Spring Holidays I

Although the weather outside is frightful – not at all springlike, times for family and friends to gather are numerous in the spring.  St. Patrick’s Day is probably one of the easier holidays to host since it is a one pot meal, granted one giant pot.  I must admit corn beef is not one of my more favorite cuts of meat but I can handle it once a year.  My in laws used to cook a smoked shoulder which was more to my liking. We put two corn beef briskets on to boil and then simmer around 1:30 on St. Patty’s day.  Friends were coming at six so we peeled and cut up the carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and turnip. We removed the meat and covered it foil and set aside.  Into the same water we added the cut up veggies and the quartered cabbage and set them to boil and simmer as well. In the mean time I set the table and got out the vinegar and mustard which are the usual condiments of choice.

When the veggies are fork tender we removed them onto large serving dishes with a slotted spoon and put the meat back in to heat back up for a few minutes. The meat should be sliced with the grain on the bias in 1/4 to 1/2 inch slices as desired. It is easiest to set up a buffet so everyone can select what they want.  Clean up is a breeze with the one large pot and a few serving dishes – more time for socializing and watching a little March Madness!

Next time I’ll talk about Easter and Mother’s Day and then summer will be just around the corner!

Chicken Marbella

It has been a while since I last blogged but wintertime seems to bring about numerous occasions to entertain in our home where a fire is always burning in the fireplace.  We were to go to a restaurant with three other couples but decided a restaurant can be noisy, crowded and not conducive to sitting and talking when the meal was done so we had everyone to our house.  One of the best crowd pleasing recipes as well as easy is Chicken Marbella. I purchase huge half breasts(the recipe calls for quartered chicken) at our local butcher market and use a two gallon zip lock bag for the marinade.  I usually do this at least a day ahead and remember to turn and redistribute the bagged chicken occassionally, bringing it out of the refrigerator at least an hour before we eat.  I do this because the oils tend to congeal and I like the chicken to be at room temperature before I put it in the oven.  When ready, I just dump the chicken and marinade in a large roasting pan making sure the breasts are in a single layer.  On top I pour the white wine and sprinkle the brown sugar over the breasts and pop it in the preheated oven.  I purchased some small meat thermometers (one for beef and one for chicken) and insert it into the thick part of the breasts towards the end of the cooking time to check for doneness.

I had planned on oven browned fingerling potatoes which is still my first choice but realized really late that I had left them at the store (if you can imagine). Luckily, I had some large baking potatoes that I quickly baked in the microwave.  When done, I sliced them in half lengthwise, scooped out the potato into a bowl (be sure to keep the empty peels)and mashed them adding, butter, sour cream, bacon bits and cheese. I spooned the potato mixture back into the peels and set them on a cookie sheet until I was ready to put them into the oven to rewarm and broil the tops.

 My friends brought the appetizers and a big salad.  The meal was capped off by the best key lime pie ever.  This recipe I got from the restaurant where I first tasted it.  It is fantastic.  I’ve attached the recipes for the chicken and the pie.  If I had been smart I would have taken pictures – the meal was definitely picture worthy!

Chicken Marbella                                                                        

(For 8 large 1/2 breast I increased the marinade
recipe by 1 1/2)

4 quartered chickens (2 1/2 lbs)
1 head of garlic, peeled and pureed
1/4 dried oregano
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup Italian parsley finely chopped

In a 2 gallon zip lock combine the chicken with the first 9 ingredients above. Let marinate, refrigerate over
night. Into large baking pan, arrange chicken in single layer.  Sprinkle brown sugar over all the chicken and pour white wine around the chicken. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting frequently with pan juices. Chicken is done when piercing the breast with a fork releases clear juices. Transfer chicken to serving dish, spoon juices, prunes and olives. Sprinkle with parsley. Pass remaining juices in a gravy boat.

Key Lime Bistro’s 2-layer Key Lime Pie
3/4 cup granola (no dried fruit)
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup unsalted butter melted
3 tbs sugar
1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
(I use the lo fat sweetened cond. milk)
1/2 cup fresh key lime juice or lime juice
3 large egg yolks
1 8 oz pkg cream cheese @room temp
1/2 cup sweetened cond. milk
1/4 cup fresh key lime or lime juice
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
Whipped Cream

Crust: Preheat oven to 350 F. Pulse the granola in a food processor, mix Preheat oven to 350 F. Pour ingredients from bag graham cracker crumbs, add melted butter and sugar. Press crumb mixture into pam sprayed pie plate up sides and on bottom. Bake until golden brown, about 8 minutes. Reduce oven temp to 300 and remove crust to cool completely.  Layer 1: Whisk condensed milk, lime juiceand egg yolks in medium bowl to blend.  Pour into pie crust. Bake until custard is set, about 25 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Layer 2 Using an electric miser, beat cream cheese, condensed milk, lime juice,sugar, and vanilla in a large bowl. Pour over cooked baked layer smooth top. Cover and chill until firm – at least 4 hours. Garnish with whipped cream.

Valentines for Oldlyweds

With Valentine’s Day, we think of gifts of diamonds, red roses and romantic dinners but for a lot of people, if it weren’t for Hallmark, the day would pass with little fanfare or forgotten all together.  Not so if my friend Renee has anything to say about it. We were invited to her home for a Valentine’s Day dinner with our admission ticket being our wedding picture to display for all to view.  Once we arrived, we realized it would not be just an evening of socializing with friends but a competition patterned after the Newlywed game.  While we compared wedding and bridesmaid gown styles and dated hairdos (which was a hoot), Renee took each of us away privately to ask questions and record our answers.  She asked us things like: ” What would your husband say is your favorite rock band?” (answer Journey), “Where were you when he proposed?”  or “What is your mother-in-law’s mother’s name? The number of guests she had invited dictated that she have two preliminary rounds and a final round. Answers came sometimes spontaneously and some took a lot of thought. Sometimes the wives were  as clueless as the husbands.It can’t be fully express how funny it was to hear the answers and see the spouses’ reactions. If the wedding pictures were a hoot, well the “Oldlywed” game was a hoot and a half!

Superbowl Chili Bowl

It’s that time again -the Superbowl has become a national holiday where friends come together for no other reason then to eat, watch TV, laugh at the commercials and socialize. In our house it is no different and it is a great opportunity to invite others to help with the food. One year we had a chili cook off which was an overwhelming success. Some friends were invited to offer up their best chili concoctions. Served up in crock pots allowed for the chili judges to graze all afternoon long. One friend brought white chili made with chicken, white beans and a white sauce. It was delicious, the recipe follows. Another made a chunky beef and tomato with the a variety of hot and sweet peppers added to the mix. Another made a more traditional chili but offered condiments such as different cheeses, peppers, sour cream, chips, avocado, or chipotle chili powder to add to her chili and make it their own. The rest of the meal was rounded out by appetizers to kick off the afternoon, a variety of salads, provided by those not entered onto the chili cook off, and finished off by easy finger desserts. All were winners in the cook off competition and no one went home hungry!

White Chili Recipe:
(North Woods Chowder)

3 cups chicken broth
4 cups  white beans or cubed peeled potatoes 
1 cup sliced carrot
1 cup sliced celery
1 cup diced onions
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
Bring the above ingredients to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes or until veggies are tender.  
Add 2 (17 oz.) cans of creamed corn
1 cup raw wild rice (precook before adding to soup mixture)
3 cups cooked chicken
1/2 cup precooked chopped bacon
Heat 4 cups milk or half and half and 1/2 cup flour until bubbly and continue cooking for one minute stirring constantly.  Add this to soup mixture and heat up, but do not boil.

Serve with salad and bread if desired

Getting Ready for the Holidays

The Thanksgiving Turkey is simmering in the soup pot and we are already turning our attentions to Christmas. With our kids home for the long weekend, we go with our neighbors for the annual cutting of the Christmas tree. Unfortunately, tree farms have a finite number of tall trees and after searching three farms for the “perfect tree” we had to resort to the old fashion way – buying a previously cut Canadian export.

I start decorating leisurely the weekend after Thanksgiving.  With the kids having moved out the decorating is left to me. My husband is usually in a prone position on the couch as I struggle with the Christmas tree lights and ornaments.  Last year, our twelve foot tree fell over with the stand filled with water when I attempted to turn it to what I thought was the better side.  This year we anchored the tree to the curtain rod with a clothes hanger.  If anything falls it will be the rod.

I start with the railing garland, a combination greens, lights, bows and glass red berries. I am organized somewhat – at least the garlands are labeled.   I decorate the foyer tree like a tree I remember from my childhood although it is about four feet shorter, two feet thinner and fake.  I still remember my parents friend, an engineer, standing on a ladder  hanging white lights and silver balls meticulously on a perfect 12 foot fresh cut tree.  Although, I have tried to duplicate it, I have never been successful.  My mantel comes next with a country theme this year – an evergreen wreath with a red and green plaid cotton bow with a “aged” bell.

Service Auction

As Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays approach, they get us thinking about what we can do for others.  We contribute to the Salvation Army Bell Ringer at the supermarket, we participate in food and clothing drives and we make someone’s Christmas a little brighter. I attended a service auction at my church and it was so much fun I held one in my home and invited some of my friends.  It was a night of laughter and socializing before the holidays get too busy.  Here is how it works.

I compiled a list of 20 to 25 questions which have a numerical answer to them. How many shoes are in your closet?  How many beds are made right this minute in your home?  How many bottles of wine do you have?  I emailed this to about 15-20 of my friends and asked that they answer all the questions and add up their score.  In addition to this assignment, I asked them to contribute a service to the auction.  One friend offered to babysit. Another offered to make lobster bisque for eight people.  Another friend offered a tennis lesson.  The night of the auction, all were asked to bring their score sheet and I compiled the service offerings and handed them out when they arrived.  I served light appetizers and drinks then we all gathered in my living room for the auction.

It was then explained that the score they received was the “dollars”  they had to spend on an auction item. One friend had 130 1/2 points and when we asked about the 1/2 point she informed us she only had half of a wine bottle at home!  The bidding became pretty heated as several competed for a specific auction item.  Another friend bid on a pool party even though she owned a pool herself. Often, if two people wanted the same thing they shared the item.  Two of us took advantage of the tennis lesson. There was no expiration date on the items – in fact two years after the auction my friend is still trying to plan that pool party!

Let’s face it – we are all pretty generous with are time and money but when do we do anything for ourselves.  We all had a blast getting together, catching up on each other’s lives and leaving with something that didn’t cost a thing!  Try it and you’ll be doing it every year.

Inherited Hostessing

 I was brought up in a home where my parents entertained a lot – my mother was a great cook.  She’d clean the house from stem to stern, bring out  her best china and silver and arrange her own flowers.  Her presentation was flawless, she had a wonderful knack for decorating and food preparation and she seemed to do it with ease.  My sister and I inherited this gift, or curse, depending on how you look at it and we entertain with a similar ease and enjoyment.  My brother doesn’t lack in the in that department either.

I’ve been married 29 years and except for a vacation abroad, I don’t think a weekend has gone by in all that time that my husband and I haven’t entertained in our home. Because we entertain so often we pretty much have it down to a science.  For this reason I thought I would share some of our secrets, our successes  and the stories from behind the scenes.

My husband loves to eat.  I don’t think a food exists that he doesn’t enjoy eating. Just to watch him eat a 5 lb. lobster is entertainment in and of itself. He is in charge of our social calendar and prefers to invite friends to our home for dinner. I wouldn’t say it is a totally fifty/fifty division of work but without him, it would be more of a chore than an enjoyable experience.  Every other week I am lucky to have someone clean my bathrooms and common areas of our home which definitely takes the stress out of entertaining. I work my larger party plans around the cleaning schedule. This was one luxury my mother didn’t have.

Our children have embarked on living their own lives away from home but they, too have inherited the bug for entertaining.  My daughters, Kate and Alyssa, do most of their own cooking. My son, Donald is quite a baker and certainly won’t starve if left to himself.  Alyssa actually hosted a holiday dinner party she prepared herself. She set the dining room table using my best china and silver.She insisted that her guests get dressed up, the boys in ties and jackets.  I arrived home to find the kitchen spotless.  I was very impressed.  I’ll blog about that at a later date.

TIP:Bring out the good stuff – the china and the silver.  They deserve to get out of the cabinet once in a while.

Golf Outing and Pot Luck

In New England, Fall is the prettiest season and one of the best places to enjoy it is on the golf course. The trees are a glorious reds, yellows and oranges and you can usually count on at least one seasonably warm autumn day to plan a golf outing.  We do it every year and it is one of the most fun times all year even if you don’t golf.  We have had many players who have never swung a club and are usually playing with a vintage set.  I usually limit it to 10 couples.

We play a nine hole scramble with one caveat – Each team must use everyone’s drive at least twice.  That way everyone feels they are contributing.  I mix up couples so no one is playing with a spouse and make the teams as even as possible. I collect $20 per couple and award prizes to the Winning team and the winners of the most accurate drive and closest to the hole for both men and women.  When the weather cooperates, most of us walk getting the most of the beautiful fall scenery and some exercise to boot!  At the conclusion of the golf we made our way back to our house for the pot luck buffet. The conversation was lively as we  laughed about our golfing “prowess” and vowed that next year we’d all take a lesson or two!

This year I provided grilled pork tenderloin.  This is a real crowd pleaser, and if you purchase it at BJ’s or Costco you can buy a lot of them quite inexpensively. A friend served up marinaded chicken breast with white BBQ sauce.  I delegated  the rest of the buffet offerings to my guests. Our menu was minestrone soup which was a perfect party starter, serving it in paper coffee cups.  We had two appetizers, two salads, a vegetable casserole and cookies for dessert.  What was great was that it was the perfect amount of food  – we had plenty with hardly any leftovers. I always like that, I hate filling my refrigerator with leftovers that never get eaten.

I find that those who don’t entertain much tend to have too much food.  Either it is thrown out or put up as leftovers.  Either way it usually is wasted.

TIP: When the food is gone, its gone. Don’t bring out more to replenish because chances are your guests have eaten all that they will eat.

I would like to share two of the recipes from that night:

Summer squash casserole:

My friend, Mary Ellen is always asked to bring this – it feeds a lot and tastes yummy.  It coordinates well with most any entree.  Preheat the oven to 350 and spray an Oblong casserole dish.

Slice 2 lbs  zucchini and/or summer squash. Chop up one medium onion and add a cup of shredded carrot. Steam until tender, drain and set aside.
Mix 1 cup sour cream with a can of condensed cream of chicken soup
Add to this mixture the drained squash mixture.
Melt 1/2 cup butter or margarine and stir into 1/2 of an 8 oz bag of seasoned stuffing.
Spoon the squash mixture into the oblong pan and cover with stuffing mixture.

Bake for 25-30 minutes uncovered.

The White BBQ sauce can be used with pork as well and my neighbor Kristin actually marinade the chicken in it until ready to grill. She found this recipe in How to Grill Cookbook by Steven Raichlen We put the remaining sauce out to be spooned over the chicken if desired.

1 tsp coarse salt, or more to taste
1 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp sugar
2 tbls. minced onion
1 cup real mayonnaise
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar, more to taste

Combine the salt pepper, sugar, onion and garlic in a small nonreactive mixing bowl and mash to a paste with the back of a wooden spoon.  Stir in the mayo and vinegar.  Taste for seasoning, adding salt or vinegar as necessary.  Transfer the sauce to clean jar and store in refrigerator for 4 to 5 days

Hot Summer Night

Our first home was a small, two bedroom cape with no air conditioning, but we luckily had a large screen porch which we used practically non stop during warm summer nights.  We had invited four couples for dinner.  I reconsidered tackling the meal preparations in my hot little kitchen on a very humid New England summer evening.  Grilling wouldn’t be a comfortable alternative either.  I opted instead to serve a selection of cold but hearty salads I could prepare ahead.  To make it especially easy on myself I took advantage of some helpful items found at my local supermarket.

I purchased a two rotisserie chickens, some shredded cabbage, and a variety of seasonal, fresh fruit, and a large head of iceberg lettuce or cabbage (red, preferably).  Once home, I began preparing  the meal while my home was still relatively cool.  I prepared Southern Style Chicken Salad, a recipe I got from Bon Appetit Magazine years ago. I shorten the prep time but using the rotisserie chickens instead of simmering 1 lb. chicken breasts in 1 cup of white wine, fresh dill and pepper in a medium skillet.  I diced the chicken and added 1 cup of celery diced, 1 1/2 cup grapes and added the dressing comprised of 1/2 cup mayo, 1/4 cup sliced green onions, 3 tbls. buttermilk, 2 tbls. minced fresh dill (or a tsp. dried) and 1/4 tsp black pepper. The sides would be cole slaw using my friend Jane’s delicious recipe.  I like it because it is prepared without mayo.  The dressing is: 1/3 cup oil, 1/3 cup cider vinegar, 1/3 cup sugar or splenda, 1 tsp celery seed, 1/2 cup craisins, 1/2 cup walnuts chopped. Mix the dressing and add to four cups cabbage slaw(half green, half red). Refigerate until ready to serve.  The second side was a fruit salad prepared without juice if possible.

I then carefully peeled leaves off of the head of lettuce or cabbage gently washing them and careful to keep their “bowl” shape.  My edible plates I arranged on a platter when ready to serve.  Get your cold drinks ready, add an easy dip as an appetizer and sorbet with fruit for dessert and your meal preparation is complete.  When you  are ready to eat, have your guests fill their lettuce bowls with the various salads, grab a fork and a napkin and enjoy a cool and refreshing meal.  Remember, clean up is easy !!

TIP: It is tough to entertain in the heat so keep it easy.  Salads you can make ahead and serve easily makes for stress free entertaining.