Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas 2012: Temporary Insanity and Peppermint Bliss

It all began with a simple question from my son's teacher at school -

"Would you like to help us with the Christmas costumes for the infant and toddler classes?"

Weeks later - surrounded by onesies, tulle, and felt, frantically sewing what would be peppermint costumes for eleven children - I had to laugh at my ability to volunteer for projects that can't help but spiral a bit out of control.

While there were more than a few moments I wondered at my sanity in taking on such a big commitment right before the holidays (which, at least in our household, is both the merriest and busiest time of year), the truth is that I love projects where I can be creative and help others. Figuring out how to make costumes that were cute and festive on a budget - and perhaps most importantly, EASY - helped to get me in the Christmas spirit (well, that and the big glass of wine I poured to celebrate when the last peppermint was complete).

Should you ever find yourself saying 'yes' to crafting Christmas cosumes for a class full of children (or just you own), here are some simple instructions on how to make peppermints for less than $1 a piece. Merry Christmas!

Red, green and white felt (I made red peppermints for the girls, green for the boys)
White thread
White onesies or t-shirts (nearly every child out there has an old one to donate to the cause)

1. Cut a white felt circle for each peppermint about the width of a onesie. I used a medium sized bowl as a guide.
2. Cut green and red felt circles and free-form draw peppermint shapes on each. Cut along the lines to create the peppermint 'swirl' pieces.
3. Glue the swirls to the white circles. I found that regular Elmer's glue worked best - though be careful with the amount so you don't soak through the felt.
4. Once your felt peppermints are ready, it's time for the tulle 'wrapper.' Cut a square of tulle large enough that it wraps around the peppermint like a taco (with the open seam to the center back of the peppermint) and you have at least 6 inches of overhang on each side. It's better to leave too much on each side than too little - you can trim later.
5. As you make your peppermint tulle tacos, pin them to the onesies. At the end of this, all of your onesies should have peppermints pinned in the middle with the tulle in a rectangle form (open seam of tulle tucked between the peppermint and the onesie) and about 6 inches of overhang of tulle on each side.
6. Get out your sewing machine and white thread, and sew around the edge of each peppermint so that in one swoop you sew both the peppermint and the tulle to each onesie.
7. Use scraps of tulle to tie the overhang of tulle fabric on each side of the onesies, creating the little tuft of 'wrapper.' Trim the tulle to your liking.
8. Ask all of the parents to bring something white or khaki for the bottom - tights, pants, etc.
9. Have a big glass of wine.
10. Done! *

* On a trip to Target I came across some cute peppermint bags and mistletoe headbands in the $1 bin. In this case, I pushed the 'easy button' and gladly paid $22 for headpieces and bags (which I filled with bells and sewed shut) to outfit the whole class.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Winter Squash-a-Paloooza

Last year was the first we planted butternuts in the garden and - 5 vines and more than 30 squash later - we learned our lesson about this plant's abundance. The season was one big "Iron Chef" episode in our kitchen, with nearly every week's meal plan incorporating winter squash. I earnestly clipped recipes from magazines and newspapers, searching for inspiration. Soups, stews, salads, purees, roasted sides, pastas and desserts - you name it, we tried it.

This year we planted only two vines and tried a new variety - Rogosa Violina vs. the traditional Waltham - resulting in a much lower yield but some mammoth specimens. Although there was a time when the thought of yet another squash dinner made me want to head for the hills - or at least the nearest restaurant - I'm enjoying dusting off what are now tried-and-true recipes and reintroducing this hearty seasonal ingredient to our dinner table.

Winter Squash Soup
Serves 8
Adapted from Gourmet

This soup is so simple and is utterly delicious. We omit the cream nearly every time as the soup has tons of flavor and a lovely texture without it.

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
3 14 1/2-ounce cans low-salt chicken broth
8 cups 1-inch pieces peeled winter squash, any variety (about 3 pounds)
1 1/4 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
1 1/4 teaspoons minced fresh sage

1/4 cup whipping cream

Melt butter in large pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add broth, all squash and herbs; bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until squash is very tender, about 20 minutes.

Working in batches, puree soup in blender. Return soup to same pot. Stir in cream; bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill. Rewarm over medium heat before serving.)

Enchiladas with Spicy Pumpkin Sauce
Makes 12 appetizers or 6 entrees
Adapted from Catherine Bergen, C Casa

Everyone in Napa knows that the best place in town for tacos and Mexican fusion fare is C Casa. When I saw this recipe in our local paper, I knew I had to try it. We were not disappointed - the blending of flavors is outstanding. I've never been so happy to have leftovers!

For sauce:
4 cups pureed organic pumpkin (two 15-ounce cans) or any winter squash
2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 jalapeños, chopped
6 large cloves garlic
3-4 Tbsp. curry vindaloo (depending on how spicy you want it)
1 tsp. sea salt
Puree above ingredients until smooth.

For filling:
3 cups shredded chicken, duck or pork
4 cups goat cheese and Oaxacan cheese (we use all goat cheese)
1/2 cup chopped green onions
Mix cheese with green onions.

12 white corn or flour tortillas

Possible Condiments:
Lime crema (Mexican sour cream with fresh lime juice)
Green onions
Toasted pumpkin seeds
Micro greens
Sea salt

To assemble:

Preheat oven to 425 F. Cover one large baking dish with olive or grapeseed oil spray. Pour enough of the sauce to generously cover the bottom of the baking dish.

Lay the tortillas flat. Add the protein of your choice. (You can also just do cheese enchiladas; in that case, use 5 cups of the cheese mixture.) Top the meat with some of the cheese mixture, then roll each tortilla tightly and place in baking dish, seam side down.

Pour the rest of the sauce over the enchiladas and top with remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes or until bubbling hot all the way though.

To serve, place one or two enchiladas in the center of a salad or dinner plate. Top the enchiladas with micro greens and toasted pumpkin seeds, then drizzle with lime crema. Finish with sea salt.

Barley Risotto with Winter Squash
Serves 4
Adapted from Real Simple

Last winter when we were working through our mountain of squash - and had a newborn baby - my Mom helped me whip up this risotto for dinner. Every ingredient needed was already in the kitchen (my litmus test for a good recipe) and the result was hearty and delicious.

2  tablespoons  olive oil
small winter squash (about 11/2 pounds)—peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
onion, finely chopped
kosher salt and black pepper
1  cup  pearl barley
1/2  cup  dry white wine
3  cups  low-sodium vegetable broth
5  ounces  baby spinach
1/2  cup  grated Parmesan (2 ounces), plus more for serving
1  tablespoon  unsalted butter

Heat oven to 400° F. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large oven-safe saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the squash, onion, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring often, until the onion begins to soften, 4 to 6 minutes.

Add the barley to the vegetables and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the broth and bring to a boil; cover the pot and transfer it to oven. Bake until the barley is tender, 35 to 40 minutes.

Stir in the spinach, Parmesan, and butter. Serve with additional Parmesan.