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One of the best training sessions I attended last week at the 2009 Entertaining At Home E-Fest (National Conference) was Melissa Evan’s presentation on “Entertaining On a Budget.”  I’m going to share with you the ideas she presented, with my “take” on the subject.

We all know that people are entertaining more in their homes, which in itself saves money over going out. Home entertaining can still be expensive, but with these suggestions it doesn’t have to be. Following these suggestions will save money and increase the quality of the experience. That’s a good value proposition!

The first suggestion Melissa had was to not use disposables for the party. Skip the paper plates, cups, napkins, utensils, etc. Go green. This will give you the satisfaction of being good for the environment while elevating the quality of the experience. No one ever commented on the elegance or style of paper plates. If you have ever entertained using disposables, you probably experienced the price shock. They may be disposable, but they are not cheap. So instead of spending that money which will be thrown away in the trash at the end of the event, use “the good stuff.”

You may already own enough place settings for your party, but if you don’t, there are alternatives. Do you have a couple of dinnerware patterns that can be mixed and matched?  If you need to make purchases to have a sufficient number of place settings, think about where you could find inexpensive dinnerware. You could go so far as shop at yard sales, flea markets, and on e-Bay. Consider mixing and matching based on a color, such as Delft blue, or a pattern, such as polka dots, or a theme such as floral. Another approach is to go with a neutral, such as white, for your basic stock and then add smaller pieces in the more colorful or patterned pieces.

Even more neutral than white is clear. Stock up on clear glass plates over time and you’ll have dinnerware that can be used any season, any party. This idea came from a blog put out by Real Simple magazine. http://simplystated.realsimple.com/celebrations/2008/11/decorating-on-a.html.

For glassware, if you don’t own enough nice stems yourself, one solution is to make it part of the fun–ask each guest to bring their own ____ glass, whether a martini, wine goblet, etc. But if you are considering investing in stemware, let me recommend you consider silver goblets. They are beautiful and don’t break when dropped. My set of 12 has lasted 32 years of marriage so far.

For your napkins and tablecloths, instead of buying paper, at least consider making your own napkins if you don’t already have cloth napkins. Home made napkins would probably be limited to a less than formal occasion, but if you were having a dinner on the deck, there’s no reason you couldn’t cut out squares of fabric, stitch around the edge, and “fray” the edge threads. Suggestions for fabric sources include the dollar bins at the fabric store, old sheets, or even new sheets.

When making any purchases to complete your needed number of place settings, always keep in mind the “cost per use” of the item. If you only use an item once or twice a year, that’s a high per use cost, even if the item is relatively cheap. If it is a higher priced item, but you use it every day, the cost per use goes way down. So how can you justify purchasing nice dinnerware or serving pieces? Think about other ways you can use the item. For example, beautiful dinner plates can be used to decorate the walls of the kitchen or dining room, or displayed atop the kitchen cabinets, or at the very least illuminated in the china cabinet.  Pretty glassware can double as dessert bowls. Imagine an individual trifle served in a wine goblet, or a serving of mousse piped into a martini glass garnished with chocolate shavings, raspberries, and mint leaves.

If you need any other convincing to ditch the disposables, just remember how easy they are to spill or knock over and the ensuing messes that could be avoided using good dinnerware and glassware.

During this session at our National Conference, I got several other ideas for budget entertaining, wchich I will be sharing with you over the next few weeks. I hope you find them helpful and inspirational. Here’s to making every day an occasion!

Authors’s note: This blog is being reissued to include a tip submitted by my neice, a tip that is just too good to not share with you. Read on for an alternative way to color the playdough. Thanks Megan for your wonderful comment.

It’s hot, summer is dragging on,  the younger children are so bored.  Invite a few of your children’s friends over for a playdough party. Their moms will be grateful and your kids will enjoy an afternoon making their very own playdouh, as well as the fun associated with playing with playdough after it’s made.

Homemade playdough has several different recipe variations. Some not cooked, and others like this one that are cooked. The cooked variety has more of the feel of the commercial playdough, but not the chemicals. There is nothing in the ingredients that would harm your child if ingested. To top it off, the ingredients are very inexpensive.

The recipe itself is very simple and requires no ingredients not commonly stocked in most kitchens. The most exotic ingredient is cream of tartar. Here is the ingredient list:

Ingredients:

1 cup flour

1/2 cup salt

2 teaspoons cream of tartar  (if you’ve never heard of it, you’ll find it in the spice section of the grocery store. It is a white powder. Another use for it is in home-made meringue for pies.)

1 tablespoon salad oil (like Crisco, not canola)

1 cup water

Food color or koolaid package

Procedure:

This playdough is cooked, so depending on the age of the children, you will probably be doing the cooking yourself, but consider which parts of the measuring and assembling of the ingredients that you can engage the children in. When my boys were young, we had a children’s cooking set that included color coded measuring spoons as well as a cookbook that used pictures of the color coded measuring spoons as well as the words. Consequently, they could cook before they could read well.  My sons have turned out to be awesome cooks. Mentioning meringue, my oldest son can make a mean lemon meringue pie, completely from scratch, including the crust. So don’t shortchange your boys in the kitchen. Encourage them to learn to cook too.

Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan. A single batch would probably be best cooked in a 2 quart pan, not much bigger or smaller. Mix the ingredients and then cook over medium high heat for about 10 minutes. Stir constantly. You will be amazed at how easy it is to cook this playdough, and I warn you: it will be done instantaneously. As soon as it is the consistency we know so well for playdough, take the pan off the heat and turn the cooked mixture out onto some waxed paper. Temporarily it’s going to be pretty hot, so keep the children back from it for a bit.

Divide it into equal portions according to how many colors of playdough you want to create.

Now we are going to color the playdough. Of course, you could let the children do the next step with bare hands. There might be some staining from the food color you’ll be using to color the playdough. If you are concerned about this, put each portion of playdough into a ZipLoc  bag. Ask each child to pick his favorite color of food coloring and let him or her squeeze a few drops onto the playdough in the ZipLoc bag. Close up the bag, squeezing out most of the air right before you complete the seal. Hand each child the bag with their color and show them how to knead the dough inside the bag.

If you are not concerned about them coming into contact with the food coloring, give each child a square of wax paper, help him or her squeeze the food coloring onto the playdough and let him knead the dough on the wax paper. This can be a lesson in kneading bread dough. The technique is the same.

An alternate way to color to playdough is to mix in a package of koolaid, the dry mix, of course. We’re talking about the inexpensive $.10 packages that you have to add sugar to when making the koolaid. Not only will the powder color the playdough, it will also give it a nice fragrance.

When the dough is ready, continue the cooking lesson by teaching the children how to use a rolling pin to roll out the dough and to use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. When the kids have exhausted their imagination as to ways to play with the playdough, collect up each color, put it in the ZipLoc bag and send it home with the child who mixed that color.

Panini Parties

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.

In Persia, an ancient tradition for the first day of Spring involved growing a platter of grass. Let me show you how adapting a cultural practice from a country half way around the world can provide you a versatile centerpiece that can be used with any number of theme parties and can even be used as a series of educational lessons for your kids.

Persian Grass with Farah Robinson

The plate of grass is called “sabzeh.” It represents one of the symbols of spring. Families in Persia begin 2-3 weeks before Naw Ruz to grow the grass. When the grass is tall enough, a ribbon is wrapped around the grass and the sabzeh joins six other items on the “haft’sin” table, each of the 7 items start with the letter “s” and each symbolizes the themes of light, abundance, happiness, and health.

I asked a Persian friend of mine to tell me how to grow the grass. She did more than that, she grew the grass for me. These are her instructions on how to grow the grass. First, use either wheat seeds or lentils.She said wheat seeds can be found in Middle Eastern grocery stores. Soak the seeds in water for a couple of days, rinsing the seeds a couple of times a day.

Prepare a plate for the seeds, something flat and round, like a pie plate.  Place some paper towels in the bottom of the plate. Generously spread the seeds over the paper, several layers of seeds thick. Water the seeds and the paper. It is not necessary to place the plate in bright sunshine, though some light is preferable.

Rinse the seeds a couple of times a day. This is to keep everything fresh and not decaying. Eventually you will have a stand of grass. Persian tradition is to wrap a colorful ribbon around the grass.

I suggest that this stand of grass could be used as a centerpiece for several theme parties.

Obviously, it would be appropriate for a party with a spring theme. I show it here was butterflies. If the grass were transferred to a lovely piece of china with an English Garden motif, that would enhance the theme.

Persian grass springPersian grass golf 2

Again, with a spring theme, the grass would work perfectly for an Easter party.  Lay some Easter eggs on the grass. That would be much more appealing than the fake Easter grass.

Another theme party where you could use the grass would be a golf party. Stick a tee in the grass and scatter about some golf balls.

An especially appealing thing about this project is that it is one that the kids can easily help you with. Let them help rinse the seeds, watch the growth of the seeds, and tie the ribbon around the final growth. And you could easily turn it into a science lesson (germination), a geography lesson (where is Persia and what is it called today), and a comparative religions lesson (which religion does this tradition stem from–Zoroastrianism!).

Do you have some other suggestions for either theme parties where we could use the grass or educational lessons that could be taught around the growing of the grass? Please add them as a comment at the end of this post. Thank you.

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!

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.

PREPARATION:

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.

PROCEDURE:

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.

SERVING:

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!

yarn 1In a previous blog, I showed several ways and suggested several others that you could use a tall hurricane lantern for things other than holding a candle. Two of my loves are color and knitting. So how is this for combining both into a unique way to decorate your home, bringing a touch of whimsy and more than a smidgen of color to a mantle, a dining room table, or a sofa table.

Thanks to Helen at http://www.hookedonstamping.com for awarding me this “One Lovely Blog” award.  I am honored, touched and will proudly accept it and will now pass it on.

lovely_blog_award

The rules for this one are:

  1. Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who has granted the award, and his or her blog link.
  2. Pass the award on to 15 other blogs that you’ve newly discovered (I’ll list as many as I can…new to the blogosphere).

Remember to contact the bloggers to let them know they have been chosen for this award.

Here are my choices (in no particular order – some are creative blogs, others are business related so they are important to me, and still others are just fun):

Harriette Jasper, http://photoalbums4u@wordpress.com (Digital Photo Albums Made Easy). We took a Social Media Made Simple class together. She’s got it all together.

Jennfier Fong, http://liajen.wordpress.com (Direct Sales and Social Media). Jennifer taught the class. You can’t go wrong reading her stuff.

Deena Coutant, http://digideena.wordpress.com (DigiDeena’s Blog). Another classmate from the Social Media Made Simple class. Another person who is working her business very smartly using social media.

Alicia Vilas, http://waxylady.wordpress.com (Alicia Vila’s Candle Blog)). Again a classmate from the Social Media Made Simple class. This is a very thoughtful woman.

Shanna Hatfield, http://entertainingmadesimple.wordpress.com (Simple Entertaining At Home). Shanna and I are fellow devotees of Entertaining At Home, the direct sales company. Again we met during the Social Media Made Simple class, but are fast becoming good friends.

Jen from Chicago, http://secondcitysoiree.com. (Second City Soiree).  I found this blog while researching other blogs in my niche so I don’t personally know this person, but she sure has style. Check out her blog.

Diane Hastings, http://yourentertaininglife.wordpress.com.  Diane is my director with Entertaining At Home. She is a party girl par excellence!

Enjoy the acknowledgement ladies and pass it on!

Asparagus Vase

Supplies

Supplies

So simple!

So simple!

So lovely!

So lovely!

Flowers on the table are always high on my decorating budget. If you want to show your creative side, come up with novel vase alternatives. Look around for items that would have been thrown away and find a way to disguise them or even play up their plainess against the spendour of the flowers. I’m thinking of coffee cans. I once saw the most beautiful assemblage of 3 coffee cans, totally unadorned, each holding a bountiful bouquet of sunflowers and zinnias. The brillance of the flowers played nicely against the metal of the cans.

You could take the same coffee can and use it as a form to wrap asparagus spears around. This is so simple to do and the result is so startling and fresh. Here’s what you need:

Supplies: a washed out  coffee can, with the label removed, the rubber bands from the asparagus, a ribbon, a shallow dish or plate, and any flowers you have growing in the garden or that might be on sale at the grocery story or big box store.

Steps: cut off enough of the spears of the asparagus so that the asparagus tips extend just above the top edge of the coffee can. Put the rubber band around the coffee can. Pull the rubber band slightly away from the coffee can and insert an asparagus spear under the rubber band, cut edge at the bottom edge of the coffee can and tip at the top edge of the coffee can. Repeat, placing each spear next to the previous one until you’ve circled the entire coffee can. A good size bunch of asparagus may do the full circle, but to be safe, I’d suggest getting two bunches. You can never have too much asparagus to eat so cook up what’s left over.

Once you’re satisfied with how the asparagus looks, take your ribbon and tie a bow that covers up the rubber band.

Add water to the coffee can and then your flowers. Almost any kind of flowers will look great.

Place the asparagus vase on a clear glass plate, position the asparagus vase where you are going to use it, fill the can with water and put a shallow amount of water in the bottom of the glass plate. You don’t necessarily want the water to show. This is just to keep the asparagus  fresh while it is doing double duty as a vase. Within a day or two, move the flowers to a more conventional vase and enjoy the asparagus for your dinner that night.

What great versatility: asparagus as both decoration and food. Maybe there’s something to the fact that the asparagus is in the lily family! To use those cut off asparagus ends, look back at my previous blog on May 18 on Asparagus Quick Tips.

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.