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I’m all about versatility, making multiple uses of a beautiful object. Today, let’s explore how you can take a vase and a leafless branch and make displays that will generate conversation and say something about your creativity!

This idea has been in our family for over ten years. When our children were little and I was decorating for the Baha’i Faith’s gift-giving time, called Ayyam-i-Ha, I wanted a similar feature to the Christmas tree with all its beautiful ornaments. What I came up with was a couple of bare branches positioned in a miniature galvanized bucket and held in place with aquarium gravel. My “ornaments” were  mirrored baubles from India and butterflies and birds from feathers. The idea was to acknowledge part of my daughter’s heritage (she is adopted from India) and to expand our childrens’ exposure to the arts and crafts of other parts of the world. Just a week ago, my daughter who is now 21, told me how much she treasures her memories of that little tree. Here is a picture of it.

Suzanna last summer in Chicago

Ayyam-i-Ha tree

I recently dismantled it to give it new life as a way to showcase a Mother’s Day gift of jewelry. Now instead of a bucket, I’ve inserted the branches into a vase (in this case the Petite Arrange -It-Easy Vase from Entertaining At Home–a gratifying feature of owning this vase is knowing that $2 from the purchase price was a donation to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation)–you can see this vase on page 51 of the Entertaining At Home catalog

So here are some ideas to turn this little tree into a way to showcase your Mother’s Day gift.

1. Of course, jewelry is always a winner. Earrings, rings, bracelets, necklaces, pendents, charms–all can grace the branches of the tree.

2. What does she collect? Find small versions of whatever that is and hang them from the tree!

3. Get the kids involved. Have each child write down a chore or a special activity that he or she will promise to do for or with mom on a small piece of paper and tie that paper to one of the branches of the tree. Mom can call in the gift chores as she needs them. It might be something so simple as “I will not fight with my brother for an hour today!”

4. The tree could hold the starting clue to a scavenger hunt, from one clue to the next until the actual gift is found.

Other uses for a tree of this sort? How about if you like to do dream boards for your business or life? Hang little cards from the tree with the words or pictures describing your dreams or goals?

I hope you have enjoyed this idea. Do you have other ideas on how to use a tree in a vase like this? Please share them by posting a comment at the end of this blog.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms!

Thanks to Marge Tudor, with Entertaining At Home, for this cute idea for an Easter centerpiece, one that the kids will enjoy helping you make as well as eat. What’s better than an edible centerpiece!

Supplies needed:

An assortment of Peeps, those of-no-redeeming-social-value marshmallow treats shaped like bunnies, chicks, and who knows what else (I even saw “camo” Peeps this season); skewers (either bamboo or metal, whichever you have works fine);  filler candy (M&Ms or Hershey’s Kisses or Reeses Pieces, or anything else that you can use as the edible equivalent of sand or marbles);and a glass hurricane.

Here’s where the kids get to help. They can separate the Peeps into individual critters. If old enough, they can also impale the little critters on the skewers. Once your “kabobs” are assembled. hold the assemblage of skewers together and have an assistant pour the chosen candy in around the ends of the skewers to hold the kabobs in place. If the candies are wrapped in Easter-colored tinfoil, that will add to the colorful nature of the display and take on the appearance of a floral bouquet.

It is worth pointing out that this can be a very economical though inviting centerpiece. At $.99 a box of Peeps for 3 boxes, and 2 sacks of candies at around $2.50 each, you’ve got yourself an edible thing of beauty. Nothing wasted, or at least not in my family; there would eventually be nothing left except naked skewers.

I hope your kids will enjoy this activity and that they don’t eat too many Peeps!

If you read my previous post on Sabzeh, you might be interested in the history behind this celebration. A very detailed explanation of the celebration as experienced in Persia (Iran) is found in a great cookbook, entitled New Food Of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, by Najmieh Batmanglij. You can find this on pages 403-408 in the 2008 edition. This is a beautiful book with enticing photos of the prepared food AND ancient Persian art. The book jacket describes the book as “a treasure of 250 classical and regional Iranian recipes. 120 color photographs of food intertwined with Persian miniatures and illustrations together with descriptions of ancient and modern ceremonies make New Food of Life not just a collection of excellent recipes but also an introduction to Persian art and culture.”

The book is lovely and interesting enough to be a coffee table book, especially for foodies, travelers and art historians.

I didn’t buy the book for any of those reasons though. I bought it to explore a cuisine I could cook for my husband who is allergic to wheat. Very few of the recipes use wheat; there is much more use of rice. So if you or a family member have issues with wheat, you might explore Persian cuisine. I’m sure there are other good cookbooks out there. I’m just familiar with this one and it is available in Barnes and Noble  stores. The author does a good job of addressing the issue of specialty ingredients. Compared to Indian cuisine, I think the Persian recipes call for fewer exotic ingredients. Still, you will need access to a middle Eastern grocery store for some of the ingredients. Helpfully, the author includes a list of specialty stores by state and city in the back of the book. The one I explored in Houston, Phoenicia Supermarket on Westheimer, was a true delight to visit. They supply ingredients for many middle eastern cuisines as well as cooking supplies, books, carryout, and a dining area.  It’s a great place to explore.

Naw Ruz being March 21, I wish you Happy Naw Ruz!

When Entertaining At Home held their Leadership Conference this 2010 in Las Vegas, they treated us to tablescapes designed by Grammy Award winning recording artist,and award winning author and composer Larry Hart and his partner, whose name I’m sorry I don’t recall.

One of the tablescapes was called Pretty in Pink.

Pretty in Pink tablescape using EAH and SLAH products

The criteria for elements on the tables was that they be products sold either in the  Southern Living At Home catalog or the Entertaining At Home catalog. The results were proof positive that the two product lines are going to work well together.

One of the benefits of attending these company sponsored events is that you always get great ideas to take home and share with hosts and guests. Here is a very easy rose floral arrangement using only 4 roses, some decorative “jewels” or clear marbles, and a small square vase.

Take the 4-6 roses and cut their stems  so that their length is clearly longer than the vase is tall, but cutting off most of the long stem. Then, shockingly, put the roses blossom down into the vase. Fill the vase completely with roses, but it is not necessary to wedge them in.

Once the roses are in place, resting against the bottom of the vase, take scissors and cut the stems flush with the top of the vase.

Remove the roses temporarily. Place the “jewels” into the bottom of the vase. Fill to the top of the jewels with water. Reinsert the roses, this time stem end into the water. The “jewels” will keep the roses stable.

The finished result will be roses filling the opening of the vase, but not extending past the top of the vase. This is a striking look, made more so by lining 3 vases down the center of the dinner table or to be an even bigger treat, place one for every guest as a place setting and a gift to take away from the dinner. To accentuate that each vase is a gift, you can tie the vase up with a ribbon.

Almond Pine Cones

I found a great idea for a dessert garnish for the fall/winter season. It’s called “Chocolate Almond Pinecones” and I found it in a publication that used to be put out by Entertaining at Home, “Taste of Home Entertaining: Practical Ideas for Hosting Memorable Parties,” published in 2005. What I like about this garnish besides the fact it is impressive looking is that it tastes great. The recipe mentions that it can be reused on a variety of desserts. Not in my house. It didn’t survive the evening. Once I got a picture of it, it was consumed! So here’s how to make these delicious and attractive garnishes, with acknowledgment to the publication.

almond pine cone 2 002

Ingredients

1 tube (7 ounces) almond paste

4 ounces sliced almonds

1 ¼ cups semisweet chocolate chips

1 tablespoon shortening

almond pine cone 001

Procedure:

1. Shape the almond paste into 6 cone shapes.

2. Insert pointed ends of almonds into the paste to resemble a pine cone.

3. Insert a toothpick into the bottom of the pine cone so that you can elevate the pine cone without touching it.

4. After melting the chocolate chips and the shortening in the microwave, spoon the melted chocolate over the almond paste and the inserted sliced almonds.

5. Allow the chocolate to harden.

I chose to make the “pine cone” look more like a Christmas tree by shaking sprinkles over the chocolate while it was still soft.

Here are more food preparation and ingredients tips I learned on Holland American’s Westerdam on our August cruise to Alaska. It was so much fun learning about cooking from some great chefs, while experiencing all the wonders of Alaska and cruising.

Here’s a way to analyze the quality of  honey, olive oil, and maple syrup. Take a flat plate, pour a couple of tablespoons onto the plate. Take your index finger and make a channel through the middle of the liquid. Watch how quickly the liquid flows back together. The more quickly, the lesser the quality of the liquid, whether honey, olive oil or maple syrup. This tip from Chef Phillip from the Westerdam, Holland America cruise line.

Here are some money saving tips regarding olive oil. In cooking with olive oil,  it is not necessary to use your precious, expensive Extra Virgin Olive Oil for sautéing or frying. A lesser oil will do just fine. Save your EVOO for pesto and salads. To further economize when cooking with olive oil, use a mixture of olive oil and canola oil for your frying and sautéing.  The proportions should be 1 part olive oil to 4 parts canola. The reasons behind this are that the olive oil can be too strong a taste in some cases, and also you can heat the oil mixture to a higher heat without smoking than what would be possible with olive oil alone. A final olive oil tip: buy it in a can, not a glass or plastic bottle for extended shelf life.

Now for a couple of tips concerning preparation of fish: one, don’t pepper salmon before frying or sautéing. Use only a little salt. The same advice holds for halibut. Put pepper on after cooking. The surprising reason is that pepper burns easily.

Second, when cooking fish, dry it first so you don’t wind up “poaching” the fish.

Third, you don’t have to marinate fish overnight because there is no connective tissue that has to be broken down by the marinade.

The final ingredients tip I got was that in making a recipe that calls for bread crumbs, consider whether it would be advantageous for the bread crumbs to absorb a maximum amount of liquid. If so, choose Panko bread crumbs: They are dried so that they soak up more of the liquid.

It was fun learning these tidbits. It made me realize that although I used to consider myself a good cook, my cooking is really pedestrian. That being said, I still love to cook for my family and they still appreciate my efforts. That’s what really counts.

I promised you more tips I learned from the cooking classes and demonstrations I participated in during our cruise to Alaska on the Holland America ship Westerdam in August. The most incredible demonstration we saw was the use of a dough cloth in the making of an apple streusel. A dough cloth is all cotton, large, somewhat similar to a white cotton tablecloth, though it is a cloth reserved strictly to working with dough.

Alaska 2009 days 1-2 026It absolutely looked like a white table cloth spread out on the work surface. The chef liberally tossed flour about on the cloth. Imagine a farmer strewing chicken feed on the ground for chickens. It was that kind of motion. Next, he turned out from a large bowl a big round of risen dough. One of the biggest surprises in the ingredients list for the dough is the addition of a small amount of white vinegar. Apparently the vinegar makes the dough more elastic.

The chef began the preparation of the dough with a very large aluminum looking rolling pin. So the dough is being rolled out on the dough cloth. A couple of times, he would lift up the dough and add more flour to the cloth.

As the dough became more rolled out, he abandoned the rolling pin and actually had an assistant start to work with him in expanding the dough. Though we found it hard to imagine, the chef promised us that when finished the dough would be thin enough and translucent enough to read the menu card through it.

The way the two chefs worked the dough at this point was to slide their hands under the dough, fingers pointed down, knuckle sides up. Thus, it was the back of the hands that worked the dough. Imagine two people working a pizza crust, thrusting it upward and outward gently,  over and over again, working all around the surface of the dough. Little by little stretching the dough without tearing or piercing it.

In the end the dough was expanded to fill the whole work surface, probably 3×5 feet. And true to promise, we could read the recipe card that he placed below the dough.

The final use of the dough cloth was in helping to roll up the streudel. No hands touched the dough at this point, the simple grasping at each end of the dough cloth and folding it over allowed the dough to start to roll up on itself. It also allowed the chef to transfer the completed roll of dough to the baking pan without touching the dough. Very slick.

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