Lessons From a Party

Learning never stops–it’s one of the few constants in life. I find that whether it’s something as simple as a new flavor combination or a more efficient way to complete a task, the kitchen offers plenty of opportunities the learn something new. Even if it’s what NOT to do!

Last weekend I hosted a small Wedding Shower. Here’s what I learned:

“Just Enough” Can Still Look Abundant

How sad is it to walk into a party and see a few small amounts of snacks laid out on large plates on a large table? That sort of thing makes me hesitant to take anything, not wanting to make the spread even more meagre for folks coming behind me. Guests who see an abundance of food and drink, though, will freely help themselves.

Of course, we’ve talked about figuring out how much food to prepare and, in the case of small parties, the choice seems to be between making just enough and making enough to fill out your serving pieces. I was facing this particular dilemma since the Shower had a limited guest list (and an even more limited response!).

  1. Instead of bringing out the larger folding table I usually use for parties, the small kitchen table was just large enough to hold the various serving dishes I’d purchased to go with the theme. If the gathering is very small, tray tables arranged around the party room, the tops of low bookcases (or even cleared shelves of tall ones) or a card table may make the most of a smaller spread.
  2. Keep the serving pieces smaller and pile the food upon them. Rather than spreading out the food, pile it up and on! The smaller the item, the smaller the plate. There’s a fine line between abundance and overwhelming, so just make sure guests can easily serve themselves from the bowl or plate without knocking anything off or spilling.
  3. Create varying heights on your table. Whether you have multi-level stands available (stacked cake pedestals make a nice display) or place boxes or crates under the plates and bowls, adding height takes up some of the extra space on a table. If your risers are pretty (glass blocks from the hardware store, for example) leave them in plain sight but it’s easy enough to camouflage cardboard boxes or other items by adding an extra tablecloth or tea towel to the arrangement.

I was able to make only what was needed for the party without letting the table seem bare at all! It’s the first time, ever, that I’ve not over-prepared by fridge-filling proportions!

The Cupcake Conundrum

Who doesn’t love cupcakes? They make great buffet items: self contained, easy to serve and just enough for a bite in miniature. The only problem is that iced cupcakes cannot be stacked and therefore can take up ridiculous acreage on the party table or require frequent replenishing, taking up the hostesses time.

My solution? Take out the icing issue! Instead of icing several dozen Red Velvet mini-cupcakes, I left them plain, piled them in the two lower bowls of a 3-bowl stand (height!) and filled the top bowl with the cream cheese icing and a decorative spreader. Guests loved adding as much icing as they wanted and I was free to enjoy the party without having to constantly police the refreshment table.

I may serve all my cupcakes with do-it-yourself icing from here on out, it worked so well. If the spreader idea doesn’t sound like enough fun, what about filling several disposable piping bags with various flavors of icing and setting out an array of toppings (sprinkles, candies, and berries)? I bet most guests would love the opportunity to play decorator!

All in all the party was a wonderful success: the two sides of the family got to mingle a bit before the wedding (it was a couple’s shower), everyone enjoyed the games and I was left with a happy heart and tired feet–the mark a truly good party in my opinion!

Creating Recipes

You know how it is: you’re in the kitchen trying to come up with something for dinner so you just start tossing things together. Or, maybe, you’re doing a little improv on an otherwise basic recipe. Either way, dinner turns out very yummy and you’re left wondering: now, how did I do that?

Of course, in my case, I’m working on the cookbook so I have to be able to tell others the recipe. But whether you’re situation finds you wanting to write down a family recipe that’s made by memory or follow your own ad libbing, the following tips will help you get to the same destination: a recipe that can be made more than once with the same results! It all comes down to two main parts: Measurements and Records.

Measurements

A pinch of this, a dash of that, but is it your pinch or my pinch? A finger and a thumb or a full-fisted affair? While some vagaries of cooking (the inevitable ’til it’s done’ comes to mind) really are variable due to a number of conditions, if we just pause long enough to measure each thing before adding it to the pot it makes the written account so much easier to follow.

How to do it? First, keep a couple sets of measuring cups and spoons out as you create. One set of each for wet and dry ingredients and a flour sack towel or the like for wiping spoons out from one spice to the next. If you have them out, you’re more likely to use them. Then scoop or pour everything into one of these tools, first, rather than directly into your cooking vessel of choice.

For bigger items (meats, large quantities of flour, etc.) having a digital scale on the counter is a real time saver. Choose one that does both grams as well as pounds and ounces then just keep a stack of wax paper on hand to put between the food and the scale and you’re in business. You can also weigh as you go if you’ve got a tare-function on your scale (place an empty bowl or dish on the scale and then press the required button–it’ll zero-out the weight so that all you’re measuring is the contents and not the vessel); just note the weight change after each addition and you’ll be able to replicate your results even when the original was done completely by eye.

Records

Measuring is one thing, but unless you have some way to retrieve that information, it’s not going to do you much good. As a friend used to say: the weakest ink is better than the faintest memory. The obvious solution is to keep pen and paper at hand and stop between each step to write everything down.

As simple as this is, it can also wreck that creative flow you get into while playing culinary scientist on the way to a new discovery. Instead, recruit a friend or family member into taking dictation. This is a great position for kids who want to help in the kitchen but may not be quite ready to man (or woman) the range on their own. Finally, if you fly solo at the stove, try a digital voice recorder to take notes hands-free that you can transcribe after the dishes are washed. This is also good for catching any kitchen epiphanies you might have along the way.

So, go forth, create and then replicate your success again and again. Or, if it’s not so much in the success department, at least you’ll know exactly what you did and you can figure out where you went astray.

Foodie Resolutions

It’s that time of year, folks, when we look back at the year that was (and wonder where it went so quickly!) and contemplate the year ahead (and what we’re going to do differently). As much as I dislike the word “resolutions”–it sounds so official and ominous and unyielding–it is what most people call their intentions (my preferred word, leaves some necessary wiggle room) that they set. Do you have any that are food-related?

No, no, no, I don’t mean the usual big-d-Diet ones. I mean little-d-diet ones, the everyday practices that we have, the getting out of ruts or starting new habits. Whether we live to eat or eat to live, food is a necessary part of our daily lives so it makes perfect sense that there might be some food-related intentions to be made for the start of the next decade.

If you want to eat healthier in the new year, instead of declaring an all-out war on carbs or fats, why not try a more subtle shift like these:

  • I intend to eat more vegetables. If you’re more of a meat and potatoes type, try mashed cauliflower instead of the usual spuds, bake sticks of turnips or rutabagas drizzled with olive oil instead of fries, or even creamed spinach on the side of your grilled or broiled steak or chicken.
  • I intend to watch my portion sizes. Pick up a deck of playing cards and place it next to your plate at home–that’s the size your portion of meat should be. Does it look very small on your usual plates, making you feel deprived? Buy smaller plates! It’s true, we eat with our eyes just as much as our mouths, and seeing a full plate of practically any size will increase your satisfaction with a meal.

Perhaps you already eat healthily but your usual meals have gotten a bit predictable. Maybe you want to try new things but don’t know where to start. All it takes is an idea:

  • I intend to try a new recipe every week. Too drastic a shift in our eating habits can be upsetting on several fronts. Immersion works well for languages, but I think a more gradual introduction to new ingredients, cuisines or cooking techniques is a kinder way to expand ones horizons; knowing that the familiar is waiting around the corner allows us to experiment more easily.
  • I intend to buy a new spice and learn how to use it. One of the most fascinating things in food, I think, is how different the same basic ingredients taste when a new spice or seasoning is employed. I recently picked up Ian Hemphill’s Spice and Herb Bible and am amazed at how thorough a reference it is, including helpful tips about which spices easily combine, what quantities to use with what sort of foods and what each is best suited for.

Or, maybe, it’s the food budget that needs an overhaul:

  • I intend to eat out less. While I’m all for supporting local restaurants whenever possible, let’s face it: eating out costs more than cooking at home and, when you are out more nights than in, your food budget can be way out of proportion. This means fast food and take-out, too. Not only will you be doing your wallet a favor, but your waistline may show the difference as well. And when you do go out, pay attention to those portions and bring half of it (or more!) home for future meals.
  • I intend to make shopping lists each time I go to the grocery store. There’s just something about having a list in-hand (yes, you have to bring it with you, not leave it on the counter) that curbs the impulse to toss stuff willy-nilly into the cart. It may mean a bit of pre-planning about your menu for the week, but I’m always astonished at how much I spend when I go shopping sans-list compared to with one, not to mention what I invariably forget and have to go back for during the week!
  • I intend to shop locally. While not always the case, many times a farmer’s market can yield better prices on fresh produce simply because the farms are down the road and require less transportation costs instead of several states (or countries!) away. Similar deals can be found with local meat markets that do their own butchering and therefore fewer middle-man costs. Even if the prices are the same, you may feel better for supporting the local economy in a more direct way than shopping for everything at the larger chains or big-box stores.

Whatever you intend for 2010, keep in mind that it should be to add something to your life. By keeping a positive spin on things and concentrating on meeting small milestones on a frequent basis you’ll have a higher sucess rate and be able to look back on the coming year with a smile.

Introducing “What to Feed Your Raiding Party” a Comic Book Cookbook

Intrigued? I certainly hope so! I’ve got a new project on the horizon and, frankly, it could use your help.

Kickstarter.com (in case you’re not familiar with it) is a site that allows creators of various sorts to propose a project, set a fundraising goal and accept the pledges of backers for a certain period of time to, hopefully, fund the project so that it can become a reality. If the fund goal isn’t reached, no one pays a thing, but if the fund goal IS reached, the pledges are collected (via Amazon Payments) and transferred to the creator who can begin (or continue) work on their project.Kickstarter is BIG into rewards, so each pledge level comes with some sort of thank-you involved.

What to Feed Your Raiding Party is accepting pledges for the next 2 months. What it is, is half comic book, half cookbook, written with a definite slant towards gamers, geeks and lovers of our particular type of pop-culture. My goal is to raise enough funds to cover a print run of 250 as well as the time and materials involved in creating the 150-page book (50-75 recipes and 60 or so pages of comics). There are more details over on the project page, including a complete list of rewards that span private project updates to copies of the book to getting a recipe named after you to original art and more.

Obviously, backers willing to pledge any amount are needed but if you can’t do that, consider passing around the link to your friends, posting it on any forums that gamers and geeks hang out on and talk up the project as much as possible–that’s just about as important as money as the more people find out about this project the more chance I have of reaching my goal, being able to start work on the project, get it printed (that’s the big thing!) and have it available for folks to use.

Feedback is always welcome & I hope you like this concept as much as I do! Also, while you’re at Kickstarter, check out some of the very awesome projects over there that you might be interested in being a part of.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/randomactscomics/what-to-feed-your-raiding-party-a-comic-book-cook-0

Apple Dumplings

I’ve been thinking a lot about apples, lately, and with the weather cooling off, the cinnamon brooms showing up in the supermarkets and the idea that the holidays are right around the corner, I think of Mom making Apple Dumplings. This is her recipe, updated a little by me. They are especially good on cool Fall and Winter nights and actually travel fairly well for pot-lucks.

Apple Dumplings
serves 4*

1 sheet Puff Pastry Dough, thawed
4 medium apples, peeled and cored*
Cinnamon
Brown Sugar
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
Dried fruit (raisins, cherries, cranberries or blueberries all would go well)
1 beaten egg
White sugar

Roll out the puff pastry dough just a little bit to curb some of it’s puff tendencies (we want the flaky flavor, not necessarily the poofiness) and cut into quarters. [* If you are using very small apples you can actually get 6 dumplings out of one sheet.] Place an apple in the center of each sheet and sprinkle with cinnamon. Spoon some of the brown sugar (how much you use it up to you) into the hollows of the apples, top with a piece of butter and then the dried fruit.

Bring the corners of the puff pastry square up and around the top of the apple, pinching the corners together. Don’t worry too much about sealing up all the edges, it’s actually quite pretty to leave the little openings that the folded sides create. Place in a buttered baking dish and brush with the beaten egg mixed with a little water. Sprinkle with the white sugar and bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit or until the apples are tender, covering with foil if the pastry begins to brown too fast.

Serve warm with ice cream, freshly whipped cream or just plain heavy cream drizzled over them.

Kitchen Tips

Every now and then you find a good way to do things or luck upon a new trick in the kitchen. These aren’t exactly new to me, but they might be new to you.

  • Something too spicy or strong-flavored? Try adding some dairy to temper the over-bearing quality. Mayo is a good foil for a meatball or barbecue sandwich that comes on a bit too strong, cheese can temper a too-spicy soup and milk, cream or butter will dent some other harsh flavors you could encounter in a meal.
  • When you’ve salted all you’re willing to salt but the dish still needs a little something, try adding a splash of lemon or lime juice instead of salt or similar flavorings. The citric acid wakes up other flavors without added sodium.
  • If you have a recipe that calls for buttermilk and you’re fresh out, add up to a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to 1 cup of regular milk and let it sit for about 5 minutes for a quick substitution.
  • Another recipe swap: using applesauce in place of oil can make most quick-breads and cake mixes moister without sacrificing flavor–plus it cuts down the fat and those little snack-cup sizes are perfect for your average boxed mix.
  • To make cutting a bell pepper into even strips or julienne easier, lay the pepper on it’s side and cut around the top edge, going through the skin but not the middle. Twist off this top and most of the seeds come with it. Slice off the bottom end, turn the pepper upright (it should be like an open tube, now), cut through one side and open the pepper out flat. Use a paring knife to remove any extra ribs that may be attached and then slice the pepper into perfectly even strips perfect for salads or stir fries.
  • When your knife is dull and you can’t sharpen it right away, cutting through the flesh of a fruit or vegetable is easier than cutting through the skin–turn them “inside out” when possible and you’ll have an easier time of things until you can get to a whetstone or professional sharpener.
  • Wrapping baking potatoes in foil before their baked or even right after, especially if they are moist when wrapped, “steams” the potatoes and gives them an unappealing, waxy texture instead of the fluffy one you expect. It’s best to allow an hour for them to bake, au natural and not pierced, in the oven but if you are in a time-crunch, microwaving them inside an oven mitt (all natural fibers, please, and no metal!) will more closely approximate the longer baking.
  • Always make sure meat is perfectly dry before placing into a pan for browning. Moisture impedes caramelization and you won’t get the results you’re after.
  • Always add vanilla to your pancake batter–even if using a mix, a splash of vanilla will improve the overall flavor of the flapjacks.
  • When doubling a recipe, don’t automatically double the salt or other spices called for. Start with a single quantity and build up.
  • Ground white pepper is easier to digest than black thanks to the outer layer of the peppercorn having been removed. It’s also hotter–there’s no “chaff” to blunt the flavor so use less if you’re substituting!

And one from Todd: To make a quickie grilled cheese sandwich, place a slice of cheese between two loaves of bread and place in the toaster oven (or regular over). No oil or butter and no dirty pan to clean up.

Blueberry Dumplings

It’s (technically) Fall now, and that means various group pot-lucks or company get-togethers will be starting, soon. Maybe it’s school fundraisers or church socials, but at some point you’re going to be asked or expected to bring something yummy to share somewhere. Even if it’s not expected, this is a quickly put-together dish that will delight your office, your civic group or just your family one nip-in-the-air morning.

Blueberry Dumplings
serves 16 (or less–depends on how hungry they are!)

1 c boiling water
1 c brown sugar
2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, divided
2 cans crescent roll dough (the uncut sheets)
1/2 c granulated sugar
nutmeg
1 can blueberry pie filling
1 pint fresh blueberries (or 1 pkg frozen if not in season)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melt one of the sticks of butter and then combine it with the boiling water and brown sugar in the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish.

Carefully spread out the crescent roll dough on a baking mat or lightly floured surface and sprinkle with the sugar and nutmeg. Spread half a can of pie filling and half the fresh or frozen blueberries onto each can of crescent dough, leaving about an inch clear on both of the long sides. Dot the top of the filling with bits of butter and then roll up the dough, jellyroll-style, sealing the roll with the inch of filling-free dough.

Slice the rolls into 1-inch sections and place each slice, cut side up, in the pan with the water-butter-sugar mixture.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the tops of the dumplings are golden brown.

The sugar mixture in the bottom of the pan makes a delicious sauce for the rolled dumplings. While these are perfectly fine served at room temperature or even cold, they are best when piping hot, served with hot coffee or ice-cold milk.

I made these for a friend’s party, recently (it was a morning get-together) and they were a big hit with everyone who tried them.

Working Girl 8

Time for a Molly-tale. Some things are only work-related because they happen at work, such is the case with the majority of my Molly-tales. But it IS nice to have some doggie distractions around whenever you need a play-break. Just don’t give her a liver treat!

Cruise Holiday 4

People watching is awesome on a cruise, you see all kinds of things. This couple was cute in their odd little way and the idea that one dessert would make this bird of a woman fat was absolutely ludicrous.

25 Things, 16-17

This was the scene when I cleaned out the fridge recently. Though, in reality, the fridge is usually packed to the gills with fresh foods or recent leftovers–I cook more nights than not, after all, and use very few prepared foods, etc. At least when I’m behaving myself.

17. Todd was afraid I was a bit of a lush before he met me. I’d gotten a bar cart for Christmas, had sipped a glass of wine while in weekend chats and have an extensive liquor “cabinet” but, thankfully, he learned that I go weeks without an adult beverage of any sort and generally stay well under sloshed when I do drink. Generally. There are always exceptions.