Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Fondue Feast

      Late last night (or early this morning, depending on your perspective!) I made the post about do-ahead pasta dinners. Another easy entertaining option after you’ve had a busy workweek is fondue.        
      With fondue, you don’t have any cooking to do in advance. Just have your fondue pots set at the table, and your dippers and dipping sauces ready to go. If you’re making cheese fondue, all you have to do is cube some French bread and have the ingredients ready to make cheese dipping sauce. If you’re making meat fondue, you just need to cube your meat before your guests arrive and either buy or prepare some simple dipping sauces.
      We hosted a fondue party last night and it went really well. I set up two tables: one for steak and chicken fondue, and another for cheese fondue. Guests started out eating either meat or cheese fondue, and after about a half hour, we switched tables so everyone could try both fondues. We had a big tossed green salad to go with the meal too. Here are my recipes:

Cheddar Cheese Fondue

3 cups half-and-half
1 T. plus 2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 T. dry mustard
1 tsp. crushed garlic
36 oz. cheddar cheese (mild or sharp)
5 T. flour
½ to 1 tsp. salt (depending on taste)

      In medium saucepan over low heat, heat first four ingredients until hot (but not boiling). In another bowl, mix cheese and flour together. Then whisk cheese and flour mixture into hot mixture. Blend together until the cheese is melted and the mixture is smooth. Add salt. Then pour into a ceramic fondue pot for serving, keeping warm over a low-flame setting. Dip chunks of French bread and steamed broccoli and cauliflower into the cheese dip.
      Keep in mind you’re not actually cooking in the ceramic fondue pot. These kinds of fondue pots are designed just for warming and serving—not for high heat cooking. You want a low heat for the cheese sauce so that it doesn’t scald.

Meat Fondue
      For the meat fondue, that’s usually done in a metal pot, so that the oil can be heated to a temperature high enough to actually cook the meat cubes.
      You can use just about any cut of boneless steak in meat fondue. I usually use boneless round steak, thick cut. Cut it in cubes about ¾ to 1” in size. For extra flavor, I marinate the steak overnight in a steak marinade. You can use either a package or bottled marinade, or use a homemade recipe.
      This recipe makes enough marinade for about 2-3 pounds worth of steak cubes: ½ cup canola oil, 2 T. vinegar, 1/4 cup lemon juice, 1 tsp. basil, 1 tsp. onion powder, 1 tsp. oregano, 1 T. soy sauce, 1 T. Worcestershire sauce, 1 tsp. crushed garlic and 1/2 tsp. black pepper. Mix all of the ingredients together, and pour over to steak cubes.
      Last night, we also had breaded chicken cubes to cook in the fondue pots. Use boneless chicken breasts, and cube them ahead of time. Then right before you want to cook them, dip them in beaten eggs and roll them in garlic-herb bread crumbs.
      About 15 minutes before you want to eat, start heating the oil in the fondue pot. Fill the pot about two-thirds full with oil. I usually keep the flame on medium-high, so that it’s hot enough to cook the meat, but not so high that the oil starts splattering. Guests can then spear pieces of chicken and beef with their fondue forks, and cook the meat to their liking.
      You will also need a variety of sauces for dipping the steak cubes into after they’re cooked. There are a lot of ready-made sauces you can use: Hollandaise sauce, horseradish, Ranch salad dressing, honey mustard salad dressing Dijon mustard, barbecue sauce, steak sauce—to name some of the more popular choices.
      I always like to make up a few of my own dipping sauces. Here are some of my favorite mixtures. With all of these, you just blend the ingredients together and chill them before serving (Ideally it’s best to mix them the night before you’re going to serve them, so that the flavors blend.):

1 T. chili sauce
½ tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
2 T. chopped chives
1 T. chopped parsley
1 cup mayonaise

1 cup mayonnaise
1 T. prepared mustard

1 cup sour cream
1 pkg. dry onion soup & dip mix

1 cup mayonaise
¼ cup chili sauce
2 T. tomato paste
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 T. chopped fresh tarragon
1 T. chopped chives
Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 3 cloves garlic (depending on taste), mashed
1 cup mayonaise
2 tsp. Parmesan cheese

3/4 cup mayonnaise
2 Tbsp wine vinegar
1 Tbsp dry mustard
3 Tbsp sweet, hot mustard

½ cup mayonaise
½ cup sour cream
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. curry powder

1 cup sour cream
1 Tbsp minced parsley
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp chopped chives
1 tsp grated onion
chopped fresh or dried dill to taste

8 oz whipped cream cheese, softened
2 T. milk
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
1 tsp finely chopped onion
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cumin

      I like to put each sauce in 1 or ½ cup-sized bowls or ramekins, and then I’ll attach a label to each identifying the dip. Usually I’ll set the sauces on the fondue table, so guests can get small spoonfuls of the sauces they want to put on their plate. A lot of the fun is sampling the different sauces and dips.

      What about dessert? If you decide to go with a totally-fondue dinner, and want to end with chocolate fondue, you might want to use the same recipe I included in the post I recently did about crock pots—only put the chocolate sauce in an actual fondue pot instead of a crock pot. I have a small wrought iron fondue pot (which is coated in enamel) which I use for chocolate fondue. You will want to pour the sauce into the pot as soon as it is melted and warm, and then keep the flame on a low setting so the chocolate doesn’t burn. Have on hand all the dippers I listed in the crock pot post—marshmallows, macaroons, fresh fruit, etc

      Where can you buy a good fondue pot? I’m still using the ones I bought in Switzerland and Bavaria many yeas ago. I have a couple copper pots, 2 ceramic pots and a wrought iron pot. The selection isn’t as good in U. S. stores; mostly what you find are the metal fondue pots (metal stand/burner and metal pot), which American companies might advertise for use with cheese sauce, but these are really best for heating hot oil for meats. You can also find the wrought iron pots/stands in American stores (these are good for chocolate and cheese fondue, but don't heat the oil high enough for meat fondue).
      The ceramic pots which are very popular in Europe (which have a wrought iron or metal stand) are harder to find in the United States. These are ideal for chocolate and cheese fondues. You can find some Swiss-style fondue pots on, including a lot with cute cow designs on the pot.
      You will also need fondue forks; most sets come with some. I like to buy extra—just to have them on hand.

      Fondue is a wonderful way to entertain. Over the years I’ve had some good conversations while sitting at the table waiting for my steak cube to cook, and a lot of laughs when the meat fried a little too much or I couldn’t find the piece of bread that somehow “disappeared” into the cheese sauce. Plan a fondue party, and chances are you’ll build some good memories too.

No-Stress Pasta Dinners

      These days one very real aspect of creative hospitality is finding the time to do it. This past week, I worked four days substitute teaching at my sons’ high school (something I do when I have a lull in my regular freelance writing work). It got me thinking about what a challenge it is to prepare to host a dinner party on the weekend, when you’re away at work on the weekdays.
      There’s menu planning to do, grocery shopping, all the food prep—not to mention tidying up your house enough to get it company-ready. Who has the time and energy for all that when you’ve already put in a long day at work?!!
      Yet I love to have company over for Friday or Saturday dinner. Sharing a good meal with friends is a wonderful way to unwind after a super-busy week! The only way it’s going to happen though is with advance planning.
     What I try do do is use some of my “free time” on weekends—usually Sunday afternoons—to do ahead of time what needs to be done for the upcoming week. That includes preparing food for dinner parties. There is so much that can be done in advance.
      Two of my favorite entrées to serve to company are lasagna and chicken tetrazzini—both tasty pasta dishes. These can both be made ahead of time and kept in the freezer (unbaked) for up to 3-4 months. A couple days before you want to bake them, you just need to pull them out of the freezer and put them in the refrigerator to thaw.
      Here are the recipes:

Chicken Tetrazzini

6 to 8 boneless chicken breasts, cooked and cubed
½ cup butter
1 large can mushrooms
3 large onions, sliced
2 cups chicken broth
½ cup water
½ cup white wine
2 tsp. basil
2 tsp. oregano
2 tsp. garlic power
2 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
2 T. corn starch
2 cups half and half
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 16-ounce package Mostacolli pasta
16 oz. shredded Mozzarella cheese

Melt butter, and add onion slices and cook until tender. Add mushrooms, chicken broth, water, basil, oregano, garlic powder, salt, pepper and chicken cubes. Simmer about one hour over low heat. Near the end of the cooking time, cook Mostacolli noodles (according to the package directions) and drain. Combine cornstarch with half and half slowly; add to bubbly chicken mixture and cook until thickened. Add Parmesan cheese and Mostacolli to chicken mixture. Grease a large baking dish or two 1-quart-sized casserole dishes. Layer half the chicken mixture, half the Mozzarella cheese, and then the rest of the chicken mixture and the rest of the Mozzarella cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, until lightly browned and bubbly. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Makes about 8 servings.

Classic Lasagna

2 pounds lean ground beef
3 large onions, chopped
1 28-ounce can and 1 14-ounce can tomatoes (crushed or broken whole tomatoes)
2 12-ounce cans tomato paste
3 cups water
2 T. Parsley
2 tsp. dried oregano
3 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
2 ½ tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. black pepper
16 ounces lasagna noodles
2 pounds Ricotta cheese or large curd cottage cheese (or a combination)
24 ounces shredded Mozzarella cheese
2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

In a Dutch oven, lightly brown beef and onion. Add tomatoes, paste, water, parsley, oregano, salt, sugar, garlic powder and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, cook lasagna as directed; drain. This makes enough for two 13 by 9 inch baking pans of lasagna. In each pan, spread about one cup of sauce. Then alternate layers of lasagna, sauce, ricotta or cottage cheese, Mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, ending with sauce, Mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 to 50 minutes. Each pan makes about 8 very large servings.

      I like to serve up a tossed salad and an Italian bread of some kind with these pasta dishes. If you’re pressed for time, buy a pre-washed salad mix at the grocery store. I really like the “Parisian Mix” available at Costco. For bread, a lot of times I’ll just buy a loaf of frozen garlic bread, or I’ll just pick up some Asiago cheese bread at Panera Bread (aka: St. Louis/Atlanta Bread Company).
      Round out the meal with a nice bottle of Italian wine, and a quart of sorbet or gelato. My favorite specialty supermarket sells a tiramisu that is to die for, and sometimes I’ll pick up one of those as the finale to a lasagna or chicken tetrazzini dinner.
      There are plenty of time-savers you can take advantage of when entertaining. The truth is, your guests won’t mind that everything you’re serving isn’t homemade, or that your entrée was something you pulled out of the freezer. What matters most is that you’re able  to enjoy each other’s company. That’s much more likely to happen if the host/hostess isn’t exhausted or stressed.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Product Recommendation: Lt. Blender's Frozen Cocktails in a Bag


      As I’ve already mentioned, I’m really “in” to last-minute time-savers. I’m also “in” to menu items that can add some fun to dinner parties. Here’s a product I recently discovered that meets both criteria:  Lt. Blender’s frozen cocktails in a bag.
      Two of my favorites are their Strawberry Daiquiri and Peach Bellini Wine Freezer varieties. The company makes drink mix bags for nine other cocktails too, including margaritas, mojitos, Sangria, Pina Coladas and Hurricanes. Each bag makes enough for 16 4-ounce servings.
      In the past, I have tried other drink mixes, but these are by far the best ones I’ve ever tasted. People often ask for my recipe when I serve these products. Even though these are powder-mixes, they’re all-natural, and don’t have the artificial taste that many other drink mixes have.
      What I really like about them is there’s no last-minute preparation involved. Usually when company is over, a mixed blender drink sounds good before the meal. But that’s when I’m usually doing last-minute meal prep. There’s not time to shave ice, fiddle with the blender, measure out ingredients, etc. But with these drink mixes, I don’t have to do any of that.
       Everything is done in advance, and it is so easy. You just fill the mix bags with alcohol the night before you want to serve them, and put the pouches in your freezer. When your guests arrive. you just need to get the drink pouches out of the freezer, open them and start serving. They are a wonderful time saver!
      If you’re looking for quick and easy fun addition at your next get-together, you might want to try a Lt. Blender’s mix for yourself. I highly recommend them!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Delectable Do-Ahead Desserts: Chocolate and Raspberry Mousse Cups

            When I plan dinner parties, I often first decide what dessert (or desserts!) I want to make, and then think about what kind of entrée and side dishes could go with it. I love dessert, and enjoy having several at any dinner party I host. After all, it’s really fun to be able to sample several sweet treats at the end of a meal.
            I’m also really keen on no-stress meals. Who wants to be frantically running around the kitchen making last-minute food preparations when your company is at the dinner table relaxing?!! I like doing whatever I can in advance. That includes making desserts ahead of time.
            Two of my favorite do-ahead desserts are chocolate mousse and raspberry mousse in individual chocolate dessert or cordial cups. Anyone who’s been to our home in recent years has probably been served these mousse cups at least once. These mousse cups are simple, but elegant-looking. I’ve been told by my guests that they’re tasty too.
            What’s great about them is you can make them up a couple weeks or several months before you serve them, and store them in the freezer. Then all you need to do is take the mousse cups out of the freezer about an hour before you want to serve them, and sit them out at room temperature. Usually I’ll do this when we start the main entrée. By the time guests are finished eating that, the dessert cups have been thawed. You would never be able to tell that they were prepared several weeks or months earlier.
            I’ll give you the instructions here, in case you want to try to make these mousse cups for yourself.

Making the Chocolate Dessert Cups
            The first step is to make the chocolate cups. I have a huge selection of chocolate dessert cup molds, which I have collected over the years. You can sometimes find these molds at craft shops. If you can’t find them there, I suggest going online and getting them from
   carries a large variety of chocolate cups and candy molds. My favorite are made by CK Products. One of theirs that I recommend is the “Assorted Dessert Cups mold” (item number 90-5630). This is a plastic sheet with four individual dessert molds on it: an oval, triangle, diamond and circle. It will last many years with good care. Each sheet costs around $2. This company also makes molds for individually-sized round fluted and cordial cups. They’re all good for filling mousse.
            To make the chocolate molds, you will need to coat them with chocolate. I usually use either Wilton “Candy Melts” candy coating wafers, or one of the brands of chocolate disks available at craft stores such as Hobby Lobby. You can choose from white, dark or milk chocolate candy melts. I like all three, and usually I’ll make all three types of chocolate cups—just to have the variety. Melt the chocolate disks in the microwave in a small glass or plastic bowl, for one minute. Stir, then melt for 15 to 30 second intervals until the chocolate is just melted (you don’t want it to burn!).
            Use a small paint brush, and “paint” a layer of chocolate on the inside of each mold. After the mold cavities are all painted, lightly tap the mold to get out any air bubbles. Then put the mold in the freezer for a 2-3 minutes. When the chocolate is hard, take out the mold and pop out each chocolate cup. Now you are ready to fill them.
            I have two favorite mousse recipes, which I use to fill my mousse cups. Here they are:

Super-Creamy Chocolate Mousse

8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 1/3 cups superfine granulated sugar (or “Baker’s Sugar”)
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/3 cup milk
2 tsp. vanilla
3 cups heavy whipping cream

Combine cream cheese and sugar in medium mixing bowl. Stir in cocoa, milk and vanilla and beat until smooth. Whip cream until stiff peaks form; fold in. Spoon into a decorator bag with a star tip and fill individual chocolate dessert cups. Put them in the freezer or refrigerator until ready to serve. (You don’t have to put them in the freezer. If you like a softer consistency and if you are planning on eating them the day you make them, you could just keep the mousse cups in the refrigerator.) If desired, garnish with a chocolate covered espresso bean or chocolate leaf.

Raspberry Mousse

2 pints fresh raspberries
2 T. lemon juice
2 cups heavy whipping cream
Whites of 2 jumbo eggs
2/3 cup super-fine granulated sugar (or “Baker’s Sugar”)

Wash and pat dry the raspberries, and then put them into a food processor or blender. Blend them until smooth. Add lemon juice. Put the raspberry mixture through a sieve, so that there are no seeds. Set aside. In another bowl, beat cream until stiff peaks form. Then fold into raspberry mixture. Next, whip the egg whites and sugar together. Beat until the sugar is dissolved (using super-fine sugar facilitates this process), and then fold into raspberry mixture. Spoon into a decorator bag with a star tip and fill individual chocolate dessert cups. Chill or freeze until firm. When ready to serve, top each individual mousse cup with a fresh raspberry.

            As an alternative, manufacturers make some wonderful mousse mixes. There are a couple I particularly recommend. One is Inspired Cuisine’s European Style Mousse Mix (available at many supermarkets and specialty food stores), and King Arthur Flour’s Raspberry Mousse Mix (available online at Not only are they quick and easy to prepare, they taste scrumptious, and your guests would never guess it’s a mix. In fact, I’ve used these mousse mixes before and my guests have asked for the recipe and I’ve had to tell them it was a mix. People are always surprised that a mix could taste that good.
            Well, that’s it for my blog today. I hope you like these recipes! Now I have to run down to the grocery store and pick up some nacho ingredients for the big football game today….The Chicago Bears versus the Green Bay Packers. If the right team wins, I’ll be making a football cake with an orange “C” on it for a Super Bowl Party two weeks from today!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Dip for Dinner!

            As much as I like to host parties, it’s also really fun to be invited somewhere else. Tomorrow night we’re invited to another couple’s home for game night. They regularly will pick a Saturday night and invite several families or couples, and everyone brings their favorite appetizers or finger foods. They’ve been having these parties for as long as we’ve known them. Guests munch on appetizers (which are usually much more than cheese and crackers, but really hearty hors d’oeuvres!) while playing some kind of group game like Pictionary or Spoons.
            I’m bringing my favorite Mexican 7-Layer Dip, and a couple bags of On the Border tortilla chips. Technically, it’s an appetizer, but I figure you get most of your basic food groups in it so it’s almost like a meal in itself. I know I’ll make it a big part of my meal tomorrow night!
            Here’s the recipe, in case you’d like to try it. It’s another great do-ahead dish. I usually make it up the night before, so it’s all ready to go.

Seven Layer Tex-Mex Dip

1 can refried beans (I use Amy’s Organic Refried Beans, which are seasoned and taste delicious!)
1 16-ounce carton sour cream
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 pack of dry taco seasoning mix or Fiesta Ranch dip mix
16 ounce containers guacamole dip (I use Wholly Guacamole—again, very delicious! And there are natural preservatives in there, so the guacamole doesn’t go bad even though it’s fresh.)
12 ounces finely shredded Monterey Jack and mild cheddar cheese mix
2 bunches green onions, sliced thinly
1 large tomato (chopped finely)
½ cup black olives, sliced thinly

Assemble the layers in a 7 by 11 inch glass baking dish. The layers will be thin, so that when you dip a tortilla chip, you get all seven flavors in every bite. First, spread the refried beans over the bottom of the dish.

Next, beat the cream cheese, sour cream and taco seasoning together, and then spread that on top of the refried bean layer. 
Make the guacamole the third layer; spread it over the cream cheese mixture very carefully so that it doesn’t get mixed up in the first two layers.

For the fourth layer, sprinkle the cheese on top of the guacamole.

The last three layers are the green onions, then tomatoes, and black olives on top.

Cover the dip with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator until ready to eat. Serve the dip with tortilla chips. Enjoy!

My Favorite All-Crock Pot “Comfort Dinner”

      It’s cold here in northern Texas right now, and nothing tastes better on a blustery winter evening than COMFORT FOOD! Now, up until three years ago, I was a Midwesterner, living in the far-north Chicago suburbs. I didn’t think it would ever get cold enough in Dallas to truly appreciate comfort food. But surprise, surprise, there are a couple months of the year here when this kind of cuisine really hits the spot.
      I have certain favorite foods I especially like to make during the winter months, and many of these entrees are cooked in a crock pot. There is nothing nicer than walking into your house on a cold day and smelling something delicious coming from your kitchen!
      Many times I use several slow cookers for one meal. I especially like to do this for weekend entertaining when company is coming over. Often times, we’re gone a lot during the early part of the day, and then will have guests over for dinner, like after church. It’s great when you can arrive home with your company, and the entire meal is all ready. You don’t have to frantically scurry around, trying to get the food ready.
      Now, you might say, but who owns several crock pots? Well, I must confess that I do. In fact, when we moved to Texas, one of our friends who was already living here (someone we’d known a long time—when we used to live in California) offered to help us unload our moving truck when we moved into our new home here in the Dallas area. Well, did I ever get razzed! He’d never seen so many boxes marked “Kitchen” or “Kitchen Fragile” in his life! Probably at least half of all the boxes we moved into our new house had the “Kitchen” label on it.
      What made this friend laugh even harder is that I had eight crock pots in those boxes. All he could say was, “Who needs that many crock pots?!!” Well, that many slow cookers may not be a “need,” but I do use them all. These crock pots are of different sizes. The larger 6 or 6 ½ quart ones are great for roasts and big batches of soup. The small ones are ideal for vegetables and other side dishes.
      One of my all-time favorite winter dinner menus uses six crock pots of varying sizes, each for a different course, entrée, or side dish. I’ve served up this menu a couple times this month for company, and both times it went over really well.
      What follows are the recipes for this all-crock pot dinner. You may not have enough crock pots to cook each of these dishes simultaneously, but you may want to try at least one of these recipes at your next gathering—especially if “comfort cuisine” is in order!

Roast Beef with Mushroom Gravy

In a 6 or 6 ½ quart crock pot, arrange 2 – 3 pound boneless chuck roasts (thawed) on top of 2 large Spanish onions, sliced thinly. Top with 2 packets dry onion soup mix and 2 family-size cans of cream of mushroom soup. Cook on low for 8-10 hours.

Extra Creamy Mashed Potatoes

5 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled, cooked and mashed
8 ounces cream cheese
1 pint sour cream
3 tsp. garlic powder
1 ½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
3 T. butter, softened

Combine all ingredients and spoon into a medium-sized (a 3- or 4-quart sized) buttered crock pot. Cook on low for 4-5 hours.

Orange-Spiced Sweet Potatoes

4 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and diced in 1-inch cubes
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
6 Tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
2 ½ tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. grated orange peel
Juice of 2 medium-sized oranges
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Put all of the ingredients into a medium-sized crock pot (4 quart size works well) and cook on low for 4 to 5 hours, until potatoes are fork-tender.

Creamed Spinach

3 16-ounce bags frozen spinach leaves, thawed
16 ounce counter small curd cottage cheese
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
3 large eggs
1/3 cup flour
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
½ cup butter, melted

First, thaw and drain the spinach. Usually I’ll microwave the frozen spinach, one bag at a time, just enough to melt the ice and bring the spinach at room temperature, and then I wring out the water with my hands (one handful of spinach at a time). Put the spinach and all the other ingredients in a small crock pot (a 3- or 3 ½ quart size is ideal). Cook on high for 1 hour. Then turn to the low setting and cook for another 4 hours.

Green Beans Almandine—Slow Cooker Style

3 10-ounce packages frozen French-cut green beans, thawed
2 (10 ½ ounce) cans cream of mushroom soup
2 tsp. Parsley
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
¾ cup toasted slivered almonds

Combine all ingredients except almonds in 3-quart crock pot. Cook on low setting for 4 hours. When just about ready to serve, toast almonds: put them in a pan with a tablespoon butter, and stir over low heat until slightly brown. Sprinkle green beans with toasted almonds right before serving.

Dessert: Chocolate Fondue
1 12-ounce package chocolate chips (semi sweet or milk chocolate)
4 T. butter
2 cans sweetened condensed milk
2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a small sauce pan or microwave, melt together the chocolate chips and butter. Remove from heat, and stir in the sweetened condensed milk and vanilla. Pour into a small crock pot (Rival’s 16-ounce “Little Dipper” is just big enough to hold this recipe. You can also purchase 1.2 quart crock pots and these work fine too.). Turn the crock pot on low, and heat the chocolate fondue for 30 minutes to an hour—just until the mixture is warm. Usually, I’ll make up the chocolate fondue ahead of time, keep it in the fridge, and when we sit down to eat the main meal, I’ll start the chocolate fondue heating in the crock pot.

Serve the chocolate fondue with a variety of dippers, including fresh strawberries, banana slices, mandarin oranges, chunks of fresh or canned pineapple, marshmallows, pound cake cubes, angel food cake cubes, and macaroons.

Happy eating!!!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hospitality Tips for Those who are not "Natural Entertainers"

I absolutely love to have people over, and host get-togethers of all kinds! It could be a formal dinner party with the Royal Doulton china, the “real” silverware and the Waterford crystal goblets, or it could be a potluck with a long buffet line set up in my kitchen. I’ve also enjoyed hosting other types of get-togethers like card parties with lots of fattening snacks, Bunco parties for teens, burger cookouts, pizza making parties, cookie decorating parties for the children, pool parties galore this past summer, formal afternoon teas for the ladies, wine and cheese/appetizer parties, and dessert-tasting parties.
There are few weekends when I don’t have some kind of event planned at our house. (Actually, my husband and two teenage sons often have a hard time keeping track of what all is going on, but they know there’s always something fun planned at our house for the upcoming weekend.) The weekends give us something to look forward to!
I know our guests appreciate it too. After all, who doesn’t enjoy being invited over for a home-cooked dinner or a lively party?!! But being the one bestowing the hospitality—well, oftentimes that’s easier said than done. I know not everyone sees entertaining as a “fun thing.”
            Preparing a nice meal and getting your home “company ready” can take a lot of time—something that is a scarce commodity these days. Maybe you think your house is too small or not nice enough to have guests over. You may be looking at your household budget and thinking you barely can afford to feed your immediate family, little lone host a dinner party. Or it could just be that the thought a hosting a get-together in your home completely stresses you out. 
            In this blog, I plan on sharing lots of creative ideas for hospitality. These will be ideas for those who are “natural entertainers,” as well as for people who may not be quite so inclined. But I will always stress how doable it is with planning, organization and creativity. I’ll tell you about the parties I’m planning too, so hopefully my enthusiasm will spread.
            Before I get started with specific ideas for parties, I thought I would offer some general tips for those of you who are not natural entertainers. While it may not be something you do every weekend like me, hospitality is something that can be done at least occasionally, if you really want to. Consider the following:

* Take advantage of low-cost and time-saving entertaining options
Don’t let a tight household budget or a lack of time or culinary expertise deter you from having people over. To save on time and costs, consider hosting a potluck-style meal in your home. Have each of your guests bring either a main dish or a dessert and a beverage. You could plan a potluck around a theme, such as everyone brings an Italian or Mexican dish. Taco salad parties are also fun. Each of your guests could bring an ingredient, such as grated cheese, salsa or guacamole. Or, do a cookout where you supply the hamburgers and hot dogs, and you guests all bring side dishes (potato salads, fruit salads, chips and dip, coleslaw, potato salad, desserts, etc.). Assemble all the food and paper plates buffet style on your kitchen countertop, and let your guests sit where they like.
Convenience foods can also make entertaining easier. Pre-washed salad mixes, ready-to-grill marinated kabobs, ready-to-serve vegetable and dip trays, cooked rotisserie chickens, pasta salads from the deli, and brown ‘n serve dinner rolls are all great time savers. You could also pick up from freshly-baked rolls, pies or cakes from your local bakery. Your guests won’t mind that you didn’t do all the food preparation yourself. What matters most is that you make them feel welcome, not that you’ve invited them over for a gourmet dining experience.

* Become an advance planner
            While not all the get-togethers you host will be big, formal sit-down meals, probably some will. And those too are really quite doable—if you plan ahead. It helps to create a preparation schedule (for what you need to do and when) for the weeks and days before and the day of a big event. This helps you organize your time and cuts down on stress.
            A lot of tasks can be done in advance. Oftentimes I’ll make place cards and candle centerpieces, fold cloth napkins, polish silverware, etc., several weeks before a formal dinner. Many appetizers and entrees can be prepared ahead of time and frozen. For instance, you can make mini quiches, egg rolls, meatballs, spaghetti sauce, scones, cupcakes, muffins, etc., several weeks in advance of serving them. Just bake or cook them, freeze them, and then reheat them right before serving and they’ll taste like they’re freshly-made. You can also make up menu items like cheesecakes, pies, casseroles and pasta salads 2-3 days in advance and keep them in the refrigerator until serving. Do whatever food prep you can ahead of time, and save the last-minute cooking for the things that can only be done last minute.

* Develop reliable menus
            Much of the stress of entertaining is wondering if the food is going to turn out or go over well. Once you’ve discovered some entrées that are easy to prepare and your guests really like them, stick with them. Don’t think you have to find new recipes every time you have guests over. It’s okay to serve the same menus again and again (especially if you are having different groups of people over, or if many months have passed since you served a particular entrée to a certain guests). Your guests won’t mind repeat menus, especially if the food is tasty.

* Don’t try to do it all yourself.
            Make entertaining a family activity. Women will oftentimes try to handle all the entertaining details themselves, but they shouldn’t. Hospitality is something both women and men should be involved with.
I know husbands who host regular sushi parties and they know how to make some incredible dishes. Certainly there are a lot of men who masters at grilling too. This works great for the wives, who can get side dishes ready while their husbands prepare the main entrée. But even if your husband isn’t “in” to cooking, he can still be involved in other aspects of being a good host—planning guest lists, inviting people over, greeting guests when they arrive, serving beverages and appetizers to guests before the meal, etc.
You should also involve your children. Children as young as 5 or 6 can sweep floors, wash vegetables for a salad, make place cards, set the table, or do other tasks to get ready for company. Not only does this help you out, but you are teaching your kids that hospitality is a “normal” part of home life. The more they do it, the more hospitality becomes “second nature” to them. Many years ago I started asking my son, who is now 17, to help me get ready for our dinner parties. By now he’s done it so much, that he’s a really confident chef and host—to the point that he’s the one suggesting we invite people over after church.
            One other idea is to ask a friend or other couple to co-host a dinner with you. That way, you’re not the only one doing the cooking and some of your stress may dissipate. I have routinely hosted ladies’ teas with another friend; we share all the baking, preparation and cleanup duties—choosing one of our homes as the venue to host the party. We each invite half the guests—which serves as a way for me to get to know new people (and vice versa), because my co-host might invite people I don’t know well.

*Don’t obsess about your home or your cooking abilities 
            Obviously you should try to tidy up your home before company arrives, but don’t think it has to be “show home” condition before you have people over. If you do, you may never feel ready to have people over. Your guests won’t care if your furniture isn’t dusted, kids’ toys are scattered in the family room, or that you still haven’t gotten those spots off the carpet or painted the kitchen walls. Just try to get your home as neat and clean as time allows. If it’s far from perfect when guests arrive, don’t go on and on apologizing to your guests. If you do, you’ll only make them feel uncomfortable.
            If something you prepare flops—maybe the casserole didn't turn out like the recipe photo or the cheesecake you baked was a little undercooked in the center—realize it happens to the best cooks. Don’t let it dampen your good intentions. Remember, true hospitality isn’t about being a gourmet chef. What matters most is that you’re giving of yourself to others, showing a genuine interest in them, and making them feel special. That’s what hospitality is all about. We’ll get into some creative ideas for practicing this kind of entertaining in upcoming blogs. Talk to you soon!