Holiday Meal Helper, Part 3: Finishing Flourishes

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ll know we’re on a shared journey together. We’re on the quest for a simple, stress-free holiday party. You may not be a master chef but you’ve learned a lot of techniques that enable you to try more complicated recipes and maybe even have some fun as well. Now I give to you the final installment. Today I’ll go over the little extras that will take your holiday party from just a success to an absolutely stellar occasion.

1A Baker’s Field Guide to Christmas Cookies by Dede Wilson contains the number one absolute easiest recipe for cookies ever. You don’t need an oven, but you do need some high-quality alcohol. And let’s be honest: if you’re taking a few nips of the top shelf stuff while prepping cookies (as I assure you is required by law) you really have no business near an oven. Hey, I’m just looking out for you. Chocolate bourbon balls (page 40) combine the best food groups: booze, chocolate and sugar. There are variations where you can substitute other liquors and get an entirely different product. I wonder if anyone has shared this recipe with Hannah Hart of My Drunk Kitchen yet?

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Top 100 Step-By-Step Napkin Folds by Denise Vivaldo is full of simple ways to make any place setting outstanding. Toss aside those napkin rings: you won’t need them this year. I’ll be honest: outside of a cruise I went on last year, I’ve never actually eaten someplace where the napkin has a special fold—except maybe a fan in a wine glass. Who thinks of doing this, anyway? Only the most accomplished hosts and hostesses like you. Bird in flight (pages 26-27), buffet roll (pages 36-37), fir tree (pages 58-59), and shield (pages 90-91) are simple to make but are special enough to add that little bit of flair to your table. Your guests will be surprised and flattered that you took the time to pay such attention to detail…and that you used cloth napkins in the first place.

3The Kitchen Pantry Cookbook by Erin Coopey shows you how to make your own condiments, chips, stocks, and more. What we’re going to care about is in chapter six: dips. There’s nothing I look forward to more at a party than dip—except maybe the drinks. But we’ll get there, so slow it down, champ. If you’re feeling ambitious you can make the potato chips (page 140) or pita chips (page 152) but I confess I’ll just buy some pre-made. The French onion dip (page 146), herb dip (page 148),  and even the spinach dip (page 158) are simple to make and don’t require those seasoning packets you can buy at the store. I guarantee you everyone will be impressed when you tell them that you made these dips. From scratch. I mean, who does that? You do.

4Make Your Own Soda by Anton Nocito has dozens of syrup recipes you can use either with a home carbonating device or simple seltzer water to make your own sodas. And we’re not just talking cola. Guava (page 28), sarsaparilla (page 58), spiced maple (page 68) and hibiscus (page 70) are just a few flavors you can create to delight your unsuspecting guests. There are recipes for egg creams, cocktails, and even warm drinks, like the hot apple toddy (page 139). When I hear “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I can practically taste a nice, warm hot toddy and smell the cinnamon.

5Cocktails for a Crowd by Kara Newman has over 40 recipes for a good time. Many of my guests enjoy being offered a nicely crafted drink but I do not enjoy spending my time bartending. That’s why this book is so incredible. Your group can enjoy one of several beverages that you can prepare in bulk (can you ever own too many pitchers?) and actually spend time socializing with your guests. Raspberry Bellinis (page 30) serves 16. French 75 punch (page 32) serves 8. Spiked and spiced apple cider (page 42) serves 8. Those all feature flavors that go well with a typical holiday feast. On the other hand, Suffering Bastard (page 77) serves 8 and is more of a summer drink. However, if you are suffering from ‘Too Much Family at the Holidays Syndrome’ you might get a secret thrill by serving these to your family. Quick, someone tell John Green!

Still looking for a little bit of extra polish? Why not whip together a fun holiday playlist? I’ve created a list of holiday tunes that combines the classics with some of today’s more modern spins. If you celebrate Christmas and you actually have your party on December 25, this will be your last chance until next year to hear those carols without someone clobbering you. I say go all-out and don’t turn the music off until bedtime.

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Take my advice. The right mix of fancy napkins, alcohol (or non-alcoholic fizzy beverages), music, and homemade dips will be sure to cement your place as future host or hostess of your family/friends’ annual gathering. Try to stay modest, though. You had help getting where you are today. You can send praise to my boss. It’s performance review time!

Carol

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

It’s the Most Grumbleful Time of the Year

Meditation for BeginnersFor the most part my transition into my thirties was pretty smooth; no real shocking changes other than people all of a sudden assuming I had an issue with my age. The only thing I’ve found a little bit surprising was the emergence of holiday and seasonal stress. Up until a couple of years ago, Thanksgiving through New Years Eve was my favorite time of year. I guess the difference is the addition of new stressors to the November/December milieu: 2,000+ miles to travel to see family, 1 hour less daylight than I was used to getting in the Chicago winter (man that makes a difference!), taking over for grandma and mom to become the holiday cook, going home to an aging parent, and so on. This year I’ve been exploring different ways to decompress and have found a few things that work for me.

Meditation
For years I’ve had friends and family tell me that they benefited greatly from meditation. I remained skeptical that this could work for me because I rarely seem to be able to carve time out for other healthy pursuits such as the gym, or sleep. Thankfully for people like me, there are books that break down meditation misconceptions to show us that it can be added to a hectic schedule, and practices can even be included in your day-to-day activities. If you’re looking for a good guide that isn’t tied to any one spiritual practice and doesn’t require much of a time commitment, I recommend Meditation for Beginners, by Jack Kornfield.

Relax your NeckStretching
It’s no secret that tension can be hard on the body. Whether you’re gritting your teeth through outlet mall traffic or trying in vain to ignore bad holiday muzak in the QFC, getting all uptight about it begins to take its toll. Taking some time to stretch out helps to improve your mood immensely. Relax your Neck, Liberate your Shoulders by Eric Franklin provides some really useful stretches, exercises, and tips for body/posture awareness that are targeted to alleviate the soreness caused by tension. This book is also great for folks working desk jobs that involve a lot of typing and phone usage.

Medicinal HerbsPamper Yourself
Ready or not, it’s December, so there’s no avoiding the holidays. You might as well treat yourself to the things that make you calm and happy. I like to go the warm tea, hot bath, good night’s sleep route. I found some really useful recipes for teas, soaks, and calming essential oils in Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: a Beginner’s Guide. My favorite recipe so far has been for the Calming Herbal Bath. Also of interest for this time of year are teas to help with cold, flu, and bronchial problems; if you check back with me in February I’m pretty sure I’ll be using those.

Aside from the recommended reading, I’ve really enjoyed and benefited from the odd sunny days we’ve been having. Making an effort to get outside for a lunch read has been worth it, even with the slightly chilly temperatures. Come grab a good book to escape with, and I’ll see you on the other side in 2014.

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

All I Want for Christmas is My Sense of Humor

Tis the season for crazy sweaters, spiked eggnog, and blackmail photos. If you’re following the library on Facebook you’ll know we’re not above poking fun at ourselves around the holidays.

Crazy Sweaters

But if you’re like me, this time of year is so crazy-busy you really try to find the humor in whatever new holiday-related predicament you find yourself in. Let me lead you through my holiday routine and you’ll see why I believe there’s no place like the library for the holidays.

awkwardfamilyphotos.comWhen my waistline is somewhat back to normal post-Thanksgiving and my calendar is now screaming DECEMBER at me, I will usually gather up my husband and our cats and attempt to pose us into some semblance of order. We aim for cute. What we usually end up with are semi-strangled pets and harried looking adults grimacing in what is sure to be the 30th attempt, one that will “have to do” because no one wants to do this anymore. The Awkward Family Photo books have similar photos to show you what I’m dealing with on an annual basis.

People of WalmartOnce the photo has been taken, it’s off to get the prints made. Usually I can send the photo over the Internet to be printed at my local pharmacy. But if you’re unlucky enough to need to wade through the hordes of holiday bargain-hunters and actually set up your photo card in person, you will be sure to find some truly bizarre individuals completely oblivious to social norms. The People of Wal-Mart books have just a few samplings of folks who haven’t paid any attention to their attire—or in some cases paid entirely too much attention to what they’re wearing, to a horrifying degree.

sketchy-santasIf you have children, or feel like a child yourself, the next stop will probably be the North Pole, aka your local mall Santa. These days you can even take your pets to visit Santa, though I suspect my cats would be truly horrified should we ever attempt that with them. While there you may find yourself face-to-face with what can only be called a Sketchy Santa.

Who’s that excessively jolly fellow with the fake beard, shifty eyes, sweaty hands, and boozy breath? Why, it’s not just Santa but sketchy Santa!

crap at my parents house

Eventually we will arrive at the big day: holiday celebrations with the family! I was lucky to have grown up celebrating Christmas Day at my Grandma’s house, a home which was tastefully decorated and yet still inviting for the sticky-fingered, running, screaming grandkids. However, occasionally I would visit friends’ houses during Christmastime and inevitably stumble across something that could have come straight out of Crap at my Parents’ House: creepy ceramics, giant Santa figures that could easily be mistaken for a Sketchy Santa, and hundreds of Precious Moments dolls crammed into one tiny hutch.

my kids ruinedAfter the holidays come to an end, there’s always something else to look forward to. Yes, there will be another holiday season to anticipate next year. But really I’m talking about the time when that gift you loved getting is inevitably ruined by someone you love and thought you could trust. Sh*t My Kids Ruined features some prime examples. Toys shoved in the VCR, diplomas graffitied with ink pens, and countless pets massacred with everything from condiments to vomit are sure to leave you clutching your loved ones close but your prized possessions closer.

This holiday season, I am fortunate to be able to travel back home to Illinois, where my story began. Spending so much time with my family I can guarantee I will laugh, I will cry, and I will be thankful for the life I have and for the possessions that haven’t yet been destroyed.

Carol