Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Shortcuts for Christmas or Anytime

Although the holiday season is a wonderful time, it is also a busy time. Presents to wrap, candy to make, snow to shovel, parties to attend . . . it leaves little time for the tedious little tasks associated with cooking. Fortunately, I have a few favorite shortcuts to share with you, just in time for Christmas.

Ingredient shortcuts
1. Melissa's Fresh Peeled Garlic - just as convenient as the garlic in jars, but much fresher.
2. Kraft "Grate It Fresh" Parmesan Cheese - the grater is part of the container.
Sure, I could use my microplane to grate Parmesan, but then I'd have to wash it. And it's usually covered in lemon or orange zest anyway. I'm sure that most foodies will scoff at the Kraft Parmesan, but honestly, I'm grateful that our small town grocery store had Parmesan that you can grate yourself, even if it is Kraft.
3. Frozen chopped onions - they don't make me cry.

Prep shortcuts/handy gadgets
1.Silpat - cookie sheet and cake pan liners - prevent sticking without adding fat.
2.Parchment paper - the next best thing to a Silpat. Or maybe it's better than a Silpat, because you can throw it in the trash instead of the sink.
3. Microplane grater - does AMAZING work zesting citrus fruits and grating cheese, chocolate, etc. Seriously, you have to see it to believe it.
4. Ziplock Zip'n Steam bags - steams vegetables perfectly and quickly - and creates no extra dishes to wash! The package includes directions for all kinds of recipes. Double shortcut if you use pre-washed and cut vegetables from your grocery store (not the aforementioned small town grocery store . . . mine came from the nearest HyVee . . . 30 miles from here).
Merry Christmas. May you use your newfound free time to sip hot chocolate in front of a fireplace.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Girl food

Husbands are great. Really, they are . . . or at least mine is! He's a meat and potatoes guy, which is okay. But sometimes I need a break from the meat and potatoes. So . . . when he's at a meeting or on a hunting trip, I make "girl food" - things he won't eat. Two things that (apparently, according to Ken) fall into this category are spinach dip and grits. Tonight, I ate a Panera Orchard Harvest salad and made myself an individual spinach dip. I think I got my full five servings of fruit and veggies today! When I make individual spinach dip, I try to go light on the cheese. Because I was out of sour cream, tonight's version was something like this: 1 carton of creamed spinach, 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella, a little freshly grated Parmesan, a pinch of garlic salt, and a dollop of Miracle Whip, baked at 375 for 25 minutes. Spinach dip (see full recipe in a previous post) an easy recipe to adapt - as long as you have creamed spinach and mozzarella cheese. Sometimes I add Italian seasoning. Sometimes rosemary or a different blend of cheeses. Artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeƱos or crab meat (if you like jalapeƱos or crab meat, which I don't) . . . so many possibilities!

Another favorite "girl food" of mine is cheese grits. This is an "Ultimate Quick & Easy" recipe from Southern Living:

Quick Double-Cheese Grits
6 cups water
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups uncooked quick-cooking grits
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese (sharp or extra sharp)
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
2 tbsp. butter
salt and pepper to taste (start with 1/2 tsp of each)

Cook grits according to directions on package (usually this involves boiling the water, adding salt, then gradually adding the grits, stirring often, until thickened). Remove from heat; add cheeses and butter. Stir until blended. Stir in salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.

Note: grits keep reasonably well in the refrigerator; you might need to add some water when you reheat them. A friend of mine says she fries leftover cheese grits. I don't know if she breads them or fries them as is, but either way, I bet they're good!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Meg's Sweet Dreams Party

Friends, family and food . . . all three were present at the Sweet Dreams party I hosted for Megan on Friday night. But there is more to this story. Here goes: My mom has great friends, really, really great friends. Amongst this group of friends, they have a special wedding tradition. On the eve of the wedding of a daughter (of one of said friends), they hold a little gathering. Usually there is lingerie involved, and laughter. And always good food.

A tradition this good is worth repeating, so I decided to host one of these little gatherings for Megan, who is related to my husband. I thought it would be a good for her to be surrounded by her friends and family the night before her wedding, in hopes of getting her to slow down and relax. Because here's the thing - she is an amazing gal, but she's such an overachiever . . . you have to make her take a break! In the course of a week, she turned 20, had knee surgery, graduated from college (yes, that's right, at age 20), got married, and moved to Michigan, where she will begin law school in January.

Unfortunately, I was having one of those Murphy's Law-type days, where nearly everything goes wrong. Fortunately, it all worked out in the end (and everyone was full from the rehearsal dinner anyway!).

Here's what I ended up serving: toasted pecans, honey glazed almonds, maple candied walnuts, vanilla popcorn, pretzel "sparklers," sugar cookies, and brownies. And coffee and hot chocolate (Barefoot Contessa, yum!). And little bottles of vanilla vodka, Starbucks liqueur, and Kahlua, for the over-21-and-not-driving crowd.

What a great way to wish Megan "Sweet Dreams" on her last night as a single gal!