Holiday Meal Helper, Part 2: Planning Perfection

Welcome to the menu portion of my three-part series intended to help you master your holiday host or hostess responsibilities in style. Part I introduced you to the basic cooking skills you need as a foundation for cooking confidence. Today I’ll share delicious and simple recipes guaranteed to bring applause and tears (the good kind, at last!) to your gathering. Or, more realistically, you’ll be sure to stress less and have more fun this holiday season, even if you’re not a pro in the kitchen…yet.

1After Toast: Recipes for Aspiring Cooks by Kate Gibbs appears to be designed for the post-college crowd—but any budding chef can benefit from the recipes inside. I found two great snacks you can scatter in small dishes around your living areas. Guests can nosh on spiced crispy chickpeas (page 175) made with smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, and ground cumin. Sugar-and-spice nuts (page 176) feature walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. The beauty of both recipes? You can make them ahead of time, they’ll make your house smell amazing, and they are as simple as tossing the ingredients together and baking in the oven.

2High Flavor Low Labor by J.M. Hirsch proclaims to “reinvent weeknight cooking.” You just need to know it has decadent appetizers that are perfect for your holiday gathering—or any time. Grilled bacon-wrapped figs with blue cheese (page 9) are simple and make a dramatic presentation. Polenta cakes topped with prosciutto and peppadew slivers (page 11) are so pretty, yet so easy. Half the work is already done for you with ready-made polenta. Fig and manchego puff pastries (page 21) pair the dream team of flavors: sweet and salty. Once you master this recipe it’s easy to switch it up later to make mini pizzas, perfect for movie night. Pesto-drenched tomato wedges (page 35) show off the red and green color combination perfect for the holiday season. Blend ingredients in the food processor and pour over sliced tomatoes. How easy is that?

3Aida Mollenkamp’s Keys to the Kitchen is “the essential reference for becoming a more accomplished, adventurous cook.” While this is indeed a fantastic cooking reference (are you paying attention, Santa?) what it’s bringing to our party is the salad. Butter lettuce salad with tahini-honey dressing (page 200) is a great basic salad to get your palette revved up. I’m not sure why I haven’t made my own dressings before—it’s super easy. Step 1: put stuff in food processor. Step 2: blend. Step 3: let’s eat! Or if you’d like to be more adventurous, try the raw kale salad with heirloom tomatoes and roasted cashews (pages 202-203). Aida swears that making this salad ahead and letting it sit helps wilt and soften the kale. It makes for a fabulous presentation on a serving platter. And your health-fad cousin will love that you used kale, that trendy ingredient.

4Come Home to Supper by Christy Jordan has the dough—meaning there are some terrific bread and roll recipes in here. Cheesy garlic biscuits (page 219) are super-simple to make. And they happen to be my favorite type of biscuit: drop. That means you just mix the ingredients and drop them onto a baking sheet. Ten minutes later you have biscuit nirvana. Need an even quicker recipe? Ten-minute rolls (page 224) utilizes muffin tins and has a secret ingredient: mayonnaise: “The mayonnaise gives them a subtle flavor as a sour cream would, acts as shortening, and produces a tender crumb.” Sometimes the shortcut recipes turn out to be the most rewarding, both in time saved and flavor savored.

5Choosing Sides by Tara Mataraza Desmond contains nothing but recipes for side dishes. I implore you to look beyond the mashed potatoes (pages 201-204) and focus instead on switching up the holiday menu a bit. There’s a lot to cover, so I’ll just be listing the recipe names and pages. Please try not to drool as you read them. Charred asparagus with shaved parmesan (page 84), chimichurri green beans (page 85), crisply roasted garlic potatoes (page 90), sugar snap peas with grana padano crust (page 95), ginger honey carrots (page 101), golden cauliflower with herbed breadcrumbs (page 133), red quinoa with cherries and smoked almonds (page 142), legacy cornbread dressing (page 199), and sugar-glazed sweet potatoes (page 205). Now wipe your chin. Drool is very unbecoming in a host or hostess.

6Christmas Slow Cooking by Dominique DeVito is like the holy grail of holiday cooking. It really does cover every course of the meal and then some, but I like it best for the hassle-free main courses. I don’t know why I’d never considered using my slow-cooker for a holiday roast. Short ribs of beef with rosemary and fennel (page 113) become so tender after ten hours in the slow cooker. Prime rib (page 117) has exactly four ingredients: rib roast, olive oil, salt and pepper but it looks incredible. Turkey, bacon, cranberry bliss (page 125) blends some of my favorite ingredients: just use one turkey breast, bacon, apples, cranberries and spices. Holiday ham (page 131) requires a spiral-cut precooked ham and not a lot of effort. Remember, all of these recipes are made in the slow cooker. Your stress level will automatically lower when making one of these easy recipes.

Layout 1One Bowl Baking by Yvonne Ruperti takes the guesswork out of baking. I’m an okay cook but I’m not a great baker. That’s probably mostly due to the fact that I am impatient and imprecise in the kitchen. But this book makes me wonder why I freak out over baking so much. Pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust (page 186) uses crushed gingersnap cookies in the crust and a can of pumpkin puree in the filling. With those serious flavors taken care of, the rest just seems like child’s play. Deep dish plum pie tart (page 198) is a decadent—and simple—alternative to either making a pie from scratch or buying one of the pre-made frozen variety.

You have just read an incredibly simple road map to Party Successville. Population: you. If you make some things a day ahead (snacks, salad) and use the slow cooker to do your main dish’s heavy lifting, you’ll be free to whip up multiple appetizers and side dishes your whole family will love.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I will share the little details that transform a good holiday party into a great one.

Carol

Holiday Meal Helper, Part 1: Cooking with Confidence

Uh oh. You really did it this time. You have achieved the goal you’ve dreamed of since childhood. You’ve secured the designation of host or hostess for your family’s holiday gathering. Why the long face? You don’t know how to cook, do you? Well never fear—I’ve got your back! The library has tons of great resources to help you pull off the party of the decade. And it all starts with learning the ropes. Get some practice with basic cooking techniques now and you won’t sweat it on opening night.

SeinfeldThe Can’t Cook Book by Jessica Seinfeld is a great place to start choosing some simple recipes that will become your kitchen staples. Seinfeld knows that the number one thing holding most ‘Can’t Cooks’ back is fear of failure—either real or imagined. She takes the guesswork out of buying the right equipment and using it correctly. She also has a fantastic how-to section that literally illustrates important skills step-by-step, from chopping herbs to pitting an avocado and even the best ways to wash different ingredients. The recipes are amazingly simple and have a “don’t panic” tip right off the bat that addresses a part of each recipe that might make a ‘Can’t Cook’ hesitate. There’s also a photo for each recipe. If you’re like me this is one of the most important pieces of a recipe–it illustrates exactly what your finished product should look like. This is usually where I notice that I forgot the carrots because there is orange in the photo. You get the idea. Now get this book!

200 skills200 Skills Every Cook Must Have by Clara Paul and Eric Treuillé is not a cookbook. Let me get that out of the way right now. It is, however, exactly what the title proclaims. There are two hundred skills that the authors illustrate step-by-step. While there are a few recipes, it’s mostly what I would call a great companion book to any cookbook you may be using. I find it an especially handy reference when using an old family recipe that may not be very descriptive in its instructions. Right now I’m working on skill 174: soaking and cooking dried beans. I’m on a mission this winter to discover the best chili recipe and I have a feeling that recipe won’t start with canned beans.

everyoneEveryone’s Time to Cook by Robert L. Blakeslee promises to be “the best starter cookbook you’ll ever need.” It also aims to teach you “how to start a love affair with cooking.” From the ideal kitchen layout to choosing the best bean roast and grind for the perfect coffee, this book is a must-read for anyone hoping to create delicious meals that aren’t too complicated to make. Cooking with dried beans is covered in detail starting on page 214 with recipes following. Did you know you could make refried beans at home without a can? It sounds like a no-brainer but it’s not something I’d ever considered before. After seeing the mouth-watering image of the finished product of “OMG! Refried Beans” I am raring to go!

ATKThe America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook is going on my list for Santa. I’ve always sworn by the ATK to provide well-researched recipes and this book is no different. Like the other books I’ve already mentioned, this one goes in-depth with the techniques required to make each recipe. Also included, in true ATK style, are the reasons why one particular ingredient should be used over another. ATK tests consistency of flavor and texture, so you know you’re getting a crowd-pleasing recipe from them. As an example of how far this book goes, let’s look at the BBQ section. It shows you how to set up both charcoal and gas grills, using wood in a grill for added smoke flavor—and then follows that up with incredible recipes. ATK is not afraid to warn you in advance as to what may go wrong with each recipe. So, like Jessica Seinfeld, ATK is setting you up for success.

BurrellOwn Your Kitchen by Food Network star Anne Burrell was written with the beginner in mind, with “recipes to inspire and empower.” Let me share with you Anne’s ten ways to own your kitchen:

Read a recipe all the way through before you start cooking
Do your mise en place (prep work)
Taste and season as you go
Embrace salt
Salt and pepper are not married, they’re only dating (they don’t always have to be used together)
Fresh herbs rock, dried herbs don’t
Spices are sexy!
Toast your nuts
The right equipment makes cooking fun
Keep your pantry stocked

I have a very difficult time with the first few items, as I am always well-intentioned but not necessarily well-prepared. This can lead to a total meltdown on my part before the oven is even preheated. The recipes in this book aren’t exactly basic, but once you’ve gained some confidence mastering the skills above, you can attempt more. This is the cookbook meant to bridge that gap between beginner and intermediate chef. Wouldn’t you like to try your hand at homemade ricotta cheese? I would! Fried rice made right in your own kitchen? Sign me up! How do I know Anne will steer me in the right direction? She doesn’t use a lot of fancy cooking terms (aside from mise en place) but instead uses wordage more apropos of girl talk. My favorite term? Crud: the delicious brown bits on the bottom of the pan that help develop deep, rich, meaty flavors. Oh, yum!

So there you have it—my five best no-fail cookbooks to bring out the inner Julia Child in you. Julia always reminded me of my maternal grandmother, Helen: she made mistakes but made cooking fun. If I can run my kitchen like Julia or Helen I think I will be doing quite nicely indeed.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll break down the perfect holiday meal that even you can’t mess up.

Carol

Cookbooks for Free

“How much does this book cost?” is a question I get occasionally from pre-school aged children on the library’s bookmobile. The idea of the free public library is a foreign one to some young minds. You probably totally get this concept since you’re reading this blog. Free books? Of course! Count me in!

I love to check out all of the glossy, beautiful cookbooks that our library has to offer just to see if they are worth purchasing for personal home use. Here are the ones that I’ve found at the library and loved so much that I just had to add them to my home cookbook shelf:

stirfryingStir Frying to the Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery with Authentic recipes and Stories by Grace Young. This is a complete guide to stir frying with over 100 recipes, stunning photos, and many great tips. We especially love the Cashew Chicken recipe at our house.

inthekitchenIn the Kitchen With a Good Appetite: 150 Recipes and Stories about the Food You Love by Melissa Clark. The only thing lacking in this cookbook is photos, but it is full of stories, and fantastic recipes to cook delicious meals and fill you up. We love the Spicy Chicken Barley Soup. Try it!

whattocookHere’s one that I purchased as a gift for a new cook. What to Cook & How to Cook it:  Fresh & Easy by Jane Hornby. The fantastic thing about this book is that it is so visual, almost like a visual menu. It has photos for each step of each recipe, from laying out all of the ingredients to the finished product. It shows you everything. How easy is that?

I’m in the ‘holds’ line to check out these cook books:

barefootcontessaBarefoot Contessa Foolproof by Ina Garten looks like a keeper. I love all of Ina Garten’s cookbooks and this one probably won’t disappoint. I’ll check it out from the library first just to be sure.

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman is very popular these days. There’s quite a buzz about this one, so, of course, I must check it out. Literally.

myfavoriteAnd, finally, here’s one that I just found on the new book shelf. Oh, my, but this one is gorgeous and glossy. Home Cooking with Jean-Georges: My Favorite Simple Recipes by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. With a name like that, he must be a great chef, right?  That’s Stone Fruit Bruschetta on the cover. Each of the recipes have a stunning photo and look delicious.

I can answer that child’s question for you: books cost a lot of money! Check out these fabulous cookbooks and others at your free public library.

You hungry now? I am. Buh-bye, I’m off to cook!

Leslie

Did You Know? (Turkey Edition)

Did you know that the turkey almost became the symbol for the United States instead of the bald eagle?   

I found this information in the book National Geographic Complete Birds of North America. This book has really lovely pictures of all kinds of wild birds, and anecdotal stories like the one about Benjamin Franklin writing his daughter telling her the turkey would have been better than the bald eagle for a symbol for the United States.

In Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry by Leonard Mercia there is a very complete section about raising turkeys. It has everything you need to know to get started farming or just raising a few at home.

To make a yummy turkey, try one of our many cookbooks in the 641.66 section. How to Cook A Turkey has directions and recipes for an entire Thanksgiving Dinner! There are many other cookbooks that include turkey. Betty Crocker and the Joy of Cooking are just two examples.

And just for fun be sure to look for Turkey Riddles by Katy Hall and Lisa Eisenberg. The kids will have fun telling the riddles all through dinner!  How is a penny like a turkey sitting on a fence? Head’s on one side, tail’s on the other!

Linda

Thought for Food

I read cookbooks like I read novels. Start to finish, savoring every word. Although a lighter fare, cookbooks make up a complete and beautiful story in their own way and can be a nice reprieve from the full depths of a novel.

Three cookbooks that I have read recently, and which I whole-heartedly recommend, include The Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal, Get Cooking by Mollie Katzen, and Cooking with My Sisters by Adriana Trigiani. 

Fat Duck is a visual delight, almost more of an art book than a cookbook. Whether for art or recipes, foodies will adore the gastronomic wonders in this book.

Get Cooking cookbookGet Cooking is by Mollie Katzen, author of the perennially popular Moosewood Cookbook. Touted as a book for beginners who want to ‘eat really well all the time,’ this concise and creative cookbook is for novice and seasoned chefs alike. Chock full of everyday recipes, it includes several photographs of the end result, such as the beautiful (and very easy!) roast chicken.

The popular novelist, Adriana Trigiani, who is mostly known for her delightful stories of shoe designers, Italian Americans, and chick-lit romance, also wrote a memoir-cum-cookbook about her family in the kitchen. As Trigiani describes in Cooking with My Sisters, cooking was the centerpiece of their lives — Cooking With My Sistersfor food, conversation, laughter, stories, and the weaving together of generations. With tips from her sisters, letters, irresistible photographs, and the sweetest recipes, such as “Grandmom’s Buttermilk Cake,” you cannot go wrong with this book either in the kitchen or on the couch.

Readers of M.F.K. Fisher, Ruth Reichl, anyone who loves stories about food and life, and those curious to try a new recipe, are sure to enjoy these tasty books!

Kara

What’s for Dinner?

Spaghetti, eggs and toast, and cereal have become the boring staples of my workday dinners. One of my New Year’s resolutions has been to expand my weekday cooking repertoire with more interesting meals. I have a limited amount of time each evening, and I’m no Julia Child, so recipes have to be fairly quick and simple.  

How to Cook Everything: the BasicsMy tried-and-true cookbook favorite, How to Cook Everything: 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food by Mark Bittman is helping me meet this goal.  I credit his earlier book, How to Cook Everything: the Basics: Simple Recipes Anyone Can Cook, with teaching me to cook competently in the first place. His books feature basic cooking techniques and skills along with great recipes. Instructions are straightforward, adaptable, and never too fussy. 

Almost Meatless cookbookI’ve recently found some fun new cookbooks that have inspired my weeknight cooking. Most of the recipes I’ve tried in Almost Meatless: Recipes that are Better for your Health and the Planet can be adapted for either vegetarians or meat-eaters. The idea is that cooking with less meat helps your pocketbook, your waistline, and the planet, without sacrificing any flavor or texture. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in eating less meat without going entirely vegetarian.  

Chocolate and ZucchiniAs an unabashed Francophile,  I absolutely adore Clotilde Dusoulier’s Chocolate & Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen. Even if you don’t make a single recipe, this is a charming read. Don’t let the “adventures in a Parisian kitchen” subtitle mislead you. Dusoulier lived in San Francisco for many years, and her recipes are designed for American cooks and kitchens. Recipes are accessible, straightforward and—in my experience—always delicious. The yogurt cake recipe is so easy and such a crowd pleaser, it almost feels like cheating.

Because I’m always finding interesting new cookbooks and cooking magazines to try at the library, I think I may actually be able to stick with this tasty resolution.

Bon Appetit!

Mindy

Stories of the Year

If you’re looking for last minute gift ideas, or holiday reading suggestions for yourself, look no further than the Everett Public Library. Our Gift Guide points you to book and music buying ideas for all ages and interests. Our Best Books list includes our favorites from 2009.

Here are a few other year-end lists that I will use to stack my shelves:

The New York Times Top Ten is my personal favorite. At just five fiction and five non-fiction books, this is a slim list of outstanding titles.

Library Journal produces a solid list, including genre and how-to books.

Nancy Pearl’s 2009 Under-the-Radar Books is unbeatable. I don’t know about you, but I always benefit from the action figure librarian’s serious crush on books.

Oh, and there’s so many more, such as The New Yorker, Salon.com, and Publisher’s Weekly. How lucky we are to have such rich stories to fill our lives.

From my pages to yours, happy reading and very happy holidays!

Kara