Taking the Stress Out of Holiday Entertaining
Holidays are traditionally a time when friends and family get together to celebrate, usually over food and drink. And if the party finds itself at your house this year, don’t stress. Here are some time and energy-saving tips that will make your party as enjoyable for you as it will be for you guests.
You don’t have to be perfect. No one expects it. Remember the saying -“Martha Stewart doesn’t live here.” Relax – let yourself off the hook. You and your guests will have more fun if you do.
- Consider serving a buffet rather than a sit-down meal. They’re less work. Cocktail parties are even easier!
- Design a menu keeping in mind the type of party you’re having (buffet, brunch, cocktail, etc.) and the preferences of your guests. And then be sure to spread the work across your kitchen – in other words, don’t plan a menu that requires everything to be baked in the oven at the last minute.
- Make sure you have a mixture of tastes, textures and temperatures on your menu (spicy and mild, crunchy and creamy, hot and cold).
- Prepare a detailed grocery list, going through each recipe so you won’t forget anything or buy unnecessary items.
- Shop well in advance of the party.
- Prepare as much as possible ahead of time – freeze when possible; clean up as you go so you don’t have to face a mountain of pots and pans.
- Consider using some pre-prepared items such as pie shells, party mixes and dips to save time.
- Buy heavyweight, attractive paper plates and napkins. It makes clean up so much easier at the end of the evening.
- Plan a food preparations schedule with times detailing when dishes should go into the oven in order to be ready on time. Tape it to the refrigerator for easy reference.
- Make a list of everything else you need to do to get ready for the festivities. If it’s on paper, it’s easier to remember.
- From that master list, make a schedule and assign yourself manageable tasks each day, so you won’t feel overwhelmed. For instance, you can decorate weeks ahead of time, start cleaning the house days in advance, and start chopping or baking the night before.
- Learn how to delegate. Whether you need help cleaning up the yard, scrubbing the guest bath, or making a playlist, ask your spouse or child to pitch in so you aren’t doing it all.
- Set everything up the night before so when the day of the party arrives all you have to do is to put the food and drinks out. Set the dining room table, rearrange any furniture or gather extra seating; restock the restroom with toilet paper and clean towels; and decide where to set up the bar.
- Take a moment before the party starts to relax. Sit down, have a drink, get dressed or just stop and take a deep breath.
- Have music playing in background
- If guests offer to bring something, let them.
Above all, enjoy your party and your guests!
Tasting: Vanilla Ice Cream
By Chef Gwyn
In addition to being the first day of summer it’s also National Vanilla Milkshake Day. So we thought it was the perfect time to do a side-by-side tasting of four national brands of vanilla ice cream – the homemade version. We realize that tastes vary greatly, so we didn’t feel right about picking a clear winner (although we do have a preference!). Read on to see how they lined up.
This was the lightest in color – almost white and also offered the most genuine vanilla flavor.
Fairly yellow in color, this ice cream had a medium creamy quality
Very light in color – almost white – Edy’s was a little icy and thin in flavor
The most yellow in color, Breyer’s was also the creamiest we tasted
Tuesday Tasting: BBQ Sauces
By Chef Gwyn
In honor of fathers everywhere (not to mention that grilling season is officially here!), we decided it was time to do another taste test. This time we tried grocery store barbecue sauces – not the really pricey ones but the $2-3/bottle sauces you can find on every grocery store nationwide. And our results were, once again, surprising. We thought we knew which one we would prefer. Turns out that wasn’t my favorite after all. Read on to see the results or better yet, try it for yourself! It’s a lot of fun.
We tested five different commercially prepared barbecue sauces. Each was their original recipe, and here’s what we found.
#1 Bull’s Eye – Our hands-down favorite. It had the most complex flavors and finished with a bit of pepper and plenty of smoky flavor
KC Masterpiece – This was our second place finisher. It offered a bit of a peppery bite and plenty of molasses flavor without being too sugary sweet.
Sweet Baby Ray’s – This is the one we expected to be our favorite. But as you can see, it come in third due to its abundance of sugar. It did offer a bit of pepper but not enough to make up for all of the sweetness.
Heinz – This was just plain sugary and it had a very oily, cloying mouthfeel about it.
Kraft – This class sauce was our last place finisher. It had a very unbalanced flavor about it and more than enough sugar.
Believe it or not, making your own sauce is really very easy and you can adjust the flavors to suit your palate. Give this recipe a try. You might not go back to the store bought stuff!
Sugar & Spice BBQ Sauce
- 12-oz. bottle chili sauce
- ¼ C. plus 2 Tbsp. ketchup
- 3 Tbsp. packed brown sugar
- 3 Tbsp. molasses
- 2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 2 Tbsp. yellow mustard
- 2 Tbsp. cider vinegar
- ½ tsp. ground ginger
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- ¼ tsp. Tabasco
- 1 tsp. liquid smoke
To prepare the sauce, combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. If it becomes too thick, add a bit of water.
First Crabs of the Season!
By Chef Gwyn
Today was one of my absolute favorite days of the entire year – the day when I get to crack that first steamed hard crab of the year! Woo-hoo is all I have to say. Nothing elegant about it. This is just plain, messy, buttery, spicy, culinary deliciousness (is that even a word? I’m not sure, but don’t even care – it best describes the first crabs of the year!)
Don’t get me wrong – they’re still great all through the summer. But there’s just something about that first steam pot after a very long and very cold winter without them. It’s a reminder of family gatherings around the newspaper covered table, plenty of old beer (and brownies – you always have to have something sweet after the crabs) and catching up with loved ones.
As fancy as some of my cheffy food can get, there is no substitution for this classic Southern Maryland favorite. Hands down – winner, winner, steamed crab dinner! My advice to you – if you can, you get a bushel, invite the family over and reconnect, Southern Maryland style!
Strawberries: It’s All About the Shortcake
By Chef Gwyn
As a chef, I’m always trying new recipes and flavor combinations – some of which work out better than others. But that’s all part of the fun, right. So tonight, thanks to four quarts of fresh strawberries from my aunt’s garden, it was time to play with one of my favorite fruits. I decided to create this beautiful pie that sits atop a sugar cookie dough crust. Yum right? Oh and don’t forget the fresh whipped cream tinged with plenty of the best vanilla Madagascar exports as a garnish. It’s got to look pretty too! And after all of my hard work, my husband’s favorite dessert, hands down, was the super traditional shortcake complete with those little mass manufactured indented cakes. Oh sure, he liked the pie, but it didn’t hold a candle to the shortcake – not necessarily because it tasted better (at least that’s what I’m telling myself!), but because it reminded him of his childhood. Summers spent on the farm, enjoying a plate (or two!) with his dad while the sugary liquid from the berries soaked into those little sponge cakes. My pie and I didn’t stand a chance! But that’s OK. Food is about so much more than just sustenance. It’s about family and love and the memories it evokes. So if a little store bought sponge cake topped with fresh berries and whipped cream can make him that happy, don’t be surprised if you see me in the grocery picking up a package or two.
Timing is Everything
When You Eat Matters Just as Much as What You Eat
By Chef Gwyn
We all know that what we put into our mouths is important to our overall health and well-being but did you know that when you eat certain foods can be just as vital? It can affect everything from how well you sleep to how much weight you gain or loss!
Try these five tips to better health.
Breakfast. After a long night without food our bodies need fuel to get going in the morning. The best thing to grab is not a bowl of cereal, full of carbs. That will only last an hour or so. To really keep your blood sugar steady throughout the morning, opt instead of protein. And we’re not talking pounds of bacon and sausage. Those are good in moderation. Instead think, eggs (omelettes, quiche) or nut butters such as peanut or almond. I like a banana with almond butter and a glass of coconut milk for breakfast. It really staves off the hangry factor.
After a Workout. This is the time of day when you can really benefit from a bit of carbohydrates, but if you want to get the biggest bang for your nutritional buck, combine them with a bit of protein. Cheese and crackers, nuts with dried fruit – these are great options that don’t pack on too many calories but keep the body fueled.
Lunch. Make lunch your biggest meal of the day. If you wait until dinner, you’re not giving your body enough time before you hit the sack to work off those calories. So go big in the middle of the day. It will help you lose weight if that’s your goal – or at least prevent you from gaining more. But this isn’t your chance to go crazy – everything in moderation, focus on whole grains, fruits and vegetables and lean proteins.
Afternoon Snack. Feeling those afternoon dips in energy and mental acuity? Reach for a handful of nuts. Research shows that the good fat in nuts can help improve our memory. And because you’re getting the fat your brain craves in nuts, you’re less likely to keep eating. Just remember to keep it to handful. Any more and you’ll undo all the good you did.
Dinner. If falling to sleep is tough for you, consider a dinner high in fiber. Research indicates that a meal high in fiber and low in saturated fats will help you fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer. Opt for lean protein like grilled fish, chicken or shrimp over quinoa and a plate filled with fiber-filled veggies – broccoli, peas, Brussels sprouts, avocado.
For tons of great recipes for just the right time of the day, be sure to check out our Seasonal Recipes page. You can also sign up for a class on our Upcoming Classes page.
Tuesday Tasting: Mayonnaise
By Chef Gwyn
We thought last week’s boxed chicken stock tasting was yummy, but it had nothing on this week’s culinary delight – prepared mayonnaise! What we don’t do for our readers. This week we tasted three nationally available mayos alongside our homemade version. And for once, I’m going to tell you that the homemade was not our hands-down favorite. We tested the full fat versions – no low fat, no fat stuff here. And here’s what we found…
Hellman’s Real Mayo was the most bland/least flavorful of those we tasted. Like the others, it was made primarily from soybean oil. And at the standard serving size of 1 Tbsp., it weighed in at 90 calories, 90 mg of sodium and 10 g of fat.
Duke’s, which many foodies swear by, was by far the creamiest and offered a slightly acidic flavor – all in all a good thing as a bit of acid (think vinegar/lemon juice) is often needed to cut through the heavy fattiness of mayonnaise. 1 Tbsp. of Duke’s comes in at 100 calories, 75 mg of sodium and 12 g of fat.
Kraft featured the most acidic flavor of the three brands, and I would have to say ended up being my favorite. Not that this has anything to do with it, but it was also the whitest in color of the three brands. 1 Tbsp. comes in a 90 calories, 70 mg of sodium and 10 g of fat.
Our homemade mayo was just fine tasting but it was the oiliest to the touch. We used vegetable oil – which tends to end up being predominately soybean oil – to make the mayo. And if I was going to do it again, I would substitute a good quality olive oil instead with a bit of fresh garlic.
If you want to make your own, here’s a good recipe. It’s not difficult, but there is one technique that can trip you up – in order for the eggs and the oil to emulsify into mayonnaise, you have to introduce the oil very SLOWLY, all the while whisking vigorously. Keep that in mind and you’ll have a lovely homemade mayonnaise. You can always employ the help of a blender or food processor to help slowly incorporate the oil. It makes it much easier to do if you’re by yourself in the kitchen.
- 1 egg yolk
- 1/4 tsp. Dijon mustard
- 1 tsp. white wine vinegar
- 1 1/2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 C. vegetable oil or olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
In a medium bowl, combine the egg yolk, mustard, vinegar and lemon juice. Slowly whisk in the oil until it emulsifies. If at any time there is an excess of oil, stop adding it and whisk until it is fully incorporated. Continue adding oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add garlic if you like.
Makes 1 Cup
Food Waste Challenge
By Chef Gwyn
Did you know that collectively as a country, we waste about 40% of the food produced for consumption according to Jonathan Bloom, author of the book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It). We think that’s awful. And that the second greatest producer of methane gas (which contributes greatly to global warming) is rotting food in our landfills! Ewww, right?!?!? So we thought we’d try an experiment and invite you to join us. Here’s how it’s going to work:
- Open your fridge.
- Take everything out.
- Toss out only the truly bad, expired stuff. (Maybe start a compost bin/pile with it??)
- Then come up with a plan to use what’s left
For one week, try keeping a log of what and how much food you actually throw away – and then assign a dollar value to it. You might be shocked at the end of the week. When you put a dollar value on the food you’re throwing away, you look at it very differently. It’s estimated the average American family throws away $2,000 worth of food each year. Do the math – are you average, below average or above average??? We’d like to hear your comments about how the week is going, what you made with the items from your fridge, etc. Feel free to comment on our Facebook page!
Tuesday Tasting: Boxed Chicken Stock
By Chef Gwyn
You asked, so here goes. We spent the day tasting store bought chicken stock (alongside our homemade version of course!). We must really love you because this was not the most glamorous tasting! And again, the results were very interesting. While homemade is best, we know everyone doesn’t always have the time to do that. So next time you’re reaching for chicken stock at the store, check out our findings. They just might surprise you – they did us.
We tasted five different national brands plus my homemade stock. We did not test the store’s brand in case it’s not available where you live. We also made a point of testing the unsalted versions. If they were not available, we went with the low/lower sodium version. We did this because the amount of salt varies greatly between manufacturers and we didn’t want it to influence our tastings.
Here are our results:
Best tasting – Homemade! It was the darkest of all stocks and tasted the most like real chicken – probably because all we used was a roasted chicken carcass, onion, carrots, celery, bay leaves and cracked black pepper.
Best of the Boxed: Rachel Ray’s Low Sodium Chicken Stock
It featured the most natural chicken flavor of the boxed brands. It was also the clearest stock. 135 mg of sodium.
Second Runner Up: Swanson Unsalted Stock
Real chicken flavor shines through. 130 mg of sodium
The Rest of the Field
Kitchen Basics Unsalted Chicken Stock: Owned by McCormick’s spice, this product tastes more like vegetables and herbs and spices (shocker!) than it does chicken. Very dark in color. 130 mg sodium
College Inn Lower Sodium Chicken Broth: This one was the saltiest of all of the stocks we tasted – but that’s not surprising considering it was the only one that was labeled “lower sodium.” College Inn doesn’t seem to offer an unsalted/low sodium version. And it didn’t demonstrate a very full chicken flavor. 420 mg of sodium
Progresso Unsalted Chicken Stock: While the most beautifully packaged of all the stocks we tasted, Progresso offered a very artificial quality that we really didn’t like. It was also the cloudiest of all the stocks.