Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hot Spinach Artichoke Dip - great for parties

I was going to Host a Post Christmas Holiday Party and decided to make some Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip for the party and have it warming in one of my fondue pots with some veggies and crackers for dipping.  But of course I messed up a on a couple of things but luckily one of them wasn't the actual spinach dip.   I had a couple of coupons from Cookin Greens for a couple of packages of Free Greens so I thought that would be perfect to use for my potluck party so that it I could save a little money on the party ingredients.   Well forgetful me went to the store and picked up 2 packages of spinach and got to the checkout and forgot to take the coupons out of my purse.   They expire at the end of the month so I guess I have to do a return to the grocery store and pick up another 2 bags of greens before New Year's.   Maybe I will make another batch for New Year's Eve.

The other thing I messed up was that I heated up half of  the Spinach dip in a Ceramic Dish in the Oven and then transferred it to the fondue pot and then placed the dish in the sink when it cooled.    Then a while later the sink was piled full of dishes and someone wanted more spinach dip so I had to grab another ceramic dish to heat up some more of the dip.   Add another dish to pile up in the sink.   My tip,  if you use a container to heat something up and you know you have more left... either keep the dish to the side or wash it right away and ready for another round.   I wasn't that organized so I had more dishes to wash than I needed to.

But the Spinach Artichoke Dip was a real hit.   Here's how I made it:

1 Bag of Cookin Greens Frozen Spinach     
1/2 jar of Artichoke hearts
2 tbsps sour cream
2 tbsp mayonaise
1/4 cup of grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
pinch of chili flakes
1 ball of Buffalo mozzarella cut up in chunks
*optional, parsley and nutmeg


Cook the spinach greens in a pot of boiling water and strain the spinach, making sure that you drain most of the water.

Place the spinach in a large bowl and add the half a jar of Artichoke hearts, approx. 1/2 a cup or so.   Make sure the artichokes are drained as well.   Add the sour cream, mayonnaise, cheeses and spices.  
Mix all ingredients and place into a ceramic or heat proof dish and place in the oven at 350 degrees and heat until slightly browned on top.  Approximately 20-30 minutes depending on how hot your oven is.   You can also microwave it but you won't get the browning on top.

Transfer to a fondue pot and serve with Crackers, Bread, Dipping vegetables or whatever you like.

What makes it really easy to make is that the Cookin greens area already washed and chopped and just need to be slightly cooked so it saves a lot of time compared to making it with fresh spinach.  You could probably also just defrost the cooking greens and drain and just mix it with the ingredients and just cook it in the oven a bit longer if you don't want to take the extra step of boiling it first.

You can adjust the flavourings and spice it up how you like it.   Experiment with the cheeses even.  

It's a great dish for a Party so try it at you next party event.

Fondue Potluck Party Swag Swap

I had my 3rd Annual Holiday Party this past week and for the 1st
time I got really ambitious and decided to make it a Swag Swap Potluck Fondue Party.  I will probably never do all those things at one time again since I pretty much ran around my place getting bowls, plates and gifts organized and spent little time actually sitting down and enjoying the party.  Not exactly what I had planned.   So what did this ambitious party entail?  Well I asked everyone to bring something that they may have gotten as free Swag that they didn't need or maybe a gift they didn't want, but something they basically wanted to get rid of but was brand new.  I made sure I had extra stuff of my own so that people could choose from a lot of things and maybe swap for something they wanted when we did the gift choosing.  It worked out in the end but as usual people don't like to follow the rules.  A couple of people didn't bring things so it was a good thing that I had extra things.  So it worked out in the end but I am stuck with all the crappy things nobody wanted.   May donate them to charity or something.

As for the food.  Doing a Potluck party sounds like it would make your life easier but it can sometimes be a challenge.  It was in this case because I had a list of what I wanted people to bring but most people brought what they wanted to bring.   A couple of friends called on the day of and in one case in the middle of the party to see what I needed but there were 4 bags of chips,  not on the list,  and 2 containers of pineapples.   Because a few people were late it meant that I had to spend more time in the kitchen during the party trying to organize the ingredients that they bought that needed to be cut and washed and put into containers for the fondue.

If you do a Potluck party I would suggest that you tell your guest to bring their food in containers that are ready to just be placed on the table and don't need to be washed and cut up or placed into another container.   Also make sure it doesn't need to be heated up in the oven or on the stove unless you check with the host prior because the host may have other items that are being served that need to be heated up which will make it difficult to get all the food organized at the same time.  

My party invite was from 4pm to 8pm.  No one arrived before 4:30 and then staggered in at a 15-20 minute interval.   That meant I had to keep stopping what I was doing while getting the food ready to keep answering my phone to let people into the building.    If there is a start time I feel that it is rude to show up an hour or more later when it's a Potluck party when people are waiting for the food you bring before everyone can eat at the party.   A few of my guests had to work or had meetings so they informed me that they might be late but everyone arrived at least a half an hour to a couple of hours after the start time of the party.

I have a very small kitchen so with all the extra serving platters and containers that were brought into my place and the cooking utensils used to heat things my kitchen filled up pretty quickly.   Luckily one of my friends offered to help do some dishes in the middle of the party to clear some space and another friend offered to help her.   It still took me another 45 minutes to wash the rest of the dishes the next day and I used paper plates and plastic cups and cutlery to save on the washing up.

Fondue Parties are really fun because they are interactive but be prepared for a lot of prepping of individual ingredients and a little extra washing up afterwards.

I also made some Ikea meatballs which were fabulous but also contributed to the extra clean up with the baking tray, the large pot they were put into and the little pot the sauce was made in.  But those were really worth it and none were left behind.

And on top of that I made a Turkey Chili as per a request of one of my friends.   I think he didn't think there would be enough food to fill you up with only fondue.   Not true at one of my parties.   That went over well and I would do that again because it was easy to prep it in advance and just let it sit warming in a Crockpot and ready to serve.   But don't forget that it will require extra bowls and spoons to serve.

All the little details that need to be thought of for a smooth party include the following:

1. Enough Plates, cutlery, cups and bowls for any and extra guests.
2. Somewhere to put all the garbage. ( my mistake was having a recycling bag that ended up as a garbage bag)
3. Serving platters and utensils ready and organized for anyone bringing something unexpected.
4. Lot's of ice to keep drinks chilled.
5. Have space to be able to clear up the dishes and be ready to clean up accidental spills.

I had 3 Fondue Pots going at my party with one for cheese, one for Spinach Dip and one for Chocolate.  I had to do them in stages to be able to handle heating them up and having space to serve them.

Add the extra crock pot and pot of meatballs on the stove and you have a bit of a hosting juggling act.

Oh and did I forget to mention that before the chocolate fondue I had to organize the Swag Swap exchange.

It was an exhausting party for me (the host) but my guests had a really great time.

It was a challenge to keep all the balls or fondue pots in the air at the same time but I think it was worth it.
But the next party will be a massive One Pot dish with a side salad and some cheese and crackers.  

Keep it Simple and you will have a lot more fun as a Host.   Take it from me the Party Over Achiever.

I was so pooped the next day that I spent most of the day resting.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Holiday Homemade Food Gifts

This year I am probably going to do more baking and cooking than I have done in a long time.  I  decided to make only Food Gifts for anyone I have to give a gift to this year for the HOLIDAYS.

I am trying to get creative with a few different things.

I don't have family gifts to deal with so it's only for friends.  My friends are very busy people so I have been just giving them little food gifts as I see them and whatever is left will be for my Annual Post Christmas Party.

So far this year I have made these things and so far they have all gone over well with friends.

My favourite Brownie Recipe with a bit of marshmallow fluff mixed in for extra moist brownies.  I just used the Fry's Cocoa recipe.  It's easy and it always works.

I then made some Popcorn and made so much that I decided to make little popcorn packages and I wanted it to be a little more interesting so I crushed up some roasted seaweed sheets and tossed in some black sesame seeds and sea salt.  I just used a little bit so it had a nice subtle flavour.   This was so easy and quick that I will probably do this again next year.

I tried a new thing this year after seeing a trend on food network shows of making roasted and spiced mixed nuts.  My version was a bit of a mix of different recipes that I saw.   The nuts I used were Cashews, Hazelnuts, Walnuts and Brazil nuts.  I added Cinnamon, Cayenne, Brown Sugar and Salt and Pepper and a bit of All Spice.   I went pretty easy on the spices for the first time to see how it would work out.   I added a beaten egg white to coat the nuts before I mixed it into the spice mix so it would stick better.

The next thing I made was Gingerbread Men.  I don't think I ever made Gingerbread Men before that I can remember.  I attempted to make a Gingerbread House many years ago though and decided that I don't have the patience to do that well.   I just searched online for a Gingerbread recipe for this one and mixed up the dough and it was supposed to rest for a bit but I decided to make it a few days later so it would be freshly baked just before I had to give it out.   But I got lazy and didn't bother making the royal icing to frost it.   I still have some and maybe I will decorate them.

The dough was fairly dry and I think I may have left it in the fridge a bit too long because when it was rolled out it cracked and didn't roll smoothly.   I will try another recipe or make adjustments next time.  It did taste great though.

A really easy thing to make is jars of Gourmet Hot Cocoa ready to add to some hot milk.   I added some Camino Cocoa to icing sugar and a little bit of cinnamon, a tiny bit of cornstarch to thicken and a pinch of salt to bring out the chocolate flavour.  I also added some Shaved Green & Black's Dark Chocolate.  I topped up the jar with some mini marshmallows.   My friend loves Hot Chocolate so all she needs to do is dump the contents into a pot of heated milk, mix and pour into a nice big Mug.

And finally the last thing I made was something I prepped and put in the freezer and just baked off today.   I made a couple of batches of Sugar Cookies and in one recipe I added Cocoa and Espresso powder and the other recipe I added chopped Peppermint Bark that I had.   You can freeze the dough for up to a month so I still have the Cocoa batch in the freezer to bake off another day.  It's a great thing to make ahead of the holidays and then you can just slice up a round of cookie dough and bake it quickly in case you have any drop in guests or you have a last minute gift you didn't have time to get.

I still want to make a few things like meringues and biscotti because they keep a little longer and nice to have around the house for any drop in guests.   Because I live in a building attached to a mall, I never know when someone is going to say they are in the area and want to drop in.   It's nice to have some treats and some nice teas on hand just in case.

I don't know if I actually saved any money this year making all the food gifts but they have been really appreciated so far.  I think it goes back to the thought and the effort that counts.  I would much rather stay home and bake than spend an hour looking for a parking spot at a mall and wander around for hours trying to find the perfect gift.   Gifts of Food can never go wrong if you know what your friends and family like.   If they are on a diet or have dietary restrictions you can always accommodate that with things like popcorn or meringues or even the mixed nuts.   I made a variety of things to cover all the options.    Maybe this will be my new tradition.   It is a lot more work but at the same time it's a lot less stressful than shopping in a crowded mall.

I didn't include recipes because most of these are recipes online with my little tweaks added.  Get Creative and start cooking.

 Give some FOOD LOVE this year for your Holiday Gifts.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Why we watch cooking shows but don't cook anymore

My kitchen after baking.

I love to watch the Food Network Cooking Shows and get inspired but all the great recipes and I have been watching cooking shows on TV since I was a kid and would watch Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet and whoever else was on cooking something fabulous.  I learned how to cook things I have never even eaten or had in my home by watching these shows on tv.   I learned how to make Spaghetti properly,  something my mother could never master.  She would rinse the pasta and let it sit and then pour a greasy meatball laden tomato sauce on top....only to watch it slide off the pasta and leave a puddle of oil on the plate.  Luckily I had many Italian neighbours and liked to watch cooking on tv more than I liked cartoons so I learned how to make Italian food the right way.   From my neighbours I learned what real Italian food tasted like and what it really was and from watching people cook Italian food on tv I learned the proper cooking methods for cooking Italian food.  Just watch Lidia Bastianich for a while and you will be able to cook like a good Italian Nonna even if you are an Irish man.

But here's the thing.  While I learned a lot of techniques and what the food should end up looking like I was still not able to make the food without leaving a trail of destruction after cooking one of these recipes.  The food never looked as pretty as it did on tv but most of the time I could master the taste if I had the right ingredients with a lot of effort put into it.   But mostly I just watched the shows and would be inspired and then just do something similar with what I had or what I knew I could do.

A friend of mine has been urging me to post videos of me preparing some of the recipes I make but to tell you the truth there are a couple of reasons I haven't done this.  Firstly, I don't have a video friendly voice and image that I am comfortable looking at on video all the time.   Secondly, it's not a pretty sight when I cook.  My kitchen will look like a 2 year old had a food fight in there afterward.  I am one of those cooks who puts all my energy into getting the recipe done as quickly as possible and getting all the elements done right.  I haven't mastered the trick of being able to wash the dishes and clean up while I am cooking most of the time because I tend to make multiple things if I have gone to the trouble of taking a bunch of things out of the fridge and already sparked up some of the tools.   I tend to find other things that need to be made at the same time.

Back to the reality of why people watch TV cooking shows more than they actually cook at home these days.   The real reason is that watching food shows is like watching Food Porn in a way.  You watch all these great chefs whip up all kinds of drool worthy foods that you would kill to have passed through the tv and on to your plate.  What you don't see is what it takes behind the scenes to make those recipes look the way they do.

What you don't see is a staff of people that shop for the ingredients and have a fully stocked kitchen with every tool and all the foods needed to make a recipe on a dime.  There is someone to shop for an abundant amount of food to make in case they burn something and have to make it again.   The advantage of editing is that if they do make a mistake you will never see it and the only ones that will know is the chef, the crew and the editor.  it gets left in the edit suite.

The other thing you don't see is a food stylist that will take the recipe and probably spend hours making it look perfect for what they call the money shot, the final filmed version of the recipe.   Also what you only see is the ingredients already ready to go in beautiful containers that magically dispense the ingredients for the chef to use.  Herbs nicely nestled in a glass of water already ready to pick from,   Potatoes all cleaned and ready to chop,  time consuming ingredients pre prepped or measured.

Do you think the TV chef is doing all the prep work before the "dump and cook" version you see on the show?  Nope... there are a bunch of chef elves who behind the scenes are the people who put the ingredients into the containers, or pre measure, or wash and pre prep the foods so that they can magically be transformed on tv.

I like watching shows like Chuck's Day Off mainly because you actually see Chuck making most things from scratch and doing a lot of the prep work but even Chuck doesn't do it all.  Chuck has a full staff of chefs who take care of the food inventory and clean and store all the food for him.

So when you watch a recipe that looks like a 5 minute recipe on TV, you can count on taking an hour to make that same recipe at home.  Don't forget to factor in the time spent going to the grocery store and picking up the ingredients and standing in the checkout line, then loading it into your car and then driving home to unload and put it away in your pantry and kitchen.   Then when you are ready to cook you need to take some of those items out of your fridge and pantry and organize and wash any fruits and vegetables, dispose of the unused bits and then prep the ingredients.  Get your mis en place (everything in place) ready to actually cook the recipe.   Then you have to get your cooking utensils organized.  Then you can finally start to actually cook or make your recipe.  Then you finish your dish and have to plate it and serve it if you are feeding anyone else.   Then after all of that you have to go back in your kitchen and clean up all the mess you made making that one meal.   Phew.. are you tired just reading this?   Well that's why people watch other people cook on tv but don't actually step into their kitchen and make those same recipes.  I can probably cook about 75% of the recipes that I see on TV but in actuality I probably only cook something similar maybe once a week if I am lucky and most likely on a sunday afternoon when there aren't a lot of other distractions.

People are busy, the are tired but the still want to eat well.  I like watching , Jamie Oliver, Chuck's Day Off, Pitchin In,   Chef Michael Smith and the Iron Chef to be entertained,  they are all really entertaining to watch and sometimes they inspire me to get off the couch and actually go into the kitchen and make something that I see.

I just made Gordon Ramsey's scrambled egg recipe that I saw on his Christmas special.  Simple ingredients,  Eggs, butter, chives.   But it still took me about 15 minutes to make and left a pot, plate and utensils to clean up afterward.

This is what the result looked like.  It was delicious and it was a great technique and worth making this way.

But that was a simple breakfast dish.  What happens when you decide to do some holiday baking and you are a messy cook like me. Maybe I should change my blog to the Messy Cook instead the Starving Foodie.

Then I made Gordon's recipe from the Christmas Special for Brussel Sprouts,  it took him about 5 min to make on TV but it took me about an hour or so,  maybe a bit more.

Here's what my end result of the Brussel Sprouts looked like:   Forget about the mess it left afterward.

Well think about all the things that go into baking which is a lot different than actually cooking a recipe that doesn't have to have exact measurements.

When you bake you need to use at minimum these things:

Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Wooden Spoon
some sort of mixer sometimes like a Kitchen Aid stand mixer or hand mixer
Bowl(s)  you could use many for one simple recipe if the ingredients have to be done in steps.
Cooking pans, whatever they may be,  cookie sheet, muffin pan, loaf pan etc.
Oven mitts,  you could use a towel but then you can add a tea towel to your list.

I could go on depending on the recipe but you get the idea.

Case in point....

The other day I made 2 different recipes but I plan to try and bake a few recipes over the next week or so.  So to prep I pulled out all of my baking supplies to do an inventory of what I actually had to see what I might be able to make.

I had lot's of coconut oil because I kept buying it when it was cheaper.   Now all of this stuff is still sitting on my counter because I haven't finished baking and don't want to keep climbing up on a ladder to keep taking it all out of the cupboards.   I have a small apartment kitchen and because I am short I have to use a step ladder to reach some of my ingredients.

Moving on.... I decided to make a batch of Brownies because I had a craving for some and thought it might be nice to make little food gifts.   I used a really great standby recipe from Fry's Cocoa and added my little twist of adding a bit of Marshmallow fluff into it at the end.  I was hoping to get a white swirl in the middle,  that didn't happen but it did make the brownies moist.

Here's the end result,  it's sprinkled with a bit of glitter sugar.

This Brownie recipe is made in a sauce pot and then cooked in a square baking dish.

It still left a trail of flour and cocoa scattered around the kitchen.

After that I decided to make a gingerbread cookie recipe.   This time I had to use the Kitchen Aid mixer and then you have to put it in the fridge and chill and then you can roll it out and make the cookies and bake them.   I haven't made the cookies yet but the dough is ready to go in the fridge.

Now look at what my kitchen looked like afterward:   Not exactly how it looks on tv is it?  And this is only a bit of it.

So I wish I had the cooking fairies in my kitchen to help me look like a TV chef and have the perfect looking kitchen and end result.
But at least I can say I did it all myself and it tasted fantastic.  I still wish I had cleaning elves to clean up after me though.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Holiday Entertaining with Style and Ease

It seems like everyone is either Hosting or Attending a Holiday Party during December.  It's the Holiday Season where we try and spend time with friends, family and even co-workers.   The Holiday Party Season doesn't have to be exhausting if you pace yourself, get organized and simplify.

If you are Hosting a Holiday Party there are ways to make your life a little easier and more fun to spend time with your guests.

I have started a Holiday Tradition Party and this is the third year that I have Hosted an after Christmas Get Together Open House Party.

This year I am making it a lot easier on my time and expenses by having it be a Potluck Party.  To make it even easier I have chosen a theme of a Fondue Potluck Party.  I will supply the Chocolate and Cheese Fondue, my home and all of the tableware and platters and some basic drinks.   I will have a pitcher of flavoured water, a bottle of white wine, a bottle of red wine, a bottle of cranberry juice, a carton of orange juice and some soft drinks.   Setting up a fully self serve bar for people to mix and choose whatever the like to drink.

I have asked my guests to bring the dipping foods or foods that go well with the chocolate and cheese fondue's.

I will set up my Cheese Fondue and plates, platters and skewers ready for my guests to add their offerings for dunking into the decadent cheese fondue.  If guests arrive at different times there will always be new choices for dipping.

I will have the chocolate fondue ready to heat up and serve once the cheese fondue has gotten down to the last crunchy bits at the bottom of the fondue pot.

Then it's time for dessert.  The glorious Chocolate Fondue.  Decadent, delicious and satisfying and guests have fun interacting and selecting what their favourite dippers are.

For the past couple of years I have had little gifts ready for a fun gift exchange where people would choose a gift from a various selection of things and would have 1 opportunity to trade their gift.
This year since I am not working I have requested that my guests bring 1 Eco wrapping paper and also something that they haven't bought but something that they may have gotten as a gift and have no use for or something they may have bought and never used or something they may have received at an we all get) something a lot of my friends get because they attend lots of charity events, film festivals and trade shows.   At the end of the year you end up collecting a whole bunch of things you don't need.   This is a way to clear your house of things you don't need and pass them on to someone that might have a use for it.   What's old is new when you trade something you don't need for something you don't have already.

You end your year by releasing all of the things that become clutter in your space and start your year with only things you like or need.   Hopefully if it all works.

Just to be safe I will add a few things of my own so that people can trade once if they don't like what they have chosen.   The last couple of years I had a mix of stuff I had from Swag, little things I picked up and stuff I didn't need anymore.    I still have things I don't need anymore or have no space for... like a couple of framed pictures that I have taken.  No more wall space, so I will add those to the gifts just in case someone forgets to bring something or people bring things nobody wants.   I will donate any of the left over items to Value Village so it can go for Charity.   Thus cleaning up my space and my friends space and passing it on to people that may need those items.

Will see how it goes this year.   If the Potluck, Eco Swap party works well then maybe I will make it an annual tradition.   Either way it's a good excuse to just have an Easy Get Together with friends.

I have hosted what I look as the in between party...  the days in between Christmas and New Years where most people are exhausted from rushing to parties and working and getting ready to ring in the New Year.   Hosting the in between party is more of a stress free party because a lot of people have time off and are shopped out, exhausted and don't want to rush around but they have nothing to do and don't want to have to impress anyone.   A potluck party where people only have to think about bringing  something like a baguette or fruit and something laying around the house and they don't even have to dress to impress.   You just have to grab a couple of things and go... and just chill out with friends.

Because I have asked for it to be a little more Eco Friendly... Reuse, recycle and skip the gift wrapping by putting it in a reusable container or a reusable bag...  this makes it a whole lot easier because you know everyone else is doing the same thing.   Good for the Environment, good for your stress levels.

Hopefully an event to recharge and get ready to ring in the New Year.

I will post photos and another post after the event to let you know how it turned out.

Some Suggestions for Dippers that guests can bring:

Cherry Tomatoes
Mini bananas
pound cake
Lady Fingers
Dried Apricots

anything that has a low water content...  chocolate will seize when you add water so skip the watermelon.