December 18, 2011

Holiday Open House Countdown Part Three: It's the Little Things

Every year, when I’m cooking dozens and dozens of hors d’oeuvres for the Open House, I’m reminded of Mrs. Flax, the mother in the movie Mermaids.  Played brilliantly by Cher, Mrs Flax only cooks finger food because anything else, she proclaims, is too much of a commitment.

I know what she means.  A marshmallow kebab is assembled in a matter of seconds, while a lasagne takes time, patience and love. 

But a funny thing happens when you’re making hors d’oeuvres in bulk.  The same time, patience and love that you commit to a full blown meal works its way into every dip or meatball, every fondue and tapenade. 

We’ve done pretty much everything we can do now.  Dishes made ahead are defrosting; table set, serving dishes labelled and at the ready.  The servers will be here in less than five hours, the guests hot on their heels, hungry and happy and full of holiday spirit. 

As I share one more recipe and five more favourite Open House tips with you, I know that every dish we’ve laboured over, sprinkled with a lot of patience and seasoned with love, is worth the time and commitment we make to this seasonal celebration.  May your own holiday celebrations be just as meaningful, and just as much fun.

adapted from Martha Stewart Hors d’Ouevres Handbook
makes 3 dozen

These little risotto balls (arancini means "little orange" in Italian) are delicious warm or room temperature and can be made ahead.  I've adapted the recipe by adding a savoury meat filling that makes these little bites even more satisfying.

For the risotto
4 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 large shallots
1 c Arborio rice
½ c dry white wine
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 oz Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
½ cup all purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup yellow cornmeal or fine dry breadcrumbs
2 quarts peanut oil, for frying

1. Bring stock to a simmer over medium heat.  Reduce heat to low and keep warm.  

2. Heat the olive oil over medium heat, and cook the shallots until translucent. Add the rice and the salt, stirring frequently to coat all of the grains, until the edges of the rice become translucent. 

3. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until nearly all of the wine is absorbed into the rice. Add 1 cup of the stock and cook, stirring constantly, until nearly all of the stock is absorbed.

4. Continue adding stock, ½ cup at a time, stirring constantly, until the rice is creamy but still firm, about 20 minutes. Season with pepper to taste. Stir in the parsley and Parmesan.

5. Remove from the heat and transfer to a large bowl. Allow the rice to cool completely, stirring occasionally. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm and thoroughly chilled. The mixture must be cold before proceeding with the recipe.

For the meat filling
¼ c olive oil
1 each small onion, carrot and celery stalk, finely chopped
¼ lb each ground pork and veal, mixed
1 c Marsala
½ c beef stock
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp minced parsley

1.  In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook until softened. 

2.  Add the meat, stirring to break up, and cook until just browned; do not overcook.  Add the Marsala, and turn heat to high; scrape up browned bits as you deglaze the pan.  Reduce liquid by half.

3.  Add the three remaining ingredients, turn heat to medium and simmer until thickened, about 15-20 minutes.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4.  If the risotto is chilled, proceed with recipe, otherwise the meat filling can be stored in the refrigerator overnight.  Reheat gently to release juices before proceeding with recipe.

5.   Place 1 generous tablespoon of the risotto in the palm of your hand, pack it lightly and make an indentation in the centre.  Place a teaspoon of the meat mixture in the centre of the rice.  Enclose the meat with the risotto to form a ball.  Don't worry if the meat is not perfectly centred in the ball. Repeat with the remaining risotto and meat, placing finished arancini on parchment-lined trays.  The arancini may be covered and refrigerated overnight at this stage.

6.  Place the flour in a small rimmed baking tray.  Place the eggs in a shallow bowl and the cornmeal or breadcrumbs in a small rimmed baking tray.  Roll the arancini first in the flour, gently shaking off any excess.  Dip the balls into the egg mixture, being sure to let any excess egg drip off before rolling in the cornmeal.  
7.     Heat the peanut oil in a large deep skillet.  Carefully slip as many arancini as will fit comfortably in the pan into the hot oil, and fry until golden, 2 to 4 minutes.  Repeat until all of the arancini are cooked.  Drain the arancini on paper towels and keep warm until ready to serve.
The arancini can be prepared and cooked one day in advance and reheated in the oven before serving, or formed and refrigerated, uncooked, two days in advance. 

Five Tips For Prepping a Party For a Crowd

1.  Do what restaurants do: sear your meat in advance and finish cooking a la minute.  Lamb chops are an Open House standard for us.  We marinate the racks and sear the meat in advance.  On party day, all that's left to do is the final broil.


...and seared, ready to be finished the next day 

2.  Don't limit yourself to hors d’oeuvres recipes.  Rethink your favourite main course dishes and think about how you can downsize them.  Have a killer lasagne recipe?  Make it, cook it, cool it, precut into little squares, freeze it and presto - lasagne "bites" that you can reheat on party day. 

3.  When we host a dinner party, I always seem to buy too much bread.  With a food ethic that says "never throw anything away",  I slice those half baguettes and freeze them.  Then, whenever I'm throwing a party, I thaw out the slices and toast for crostini/bruschette bottoms.  For the Open House, I also make my own.  One large baguette yields more than two dozen crostini and cost a couple of dollars; a fancy box of crostini yields far less than that, some of them broken, and cost $5.49.  You do the math.

4.  While I do have an extra fridge and freezer in the basement, I also use every available space to keep things cold.  The garage doubles as a giant fridge at this time of year, as does the back porch.  Especially handy for beverages (see tip #5).

5.  We always serve a delicious non-alcoholic punch that both adults and kids love.  I prep four batches in advance in empty extra large cranberry juice bottles, combining everything but the carbonated ingredients.  On party day, I pour a batch into the punch bowl, add the remaining bubbles, stir and serve. 

I'm off to do my last minute prep.  Wishing you a lovely Sunday, wherever you may be.

December 10, 2011

Holiday Open House Countdown Part Two: Gingerbread Cookies

 Holiday Pop Quiz:
Gingerbread originated in which country?

a.  Sweden
  b.  Armenia
c.  France

If you’re anything like me, random facts, stats, historical footnotes and unusual bits of information intrigue and stick with me. For some reason, I can conveniently forget to pay the phone bill but miraculously remember that the name Wendy was made up for the play Peter Pan, or that Canadians eat more Kraft Dinner per capita than any other country in the world.

I especially love knowing those random and fascinating facts about food. Why mint with lamb? Is Greek yogurt really of Greek origin? And, as I baked more than 17 dozen gingerbread cookies this past weekend for our holiday Open House, I wondered - just where does gingerbread come from?

You’ll have plenty of time to decide if it’s Sweden, Armenia or France while you bake up a batch of my favourite, go-to gingerbread cookies. I’ll admit I’ve tweaked the recipe quite a bit over the years, adding more spices and heightening the ginger-to-molasses ratio. Before you do your own tinkering, try the original version below, from LCBO’s Food and Drink magazine.  And if you really need to know the answer about where gingerbread comes from before you break your first egg, scroll to the end of the post.

Gingerbread Cookies
from LCBO Food and Drink magazine
yields approximately four dozen*
*NB: The yield is entirely dependant on the size of the cookie cutters used.  Naturally, the smaller the cutter the greater the yield, but you are also limiting your ability to later personalise the cookies.

2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp powdered ginger
4 tsp cinnamon
6 c unsifted all purpose flour
1 c vegetable shortening
1¾ c brown sugar
1¼ c white sugar
4 tsp molasses
3 large eggs, room temperature
½ c milk

1. Preheat oven to 325°F.

2.  Sift together the baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and flour.  Set aside. 

3. In a stand mixer, cream together the shortening, the two sugars and molasses until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time and continue to cream until incorporated.

4.  Add a little of the flour mixture to the creamed ingredients, incorporating fully before adding more.  When the dough begins to stiffen, begin alternating flour mixture with milk, until both are incorporated.  Mix until a dough is formed.  Cover the dough and refrigerate for at least one hour.

5.  Roll out the dough on a floured surface, about a ¼ inch thick.  Cut out gingerbread with cookie cutters.  If you intend to use the cookies as ornaments, form a hole at the top of the cookie using a straw or chopstick, about a ¼ inch from the top. 

6.  Bake cookies until golden brown at the edges, about 20-25 minutes.  Cool on racks and store until ready to decorate.

Five Tips for Baking Gingerbread Cookies

1.  Start early.  Gingerbread is hardy.  If well cooled and stored in an airtight container, the cookies can be baked weeks in advance.

2.  Sift dry ingredients ahead of time.  If you`re making lots of cookies, sift the dry ingredients for each batch ahead of time and store in Ziplock bags.  It`s an extra step done and makes the work go much more quickly.

3.  Make the dough and prepare the cookies sheets in batches too.  Because the dough has to rest for at least an hour, I spend one evening making the dough and store it in the fridge and then do a massive baking the next night.  Instead of popping every tray in the oven as they're full, I do five full sheets at a time, eliminating the need to constantly open the oven door.

4.  Use chopsticks to form the holes...both before and after baking.  The holes tend to lose their shape during baking; a quick turn in each cookie ensures you`ll be able to thread ribbon through much more easily.

Reinforce ribbon holes in still-warm cookies

5.  Buy extra oven racks and use the convection setting.  I only really bake en masse once a year, but even so that one time made it worth it for me to buy three extra oven racks from my oven manufacturer for mass baking.  Plus, I`m able to use those extra racks for reheating hors d'oeuvres during the Open House.  I also started using the convection setting on my oven, shaving about 10 minutes from the baking time of each batch.

Click here for a super Royal Icing recipe that`s perfect to decorate these brown beauties.

So, where did gingerbread originate?  According to Wikipedia, gingerbread was brought to France via Pompeii in 992 by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis.  The recipe later spread to Sweden and to the nether regions of Europe, every country adding a twist to make it their own.  The constant is the spicy heat from ginger and the abundance of spices in general, reflecting the tendency to use the most rare and coveted ingredients for the Christmas feast.