Posts Tagged ‘Menu Planning’

One of my friends in Chapel Hill is throwing a cocktail party next week and we were talking about appetizer ideas last night.  I just sent her a few of my favorites, and then thought this might be a common interest, so I will share them with you too!  These are all tried-and-true favorites of mine which are not complicated (though a couple take some prep time) and are not a last-minute hassle.

I just watched a Barefoot Contessa episode about cocktail parties and she recommended having six appetizers, 2 of which you actually make (from scratch) and the others which are just assembled.  Some of her assembled ideas are roasted salted nutes (almonds or cashews), olives, sliced salami and cucumbers, and an assortment of cheeses.  That sounds like a great strategy to me – the fun of making some things from scratch but no pressure to create the entire spread.  And when you’ve mixed it up like that, no one will be able to tell the difference!

If you’re lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe’s, they have some fabulous appetizers in the freezer section which are super easy to bake up.  A couple of my favorites are the lemongrass sticks (for dipping in soy sauce), the little carmelized onion and cheese puff pastries, and a new product that I recently found, little parmesan palmiers, very tasty!

So here are my favorite appetizer recipes for winter!

  • Rosemary Roasted Cashews – This is an easy, very snackable fancied-up cashew bowl with unusual but tasty flavors. I buy my unsalted cashews at Trader Joe’s.
  • Parmesan and Thyme Crackers – Making homemade crackers is nowhere near as hard as you might think.  These are basically savory butter cookies.  Make double or triple the recipe and freeze the log of dough so you can pull it out to slice and bake any time you need an easy app!
  • Pan-fried Onion Dip – I don’t like to put out a lot of dips because they are not easy finger food, but if you have a good spot for it, this one is AMAZING.  It takes a while to cook the onions so that they develop their full flavor but it is totally worth it.
  • Winter Squash Dip (recipe below) – I would only do one dip, but if the onion one above is not your thing, here’s another suggestion.  I like the creamyness of this dip, and that it has a little kick of spice to it as well.  It makes a ton so you could freeze half to have more on hand for another occasion.
  • Stuffed Dates (recipe below) – I didn’t think I liked dates until I tried this recipe.  Stuffed with cheese (or sausage) and wrapped in bacon, dates are delicious!  Their earthy sweetness plays really well with creamy cheeses and salty bacon.  They also keep well at room temperature, which is good for a party.
  • Cranberry Bruschetta (recipe below) – This recipe is from my Wine Club book and is one of my favorites.  For some reason I find it difficult to get good appetizers from the seasonal fruits and foods of winter.  This is a perfect savory use of cranberries – they have both tang and heat, and are well-balanced with the cream cheese.  You can make up the whole platter so they are easy finger food.

Winter Squash Dip

1 winter squash (about 2 pounds), such as butternut or turban, unpeeled, seeded, and cut into 3 inch pieces

Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 heads garlic, tops cut off to expose cloves

1 ¼ sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature

8 scallions, white and pale-green parts only, sliced ¼ inch thick

2 chipotle chiles (canned in adobo sauce)

2 cups (16 ounces) sour cream

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1 ¼ cups grated Parmesan cheese (about 4 ounces)

4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Paprika, for sprinkling

Breadsticks, for dipping, and an assortment of veggies

  1. Preheat oven to 400. Place squash on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss. Spread squash in a single layer. Place garlic on a piece of parchment-lined foil. Drizzle with oil, and wrap loosely. Place on baking sheet with squash. Bake until squash is soft and golden brown, about 50 minutes. Let cool slightly.
  2. Meanwhile, melt 4 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add scallions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes.
  3. Scoops flesh from squash, and transfer to a food processor. Squeeze garlic from skins, and add to squash. Add scallions and chipotles, and pulse until smooth. Add remaining 6 tablespoons butter, the sour cream, cream cheese, Parmesan, and lemon juice, and pulse until just combined but not smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Pour into a serving bowl. Refrigerate for 1 hour. Sprinkle with paprika, and garnish with pepitas. Serve with breadsticks.

Goat Cheese-stuffed Dates

24 large Medjool dates

6 oz goat cheese

12 strips of applewood-smoked bacon, cut in half crosswise

  1. Cut a slit along one side of each date, pry open and remove pit.  Fill each with 1 tsp of goat cheese and close the date.  Wrap one piece of bacon around the date and secure with a toothpick.
  2. Place a cooling rack inside a rimmed sheet pan.  Place dates on the cooking rack.  Cook dates in a 400 degree oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until bacon is crispy and brown.
  3. Remove dates to a paper towel to drain and serve warm.


–        Substitute goat cheese for fresh (not smoked) chorizo sausage.  Remove sausage from casings and cook thoroughly; drain off grease.  Mix sausage with ¼ cup chopped parsley and stuff into dates.

–        Any other tasty filling can be substituted for the goat cheese – other types of cheeses, flavored couscous, etc.

Cranberry Bruschetta

1 long baguette-style loaf of French bread

2 Tbs butter, melted

2/3 cup diced red onion

½ cup rice wine vinegar

1/3 cup sugar

1 Tbs grated fresh ginger

½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 cup cranberry sauce (leftover or purchased)

½ tsp minced fresh rosemary

8 oz cream cheese

Preheat oven to 375.  Slice baguette into ½ inch thick slices.  Arrange in one layer on a large sheetpan and lightly brush 1 side of each slice with melted butter.  Bake about 10 min or until toasted and cool.

In a heavy saucepan, combine onion, vinegar, sugar, ginger, and red pepper flakes.  Simmer over medium heat til the vinegar is reduced by more than half and the sugar begins to caramelize (the red onion will become pink and translucent).  Reduce heat; stir in cranberry sauce and minced rosemary.  Bring to a boil.  Remove from heat and cool completely.

To serve, smear each toasted baguette slice with cream cheese and top with the cranberry mixture.


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The menu of 2010 is finalized!  It’s nothing fancy, folks.  I’ve got a 3 month old baby and just went back to work and we have a small crowd, so I’m deciding to go simple this year.  And what better place to look for simple but delicious food than the Farmer’s Market?!!  A couple weeks ago we went to our beloved Carrboro Farmer’s Market to find some inspiration for our menu.  Most of what we’re eating is in season at the market now.  Many of the ingredients came from our local farmers, including our favorite hot country sausage from Brinkley Farms that will be going into the stuffing, the pecans for the pie and the pepper jelly for our appetizer.  I have a couple new recipes here, which I really do know is inadvisable for Thanksgiving but they are dishes I want to include and so we’re going to give them a try.  I think most of this is pretty basic…a few things that will all need to be done at once, but hey, that’s Thanksgiving!  The applesauce and sweet potato muffins are already done and in the freezer, I will make the pies the day before, and I will spend most of Thanksgiving day prepping all my ingredients so that everything can be thrown together quickly at the end.  Add in some nice wines and we’re good to go!

Wherever you will be, I hope your day is full of delicious food, precious friends and family, and much gratitude!

Appetizers: Pepper Jelly with Cream Cheese and Crackers, Roasted Cashews


Perfect Roast Turkey

Homemade Gravy

Sausage Stuffing with Fennel and Squash

Brown Sugar Baked Sweet Potatoes

Sauteed Kale

Roasted Applesauce

Sweet Potato Muffins (recipe follows)

Dessert: Pumpkin Marscapone Pie and Pecan Pie

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.

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The major cooking holiday is here again and this year we are taking an approach best described as ‘simple’.  Rustic is the word I’m thinking of that will dress that up the best! 😉  I’m still working on the final menu but in the mean time I thought I’d share my ‘formula’ for any of you who are also planning a Thanksgiving feast!  Since we change the menu up each year with a new theme, I drafted this formula to help me make sure I’ve ticked all the boxes that are required for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, even if the dishes themselves have a different twist each year.

Appetizers (usually 3, including something like nuts that don’t need to be cooked)



Potatoes and/or Sweet Potatoes (my husband insists on both)

Non-potato Starch (grits, mac&cheese, rice)


1 green vegetable

1 other vegetable

Cranberry or Apple chutney/sauce/garnish

Bread (rolls or muffins)

Pumpkin dessert

Other dessert

Depending on how many people we have, I may cut some of these items because it can end up being waaaaaaaay too much food for, for example, four people.  This year we have 5, possibly 6 of us, so I’m not going to be making every single one of the categories.  And I have to admit that the two desserts are pretty much always pumpkin pie and pecan pie.  I can’t really make do without either!

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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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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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An All-American Dinner

We had the great pleasure of hosting the Bishop and his wife for dinner last week.  I feel like that’s a movie title…except I guess it was “The Bishop’s Wife” and not “The Bishop and his Wife”.  Anyway, the story is that the Bishop of our sister parish in Rwanda has been visiting Chapel Hill this week, and we invited him and his wife over for dinner with some other Africa friends.  It was such a lovely night…joyful and humble, with guests who are very real and comfortable with who they are.  Even though we don’t know all of them that well yet, there was a comfort in being among people who genuinely care about others and lack that self-promotion that can be so exhausting in other circles.  I really like REAL people.

For our Rwandan guests, we served a very All-American dinner.  I wanted something un-fussy and not too unusual for foreign palates; we settled upon hamburgers, sweet potato fries, salad and brownies.  It was a little  bit summery but I think it still hit the spot.  Of course most of this could all be made with shortcuts, and it would still be a great meal; being the cooking nerd, I made most of it from scratch, but that really would not be necessary if you were short on time.

Our burgers were grilled on the new outdoor George Foreman which Michael got for Christmas – we live in an apartment so we can’t have a ‘real’ grill on our balcony, but this one is electric and plugs into our outdoor outlet, while still standing tall and having some semblance of a regular grill.  The main asset is that we can cook things in a grill-ish manner without smoking the house up.  We haven’t used it a ton yet (it’s been mostly freezing since Christmas!) but we really like it so far!  I got big fluffy Kaiser rolls from the bakery and spread them with butter and toasted them.  I chopped bacon and crisped them the night  before so they were ready.  I also carmelized the onions earlier and had them waiting on the side.  We served the burgers with (all on the side) bbq sauce, bacon crumbles, blue cheese, and carmelized onions.  I just LOVE that combo…

The baked sweet potatoes were a new recipe from the latest Barefoot Contessa cookbook, Back to Basics.  Unfortunately, and I really wish this were not so, I hate sweet potatoes.  They are a wonderfully healthy food, and everyone else loves them, but I have always despised the flavor.  So poor Michael, who adores them, doesn’t get them at home often, or ever, actually.  But I thought they’d be perfect for this meal, because there were lots of people to eat them, even though I don’t, and also the yam/sweet potato is a very familiar vegetable to Africans and I was pretty sure they would like it – you don’t want to bombard visistors with lots of new foods all at once!  I can’t really comment on them myself, but I will say that I did not have any left over and two people had seconds, so I think they were well-liked!  They definitely need more cooking time than is recommended in the recipe – I cooked these for about 1/2 hour and I also think I had them cut smaller than hers.

Baked Sweet Potato “Fries”, from the Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics


2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled

2 Tbs olive oil

1 Tbs light brown sugar

½ tsp kosher salt

½ tsp freshly ground black pepper


Preheat oven to 450 degrees.


Halve the sweet potatoes lengthwise and cut each half into 3 long spears.  Place them on a sheet pan and toss with the olive oil.  Spread the potatoes in one layer.  Combine the brown sugar, salt, and pepper and sprinkle on the potatoes.  Bake for 15 minutes and then turn with spatula.  Bake for another 5 to 10 minutes, until lightly browned.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and serve hot.


I also tried a new salad dressing recipe, Green Goddess dressing from the Barefoot Contessa At Home cookbook.  This was wonderful!!!  It has the garlic and anchovy taste from caesar dressing but with scallions and basil in it, it has a wonderfully herb-y flavor too.  It  made a TON (we’ll be eating salad for a week!) so I’d cut it in half, but otherwise it was absolutely wonderful and definitely worth making on your own.  This is another recipe that’s super easy if you have a food processor – it just dumps in, blends, and presto!  You could serve this with tomatoes but I didn’t feel like adding more, so I just toasted up some croutons from leftover bread cubes in the freezer and topped the salad with those.

 Basil Green Goddess Dressing, from Barefoot Contessa At Home


1 cup good mayonnaise

1 cup chopped scallions, white and green parts (6 to 7 scallions)

1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)

2 tsp chopped garlic (2 cloves)

2 tsp anchovy paste

2 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp freshly ground pepper

1 cup sour cream


Place the mayonnaise, scallions, basil, lemon juice, garlic, anchovy paste, salt and pepper in a blender and blend until smooth.  Add the sour cream and process just until blended.  If not using immediately, refrigerate the dressing until ready to serve.


Finally, for dessert, we had a very classic American brownie!  This brownie recipe is from my friend Stephanie LYMAN (she just got that  new last name a week ago!) and they are really to die for.  I’ve always LOVED brownies with frosting since my mom used to  make them when we were little.  And this recipe is fantastic, since the brownies are from scratch as well as the frosting.  Perfect classic ending to a great American meal!

Frosted Fudge Brownies



1 cup butter plus 3 tablespoons butter, cubed

¾ cup baking cocoa

4 eggs

2 cups sugar

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract



6 tablespoons butter, softened

2 2/3 cups confectioner’s sugar

½ cup baking cocoa

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ to 1/3 cup milk


In a saucepan, melt butter.  Remove from heat; stir in cocoa and cool.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.


In a mixing bowl, beat eggs and sugar.  Combine flour, baking powder and salt; gradually add to egg mixture.  Stir in vanilla and the cooled chocolate mixture; mix well.


Spread into a greased 13x9x2 inch baking pan.  Bake at 350 for 25-28 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean (do not overbake).  Cool on wire rack.


For frosting, in a mixing bowl, cream butter, confectioners’ sugar, cocoa and vanilla.  Add enough milk until the frosting achieves spreading consistency.  Spread over brownies and cut into bars.

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