. Honestly. Take a break when you can get it.

Having dishes you can prepare ahead of time can really make a huge difference between having a great day yourself and feeling like everyone else’s indentured servant, no matter how much you enjoy playing with food.

I wish you a wonderful holiday. Thank you for being here for the first six (ish) months of my blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. And I hope you enjoy every moment of this weekend. Cheers, my friends.


Dinner Amidst Chaos

19 Aug

Yesterday was one of those days that flew by in a flurry of paper and phone calls and errands and STOP TOUCHING YOUR BROTHERs and Advil. Several doses of Advil. One of those days when I hit the bed at the very end and realized I’d been breathing all along, you know?

DH works in another state one or two days a week and on those days, I’m never quite sure what the evening’s routine will bring. Normally, he comes through the door about a half-hour before the kids go to bed, and by the time he gets changed and spends a few minutes with them before we brush teeth and tuck them in, it’s well past 8 p.m. And we’ve not yet had dinner.

There are a few ways to work around this so we’re not eating dinner 10 minutes before we pass out from exhaustion. The slow cooker is a godsend and I use it frequently, but tend to pull it out more in the colder months. I’ve also learned to make an entire dinner earlier in the day and pop it into the fridge to be re-heated later, but yesterday didn’t offer me a full hour anywhere to do that.

I call them “hurricane days,” and find the best way to work around them is to figure out how to piecemeal dinner together. Which is what we did yesterday, and we had a hot, reasonably healthy dinner on the table 10 minutes after the kids went to bed.

The first part of this is menu planning: the easiest way to figure this out is to have one thing that can be served cold (it was a tomato-cucumber salad last night), one thing that can be cooked ahead of time while other things are going on and re-heated later (a boxed wild rice blend), and an entree that can be prepped during the day and tossed into a pan for a bit at dinnertime (I did barbecued chicken breasts).

I had a pocket of time yesterday afternoon that involved some note reviewing for an article I’m working on. It was easy to bring the laptop up to the kitchen and sit at the table with my “real” work while the boxed rice mix simmered away on the stove. Rice microwaves beautifully, so cooking it while I was doing something else nearby and putting it in the fridge made total sense.

The kids ate dinner around 6. About a half-hour before that, I pulled a package of chicken breasts out of the freezer and defrosted them in a bowl of lukewarm water (which doesn’t threaten to start cooking them like the microwave can). I cut one up into strips, breaded them, and sauteed them into chicken fingers, which were served with some of the rice from the fridge and a banana. Kids fed–awesome.

While they ate, I butterflied the remaining breasts all the way through, to create four thin pieces out of the two whole breasts. Those went into the fridge, and I pulled my double grill pan out of the cabinet and set it on the stove. When I went upstairs to brush teeth and say goodnight to the not-so-little ones, I flipped the burner under the pan to medium-high; cast iron takes awhile to heat up, and the 10 minutes I was upstairs was perfect. I also pulled the chicken back onto the counter so it could come up to room temperature a little bit.

Back downstairs after kid bedtime, I sprayed the grill with olive oil spray and put the chicken on it to start cooking. While that went on, I chopped up the cucumber and tomato for our salad. Waited five minutes, flipped the chicken over, and started brushing it with barbecue sauce (I like Kraft honey barbecue, but that’s me).

Long and short, the chicken cooked, I heated up the rice, and we had dinner on the table by 8:15. Which is not bad at all for a hurricane day. Tonight, we’ll have leftovers; I have a class until 8 and need to shower after, so popping a plate in the microwave will be the only way we’ll eat at a remotely reasonable time.

Anyone else have great strategies for crazy-busy days? I’d love to hear them.

Dinner Party

9 Aug

We had friends to dinner last night and since “what to make” is a perpetual conundrum for many of us, I thought I’d share our menu and a few tips with you.

The day before dinner, I made a simple pound cake. Any recipe will do. The only fiddling I do with these is to add the zest of one lemon. You won’t be able to pinpoint lemon in the finished cake, but it’ll taste a little brighter than one without.

A few hours before our guests arrived, I zested and juiced lemons and prepared the oil for Giada’s Pasta with Lemon Oil and Shrimp, which is a great entertaining recipe–everyone likes it and it comes together very quickly and easily. The oil is best if you add the lemon zest a few hours ahead, so you might as well deal with the rest of the lemons ahead of time.

I also chopped tomatoes and cucumber for my tomato cucumber salad. I didn’t chop the basil ahead of time–the edges will blacken. Covered that with plastic wrap and set it aside. I also opened and drained a can of Italian-style diced tomatoes, and mixed those with one clove of chopped garlic.

About 20 minutes before the party, I cut a baguette in half lengthwise and toasted it under the broiler. When it was done, I brushed it with olive oil, cut it into slices, topped the oil side with the drained tomato/garlic mixture, sprinkled it with Parmesan, and popped it back under the broiler for five minutes to let the cheese melt. Voila–bruschetta. I set those on the kitchen counter with a bottle of wine and glasses, to kick things off.

While the bread toasted, I whipped half a pint of heavy whipping cream with a tablespoon and a half of powdered sugar and a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla extract. Covered that and set it in the fridge for later.

Once we all settled in, I made the rest of the pasta while everyone sat around the kitchen island with their wine. I love that fettucini recipe but do fiddle with it: I don’t add any pasta water to mine and I replace bitter arugula with sweet basil. I also add a pinch of red pepper flakes and use a little less oil than she calls for. Pine nuts would also be good in this but I didn’t do that this time around.

While the water boiled, I popped the garlic bread under the broiler for a few minutes, and then sliced it, put it in a cloth napkin-lined basket, and set it on the table.

Once the pasta wrapped up, I poured the vinegar and oil over my salad and put everything in big bowls, which went in the middle of the dining room table. We ate family-style, with everyone serving themselves, and it worked beautifully. Dessert was served the same way, with a plate of pound cake slices, a bowl of the whipped cream, and a bowl of blueberries that were all passed. I like family-style parties because everything is passed at least twice so no one feels self-conscious about taking seconds, and it encourages chatting and lingering. We hadn’t seen our friends in awhile, and lingering was welcome.

This meal was perfect for a summer party. It tasted light and fresh, but no one went home feeling hungry and we all enjoyed the evening. Two thumbs up.

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