The conventional and unconventional sides of my life.

Posts tagged ‘cooking’

5 Tips for a Stress-Free Thanksgiving Feast

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Organized is not a word I would use to describe myself – neither is “Type A”. However, a few years ago when I was preparing to host my first ever holiday meal, Thanksgiving dinner for 9 people, I became very organized and “Type A”-ish in my planning and preparation. I knew from past experiences that I can easily get overwhelmed and if I didn’t have a well thought out plan, I and my eight guests would either be eating Thanksgiving dinner at 7 PM or not at all.

I learned a great deal about the many benefits of planning ahead that first Thanksgiving and I’ve put what I’ve learned to good use every Thanksgiving since then.

It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is now less than three weeks away. Now is the time to get planning in order to have a fabulous, minimally stressful Thanksgiving dinner. Here are my top five tips for a stress-free Thanksgiving.

  1. Make room in your pantry and fridge now – I use this time of year to go through items in my pantry and fridge and toss out things like opened 1/2 boxes of stale crackers, old spices and expired condiments in the fridge. I enjoy this yearly clear out. Not only am I making room for the onslaught of food that accompanies Thanksgiving but I know that I don’t have relish, mustard, etc. that are years old in my fridge.
  2. Delegate – You should not have to, nor be expected to, cook the entire feast. Delegate appetizers and desserts to friends and family members. I have a brother in his mid-twenties who lives alone. Even with his minimal cooking skills and sparsely equipped kitchen I found a dish to delegate to him – pumpkin pie! I gave him the Eagle Brand Perfect Pumpkin Pie recipe which is a very simple recipe that even a bachelor in his twenties can handle!Also, on the day of Thanksgiving, if anyone stayed in my kitchen for more than 45 seconds, they were immediately given a job to do (refill the ice bucket, bring these chairs into the dining room, set this on the table, take out the garbage, etc. etc.). It worked great to keep people from hovering and being in my way and things were getting accomplished too. I highly recommend this method.
  3. Use your slow cooker– Better yet, use two of them! There are plenty of recipes out there that can be made in a slow cooker on Thanksgiving. This saves valuable stovetop and oven space. If you don’t have a Crockpot or slow cook (or two) then borrow one from a friend or family member.  Every year I make Sweet Potato Casserole in the slow cooker (and I always double the topping listed in the recipe). I’ve also made this Slow Cooker Stuffing recipe in the past and it turned out very well.
  4. Make items ahead of time – Not everything needs to be made the day of Thanksgiving. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, make some of your dishes ahead of time. If you are unable to make a dish ahead of time, at least do some of the prep work such as chopping and measuring ahead of time.

    If you didn’t delegate your pumpkin pies to your bachelor brother then you can make the pies a couple of days before Thanksgiving (if your household is anything like mine, you may find you have to threaten bodily harm to anyone that dares eat them before the big day!). Here is a great mashed potato recipe that you can make several days in advance. One reviewer of this recipe wrote that she made these mashed potatoes the Monday before Thanksgiving and reheated them in a slow cooker Thanksgiving day. I think I am going to try that this year! Last year I tried a new stuffing recipe (Sausage, Dried Cranberry and Apple Stuffing) that can be made two days ahead. It turned out very well! Both my dad and grandfather are picky eaters. My dad was watching me make the stuffing and he wasn’t so sure he’d like it but he didn’t say anything at the time. It turned out so delicious that both he and my grandfather had second helpings!

  5. Have a detailed schedule for the day – This is where I become “Type A”-ish. Three years ago, I found a great “Holiday Dinner Timeline” from http://foodieview.com. I adjusted the timeline to break everything down into 15 minute intervals and by oven, Crockpot #1, Crockpot #2, Stovetop Burner #1, and Stovetop Burner #2. Yes it is extremely detailed but it helps me avoid having a meltdown the day of. Here is my timeline from last year: Thanksgiving Day Timeline

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Thanks to The Graphics Fairy for the image used at the beginning of this post!

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My Italian Heritage – Stuffed Artichoke Recipe

I grew up in an Italian family. On special occasions (holidays mainly), my grandparents would make stuffed artichokes. The stuffed artichokes would always appear at the dinner table after everyone finished the main meal. In fact, because they always appeared at the end of the meal, my brother once (seriously) referred to them as dessert as a child!

As I got older, it seemed like stuffed artichokes were appearing less frequently at the holiday table. My grandmother would always ask right before she sat down at the table, “Anyone want anything else?” And I would always pipe up with “Artichokes!” She’d always tell me she wasn’t paying $1.50 or $2.00 a piece (whatever the going rate was at the time). I always thought that was a nice way of telling me to buzz off and that the real reason was that she didn’t want to go through the hassle of making them.

A few years ago when I went back to upstate NY to visit them one summer, I stopped by the grocery store and bought some artichokes. I figured if I showed up with them, she couldn’t use the “I’m not paying $X” excuse and then I could learn for myself how to make them. Guess what? They are actually real easy to make.

I was in the grocery store the other day and noticed the artichokes looked especially good (even though they were $2.49 each) so I picked up two to make and I finally made them last night.

Choosing an Artichoke

Choose artichokes that are medium sized (about the size of your fist). If you choose artichokes that are too large, they won’t be as tender once you steam them. You also want to look for artichokes that have nice tight, compact leaves and also an even color (though some brown spots are OK) Be careful when handling an artichoke, the leaves have pointy tips!

Preparing an Artichoke

Real Simple has a great article and video on how to prepare an artichoke. The steps there are not in the same order as I do them but they are all basically the same.

I start by cutting the stem off the base of the artichoke so that it can sit flat. I then cut off the top 1/2 of the artichoke (in the video, she does not cut off as much of the top as I do). Once the top is cut from the artichoke, I take kitchen scissors and trim the pointy tips of the outer leaves. After this is complete, I run the artichokes under cool water and set them aside.

Preparing the Stuffing

In a food processor, I break up a few slices of plain ol’ white bread. For this mixture, I used 5 slices of bread. I had enough to stuff the two artichokes I bought with enough left over to stuff at least one more (possibly two more). I also added in a bunch of parsley (1 bunch, stems removed) and two handfuls of grated parmesan cheese. Pulse until everything is chopped up/combined and add garlic salt to taste (my grandmother never actually measured anything. It was always a handful of this, a pinch of that, and by taste. It used to drive me nuts to not have actual measurements and now here I am passing along the “recipe” with the same sort of measurements.). Once you have everything “to taste”, transfer the mixture into a large mixing bowl.

Stuffing the Artichokes

Take your prepared artichoke and hold it over the mixing bowl. At this point I use my thumbs to gently spread the leaves apart from the center outward. Then I start throwing the bread crumb mixture onto the artichoke, shaking and spreading the leaves to get it as stuffed as possible. In the collage above, you can see how I use my thumbs to gently spread the leaves allowing the bread crumbs to fill the spaces. Once you have stuffed the artichokes as full as possible, drizzle some olive oil over the top of them (yes I’m Italian and yes I buy the big tin of extra virgin olive oil). When buying olive oil, be sure to get extra virgin olive oil which had the most superior flavor. And as grandpa always told me, “Always buy the most expensive olive oil you can afford”. Olive oil apparently is not something you skimp on in an Italian family.

Steaming the Artichokes

Once the artichokes are stuffed and olive oiled, it is time to cook/steam them. In the past, I’ve placed the artichokes in a big pot with 1-1/2″ of water in the bottom, covered them and turned the stove on medium-low to steam them. This time I got out my Ostar steamer and used it instead. I think I will always use my steamer from now on. Steam the artichokes until the outer leaves easily pull off the artichoke and are tender when you scrape them with your teeth (for these two artichokes, I steamed them for 50 minutes). Once the artichokes have finished steaming, let them cool for at least 15 minutes before eating them or putting them in the refrigerator.

Eating the Artichoke

I (thankfully) did not get any pictures showing how to eat an artichoke but the nice people over at Simply Recipes were kind enough to show a picture of how to eat an artichoke. Once you get closer to the center of the artichoke, the leaves are tender enough to eat whole. When you get real close to the center of the artichoke, the ends of the tender leaves will have “pinchers” on them so you want to be sure not to eat that. Eventually you will get to the fuzzy, inedible center known as the choke. Remove this portion with a spoon. What is left is the tender and delicious artichoke heart. I sprinkle a little salt on it and eat it up while saying, “Mmmmmm!”

Do you have any questions about artichokes, the stuffing or eating process? If so, leave me a comment and ask!


Panini Night!

Tonight I made panini sandwiches for dinner. It isn’t one of my least expensive dinners to make but it sure  is one of our yummiest dinners!

I bought cibatta bread at my local grocery store. If you can’t find cibatta bread, any crusty bread will do. I brushed a mixture of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on one side of the bread.

I then flipped the bread over and put pesto on one side of the bread and tampenade on the other side. Tampenade is an olive oil based spread. I usually get olive tampenade. The tampenade I used tonight was a mixture of olives, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted red peppers.

Next I added the meats. That is cappicoloa (an Italian ham) on the left and prosciutto (another type of Italian ham, this one is dry-cured) on the right. You can use any sort of cold cuts you like, these just happen to be my favorites when making paninis.

I added some provolone cheese and arugula (a salad green known for it’s “peppery” flavor). Slapped the two sandwich sides together and put it on our fancy sandwich squisher (which is really a Cuisinart grill my mom bought for us a few Christmases ago).

And there you have it, a delicious panini sandwich! The beauty of paninis is the versatility. You can use whatever bread, spread, cold cuts, herb and vegetable combination you wish.