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Jul 8 / sara

Good Neighbor Q&A: Do You Have Any Picnic Planning Pointers?

Tabbouleh

Tabbouleh is perfect picnic fare: it’s sturdy enough to hold up well to travel and can be eaten hours after being made; because it’s dairy-less, it can be safely enjoyed at room (or outdoor) temperature; and you only need a fork and a plate to eat it (no knives necessary). When you’re planning your next out door picnic menu, try to keep these considerations in mind: how well does it hold up to less than perfect conditions? is it dairy-free? is it easy to eat? Other stars of the picnic include dishes like mayo-less coleslaw, potato and pasta salads, corn salad, whole-grain salads, baguette sandwiches (the bread won’t get soggy), and easy-to-eat snacks like nuts and dried fruit, radishes, grapes, chips, watermelon slices, cherry tomatoes, nectarines, and peaches. And then there’s always dessert…opt for the finger-licking good category: brownies, cookies, and bar cookies.

Picnics definitely take a little extra effort and thought. So the next time you plan one, make it a potluck…it’s so much easier that way! But when you’re divvying up the menu, divvy up the necessities as well. Here’s a list to get you going:

Picnic-Packing Punch List
real silverware (it classes things up!)
disposable but sturdy plates
disposable glasses for wine
napkins
wet naps
tablecloth or blanket for sitting
cutting board (great for holding drinks)
ice chest
frozen bottles of water (they double as ice packs and are deliciously cold when melted)
screw cap bottles of wine, beer or soda (no openers necessary)
trash bag
bug spray

Tabbouleh
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Serves 4

1 cup bulgur wheat
3 cups hot water
4 scallions (white and light green parts), sliced
1 cucumber, peeled, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1 beefsteak tomato, diced
1/2 cup chopped fresh flatleaf parsley
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a medium bowl, combine the bulgur with the hot water. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand until the bulgur is tender but still chewy, about 25 minutes; drain any excess water.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine the scallions, cucumber, tomato, parsley, lemon juice, oil, salt, and pepper. Add the bulgur and toss well.

Jul 1 / sara

Top (Hot) Dogs

Hot Dog Toppers

There’s nothing more American than hot dogs on the grill.  The melting pot that makes this country so great is even more Yankee doodle dandy. So in honor of the red, white, and blue, let’s pay homage to the immigrants of today and yesteryear with these three internationally inspired toppings for your dogs. What better way to celebrate the 4th of July?

Serve the toppings below in combination or individually for a party of eight. And keep these recipes handy as we get deeper into the hot dog days of summer!

The Mexican
2 avocados, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 jalapeño, sliced into thin rings
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

In a medium bowl, combine the avocados, jalapeño, cilantro, lime juice, and salt and gently stir.

The German
2 tablespoons whole grain mustard
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 head green cabbage, thinly sliced (3 cups)
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 dill pickles, sliced into half moons

In a medium bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper. Add the cabbage, onion, and pickles and toss.

The Vietnamese
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cucumber, peeled if waxed and cut into half moons
1 mango, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup peanuts, coarsely chopped

In a medium bowl, combine the vinegar, oil, sugar, and salt. Add the cucumber, mango, and peanuts and toss.

 

Jun 27 / suzanne

My First Attempt at Meal Planning: Coulda Been Worse

A couple weeks ago I blogged about the alarmingly high number of times per month that I go the supermarket. (Okay: 29.3 times. I was going to link to the post so I wouldn’t have to type in the number, but there it is.) In the interim, Anthony Weiner changed the definition of “mortifying disclosure,” so I’m feeling a bit less awful about myself.

Also, in the first 25 days of June I’ve only been to the store six times.

Also, my first attempt at meal planning, a la Brenda Thompson, wasn’t a total disaster.

First the good: I followed through with my plan to double Marilyn’s Moroccan Tagine, making half for a new-baby meal train and half for my family. So efficient! I made the Vegetarian Enchilada Casserole, as planned, and used up a ton of marginal veggies in a Crockpot Eggplant Stew with Garbanzo Beans.

But, I ran out of time and motivation to make a couple other dishes on my agenda, as well as the salad recipes I’d planned to keep in the fridge for lunches. Whit’s Balsamic Beet and Carrot Salad is probably my all-time favorite salad, but mid-week, it just seemed like too much work.

At least I didn’t let the beets and carrots go to waste.  I roasted the beets for dinner one night, and another night made this fluffy, yummy Healthy Carrot Soufflé I found via Internet search. My boys loved it! I will make it again.

Semi-mortifying disclosure: I had planned to be super efficient and make one batch of chocolate-chip cookies for two occasions — two-thirds of the batch for a 93rd birthday party and one-third for the meal-train dessert. But the meal-train family never got their cookies because I ATE THE DOUGH. All of it! Over three days. I kept it in the garage fridge so that the family would have freshly baked cookies, but temptation proved too strong, and I kept sneaking out to the garage for a bite. Next thing I knew, the dough was gone.

I ended up making a special trip to Safeway to buy ice cream for the family.

 

Jun 17 / sara

Grilled Shish Kebabs 3 Ways

Shish Kebab Set-Up

Shish kebabs are like a full meal on a stick.  And since all the prep is done ahead of time, they’re perfect for big parties. Just throw them on the grill for 10 minutes, serve them with a potato salad, and your meal is done. Time to enjoy the guests.

Below are a few recipes for a party of 8, complete with combination ideas and a few extra pointers for grilling success. Keep in mind, too, that kebabs are a great thing to bring to a neighborhood cookout. Just pack them up separately in ziptop bags, and grill when you get there.

 

Grilled Shish Kebabs

Grilled Shish Kebabs
Hands-on time: 25 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
Serves 8

Lemon-Thyme Chicken with Peppers and Mushrooms
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
16 small button mushrooms
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 10-inch skewers

Alternating, thread each skewer with 2 pieces of chicken, 4 pieces of peppers, and 2 mushrooms. Place them on a pan and toss with the garlic, thyme, and oil. Season with salt and pepper. Grill over medium-high heat, turning, until cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes.

BBQ Beef with Jalapeños and Red Onion
1 pound top sirloin, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 small red onions, each cut into 8 wedges
4 jalapeños, quartered lengthwise and seeded
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
8 10-inch skewers

Alternating, thread each skewer with 2 pieces of beef, 2 onion wedges, and 2 pieces of jalapeño. Place them on a pan and season with salt and pepper. In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce and ketchup. Pour over the kebabs and toss to coat. Grill over medium-high heat, turning, until medium-rare, 10 to 12 minutes.

Spiced Shrimp with Tomatoes and Lemon
1 pound shrimp (16 large)
1 lemon, cut into 8 wedges
1 pint cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons chili powder
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 10-inch skewers

Alternating, thread each skewer with 2 shrimp, 1 lemon wedge, and 3 or 4 tomatoes. Place them on a pan and toss with oil and season with the chili powder, salt, and pepper. Grill over medium-high heat, turning, until cooked through, about 6 minutes.

Pointers:
soak skewers in water for at least 10 minutes to help prevent burning
cut ingredients into uniform pieces to ensure even cooking
combine ingredients that cook in the same amount of time, ie. tomatoes and shrimp,
beef and onions
marinate if you have time

Jun 10 / sara

Homemade Tomatillo Salsa and Tortilla Chips

Tomatillo Salsa

The next time you’re the one responsible for bringing the chips and salsa to a neighborhood gathering, surprise them with the real thing. The tomatillos, that look like green tomatoes inside their papery skins, give this salsa its tart flavor, and the jalapeño lends a kick of heat (leave the seeds in if you like your salsa hot)…And nothing beats a warm chip from the oven!

Homemade Tomatillo Salsa and Tortilla Chips
Hands-on time:
15 minutes
Total time:
35 minutes
Serves 8

12 corn tortillas
4 tablespoons canola oil
salt for sprinkling
1 pound (about 8 medium) tomatillos
1 small red onion, peeled and cut into 8 pieces
1 jalapeño, halved lengthwise and seeded
1 cup loosely packed cilantro sprigs
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Heat the oven to 375°F. Stack 6 tortillas on a cutting board. Cut them in half then cut each half into thirds to make chips. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss the chips together with 2 tablespoons of the oil to coat evenly. Spread them out in an even layer and bake until golden and crisp, 12 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and transfer to a bowl. Repeat with the remaining tortillas, oil and salt.

Meanwhile, remove the husks from the tomatillos and discard. Rinse the sticky film from the tomatillos using warm water. Cut them into quarters and place in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until chopped. Add the onion, jalapeño and cilantro and pulse until finely chopped but not completely smooth. Add the lime juice and the 1/2 teaspoon salt and quickly pulse to combine. Serve with the chips.

Best when served the day they are made.

Jun 7 / suzanne

Pear Honey

You can use any type of pear to make Pear Honey.

What the heck is pear honey? It’s Judy Hudgins’ family recipe. “We always called it honey, for no reason that I know of other than that’s what we always called it — I guess because it’s sweet,” says Judy, a Good Neighbor Cook in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“What makes this recipe different from a jam, jelly or preserve is that you are relying on the natural pectin in the fruit so it doesn’t ‘set’ or get that jelly-like texture you normally associate with jams or jellies,” Judy says. “It comes out almost like a chunky applesauce with a really thick syrup to it.”

Judy’s father grinds the fruit with an old grinder, “much like a meat grinder you would use for making sausage,” Judy says. Judy uses a cheese grater on the coarse setting. “Aim for something the consistency of minced garlic,” she says.

Normally with a jam or jelly you have a real definite time you boil the mixture.  With this, it is a lot more forgiving and relaxed, so I am usually doing other things while making it.  I just need an apron to feel like my grandmothers!

Pear Honey (Can be made with apples, too.)
Hands-on time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Yield: 8 to 10 pints

8 cups peeled, ground fruit, from 16 to 24 firm pears
6 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
8-ounce can crushed pineapple in juice

Grind fruit using a grater and measure. Place in a large saucepan along with with the  sugar and water. Bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the pineapple and simmer 10 minutes longer. Can while hot.

For canning tips and products, check out Ball’s amazing and very helpful website.

Jun 7 / suzanne

Jammin’ Judy: Meet This Good Neighbor Cook

Judy Hudgins and her daughter, Savvy, in Elizabethan costume

To me, jams are like crème brulee: a pure pleasure that I would never think of making myself because it seems too darned hard. But I am now totally inspired, thanks to Judy Hudgins of Raleigh, North Carolina.

“When I give away jams, people act like I just performed brain surgery,” says Judy, who is 53 and works as a reservations agent for American Airlines. “People don’t realize how easy it really is.”

Judy not only gives away jams, jellies and preserves as gifts for birthdays and holidays but also includes these instructions: “If you return the jar, it will be refilled again next year.”

She says most people do return the jars — sometimes with extra containers that Judy gladly fills. Her jams are so coveted that one of her coworkers hides Judy’s peach preserves at the back of her fridge so her husband can’t find it. “Being a man, he would not look beyond the first layer on the shelf, of course.”

Judy’s 20-year-old daughter, Savvy, left home last weekend to start her “adult life” in Arizona, and her request was to take some of Mom’s strawberry and peach preserves with her. “I have a feeling I will be mailing jars across county, just like my mom did for me,” Judy says.

Here is one of Judy’s beloved family recipes, for Pear Honey. And here is the lovely backstory on Judy’s jams.

Q: Who taught you to make jams?

A: I learned to cook from my mother’s mother, who passed two weeks ago at 96. She was the cook for my grandfather’s railroad crew — 20 to 30 men — and I would spend time during the summer with her.

My family has always canned and ‘put up’ things. My grandfather had two peach trees, one apple, one plum, a small grape arbor, blackberry and raspberry bushes and strawberries on his 1 acre in town in Jackson, Tennessee. To tell you how long ago I helped with making jams and jellies, I remember my grandmother putting paraffin wax on the top of the jams to seal them.

Q: Why are jams and jellies your favorite foods to give away?

A: For one thing, are a connection to my family and my past. I feel like I am carrying on a tradition. I can remember the smells of canning with my grandmothers and mother growing up and how hot the kitchen would get and the ‘tink’ as the jars sealed.

Also, so many people today do not can food of any kind. It’s all off the shelf. That is one reason I am really thrilled about the eating-local movement.

Q: How often do you make jams?

I make them as the fruits come into season. Here in the Raleigh area we are surrounded by a lot of local, small farms and a great supply of farmers markets. One batch would be more than enough for a year-long supply, but I enjoy making them, so I usually make at least two batches of each kind of fruit. My basics are strawberries and peach. Sometimes, I make blueberry, apricot, pear and fig jams. This way I have a supply I can grab one off the shelf at the last minute.

Q: What makes your jams and jellies so special?

A: There are some good commercial jams and jellies out there. But mine do seem to have a more intense flavor, and I use fruits in season. Also, the fact I take the time and effort to make it by hand rather than plucking it off a shelf seems to add a certain something.

Jun 2 / sara

Good Neighbor Q & A: Can you suggest some food presentation pointers?

A Platter of Tomatoes

I’m a bit of a minimalist when it comes to food presentation. That is, I try not to over handle or over mix food, and I usually go for recipes that don’t have an overwhelming amount of ingredients. Below are a few pointers that I usually try to stay pretty close to when I’m preparing food for home or for travel. I hope they help!

• Simplicity is key. Don’t be afraid to let a beautiful platter of sliced tomatoes (above) stand on their own with some fresh basil and a drizzle of olive oil. Let Mother Nature do the work!

• Stay true to the shape of the fruit or vegetable. Rather than cutting everything into a uniform dice, try to show off their natural shape. You want to be able to tell what it is. So if you’re slicing strawberries, slice from top to bottom so they retain their strawberry shape. And remember, a mix of different shapes is always beautiful.

• Don’t over chop your herbs. All herbs have such beautiful and unique shapes; don’t chop them into oblivion where they’re not even recognizable.

• Think color. Two contrasting colors is a good rule of thumb to go by, unless, of course, you are serving a big platter of grilled asparagus. This doesn’t need another color. But if you have a big bowl of white and pale green coleslaw, think about adding some grated carrot and chopped dark green parsley.

• If you’re entertaining at home, when in doubt, opt for white or plain serving platters or bowls. Again, simplicity wins out when it comes to showing off the food.

• For dishes that are going to travel, check out these beautiful boxes. Food sometimes suffers when it travels so it always helps to deliver it in an attractive disposable container.

• Freshly ground black pepper can go a long way. Let’s face it, hummus, mashed potatoes and creamy potato salads, for instance, are delicious but not the most appetizing to look at. Top them off with some cracked pepper, and you have a whole new ball game.

• Only garnish with what’s in the dish. For example, if that potato salad has chopped parsley in it, then top it with a sprig of parsley not a twist of orange and a cherry!

• Keep it natural looking not over handled. As tempting as it may be, don’t smooth the tops of dips like guacamole….best to leave it natural and chunky looking. There’s beauty in imperfection.

• The platter: arranging beautiful ingredients on a platter is easy as it is impressive. For example, nothing is more beautiful than a platter of prosciutto topped with some fresh cantaloupe pieces, fresh mint leaves, a drizzle of olive oil and some freshly ground black pepper. Simply let the ingredients do the work for you.

• For plain looking cakes, a dusting of confectioners sugar goes a long way.

• Recipe choice: try to select recipes that in your mind will be attractive, ie. that have different colors, shapes and textures. Of course, this shouldn’t rule out casseroles! While they are often not the most attractive looking, they are often the exception to any rule because they taste so good. This is when that sprig of parsley really comes in handy!

May 29 / suzanne

My First Attempt at Meal Planning (Eh, Good Luck to Me!)

My goal has always been to NOT be the woman pushing this. Times have changed.

Following last week’s edition of Mortifying Disclosures, here’s my latest embarrassing revelation: I go to the supermarket 29.3 times per month.

I know this because yesterday, in a long-overdue attempt to get a handle on our runaway household spending, I hunkered down for six agonizing hours with Mint. This amazing free website tracks your spending and, if you let it, tells you all kinds of horrifying things about yourself, like how much you spend monthly on lattes.

Here’s what Mint revealed about the number of our monthly credit-card charges at Safeway, Costco, Trader Joe’s and our local grocer, the Newport Avenue Market.

March: 27 charges
April: 25 charges
May: 36 charges

You read that right: May isn’t even over, and I’ve already been to the supermarket more times than there are days in the month.

This is not because I love supermarket shopping. Ironically, I go to the supermarket every day because I loathe going to the supermarket.

Until I had kids, I’d never even pushed a shopping cart down the aisles. I’d grab a basket, dart around the store popping in few apples here and a quart of milk there and sail through the express line. Whew — outta there!

Now that I have a family of four, I’m usually forced to push a cart; you can’t fit two 3-year-olds in a hand-held basket, and neither can you let them run loose. (I tried it once; never again). But even now, my worst nightmare, grocery-wise, is getting trapped in a checkout line behind one of those moms whose shopping carts are piled so high that ringing them up takes the better part of an afternoon. You know: the women who appear to be marketing for the 57 members of their polygamist compound.

Of course, now I get it: Sure, these women are eating up an afternoon at the store, but at least they’re not, I presume, going to the supermarket TWENTY NINE TIME POINT THREE TIMES A MONTH. These are the smart moms, the organized ones, the people who aren’t on a first-name basis with about six different checkers at the Newport Avenue Market.

Besides the fear of a four-hour shopping trip, one reason I end up at the store so often is that I’m so scatterbrained that we’re constantly running out of milk, bananas, yogurt and other staples. And when you “just run in” for bananas and milk, you tend to come out with beets, jicama, eggplant, fresh dill and all manner of other items that look gorgeous and may be on “special” but do not fit into anybody’s idea of a meal plan and do not prevent your husband from ordering Chinese takeout three nights a week.

And if you repeat this insanity 29.3 times a month, well, it’s no wonder your family spends more on food than Newt Gingrich spends on Callista’s jewelry. (OK, I exaggerate, by about half a million dollars.)

So, I’m making a Memorial Day resolution: I’m going to start meal planning, using Brenda Thompson of Meal Planning Magic as my guru.

This happens to be a perfect week to start because I have two “good neighbor” occasions to cook for and will need to be extra organized. On Friday I’m bringing a dessert to celebrate the 93rd birthday of Ceil Hermann, a remarkable member of our synagogue who at age 92 learned to read Hebrew and became a Bat Mitzvah. I’ve also signed up via mealtrain.com to bring dinner next Monday night to a family, the Goldmans, who just had a baby.

I’m setting multiple goals. I’m attempting to 1.) plan our dinners from Monday to Monday, including dessert for Ceil and dinner for the Goldman family 2.) plan to have enough food in the house for breakfast and most lunches 3.) slash our number of supermarket trips to 12 for June.

I’ve made two mega-supermarket lists and today am sending my husband to Costco with one kid while I go to Safeway with the other. Granted, it’s Memorial Day, so we’re not working and have extra time to shop, so that’s sort of cheating. But I’ve got to start somewhere.

By the way, Brenda  told me she plans her meals on Sunday nights while watching “Desperate Housewives.” I tried to emulate her, planning our week while watching a rerun of “Friday Night Lights,” but it took me so long that I ended up watching FNL and “The Killing” and still had not finished.

Below is the list of dinners and lunches I’ve planned. I limited myself to dishes I’m familiar with and that would use up the impulse-buy produce sitting in my fridge that is quickly approaching the “use it or lose it” stage. This includes beets, eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, fresh dill, celery, broccoli, carrots and an avocado. I also have leftover enchilada sauce that needs to be used up ASAP.

This plan may be way too ambitious for me (especially finding the time to make the lunch salads), but I’ll just lay it out there. Expect more Mortifying Disclosures!

Monday: Vegetarian Enchilada Casserole
(One of my favorites from my vegan experiment, though I’m adding cheese.)
Tuesday: leftovers
Wednesday: Crockpot Eggplant Stew with Garbanzo Beans
Thursday: Whole-wheat rotini with organic ground beef, chopped veggies and marinara sauce
Friday: leftovers, plus I’ll make Olive Oil and Cornmeal Cake for Ceil
Saturday: Red Lentil Stew with naan
Sunday:  Out for pizza (make double batch of tomorrow’s Tagine)
Monday: Moroccan Tagine for us and for the Goldmans

Stuff to have in the fridge for lunch:

Whit’s Balsamic Beet and Carrot Salad
Orzo Salad with Tomatoes, Feta and Dill
Quinoa salad with celery, apples, raisins and toasted pecans

May 27 / sara

Fresh Lime Margaritas

Fresh Lime Margaritas

As far as I’m concerned, there’s isn’t an occasion that’s not suitable for a margarita…okay…perhaps it’s not the best thing for a new mom… or recuperating friend… or a religious gathering…but you get my enthusiasm. And with Memorial Day weekend upon us, I thought it patriotic to pass along my recipe. The original Margarita recipe, many lay claim to its creation, calls for Cointreau, but because it’s so expensive, I make a big batch of simple syrup instead and keep it in the fridge (it’s also great to have on hand to sweeten iced tea or lemonade). The key here is good tequila and fresh lime juice. If you like your margarita to have a kick of heat, like I do, slice a small habañero or jalapeño pepper, add it to your bottle of tequila and let it infuse (this will take a couple of days). Happy summer. Olé!

Fresh Lime Margaritas
(for parties big or small)

In a pitcher, mix equal parts fresh lime juice and tequila. Mix in the simple syrup according to your taste. I find it best to start with a little and add until you get it just right…not too sour, not too sweet. Serve the margaritas (figure about 5 to 6 ounces per serving) over ice. Salted rim is optional.

Simple Syrup
In a saucepan combine equal parts sugar and water (I usually use 1 cup each) and bring to a boil. Simmer a couple minutes until the sugar dissolves completely. Let cool then refrigerate.