Monday, March 23, 2015

Bountiful Meal Ideas in these Make-Ahead Cookbooks

It's a wonderful feeling to be cool, calm and collected when opening the door to guests for a dinner party or to family for a big celebration.

Wonderful - yes. Hard to achieve - also yes!

Doing last minute food prep, running the vacuum, tidying up, getting the kids fed, taking the dog out, and trying to get a shower and dry your hair  are just a few of the zillion things that can sometimes turn the anticipation of a fun evening into a stress mess.

A great solution to that stress is to arm yourself with terrific make-ahead menus and recipes. It's an investment in your sanity.

Here are a few, both brand new ones and old goodies, that you might just enjoy!

The Southern Living Complete Do-Ahead Cookbook
This first one is my personal favorite. It is vintage Southern Living. While not currently in print, there are lots of used copies for sale for very little money. My copy is so dog-eared and filled with sticky notes that I'd be ashamed for you to see it. Not only does it have individual recipes, like my family's all-time favorite of piquant miniature meatloaves, but it has whole menus. If you could pop in for dinner, I'd take from the "Supper After the Theater" menu and make the Royal Seafood Casserole of shrimp and vermicelli in a sherry cream sauce. So good!

The Make-Ahead Cook
Published a few months ago by Cook's Illustrated, this cookbook could become your go-to guide for cooking ahead. The meals aren't just for entertaining but also for those busy nights when you don't have much time for cooking. The book offers eight strategies for cooking ahead, not just freezing the dish, so that you can put dinner on the table in a timely manner. Meals include tasty items such as Grilled Teriyaki Steak Tips and Quinoa, Black Bean and Mango Salad with Lime Vinaigrette.

Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Famous chef and TV personality Ina Garten answers her number one question from fans of "Can I make it ahead," with this book. A brand new book, it contains clear instructions for what portions of recipes and dishes can be made ahead and the steps involved. Delve into French Chicken Pot Pie or Lemon Poppy Seed Cake.

Not Your Mother's Make-Ahead & Freeze Cookbook
While cooking a bigger batch and freezing is not new, this cookbook updates the idea with modern recipes for diverse tastes including vegetarian main courses. Some of the recipes probably not seen in your mother's old cookbooks include green chicken chili taquitos, mahi-mahi with almond lime butter and tahini vegetable patties. Of course, you'll also find familiar items like pulled pork sandwiches and spicy Dijon chicken.

Here are a few websites you might also like that offer make-ahead sections.
Betty Crocker
Food Network

Wether you make your meal ahead or bring in take-out, the main focus here is to plan your celebration and invite friends and family to dinner. Today is the perfect day to begin dinner party planning. Spring and Summer celebration opportunities abound, so pull out your cookbooks and plan ahead.

The Kathryn Elaine Collection from Shoppe Images

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Force Spring Blooms to Brighten Your Winter Home

Spring's colors are right around the corner for southernmost places, like North Florida and the deep Alabama panhandle. But, for the rest of the snowbirds, it's that part of winter where you think you just can't take it anymore!

So, why not force the issue?

Forcing some early spring blooms is a time honored tradition for gardeners. I promise you don't have to be a green-thumb gardener to be successful at forcing some spring blooms yourself. In fact, you don't have to be a gardener at all!

Tiny yellow bells of forsythia, snowy white dogwood and purple lilac are just a few of the branches that can and will bloom inside your house. All you need are some pruners or clippers to cut the branches, water and patience. Easy detail directions follow.

The reason that North Florida can still have four seasons, is that spring blooms only need about 8 weeks of cold weather to set their buds. The short winter still brings a beautiful spring. So by now, trees and shrubs have plenty of winter and your warm home can become their spring.

One thing first time branch forcers might worry about is damaging their plants. Don't worry, you'll be fine. I bet you didn't know that late winter was the best time to prune anyway. Bonus!

It can take from two to five weeks for the branches you cut to come into bloom, depending on the species of tree or shrub. If you'd like to have some continuous blooms in vases on your mantle or coffee table, then you'll want to cut a few branches each week to add to your bucket. This way, as one blooms and finishes, another is coming along. In addition, Easter is April 5th this year - quite early- so getting some started will be a great way to bring in spring for your Easter dinner celebration. It's highly likely that there won't be much blooming that early in the yard to cut. Forcing branches will make decorating easy.

Not sure which shrubs to cut? Purdue University has a great chart that includes how many weeks of warmth each species will need to come into bloom. If you are not good with plant names, you can just experiment by cutting a variety of branches from your yard and bringing them in. Even if they are not a blooming branch, you'll end up with some bright green, springy foliage which also will look lovely in vases. In general, you can check the bumps or buds on the branches as flower buds are often round while leaf buds are more pointy.

Forcing Branches to Bloom is So Easy
  • Select branches that are less than 1/2 inch in diameter.
  • Cut them long enough to be useful in an arrangement. You can always trim them later if too long.
  • It is easier to prune on a winter day above 32, if possible. You can bring in branches if colder than 32, it is just that they are easier and softer to cut when not frozen.
  • Once indoors, you will want to prepare a bucket of warm water for the branches. Do have the water level fairly deep.
  • Before putting them in the water, recut the stem at a sharp angle. Then make a second cut up the stem splitting the stem in two- just for a 1/2 inch or inch. These two cuts will help the stem draw up the warm water. Martha Stewart's video on branch forcing demonstrates this technique if you need a visual.
  • A garage, enclosed porch or mudroom are often good choices for setting your bucket as long as the temperature is above 45. You want your branches to think it is spring, which is a cool season, so do not set them in front of a bright hot window and do not set them close to a heating vent. It will be too hot and dry them out.
  • Do add warm water as the plants use it up. Change the water when it get old, cloudy or smelly.
  • Remove branches when they start to open and arrange in a vase and enjoy.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Answers to the "What's for Dinner" Question

In winter, when it is nearly dark by 4 o'clock and pitch black by 5 p.m., dinner becomes a bright spot. And when you can't get out as much, or don't really want to get out on a cold, dark evening, dinnertime is the chance to add variety to your life.

Even those that enjoy cooking will profess that sometimes they feel lost when it comes to figuring out the answer to "What's for dinner?" Consider it a culinary writer's block! Post-holiday season seems to be ripe for this to occur.

There are some great online resources that not only give you meal ideas and recipes, but some even give you the shopping list. We've done some research for you. Next time you have that culinary writer's block, or maybe this week just to give yourself a break, check these out! Here are ideas for family meals and for company dinners.

"What's for Dinner," you ask?

Real Simple Magazine has a 4-Week Menu and shopping list. It has yummy dishes like penne with tomatoes, eggplant and mozzarella.

Family Circle Magazine offers a different twist. They give you a week's menu, including dishes like avocado pesto pizza, with instructions that allow you to do some of the prep at the start of the week to make work night meals easier.

Southern Living's section on satisfying soups and stews might be just the ticket for a January night.

RecipeMatcher is rather an amazing bit of software. It finds recipes for you based on the ingredients you have on hand. It is a great way to use up what you have in your freezer or pantry. I dug into my nearly empty fridge and freezer and typed in that I had chicken breast, bacon and barbeque sauce on hand and like magic I got a recipe for bacon chicken.

And on to another question... What's for dinner at my winter dinner party?

A Free Range Life, a delightful blog by Annabel Langbein, a New Zealander who believes the language of food is universal, has a great dinner party menu that begins with tamari roasted almonds and includes balsamic chicken breasts with pine nuts. She includes a step-by-step planner. Who doesn't love a good checklist?

IVillage, an online magazine, has a fun, tasty dinner party menu for winter that begins with a cowboy martini and moves on to a delicious skirt steak with hazelnut picada.

Delish website leads us to recipes for dinner parties that you can almost smell cooking by reading the title like spice-glazed lamb chops with red wine-coffee pan sauce. Look out for their 14 main dish ideas.

Now that we've given you some ideas to answer the What's for dinner? question; let us also help you set the table. At Shoppe Images we pre-package full tablescapes and provide step by step setting instructions and pictures to make setting a beautiful table easy. We want you to set that beautiful table not only for dinner parties, but also for nightly family dining. You and your family deserve to feel special every night. Select one of our tablescape collections and let the dinner hour become the bright spot in all your days.

Shoppe Spring - The Kathryn Elaine Collection

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Arizona + Superbowl = A Tasty Game Day Menu

Football & Food - A Super Combination!

Super Bowl Sunday is a dream come true for shy entertainers. If you are one of the folks who worries how you will keep everyone busy and happy or what everyone will talk about, then Super Bowl Sunday is perfect for you.

When the teams hit the field at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, home of the Arizona Cardinals, all eyes will be on the big screen. From the actual game, to the color commentators and the million dollar commercials, even non-football fans get involved. Super pop star Katy Perry performing at the half-time show is just a bonus.

Football and food make a super combination. Game-day is Sunday, February 1st so you've a couple of weeks to invite your guests and plan your feast. If you are throwing the party, your focus will be on the food and your table decorations. That keeps it pretty simple. Visit Shoppe Images for party table decorations. The Emily Kate Accessories Collection will provide practical charger plates, perfect for balancing paper plates in front of the big screen. The collection also includes burlap flatware bows, and mason jar glasses for that fun signature drink created for the occasion.

The Emily Kate Accessories Collection

Arizona certainly provides a rich theme on which to focus your food flavors. After all, who doesn't love a taste of the Southwest! We've rounded up some of our favorite ideas for the traditional game day buffet. A good combination combines some fun snack food, hearty meal components and a sweet or two. You might like to know that according to the USDA, it is the second largest food consumption day with Thanksgiving being first.

Snack ideas!

Pizza Arizona- This pizza can be cut into snack size squares. It brings the southwest flavors of chipotle salsa, chili powder and cilantro. You'll use store-bought pizza dough so it is really easy.

Southwestern Snack Mix- Move away from the traditional potato chips or tortillas and salsa. Make up some giant bowls of this snack mix. It combines microwave popcorn, pretzels and corn chips with savory Southwest seasonings - sort of a south of the border Chex mix.

Arizona Dip- Top your Ritz crackers with this creamy crunchy spread of  chipped beef, cream cheese, radishes and green onions.

Heartier Meal Fare!

Southwest Turkey Sliders- Mix up the well-seasoned meat and make the patties ahead of time. Just throw them on the grill and set out a tray of condiments.

Slow-Cooker Chicken Tacos- The favorite fix-it and forget-it appliance is perfect for game day. It will keep the food warm for snacking between quarters.

Arizona Chicken-Tortilla Soup- A big pot of soup is a great go-to dish for a cold winter football day. Set a tray of toppings next to the pot and instead of bowls, set out your coffee mugs. They are much easier to handle while yelling for your favorite team.

Arizona Fruit Salad- is the perfect sweet, cold side dish to highly flavored Mexican-inspired foods. It combines papaya, avocado and citrus fruits with a homemade dressing.


Caramel Apples with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds and Pistachios- These easy, make ahead apples from an Arizona chef are a fun food for kids and adults alike. Who doesn't love food on a stick?

Pecan Chocolate Squares- Make up these chocolaty and nutty delights and cut into squares. Stack on a platter and cover until serving.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Delicious Dinner Party Possible -- Despite New Year's Resolution to Eat Healthy

Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store is a sure way to shop healthy!
Resolving to eat healthy this New Year doesn't mean a no-fun zone on the calendar for you. In fact, a dinner party centered on eating healthy can create a vibrant dinner plate and bring some interesting foods to your palate.

Creating a menu based on the perimeter of the grocery store is one way to stay healthy, eat yummy and get creative. This tip, from the Mayo Clinic, is what they call their grocery store secret to reducing both sodium and fat. Imagine the perimeter of your grocery store- piles of fresh, colorful produce, fresh fish and shrimp displayed on ice, select cuts of meat waiting to be marinated, a dairy case with cheeses and Greek yogurt and fresh baked whole grain bread from the bakery. Sounds like a great dinner party in the works!

In general, the center aisles of the grocery contain prepared foods. The further you move away from the fresh items, the less healthy your meal will be. Plan your menu based on the lovely items around the perimeter of the store then shop the inner aisles of good-for-you additions such as quinoa, brown rice, spices and beans.

Healthy Appetizers

It's winter. Soup is your perfect first course. If you'd like a few nibbles for cocktail time, offer a bowl of nuts, always a good source of protein, and some fresh raw veggies with a Greek Yogurt Onion Dip from the Food Network.

As for the soup, delve into some of the great produce of winter such as leeks, parsnips or carrots.

Try The Winter Carrot Soup from The Bitehouse, a Canadian restaurant. Flavored with garlic, thyme, cinnamon and ginger, it is sure to start your meal off on a warm note. You can lighten these recipes further by substituting evaporated skim milk for the amount of heavy cream in the soup.

Some other winter, vegetable-based soups are Parsnip Soup, flavored with onion, garlic, ginger and nutmeg, Cauliflower-Leek Soup, a lower-carb alternative to the traditional potato-leek soup, or Roasted Broccoli Soup with Cashews.

Healthy Main Course

There are a number of ways to go healthy, shopping the perimeter of the store for your dinner party.

Prosciutto Wrapped Fish with Roasted Root Vegetables from Oui Chef sounds and is elegant but is oh, so easy. The vegetables, drizzled with olive oil, are roasted in the oven as is the fish, which is wrapped with some prosciutto before baking. You can prepare it early and pop it in the oven and still enjoy your guests.

Chicken with Spiced Apples, an easy 20 minute prep time and 20 minute cooking time, will smell as terrific as it tastes. Seasoned with herbes de Provence and fresh lemon zest, it will pair nicely with a bed of wild rice or couscous.

Cold winter nights just beg for some German cuisine. Authentic Schweinebraten German Pork Roast Bavarian Style begins with a super-easy rub of spices and mustard that is slow roasted in the oven. Serve with some red cabbage and something green for a beautiful plate.

Side Dishes

With each of these super flavorful entrees as the star of the plate, you are best to keep your side dishes simple - and healthy. Stick to the produce department and add something green and delicious to the plate such as steamed broccoli, roasted green beans with a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar or some fresh peas and mushrooms.

You can also offer a salad, which will help you fill up and stick to your own resolution. Stick to garnishes of nuts or a few croutons and avoid adding cheese and bacon bits. You will find a number of healthy salad dressings at Eating Well.


A delicious flavored coffee after dinner can be just the trick to keep you from indulging in too much dessert. If you want to serve something healthy, diced fresh fruit, served in a martini glass with a dollop of Greek yogurt is the way to go.

Feel up to getting creative? Here are some favorite resources for healthy desserts:

100 healthy dessert ideas from Cooking Light
Guilt-Free desserts from Southern Living
Healthy desserts less than 150 calories from Women's Health

One last tip- these recipe ideas are so full of flavor that no one needs to know you are watching your waistline unless you want to tell them!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Look Out January! Winter Dinner Party Ideas

January is the perfect time to invite a few friends, light the fire, light some candles and put something warm on to cook. Here are a few ideas for dinner this month. Regardless of how you choose to celebrate this first month of the year, remember January will always signify new beginnings.  Spend some time thinking about how you want to start 2015 and jump in with both feet. Happy New Year!

New Year's Day. January 1st.
Hey, the house is decorated. The pressure is over. Might as well invite some friends and enjoy the day. There's plenty of football on TV to keep everyone entertained. All you need to do is pull out some food dishes in the lucky theme. Start with Emeril Lagasse's Hopping John of black-eyed peas and rice seasoned with ham. Then make a cold sesame noodle salad since noodles are good luck in many Asian countries. Greens are supposed to bring you money so try these Southern-style greens. Saveur has a entire list of lucky dishes by country. Create a lucky buffet!

Snow on the Mountain Dinner- Any cold night!
This is a great time to get one last use of  all your snowmen and snowy accessories before stowing them away until next year. The Snow on the Mountain Dinner is a really fun, make your own plate dinner. Each guest begins with mountain of white rice that they embellish with all manner of goodies ending with a snow of coconut. Here are photos and directions from This Old Hen. Here is a different version from At BlogHer, the dinner was a mystery dinner which person brought an ingredient.

Scottish? January 25th is Burns Night!
Even if you are not, you can celebrate Burns Night. In Scotland, Burns Night, is a national holiday celebrating poet Robert Burns. Haggis, made from sheep's organs, is often served, but if that isn't your cup of tea, then you'll find that meat pies are a good entrĂ©e too. Individual bridie pies, like American pot pies, are meat pies with a flaky crust. They are just the trick for a hearty winter fare for this day.

Backward Day. January 31st
Who wouldn't want to eat dessert first! What a delightful fun idea for a dinner party! January 31st is Backward Day, which is fun for both children and adults. Create your invitations with the wording beginning at the bottom of the page. Begin dinner with dessert and end with a passed appetizer. Or, you could surprise your guests by serving breakfast for dinner, which is also backwards and loads of yummy fun. Here's some ideas from Shari's Berries on Building Your Dinner Party Backwards.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Tips for Setting Up a Buffet Line

A buffet supper can be a lovely way to feed a large group this holiday season. The buffet, on an array of beautiful platters and your favorite pottery, can offer an attractive and less stressful way to deal with a crowd.

Without plating to worry about, a host or hostess can easily attend to guests' needs. From the guests point of view, they can easily decide which items suit their palate, dietary needs or waistline.

While a buffet-style dinner party is a bit easier at serving time, it's success lies in the organizing work done beforehand. Taking a bit of time to organize the event pays off later.

Begin by mentally mapping out your plan by deciding where you will set up the food. What direction do you want the line to move? You will want to study doorways, the bar and furniture placement so you avoid any bottlenecks.

Consider Creating More than One Stop
It is nearly impossible to hold two things as a buffet guest. With a plate in one hand, you need the other hand free to serve the food onto your plate. It may be more convenient to have separate items at separate stops. For example, a salad with a separate salad plate can have its own stop. Likewise, a beverage station and a dessert spot are also helpful.

Visualize the Order
Up first are plates as you clearly can't serve without them.  Ideally, you'll provide napkins and silverware at each place setting. If not, then put these at the end of the line so they won't have to be held during serving.

Actually Layout the Plan
Begin with the decorations or centerpiece for the buffet. Next, place the plates. Follow next with the cold items and then the hot. This way, hot foods are the last to go on the plate so there is less time for them to cool. Add empty serving dishes and platters to the buffet for each dish planned, rearrange as necessary so that they fit

Warming trays  and Crock-Pots are handy to keep dishes warm but you will need to consider how you will secure cords to prevent tripping or worse yet, having a hot dish fly off the table due to a cord entanglement with a foot. Do arrange extension cords and plug everything in to make sure the plugs reach outlets and that you can secure cords safely.

Once satisfied, label each with the name of the contents on a sticky note. If you intend to gather back up the empty dishes to take them to the kitchen, then also add a sticky note to the table noting which dish goes in which spot. You won't want to figure it out a second time with guests milling about.

Make sure you've planned for appropriate condiments next to each dish, such as butter, salad dressing, mustard, sauce and so on. Either provide salt and pepper on each table or at the end of the line.
Match up Utensils
Once the buffet plan has been laid out, match an appropriate serving utensil to each dish.

End with a Checklist
Many a hostess has discovered a dish in the refrigerator after the guests have gone home or later realized the salad was set out without a dressing. Once your buffet is planned, make a checklist of everything that has to be put out for the supper including each detail such as butter and ice on the bar. An organized hostess is a happy hostess. As the hostess, my goal is always to enjoy my party. With careful organization and advance planning you can achieve your goals. Happy Holidays and cheers to you!