Wednesday, December 17, 2008

TIP: Stash Cranberries in your Freezer

This is the time of year when cellophane bags of cranberries are piled high in supermarkets all over North America. This is because most people (and I'm not most people in this case) cannot have a bite of turkey without a heaping spoonful of cranberry sauce on the side. Or, if you are like my dad, your boxing day turkey sandwich would not be complete without a thin film of cranberry sauce opposite the mayo.

Now I say I'm not most people here because I don't much care for cranberry sauce. Not sure why. I probably need to "try it again for the first time" because it's been so long since I've had it, and it's just natural for me to pass it by during holiday meals. But, that doesn't mean I don't stock up on bags of cranberries during turkey season. They have more uses than cranberry sauce - and better ones too in my opinion!

First off, cranberries freeze very well. Just toss the bag into the freezer and that's that. Later, they can be used for Cranberry Banana Muffins, Cranberry Scones, or halve them and toss a few into pancake batter for a tart contrast when the syrup is drizzled over top.

Don't like to bake? That's Ok. Cranberries make festive decorations. String frozen cranberries through a needle to make an outdoor wreath, or fill a vase with cranberries and add greenery for a festive holiday table. It's an inexpensive way to add a little more decor to your home during the season. Later in the year, add frozen cranberries to a large vase or bowl with water and floating candles for a fun centerpiece any time of year.
So, though cranberry sauce may be the most popular use for this seasonal fruit, be sure to pop a few extra bags in your freezer for later in the year - and if, 6 months down the road, you want to make cranberry sauce with them - that's Ok too!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Entertaining Your Family: Split Pea Soup

Well, it's officially winter which, in our house, means it's officially soup season. I love soup, and I love to use the crockpot for my soups. Just assemble all the ingredients in the morning, let it simmer away for few hours, then return home to a warm and satisfying meal that will stick to your ribs and warm you from the inside out!

One of my favourite winter soups is Split Pea and Ham. I use a recipe my mom has been using for years (with a few of my own adjustments). The key to this fantastic meal though is the ham. It needs to be a "real" ham, and by "real" I mean not a pressed processed ham, but a ham hock or shank that has good flavour and that will add complexity to this dish.

Ham's are easy to find around the holidays. They are often huge though, so my trick? I buy a large ham shank and cut it up into pieces. I freeze what I don't use in the first batch of soup for a soup later in the winter (when the holidays are over and they are less readily available). It does mean that there will only be one bone piece (and only one soup with that much more flavour) but surprisingly, the soup is just as tasty with a boneless piece of ham. This time, I bought an 8lb ham shank and cut it up into 3 pieces, the first of which landed in my crockpot for a fantastic and hardy mid-week meal. I prefer to buy hams that aren't smoked with any additional flavouring though (i.e. maple), as I enjoy the simplicity of this recipe.

Split Pea Soup
2 cups split peas, well washed
2 1/2 pounds ham hock
8 cups water
1 onion
2 whole cloves
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon peppercorns

1. Peel onion, and stick with the two cloves. Combine onion and all other ingredients in crockpot. Cover and set to cook for 8 hours.
2. With one hour remaining in the cooking time, remove ham bone. Remove bay leaf and cloves from onion, discard. Puree soup with an emulsion blender, or in batches with a blender. Cut off meat from the bone, and dice. Return to crockpot with pureed soup. Allow to cook for the remaining hour, serve.

This soup would probably serve 6 to 8 as a first course and 4 healthy portions as a main. I usually serve it with a nice loaf of crunchy garlic bread, but really all it needs is a spoon!

Friday, November 21, 2008

BUY: Whole Nutmeg

This is going to be a two part "buy" post. I really want you to buy whole nutmeg, but before you go and ask me what the heck to do with it, I'm also going to suggest you buy a micro grater if you don't already have one.

First of all, let me sing the praises of whole nutmeg. I was reminded how good it is because my husband bought a litre of eggnog last week. Nothing says "it's the holidays" like a nice glass of rum and eggnog (while we are on the topic of what to buy, I have to say only use dark or spiced rum in this drink - the white stuff just won't cut it here). And every good rum and eggnog needs a dusting of freshly ground nutmeg. Honestly - your drink will go from good, to out-of-this-world with this one simple step!Nutmeg is actually a seed. They aren't very big, and they are dark brown in colour by the time they are sold to market. They can be found in specialty food stores, and some bulk spice sections of the grocery store. In order to really enjoy the true pleasure that is fresh nutmeg, only grind the nutmeg as you need it.
Which brings me to the second part of my post. You'll need one of these:

If you don't have one already, these micro graters come in super handy for more than just nutmeg. I use it to zest lemons and limes, finely grate Parmesan or chocolate, and even ginger or garlic. I use it often. Weekly at least and it's a great tool. They aren't that expensive anymore either, and come in various shapes and sizes (though this style is my favourite).

So, when you make rum and eggnog this year, make it extra special with freshly grated nutmeg. It's a small pleasure, but once you've had it - you'll never go back to the old stuff again (not to mention your newly purchased seeds will last awhile so you won't even be tempted!).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

BUY: A Pomegranate

It's Pomegranate season! You probably see tons of them piled high at every grocery store as pomegranates are in ample supply from late fall until about January. So, if you've seen them around and thought "what the heck would I do with that?", I'm here to tell you. First off buy one (or even two).

Pomegranates have become very popular over the last couple of years, and are now known as one of those "super foods". Full of antioxidants and vitamin C, it's been their juice that seems to be getting most of the attention. The juice is available all year, so I can see why many recipes (from savoury to sweet, and even for martini's) use it, but I think a fresh pomegranate needs some attention too. It's just as good (better in my opinion), and a lot more fun!

Pomegranates are around the size of a large orange and have a think, reddish colour skin. Choose to buy ones that are heavy for it's size, and are free of any major bruises or blemishes. Inside, a white bitter membrane (not unlike the pith of an orange) separates little bunches of seeds. A translucent red pulp that is slighty sweet, but also quite tart surrounds these seeds, and that is what is used for the juice. The entire seed is edible though, just not the white membrane - it's very bitter. Also, the juice itself tends to stain anything it touches, so take care when you are working with them if you are worried about your cutting board, or your clothes.
There are many ways to get at these seeds. I've seen videos and tutorials online that recommend cutting the fruit very delicately, and submerging it it water while you pick the seeds away from the skin. Not me. I go about it by cutting the pomegranate into quarters, and then working to harvest the seeds from their surrounding membrane with my fingers. I usually break the piece apart as I finish dislodging all the seeds from one section to get access to the next. It takes a little bit of time (and can be messy), but it's totally worth it, and doesn't involve the additional step of fishing all the unwanted pieces from the bowl of water. You will want to work over a large bowl though to catch the flying fruit and juice, and to avoid a large scale kitchen clean-up. Another option is to hold the piece, seed side down, over a bowl and whack the skin side with a wooden spoon. I find this will dislodge some of the seeds, but you'll often still have to go back with your fingers to get them all (and do get them all!).

These delicious ruby jewels can then be used sprinkled over salads (a great idea for a dinner party), tossed atop pancakes or french toast, or my personal favourite (and what we always did as kids), just eat them. As is. I put them in a bowl and eat them with a spoon, maybe with some vanilla ice cream or yogurt if I have it, but you certainly don't need to be that refined. Just go ahead and pop them in your mouth with your fingers. Be warned - if you do use your fingers you will most likely be left with a bright red stain as a reminder of what you've just consumed. Chances are, it will only prompt you to go out and buy another one!
Photos taken from Kraft and Food TV.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Tucked away in the freezer I found a package of pre-marinated (stay tuned for a tip on that soon) chicken tenders. I had marinated them in lemon, olive oil and herbs for my daughter's first birthday a few months ago, and tossed the leftovers in the freezer. This last package must have been buried beneath the ground beef, as I thought we had consumed all the party leftovers weeks ago!

Anyway, considering I was going to be heading out shopping this past weekend, I added everything I would need to go Greek with the package of remaining raw chicken. Basic Greek that is. And by Greek I basically mean Greek Salad. That is my favourite part of the whole deal, and I make a pretty mean Greek Salad (if I do say so myself). I could have had just that for supper, but I also tossed in some roasted potatoes as I'm trying to balance my daughter's meals with all of the food groups, so I used the fingerling potatoes that I found while at the grocery store. The end result was refreshing, tasty, and a meal that was really easy to put together. At the end of the day it was simply grilled chicken from the freezer, a salad, and a side of potatoes, but it had just enough of a twist to keep it interesting and a change from the everyday.

Basic Greek Dinner
Grilled Lemon Marinated Chicken Breasts
Greek Salad
Roasted Fingerling Potatoes with Lemon and Garlic

Here is the recipe for the roasted potatoes as it corresponds to my recent "BUY" post on fingerlings. This is just one way you can cook them, but of course the possibilities are endless!

Roasted Fingerling Potatoes with Lemon and Garlic
1/2 pound fingerling potatoes, washed and scrubbed clean
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
zest of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste
juice of half a lemon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut potatoes in half lengthwise, and toss with garlic, olive oil, lemon zest and salt and pepper. Place potatoes in baking dish and roast for 40 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Remove from oven and pour lemon juice over while potatoes are still warm. Serve.

TIP: Grape Tomatoes for Greek Salad

Alright, so I'm not sure if this is fair tip or not, but it's something I ALWAYS do when I make Greek salad, so I thought I should pass it along.
Instead of regular vine tomatoes, I use grape tomatoes in my Greek salad. Why you ask? Well, one, is that it's prettier. Grape tomatoes add a little more flair to the salad as well as an unexpected burst of flavour while eating it. Two, less chopping. Hey, who doesn't want easier preparation and less time in the kitchen? And third, and probably most important, is for the purpose of leftovers. I love Greek salad, but I find the next day the dressing often wilts the tomatoes making the whole salad far less appetizing. I discovered that everything else holds up to the dressing well the next day, so if I could just change out those tomatoes I could have Greek salad again for lunch. Grape tomatoes were the answer. You could use cherry tomatoes as well, but they would most likely need to be cut in half, which kind of defeats the purpose. Grape tomatoes are small enough to be left whole leaving the inside just as fresh, and just as mouth popping delicious the next day!

Try it...I think you'll agree!

BUY: Fingerling Potatoes

Popping up on restaurant menus a lot more often, and written about in foodie magazines, fingerling potatoes aren't just for the super chef. Available at some supermarkets (I find them occasionally at Superstore...I guess it depends on availability) and Farmers Markets, these are a unique alternative to the regular old potato.

The first thing, is that they are certainly one of the most unusual looking potato out there. Long, and often a little knobbly, it's not surprising where they got their name. But, despite their appearance, they are actually extremely tasty. A little nutty, but also earthy and certainly much more complex than baking potatoes or new potatoes.

But, don't be afraid to cook them! Choose potatoes that are firm and free of soft spots or mold. Any dirt can be washed away, and little blemishes can be cut out. Prepare them as you would the regular variety, as they take well to steaming, roasting, boiling, baking, grilling, or whatever your heart desires. They also have a thin skin much like baby potatoes, so they don't need to be peeled. I prefer steaming or roasting myself as it highlights their unique flavour that much more.
Tonight, I'm roasting them with lemon and garlic for Greek night. First attempt at this recipe, so we'll see how it turns out!


As is detailed already, this blog is an addition to my party planning company, Party Designers, and is meant to share some of my secrets (and occasionally struggles), of what is ultimately my inspiration for meal planning - whether it be for a party or every day eating.

My first few posts will be an example of a continuing series of posts you'll find on this blog. "Tip", "Buy", and "Entertaining your Family" will showcase some food facts you may not know, grocery store products that you may have always wanted to try but haven't (that will also suggest how to use them), and of course simple yet tasty and elegant meals (not from a box) that you can serve your family any day of the week. This last one is my favorite because though I love to entertain, most of the time I'm just trying to feed my family a variety of healthy and interesting meals that we can all enjoy.

So, I hope you check back often, and I hope you'll visit Party Designers and allow me to help you create a special event soon!