Inspired Entertaining: 5 Clever Summer Entertaining Ideas

With summer entertaining season upon us, I wanted to share some clever presentation ideas I've spotted at some of the food events I've attended lately.

I started using this fun app for my Windows Phone called "Apict," which lets you take a snapshot and add a quick note to it. It then saves the photo to look like a polaroid and lets you upload it to Facebook or Flickr, or just save it to your camera roll. It's a fun way of recording a visual "note to self."

Here are a few of the ideas I've saved over the past couple weeks:

I ordered a croque-monsieur at a lunch a few days ago, and it arrived sliced in these easy to pick up little strips, which I thought would be perfect for entertaining! This would be such a fun way to serve grilled cheese sandwiches or paninis at a summer party, and will probably be a hit with both adults and kids alike.

Long strips of lacinato kale (or "dinosaur kale") were dried into kale chips and arranged in low clear glass vases decorating the centers of all the cocktail tables at a recent reception. These edible centerpieces were pretty and delicious (though you may want to add a little sign to let guests know they can help themselves--at first, I wasn't sure if I was allowed to eat them!).

At BlogHer Food, the bagels on the breakfast buffet were served on this interesting "bagel tree" made out of a few dowels screwed into a piece of wood. Each dowel had a different flavor, which made it possible for guests to quickly grab without having to rummage through a big basket (it also kept the everything bagels from contaminating the sweet bagels with onion-y flavor!). An even easier way would be just to arrange a few inexpensive paper towel holders on your buffet table--one for each bagel flavor!

On the ride home from the Women's Entrepreneur Retreat I co-hosted in Vermont last week, we stopped and bought a bunch of little wine bottles to sip on the bus with a straw. These would be a fun option to make available at an outdoor bbq or reception; fill a large cooler with ice and tuck in a few bottles of these in white and rose for those of us who don't drink beer or soda. No need to worry about wine glasses!

I also spotted this one at BlogHer. They used damp light brown sugar to create "sand piles" to hold up paper cones filled with various treats--cherries, roasted salted almonds, yogurt pretzels, and maltballs. Using sugar could get a little spendy, but you could easily use real sand from a nearby beach (or Home Depot). Even better if you're already hosting your party on the beach!
 
Let me know if you give any of these a try! I'll be sure to let you know if I spot any more cool ideas.


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New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my newsletter, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. If you're in the NYC area, be sure to check out my NYC dinner party style cooking classes. Thanks for reading! 


(Windows Phone is a sponsor of Always Order Dessert, but all opinions in this post are 100% my own. (Seriously, guys. I'm a little bit in love with this phone!)

Kitchen Beauty: DIY Oatmeal Lavender Bath Soak

Not everything that I mix up in the kitchen is meant for eating. I'm also a little bit obsessed with using the same ingredients I cook with to make simple home remedies and DIY natural beauty products that are safe, natural, and (bonus!) incredibly affordable. I've decided to start sharing some of these with you here in a new section called Kitchen Beauty.

Summer is officially here, and along with all the loveliness, it can also mean that a few minor skin issues have returned. It's the time for everything from annoying mosquito bites and poison ivy to sunburns and heat rash.

This DIY Soothing Oatmeal Lavender Soak takes just about 3 minutes to prepare, but is one of the best home remedies I know for soothing and cooling itchy and painful skin. The oatmeal naturally calms and moisturizes your skin, the baking soda helps to cool and reduce itchiness, and the lavender will provide aromatherapy relaxation (it also leaves your skin delicately scented). If you were to go to a drugstore, you would find boxes of similar oatmeal baths available for up to $15, but my natural homemade version can be made for mere pennies per use!

A note on colloidal oatmeal: many store-bought oatmeal soaks say they are made up of "100% colloidal oatmeal." This isn't some kind of special oatmeal; it's just regular oatmeal that has been very finely milled so that it evenly distributes in the water. You can easily make homemade colloidal oatmeal by grinding it finely in your food processor, spice grinder, or grain mill. (FYI: "colloid" means "a suspension of finely divided particles")

Tip: Don't have lavender? No worries! You can skip it for a plain unscented oatmeal bath.



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DIY Oatmeal Lavender Bath Soak
Makes enough for about 5 baths

Ingredients
4 cups plain old fashioned oats
3 tablespoons dried lavender buds (look for "culinary" lavender, which hasn't been sprayed with anything funky)
1 cup baking soda

Directions:
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and grind until very fine and almost powdery--about 3 minutes. Pour the powder into a sealable jar or bag and store in a cool and dry area.

To Use:
Add 1 cup of the oatmeal soak to warm (not hot) bath water and stir to distribute. Soak your body or affected area in the water for 15 to 30 minutes. The baking soda acts as a natural and delicate cleanser so there is no need to use any kind of additional soap.

Video: How to Make Spanish Tapas Style Garlic Mushrooms

I love to gather a bunch of my friends together over wine and lots of small plates filled with delicious tapas. It's a perfect way to entertain, because everyone gets the choice to taste a little bit of everything or pick and choose what they'd like.

In today's video, I teach you how to make Mushrooms in Garlic Olive Oil--one of my absolute FAVORITE Spanish tapas dishes. Also known as "champiƱones al ajillo," it's a super quick recipe with just a few ingredients, but a LOT of flavor. Serve them with lots of crusty bread for dipping, or even use it as a side with steak or chicken. (These mushrooms also make a great burger topping!)


Enjoyed this video? Be sure to click "LIKE" and share it with a friend on Facebook or Twitter!


Want to throw a whole tapas party? Try some of my other favorite tapas recipes below:


Bacon-Wrapped Dates with Spanish Olive Dip (#2 on this list)


Tortilla Espanola


Pan-Fried Shishito Peppers


Mini Crab Cakes with Cilantro-Lime Aioli


Cold Roasted Asparagus


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Like this post? Share it with a friend on Facebook or Pinterest so that more folks can see it. I'd also love if you'd consider subscribing to my newsletter, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. If you're in the NYC area, be sure to check out my NYC dinner party style cooking classes. Thanks for reading & sharing!    

My Nora Ephron Problem

A few years ago, when I was working as an editor at Hearst, one of the writers from the international magazine I worked with emailed and asked me if I would answer a few questions about New York for a travel article they were writing from the point of view of a young local woman in her 20s.

“Of course!” I replied, because I love to talk about myself.

I eagerly shared my tips for getting around the city and my favorite places to eat. At the end of the questionnaire, they included a few short questions like: “What’s your favorite New York City song?” and “What famous woman embodies what New York City means to you?”

I don’t remember what I wrote for the song, but I do remember choosing Nora Ephron as my inspiring successful woman who embodies what New York City means to me. I sent it back and forgot about it, until the next day, when my editor mentioned the interview and asked to read my answers.

Nora Ephron, Alejandra?” she asked, and I realized that the answer was perhaps not exactly the right one for the hip young target.

When the magazine went to print, they ended up replacing it with some other girl’s choice: Carrie Bradshaw. (She's not even real!)

But my answer still stands. Because Nora Ephron wrote the New York that inspired me.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my mom, listening to her music and watching her movies. I didn’t really know the connecting thread just yet, but there was something about the lifestyle depicted in movies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle that drew me in. When You’ve Got Mail came out, my mom bought the VHS and we watched it over and over again. My dad rolling his eyes each time and asking, “How many times have you seen this?”

If any of those movies is ever on, we stop and we watch.

Of course I enjoyed and wanted the love story, but even more, I wanted to be Kathleen Kelly, with a life surrounded by books, a large plush bed, rugs to warm up hardwood floors, funny colleagues, and a smart man to meet up with for ice cream and conversation.

She was my kind of lady: talkative and witty. Heartfelt and honest. Playful and unapologetic.

In fact, all of Ephron's women were my kind of ladies. They made me laugh. But, more importantly, they felt familiar.

In college, armed with my first credit card and an eBay account I started buying stacks of musty magazines from the 1960s and 70s. I liked the old yellowed Esquires, full of smart writing and outdated advice that I followed anyway. It was in them that I read Nora Ephron’s essays, which somehow said a whole lot while in the guise of talking about little nothings. I loved how her words bounced from one idea to another to another with digressions and personal asides, like friends lingering at a table long after the check has arrived. Even when I couldn't relate to the specific subject (small breasts, for example) I could relate to that kind of thinking.

The magazines made me crave more, so I ordered her books, like Heartburn, her roman Ć  clef (with recipes!) about a food writer who catches her husband cheating, which I read while cooking my way through my own broken heart. Or Crazy Salad, a terribly interesting collection of essays about women and women-things, which I still keep buried at the bottom of my purse, ready to reread during the dull moments.

(Actually, I didn’t even buy that book; I borrowed it from a library half a dozen years ago and never returned it. A crime I admit to having committed on multiple occasions.)

I’ve always been a bit odd and nostalgic; as a teen I’d spend hours watching AMC, back when it was American Movie Classics and played nothing but black and white movies all day long. I once watched 5 movies in a row on a summer weekend and mentioned this to a friend in my 7th grade classroom, still buzzing on snappy dialogue and happy endings.

"That's 10 hours of movies," she exclaimed, horrified.

While my friends longed for the guys from *NSYNC, I nursed crushes on Gregory Peck and Cary Grant—handsome men who had long since died (or were just about to). I carried stacks of strange books around, and listened to an awful lot of old people music. Once, my parents had my favorite radio DJ wish me a happy birthday on air in the morning before school; I excitedly walked into class that day, eager for the reaction from friends, but the only person who had heard the announcement was my middle-aged teacher.

I had fantasies of going off to the city to write clever and important things while typewriters clacked in the background.  At night, I imagined, I’d go on dates with a charming, yet infuriatingly neurotic man, who wore a suit well, ordered a good cocktail, and would ultimately win my heart with his conversation.

I think I love Nora Ephron so much because both her stories and her story made those black and white dreams seem possible and—even more importantly—not the least bit silly. Those Ephron ladies that were my kind of ladies? They were each a little bit nostalgic, a little bit old-fashioned, a little bit odd.

It is always something of a relief to see a bit of yourself on paper.

I live in New York and I've created my own way here. It’s not Nora Ephron’s on-screen New York; real New York is rarely that continuously charming. But there are bits of it here and there that remind me:

A front stoop. A brownstone. A conversation at the next table over.

I can’t pass the stunning Apthorp without thinking about her New Yorker essay about living there (until her $1500 rent went up to $12,000 and she and her family were forced out and across the park to the East Side).

[I love that story, by the way. I love that even Nora Ephron was priced out of her New York. God, this city!]

In her essay on Dorothy Parker, Ephron wrote:

"The point is the legend. I grew up on it and coveted it desperately. All I wanted in this world was to come to New York and be Dorothy Parker...the woman who made her living by her wit.
I have spent a great deal of my life discovering that my ambitions and fantasies--which I once thought of as totally unique--turn out to be cliches, so it was not a surprise to me to find out that there were other young women writers who came to New York with as bad a Dorothy Parker Problem as I had.
I wonder, though, whether any of that still goes on."

I didn't come to New York with a Dorothy Parker Problem; I came here with a Nora Ephron problem. But I don't think that's very much of a problem at all.

When I read that she had passed, I heard myself say "Oh no!" out loud even though I was sitting here alone. I rarely care about "celebrity" deaths. It sounds terrible, I know, but it's the truth. It's possibly because the celebrities I most admire are very old (so it's expected), and the ones that die young usually do after several years of living their lives in incredibly stupid ways (so, once again, it's expected).

But hers was a life full-lived. And her absence on the page and on the screen is one that I, and many, will feel.

It breaks my heart that there will be no new stories to delight and inspire. But I am ever so thankful for the ones that did.


Honey Lavender Ice Cream

I brought a container of this homemade honey lavender ice cream over to my parents' house on Sunday. We got together to celebrate a belated sort of Father's Day because last weekend I was in Vermont for my women's retreat and my brother was in Cape Cod at a wedding so my poor dad was left child-less on his special day.

But no matter, because we made it up to him this weekend, which I think is probably even better because while all the other dads were celebrating last weekend, this weekend was 100% his.

(At least, that's how we sold it to him.)

I've actually been planning to make this ice cream recipe since I saw the movie It's Complicated a few years ago. I love everything about that movie, but especially the fact that Meryl Streep's character is a chef and baker who makes ice cream when she can't sleep. In one of the scenes, she serves the Steve Martin character a croque-monsieur followed by a scoop of her honey lavender ice cream and he goes wild for it. "I must make that!" I thought when I saw it.

But then I sort of forgot about this for a little while until last month, when Eugene and I went to New Mexico for my friend's wedding. The ceremony (Freaking gorgeous! My video of it is here.) took place on an organic lavender farm called Los Poblanos. Everywhere you went there were little scented soaps and lotions from Los Poblanos, and in one shop I found a little bag of culinary lavender that I immediately knew was destined for ice cream.

I love floral sweets. It's why I'm drawn to Middle Eastern and Indian desserts (like this Lebanese Milk Ice Cream and these Lavender Lemon Shortbread Cookies), which are usually scented with rose water and orange blossom syrup. And it's why I pick out honeys and teas and other treats with bright flowery undertones. I know it's not for everyone, but I can't get enough of it.

My parents and Eugene all really enjoyed the ice cream. Our neighbor, John, who owns a wonderful bakery in New Jersey near the town where I grew up, came by and also really liked the ice cream (though he did call it "bougie.") Upon seeing everyone enjoying it, my brother, Gabriel (who usually shuns all sweets that are not cannolis made by John),  asked for a taste.

Which...he promptly spit out.
"It tastes like flowers!" he shouted.
"It's honey LAVENDER ice cream!" I explained, "lavender is a flower!"

"I just thought that was like a pretty name you made up for it," he replied.

Whatever, Gab.

I should also add that shortly after this, I was taking the above photos of the ice cream, and he asked me, "What do you do with all these photos of food you're always taking?"

Me: "I'm a food blogger!"

Gab: "Oh, yeah. That blog thing." 

Me: "Thanks, Gab."

Can't win them all, I guess!

I served this ice cream on top of a berry crumb dessert that I'll share with you later this week, and thought the honey and lavender was absolutely perfect with the berries. This is an ice cream that is just made for summer berry pie.

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Like this post? Share it with a friend on Facebook or Pinterest so that more folks can see it. I'd also love if you'd consider subscribing to my newsletter, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. If you're in the NYC area, be sure to check out my NYC dinner party style cooking classes. Thanks for reading & sharing!    


Honey Lavender Ice Cream Recipe
Ingredients
2 cups whole milk (choose non-homogenized milk, if available)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 tablespoons lavender buds, crushed
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup honey


Directions
In a small saucepan, combine the whole milk, heavy cream, lavender buds, sea salt, and honey. Heat on medium heat just until it starts to simmer, then remove from heat and let cool slightly. Transfer to an air-tight container, and let chill in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours, up to 24.

Once chilled, pass the mixture through a strainer to remove the lavender buds. Whisk the ice cream mixture a few times and then pour into your ice cream maker, freezing according to manufacturer's instructions. The ice cream will be soft-serve texture once it runs through the ice cream maker; to get a more frozen texture, place in an air-tight container and freeze for at least 4 hours before serving. Ice cream will keep well in freezer for about two weeks.

Blueberry, White Chocolate, and Marshmallow Panini

I was about 9 or 10 when my dad came home with the sandwich maker. It was a small white machine with triangle-shaped plates inside that would press, toast, and divide a couple simple sandwiches into four perfectly gooey-on-the-inside-crisp-on-the-outside pockets.

We used the sandwich maker all the time to make grilled cheese sandwiches and pressed ham or turkey paninis. Soon, my budding interest in cooking had me experimenting with all sorts of fillings--cheese and creamy salad dressing, pickles, peanut butter and jelly. Not all my ideas were a success, but I recently remembered one combination that proved to be a total hit--blueberries and marshmallows.

Oh...YES!

I've long been a fan of marshmallows--they're my #1 guilty pleasure. I used to put one or two into a mug and pop it in the microwave for a few seconds, watching it puff up and then racing to eat the gooey mess before it got too hard and stuck to the mug.

[OK. I still totally do this. I add a few chocolate chips now, too. Try it. It's amazing!]
 
I wish I could remember exactly what made me pair the marshmallows with the blueberries in the sandwich maker--curiosity, I suppose.  

Genius, perhaps?

I do remember my mom's horror at the sticky mess. I also remember how good it was, and that incredible feeling of realizing that I'd created something that tasted so. freaking. good.

The white chocolate was a present-day addition, which I think works perfectly in this delicious dessert-sandwich. Think of it as a twist on the classic s'more--with gooey white chocolate and marshmallow, nutty whole wheat bread, and the bright sweet tartness of warm blueberries. The blueberries almost get baked into the bread so you get a little hint of blueberry pancakes in the mix. I also like to finish off this recipe with a little sprinkle of sea salt or even kosher salt to balance out all the sweetness.

I used my le creuset grill pan and panini press to make my sandwich, but it would be just as good in a waffle iron or on a skillet with something heavy on top (I'll use another pan or just fill my tea kettle with water).

These are best served immediately, so if you're planning them for dessert, just assemble them in advance and wait until you're ready for the sweets to begin pressing. Each sandwich serves about two people (it's pretty rich).  Or you could cut them into smaller pieces for a party.

Enjoy!

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New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my newsletter, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. If you're in the NYC area, be sure to check out my NYC dinner party style cooking classes. Thanks for reading!   


Blueberry, White Chocolate, and Marshmallow Dessert Panini Recipe
Makes 2 sandwiches (4 servings)

Ingredients
4 slices whole wheat or multi-grain sandwich bread
salted butter, softened at room temperature
6 "jumbo size" marshmallows (like these)
1/2 cup white chocolate chips or 1 white chocolate bar, broken into pieces
1/2 cup fresh blueberries
Sea salt or kosher salt

Directions
Preheat your panini press, grill pan, or griddle. Spread 4 slices of bread with softened butter on all sides.  Cut each marshmallow into three pieces and arrange three each on two of the slices of buttered bread (sticky-side down makes this easiest!). Top with white chocolate and blueberries, then cover with remaining two slices of bread to make two sandwiches.

Gently place each sandwich on the preheated grill and either close the panini maker, or top with a heavy object such as another heavy pan, a heavy heat-proof plate, or a tea kettle filled with water. Press down and let grill about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, then flip and cook on other side (if you're using a panini press, there is no need to flip.)

Cut each sandwich in half and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt. Serve immediately.



Cool Find: Sir Kensington's Scooping Ketchup

I first learned about this cool Sir Kensington's ketchup last Christmas when I went shopping at the Real Simple pop-up shop in Bryant Park. They had a bunch of cool and interesting products on display, but it was the ketchup that caught my eye because of the elegant vintage-style packaging and the fact that it's made with no high fructose corn syrup or other funky ingredients.

So much so, in fact, that I bought four 6 jars of it! (Some to give as gifts; some to keep.)

I was even more impressed with the flavor, and been using it regularly since then--even serving it at some private cooking events I hosted this year.

A few weeks ago, as my spoon scraped the bottom of the glass jar, I realized that I would have to quickly replenish my supply. The ketchup is sold at gourmet stores like Williams Sonoma, Sur la Table, Dean & Deluca, and Whole Foods, so it's pretty easy to find, but I was even more excited when I found out via Twitter on Tuesday that Fresh Direct (the online grocery store I use most often) was now carrying it!

Perfect!

Sir Kensington's makes both a regular version and a "spiced" one; the latter is definitely my favorite. It's got a mix of sweet and savory spices (think chipotle, cilantro, honey, etc.) that work beautifully with any number of dishes. (I actually really love it on hot dogs or with crispy panko-baked chicken fingers; it's kind of a great way to adult-up those childhood favorites.)

(If you prefer the old fashioned kind of ketchup, the "classic" is definitely your pick.)




Freezer Meals: Cooked Shredded Chicken (+10 Super Easy Dinner Ideas!)

Cooked shredded chicken is one of the most versatile things you can have on hand for quick and healthy weeknight dinners. It only takes about 15 minutes of hands-on time to prepare and package, and it's an easy way to set yourself up for quick meals throughout the week.

I prepared several pounds of this delicious shredded chicken to freeze for a friend who was expecting, but it's just as handy for anyone who is low on time.

The shredded chicken thaws or can be reheated quickly, and can be used in a number of easy dishes. 

Here are some basic ideas to get you started:
1. Quick Chicken Quesadillas: tuck thawed shredded chicken and grated cheddar or jack cheese between two tortillas. Crisp on a hot skillet or pop in the microwave for a minute until cheese has melted. Slice into triangles and serve with salsa, sour cream, or guacamole.

2. Quick Chicken Salad: Add one tablespoon of mayo and one tablespoon of plain yogurt per cup of thawed cooked shredded chicken. Season with salt, pepper, and a dash of oregano. Eat over mixed greens or in a sandwich.
3. Chicken Caesar Wrap: Toss thawed chicken salad with caesar dressing (use your favorite bottled kind or make my super quick homemade caesar dressing recipe). Layer into a wrap with chopped romaine lettuce and a sprinkle of freshly grated parmesan cheese. Roll it up and enjoy!
4. Chicken Soup: Add shredded chicken to your favorite homemade or boxed chicken broth. Add diced frozen or fresh carrots, peas, or other veggies, if desired. Let simmer until hot and veggies are cooked through. Season to taste and serve! BONUS: Add egg noodles for a super quick chicken noodle soup!

5. Chicken Pasta Sauce: Combine your favorite homemade or jarred marinara sauce with a couple cups of cooked shredded chicken and simmer on the stove until heated through. Toss with your favorite cooked pasta and serve with freshly grated parmesan on top.

6. BBQ Pulled Chicken Sandwiches: Toss heated shredded chicken with your favorite BBQ sauce. Serve on soft burger buns with pickles and coleslaw on the side.
7. Chicken Fried Rice: Follow these directions, substituting the leftover turkey with the cooked chicken for a quick and easy fried rice.
8. Quick Chicken Tacos: Heat thawed chicken on a skillet with a few pats of butter, and season with chili powder and a dash of cayenne pepper, tossing to coat. Place hot chicken into taco shells or soft corn tortillas, and top with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and sour cream. 
9. Grilled Cheese with Herb Chicken: Heat a skillet or panini press. Spread your favorite bread with butter and add a few slices of swiss cheese, a few fresh basil leaves, and a handful of shredded chicken. Top with bread and grill sandwich as you would any grilled cheese until heated through and cheese is completely melted. Serve immediately.
10. Quick Chicken Pizza: Start with a premade pizza crust or flatbread. Spread with your favorite tomato sauce, then sprinkle with thawed shredded chicken. Sprinkle cheese on top and bake in preheated 350 degree oven until cheese has melted and is bubbling, and crust is heated through.
Do you keep frozen shredded chicken around for quick meals? Let me know some of your favorite recipe ideas in the comments below!


Cooked Shredded Chicken Recipe (for freezing)

Ingredients
5 pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Juice and zest of 3 large lemons
1 tablespoon paprika (optional)
2 tablespoons oregano
4 teaspoons kosher salt
3 teaspoons black pepper

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse chicken breasts and pat dry. Place in a large roasting pan. In a separate container, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice and zest, paprika, oregano, salt, and pepper. Pour over chicken breasts and use a fork or your hands to toss until completely coated. Bake uncovered on middle rack 30 to 40 minutes, or until chicken breasts are cooked through.

Remove from oven and let cool 20 minutes. Use 2 forks or a knife and fork to shred chicken breasts completely.

Divide into 10-15 small sandwich-size freezer bags, remove the air, seal, and roll up tightly. Place these smaller portions into larger gallon freezer bags, and label accordingly. Freeze. Will keep well up to 1 year.

To use, simply remove the amount of smaller portions you need and transfer to refrigerator for thawing, heat in microwave, or add to your dish.


What to Cook When You're Expecting (Pregnancy Freezer Meal Ideas)

Let me just say right off the bat that no, I am not expecting. I'm in no rush for that, thank you very much.

But...one of my very best friends was!

She had a beautiful baby girl just a few days ago, and just before the birth I hopped on the train down to the DC area to spend a few days with her, and to stock her fridge and freezer with lots of delicious meals for her to eat during her first few weeks as a mama.

I took a few pictures while cooking, and I want to share them with you here. I'll also include a full list of all the dishes I made (and will link to the recipes as I post them) in case you're in a similar situation cooking for yourself or for another new mom in your life. Note that this kind of in-advance batch cooking is actually not just for new moms.

I've been doing a lot of traveling this month, so it's great to be able to leave meals like this for my husband to eat while I'm away. It's also great for busy folks, whether single or with large families, who just want to save themselves time during the crazy workweek without having to rely on processed or take-out food.

(I also personally think it's a great idea for the summer months, when it can sometimes just be too hot to turn on the stove or oven.)

Mise en Place
I ordered the groceries via Peapod before I arrived in DC, and they got there along with me. The next morning, I drew my friend a bubble bath, handed her a copy of Dirty Dancing, and basically forced her to go "relax, already!" while I started on my prep.


Whenever you're cooking a lot of food at once, it's always easiest if you get all your chopping out of the way first. Dice up all the onions, celery, carrots, zucchini. Mince the garlic and herbs. Separate everything into containers and line it up somewhere you can easily access.  

"Mise en Place" means "everything in its place,"; and is the way that cooks in professional kitchens work. It makes it possible to make sure you have everything you need and makes the cooking go much quicker since you're not stopping and starting with each recipe.

One of the first dishes I made was a batch of Homemade Frozen Beef and Cheese Burritos.

I sauteed ground beef with an assortment of veggies including mushrooms, carrots, celery, zucchini, peppers, and lots of fresh herbs. I let it cool, and then assembled about a dozen burritos with whole Greek yogurt, shredded cheese, and fresh cilantro.

I wrapped them up in plastic wrap and foil, labeled them, and froze them individually so that all she has to do is remove the foil and pop the burrito in the microwave or toaster oven to heat up for a quick one-handed lunch or dinner.

I was sure to include reheating instructions to make them as easy as possible for her.

I used the same meat mixture that I made for the burritos to make a large platter of Beef Shepherd's Pie, topped off with homemade mashed potatoes. We ate this for dinner one night along with a salad, and then I portioned out and froze the leftovers.

Quinoa is believed to be especially good for helping lactating moms boost milk production, so I made a large batch of one of her favorite Fruit & Nut Quinoa Salads, loaded up with dried cranberries, sliced almonds, fresh herbs, grated parmesan cheese, and plenty of lemon zest.

(I posted a similar quinoa recipe here.)

Bright, colorful, and packed with protein and vitamins, it's a great summer dish as it can be enjoyed both hot and cold. I divided individual portions into zipped baggies and froze them for her to grab as needed.

All she needs to do is let it thaw a bit before eating on its own as a salad, or along with meat or chicken as an easy side.

I wanted to make sure she had plenty of quick and easy protein options, so I made her a batch of Homemade Herbed Chicken Patties.

These are super simple--I just ground up chicken breasts in the food processor along with some olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs, salt, and pepper (you can also buy pre-ground chicken). I then shaped them into patties and baked them until cooked through.

I wrapped them individually in plastic wrap, and then put them all into a freezer bag so she can grab them as she needs them.


These homemade patties are free of the funky fillers you find in store-bought versions, and can be eaten on their own or tucked into a roll with a little mayo for a quick chicken sandwich.

You can also leave them raw and freeze them that way, but cooking them in advance makes it even easier for her when the free minutes are scarce.

I contributed this chicken patty recipe to iVillage.com so click over to get it. (Note that this version has a bit of cayenne in it, which you may want to skip if cooking for a new mom--ask her what she prefers.)

Cooked Shredded Chicken is an incredible time-saver that I really recommend for everyone. I simply took whole chicken breasts and tossed them with some olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, oregano, salt, pepper, and paprika. I baked them in a 350 degree oven for about 30 minutes, and then let them cool slightly.

I used a fork to shred all the chicken, mixing it back in with the juices that came out during cooking to keep it moist.

I then divided the chicken into 6oz portions in zipped baggies, and put these into freezer bags. She'll be able to use the cooked chicken to make quick quesadillas or wraps, chicken salad, to serve with rice or over mixed greens, to add to pasta sauce, or even to add to boxed chicken broth for a quick chicken soup!

(Click here for a detailed recipe and more meal ideas using shredded chicken!)

Healthy snacks are key when time and energy is low, so I made her a batch of Homemade Chewy Granola Bars loaded up with nuts, oats, dried fruit, seeds, and peanut butter for extra protein. (I also added a few semi-sweet chocolate chips for extra deliciousness!).

I took advantage of some ripe bananas I found and baked several mini loaves of my favorite Classic Banana Bread Recipe,  swapping in whole wheat flour for half the white, and topping it with oats.

This will be great for breakfast either on its own or slightly heated and spread with a little butter or cream cheese. They also make for a great late-night snack with a mug of tea.

This Creamy Dairy-Free Vegetable Soup was an improvisation and I ended up being so happy with it that I made myself a batch of it as soon as I got back to New York. I simply simmered chopped onions, red peppers, carrots, tomatoes, garlic, celery, and squash in chicken stock until tender, then pureed it in batches until smooth and creamy.

The pureed carrots make it thick and silky without adding cream. A bit of seasoning was all it needed. I served it with a handful of freshly grated parmesan and some fresh cilantro on top.

Here's my soup recipe which I wrote for iVillage.com, but know that it's very flexible so use whatever ingredients you prefer to personalize it for the new mom.

I think once of Sara's favorite dishes that I made that weekend was the giant pot of Stovetop Mac and Cheese that I prepared my first night there. "This is SO much better than anything from a box!" she exclaimed as she served herself a second bowl.

I added diced ham for protein and spinach for iron to my basic recipe, and made it with whole wheat noodles for extra nourishment.

Nothing like a comforting bowl of homemade macaroni and cheese when you're feeling exhausted.

I couldn't leave without making her dessert, so I baked some of my Cinnamon Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies.  It's a super easy one-bowl recipe that takes minutes to assemble (thank goodness, as I had to make a few extra since the first tray totally disappeared in about a day!).  These also freeze very well and are loaded up with oats and peanut butter so they're great for snacking on.

I didn't get a photo of them, but I also made her Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Creamed Spinach, and Beef and Mushroom Meatloaf. I sliced the meatloaf into thick portions that I wrapped individually and froze in a large freezer bag.

I also taught Sara how to make a very easy homemade salad dressing she can use over mixed greens throughout the summer, and I gave her an in-person tutorial for how to prepare my Mustard & Panko Crusted Salmon Fillets. 

Have you stocked your (or a friend's) fridge pre-baby or other major event? Share some of your favorite freezer recipes in the comments. I'd love to get more ideas!

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New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my newsletter, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. If you're in the NYC area, be sure to check out my NYC dinner party style cooking classes. Thanks for reading!  

On Berry Almond Baklava & Defrosting the Freezer

I was in Seattle this past weekend when Eugene sent me a text from back home in NY. "There is a layer of frost over everything in the freezer."

I showed it to Sarah, who was sitting next to me, and she started cracking up.  Just moment earlier, Eugene had texted to ask: "Is pastrami is supposed to taste sour? Because I had some and it tastes sour and the date on it says June 2nd." (He sent this to me on June 9th.)

I told him to throw out the pastrami and not worry about the freezer, but when I got back, it was worse that I had imagined. Thick layers of snow blanketing the frozen bags of tortellini, passion fruit puree, and carefully wrapped salmon. The boxes of phyllo dough I'd been saving for some kind of last-minute entertaining dish were now soggy and warped, buckling under the weight of the ice that clung to them. The light wouldn't even turn on because little icicles had frozen the switch into the closed position.

I ignored it for a day, too exhausted with jet-lag and an airplane cold to deal with it. Then I started pulling things out. I boiled water and cooked the tortellini, tossing it with olive oil, grated cheese, oregano, and canned tomatoes for a kind of salsa cruda that would be just as good cold as it is hot. [I meant to photograph it, but Eugene ate it all before I could.]

I put the phyllo and a bag of cranberries--leftover from last Thanksgiving--on the counter to thaw. Old leftover containers of ice cream went into the trash, along with a ziploc of homemade gnocchi from last February.

I used a spatula to scrape off the frost, letting it fall onto the kitchen floor, which I then mopped up with a clean pink bath towel, remembering (once again) that I really need to buy a proper mop.

The best thing to do with all the thawing boxes, I decided, would be to bake something. I wanted to make a pie, but there weren't enough berries for that, nor did I feel like dealing with pie dough. Maybe baklava, I thought, since I really did have to use that phyllo up now. But I didn't have enough nuts for a full batch.

But if I combined them...

I tossed the cranberries (and some sad-looking blueberries I found in the fridge) with coconut palm sugar, a little bit of almond and vanilla, leaving them to macerate until syrupy.

The only nuts I could find were roasted salted almonds, so I put those in the food processor along with some sesame and pumpkin seeds I found in the pantry, pulsing them until they were crushed, but still chunky. I added more sugar, a bit of cinnamon, and lots of allspice. It's my new favorite and it's magic with berries--sexy and spicy and just unrecognizable enough to seem exotic.

I dropped two entire sticks of butter into a small pot and let it bubble and melt. Baklava calls for a lot of butter. You can't be afraid of it. I love dipping my brush in the hot butter and painting it on the thin pastry. It tears. It always tears, but just brush on more butter, and keep going.

Just before finishing I though of something, climbing up onto my counter to fish out a bag of Ghirardelli white chocolate chips from the back of baking shelf. I pulled back a layer of the buttery phyllo and sprinkled them in, knowing the creamy sweet would be nice with the tart and the crunchy.

I was worried that the fresh berries would be too juicy for the thin phyllo, but they weren't. The pastry stayed together, with thin layers of flaky filo on top, chunky spiced nuts in the center, and bits of tart berries that pop and drip blue-red juice over everything with each bite. I made a syrup for it with the bottoms of various jars of honey, some hot water, and almond extract, and poured it over the pastry allowing the nuts and bottom layers to soak it in.



It hasn't stopped raining today and I ate two pieces feeling all along like it was just the thing. I'll have a third just after I hit publish.

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New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my newsletter, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. If you're in the NYC area, be sure to check out my NYC dinner party style cooking classes. Thanks for reading!  

Berry Almond Baklava
Makes 16 servings

Ingredients
For the pastry:
1 package frozen phyllo pastry sheets, thawed
2 cups fresh or frozen berries (use a mix of cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, etc.)
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons allspice, divided
6 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
2 cups almonds (or mixed nuts), coarsely crushed
2/3 cup white chocolate chips (optional)
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted

For the syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup honey
1 teaspoon almond extract

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. You will need a 9” square pan.

In a large bowl, combine the berries, almond extract, 1 teaspoon allspice, and 3 tablespoons of brown sugar. Set aside. In another bowl, combine the nuts, white chocolate chips, remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar, cinnamon, kosher salt, and remaining allspice. Mix well until all the spices are evenly distributed.

Unroll your phyllo and use a knife to cut the rectangle of pastry sheets down down into a square that it is a just slightly larger than your baking pan (adjust according to your phyllo and pan). Re-roll and put away the extra phyllo  you just cut off as you won’t be using it for this.

Lay the phyllo out and cover with a damp towel while working to keep from drying out. Place nine sheets of phyllo on the bottom of your pan, brushing each one with the melted butter.

Sprinkle the top sheet with 1/2 the nut mixture, then top with four buttered sheets of phyllo. spread the berry mixture over the top of this sheet, and then cover with four more sheets of phyllo, buttering between each sheet. Spread the rest of the nut mixture and top with the rest of the phyllo, buttering between each sheet and on the last sheet.

With a sharp knife, cut the Baklava in half across, then turn and cut in half again. Cut each quarter in half diagonally both ways until you have 16 equal sized triangles.

Bake in the 350 degree oven for 30 minutes then lower the heat to 300 and continue baking for 45 minutes to one hour, or until the pastry has puffed up slightly and taken on a slight golden hue. It will also pull away from the sides.

Make the Syrup:
While the pastry is baking, combine the water and honey and let simmer until the honey has dissolved. Stir in the almond extract and let cool.

When the baklava is finished baking, pour the cooled syrup on top. Let the syrup-covered Baklava cool at room temperature for a minimum of four hours before serving.

Cooking with Windows Phone in Seattle

Hi lovely readers! I'm writing this from Seattle where I'm staying thanks to the awesome folks at Windows Phone. They've given me the opportunity to come to Seattle for the BlogHer Food 2012 conference and also to try their phone and see how it fits into my life as a blogger, writer, chef, (and the other 50 things that I do).

As you know, I really rarely do sponsored posts (I think I've only done about 2 since I started blogging in 2008), but I'm so genuinely smitten with this phone that I'm really happy to be working with them.

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that this is actually my first time owning a touchscreen phone.

(I know! So lame!)

Until a couple weeks ago, I used a [rhymes with SmashSmerry] that had pretty horrific internet access.  I pretty much only ever used the phone to type a few emails and would regularly leave the phone at the bottom of my purse with the battery drained for days at a time. (Not even exaggerating here.)

So, understandably, I was pretty excited to get my hands on a "modern" phone.

First of all...how gorgeous is it? It's this great bright cyan blue, super thin and sleek, with really bright graphics and pins on the home screen.

The phone is known to be the best for social media, with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media site functionality built right into the phone (vs through separate apps you have to go and download). It has this cute "Me" tile right on the front that I can click and instantly get ALL my notifications and mentions, plus access to my FB photo albums, and post new messages to all my sites in about 3 seconds.

There is also a dedicated camera button on the side that I can use without even having to unlock the phone. I've been using this feature a ton, especially at the event since it allowed me to switch back and forth from updating Twitter to taking snapshots in mere seconds.

A feature which came in handy Thursday night at the party.

We met up at Lark, which is a gorgeous, cozy restaurant in Seattle with big wood beams, art and wine bottles lining the walls, and gorgeous light fixtures dangling from the ceiling. It's headed up by Chef John Sundstrom. That night we sipped cocktails (French 75s! My favorite!), ate small bites, and worked together to prepare a few simple recipes.

My team worked on a Caramelized Chili Shrimp recipe that we got from the Betty Crocker cookbook app. It was a super easy "shake & bake" type recipe--we simply combined some spices and sugar in a zipped baggie, threw in the shrimp, and then sauteed them on a skillet.

The entire recipe literally took 5 minutes, and we then served it garnished with fresh cilantro and lime juice. It was sweet and smokey and salty and spicy--hit all my favorite flavor notes.



While we were working on the dish, the sous chef brought out a dish of live (live!) local shrimp for us to see. I've never seen live shrimp before and it was super fun. They were jumping all over the plate, so I whipped out my phone and took a little video. (Yes, that's me squealing and laughing in the background.)



After we ate, the waiters came around with these addictive tiny chocolate madeleines with little pots of chocolate dipping sauce.

I ate 7 of them.

Ok...maybe it was 8.

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New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my newsletter, follow me on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. If you're in the NYC area, be sure to check out my NYC dinner party style cooking classes. Thanks for reading! 


Caramelized Chili Shrimp
Adapted from the Betty Crocker Cookbook App on Windows Phone

Ingredients
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt
1 teaspoon chili powder or smoked spanish paprika
1/8 teaspoon chipotle chili powder or ground red pepper (cayenne)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 lb uncooked large shrimp (21 to 30 shrimp), peeled with tails left on, deveined
1/4 medium fresh lime
Fresh cilantro, minced

Directions
Combine all ingredients except the shrimp, lime, and cilantro in a large zipped bag or container. Add the shrimp, seal the bag, and shake to coat well.

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the shrimp and spice rub. Saute 2-3 minutes until the shrimp are fully cooked. Sprinkle with fresh lime juice and minced cilantro. Serve immediately.



Windows Phone is a sponsor of Always Order Dessert, but all opinions in this post are 100% my own. (Seriously, guys. I'm a little bit in love with this phone!)

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