Though winter isn’t officially here according to the calendar, early sunsets and chilly nights mean that it’s fast approaching. As someone who loves daylight and loses steam once the sky goes dark, it’s around this time each year that I put my antihibernation plan into action.
During these darker months, my natural inclination is to burrow down — to stay close to home and not surface again until the warmer days return. While this might have been an appropriate survival strategy during another era, in my current life, it initiates a most unpleasant spiral of isolation. This is no good for anyone.
And so I fight back against this tendency to hole up using food. I throw dinner parties and invite friends over for spur-of-the-moment potlucks. I organize brunch outings. I make extra large batches of soup and carry it to harried neighbors. And at least once a weekend, I make an extra large casserole, just in case.
These days, one of my favorite recipes is Giada’s Greek Noodle Casserole. It’s essentially a slightly simplified version of Pastitsio and ends up tasting like an exotic, homemade version of Hamburger Helper. For those of us who grew up on the stuff (it is what my dad would make on nights when he was in charge), that makes this endlessly comforting and familiar. Perfect for combating short days and cooking as your Weekender.
Before you get cooking, read these tips
I suspect that many basic round white plates or sets of plates adorn many tables around the country for the holidays and for everyday use. Square plates and even triangular dishes have also made a splash on many a table top store display and Web site. But what’s the solution if you have a few of one and some of another shape? How do you know if your table needs a little seasonal shape-shifting?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Layer two square-shaped plates on top of a round shape to create a bit of holiday panache. Most round plates have a rim around the edge to contain sauces or meat juices. These will serve as a great base.
2. Square plates without lips or borders look great atop round plates. Instead of nesting them atop the round plate to form a square, try fanning both plates in a diamond pattern (see photo above), the way bartenders always fan out the cocktail napkins. It’s a little fancy and a bit unexpected.
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My Grandma Bunny was known for her spinach salad. It was one of her most regularly requested recipes by friends and made an appearance on her table at nearly every family gathering. She would search out adolescent leaves, wanting greens that would relax upon dressing and tossing, but not wilt immediately. Palm-sized leaves were avoided, as they were too old to be eaten without the application of heat.
Once the right spinach was chosen, it was washed carefully (I think this was in part to give an eager grandchild an opportunity to help). I’d climb up on a stool next to the kitchen sink and swish the leaves around until Bunny was certain they’d released all their grit. Once they were clean, she’d shake off the big droplets and heap them into a large pillowcase that was fitted with a drawstring. She’d take the pillowcase outside and twirl it around over her head. More efficient than a salad spinner and far more entertaining for small children.
Then it was time to make the dressing. It started with a few slices of minced bacon and ended with slices of mushrooms, cooked until tender but not rubbery. That, along with slivered red onions, a little red wine vinegar, salt and pepper finished the salad. It was warm, savory and still wonderfully crisp.
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On Sunday night, a day before Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the mid-Atlantic, my husband and I had some friends over for dinner. We went back and forth, debating whether it was a good idea to encourage people to come out in what we were told was going to be ever-worsening weather.
After a brief consultation with the weather oracles and our invite list, we pushed on with our little gathering. I made two pots of soup. Friends brought bread, cheese, meatballs and wine. We sat around our living room for hours, munching our way through nearly all the food and appreciating the feeling of being part of a community.
When all that was left were empty bowls, a few crumbs and a cheese rind or two, I brought out dessert. Often, when faced with the challenge of choosing a dessert to serve to guests, I flounder. I waffle between making some ridiculously complicated confection that ends up tasting good but looking terrible or I choke entirely and dash out for cookies and ice cream.
Before you start baking, read these tips
With Halloween just hours away, you’re likely feeling prepared for this spooky-sweet holiday by now. Candy and costumes? Check, check. Trick-or-treat plans? Made them. Extra candy? Of course. But then your child comes home from school and announces that he’s volunteered to bring in treats for his classroom Halloween party tomorrow. What do you do? Instead of relying on your secret stash of candy bars to save the day, try preparing easy, kid-friendly sweet treats that will wow your child and surely be the talk of the elementary school.
To start, follow Sandra Lee’s lead and embrace the magic that is Semi-Homemade Cooking. Her Monster Cupcakes come together in just 20 quick minutes, thanks to pre-made unfrosted cupcakes. The secret to working with store-bought goodies is putting your own signature spin on them. These cupcakes, for example, become extra special and look downright homemade once you — or your kids — decorate them. Sandra opts for green-tinted frosting and colorful candies to create simple, silly monsters.
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Each year around Halloween I find myself feeling nostalgic for elementary school — for class parties, costume parades on the playground and a plastic pumpkin bursting with candy. I also find myself craving my mom’s honeyed popcorn. It was her signature treat to give to friends and neighbors for the holiday.
After dinner when all the dishes were cleaned and put away, she’d fire up our yellow-and-white air popper and keep it running until she had filled a clean brown paper grocery bag with the popped corn. Once that task was finished, she’d melt butter and honey together into a thick syrup and pour it over the popped corn, using her longest-handled wooden spoon to help stir it all up.
The sweetened corn would then get spread across rimmed cookie sheets and would go into the oven for 10 or 15 minutes, to help set and crisp the kernels. The next day when it was cool, she’d package it up in plastic bags, secured with orange and black twist ties. My sister and I always got small bags in our lunch the day after she made it.
Before you start popping your corn, read these tips
There has always been something deliciously spooky about wire baskets. Even the quaintest Victorian type conjures up memories of my Connecticut childhood when small groups of us ventured out on Halloween, letting the owls guide our way down seemingly endless and dark winding drives to the trick-or-treat prize.
Now I love placing something orange (but not too bright) or a dulled red fruit in a wire basket as a nod to the Halloween palette. Something with an irregular shape, a root vegetable perhaps, also looks great in a black wire basket, especially when it’s sticking out through the wire.
I’ve seen black wire baskets in stores and on many websites this season, and am quite fond of the vintage pieces from any century or style: Victorian, art deco, midcentury or shabby chic. Any of these will do.
Since they have a common denominator of black wire, the styles mix well. With their various shapes and sizes, they create a wonderful focal point, either in a row or clumped together on a coffee table, or by the entrance or front steps, where trick-or-treaters or party guests will be sure to spot them.
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Even the most delicious cuisine is enhanced by presentation. Think of it as a backdrop, a stage set that brings your feast to life. What I bring to the party is everything but the food itself. I’ve always been fascinated by how food is presented on tables and settings of all types. In this new weekly column, I’ll be sharing my favorite design snippets and scenarios, based on my adventures as a Food Network designer and an avid connoisseur of style and design. So feel free to indulge here, but with your eyes only.
Think of these as essential presentation elements. The collectible trivet, from the most basic to the highly embellished, protects your counter and table surfaces from heat damage.
When it comes to dessert, I’m not particularly inventive. On the nights when it’s just my husband and me, we stick to the simple things like a nibble of chocolate or if we’re feeling particularly virtuous, sliced apple dipped in a little peanut butter. When I have more than the two of us to satisfy, I tend to gravitate toward fruit crisps or basic brownies. No one ever complains, particularly if I serve them with vanilla ice cream.
Once in a great while, however, I feel the need to up my game a little. Such is the case for an upcoming gathering of my potluck group. We’ve taken most of the summer off from getting together, as nearly every week, someone was dashing off to a distant beach town or jetting across the country to visit family. But with the start of the new school year, people are settling back down and are free for potlucking once again.
The next dinner is this weekend, and I’ve been assigned dessert. Our hostess is from Mexico and since September 15 is Mexican Independence Day, a theme has emerged. I needed something impressive and in keeping with the rest of the meal. Enter Marcela Valladolid’s Banana and Cajeta Layered Crepes. They’re dramatic, thematic and different from anything I’ve ever brought before. I made one crepe as a trial run earlier this week, to ensure that it wouldn’t be a flop for my friends. Happily, it’s delicious and fits the bill for this potluck perfectly. Next time you need a dessert that will wow folks, I highly recommend this one. It’s a bit labor-intensive, but that just makes it perfect for The Weekender.
Before you start layering your crepes, read these tips
This summer, Food Network’s Grilling Central is packed with recipes for the entire family’s taste buds, boasting the best in burgers, dogs, chicken and more all season long. But with so many recipes, where do you start? Each Saturday, FN Dish is giving you a complete menu that is stress-free, and this weekend’s spread is guaranteed to feed a crowd.
If this Labor Day weekend suddenly finds you cooking for a houseful of guests, fear not. We have everything you need to pull off an effortless, enjoyable backyard bash that’s brimming with top-notch dishes. Best of all, our no-fail recipes are a cinch to make, so you can be sure that you, the host, will have as much fun at your party as your guests.
Perhaps the most important part of any summertime soiree is the cocktails, and when it comes to entertaining a crowd, simplicity is key. Now isn’t the time to show off your mixology skills with made-to-order specialty drinks. Instead reach for big-batch cocktails that lend themselves to easy pouring, like Food Network Magazine‘s Red Sangria or Bobby’s White Peach Cocktail. If your guest list includes kids, prepare a pitcher of alcohol-free Mint Limeade, so that they can enjoy frosty glasses, too. Check out Food Network’s roundup of Pitcher-Friendly Drinks for more simple drink ideas.
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