Saturday, December 19, 2009

May All of Your Days Be Merry!

I am signing off until after Christmas (and the week between Christmas and New Years may be spotty, depending upon how much fun we’re having playing outside in the snow/sleet/rain).

I hope that you, and your families, have a wonderful holiday time together.

If any cooking quandaries arise, you might like to scroll down and see some of the recipes/ideas that are indexed on the right. And if there are particular aspects of cooking for your family that you’d like me to help you muddle through in the New Year, please leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to share ideas with you.

Looking back on 2009, and where I am falling on the “mom-a-licious” scale, there are certainly things I plan to do differently in 2010. So, I will look forward to sharing new recipes and ideas for moms trying to do it all, and do it well.

Here’s to a great year ahead!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's nice to be recognized!

Well, now this was a fun thing to learn after my book club friends had left and I was avoiding a kitchen full of wine glasses… The Full Plate Blog has been recognized as a great source of holiday ideas. Thanks Mom2Mom!

(And in case you want to whip up a batch of these gingerbread cookies too, the recipe is right here. Oh, and yes, my 3-year-old wanted to help decorate the cookies above (for his big brother's school snack tomorrow…My book club friends were arriving within the hour. So, click here for a quick refresher on how to stay sane/keep the kitchen somewhat clean, while still letting your child go nuts with the sprinkles...)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Looking for that perfect gift?

My little one turned three today. His favorite gift? A matching set of child-size snow shovels. One for him, one to share with his brother. For those of you still trying to come up with that perfect holiday gift…this might be it!

Decorating cookies with kids (and, achem, keeping it fun but sane)

Want to include your children in cookie decorating…but having a hard time getting excited about crunching around the kitchen on spilled sugars and sprinkles afterwards? A couple of ideas:

Give each child a rimmed baking sheet as their own little work space;

Spreading frosting with a knife can be frustrating for little ones. I fill a sandwich zip-loc with frosting, and then cut a tiny bit of the corner off, making them their own “pastry bag”;
Pouring sprinkles into small ramekins lets children to grab a little pinch of decorations. Whether your child decides to dump the whole ramekin on a cookie is up to them.

Click here for my favorite gingerbread and sugar cookies, both perfect for decorating.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Test run on teacher gifts (9 Bean Soup with Sausage and Kale)

My older son’s school encourages the little ones to make (not buy) holiday gifts for their teachers. In past years, we have made tins of the most decadent candied pecans ever…delicious to eat, but laborious. (And not the kind of labor my little ones can help with since it involves stirring hot, sugary nuts over and over, every ten minutes.) So this year, I was trying to think of a gift the kids could really help make, and that wouldn’t be “screwed up” if my almost three year old wanted to get in on the action. A local friend sent me the most gorgeous photos from her child’s Montessori service day, where the children gathered to assemble bean soup mixes for families in need. The jars were pretty to look at, I know they are good to eat, and if a teacher is inundated with baked goods and hand-painted mugs at holiday time, this could be a nice alternative—particularly if we make it based upon the delicious bean soup I regularly whip up for my family when the weather gets chilly.

Lots of websites have recipe ideas for 1 quart jars. Fine if you can find 1 quart jars, which I couldn’t. Closest thing to it was a 1.6 quart jar at Container Store. Just keep in mind, that if you find yourself in the same predicament, simply adjust recipes by 1.5.

Last weekend we assembled the jars. The kids scooped away. The beans were flying, and they had a ball. It is impossible to “mess up” this recipe, as all that is required is filling the jar with some assortment of beans. We used kidney, black eyed peas, barley, split peas, lentils, small red beans, black beans, chickpeas, and pinto beans. My older son made sure to get all nine types of beans into each jar, my younger son was more willy nilly, and he was just happy when the beans went in the jar. Needless to say, I bought extra beans since I knew I'd be vacuuming up a lot of beans…

Then I sent my younger one to Starbucks with dad so I could tackle the (more precise) seasoning packets with my older son. Our seasoning packet was made with a teaspoon each (or so) of: oregano, basil, tarragon, thyme, dried onion, chili powder, coarse pepper, dried lemon peel, parsley, garlic powder, and smoked paprika….I learned afterwards that Costco carries an Organic No-Salt Added Seasoning mix, which I would probably opt for next time!
I gave a jar a test run today, as it was my cook day for our Wednesday Supper Swap, and the soup is delicious.

9 Bean Soup (with Sausage & Kale)
1.6 quarts (about 6 cups) of dried beans (any type)
Two 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes (I used ones with garlic and basil)
Two 34 ounce boxes of broth (I used organic chicken broth)
Seasonings/spices of choice (add in stages; you can always add more but not take it out!)
Optional – Sausages (I used Turkey Kielbasa)
Optional – Greens (I used a big bunch of kale)
Soak the beans overnight. The next day, drain and rinse the beans.
In a large stock pot, sauté the sausage in a bit of olive oil. (If this is strictly a bean soup, skip this step.)

Add the pre-soaked beans, enough broth so the beans are covered by about 2 inches of liquid, and 2 cans of diced tomatoes (as is, don't drain them).

Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low, letting the soup simmer for 2 ½ hours, or until beans are tender. You'll want to stir the soup every 1/2 hour or so, to prevent any beans from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
If you are adding kale (or any other leafy green) you’ll want to do so about the last 15 minutes of cooking.

This soup freezes beautifully, so go ahead and make a huge pot. It’s also a crowd pleaser after an afternoon of sledding.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Toy Ideas for Little Ones (Re-Post)

The post about gift ideas for little ones got hidden way way down, many posts ago. A couple of my friends mentioned that they were having trouble finding it, so I am re-posting the link for those of you looking for toy ideas based on ones that have been a hit around here. Enjoy! (And please do leave a comment if you've got neat ideas to share.)

Old-Fashioned Molasses Crinkles (a.k.a Baking in the Dark)

A couple years back, a friend brought these cookies over as a hostess gift. Relatively demure in appearance, I had no idea just how delicious these cookies tasted. They are now on my “must make” list of holiday baking.

If these photos look dark it’s because it was dark when we baked them this morning. My 1st grader decided (at bedtime last night) that what he would really like to “share” at school today is a guessing game. “I want to write down all of the ingredients in something and then let my friends guess what it will make! Then I want to give them all one of the cookies!” How can a mom argue with that sort of glee and excitement?

And that is why we were baking at 6 a.m. I can only assume that my pre-7:30 a.m. actions of having the Make Ahead Oatmeal down their hatches, and a huge batch of cookies baked, will nominate me for a mom-of-the-week award. Then again, the smell of our kitchen when I came back in from waiting for the school bus was reward enough for today.

Old-Fashioned Molasses Crinkles
About 6 dozen cookies

2 cups of sugar
1 ½ cups of shortening
½ cup molasses, “original” (though you can use dark for a stronger taste)
2 eggs
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ginger
3 teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
4 cups of all-purpose flour
Sugar (to roll the dough in)

Mix all of the ingredients above, except the flour. Let batter stand for 20 minutes, and then mix in the flour. Roll into balls the size of hickory nuts (which I estimate to be 1” balls).

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes. Let cool slightly on baking sheet then transfer to cooling rack.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Catching up and keeping things in perspective

I am playing a serious game of catch-up on posts today. I have my little one home from preschool with a sniffle and he’s relishing having our huge tub of Legos all to himself. So, I am homebound, and enjoying the forced downtime during what is usually a chaotic time of year.

As I went in to write up a couple of the most recent recipes on the Full Plate blog, I realized that I had also not glanced at my “dashboard” in a few weeks of happy holiday mayhem. Since I am technologically pretty illiterate, right now I need to actually login to my “dashboard” if I want to catch up on posts from other moms and interesting people out there. One of my all time favorite blogs to read is nienie. Not to sound trite, but whenever I get bogged down in the silliness of my life, her poignant (and often very funny) posts remind me of just how lucky and carefree my life is. Here are a couple of her recent posts for those who have a little downtime and might like to read them too: Nie York City and the very funny Christmas List post.

(The photo above, and the photo below are "then" and "now" photos of Stephanie (a.k.a. nienie) that I copied off her website.)

Easy Appetizer - Savory Christmas Tartlets

I love going to parties. But as a guest, knowing how much planning and effort goes into hosting, I like to contribute an appetizer or some treats. Here’s my holiday take on that easy appetizer I shared a couple months back. It’s a hit.

Christmas Tartlet Appetizers

Phyllo shells (found in the freezer section of most supermarkets)
Cream cheese
Pesto (I used Bear Pond Farm’s “Lemon Pesto” from Walter Stewart’s Market)
Sun-dried Tomato Paste

Pine Nuts

Preheat oven to 350. Pop the frozen shells out of the plastic tray and onto a rimmed cookie sheet. Bake them for 3 minutes, just so they crisp up.

While they are cooling, in a small bowl, blend the block of cream cheese, tub of Feta, and handful of shredded Parmesan (using a hand mixer to make it easy).* Fill each little phyllo cup with a dollop of the cheese mixture, then a dab of sun-dried tomato pesto (mine came in a tube which made this part super easy...found in the pasta/sauce aisle of Walter Stewart’s), and a dab of pesto, sprinkle with a couple of pine nuts. Then I popped it back into the oven for 5 minutes so the cheese melted a bit.

These were served room temp, and were delish.

*Again, I knew this would make a ton of the cheese mixture. So, we had some in our veggie frittata the next morning, and I plan to enjoy it spread on Wave Hill bread this week.

Jingle Bell Pasta

Here’s a festive dinner (that you can make in mere minutes) this holiday season. Its’ bright colors are a hit…

Jingle Bell Pasta

Ravioli (any kind), or any type of pasta (whole wheat rotini, spinach penne, etc.)
Cherry Tomatoes, washed and left whole
Frozen Peas, cooked according to package
Pesto (store bought,
unless you’ve got homemade in your freezer)
Parmesan, shredded

Prepare the ravioli (or pasta) according to package instructions. Then toss with pesto, peas, cherry tomatoes, and a handful of parmesan. Dinner is ready, and festive!

Holiday Baking - Sugar Cookies and Royal Icing

This is about that time of year when I start letting my kids have Christmas cookies for dinner, and bundle them in winter coats over the PJs so we can turn on Christmas music and drive around town at bedtime to look at all of the pretty lights. No matter how many times a season we do this little evening jaunt it never loses its’ excitement.

I have some of the extra gingerbread cookies (I made last month for a 1st grade project) in the freezer, waiting to be decorated after school this week (preferably the day before the cleaning ladies come versus after). And, I’ve got a couple more holiday favorites I am making time to whip up. In case you’re looking for great cut-out cookie recipes, be sure to check out the gingerbread recipe I posted a couple weeks back. If your family prefers sugar cookies, the recipe below is a great one to keep on hand. And just remember, if you run out of steam, you do not need to kill yourself rolling and cutting them into all sorts of festive shapes. You’ll notice, in the photo above, that I did burn out last year, so I just baked the sugar cookies as balls (that turn into circles while baking), and still they looked festive once the kids piled on the sprinkles! And if you can’t muster up the time to measure ingredients with all of the holiday concerts, parties then just rely on your friend Betty.

Traditional Sugar Cookies

2 sticks of butter, softened
1 cup of white sugar
1 egg
3 tablespoons vanilla
Zest of 1 lemon or orange
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

parchment paper and rimmed baking sheets

In a mixing bowl, combine softened butter, sugar and egg. Using a hand mixer, beat at medium speed, until creamy. Add the vanilla and lemon or orange zest; mix well. Reduce speed to low; add flour and baking powder. Beat until well mixed.Divide dough into thirds. Wrap each in wax paper and refrigerate until firm (2 to 3 hours).

When you are reading to do the baking, preheat oven to 400°F.* Roll out dough on lightly floured surface, one-third at a time (keeping remaining dough refrigerated), to 1/8- to 1/4-inch thickness and then cut with your favorite cookie cutters. Place 1 inch apart onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 6 to 10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. For best results, let the cookies cool before decorating.

*If you are not up for rolling and cutting out shapes, simply roll small balls with your hands (flattening them slightly so they don’t roll all over when you’re walking to the oven) and place them 1” apart on the baking sheet. Then bake 8-10 minutes, until edges are lightly browned.

Royal Icing (great for decorating cookies)
Keep in mind that this frosting needs to be used immediately or stored in an airtight container as it hardens quickly when exposed to air! I make each child a zip-loc baggie of frosting, squeeze all of the air out, and then cut a tiny hole in one corner, so it’s their own “pastry bag”. This frosting can also be colored with food coloring, or the food coloring gels available at most markets.

4 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons meringue (egg white) powder
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or lemon extract
1/2 - 3/4 cup warm water (add the water until desired consistency)

I mix by hand, adding liquid until I reach the desired consistency—not rock hard, but not too runny either. Keep in mind that if you’re adding food coloring, that is a liquid too so you’ll want to add it before pouring in all of the allotted water to avoid the frosting getting too runny. Runny is still tasty but it’s messy, and takes a loooong time to harden!