Sunday, January 30, 2011

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.

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