Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to host the (almost) perfect Thanksgiving: A Beginner's Guide

I love Thanksgiving.  I have been hosting Thanksgiving since I was in college, and it is one of my favorite holidays because A)  I love food. B) I love entertaining C)  I love having my friends and family together.  This year will be a small shindig with just me, K and my parents, so this will be a simpler, low key holiday.  I've been thinking about what it takes to host a successful Thanksgiving dinner.  The main thing is to keep your stress levels low so that you can enjoy the holiday with the important people who are there.  If you do a little planning and think about ways to make it easy on yourself you will have it in the bag.

The first step is planning your menu.  If you are new to hosting big holiday meals, the best plan is to keep it simple.  Choose easy recipes, and try to make sure at least a few of them can be made ahead of time.  Here I will post links to some of my favorite recipes for Thanksgiving.  Unless otherwise noted, none of the photos are mine, and if you click on the photo it should take you to the original recipe   I will start with my favorite turkey recipes:

This Roasted Turkey from Martha Stewart was the first turkey I ever made.  It is simple and easy but delicious.
Roasted Turkey from Everyday Food

This Roast Turkey with Sage was the next turkey I made, and I continued to make it for several years.  It is almost as easy as the first turkey, but it is more impressive due to the herbs under the skin. (NOTE:  I realized that this recipe is incomplete on the Martha Stewart website, so I replaced the link with a very similar recipe   I am researching the original recipe to see if I can find it and repost it, because it is a really good one)

Roast Turkey with Sage from Everyday Food
This last Turkey was one that I attempted after I had a few Thanksgivings under my belt.  If you have never made a turkey before, I would go with one of the above recipes   But if you feel confident in your turkey roasting abilities, this is a really amazing turkey.  I think it is the best turkey I ever made.
Maple-Syrup Glazed Roast Turkey with Riesling Gravy from Martha Stewart Living
This is my own turkey when I used the above recipe   The setting might not be quite as gorgeous as Martha's, but I was really proud of this one.
I've never been a big fan of gravy, but it is nice to have, and most people will want it on their thanksgiving plate.  I would really recommend the riesling gravy that goes with the maple syrup roasted turkey above (even if you don't make that turkey).  HERE is also a really easy recipe.

While we are talking turkey, there are a few tools that you will need to make roasting a turkey easier.
1.  Roasting Pan with a rack - My first few years I used a tin foil, disposable roasting pan.  That will work, but your life will be WAY easier if you invest in a roasting pan.  I use mine all the time, not just for turkeys.
2.  Digital Thermometer - I love mine, and again, I use it often, not just at Thanksgiving.  You can set an alarm to go off when the meat reaches a certain temperature   That way, you don't really have to worry about it being under or over done.
3.  Kitchen Twine - for trussing your turkey, to help it cook evenly and keep its shape.
4.  A platter large enough to serve your turkey.  Nothing like scrambling at the last minute to find something to serve it on.  You worked hard on that turkey, and you are going to want everyone to admire its beauty.
5.  A knife sharp enough to carve your turkey.  Most people have this, just make sure that you do.

My turkey, ready to be roasted, using 3 of the 5 essentials - roasting pan, thermometer and kitchen twine (notice how my kitchen is a mess?  Yeah, that's going to happen)

If you don't know how to truss a turkey, check out this video.  It is really easy.

OK, now that you know what you are doing for the turkey, it is time to decide what else you want to make.  The secret to a stress free Thanksgiving?  Delegate.   Do NOT try to make everything yourself.  You will freak out.  I usually make the turkey, gravy and stuffing the day of and make the pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce the day before.  The rest I assign to other people.   This is especially true if you are hosting a crowd and everyone wants their own special tradition represented.  Someone just needs to have the green bean casserole?  Tell them you would love it if they would bring it.  Same with mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, bread or rolls, and anything else that a guest might ask you about.  If someone asks what they can bring, give them one of the above items.  Decide what you want at your thanksgiving table, and then make sure that everything is accounted for, by either you or a guest.

 Here are some of my other favorite recipes:

Be sure you buy (or make, but I buy) a few extra containers of chicken stock for this stuffing.  I always run out.
Simple Stuffing from Everyday Food
The easiest cranberry sauce.  Make this a day or two ahead and refrigerate.  One less thing for you to do on T-day.
Basic Cranberry Sauce from Everyday Food
These Parsnip Smashed Potatoes are a new favorite, and they are really just incredible.  They also happen to be vegan (but if you aren't vegan, don't let that scare you.  They are delicious) .
Smashed Parsnips and Potatoes with Thyme from Martha Stewart
Another thing that can be made ahead is the pumpkin pie.  Again, this is a really easy recipe and doesn't take long at all.  You can cheat and buy premade pie crusts (I do that often if I am busy or overwhelmed), but the dough recipe included is also super easy and can be made ahead and frozen.
Pumpkin Pie from Everyday Food
Of course, don't forget that people will be thirsty.  Many people have traditional thanksgiving drinks, for example I always feel like I need to have ginger ale on hand. Depending on the type of crowd you are serving you can decide what is best, but I think it is always a good idea to have a few non alcoholic choices and a few with alcohol.  An example list (you wouldn't necessarily want to have everything on the list, unless you are going to have a large crowd, but choose at least 1-2 of each) :
Ginger ale
Soda (diet coke in my house)
Cranberry juice
Apple cider
A specialty cocktail (Like This one or this one)

This year I have been seeing crock pot apple ciders all over pinterest, and so I think I am going to mix up a batch Thanksgiving morning to have available all day.  I have never made it before, but my cousin made this one for a party and says it was delicious.  She kept a bottle of spiced rum next to the pot so that people could make themselves a grown up version if they wanted.
A few more (again, I can't speak to how good these are since I have never made them):
Hot Spiced Cider - She also has a ton of cute, shabby chic fall decorating ideas, so you have to scroll down quite a ways before you get to the cider recipe.  

It is also a good idea to have a few appetizers out for people to nibble on throughout the day.  Nothing too heavy - people should be hungry for the big dinner.  But I learned that if you starve people all day, they do not have much patience if dinner is running late - and it will almost always be running late.  Things never go exactly according to plan.  Some easy choices are
Cheese and crackers
Fruit/raw veggies

And maybe ONE easy hot appetizer - go easy on yourself, and remember your oven is busy!
A quick and easy one is Bacon Wrapped Dates.  Another is Pear Brie Tarts

Pear Brie Tarts made by me

Pear Brie Tarts
I learned this from my friend Nancy (the one who taught me about Martini Friday)
They are easy, delicious and impressive.  My favorite combination for appetizers!
You can buy the premade phyllo dough tart shells in the freezer section.  Fill each tart with a mixture of diced pear and brie, bake until the cheese is melted and bubbly.  Remove from the oven and drizzle with honey.  Tada!
Appetizer table after being picked over
The photo above is to show you that you don't have to go crazy with fancy appetizers, but they will still be appreciated.  I also had bagels in the morning with Skinnnytaste pumpkin spice cream cheese (made the day before, of course).  

I do best with lists, so here is a simple list to follow that will make your Thanksgiving more manageable.

1.  Make a Meal Plan
2.  Plan your guest list and assign dishes out as needed
2.  Collect all of your recipes in one place  (include appetizers and drinks)
3.  Make a shopping list from your recipes, also non food items such as cooking utensils and table settings.
4.  Go shopping a few days before to avoid the crowds.
5.  Make a list of what order to cook things (what can be made ahead?  How long will the turkey take?  If your turkey takes 4 hours, how long do your other dishes take?  When should you start them?)
7.  Tuesday and Wednesday, make everything that you can make ahead of time.
6. Thursday:  Keep calm and follow your list.  Assign other people to tasks as needed.  Remember that things probably will not go perfectly, and that is OK.  The point of this holiday is to spend time with people you love and create memories.

You may also want to have some games or movies on hand for the post dinner food coma.

Happy Thanksgiving!
My Thanksgiving dinner, 2010

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

DIY: Painting a walk in closet

How was everyone's weekend?  It appears that winter has come to Phoenix, maybe!  That's right, I was just writing about how we were out of the 100's and fall was coming, but this weekend we had unusually cool weather, and even had a severe weather alert about it.  I'm serious.  My weather app had that ominous red exclamation point, warning me that temperatures would be in...the sixties!  But wait!  It actually dipped into the thirties overnight.  This is saying something because six weeks ago it was staying in the nineties overnight, which means that it NEVER COOLED OFF.  So now, the entire city is freezing and wearing coats.  I'm just glad that I get to wear long pants, and we finally FINALLY got to leave the AC off for an entire day.  So, we survived the winter freeze of the desert and should be back in the seventies, or possibly eighties this week.  And it's a good thing, because my parents are coming to visit next week, and they are expecting some sun after hearing me bitch about how hot is it here for six months.

Oh yes, did I forget to mention that I am the crazy person who is moving into our house this weekend and hosting Thanksgiving dinner there next week?  I like to keep things interesting like that.  Last year I hosted a ginormous Thanksgiving dinner while working, taking A&P and being immersed in an epic romance, so I'm pretty sure I am up to the challenge this year while all I have to do is move a household beforehand (oh, still in the epic romance, but this year only introducing him to one family member instead of, like, seven).

So, K and I have been scrambling to get ready for our move, because apparently we were in shock for the first two weeks after closing on our house and didn't do anything.  When we did our final walk through of the house, I noticed that the walk in closet that took my breath away was in desperate need of being painted.  Why paint a closet, you ask?  Why not, I ask you.  But actually, the thing clearly had not been painted ever, it was still that stark builder white, and on top of that it had tons of ugly scuff marks and smudges all over the walls.  And rather than paint it white, or tan, or some other neutral, why not paint it a fun color?  I love to decorate with lots of color, but there is something intimidating about painting an entire room a bold color.  It is really a commitment, and then it dictates everything else that you put in the room.  I have always thought that it makes sense to paint smaller rooms, like bathrooms, those fun colors because smaller room = smaller commitment.   Plus, you aren't really putting much furniture in there.  Thus, the turquoise walk in closet was born.
Walk in closet - you can't tell, but the walls are gross

Before purchasing house:  Oooh, walk in closet!  After purchasing house:  Ewww, what's that on the wall?

I think K might have thought I was crazy when I first suggested turquoise, but he indulged me. And so when we were in Home Depot picking out blinds this weekend, we stopped by the paint department and loaded up on supplies.
I chose the lightest color because it is a small space

One Gallon of BEHR PREMIUM PLUS ULTRA® Satin Enamel in Gem Turquoise
One starter kit of paint supplies - contained one roller, a mini roller, an angled brush, and a paint tray
One Handy Cup ( a life saver)
Blue painter's tape
A plastic sheet for a drop cloth
a flat head screw driver (we forgot this)
paint stirrer 
One step ladder
One super awesome boyfriend  

A few notes.  

A. The paint was a paint and primer in one, which was awesome.  We ended up only needing to do one coat, and the color is rich and beautiful.  

B.  The brush kit we bought was the "best" quality (Home Depot labels some things good, better, best).  I think this was a really good choice  because I have read horror stories of cheap brushes and rollers that leave fibers behind and ruin your paint job.  We did not have this problem, and our brush and rollers worked like a charm.

C.  Taping off and laying down the plastic was the worst part, but very necessary.  Do not attempt to do this without protecting your floor.  Taping helped protect the baseboards and shelving but also did not provide quite the clean edge that we wanted.  It was our first time painting a room, so there is a learning curve.

D.  Starting off in a closet is a great way to learn.  It doesn't have to be (and isn't) perfect, but that's OK!

E.  Make sure you have a step ladder and don't try to use a plastic folding chair like we did.  Also, have a screw driver handy (like we didn't).  You need it to remove light switch plates and to open the paint can.

F.  Our paint was not completely mixed, so I was glad that K had picked up a wooden paint stirrer that we could use to make sure it was totally uniform.
So pretty!  But needs mixing!
After taping off all the edges, I started painting the edges with the brush while K took the roller and covered the big areas.  Before starting, we watched this tutorial.  We also looked at one from This Old House, but it was way more detailed than we were willing to get for a closet.  No sanding here!

All taped off and ready to go!

This project took a total of about three and a half to four hours, including prep time.  Towards the end my hand was cramping up and K and I had to take quick turns finishing off the edges.  We weren't sure if we should leave the tape up overnight, but after a tip from a friend and a quick google search, we realized that you should remove the tape before the paint has completely dried.  We were not entirely pleased with how the edges turned out - there are some areas where the paint seeped behind the tape and where the edges are uneven.  I think this is more obvious since this is a bold color and is highly contrasted against the white.   Like I said, this was a good learning experience for us, and since it is a closet I am not going to get nit-picky.  

I am in LOVE with my new closet, and I think it looks about a hundred times better than before.  I am also really happy that K and I completed our first home improvement project together!  It is amazing the sense of accomplishment and empowerment that you can get from finishing a fairy simple project.  Now that we have finished this, we are thinking about other projects we might take on around the house.  Mosaic tile backsplash?
Finished product!

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Wine Wednesday: Election Edition!

Actually, this post won't say much about the election, other than this is the wine that I drank while watching the election results roll in.  It occurred to me that I should have pulled out a special bottle for the occasion, but instead I just chose what was already cold in my fridge.
Robert Mondavi Pinot Grigio

Despite the notoriety of Robert Mondavi, I have never had a Mondavi Pinot Grigio.  I find that California Pinot Gris/Grigios are very plentiful, but I generally don't like them as much as Oregon Pinot Gris.  Call me biased.  This wine was fine, but I found it to be bland.  I've never found myself thinking that about a wine before, but it just didn't have much flavor or body.  It was light and pretty crisp, just lacking.  At only $8.89 for a bottle, it wasn't a huge loss, but I probably wouldn't go out of my way to buy it again.

Wine: Robert Mondavi Private Selection Pinot Grigio
Year: 2011
Region: California
Purchased From: Costco
Price: $8.89
Verdict: 2/5 
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Monday, November 5, 2012

An Autumn Drive

Well, look at that, we made it to November.  Technically it's November anyway, we are still projected to hit ninety degrees for several days this week here in Arizona.  In the rest of the country, we had tsunami warnings in the west and a hurricane in the east.  The tsunami thankfully was a false alarm, but Hurricane Sandy has wreaked havoc on the east coast, as most of you are aware. Thousands of people are still without power and lacking vital supplies.  Relief organizations such as the Red Cross are scrambling to provide much needed shelter and supplies, but many people are still in need.  Being so far removed from the disaster, I can only imagine what everyone is going through right now. I am encouraged by the kindness and willingness to help that many people have shown during this disaster, both from people living far from it who have donated money and time to help relief efforts, to people living in disaster areas who are doing all they can to help their neighbors.  I am wishing everyone as smooth a recovery as possible.

 One of the benefits of living in the desert is that you don't really need to worry about tsunamis and hurricanes.  Actually, I think that is the only benefit of living in the desert.  Although autumn is well on its way in the rest of the country, here in Arizona it just means that we have gone from surface of the sun temperatures to regular summer weather.  Last week we did actually drop to the mid eighties, but as I mentioned before we are back into the nineties, at least for the next few days,  This is November people.  November!  Before I moved here, I thought that there would be three months of really hot weather, and the rest would be nice.  Soon after moving here, I readjusted to four months of scorching temperatures and eight months of nice weather.  Now I'm starting to think that it will be four months of nice weather and eight months of hellish heat.  In addition to reconciling that it is still almost too hot to wear jeans, I'm also missing the changing leaves.  I wasn't going to find changing leaves here in Phoenix, but I did a little research and found that a drive north could give me a fall fix.

Scenic 89A
Scenic 89A

  Last weekend K and I took a nice afternoon drive up I-17, veered over to Sedona and then drove up the Scenic 89A next to Oak Creek Canyon.  We ended our drive in Flagstaff.  Although the trees weren't quite the explosion of fall color that I was hoping for,  there were still many beautiful changing leaves, the sky was blue, the air was crisp, and I got that autumn experience I was hoping for.  After leaving Sedona and starting our drive, we stopped at a little market called Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market.  This would be a great place to stop for a bite to eat, or to stock up on snacks if you want to have a picnic.  They have a nice patio out back to eat your lunch if you want.  There is also a visitor center where you can buy day passes if you decide to do any hiking.

Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market - a great place to stop and get snacks!
Beautiful red rocks right behind the market

Later we pulled off into Oak Creek Vista.  This was a perfect place to enjoy the views.  Although this is a heavily used viewpoint,  it is a large area, so it gives you room to break away from the crowd.  Walking from the car to the view point areas, you get to smell the trees ("So much oxygen!!!").  They seem to have a little market set up with locals selling arts and crafts during the day.  The view of the canyon is really spectacular.  This is not to be missed.
Climbing in Elevation - we aren't in the desert anymore!

Ranger Station at Oak Creek Vista

Oak Creek Canyon

Oak Creek Canyon

7000 Feet!

After our drive, we rolled into Flagstaff and decided to have dinner in the historic downtown area at Criollo Latin Kitchen.  This was a great little restaurant that served latin inspired dishes with locally and sustainably grown food.  We started with the masa crusted calamari, and ordered the paella and carne asada tacos.  It really reminded me of a place that might be in Eugene.  Actually, the whole town sort of reminded me of Eugene.  K and I agreed that it had a small town yet cultured feel to it.  We also noticed that anytime we visit another town in AZ and mention that we are visiting from Phoenix, we get the same response.  It seems that many people in the state are not big fans of this city.  We usually get a polite nod or "Oh" as a response to where we are from.  When we say that we are happy to get out of the city, we get an enthusiastic response that usually amounts to "Yeah, I don't blame you". 
Trees in Flagstaff

Criollo Latin Kitchen in Flagstaff

Paella at Criollo

After dinner, we walked to a coffee shop on the next block called Rendezvous Coffee House located in a historic hotel called The Monte Vista.  We sat facing the window as we drank our coffees, watching people hustle by with their boots and scarves.  Flagstaff is nearing winter!  Many of the leaves have already fallen from the trees.  Being unaccustomed to needing to wear anything other than short sleeves, I had left my jacket at home.  Luckily, K is a gentleman and let me wear his.  After our coffee, we walked around the block to enjoy the downtown feel and cool weather.  Then we reluctantly headed back to our car to make the journey back to Phoenix.  It was around 6pm when we left, and it was 47 degrees.  Two hours later we arrived in Phoenix - and it was 74 degrees. 
San Francisco Street
The White Lady Mocha from Rendezvous
An evening walk in Flagstaff

Hotel Monte Vista

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