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A reader, who happens to also be a very good friend, from South Carolina asked a question about what to plan for a Christmas dinner.  I thought I would take some time to talk a little about menu planning, which I think intimidates a lot of people but is actually a really fun game. 🙂

One easy starting place, especially for me since you know I am her biggest fan, is the Barefoot Contessa’s website, where she has quite a few menu suggestions.  I may not always use all her recipes, or even any of them, but it often helps me think through the season and the feel of the event for what kind of foods might be the best fit.  It’s good for inspiration.  You can also check your cookbooks – I have a few that group foods by menu, or cookbooks that are themed (Middle Eastern, New Orleans) and if you feel like going with something all in one food ethnicity like that, I would just root around in the cookbook for ideas.  Finally, if there’s something I am looking for but just can’t find a great recipe, I search on www.epicurious.com which is the storehouse of Bon Appetit and Gourmet recipes going back years and years.  They always have something that sounds great for the ingredient I have in mind.  They also have an awesome menu section – you can see their Christmas menus here.

I usually have a dish in mind that I want to serve – it’s not always the main, sometimes it’s even the dessert!  But if I have something in mind I use that as  my starting point and build the meal around it.  If you I not have something in mind, then it’s often useful to think of the main course you will serve.  For something like Christmas dinner, which is pretty fancy, I would think about large meats – like a turkey or a ham.  I personally LOVE those Honey-baked Hams, which are served cold so there is no need to even worry about what time it should come out of the oven, and is presliced, so all you do is plop it on the platter!   So let’s go with the example of the baked ham for Christmas dinner, and build our menu around that.  For your sides, I would plan for one vegetable, one starch, and some type of bread.

When I think of ham, I immediately think of the Sweet Potato Muffins that my family loves – they are easy to make in advance and either refrigerate or freeze for days.  Let them come to room temperature while you’re preparing the meal, then line them up on a sheet pan and warm them up for serving.  Their sweetness is a great complement to the salty ham. 

The starch in meat-centric meals is often a potato – and for this there are two Barefoot Contessa recipes I love: Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes and Parmesan Smashed Potatoes.  Another option, especially with ham or pork, is grits!  For Christmas dinner my aunt often serves these easy Shrimp and Grits that can be made in one pot and kept warm for serving, which is helpful in plating lots of meals.  (Polenta is the Italian version of grits, if you’re going for some kind of Italian theme).  The ham and the sweet potato muffins and the grits are giving our meal a nice southern flair, which is good because now we have a sort of theme or trend going!

Garlic Shrimp and Grits

1 lb unpeeled, medium-sized fresh shrimp, cooked

3 cups water

1 cup whipping cream

¼ cup butter

1 tsp salt

1 cup quick-cooking grits

1 cup (4 oz) shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese

2 garlic cloves, minced

Garnish: chopped fresh chives, peeled and cooked shrimp, fresh ground black pepper

  1. Peel the shrimp and devein, if desired.
  2. Bring 3 cups of water, cream, butter and salt to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Reduce heat to medium and whisk in grits.
  3. Cook, whisking constantly, 7-8 minutes or until the mixture is smooth.  Stir in the shrimp, cheese and garlic and cook 1-2 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
  4. Garnish, if desired and serve warm.

So now we need a vegetable.  The grits are creamy, garlicky and rich, so I don’t want to do any kind of creamy casserole-type vegetable.  One great way to do nice veggies for a crowd is to roast them – this deepens the flavor but is also lighter and easier to prepare.  I love Roasted Brussel Sprouts for a warm winter vegetable side – they get crisp and salty flavorful and are really addictive!  Herb-roasted Onions would be delicious if we were doing potatoes, but might be a little much with the grits.  Roasted Asparagus is always a hit, but asparagus is not really in season in the winter, so I think I would be more inclined to go with either the brussel sprouts (which are in season) or some root vegegtables, like Roasted Parsnips and Carrots.

Finally, dessert…you want something with rich wintery spices and flavors here – anything pumpkin, for example, would be great.  For a crowd, I would think about something that is one-dish and can be prepared in advance.  Apples and other fruits go really well with ham, so what about an apple crisp?  Hot out of the oven with a scoop of vanilla ice cream = happy guests!  This recipe for Pear, Apple and Cranberry Crisp definitely sounds like Christmas to me!  It should also go well with the rest of the meal.

Now don’t forget your wines – I would take my final menu to a wine store and let one of the people who work there find you a nice red and a nice white option.  And don’t rule out a great bottle of something bubbly…sparkling wines are usually made from the types of grapes that go well with winter foods, like pinots and chardonnay.  The lightness will keep everyone from feeling too full.  My mom brought us a bottle of Shiraz-based Black Bubbly to enjoy with Thanksgiving dinner that was wonderful – very festive and very drinkable with food!

Menu planning is really a lot of fun, though it can take a while.  I certainly use these resources all the time, so don’t feel bad about needing the help – you’ll fine that the more you try it, the easier it will get.  Somehow it just becomes more of a feel than thought.

A very Merry Christmas dinner to all of you, whether cooking or eating! 🙂

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One last post on this year’s Thanksgiving…

Since there were only four of us for dinner, and since of course we still need to have all the usual dishes, we had a LOT of leftover.  Also, I was not thinking clearly the day I picked up my turkey at Trader Joe’s and for some reason did not think the 13lb turkey would give us enough leftovers, and since there was nothing else in between, brought home the 18lb turkey.  Michael weighed the leftover picked meat on the scale – 6 lbs.  Ooops!

I spent the Sunday after Thanksgiving repurposing our leftovers into a freezer of food for nighs I don’t want to cook.  It was so much fun to think of creative ways to use up all the food!  Briefly, here are the things that we now have stored up for the winter.

Open-face Turkey Melt

Ok, this one isn’t in the freezer – this was our lunch while I was cooking up the other dishes.  Michael loves his turkey sandwiches really basic – turkey, mayo, white bread.  I need more flavor that.  So I used a slice of sourdough bread as the base to an open face sandwich.  For the mayo, I added flavor with some diced roasted red peppers (from a jar in the fridge), fine-diced red onion, and a splash of lemon juice.  I spread this on the bread.  Then I added shredded turkey and topped it with cheddar cheese.  I popped the sandwich in the toaster oven and heated it until the cheese just started to brown.  YUM!

Turkey Empanadas

This is a recipe that I found in Bon Appetit’s Thanksgiving edition and thought it sounded like a great way to use up leftover stuffing and potatoes as well as the turkey.  You use frozen puff pastry as the base and then spoon on layers of potatoes, stuffing, turkey, gravy – whatever!  Then fold over the top, crimp the edges, and voila!  I made two batches of these – one with turkey, sweet potatoes and stuffing (for Michael) and one with turkey, buttermilk mashed potatoes and greens (for me).  I put the sealed empanadas on a rimmed sheet in the freezer until they were just frozen, then wrapped each individually in foil and put them into labeled ziplock baggies.  So we now have individual meals ready to bake off in the toaster oven at a moment’s notice!  I haven’t tried them yet so can’t swear that they are good, but given that most people love all the Thanksgiving flavor together (especially sine we had our New Orleas theme and all the flavors should blend well), I figure it should at least as good with buttery puff pastry!

Turkey and Vegetable Soup

Soup is SO much easier to make than most people think.  In general, it’s simply a saute of onions and other vegetables, some stock or broth, and as assortment of beans, vegetables or meats.   To make a little turkey soup, I started with a base of onions, carrots and celery (a starter combination known as ‘mirepoix’.  I added in chicken stock and then the shredded turkey, leftover corn maquechoux, a little of the greens, and salt, pepper, thyme and sage for flavoring.  Easy peasy!

Turkey and Collard Green Gumbo

I made this for our dinner after a day of leftover baking.  Gumbo is a dark velvety soup of sorts, started from a roux, which is flour and oil cooked until it is dark brown.  To this I added what in New Orleans they call ‘the Trinity’ – onion, celery and green pepper.  You then pour in some chicken stock, a bottle of beer and a bunch of spices.  The recipe calls for smoked turkey, but I just added the leftover shredded roasted turkey, and instead of cooking the greens in the gumbo, I just dumped in our leftover cooked greens.  Once all cooked, you serve the gumbo over rice with a dusting of parsley on top.  This dish is not spicy, like you might assume about a gumbo – it’s a smooth, dark, rich flavor.  We ate our fill that night, and then I put the rest in the freezer for another time.

It’s nice to know all the effort put into the Thanksgiving meal lives on…in my freezer…for another day!

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Gosh, I am SO sorry, dear readers, that it has taken me so long to get back to you about Thanksgiving dinner!!!  I started this ages ago but got distracted trying to add pictures…I am just going to send it out into the blogisphere as is at this point.  We didn’t have many pictures anyway – too busy eating!!!

All in all, it was really successful and delicious.  I’m not sure whether I picked fewer or easier dishes, or somehow managed to prepare better, but the kitchen was less chaotic in the hour before we ate than it was last year, which is really nice!  I did a lot of prepping the day before and day of, but it really paid off in a smooth final lap to the dinner table.  Everything had good flavor and spice and I was happy with all the new recipes.  And my parents and Michael loved it and that’s the best reward of all – happy eaters!!!

The biggest surprise to me was the turkey – which, if I do say so myself, was AWESOME!  Remember I don’t like turkey, so I was looking for a way to add some good flavor and keep it moist.  And this is definitely the best effort ever!  We used Emeril Lagasse’s Pepper-Stuffed Turkey recipe, which asks you to cut strategic slits in the turkey and get a teaspoon-ful of spiced butter and a mixture of chopped peppers, onions and garlic shoved in the meat of the bird.  My mom and I were alternating between the directions and poking the turkey for a while to figure out where Emeril wanted us to make the cuts, but we must have gotten more or less close to the right thing because the whole bird was super flavorful and really moist!  We also put the butter mixture and a bit of the pepper mixture under the skin, and poured the rest of the pepper mixture inside the turkey.  YUM YUM YUM.  I would absolutely make this again.  I would also use the recipe and tweak it with different flavors – for example, Herbes de Provence in the butter mixture, and fennel, olives, garlic and shallots with olive oil and champagne vinegar for the spice mixture?

The Andouille Sausage and Cornbread Stuffing was my mom’s favorite – it smelled wonderful with the andouille sausage and pork sausage cooked with all the yummy veggies!  The recipe made a TON of food – I would recommend halving it, and or putting half the cooked sausage and veggie mixture in the freezer to mix later with the cornbread stuffing mix and get another dish out of it.  All in all, it added great New Orleans flavor to the meal.

The Sweet Potato Pudding was not a lot different from the usual sweet potato dish – it had a sprinkling of brown sugar, butter and pecans on top and the usual spices.  But the eggs that were added made the texture a bit lighter than usual, and it was also a little sweeter and less sweet-potato tasting (in the one bite I had!).  One thing I really liked about this dish was that I could make it a day ahead and put the complete dish in the fridge, then pop it into the oven to cook after the turkey came out!

Corn Maquechoux is one of my favorite side dishes when I make a New Orleans-style meal.  I like it because it’s a flavorful veggie dish, but not too heavy.  Yes, you finish it with a swirl of cream, but that really just helps all the spices and flavors coat the corn better.  This is always a good counterpoint to a spicy or heavy dish to me, so it was just a solid side for this feast.  The link will take you to a recipe I found online – the one I use is similar but doesn’t have jalepenos; the rest is the same.  If you wanted something really hot, you could go ahead with the jalepenos as well as the red peppers.

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes are a Barefoot Contessa recipe.   I like her potato recipes, because they add lots of flavor but still taste very potato-y, if that makes sense.  Her Parmesan Mashed Potatoes are my usual staple, but I thought the parmesan might be a bit too heavy with Thanksgiving.  I also considered an Emeril recipe for Garlic Mashed Potatoes that blends roasted garlic  into the smashed potatoes, but I felt we really needed something on the plate that wasn’t screaming at you with flavor.  My usual inclination is to pile on the rich, spicy, flavorful dishes – and then I have to go back and edit to make sure there are enough things on the plate that quietly and gracefully accompany the extroverts.  It makes for a happier meal.  And I was very pleased with these potatoes, because they did just that.  I like to mash my potatoes to look a little rustic – I used red skinned potatoes and cooked them with skins on so the end result is chunky and has the flecs of red skin.  It tastes heartier and healthier to me that way, but if you like a more refined potato, skin them before boiling and blend them in your mixer with the paddle attachment.  NEVER use a food processor – I only made that mistake once, hoping for a really smooth and luxurious texture, and ending up with glue.  The food processor overdevelops the glutens and the potatoes become totally inedible.

Southern Braised Greens with Bacon was indeed a VERY flavorful version of braised greens, and happily, one that didn’t require some kind of bone, which I did not have, for flavor.  The only complaint for this dish might be that it was TOO flavorful – you could only eat a little bite at a time because of how strong it was, and I was pairing bites up with some meat or some potatoes.  I did love the way it complemented those other foods,  but it was slightly overpowering.  I would like to look into some other  braised greens dishes and see if it’s possible to get them cooked and broken down (which is what you use the beer and vinegar for in this recipe) without making it taste so strong.

Sweet Potato Muffins are a classic in the Brill family – so much so that they were, this past Thanksgiving, made on THREE continents!  Both my sisters made these for their respective Thanksgivings in Dubai and Johannesburg.  These are not your typical fluffy muffins – they are dense and very moist and they are awesome.  It truly is not Thanksgiving for my family without them.  Luckily they go with all the menu themes I have drafted for Thanksgivings to come!  The recipe follows – these are a wonderful accompaniment to any winter meal.  You can make them a few days in advance and either keep them in the freezer or fridge and then toast before serving with butter.

Sweet Potato Muffins

½ c butter

1 ¼ c sugar

2 eggs

1 ¼ c canned sweet potatoes, mashed (can substitute yams)

1 ½ c flour

2 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp cinnamon

¼ tsp nutmeg

1 c milk

¼ c pecans or walnuts, toasted and chopped (optional)

½ c raisins, chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and grease or line one muffin tin.

Cream the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs and mix well.  Blend in the sweet potatoes.

Sift flour with baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Add alternatively with milk.  Do not overmix!  Fold in nuts and raisins if desired.

Fill muffin tins 2/3 full and bake for 25 minutes.  Be sure muffins are fully cooked – they may brown a little around the edges but this is fine.  Makes 12 large muffins.


I have nothing more to say about the Perfect Pecan Pie recipe – it was, once again, perfect.  We never even got to the Pumpkin Pound Cake because it was so good!   So the cake is in the freezer for another day.  I am overwhelmed by the number of you who have checked this blog for the menu and the report-out…thanks so much for reading!  Hope you all had a joyful and yummy holiday, and are excited about more festive meals to come this Christmas!

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Life being what it is in our household this fall, I’m a little behind on my Thanksgiving planning.  I had a rough idea of the menu we were going with this year, but really committing to recipes and getting my grocery list and cooking schedule together has been VERY slow in coming – ideally I should have already started cooking this past weekend, and I did not.  I feel pretty good about what I’ve picked though, that there’s nothing overly complicated and that we should be able to pull it off on Thursday.

As I explained last year, we’re moving to a tradition of hosting Thanksgiving for alternating families, and each year picking a different ‘theme’.  The same old dishes, which are exactly what some (or even most?) people love about Thanksgiving are a teensy bit boring to me.  Part of that I guess is that I have never really loved Thanksgiving dinner – I don’t like sweet potatoes, I don’t like stuffing, and frankly roasted turkey is just not the most exciting meat out there.  Picking a regional theme for the menu makes me, as the cook, excited about cooking a big meal.  And so our families will be the unwilling guinea pigs every year of a different Thanksgiving feast.  My hope, however, is that it will always be a feast, and a time to celebrate the plenty God blesses us with, with those we love the best.  Those ingredients don’t vary.

Last year we debuted the tradition with a Southern Thanksgiving.  This year, we’re going to my one of my favorite food cultures in the world – New Orleans!  I fell in love with the food (and really the whole city) of New Orleans when I lived there in grad school.  The unabashed richness and spice of that cuisine is totally enchanting.  I think the whole mindset of New Orleans food and cooking is very Thanksgiving-ish – heap it on, baby!!!

And so without further ado, the Skena Family Thanksgiving Menu of 2009:

Appetizers for nibbling throughout the day til early dinner – Parmesan Thyme Biscuits, Roasted Winter Squash Dip, Sausage Bites, Cranberry Bruschetta and Rosemary Roasted Cashews

Dinner – Pepper-stuffed Turkey, Andouille Cornbread Stuffing, Sweet Potato Pudding, Corn Maquechoux, Southern Braised Greens, Sweet Potato Muffins

Dessert – Pecan Pie and Pumpkin Pound Cake with Bourbon Whipped Cream

The nibbles are all favorites of mine, with the exception of the Barefoot Contessa’s Parmesan Thyme biscuits which I haven’t made before but sound SO delicious.  Sausage bites are a super easy traditional recipe made with cheddar cheese, Bisquick and hot breakfast sausage (and that’s it!).  The cranberry bruschetta is a perfect fall appetizer that’s a little spicy and a little sweet at the same time.  The Winter Squash Dip is from Martha Stewart, and I first had it when my friend Katy made it for Wine Club.  It makes an absolute ton so I made this a couple weeks ago and have some left in the freezer.  It’s a nice fall flavor with a little kick from chipotles and richness from cream cheese and sour cream.  The cashews are just an easy fix that taste like a party.

Many of the dinner recipes are from my Emeril Lagasse cookbook, Louisiana Real and Rustic, and are new – the Pepper-stuffed Turkey (which asks you to cut slits in the turkey and insert butter, spices and chopped peppers, doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world), the Sweet Potato Pudding (a make-ahead dish that sounds smooth and rich) and Southern Greens (calling for 6 POUNDS of greens, which are currently taking up half of my largest shelf in the fridge!).  We actually made the buttermilk mashed potatoes last year, they are just a nice simple dish to sop up all the other flavors.  And speaking of sopping up, we don’t have a specific gravy recipe planned – the turkey recipe says you can just spoon the pan juices over the turkey.  We’ll see how much of these juices materialize, and if it’s not too much then I’ll just whip up a fast gravy using what is in there (just add a little butter, a little while wine, and some flour, and stir til you get the consistency you want!).   Corn maquechoux is one of my favorite Cajun sides – corn sauteed in butter with peppers, basically.  It’s VERY yummy.  And the sweet potato muffins are a Brill Family favorite – those I really can’t do without for Thanksgiving.  We’ve converted many folks into fans of these dense, moist flavorful muffins.  And really, they sort of DO go with all kinds of Thanksgiving menus.  My parents actually found the recipe from a restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg many, many years ago, so I love that tradition that goes with it too.

For dessert, I’m redoing the AMAZING pecan pie from last year.  Hands down the best pecan pie recipe ever.  Worth the five bucks for the special Lyle’s Golden Syrup!  The Pumpkin Pound Cake is a late addition to the  menu on my part.  I needed to bring a dessert to my in-laws house on Sunday for lunch, and I just plain ran out of time to make a pie for my father-in-law, who very sweetly and generously LOVES my pies.  Instead, I made a really easy but tasty recipe from the Orangette blog, Sweet Potato Pound Cake.  Except I subbed in a can of pumpkin puree for the sweet potatoes.  And it was EVEN better!!!  Sweeter, which I like.  It really tasted like pumpkin pie, without the same texture.  I served it with real whipped cream, which REALLY made it awesome.  And so after being so pleased with those results, I thought, why mess with another pie crust when that cake tastes so dang good and is so easy, and can be made in advance?  It’s a Bundt cake, and Bundt cakes and other breads always get better with a couple days to age.  So no worries whatsoever about making it earlier!  And even nicer, for those of you traveling on the holiday who agreed to bring something, it’s very easy to transport.  You could wrap it in foil, or fit it back into the Bundt pan and cover it, or put it in a tupperware cake carrier, but there is no frosting or topping to slide around and it will be much more durable than a pie.  You can find the recipe in the link above – just put in canned pumpkin instead of the sweet potato puree, and add a teaspoon of cinnamon.

So, that’s our menu!  I’ll report back with the results.  Happy cooking and happy eating!  I hope your holiday is full of family and food, joy and gratitude.

The General Thanksgiving (from the Book of Common Prayer):

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made.  We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.  And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all the ages.  Amen!

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Easter Lunch

I’m hoping this post falls in the ‘better late than never’ category…

Our Easter Lunch was something of a local foods celebration!  I came back from Rwanda hungry for fresh, healthy foods, and although it’s still early in the season, we were able to find lots of good ingredients at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market on Saturday.  I had in mind that I’d like to make this wonderful risotto recipe we love, which is very springy in flavor and in color – Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Peas.  Unfortunately I did not find either asparagus or peas at the market, but we did have some huge fresh spring onions, which I chopped into a generous amount of onion, including the green stem, instead of using the standard white onion.  We also found some fresh parsley at the market which brightens this dish.  Risottos have a bad reputation as being difficult, which they are not – although they are time-consuming.  For this recipe, just chop and prep all your ingredients and then start the process with a Stirrer-in-Chief at your side to keep the risotto moving constantly for about 1/2 hour.  Husbands are very good at this job, if you have one around. You can keep your eye on it and let him know when to dump in the new ingredients, while fixing up the rest of the meal.  This is a perfect spring dish with the bright green asparagus and peas, the fresh and bright lemon, and of course the overall yumminess of the parmesan cheese and wine.  I’m almost certain that this recipe came from Martha Stewart Living magazine a few years ago, but for the life of me I can’t find it online, so the recipe is copied below.

I was looking for some lamb to go along with the risotto as the main dish for our lunch, but alas, all the Chapel Hill restaurants had snatched up lamb from the farmers for the holiday.  We settled on a huge slab of pork loin…truly a bizarre looking cut of meat to us!  We’re not really accustomed, yet, to buying this kind of fresh meat, but although it looked scary we were determined to figure out how to cook that bad boy.  What we had was a side of loin, which had ribs (I think) still attached to it.  We cut a few ribs and loin off the sides and froze them to grill as loin chops in another meal, and then roasted the remaining slab with olive oil, herbes de provence, salt and pepper.  It smelled heavenly while roasting, due mainly to the seasonings but also because this thing had a LOT of fat on it.  An absolutely GINORMOUS amount of fat!  Which smelled great sizzling in the oven but proved a bit messy to eat.  I’m not a huge fan of fatty cuts of meat, but it proved to be reasonably easy to eat around, and very tasty and tender.  And the dog sure appreciated the scraps the next day for breakfast!

With the richer dishes of pork and risotto, we needed a simple salad to round out the meal, and a soft pile of arugula from the farmer’s market, tossed in olive oil and lemon juice, topped with some fresh parmesan, was just the thing.  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/arugula-with-parmesan-recipe/index.html

I’m not sure we’ll go back to pay the big bucks for our fatty pork loin, but it was a fun experience to take a strange-looking cut of meat and make it into lunch (which my in-laws loved!).  And the risotto is a must-try – it’s definitely settled into the annals of Skena Family Favorites at this point – let me know what you think if you try it!

Lemon Risotto with Asparagus and Peas

 

Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as an appetizer

 

4 cups of homemade or low-sodium store-bought chicken stock (one 32 fl oz box)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 cup Arborio rice

½ cup dry white wine

6 thin asparagus spears, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

1 cup frozen peas

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest, plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup chopped fresh parsley

½ cup finely grated Parmesan-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

 

1.      Bring stock to a boil in a medium saucepan; turn off the heat.

2.      Melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat in another medium saucepan.  Add onion; cook, stirring constantly, until translucent, 6 to 7 minutes.  Add rice; cook, stirring constantly, until edges of grains are translucent, 2 to 3 minutes.  Raise heat to medium-high.  Add wine; cook, stirring constantly, until wine has completely evaporated.

3.      Add ½ cup of stock; cook, stirring constantly until stock has been completely absorbed and a wooden spoon drawn through rice leaves a trail in its wake.  Continue adding about 3 cups of stock, ½ cup at a time, waiting for each addition to be absorbed before adding the next.  (It should take about 13 minutes).

4.      Stir in the asparagus.  Add the rest of the stock, ½ cup at a time, in the same manner as described above.  About 1 minute before risotto is done, stir in the peas.  Risotto is done when liquid looks creamy and grains are cooked but still slightly firm in centers.  (The total cooking time will be 16-20 minutes.)

5.      Remove from heat; stir in the parmesan cheese, parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice, and remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.  Season with salt and pepper, and serve with more cheese.

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My Valentine.

Michael and I have been together for coming up on four years, and this past Saturday was the FIRST Valentine’s Day we have ever spent together!  The past few years I have been out of the country every February 14 – Guatemala, Mali and Madagascar.  The odds of that are not good, because I really don’t travel THAT much, but for some reason it has always been in February. 

This is especially sad because I am one of those {annoying} people who actually LOVES Valentine’s Day!!!  My mom always made it so special when we were little…I remember fun treats for breakfasts, dressing in pink and/or red, addressing our little Valentine’s for the decorated shoebox ‘mailbox’ at school, and always loving the ones I opened that had some little candy in them!  I also got fun little care packages for Valentine’s Day in college.  I’ve always just loved the holiday, even though I’d had some pretty terrible romantic luck for the day in the past (I once broke up with a very badly-behaved boy on Valentine’s Day weekend!).

So for our first Valentine’s Day together, we planned to swap roles in cooking for each other – Michael usually makes weekend breakfasts for me, and I usually cook dinner.  So I made HIM a special Valentine’s breakfast – pink pancakes with raspberries and strawberries and fresh whipped cream on top!  I didn’t get to the grocery store to buy buttermilk so I just used the regular Bisquick, to which I added a little vanilla and a little baking powder to puff the pancakes up a bit – and of course, the hot pink food coloring.  They were perfectly pink and golden at the same time!  What a festive breakfast. 🙂

pink-pancakes

By the way, I’d show you a picture of what Michael cooked me but we were SO full from bison burgers at lunch with my aunt and uncle that we couldn’t even face the grocery store…so I got another special treat!  We ordered in Thai food which we NEVER do and I have been craving, and downed it on the sofa with a bottle of wine and Sleepless in Seattle.  PARFAIT!!!  Too bad I have to wait another year for such a special day to come again…I am DEFINITELY not missing it next year!

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Gingerbread

Mmmmm, gingerbread!  I’m not talking about Men or Ladies.  I’m talking about good old-fashioned bready gingerbread.  This is a family recipe my grandmother makes, and although this dessert doesn’t seem to be very common these days, it’s extremely flavorful, very wintery and Christmasy, and easy to make!  I usually have all these ingredients in my pantry.

It’s especially good served warm, with either a simple lemon sauce spooned over, or fresh whipped cream.  If you don’t usually make your own whipped cream – now is the time to start!  It tastes nothing like cool whip, is infinitely better, and is as simple as just pouring whipping cream into a mixer with some sugar and two minutes later you have delicious clouds of the stuff.  Both recipes (if you can call it that for whipping cream) are below.

 

Gingerbread

 1 stick of softened butter

½ cup sugar

1 egg, beaten

1 cup molasses

2 ½ cups sifted flour

1 ½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

½ tsp ground cloves

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp ginger

¼ tsp allspice

1 cup hot water

 

Cream butter and sugar.  Add beaten egg, then molasses.  Add dry ingredients til just mixed and then slowly add water while mixing on low.  Finish incorporating all water by hand til batter is smooth.

 

Pour into greased 9×13 pan and smooth the top of the batter.  Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

 

Lemon Sauce

1 cup sugar

2 Tbs cornstarch

2 cups boiling water

4 Tbs butter

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

 

Mix together the sugar and cornstarch in a medium saucepan.  Gradually stir in the boiling water.  Boil for one minute, stirring constantly.

 

Stir in the butter, lemon juice and lemon zest and keep warm til serving.  Spoon over gingerbread.

 

Homemade Whipped Cream

 

1 cup whipping cream

2 Tbs sugar

 

Combine in a bowl and mix on highest speed until desired consistency.  The whipped cream should be eaten immediately and does not keep well.  This recipe can be doubled if serving more people – this amount would serve about 4 generous dollops on top of a dessert.

 

gingerbread

PS: Another great way to eat this gingerbread that I’ve just discovered: this makes a GREAT breakfast heated, especially with coffee sweetened with eggnog.  And if you don’t put eggnog in your coffee during the month of december that’s definitely something else you should try. 🙂

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