Archive for the ‘Preparation’ Category

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.

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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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On our recent cruise to Alaska on Holland America’s Westerdam, I was able to gather many good entertaining, floral design, and food preparation tips. We got to experience a tour of the galley, a demo on making chocolate martinis, a talk on chocolate, a talk on flower arranging, and a cooking class with one of the head chef’s on board.

I’m pondering if there would be a way to deduct some of the cost of the cruise as a business expense since I learned so much that will be useful, either in things I can share with my guests at my Entertaining At Home parties, or in blog posts!  Probably not!

First of all, let me highly recommend Holland America as a cruise line choice if you do enjoy cooking or entertaining. They have a whole stage dedicated to their Culinary Arts Center. Recipes we got to observe being prepared were provided to us on nice recipe cards. When we did the cooking class, we each got an apron bearing the ship’s logo and name of the Culinary Arts Center. And to top it all off, anything we got to see demonstrated, we got to eat! The highlight of that was from the cooking class, where we were served Grilled Prawn Bruschetta with Primavera Salsa, Salmon with Lemon Glaze and Rosemary Crumbs, and Grand Marnier Chocolate Volcano Cake!

So to begin, I’ll share with you the easiest tip of all: making a chocolate martini. The trick to this is taking chocolate syrup, pouring a tablespoon or so into the bottom of a martini glass, and then taking a wooden stick and dragging some of the syrup up the side of the glass in a spoke-like fashion. To make it more decorative, take the stick and make circles around the glass, dragging the stick through the spokes of the chocolate that have been pulled up the sides of the glass. This will make a spider-web design.

That’s all there is to it. Mix your favorite martini drink and strain it into the chocolate decorated glass. Here are a couple of the martini recipes they gave us. Thanks to Holland America for sharing these recipes.

Lightning Fast Chocolate Martini

3 oz Premium Vodka

1.5 oz. Chocolate Liqueur or Crème de Cacao

Double Chocolate Chocolate Martini

3 oz. Premium Vodka

1.5 oz. Chocolate Liqueur or Crème de Cacao

2 tsp. Chocolate Syrup

Chocolate Orange Martini

3 oz. Premium Vodka

2.5 oz. Chocolate Liqueur or Crème de Cacao

1 oz. Grand Marnier

Chocolate Hazelnut Martini

3 oz. Premium Vodka

2.5 oz. Chocolate Liqueur or Crème de  Cacao

1 oz. Frangelico Hazelnut Liqueur

Chocolate Espresso Martini

0.5 oz. Cold Espresso

2.5 oz. Premium Vodka

1.5 oz. Kahlua or Sabrosa coffee liqueur

1.5 oz. chocolate liqueur or Crème de Cacao.

For all of these recipes, pour all listed ingredients into a cocktail shaker packed with ice. Shake vigorously for 8-10 seconds. Strain into an ice chilled martini glass and enjoy.

Since I’m a tea-totaller, I’m looking for suggestions as to how to use this  presentation idea with a non-alcoholic drink. Any ideas? Let me know in a comment below. Thanks!

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pokerAnother idea presented by Melissa Evans at Entertaining At Home’s 2009 National Conference to save money on entertaining was all of the various ways to divide the cost of the party among more than one family.  Variations include (1) potlucks; (2) block parties; and (3) progressive dinners.

Potlucks are so old school and still so enjoyable, especially it you have some friends from different ethnic heritages. Ask them to bring some food from their backgrounds.

Block parties take more planning, including making sure you don’t run into conflicts with city ordinances or laws or community restrictions.

A progressive dinner is where each course of the dinner is held at a different person’s home: appetizers at one, soup and salad at another; main course at still another; and dessert and coffee or drinks at the last. You can expand the number of hosts to 5 by making the very last home be for entertainment, such as a movie or card or board games.  Another variation (which increases the costs) is to go to a different restaurant for each course.

A progressive dinner is most suited to an assortment of friends who live in the same or close-by neighborhoods. It can also work for an extended family whose members  live within reasonable driving distance of each other.

The progressive dinner can be organized around a theme, such as an Hawaiaan Luau, a location, such as Dinner on the Deck, or an ethnic choice, such as Italian food.

My son Nathan gave me an idea for a twist on the progressive dinner that most likely would increase the men’s enjoyment of the event: Make it a Poker Progressive Dinner. The inspiration for this idea was the Poker Bike Ride Nathan told me about. In this event, the participants ride their bicycles from one restaurant to another, enjoying part of a dinner at each restaurant and retrieving a playing card at each restaurant. At the last restaurant, the person with the best poker hand wins a prize. There was also a prize for the first person to arrive, but that would not be a feature of the Poker Progressive Dinner.

So why not try the same thing with the progressive dinner: at each home, each guest gets another playing card and at the last home, a prize will be awarded to the best poker hand. Since a poker hand needs at least 5 cards, you’ll need 5 homes with different courses for the meal so either add a beverages course to the start of the progressive dinner or plan to go to the last home for continuing entertainment.

I’m curious as to whether anyone has ever experienced a poker progressive dinner? If so, any special tips to make it successful that you can share?

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panini party 003When you have people over for dinner, don’t they always congregate in the kitchen? Why not make the entertainment for your party be the food preparation itself? A panini party is an easy way to get the guests involved in making their own food.

Panini is the plural of “panino”,which means “small bread roll”  in Italian. Panini has come to refer to the sandwich made from the small roll. It is a hot sandwich prepared with a panini pan. The typical panini pan is cast iron, has parallel ridges in both the the pan and the press. The idea is to preheat both the pan and the press. That way, when you place the sandwich in the pan and put the press on top of the sandwich, you cleverly cook the sandwich  twice as fast and produce enticing grill marks on both sides of the sandwich at once.

panini party 004A panini sandwich’s ingredients can really be anything that sounds appetizing to you. There would probably be cheeses, sliced meats, vegetables, maybe even some fruit. For the party, set out a nice assortment of meats, cheeses, greens, vegetables, along with a couple of choices of breads. You could have thickly sliced Italian or French bread, ciabatta bread,  or rolls.  Normally, there are no condiments on a panini sandwich. Rather, you take a pastry brush and brush the bread with a good quality olive oil. Allow your guests to assemble their sandwiches to their own tastes.

While your guests have been putting together their sandwiches, preheat the panini pan with the press inserted into the bottom of the pan. Using a silicone basting brush, coat the press with olive oil and spread olive oil over the bottom of the pan. You don’t want it too oily, nor do you want it too light on the oil.

Once the pan is preheated, invite the guests to place their sandwiches in the bottom of the pan and place the press on top of the sandwiches. Depending on the size of the bread or rolls, you will probably be able to do 2-4 sandwiches at a time.

panini servedFor this party, the fun is in the preparation and the eating. Don’t worry about everyone sitting down to eat at the same time. Serve your beverages at the stove top and let everyone eat their sandwiches as they are prepared. Trust me, they’ll be back to make a second sandwich after everyone has made their first.

If you want some recipe inspiration, check out the blog http://paninihappy.com. I predict you’ll be very hungry after you look at those pictures of great panini sandwiches. There are even dessert panini sandwiches. Got to love that! It will no doubt have you planning a panini party for your friends soon.

And lest you think a panini pan too limited in use to warrant purchase of one, did you realize it makes a great way to cook bacon? Cook the bacon with the press on top; it cooks quickly and can’t curl up.  A panini pan is also good for indoor “grilling” of hamburgers and steaks.

So next time you want to have some folks over for dinner, put them to work making their own  sandwiches. I think you will find they have a great time.

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Let’s start with a poll.

1) Have you ever had popcorn with nutritional yeast on it? Yes or no.

2) Have you ever HEARD of having popcorn with nutritional yeast on it? Yes or no.

3) If you are familiar with this treat, where did you live when you had it. I’m suspecting this is a regional taste. I did some research on Google and it appears to be known in Wisconsin and California. Register your answers at the end of the post in a comment.  And if you would, ask your friends to also give their answers to this poll. Thanks.

When I was a poor law school student and a member of the Baha’i community in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I was introduced to popcorn with butter and nutritional yeast. It was a very inexpensive yet yummy treat and we were pretty much all poor students,  so that we frequently had popcorn with nutritional yeast as our refreshments for any sort of meeting. It got to be so common, that one guest questioned whether this was a ritual in the Baha’i Faith! Not so, but this has remained one of my favorite treats. Next time you are having a movie night with family or friends, give this a try. I think you will be surprised at how much they enjoy it.

Here’s how I make this treat. I pop the popcorn in a microwave popper. This allows me to not feel so guilty about drowning the popped corn in melted butter! I generally use 1/2 stick of salted butter. Pour the popped corn into your large bowl, pour the butter over the corn, salt to taste, and as the last step sprinkle nutritional yeast all over the popcorn.

A variation I read about, but have not tried myself, is to melt the butter and stir 3 tablespoons of nutritional yeast into the melted butter, which you then pour over the popcorn.

So beyond the great, nutty taste of the yeast, are there any good reasons to use nutritional yeast on your popcorn? There actually may be.  It is low in fat and sodium. It has supposed health benefits of being a sleep aid, and has been touted as an aid with diabetes, hypoglycemia, high cholesterol, eczema, and other conditions. I’m not sure I buy into any of those. I just know it is a delicious treat.

So where do you get nutritional yeast? I find it in larger grocery stores that have bulk food aisles. It looks like a yellow flake. You can also buy it online, I’m sure. However, be cautious and know the difference between “brewer’s yeast” and “nutritional yeast.” These labels are sometimes used interchangeably, but the products are slightly different. Nutritional yeast has the better taste; brewer’s yeast has a slightly bitter taste.

If you try this treat, I’d love to hear how you liked it. I’ll be watching for your poll answers too. Enjoy!

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corn_on_the_cobWhile you are grilling those hot dogs and hamburgers this 4th of July,  why not throw the corn on the cob on the grill too?

This method of cooking the corn has to be the easiest of all options. No removing the husks and silks, no wrapping in foil, no boiling water. Preparation is very simple.


First pull back the husks a little bit from the top, just to look for any buggies.

Seeing none, immerse the corn (still in the husks) in a large bowl or pan of slightly salted water.  Let them sit there for a few minutes. This is going to accomplish two things. One, if there are any buggies lurking, this is going to flush them out. Second, it is going to saturate the corn husks, allowing them to be on the grill longer before they totally char.

Do not remove the husks and silks. You are going to grill the corn as is.


Over a well lit charcoal fire, place the corn around the outside edge of your grill. If you put it directly over the coals, you are more likely to burn the corn kernels.  The corn will cook while you grill your meats on the central portion of the grill.

Turn the corn a couple of times. The husks are going to start to turn brown.  This is not a problem. Evenly browning the husks lets you know you’ve rotated the corn sufficiently.

As with all grilling, timing is not exact. To estimate when the corn is done, I look for well browned husks. If my meat is not done but I think the corn is, I just push the corn further away from the hot coals. If the meat is close to done and the corn is not, I’ll move the meat away from the hot coals and put the corn directly over the hot coals for a few minutes.


Removed the grilled corn to a large platter. To serve, using a hot pad hold the corn and carefully pull back the husks. You will be amazed at how easy this is and how the silks pull away with the husks.  Break off the husks and serve.

Should the corn be slightly undercooked, you can pop it in the microwave for a small amount of time to finish the cooking.

What vegetables do you grill and how? I’d love to hear.  Happy Fourth of July!

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I know, I know, who makes homemade pie crusts any more! I do, my son Nathan does. That’s 2 of us. Maybe we can find a third. Is it you?

A flakey homemade pie crust is so far superior in taste and texture to a store-bought crust, that if you have never tried to make a crust, you owe it to yourself and your family to try it at least once. Of course, your family will be so spoiled, they’ll never want you to go back to a storebought crust.

There are any number of decent recipes for crusts. It doesn’t really matter which recipe you choose. There is one option in ingredients that may surprise you and may be hard to accept, and that is you have a choice between vegetable shortening and lard. Yep, lard. Did you even know you can still buy lard? It’s in the same area as the shortenings in the grocery store. Comes in boxes, kind of like butter. You use the same amount of lard as you would shortening. What the lard does for the crust is to make it flakier and even richer in taste.

Your pie crust directions, regardless of whether you use shortening or lard, will say to cut in the lard or shortening with the flour and salt until the mixture is made of pea-sized particles. You can use a pastry blender or even a fork, which is how I learned to cut in shortening. Once the particles are of the proper small size, you start sprinkling cold water over the flour mixture, stirring with a fork to blend. You don’t add the water all at once. You use only enough water to allow the mixture to clump together when you press it into a ball by hand.

If making a two crust pie, you will have enough dough to make a top and bottom crust.  You cut your ball of dough in half and work with one half at a time. Here is where my special tip comes in. Normally, the instructions will say to lightly sprinkle your work surface with flour. So you would sprinkle your counter with flour, place your ball of dough on the flour, rub flour onto the rolling pin, and sprinkle a little flour on the top of the ball of dough and start rolling out the dough. As you go, the dough starts to get sticky and you must add a little more flour to the dough and onto the rolling pin.

Once the dough is rolled out to the right diameter, now you have to find a way to transfer it from your work surface to the pie plate. Before learning the tip I’m going to share with you in a moment, I would roll my pie crust out on wax paper, with flour sprinkled on top of  the wax paper. To move the pie crust from the wax paper to the pie plate, there were two techniques. One was to roll the pie crust around the rolling pin and transport the crust in that manner. I never tried that and it sounds hard to me. The way I was taught to do it was to fold the crust in half, and then in half again. What you then had was a triangular piece that you could lift more easily, place in the pie plate, and unfold into halves and then into the whole pie plate.

That method worked pretty well. But the method I learned a few years ago solves many problems. First of all, it eliminates the need to add additional flour. The reason you don’t want any more flour than you absolutely have to is that the extra flour can make the crust tough. The second thing it makes easier is transporting the crust to the pie plate.

So here is the tip: You are going to roll out the pie crust between sheets of Saranwrap, or Clingwrap, or whatever clear plastic wrap you use. Usually your pie crust diameter is greater than the width of a sheet of Saranwrap, so I cut two pieces of Saranwrap and overlap them slightly. This is my bottom work surface. Then I put down the ball of pie dough, pressing it into a flat ball with my hands. Over that flat ball of dough, I place two  more sheets of Saranwrap, again overlapped slightly.

Now I take my rolling pin and roll out the dough between the sheets of Saranwrap. There is no need to add flour. Roll out the pie crust to the desired diameter. Next, gently peel away the top two sheets of Saranwrap. Now gently pick up the corners of the remaining Saranwrap with the pie crust, and slide it over the pie plate, crust side down, Saranwrap up.  Using your hands, press the pie crust into the curves of the pie plate. Then carefully peel off the remaining Saranwrap. You now have a beautiful crust to bake your pie in.

When I was a college student, studying in England, a long time ago, and had no money, the one thing I bought abroad to bring home was a wooden rolling pin. I still have it and use it. It’s the one you see in the photograph. I consider it a work of art.  It is one of those things that brings grace to my life, connects me with my roots, and is a silent statement to my family of how much I care for them. I’m definitely of the old school that cooking for people is a way to show them you love them.

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Mario Batali Peerless Peeler. http://lindamccormick.eahweb.com/Catalog/Spring2009/ -- page 78.

Mario Batali Peerless Peeler. http://lindamccormick.eahweb.com/Catalog/Spring2009/ -- page 78.


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Ice cream sandwich 008Ice cream sandwich 003ice cream sandwich

Wouldn’t the kids love a party where they could make their own ice cream sandwiches. (Adults might like such a party too!) It’s very easy and doesn’t even require any special equipment. Ice cream sandwich makers exist, but as you’ll see– they are not at all required. In fact, they limit your creativity because you can only use a cookie of a certain diameter.

First, invite the guests to bring their favorite cookies. Sugar cookies and chocolate chip cookies are delicious, but others would be just as good. Do have your own cookie supply on hand for those guests who forget or don’t bring their own. I’d recommend that you provide the ice cream (and of course, in Texas, we love our Blue Bell ice cream–my personal favorite Natural Vanilla Bean).  You will also need sprinkles or nonpareils for the finishing touch. So buy sprinkles that fit the theme or the holiday: Fourth of July– red, white, and blue, Halloween–orange and black, and so on.

Equipment: ice cream scoop, clear glass plate, wax paper, bowl big enough to hold the sprinkles and to roll the ice cream sandwich around in.

Ingredients: ice cream, cookies, sprinkles.

Procedure: soften the ice cream slightly. You want to be able to scoop out a generous scoop of ice cream and it has to be soft enough to be flattened between two cookies.  Place a piece of wax paper down on the table. Pour some sprinkles in the bowl. Set out two cookies.

Put one cookie top side down. Put one generous scoop of softened ice cream in the center of the cookie. Top with the other cookie, top side up.

Take the clear glass plate and put it on top of the ice cream sandwich and press down. The reason you want clear glass is you want to be able to see how much ice cream is extending beyond the sides of the cookies. You want the ice cream to bulge outside the cookies. Once it does, take a knife and trim off the excess.

Pick up the ice cream sandwich and roll it around in the sprinkles, ice cream edge next to the sprinkles, picking up some of the sprinkles in the ice cream for an even more playful touch.

Quickly wrap the ice cream sandwich in plastic wrap and pop it into the freezer to harden the ice cream. This will be the hardest part: getting the kids to agree to wait. Maybe you’ll let them eat it immediately!  Enjoy!

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