Nov 182014
My son, proving Phyllis Diller's famous quote true: "“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”  He sabotaged my efforts first with baking soda and then maple syrup!

My son, proving Phyllis Diller’s famous quote true: ““Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.” He sabotaged my efforts first with baking soda and then maple syrup!

As the holiday season approaches, one of the most dreaded tasks is cleaning your house for hosting guests. There is enough to do with all the cooking and decorating but the cleaning obligations can take over your life!

I have been immersed in a fall deep clean of the house lately to get ready for entertaining. Our home always needs a twice yearly scrub-down, including shampooing carpets, cleaning upholstery, dusting, etc. It could probably use it more often but I can only summon the energy twice a year!

There is no secret to making all this scrubbing for company a bit easier. The current popular aesthetic is not only for things to look clean but also to look brand new. If you have an older house, that is tougher to pull off and requires more scrubbing effort. It is hard, back-breaking work but it does look great when it is done and guests love it.

Through a long process of trial and error cleaning my own home, I have come up with a few cleaning tips that are making a big difference in my house.

A Salad Dressing for Leather Furniture

Olive oil and vinegar for cleaning leather.  Who would have thought?

Olive oil and vinegar for cleaning leather. Who would have thought?

My leather dining chairs were crying out for a good clean. After getting rid of all the crumbs and trinkets that our children have managed to stuff into the crevices in the seats, I needed a nice, moisturizing cleaner to reinvigorate the leather. We didn’t have any leather cleaners in the house so I looked online for a homemade solution. I found this one and tried it out. It smells like salad dressing but the vinegar smell does fade within a few hours. The olive oil absorbs into the leather within about a day or so. My husband even noticed how much better the chairs looked after this treatment!

Sandpaper for Deep Cleaning

Sanding sponges, an essential part of my cleaning arsenal now.

Sanding sponges, an essential part of my cleaning arsenal now.

After I discovered that sandpaper does an amazing job reinvigorating toilet bowls, I wondered if sanding sponges could work in other tough situations. I bought a box of them at Home Depot and keep them in the cleaning supplies cabinet. They are terrific for scrubbing crusted on stains off of laminate counters and (when used with very gentle pressure) on hardwood floors. They removed baked on grit from a glass baking dish. They scrub tubs and countertops in the bathroom beautifully too. This is also the miracle cleaner for my oven. It gets rid of grease and burnt food with just water and some scrubbing. No harsh chemicals needed.

One caution with this method, however. You need to test each surface first as the sandpaper can scratch and ruin certain things. Don’t use it on chrome bathroom fixtures as it will scratch.

My "sanded," sparkling oven.

My “sanded,” sparkling oven.

My Miracle Carpet Cleaning Formula

My new favorite "recipe" for carpet cleaning.

My new favorite “recipe” for carpet cleaning.

When you have older rugs and carpets to clean, it can be tricky. Sometimes when the carpet gets wet from the cleaning it can release smells from all the old stains that have ever penetrated the carpeting. The smells don’t go away until the carpet has dried for several days. I have tried all kinds of carpet soaps, laundry detergents and even bleach and had this same problem.

This year, I really wanted to avoid the smells so I tried a new concoction and it worked beautifully! First, I thoroughly vacuumed the carpeting. If there were any stains on the carpeting, I sprayed some Tuff Stuff cleaner on them. I then put some diluted Lysol cleaner in a spray bottle and sprayed the entire carpet. I then sprayed the carpet with a light coat of Febreeze. In the carpet cleaning machine, I put more diluted Lysol in the soap dispenser and no other soaps or detergents. I tried to rinse each area of the carpet twice with clear water as I went. The carpets came out beautifully clean and didn’t really smell of anything. They dried nicely and quickly as well. I used this on both colored and light colored carpeting and didn’t have any discoloration but, of course, if you are going to try this yourself, test a small patch first.

Hope these tips might help anyone else out there scrubbing away! My sympathies!

Posted by anne Tagged with: , , ,
Dec 012012

Our bountiful feast this year! We have much to be thankful for.

It is the end of November and the holiday season has wreaked havoc on my blogging ambitions.  I wanted to share a few images of our Thanksgiving this year.

Last year, I was busy making mini pumpkin pies for the preschool feast and this year all I managed was canned cranberry sauce.  My daughter made an excellent “Chief” however.

Nature is busy at this time too.  These geese crossed the road in front of my car in an impressively lengthy procession.

Goose procession.

For the big turkey day, we were fortunate to have Ruly Ruth and her family come visit.  The cousins had a terrific time hanging out together and Ruth and I pulled together a great meal.

We kept things simple this year.  The only big things to make were the turkey and sweet potato pie for dessert.  The rest of the sides were simple heat-and-eat types of things that were more kid-friendly for our group but they were no less delicious.

Last year, I made a turkey breast that came out really well so I just repeated that recipe this year.  My brother-in-law gave me a very kind compliment and said that I “made it look easy.”

Carving the turkey,

We also repeated the White House sweet potato pie recipe from last year.  The pie didn’t go quite as well as last year.  It came out OK but the flavors weren’t quite as wonderful as I remembered.  Either I did something wrong or this is just an example of how novelty heightens our senses.

This year's version of White House sweet potato pie. (We didn't eat those burned tops of the crust. The rest of the crust was fine)

To make things elegant and as a wonderful reminder of the family who can’t be with us, we served the dinner on my grandmother’s pottery plates and serving dishes and used my other grandmother’s glassware and hand-embroidered linens.  It makes such a difference to have handmade or vintage family things at a traditional and important meal like Thanksgiving.  I also like to add some small votive candles for atmosphere.  Ruly Ruth added Thanksgiving “crackers” borrowing a British tradition.  We all had fun wearing our paper hats and reciting the silly jokes inside.

The Thanksgiving crackers were a fun addition to the table. My nephew downed all of those rolls but informed me they would have been even better if they were Hawaiian rolls.

A couple of fun planning tips to share.  This year and last year, I decided to cook only a turkey breast and not a whole turkey.  I was worried that it would not be enough to feed 9 people but it was more than sufficient.  Everyone could eat as much as they wanted and the leftovers were used up in their entirety the next day in a delicious turkey noodle soup Ruth made.  Marketplace Money recently featured a story about how much turkey is wasted on Thanksgiving and serving parts of a turkey (drumsticks, the breast, wings, etc.) instead of the whole turkey is one way to both save money and reduce waste.

Turkey soup from the leftovers. Delicious!

Another great tip learned this year….if you are eating later in the day and you need to figure out how to feed everyone lunch so they are not starving by the time the big meal starts or have something ready for guests who might pop in, break out the Crockpot!  Ruth made this simple but flavorful and delicious tortilla soup that was light but filling.

Crockpot tortilla soup was a great pre-Thanksgiving snack/meal.

Overall, it was an enjoyable and relatively low-stress holiday!  Cheers to my sister for making the trip!

I hope your celebration was wonderful as well.  Have any Thanksgiving recipes or stories to share?  Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Nov 252011

Our Thanksgiving meal. The popcorn is my daughter's addition.

What a feast! I spent all day cooking and just about the time many people were probably getting in their cars for some early Black Friday shopping we were sitting down to eat. My 3 year old decided that the proper attire for such a meal was pajamas. Obviously, I still need to work on my timing but our meal was probably the best full Thanksgiving I have ever prepared!

We tried the collard greens and have mixed feelings about them. They are kind of delicious but the chewy texture is a little tough to get used to. They go down best with extra red hot pepper sauce and they were pretty good again today in our Thanksgiving leftovers sandwiches.

I also made Cristeta Comerford’s sweet potato pie. This was kind of a funny experience. For some reason, even though I read through the recipe beforehand, I did not process exactly what would be required to make this pie. Here is a bit of my thought process.

First, I put the “aromatics” on a sheet tray and baked the sweet potatoes. I forgot to buy an orange so I quickly grated the zest off the lemon that I needed for the custard part and cut that up instead. I left them in the oven for about an hour.

I then worked on the dough which ultimately came together nicely into a ball as the recipe described.

After taking the dough out from its “rest,” I suddenly realized that I would need to roll this out into a real pie crust…something I have NEVER done before. After a few false starts, I finally got it rolled out

and made a half-decent pie crust.

Then the recipe said, “Top with parchment paper and cooking beads and bake blind for 12 minutes.” Small problem . . . we didn’t have parchment paper. I am not sure what cooking beads are and I don’t know what “bake blind” means. Somehow I recalled either a recipe I made years ago (or maybe something I saw on TV) and lined the crust with aluminum foil and put some uncooked rice in to weight it down.

Fox Run Ceramic Pie Weights at amazon.com.

It came out OK so I figured that must have been close enough.

Next it was time to prepare the sweet potato puree. Things were going OK until the recipe said, “Scoop the meat and pass through a chinoise.” What in the world is a chinoise? I scooped out the sweet potato meat and mashed it with a fork. (I thought to use the strainer in the picture below but the meat was too tough to go through.)

It was still pretty lumpy so I put it in the blender for a bit! The blender couldn’t handle it either so it was back to mashing with a fork again.

Norpro Stainless Steel Chinois with Stand and Pestle Set at amazon.com.

I got it as smooth as I could but there were still a few lumps in it. I probably should have cooked the potatoes some more at this point to make it softer but I needed the oven and didn’t think to do it on top of the stove. I assumed the chinoise must be some super sort of masher or blender that would get all the lumps out. It is.

After getting the puree as smooth as I could, I made the custard and added it in. Things were looking pretty good at this point!

I poured the filling into the crust and put it in the oven.

Fat Daddio's Fluted Tart Pan 12 Inch x 2 Inch Removable Bottom at amazon.com.

While Cristeta’s recipe calls for a “12 inch tart pan,” the grocery store did not sell this so I substituted a 9” pie pan. The problem is that making the pie deeper will increase the cooking time. After the 35 minutes the recipe called for, the crust was perfectly brown but the center of the pie was still uncooked. I gave it 10 more minutes but it still was nowhere near to being cooked. I lowered the heat to 250 and let it cook for probably another hour or so. This pie smells incredible while it is baking! I think it is due to the anise. My husband came down and said, “Mmmmm…..something smells soo good!” which was very satisfying after all that work. I let the pie cook for as long as I could but eventually I needed the oven for my turkey so I took it out and hoped for the best.

As I was washing up dishes after our meal, I noticed that the tag for my Pyrex pie pan indicated that you should never put glass under the broiler. Small problem for the honey meringue topping for dessert! Rather than risk burning the whole pie and cracking my pie dish, I decided to make the meringue on a metal sheet tray and just scoop it onto the pie.

The honey meringue topping is the very best part of this whole dish. Even if sweet potato pie does not appeal to you, you should try this meringue and have it on ice cream or cake. It is soooooooo good. I whipped the egg whites.

Added the warm honey (which, unfortunately had boiled over on the stove leaving me a honey mess to clean up).

Poured it on the baking sheet . . .

and put it under the broiler for about 30 seconds. It came out nice and brown.

The broiler just browns the top and doesn’t firm the meringue so it doesn’t scoop all that well but you can imagine how good this would be if done properly.

When we cut into the finished pie, it was pretty good!

My daughters who liked the mini pumpkin pies I made earlier in the week anxiously wanted a slice. But then they saw that my pie had some chunks of sweet potato in it.

“I don’t like this. It has vegetables in it.”
my 3 year old reported.

After this experience, we can conclude two things:

1) Cristeta Comerford is a seriously talented chef. If I can mess up her recipe this badly and it still comes out relatively great, that shows some serious cooking skills. Her flavorings are so subtle, beautiful and unique. The Obamas must eat some elegant food.

2) Before I attempt another recipe of this culinary magnitude, I need to double check for the right cooking utensils as well as ingredients. If you have all of these utensils in your kitchen, you are probably a seriously talented chef as well!

I hope your Thanksgiving cooking (or eating) experience was just as fun and interesting.

Ruly Tip: If you did cook this year, consider taking a moment to write your recipe(s) down as well as any notes about shopping for special ingredients or cooking tools, how long it takes to make, etc. Store your notes and recipes in a special file, binder or type it on a 3×5 card and create a flip-book ring. Not only will this help you next year when you are planning your meal but it is a great way to preserve memories and would make a great gift to a new cook as well.

What were your favorite foods at the Thanksgiving table this year? What other memories do you want to remember? Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Nov 222011

So far, almost everyone I have spoken with is not cooking this Thanksgiving! They are all traveling or joining a group dinner at a family member’s home. We are on our own this holiday (but missing our families across the country dearly) so I will be cooking for my family.

I had a little Thanksgiving preview this morning, having the privilege of accompanying a young “Native American” to her preschool Thanksgiving feast.


We made mashed potatoes and mini pumpkin pies and had a mini feast with the other kids and moms and dads. The house now smells of pumpkin pie and is setting a warm and festive tone for the long weekend.

While I have told you numerous times that I am still a novice cook, there are a couple lessons I have learned the hard way about cooking for Thanksgiving.

1) If you don’t have your turkey, go to the store as soon as possible! Last night, the grocery store closest to our house ran out of frozen turkeys! “And we aren’t getting any more,” the butcher informed an inquiring customer. But don’t stress, you could always go for something else—a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, turkey drumsticks or wings, ground turkey for turkey burgers, etc. Over the years, we have been so busy working that the only time we had to go to the store was right on Thanksgiving Day. At that time, all that was left were some Cornish game hens in the freezer section. Those worked out just fine too—much better than the year that all that was left was an enormous 20 pound turkey! After years of getting it wrong, this year I got my turkey early, picking up a frozen turkey breast in early November.

2) If you have a frozen turkey, it is time to put it in the fridge to defrost. If it doesn’t defrost in time, you will have to put it in cold water baths in the sink. (I have no idea what happens if you put a frozen turkey right into the oven but I suspect the results are terrible as no one recommends this.)

3) Spread out the cooking. If you are making a lot of side dishes or desserts, many chefs suggest that you make them tomorrow, one day ahead, and store them in the fridge so they just need to be reheated on Thanksgiving Day.

4) Create a cooking timeline. It is also a good idea to review your recipes today to see what you should cook tomorrow versus Thursday so that you have enough oven space for your dishes. It is also time to buy any missing ingredients and start setting your table.

We try to mix things up each Thanksgiving and add something new to the menu. This year, we are adding a Southern twist to our meal. For the first time ever, we will try cooking collard greens! We have never tasted them before but we understand that many people consider them a Thanksgiving staple. The nutritional value of the greens is so high it probably would be a good idea if we all started eating them. We are using Paula Deen’s recipe. By the time Paula Deen finishes with these greens, they may not be nutritious any more but they are certain to taste incredible!

Collard greens in abundance at the grocery store.

The other new food we are trying out is sweet potato pie. Until we moved to the D.C. area, we had never heard of sweet potato pie. It too is a southern staple. Those that don’t eat sweet potato pie, have a casserole of sweet potatoes, marshmallows and brown sugar. For my first sweet potato pie, I am being a bit ambitious and trying out White House chef Cristeta Comerford’s version. I know I am already in over my head as our local grocery store does not carry star anise nor crème fraiche. We had to substitute anise extract and sour cream. I hope this doesn’t ruin it. I have also never broiled meringue before. Wish me luck that I don’t burn it! If all else fails, we have the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies on hand!

Louisiana yams (sweet potatoes).

As I mentioned above, my other dessert risk this year was to make mini pumpkin pies. They turned out really cute and my pumpkin pie hating husband even liked them since they don’t have a soggy pumpkin middle and are more crunchy in texture from the crust.

 

We made the recipe on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can and poured in the filling. We baked the mini pies for about 12 minutes at 350 degrees and then lowered the oven temperature to about 300 degrees and kept checking every 5 minutes until a knife inserted in the center came out clean. We had so much filling left over that I was able to make another pumpkin pie in a square casserole dish!

The finished mini pies. They were quite popular and my picky 6-year old even ate them! Success!

To all of my readers, wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving and hope that you enjoy this special time with your family and loved ones!

Are you cooking for Thanksgiving? What is on your menu this year? Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Nov 172011

Next week, we are coming up on the biggest meat-eating holiday of the entire year . . . Thanksgiving!  As a special challenge to Ruly Ruth, I inquired what she would do if she had to host a vegetarian Thanksgiving.  While I have never been invited to such an event myself, I have encountered several people in the D.C. area who have hosted vegetarian Thanksgiving celebrations.  One friend indicated that her father was livid that there would be no turkey on Thanksgiving, even though she was preparing “Tofurky.”  How would Ruly Ruth resolve this situation?  Read on for her suggestions.

 

Ruly Ruth is a carnivore who seeks out rare meats–I’ve eaten kangaroo, crocodile, alligator, caribou, elk, deer, buffalo, moose, and the list goes on. So 2 problems with this presented themselves immediately: 1) wrapping my head around a non-traditional turkey Thanksgiving; and 2) Thanksgiving is traditionally a meal around a large meat roast–the iconic image of Norman Rockwell! It’s not like other holidays where the meal can be mixed or matched…..it’s turkey! And Stuffing! And gravy! And potatoes (usually) and vegetables–often carrots, sometimes parsnips….with cranberry jelly or sauce…or lingonberry jelly for me! So why or how on earth would I come up with a MEATLESS Thanksgiving???

Then I had an epiphany. And it was actually based on a new recipe for turkey–this woman did it southwest style with tamales instead of stuffing inside! So I’ve decided that Thanksgiving is more about regional and hearty and beloved cuisine than the traditional magazine spread.

So for your main course–to veer from that roasted meat platter….go regional! Make tamales, or enchiladas. In Greece, we could do a lovely spanikopita. Or Italian–with raviolis or lasagna. Or eggplant parmesan! That would make a lovely centerpiece. And couscous or a rice dish to compliment. Obviously sweet potatoes or regular potatoes go with all of this! My mother makes a killer stuffing out of pine nuts, celery, carrots and who knows what else—it’s not a bread-based stuffing–but it’s AMAZING and lovely! Something like that would be a great compliment too.

Another idea especially with the colder weather approaching for most of us, is to do a wonderful hearty soup! Potato leek or a nice pumpkin soup with a lovely roll or bread load would be wonderful. (This would also make a wonderful appetizer as well.) And a great side salad—sounds like a great meal to me!

And lovely fruits for dessert–I just watched Gordon Ramsay on the F Word make a lemon curd tart, to mix it up from a traditional pumpkin pie. We’ve also had cheesecake in the past, and special ice creams as well–very fun to mix it up at times.

Sourcing ingredients for special meals is often where I will splurge on my precious grocery dollars. Going to a farmer’s market for the vegetables and fruit, and specialty shops for jams or lemon curd or fresh breads or what-have-you is a special treat–and what better time than the holidays to do this, when you’re preparing a meal for very special family and friends! Also this supports these local businesses that may not get our usual weekly grocery money. A win-win, I’d say!

Also don’t forget to spread the love of the meal and donate an item or more to the local food bank. My daughter’s preschool is collecting food for a meal for 4 for Thanksgiving. She’ll be bringing in 2 boxes of turkey stuffing. Canned cranberry jelly, stuffing, mashed potatoes mixes, canned pumpkin–don’t forget to add 1 or more of these basic Thanksgiving items to your cart this next shopping trip! It’s greatly appreciated.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

 

So, Ruly Ruth says if you are serving veggie Thanksgiving to meat eaters, don’t use a soy-based meat substitute but rather go for something completely different.  Would you mind if there was no turkey at your Thanksgiving celebration?  Any vegetarians out there?  What do you say?  Please share in the comments.

P.S.  FabFitFun also did a post today about vegetarian Thanksgiving.  You can read their suggestions and recipes here.

Posted by ruth Tagged with: , , ,
Nov 242010

My Yiayia's Table. This one was for my high school graduation.

This Thanksgiving is bittersweet in our family. We have so much to be thankful for–truly too many things to count. However, our Thanksgiving table is one person short this year, having recently lost the matriarch of my father’s family, our beloved Yiayia.

Yiayia was an incredible person in many ways. She lived an interesting and challenging life defined primarily by her upbringing as the child of Greek immigrant parents. Her parents instilled in their four daughters respect for tradition, high standards of hospitality and an expectation of class, elegance and great aspirations. They also taught their daughters a bit of toughness.

Yiayia lived these values. She had so many talents including cooking, playing the piano, creating artful flower arrangements, knitting, sewing, and gardening. Yiayia learned to drive by “borrowing” the family car and teaching herself. She traveled the world in her retirement and had a determined (but lovable) stubbornness to do things her way.

Her skills as a hostess are legendary. She insisted on lavish dinners on every major holiday, birthday, engagement, baby shower, graduation and sometimes just because. She did almost all of the cooking herself and decorated the tables with flower arrangements and her best china. The menu was always an elaborate array of Greek dishes mixed with some standard fare.

Each gathering typically started with tarama appetizers in her pristinely clean living room with wine for the adults and ginger ale for the kids. Dinner was usually served family style at her long dining room table (or buffet style as the family grew larger) with pastitsi, spanikopita, dolmathes, ham, potatoes, turkey and gravy and her elaborate vegetable tray which was always served on a silver platter with each vegetable, cheese or olives in a lettuce leaf cup. Dessert was a must. Yiayia didn’t make cakes but ordered the best bakery delights (usually chocolate rum cake with pineapple filling) and made Greek pastries (baklava, kourambiedes and melomakarona) to go with the coffee. You never left Yiayia’s house hungry.

Anne helping dip the melomakarona in honey.

At the end of each meal, assorted members of the extended family would pop in to say a quick hello. In warm weather we would retreat to the backyard to watch the youngest members of the family run around on her gigantic lawn and in cold we would sit around the fire opening presents, playing puzzles and games or listening to the latest grandchild’s performance on her grand piano.

Ruly Ruth and Ruly Anne in concert at Yiayias.

Now that I have done some entertaining of my own, I have no idea how she kept up with such an aggressive entertaining schedule! I vividly remember Yiayia bustling around the kitchen and serving all the dishes. Her children and daughters in law often had to say, “Sit down, Yiayia. We have everything we need. Come eat with us.” I think she truly enjoyed hostessing. It did not seem to be a stress or a chore for her. She had a harder time being the guest and coming up with small talk.

Yiayia was the root that grounded our ever-branching family tree. There was a special spot in her heart for very young children and babies and she lamented to me late in her life that she felt sad that my children would probably not remember her.

Four of Yiayia's jewels, her grandchildren. Behind us is the yellow stove that generated so many delicious meals.

I am sad that Yiayia is not with us any more and I miss her terribly. I am thankful for her long life, her tremendous energy and the legacy she left. My last vivid memory of her is her sitting in the backyard of my parent’s home celebrating the second and third birthdays of her great-granddaughters. She was beautifully dressed and had on a wonderful sunhat and smiled as she took in the festivities. That is how I like to remember her.

Yiayia simply can’t be replaced. She was the product of a special time and place that will never exist again. I still can’t quite understand how someone so vibrant can be gone so quickly and I know for certain that if there is any way possible she is keeping tabs on all of us.

Ruly Ruth shares her memories of Yiayia below:

I will always remember Yiayia with open arms, a smile on her face, and being so happy and joyful to see us grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. We were her pride and joy. My 9.5-year-old son adored her! Which seems a little odd since sometimes young children are afraid or fearful of older people. He adored her from the first moment she held him! We have a famous photo of her and TJ both wearing Crocs!! As my husband said—what a product when you reach the young kids to the 90+ year old set! Wow! One winter, after going sledding on a local hill in Utah, we were going to return to my parents’ house to warm up when my son insisted we visit Yiayia for hot cocoa! And as always she happily obliged! I will miss her, and I know my son will too. Her care packages of carefully made and individually-wrapped Greek cookies—the koulourakia, my favorites the melomokarama. So delicious!! A lot of work—and we loved eating the fruits of the labor made by those amazing, amazing hands! And the handiwork! The knitted sweaters we have for each kiddo and myself—one I chose back in college that’s an Irish intricate long sweater which will look amazing over leggings this year.

If you have someone you are missing this holiday season and are having a hard time feeling thankful or joyous, know that you aren’t alone and that it is ok to feel a tinge of sadness in your celebrations. While Yiayia’s loss is a tough one, we know there are families with much more difficult losses to bear this year and our hearts go out to them.

Ruly Ruth shares:

Along with Veterans Day, we celebrate the Marine Corps Birthday Ball on the Marine Corps Birthday November 10th. It is quite the event with a ceremony that will bring anyone heart-felt pride and tears simultaneously. It’s a sight to behold! At this year’s Ball, the gift (sometimes a personalized wine glass or beer stein with the unit’s logo to which you are attached), this year was a commemorative coin with the name of a fallen warrior. One coin we received has the name of Corporal Kyle W. Wilks. With this name, you go to the website http://militarytimes.com/valor/search.php and enter the name and read about him and others.

If you need some suggestions for coping with the holidays after death of a loved one, the Office for Victims of Crime has a wonderful list of suggestions from survivors who have been there:

If you are trying to know what to say to a friend who has been through a loss, I don’t know if there are any “right” answers. Reaching out to people in grief, inviting them to your celebration and otherwise treating them “normally” rather than avoiding them is recommended. Here are some other great suggestions from blogger Lori Pederson.

Please feel free to share your Thanksgiving remembrances in the comments and wishing you and yours a Thanksgiving filled with peace.

(P.S.  Yiayia didn’t want her picture posted so you will just have to imagine her through her grandchildren.  She probably would have wanted it that way.)

Swinging from the pear tree in Yiayia's backyard. Yiayia took a lot of photos with heads cut off and fingers over the lens but this one she marked on the back was me.

Posted by ruth Tagged with: , , ,
Nov 242010

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Cream Cheese Filling from Martha Stewart's/Matt Lewis' recipe.

Pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving staple, is controversial at our house.  I love it and think it is creamy, sweet and delicious.  My husband abhors it and finds it slimy, disgusting, and strangely textured.  For years, I have tried different variations on pumpkin pie so that we can incorporate it in our Thanksgiving meal.

One year it was pumpkin cheesecake.  That was the year that I learned that cheesecake is a complicated dessert to make.  All of my mini cheesecakes fell in the center and looked sad and unappetizing.  They tasted OK but certainly nothing we would ever want to repeat.

This year, I learned about pumpkin whoopie pies from the Metrocurean blog. Could this be the answer to our pumpkin problems?  I reviewed a few recipes and decided to try Martha Stewart’s version from Matt Lewis of Baked Bakery.

Normally, I am a bit wary of trying recipes from real chefs.  I have horrible memories of trying to cook from a gourmet magazine as a teenager–spending hours in the kitchen only to have the dish turn out completely inedible and nothing remotely like the picture.

Fortunately, Martha’s recipe is pretty foolproof.  It came out looking quite a bit like the picture.  I was worried when the cookie batter was quite runny and drizzled it in puddles on the cookie sheet to bake.  Fortunately, the cookies came out of the oven puffed up, moist and soft and were relatively flat, which makes assembly into the whoopie pies easier.

My girls loved to eat the cookie tops plain, which, for my eldest was a major success in adding to her limited, picky diet.  The remaining cookies were glued together with cream cheese frosting middles (the leftover frosting was seen here in the Election Cakes). I thought they were delicious.  But the big test was seeing whether my pumpkin pie-hating husband would eat them.

SUCCESS!

 
He loved them and ate several.  This may be our new Thanksgiving dessert tradition.  I encourage you to try them.

P.S.  If you wanted a super-easy version of this recipe, you could try mixing a can of pumpkin pie filling with a box of spice cake mix for the cookies.  A friend brought cookies made from this recipe to a cookie exchange once and they were moist and delicious.

Posted by anne Tagged with: ,
Nov 232010

In preparation for Thanksgiving this week, last week I posted a couple of tips on the biggest organizing challenge this week, cooking! Whether quick and easy or culinary challenge, there are many ways to organize your Thanksgiving meal. For many people, however, cooking is not the biggest challenge of Thanksgiving, that honor goes to the human interactions that occur around the Thanksgiving table.

To be sure, many of these frustrations start with the Thanksgiving meal planning. If you have not read this true but hilarious Thanksgiving letter at Awkward Family Photos by an overanxious hostess providing detailed and insulting instructions on every dish to be brought to the Thanksgiving dinner, it is worth a read.

The comment below summarizes the typical guest’s reaction:

Katherine says:
October 6, 2010 at 6:06 pm

“Two bottles of clos du bois will NOT be enough to deal with her. Who’s bringing the vodka?”

Dear Abby recently advised a woman frustrated at the request to have Thanksgiving a vegan meal this year. Dietary restrictions are becoming more and more common. Whether for weight loss purposes, food allergies, personal preferences or philosophical reasons, many people have restrictions on what they will and won’t eat. To be fair, some of these restrictions are legitimate life and death concerns while others are petty preferences and it can be very hard to distinguish one from the other.

As the host, you have the responsibility to consider these requests and try to accommodate them if you can. If you can’t accommodate them, you politely let people know and suggest an alternative.

Food has become so controversial, I would not be surprised if eventually Thanksgiving has to evolve to be two events: one a meal accommodating the needs of the most flexible eaters and another an event that has nothing to do with eating that is primarily social, like watching a football game, playing a rousing tournament of Monopoly or Scrabble, or taking an outdoor walk or hike.

Below are 10 tips for hosts and guests to help make Thanksgiving a positive event for all:

As the host:

1. Put your guests first. Your goal is to make the event joyful for everyone and make them feel welcome and respected. This will require patience and creativity.

2. Be flexible. If your guests want to bring different foods than you had planned, bring children or want the dinner at a different time, consider whether you could accommodate that request, not just whether you want to. Someday another host will return the favor for you.

3. Make things easy. The fewer restrictions you put on your guests, the more comfortable they will feel. Allow people the freedom to wear what they want to the dinner, reinterpret old traditions and otherwise be themselves. The surest way to ruin a family gathering is to try to force people into the molds you wish they fit into or remind them of the ways they have disappointed you.

4. Invite the right guests. If you have a challenging guest list comprised of some guests you like and others you barely tolerate, make sure you invite some “buffer guests.” The buffer guest is one who helps the party run smoothly, the person who chats easily with anyone or adds a sense of humor to diffuse tension. Often you hear of people inviting a neighbor or other non-family member to Thanksgiving for this purpose. It is sad but true that we are often kinder to strangers than our own loved ones and the presence of a stranger helps us stay on our best behavior.

5. Accept help when offered. You may not be comfortable delegating but do your best to allow others to contribute to the party. They will feel a greater connection to the event and it facilitates interesting conversation among guests. “Who made these wonderful sweet potatoes?” “What an incredible centerpiece!” Hold on to the parts of the party you enjoy doing yourself and subcontract the rest out. If people offer to help, have a list of things ready they can contribute: cooking, designing a centerpiece or place settings, greeting guests and taking coats, manning the bar, taking photography or video, creating activities for children, providing entertainment (if they are talented), etc.

As the guest:

1. Remember the world does not revolve around you. Consider whether your personal preferences could be relaxed or adjusted for one day. For example, your health is important but the most considerate way to address your dietary restrictions is to advise the host that you will bring your own food appropriate to your needs (along with some extra to share) and not make a big deal about it. As a parent, try to relax and adjust your child’s schedule to the event rather than insisting it not be disrupted.

2. Offer to help. Most people are loathe to ask for help and also don’t know how to respond to questions such as, “What can I do to help?” Making a specific suggestion such as, “I have a great recipe for cranberry sauce. Could I bring that?” or “I know hosting has its surprises. I would be happy to come over an hour early to help you with any last-minute details if you like.” Offer something you are generally interested in doing. And if the host declines, don’t be insulted, just know you have honored your obligation to be thoughtful and breathe a sigh of relief that there is one less thing for you to do.

3. Facilitate group cohesion. There are plenty of differences among guests around the table. As the guest, the more you can do to help people interact and enjoy each other’s company, the more value you are adding to the party. Have an answer ready for the inevitable round-the-table question, “What are you thankful for?” Avoid controversial topics of discussion, personal questions and insults. When people feel comfortable with you, they will share the interesting parts of their personal life freely but they will not appreciate being given the third degree. Older relatives take note, this includes questions like “So, who are you dating these days?,” “When are you going to get married?” or “When will you have children?” No one appreciates these questions. If you want to gossip, share your own news rather than insisting others spill theirs.

4. Know your limits. If you really can’t be civil and respectful and enjoy yourself, sometimes it is the kinder thing to decline the invitation to dinner rather than come to start an argument. Just let the host know politely, “Thank you for inviting me. It has been a difficult year and I am just not up to Thanksgiving.”

5. Thank the host. It takes a lot of time to issue invitations, clean the house, cook and clean up afterwards. Compliment the host during the party and thank them on the way out the door. For bonus points, a quick e-mail or phone call the day after the party saying, “Thanks so much for hosting. We had a great time!” is huge! That is the ultimate payoff for any host.

What lessons have you learned as a Thanksgiving host or guest? Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Nov 192010

It’s been an eventful week for me and I apologize for the disruption in the posting schedule. In my last post, I provided easy alternatives to organizing a full course Thanksgiving dinner for a low-stress holiday for those who don’t cook. 

Today, we will go to the opposite end of the spectrum–organizing a sophisticated meal of culinary perfection. More and more people are becoming foodies and skilled cooks. These folks don’t dread Thanksgiving preparations but enjoy working in the kitchen. They enjoy testing new recipes and creating edible masterpieces for their family and friends. If you are planning a complex Thanksgiving meal, organization is even more important to your success. 

If you feel overwhelmed by all that is required to prepare a Thanksgiving meal, take heart that even professional chefs find Thanksgiving menus challenging. For many restaurants, Thanksgiving is the biggest business day of the year. Professional chefs have to manage both meal preparation stress and the financial stress of turning a good profit. The meal has to be delicious and perfectly cooked. So, what tricks do professional chefs use? Below are 10 tips compiled from the wisdom of the Internet. 

1. Have the right expectations. Thanksgiving is steeped in tradition and we have all been indoctrinated with images of whole turkeys served on platters as the pinnacle of Thanksgiving culinary perfection. Would you be surprised to know that fine restaurants almost never cook the turkey this way when serving their guests? 

“Lesson No. 1 in preparing food for the holiday, chefs say: Cut up the bird before cooking. Abandon the Norman Rockwell ideal of serving a whole turkey in its golden-roasted splendor. If your bird looks like that, [Bobby] Flay said: ‘Something’s wrong. Something’s either overcooked or undercooked.’” 

–Sam Sifton, “Chef’s Tips for the Thanksgiving Meal,” The New York Times, November 9, 2010. 

How do you make the turkey if you don’t roast a whole bird? Try Ted Allen’s Deconstructed Holiday Turkey with Sage Gravy

2. Option 1: Menu planning: Stick with the tried and true. Paula Deen, the queen of southern cooking, keeps Thanksgiving simple by sticking to old reliable favorites: 

“I don’t mess around with Thanksgiving. It’s one of those holidays where a traditional meal really counts. Every year the family gathers in the kitchen and Jamie says grace, thankin’ the Lord for all of our many blessings. Then we pull up to a table overflowin’ with tried-and-true recipes like Aunt Peggy’s Sweet Potato Souffle, giblet gravy and my wonderful ambrosia cranberry sauce. And I don’t vary from that. I give everybody their favorites—the dishes that always deliver. In fact, I don’t recommend anybody using this holiday to pull out a brand new recipe. No surprises on Thanksgiving. Sometimes surprises work out all right, but real comfort food comes from doing what you’ve always done best.” 

–Paula Deen, Holiday Dishes with a Southern Flair!, pauladeen.com 

3. Option 2: Menu Planning: Get creative! Perhaps it is a regional difference but while Paula Deen aims to preserve tradition in her southern cooking, New York chefs have a different perspective: 

“Boredom, in any event, is the enemy of all cooks, and of all successful Thanksgivings.”

–Sam Sifton, “Chef’s Tips for the Thanksgiving Meal,” The New York Times, November 9, 2010. 

Ruly Reader Ben foreshadowed this tip in his comment on my last post: 

“I have a standing request (from H) to make my garlic mashed potatoes, but enjoy branching out to make new things. . . . As fun as it is to make the same thing each year, I really like finding new challenges.” 

While many of us would be thrilled to have a signature dish that always comes out perfectly and that our family and friends love, it is understandable that a professional chef finds little interest in making the same dishes over and over and over. Particularly for a meal as time consuming as Thanksgiving, I imagine professional chefs want to maximize their time in the kitchen by testing out new flavors and cooking techniques.

Still, almost every chef agrees that you can only stray so far from traditional Thanksgiving flavors without alienating your guests. People need to experience the flavors they expect, like squash, potatoes, cranberries, turkey, etc. but in a new way.

 4. Organize Your Recipes. Martha Stewart shares a great tip for organizing Thanksgiving recipes so they are easy to access on the big day.

“Once your recipes are gathered, protect them with laminated cards and place in a loose-leaf ring. Should anything spill on the recipe, the lamination makes for easy clean-up.”

–Martha Stewart, Martha’s Thanksgiving Tips, marthastewart.com

This is also a great tip because if you do this, next year you just pull out your ring of recipes and add or replace as needed to speed meal planning next year. It could also be a great memory ring of Thanksgivings past.

5. Maximize space in the fridge. Top Chef finalist Carla Hall teamed up with Wal-Mart to offer this great article on her Thanksgiving preparation tips. My favorite tip was her use of Ziploc/resealable bags to save space in the fridge.

“Take advantage of resealable bags. They lay flat, they stack and they’re see-through so you can see what’s in them. Also, if you’re marinating something, you’ll end up using less marinade when using a resealable bag and have less clean up. More room in fridge means more room for your family favorites on the table.”

–Walmartstores.com press release, “Walmart and “Top Chef” Finalist Carla Hall Offer Tips for Cooking with Love for Less this Thanksgiving,” November 12, 2010.

6. Maximize space in the oven. The oven is massively overscheduled on Thanksgiving Day and can be a limiting factor in being able to pull all the components of the meal together simultaneously. What does a professional chef do when working with the limited oven space of a home kitchen? A key factor is planning the menu to include a variety of things that don’t require the oven, including cold dishes. Another factor is utilizing all the cooking tools available to you in the kitchen.

“*** Don’t be afraid to put things in the microwave!!! If stove and oven space is limited, put the stuffing in the microwave, heat and cover. Same with the sweet or mashed potatoes, whatever else will help. Don’t make yourself crazy cramming stuff in the oven, one night won’t be the end of the world. If it is the difference between cold stuffing or potatoes, use it!!!!”

–Barbara Esmonde, “Thanksgiving Countdown Checklist,” Life in the Kitchen Blog

Food and Wine does not suggest using the microwave but does suggest the grill and the stovetop. A crockpot is another option.

7. Cook ahead. Fresh out of the oven? Not necessarily. Professional chefs know how to save time on the big day and ensure quality food by cooking ahead. Take this tip from Chef Gerry Garvin (a.k.a. G. Garvin).

“Doing your ham and turkey the night before is definitely the way to go. Cook stuffing and other dishes 75 to 80 percent ahead of time. That way the next day you’re just finishing up and it’s already made.”

– Charreah Jackson, “Chef G. Garvin Gives Tips for Thanksgiving,” Essence.com, November 19, 2010.

8. Know Your Limits and Cook Safely. Some parts of Thanksgiving cooking are downright dangerous! Chef Ted Allen provides this warning about deep frying turkeys.

“Beware of deep-frying. I’m not saying not to do it — deep-fried turkey is a delicious Southern confection. But unfortunately, every holiday season, a startling number of poultry Rambos burn their decks, their houses, their pets or themselves trying to make one. It’s so dangerous that Underwriters Laboratories won’t put its UL product-safety logo on any turkey-frying kit, arguing that none is truly safe for home use. If you are frying this year, get a fire extinguisher and make sure you use an oil with a high smoking point, like canola or corn (never olive). And lower the turkey very slowly and carefully into the hot oil.”

–Ted Allen, “Ted’s Tips for a Stress-Free Thanksgiving,” Food Network Magazine

9. Pay Attention to Visual Presentation. All professional chefs know that people eat with their eyes. Food has to look as good as it tastes. From a welcoming table to the presentation of food on the plate, a professional chef pays attention to all details of the meal. Better Homes & Gardens has numerous suggestions for setting a welcoming table, including this great tip for place cards consisting of a note of thanks personalized for each guest.

10. Let others help! Yes, even professional chefs who are capable of making every element of the meal perfectly usually don’t do it! Sometimes they don’t even cook at all on Thanksgiving and savor the work of others.

“I always think somebody else should do the cooking. The holidays are when everyone else enjoys cooking because I love it throughout the year. This is the time I get to be the guest and it’s fun. . . . [A]round the holidays, as a chef, every time I’m invited somewhere, I always end up in the kitchen. They’re like, ‘Yo, the roast ain’t looking right. Can you take a look?’”

– Charreah Jackson, “Chef G. Garvin Gives Tips for Thanksgiving,” Essence.com, November 19, 2010. 

Last year, when you were at home slaving over the stove envisioning “What Would Martha Do?” know that Martha was out partying with friends, having brunch at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant and dinner at The Four Seasons!

Hope you find some inspiration from these pro tips! How is your own Thanksgiving organization coming along? Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
Nov 162010

In the last couple of posts, we have made quite a bit of progress in thinking about emergency food storage. But just as last month, you don’t have time to complete a thought before another holiday pops up. This month, Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is THE culinary holiday of the entire year! The main celebration of the holiday focuses entirely around food. Since most of us cook little if at all Thanksgiving can bring on stress of enormous proportions! I am starting to read more and more blog posts fretting about what to make for Thanksgiving so I thought I would throw some stress relief out there with some easy alternatives.

When I was first married, my husband and I were alone for the holidays and I was glad to have the chance to try cooking an entire Thanksgiving meal myself in our tiny apartment kitchen without fear of complete humiliation. I quickly discovered that Thanksgiving dinner is an incredibly complex meal. While each individual food (turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, a vegetable, rolls and pumpkin pie) poses its challenges, the key difficulty in Thanksgiving dinner for the novice cook is getting all of the foods ready simultaneously. An organizational challenge indeed!

On Thursday, we’ll look at tips from professional chefs on Thanksgiving but today we’ll discuss truly easy alternatives to the traditional Thanksgiving dinner that you could make for a party of one or a huge crowd.

One of the first mistakes I made in my early Thanksgiving cooking years was not buying the turkey early enough. Here in the D.C. area (or DMV for D.C., Maryland, Virginia if you are local), if you wait to buy your turkey until the days before Thanksgiving, all of the most popular turkey sizes will be gone. Generally, the small to medium size turkeys are the most popular. The first Thanksgiving turkey I cooked it was an enormous 20-pound bird, which was all that was left to choose. We were so incredibly sick of eating that turkey that we probably threw half of it away. So, if you really want a whole turkey, it is time to start thinking about shopping for that bird now. If you buy it frozen, you don’t have to worry about it spoiling.

Thanksgiving Planning Tip: Be aware that a frozen turkey can several days to thaw in the refrigerator. Butterball recommends 1 day of thawing in the refrigerator for every 4 pounds of your turkey. You can speed up the thawing process if you use cold water baths but the safer food preparation technique is the fridge. You might want to click here to consult Butterball’s calculators for how big a turkey you should buy based on the number of people you are serving, how long it will take to thaw that bird and how long it will take to cook. Mark these general guidelines on your calendar—when to shop, when to thaw, when to put the bird in the oven.

Of course, you can still have a wonderful holiday and experience the flavors of Thanksgiving without all the hassle of making the traditional foods. Below are 6 easy, low-stress ways to enjoy a delicious Thanksgiving turkey dinner without spending all day cooking.

1) Turkey Sandwiches. Turkey comes in a variety of preparations that don’t require handling giblets or roasting. One of the easiest is deli-counter turkey breast. Pick a good brand and have the butcher slice it to the thickness of your liking. Pick up a bag of really good rolls from the bakery, a jar of gravy, a can of jellied cranberry sauce and a box of instant mashed potatoes (or make your own, from scratch if you are a potato purist). On the big day, you can heat up the turkey in the microwave, put it on the rolls with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy and Voila! Thanksgiving on a bun! One year we did this with rotisserie chicken instead of turkey and that was delicious too!

2) Turkey burgers. Ground turkey is a healthy alternative to ground beef and makes a great burger. You could do something similar to the turkey sandwich or get a little fancier and use Gwyneth Paltrow’s recipe for Stuffed Turkey Burgers from her GOOP newsletter We make these one year and they are so easy and good.

3) Turkey Enchiladas. We are venturing a little away from traditional Thanksgiving here but hey, anything with turkey in it counts! An easy recipe can be found at Epicurious. This is designed as an after-Thanksgiving meal but there is no reason you couldn’t make it for the main meal.

4) Turkey Pizza. Pizza is a great crowd-pleaser, easy to make and offers nearly endless flavor combinations. You could use turkey sausage to make a pizza with traditional Thanksgiving flavors like this one from Luxist.com.  Or you could get a little creative with flavors like this Artichoke Turkey pizza from Butterball or this Greek Turkey pizza from MonkeyDish.com

5) Turkey for Breakfast. Who says that you can’t eat a Thanksgiving breakfast? Grill up some turkey sausage and serve it with hash browns, Sweet Potato Pancakes and Cranberry Syrup. Food Network just posted a tip on Twitter to boil down cranberry juice to make a quick cranberry syrup to put on the pancakes or drizzle over ice cream.

6) Crockpot Turkey. If you want to make a turkey but aren’t sure how or you have a small kitchen with limited oven space, you might take a tip from RVcookingshow.com and do it in your Crockpot slow cooker.

Some other Thanksgiving tips:

  • If you are a vegetarian (or cooking for a vegetarian), The New York Times’ Well Blog recently posted 36 vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes. I am not sure how “easy” the recipes are but they look delicious.
  • My mom shared a tip with me last night for an easy Thanksgiving dessert. Pick up a quart of pumpkin pie ice cream from the freezer case and some gingersnap cookies or a pre-made graham cracker crust to make pumpkin pie ice cream sandwiches or a frozen pie.
  • The Reluctant Entertainer is doing a great series on her blog about organizing Thanksgiving preparations. One of her best tips so far is simple. Ask for help! Loved this quote:

“Thanksgiving is a time to include everyone in the meal. If you feel you have to do it all, to be honest, I feel sorry for you. You will be exhausted. I am not super-woman and I need the help.”

–Sandy Coughlin, Week 1: Stress-Free Thanksgiving – Invite, Plan, and Delegate!, The Reluctant Entertainer blog

Do you have an easy twist on Thanksgiving cooking? Please share in the comments.

Posted by anne Tagged with: , ,
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