Christmas Meal – Salad

I’ve had a few of my friends tell me that they’re hosting a meal this holiday season.  They all have small children and are frantic to find recipes that allow them flexibility.  No one enjoys spending the whole holiday slaving away at a meal that will probably take fifteen minutes to eat.  And if you have kids running around and relatives to please, that all just adds to the pressure.  I think it’s great that some mothers have begun to pass the baton to their daughters, but I completely understand the stress that these daughters are feeling.

So I decided to dedicate the next three weeks to a delicious meal that will please any crowd.  You guys know I’m big on themes, so naturally this meal will have one.  I know what your thinking…”um, isn’t Christmas enough of a theme?”  Well probably, but I always like to be annoying and take it one step further.  My theme or common ingredient will be the cranberry.  Shocker, right?!  Who would have ever guessed I’d make foods with cranberries for Christmas?  Whatever, it’s MY theme and I’m proud of it!

Today I bring you the beginning of your meal.  I make this salad all of the time because it’s my favorite.  Crunchy, sweet, and sticky.  It’s practically dessert for dinner.  I’m not going to give you actual measurements for the salad ingredients because it’s a salad.  You add as much or as little of each ingredient as you like.

Stay tuned because next week we will dive into the main course.  I’m going to show you the easiest and best freakin’ cranberry chicken recipe on the planet.  Well okay, maybe not the planet, but at least in Texas.  My mom has been making it as long as I can remember and we all still BEG for it every year!  Check back next Monday for the recipe and details!  Happy Holidays Y’all!!

Cranberry Walnut Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette

For the Salad:

baby leaf spinach
spring lettuce mix
walnuts (toast them up for a few minutes in a 200 degree oven if you want a deeper flavor)
dried cranberries
feta cheese
crumbled bacon (optional)

Champagne Vinaigrette
Adapted from Martha Stewart

1 small shallot
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of freshly ground black pepper

In a blender, add the shallot, mustard, and vinegar. Blend until the shallot is chopped fine. While the blender is on low, slowly drizzle in olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. The vinaigrette may be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Wine and Cheese Weekend

After wandering around the farmer’s market and the wine festival for a bit we decided to head into one of my all time favorite places to go in NB.  There is this beautiful little cheese shop in downtown New Braunfels, Gourmage, that we make sure to stop at every time we are in town.  The owners are extremely knowledgeable and do a wonderful job recommending cheese pairings. Every time we go in we spend at least an hour sampling and talking.  They have a very nice display of chocolates as well as oil’s and wines.  This store is just perfect and should not be missed on your next trip.

As Nat talked about earlier we tend to head to NB during the off season, last time we were in town was over the Christmas holiday.  All 13 of us had gotton up a bit late and by the time everyone had showered, dressed and headed into town for breakfast we had missed it.  Go figure.  So to kill time in between all of the restaurants shutting down breakfast and preparing for lunch we wandered into Gourmage.  My family loves cheese and it is a pre dinner staple to have a cheese spread.  Gourmage is not huge and we we pretty much took over the place.  We are also a pretty loud family and talk over each other constantly but the owners managed us and any other patron that walked in with grace and patience.  We sampled cheese like crazy and walked out of the store loaded down with fabulous finds.  Natalie and I bought some amazing cheese for our New Years party and everybody bought a different type for later that evening.  (we are always planning the next meal, even before the first one…)  I love that my family is obsessed with food.

As wonderful as corn dogs on a stick are I would much rather have this beautiful tasty panini.  During the wine festival Gourmage had hourly tasting of different types of paninis but I convinced the very kind

Chocolate Dinner – Tabletop Decor

When planning a party, I like to really coordinate every detail.  I want the theme to be loud and clear, without being overdone, and I want it to flow throughout every aspect of the party.  The theme for this party is obviously chocolate and since it’s also a nod to Valentine’s Day I’ve worked in some pink colors as well. 

I have a contemporary design style, so my plates are usually simple and architectural.  This does not mean that yours have to be the same.  If you have a funky style or a country style, I’m sure you have something around the house that could work for this dinner.  Just work with what you have.  The more budget-friendly a party turns out, the more often you can throw them! 

I will start out with my centerpieces.  For dinner parties I like to make sure all guests at the table can see each other, so I tend to use smaller centerpieces.  I decided to use pink roses because I love them all clumped together.  I am also pretending not to notice that roses have doubled in price this month due to the impending holiday.  Feel free to use whatever flowers you like though.  Tulips are beautiful right now and should be fairly inexpensive.  If you don’t want to use flowers, just fill vases with Valentine candy or chocolates.  It will still fit the theme and add a punch of color to the table.  Here are the details for my arrangements in case you want to follow along.  If not, skip down to the exciting section on napkin folding!  Oh yeah, we’re going there!

Um, please excuse the crappy lighting and the smudgy fingerprints on the table in my photos.  Yikes, I’ll make sure to clean my table before the party!  Anyhoo…I chose five bud vases for these arrangements.  I can put between 6-7 roses in each vase for a nice round bouquet.  First, fill your vases with the appropriate amount of Floralife (or other flower food) and fill them ¾ full with cool water.  Lay all of your roses out and strip them of any leaves and thorns. 

Take one rose and hold it up to your vase leaving about an inch between the vase line and the base of your rose head.  Now clip off the extra stem and line it up with its sisters to trim them all to the same size.  Place the first layer of roses into your vase forming one circle.  Since we’re using a bud vase you’ll really only get one full circle. 

Add one or two more roses to the center of the vase filling out the dome.  This technique can be used for any sized vase, so just continue adding layers of roses if you’re using a larger vase.

Now, let’s talk napkins.  I had this idea way back when I designed the invitations.  I’ve seen the menu technique at weddings and I always love the way it looks on the place setting.  If you’re not planning to print menus, you could just fold the napkin neatly, place it under the utensils, and add a pretty wrapped chocolate to the plate instead.  With a chocolate theme, the possibilities are endless!

On my placesettings I am using brown cotton napkins that I found at Crate and Barrel, but I’ve seen them many other places as well.  Start with a clean, ironed napkin and lay it face down on a smooth surface.  Fold one side in a third of the way.

 Then take the other side and fold it in as well, leaving about two inches at one end.  This is the start of your pocket. 

Now flip the napkin over.  Starting with one end, fold in one quarter then fold that quarter in towards the center of the napkin. 

Taking the other end, do the same thing.  Now you are looking at the back of your pocket napkin. 

Flip it over and slip the menu into the pocket. 

My place setting contains a charger, dinner plate, salad plate, and napkin.  With the five flower arrangements running down the center of the table, the place settings really look great!

If any of you are planning to throw your own chocolate inspired dinner, please take pictures of your event and email them to me at Natalie{at}thecitysisters{dot}com.  I would love to post them next week so we can all see how your dinner party turned out.  Good luck and happy hosting!!

Chocolate Espresso Spelt Cake

Most of my family gathered a few weekends ago to say goodbye to my brother before he went back to college.  I had been itching to try this recipe and thought a night with family might be a good excuse for chocolate cake…not that chocolate cakes needs an excuse.

I called my mom to chat before we drove over to my parents’ house.  I was all, “what are you up to, mom?”  And she said, “baking a cake for tonight.”  Doh.  “Really….what kind?”  “Chocolate!”  Yep, we both made chocolate cakes on the same day for the same 8 people to eat.  I knew right away that I was in trouble.  My mom has never been known for healthy cooking, so if she was making a chocolate cake it was gonna be damn good!  Who would want to eat my psuedo healthy cake when they could have a slab of hers?  Plus, when we got there I noticed she had covered the chocolate cake in a layer of “Little Fudge.”  This stuff is legendary in my house.  My mom will not tell us how to make it, and we used to beg her for it as kids (and adults).  Anything covered in Little Fudge is going to be the bomb!

After dinner we all took a sliver of each cake and dove in to dessert.  Imagine my surprise when everyone told me how much they enjoyed my cake.  Oh, and my family is not one of those “let’s all be nice” kinda families.  We are sarcastic and honest.  If the cake wasn’t good, they would have let me know!  I couldn’t get over how moist and flavorful the cake was.  It did look lonely since it wasn’t topped with little fudge, so I think next time I’ll serve it with whipped cream, but I was impressed with the cake on its own.  I will definitely be making this one again.

Chocolate Espresso Spelt Cake
Adapted from Gourment, October 2005

1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for pan
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder plus additional for dusting pan and cake
1 cup boiling-hot water
1 1/2 tablespoons instant-espresso powder
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 cups Medjool dates (10 to 12), pitted and coarsely chopped
2 cups spelt flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup amber agave nectar
2 large eggs

Place oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Using cooking spray or butter, coat a springform pan, then lightly dust with cocoa powder, knocking out excess.

In a medium bowl, stir together boiling water, espresso powder, vanilla, and baking soda.  Add dates and mash lightly with a fork.  Steep until liquid cools to room temperature, about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together spelt flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.  Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and agave nectar together until smooth, 3-5 minutes.  Add eggs in one at a time, and continue mixing on medium-speed until just combined.  Add in date mixture and reduce speed to low.  Add flour mixture and continue mixing until just combined.

Pour batter into greased springform pan and smooth top.  Bake for 50 minutes to one hour, or until a wooden pick or skewer inserted into center comes out clean.  Cool cake in pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then remove side of pan and cool cake on a rack.  Serve cake warm or at room temperature.  Cake slices may be topped with whipped cream or a dusting of powdered sugar for a little sweetness.  Serves 8-12.

Valentine’s Day Couples Dinner (Appetizer)

We are having our first official snow/ice day in Dallas this year and I’m taking the opportunity to try out one of the appetizers I plan to make for the Valentines Dinner.  I realize half of the country is totally making fun us Texans’ with our silly weather but we really don’t handle this stuff well.  We were not made to deal with 10 degrees.  I don’t even know what to do other than stay in my pajamas and wrap my down duvet around me with a cup of hot soup!  It was pretty funny watching the two Superbowl teams riding in their fancy buses to Media Day down highway 30 with literally no one on the road but them…

Valentine’s Day Couples Dinner
Valentine’s Day Couples Dinner

This appetizer is nice and easy and really yummy.  It took a whole 10 minutes to prep and another 10 to cook which will make it ideal to serve warm once my guests arrive.  I feel like I’m constantly fighting to find appetizers that are going to taste good at room temperature.  Any suggestions??

Ingredients:

1 package (15 shells) of fillo shells

1 package (8 oz) of Neufchatel cheese (it should be by the cream cheese at your local grocery store, if you can not find it use cream cheese instead)

1 small jar of your favorite chutney (I used a Harry and David roasted red pepper chutney)

1/2 tsp dried thyme

1/2 tsp crushed garlic

1 large shallot sliced thin

3 tbs vegetable oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Place the shells on a lightly greased cookie sheet.  Heat oil for frying in a small pan.  While the oil is getting hot slice your shallot.  Fry the shallots and set them aside on a paper towel to dry.  With a hand mixer blend together the neufchatel cheese, garlic and , thyme.  This works best with the cheese at room temperature.   Using a small spoon fill each fillo shell with the cheese and top with your chutney.  Finish off with a topping of fried shallot and then bake for 10 minutes.  Enjoy!

Basil Watermelon Cocktail

This time of the year I never really know what to drink.  It is still pretty hot here in Texas but you can feel Fall on the edge of each breeze, so it is time to start switching out my pantry to fall finds.  I know, I know it is still early and I’m not in the mood just yet for cider infused drinks and if I look at another margarita I will puke.  Sooooo, what do you drink?  I usually just stick to red wine during this transition of the seasons but sometimes I want a cocktail.  The basil I’m growing in my back yard has turned into a tree and I have been cutting off limbs to give to people because I have so much of it.  I love Basil anytime of the year and felt that maybe a cocktail that was a little more savory than sweet might be perfect for the cold front we are experiencing.  (when I say cold front I mean 92 degrees)  So I dashed out to my back yard to experiment with the absorbent amount of basil I have in my garden.  This is what I came up with!

Makes 1 drink:

3 basil leaves

juice of half a lemon

1/4 cup of crushed watermelon

1 oz vodka

2 oz tonic water

crushed ice

In a tumbler muddle together the lemon, crushed up watermelon, and basil.  Muddling helps to release the basil flavor with out getting tiny pieces of basil in your drinks.  I like to muddle the lemon with the basil to blend their flavors really well.  Add the vodka and tonic water to the tumbler with a few cubes of ice.  Shake the drink well and then strain over crushed iced ice in a glass.  Garnish with a small basil leaf.

Beer Braised Beef

Do you have the duel voices in your head?  One voice is screaming for comfort food.  “It’s January, it’s cold, and damnnit, I need me some warm deliciousness in a bowl.”  But then there’s the other guy.  The healthy one.  He’s all, “um, didn’t we say we were going to try to eat better this year?  Summer will be here before you know it.”  Oh, the torture!!

I’ve been trying to eat soups because they take the chill off my bones and have a healthy edge (if you stay away from the cream-based soups, that is), but I can’t eat soup for every meal.  So I’ve combined my love of comfort foods with a pretty healthy recipe from Cooking Light.  Granted the mashed potatoes are probably not the healthiest, but I used fat free milk and low fat cream cheese in them, so they can’t be all that bad, right?

The house smelled amazing when I walked in after work.  I love using my crock pot and definitely have to do that more often.  Craig and I were eating dinner at 6:30!  I don’t think we’ve ever eaten that early on a work night.  Of course I busted my calorie count by having a dark lager beer with my meal, but it was so tasty with the beef.  This really is a perfect winter meal.

Beer-Braised Beef
Cooking Light

1 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound boneless top round steak
1 (14.5-ounce) can Italian-style diced tomatoes (with basil, garlic, and oregano), un-drained
1/2 cup beer
2 tablespoons molasses
1/4 teaspoon salt
salt & pepper (seasoning steak)

Place onion in an electric crock pot coated with cooking spray.

Season steak with salt and pepper.  Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  Add steak and cook for 3 minutes on each side or until browned. Place steak over onion in crock pot.  Pour tomatoes and beer over steak. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or until steak is very tender.

Shred steak with a fork in crock pot.  Stir in molasses and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Serve over mashed potatoes or rice.

Planning a Manly Party (Decor)

I have been trying to come up with some simple ways of having some floral arrangements in the house for the party.  Luckily simple modern floral design is very in style right now so I feel like I can have fresh flowers in the house and still make the arrangements not too feminine.  I do not own a lot of vases so I tend to use any container I can find as a vase.  This tends to force me to be a little bit more creative in the styling of the arrangement.  I want the colors to be simple so I’m only going to use whites, greens and browns.  I need one floral for the food table, one for the coffee table and something special for our wine room (it’s not really a fancy wine room, more like the room were we happen to keep our 2 whole bottles of wine.)

My dining table is very long so I’m going to need something that can span the length of it because all of the food and desserts will be spread out across it.  I plan to use my stemless wine glasses to accomplish this.  I want one simple white rose with a little greenery in each glass and I want the glasses to be spaced evenly all the way down the table.  I bought some green moss to intermingle through the wine glasses.  You could easily add some candles to this arrangement or place ornaments in between to jazz it up for a holiday.

My dining table is very long so I’m going to need something that can span the length of it because all of the food and desserts will be spread out across it.  I plan to use my stemless wine glasses to accomplish this.  I want one simple white rose with a little greenery in each glass and I want the glasses to be spaced evenly all the way down the table.  I bought some green moss to intermingle through the wine glasses.  You could easily add some candles to this arrangement or place ornaments in between to jazz it up for a holiday.

For the coffee table I used a large round bowl that I typically use for salads and filled it with white pom flowers.  These flowers are relatively inexpensive and take up a lot of space.  My mother has the most beautiful backyard with several dozen hydrangea bushes that have a million blooms on them so I asked her to cut me some for the party.  Her hydrangea’s happen to be greenish white so they looked perfect with the rest of my decor.  I totally forgot to take a picture of this so you all are going to have to use your imagination!

Now the wine room was the best!  Our awesome friends Eddie and Barry filled the ceiling of the room with green, brown and white balloons. It was such an amazing detail and everyone wanted to take turns hanging out in the balloon room.  It was simple in design but looked absolutely stunning.  Eddie owns Balloon City USA which is not your grandma’s balloon company.  You want a larger than life size toy soldier made of  balloons at your next Christmas party you call them.  Need an under the sea octopus extravaganza?  Eddie can build it! Talk about some unexpected creations!!

Christmas Meal – Dessert

If you haven’t been following along, I’ve been showing a relatively easy holiday meal that anyone can serve this Christmas.  We started out with a colorful salad and a homemade champagne vinaigrette and then I followed that up with our main course, cranberry chicken.  Now, I give you dessert!  I tried to keep it simple…crumbs or crisps are pretty easy to make and do not require any pastry skills. 

Probably the hardest part of this dish is slicing up all of the apples.  But after you get through the first three you will be a pro and then the next few go by a lot quicker.  I calculated that I was able to prep the ingredients and get the crisp together in under an hour, and I was working at a leisurely pace.  You can make this dish any time during the day, but getting it finished in the morning hours is probably your best bet.  Just pop it back in a 300 degree oven for about 15 minutes before serving.  Plus, if you make it in the morning, your house will smell like apples and cinnamon the rest of the day! 

Speaking of apples, you can use any cooking apple in this crisp.  Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Macintosh, etc will be fine.  I used Granny Smith because the Golden’s in my grocery store looked horrible.  Just look for a nice ripe apple without any bruising.  The skin should be smooth and firm.

This cranberry apple crisp will be a crowd-pleaser.  It is sweet and tart.  Oh, and would taste really good with a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream over top.  A perfect end to bright and happy meal. 

Cranberry Apple Oat Crisp
Rustic Fruit Desserts

Topping
2 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

Fruit Filling
8 large cooking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
8-12 oz fresh or frozen cranberries (one bag)
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat oven to 375 and butter a 3-quart baking dish.

In a medium bowl, add the oats, flour, brown sugar, and salt.  Stir to combine.  Pour in melted butter and using your hands press the topping together to form small clumps.  Place bowl in the fridge while you make the fruit filling.

In a large bowl, add the apples, cranberries, sugar, cornstarch, and cinnamon.  Toss until well mixed.  Pour the fruit filling into the base of the baking dish and spread it evenly.

Press the oat topping evenly over the fruit.  Place the baking dish on a sheet pan (in case the filling bubbles over the edges) and bake for 60-70 minutes.  The topping should be a golden brown and the fruit filling should be bubbling up in the corners.

Allow to cool for 20 minutes before serving.  The crisp is best eaten the day it is made, but can be kept covered at room temperature for 2-3 days.

Blackberry Picking & Refreshing Mojitos

I went on a fun little adventure the other weekend.  My good friends Natalie from Natalie’s Killer Cuisine and Joy from Joylicious invited me to go blackberry picking with them at Duck Creek Blackberry Farm.  They got me all excited about the trip before telling me what time we’d have to leave to make the hour-long drive.  Yeah, they’re sneaky that way…that’s why I love ‘em!  The farm opens at 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays and usually sells out of blackberries by 9:00 a.m.  We knew we’d need to get our tired butts out of bed early to beat the crowd.  And yes, blackberry farms do get a crowd.  We met at a local Starbucks at 6:00 a.m., and let it be known that this Starbucks was not open yet!!  Three early risers with no coffee.  We’re like superhuman or something.  Our mission:  blackberries!!

The vines were filled with huge, juicy berries.  It was so peaceful to be out in the country in the early (not so hot) morning.  The fresh air did me good.  Oh, but I could have done without the bugs.  I don’t live on the 18th floor in the middle of the city because I like bugs.  Small ones I can maybe deal with, but bugs outside of the city are like HUGE.  We’re talking giant yellow and black spiders, wasps, and stink bugs.  I know…I’m making this sound fun, aren’t I?  It really was though, promise.

Along with the bugs, we met some really great people out there picking berries in the early morning light.  We learned that there are lots of u-pick farms in our area.  I’m definitely going to find the peach orchards and blueberry farms next!  We all wandered around talking about what we were going to make with our blackberries.  The possibilities are endless, but most of us wanted dessert.  We were starving around all that fruit with no breakfast in our bellies.

With our buckets full and our foreheads glistening, we said goodbye to the farm and left the country for the bustle of the city.  And when we got back to the Starbucks we found it waiting for us with open arms!  The country was great, but ME NEEDS COFFEE!!

All afternoon I poured over my cookbooks.  I took notes, flagged potential recipes, and listened to my tummy growl for blackberries.  I baked most of the day on Sunday and again on Monday night.  I could have frozen some of the blackberries (and will wish I had in a few months), but I couldn’t resist using them at their freshest.  After baking most of them into rustic desserts (which I’ll feature here in a few weeks time) I used the rest for tasty mojitos.  Craig and I make mojitos a lot because they are so refreshing and crisp.  Plus, rum has no carbs (see, we eat healthy)!  Lots of our local restaurants feature fruity mojitos, but I’ve never had a blackberry one.  It was sweet and tart, and well, delicious!!  Plus, look at the color.  Amazing!

Blackberry Mojitos

6-8 mint leaves (more for garnish)
1/4 cup fresh blackberries (more for garnish)
1 teaspoon light agave syrup
3 oz. light rum
2 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice
club soda

Add the mint leaves, fresh blackberries, and agave syrup into a cocktail shaker.  Using a muddler or the stick of a wooden spoon, muddle the ingredients until the mint is fragrant.  Add in ice cubes, rum, and lime juice; cover and shake vigorously a few times.  Strain the liquid into an ice-filled glass and top with club soda.  Garnish with mint and blackberries.  Makes 1-2 drinks depending on size of glass.