Saturday, December 27, 2014

Easy Entertaining!

Yes, Christmas rolled over us like a double-decker bus filled with overstuffed passengers, but there are still several days of fa la la la la-ing, before the ball drops. (Actually, I've believe the ball is filled with weight loss and tax commercials, so once it hits the ground and breaks open, the party's over.) So, for now, here are two easy and delicious recipes that I made over this holiday, and I will find a reason to use them both all year long! Take a look:

I'm going to name this first one after my son (since he stopped by for dinner one night, took home the leftovers and hid them from his fiance. By the time she got home the next night, all that was left was the waft of prosciutto and wine in the air). Not fair, my boy!

Kyle's Chicken

You'll need 2 packages of THIN chicken breasts
1/4 lb of prosciutto 
a half bag of fresh spinach
an 8 oz package of fresh sliced mushrooms
1 envelope Lipton Recipe Secret's Savory Herb and Garlic
1/2 C White Wine
1/4 C Olive oil

1/2 lemon, squeezed, seeds removed
8 oz shredded mozzarella

Preheat oven to 375
Spray a 13/9" pan with Pam.
Put 2 layers of chicken in pan, layer the prosciutto.

Top with spinach, sprinkle with a little kosher salt and coarse black pepper and then
top with mushrooms.
Whisk together olive oil, wine, lemon and savory herb envelope then pour over everything.
Lay a piece of foil over (not tight) the pan and bake for 30 minutes
Top with the cheese and bake for 5 minutes more.

This is a very simple and impressive casserole.

The next one is a snack, appetizer, game night sensation, or a great accompaniment to a good book and a glass of wine. All the credit here goes to Ina Garten who created this recipe for the Food Network Magazine. She calls it "Caramelized Bacon" for the ultimate happy hour. I call it...

1/2 cup brown sugar, lightly packed (I used the dark variety)
1/2 cup chopped or whole pecans
2 tsps kosher salt
1 tsps black pepper
1/8 tsp of cayenne pepper
2 tbls spoons of pure maple syrup
1/2 lb of thickly sliced applewood smoked bacon

Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and put a wire rack on top of that. Ground together the pecans and brown sugar in a good processor until both are finely ground.
Add the remaining ingredients and pulse until all are moistened. Cut the bacon strips in half and line on sheets. Then take a spoon and spread the mixture on each piece, covering completely and bake for about 30 minutes. You want the topping bubbling brown but not burned. Remove from sheet immediately and place each piece on a plated topped with a paper towel. This can be made early in the day and then kept a room temperature.

The only thing differently I would do next time is to make a double batch!

So savor the next few days of what's left of the 2014 holidays and enjoy yourself! A long dark winter awaits us and we need to enter it with as much spirit as possible!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mall Conversations Days Before Christmas...

I think if most women are honest, when it comes to serious Christmas shopping, they like to shop alone. At lease I do. Social shopping with friends is fine, but when I'm on a mission, I need to be solo.

I don't know, maybe I can't talk and shop at the same time. But one thing I can do is...listen! I have become addicted to partial conversations. And snippets of Mall talk the week before Christmas are the best.

Shopper #1 "I need to buy a holiday tablecloth cause now I have to put the extra leaf in. What size is the average leaf?"
Shopper #2 "How should I know?
Shopper #1 "Well you invited the extra people! Did you put any thought into it?"
Shopper #2 "Two people, Ruth, Two people! Not a big deal! I'm bringing half the food!"
Shopper #1 "Then you buy the table cloth, and then take it home with you, since next year it is at your house and you can invite as many people as you want!"
Shopper #2 "I already have a big Christmas tablecloth."

They went into a store before I could hear the rest of that conversation, which had an obvious solution Ruth! Along with half the food, tell her to bring her tablecloth! Merry Christmas to two ladies who had to be sisters!

Observing a young girl, excitingly leaving Santa's lap and then digging her heals in when she got to her parents. "Wait, wait wait! I forgot to tell him something." "Don't worry," the Dad said, "I'll text him." Wow, that has to be a popular cell number.

Shortly thereafter, I was walking behind a couple loaded with bags and overheard this:

Wife - "That is it! I think we are finally done!"
Husband - "Did you get my boss something?"
Wife - "No! Why should I? He is your boss."'
Husband - "Well, I bet you bought your boss something!"
Wife - "Duh...yeah, I did. What are you not getting about the your boss thing?

Ooooh! This isn't going to end well for him.

A little later, as I was sitting down to adjust my purchases, I listened to a boy, about 9 yrs of age, that reminded me so much of conversations I had with my oldest son over grades. I didn't hear the mothers response, but his sentence spoke volumes!"No, what you said was, I would get an XBox if I didn't get a C on my math test. Well, a D is not a C!" You have got to give him an A on tenacity!

My favorite overheard phone conversation (the part I couldn't hear was obvious) "I got it! I had to wait in a long line, but I got it! (Pause) What do you mean you changed your mind? You agreed to pay for half of it! I can't afford this on my own!) Okay, maybe sometimes it is better to shop with other people, especially if you're going in on a gift.

Unfortunately, sometimes, the realization of how difficult this time of year can be for some parents, hits you like a brick to the head. Sometimes, you hear the heart breakers, Listening to a young mother walking past, holding the hand of (I'm guessing) a four year old boy, I observed by her worn shoes and torn coat pocket that Christmas might be a little tight this year. Then, his young but powerful observation moistened my eyes;

Mom - "I told you, Santa can't bring a whole lot this year but he'll do his best."
Son "I guess Santa doesn't like poor kids." Ouch.

Drew, the 5 yr.old diplomat!
Now, on a brighter note, my favorite mall conversation of the season happened between me and my five year old (great) nephew, Drew, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. And it had nothing to do with gifts. Yet his intelligence, presented with such diplomacy, will stay with me always! While is mother, grandmother and baby sister shopped, we walked down to an activity center that was set up in the main mall court to keep kids (and mostly Dad's) busy.

We sat down at a little table (literally, the chair seat was about 12" from the floor. Wasn't sure how I was going to get back up), where he started coloring a tree with the green crayon, I picked up the red crayon and started drawing little round circles over his green tree.

Drew - "What are you doing?"
Me - "I'm drawing red berries on the tree. I think it makes it pretty!"
Drew (looks around and then leans in closer to my ear - so know one else could hear!) "Okay, but let's call them apples because berries grow on bushes."
He's five. I'm not. He wins. I continued to put apples on the tree. I colored in silence so I wouldn't embarrass myself again... at least until I had to get up from the chair.

Sadly enough, the place I expected to hear the most conversations, the food court, was where I heard the least. Most people were texting on their cell phones. Heaven forbid we should talk to the person we're sharing a meal with. Happy holidays! And don't forget, the next time you're talking in a crowded mall, someone might be listening...and then go home and write a blog about you!

PS. There is still time to drop a present in the Toys For Tots boxes for all the little kids that think Santa doesn't like them.

Friday, December 12, 2014

These are a few of my favorite things...

Bare branches, red berries. Nothing prettier.
The Christmas season is like a stone dropping in a pond. It starts with a small splash on Thanksgiving, then ripples through the month of December, spreading far and wide, until it quietly dissipates into a deep, cold, dark winter. All that's left are a few needles on the rug.

But while it's here, it can be dazzling, magical and enchanting. Most years. But every year, someone, somewhere is having one that doesn't feel like the others. I was there a couple of years ago. If you're there now, all I can say to you is; hang in there. It will get better.

 And then, there are those (like me again) going through a holiday transition. For me, (and probably at some point, for everyone), Christmas has changed. No longer at the helm of Christmas day activities. With family spread over several states and sons understandably with other families now to juggle into their schedules, I've become the piece of puzzle that needs to be "fit" into the holiday picture. Takes a little getting used to. 

But recently, I read a post on Facebook that made all the sense in the world to me. "As we get older, it's not what we get, or even what we give, that makes Christmas special, it's really the things that can't be bought at all." I so get this. With that said, I gathered a list of things that make me happy during the season that don't require a credit card...because they are priceless:
  1. The sight of a Christmas tree tied to the top of a car heading home. I smile every time I see one.
  2. The sound of the Salvation Army ringing bells on a city street, preferably New York. There are just not enough adjectives to describe this city at Christmas...
  3. ...that being said, I must add the smell of chestnuts burning on street corners. Along with the brief warmth they provide on a cold, windy day. I never tire of this.
  4. Snow flurries. Not a major storm, just light snow falling softly. In A Charlie Brown Christmas (30 minutes that I think defines this season perfectly), Lucy says to Linus, who is sticking out his tongue to catch a flake, "December snow is too early to taste." Not for me Lucy. And it never will be.
  5. A warm freshly baked chocolate chip cookie and the memory of two little boys standing on chairs beside me helping to make them.
  6. A choir. You can play all the Jingle Bell versions you want. A choir will stop me in my tracks every time. 
  7. Okay, this one will sound a little strange, but...bare trees need to be added to this list. I love stark branches reaching into the sky. When I was very young, there was a commercial on TV, where an animated figure, walked into the woods to cut down a tree. When he bent down to get his saw, he heard a bird singing, looked up and realized that the barren tree was still a home for something. He then pulled his saw to his chin like a violin, picked up a broken branch from the ground and played "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Then the words "Merry Christmas from CBS" would appear. I looked for it every year. It may have been the start of my fascination and understanding that even bare trees serve a purpose.
  8. A decorated fireplace mantle. Be it candles, fresh greens or little white lights, festive mantels and a warm fire going make a real statement in the holiday dressed home. If I walked into a room with a Christmas tree and a fireplace, I would look at the mantle first.
  9. A hot cup of tea! Okay, it has to be bought, but it's minimal. And the pleasure it gives is immeasurable. Maybe it's an age thing, but tea at night has replaced milk for me. (It could also be that as my sole supporter, I try to keep the thermostat down and a fire going.) Whatever the reason, hot tea is working for me.
  10. I love that this season of "getting" somehow brings out the need to "give" in most. Not just to the people we love, but more importantly, to those we don't even know. The ability to be charitable, is what's best in all of us. It's a gift in itself.
  11. Quiet time. A sign outside of a local church reads "Don't lose the Christmas hush in the Christmas rush".  Which brings to mind, Mannheim Steamroller's version of Silent Night. Be still my heart. This is the best. 
  12. And this year, I love that next year, my first grandchild will be gazing at the lights on a tree. And I love that my youngest son is "officially" bringing a girl into this family that everyone already adores. 
Things do change. We can't control that. But we can learn to adapt. Learn to make ourselves happy. I'm convinced that it truly are the sounds, the sites, the scents of Christmas that make it so special. Light a fire, make some tea, or take a walk in the woods. You won't find what is best about this very special season in your wallet.

The Christmas Hush...

Ironically, as I'm writing this, the movie White Christmas is playing in the background, and Bing Crosby is singing "When you are worried, and you can't sleep, count your blessings instead of sheep." Now there is a list that could go on for a very long time! Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Soup Night...How it all began!

Put on a pot of soup and call a few friends!
Steaming bowls of soup, cold winter nights and friends. Lots and lots of friends and family. Looking back, I'm not sure how many years ago this thing started, but I can assure you it's been awhile. If I remember correctly, (and that's always a question) it originally began easily enough.

For several years, I had worked for a construction/service company which closed down for obvious reasons, during the winter months. Which found me every December, out of the office and into my kitchen. My friends, on the other had to work during this incredibly busy month.

Which also meant that they had to do their holiday shopping on weekends, while I was doing mine on Mondays when everything was less crowded. So after gathering at a local watering hole one Friday night listening to them grumble about mall madness the next day, I made this offer. "Look, I'm making a big pot of chicken soup tomorrow, so on your way home, stop by and have a bowl." And from there it grew into an awaited annual tradition, one that I love.

Through the years, we've lost a few friends while blessedly gaining some new ones. But however it happens, each year the chairs around the table seem to multiply. This year, my house was bulging at the seams! What I love most about this gathering is its casualness. No fancy holiday dresses or heels. Jeans and sweaters are the required dress. I stood in the kitchen this year, and looked around and found laughter, smiles and sometimes intense conversation among all of the faces I treasure, which reinforced my feelings of how special this night is.

And the menu? So easy! Prepare a few homemade soups in the days leading up to this special night and then order a sandwich tray (locally known as hoagies). This year, along with the Italian, turkey and roast beef variety, the tray included Buffalo chicken cutlet hoagies with blue cheese mayo, that were a huge hit. I know this because every time I went to reach for one, someone else's hand was there, and then they were gone.

This year's menu consisted of Maryland Crab and Sausage soups (kind of like Italian wedding soup but with sausage instead of little meatballs), and a fabulous Butternut Squash soup, made by my friend Judy. Once I pry the recipe from her, I will definitely post it.

Kitchen Clatter has posted the Maryland crab recipe before, and it has since become one of the most requested recipes, so I am glad to have it appear again. Short history of this fabulous soup is that years ago, I was working in Annapolis, Maryland, where I found this recipe written on an old apron, hanging in a crab shack. I copied it down on a paper napkin that I keep to this day.

So, make some soup, call some friends and have the easiest holiday gathering you can image. The laughter and memories will warm you for the very long winter to come!

Maryland Crab Soup
2 quarts and 1 cup of beef broth         3 cups mixed vegetables
1 cup chopped celery                          1 tsp Kitchen Bouquet
1 cup chopped onion                           3 cloves of minced garlic
1 Tbsp parley leaves                            1 lb lump crab meat
1 qt chopped tomatoes                        8 tsp of crab seasoning
3 cups of chopped cabbage                 A few drops of hot sauce                                           

Combine all ingredients in a large stock pot except the crab meat and seasoning, bring to boil and then simmer for 1.5 hrs. Then add crab meat and seasoning and simmer for another half an hour.
Important Note: I usually add an additional 1/2 lb of crab claw meat (less expensive than lump meat) as well because it has a lot of flavor. 

Sausage Soup:

2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 cup of minced yellow onions1 cup of sliced carrots
3/4 cup of diced celery
1 12 oz can if diced tomatoes with juice

2 pounds of chicken thighs (removing skin from half the package)
2-3 qts of water
1/4 cup of freshly grated Locatelli (or your favorite Parmesan cheese)
1 stalk of escarole, cleaned and chopped (Do not use spinach, it is just too strong)
1 lb of Italian Sausage, browned and crumbled
About 1/2 lb of fresh mozzarella (pearl size, if you can find it) 

Start by just slightly "sweating" vegetables in the olive oil.  Add the chicken and tomatoes, then add enough water to cover about 2/3 of pot. Season with salt or add 3 chicken bouillon cubes (as I do) after it reaches a soft boil. Lower heat, partially cover, and let it simmer for about an 1.5 - 2 hrs. When finished, drain all ingredients through colander into clean pot. Pull some meat from the skinned thighs and add back to broth. Discard remaining ingredients. Bring broth back to soft boil, add chopped escarole and cooked and drained sausage, and let simmer another 20 minutes or so.
Pasta! While you can add any type of noodle that you prefer, the traditional pasta for this dish is Anici de Pepe. They are like tiny little balls that, if spilled, will take forever to clean up! Cook about 3/4 of the box in salted water, drain and add to soup. Cooking them directly in the broth is doable, but adds a starchiness that you just don't need. Just before serving, while soup is still in the pot, stir in the mozzarella cheese.