Looking for a pretty way to dress up drinks while entertaining, or a simple flavoring for ice water? Skip the paper umbrellas and maraschino cherries stabbed with little colored plastic swords. Instead, rethink the ice cube by using some of my ideas below.
Herb-and fruit-infused ice cubes are any easy way to not only spruce up drinks but also can provide some great flavor. Making them is also a great way to use up some uneaten items before they go bad. You can use anything from berries to chopped basil leaves. In addition, freezing edible flowers in ice cubes makes for a gorgeous addition to summer drinks.
Here is a rule of thumb to follow when freezing fruits in ice trays:
Fill the tray one-third full with water and then partially freeze. Add the fruit then freeze solid. This will hold the fruit in position. Next, add water until the tray is about three-fourths full and finish freezing
In addition to simply freezing fruits and herbs in water, you can also flavor the cubes with juices, coffee, or your favorite chocolate! Try freezing some of our FRESH squeezed juices and adding the cubes to drinks. Here are some ideas below:
- Add raspberry or strawberry ice cubes to lemonade
- Add peach or mango ice cubes to iced tea
- Add chocolate ice cubes to milk or iced coffee (see my recipe below)
- Add lemon or lime juice ice cubes to cocktails like margaritas
- Add mint ice cubes to mojitos
Chocolate Ice Cubes
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup water
1 Tbs unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp sugar
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
Combine milk, water, cocoa powder and sugar in a sauce pan and simmer over medium heat until well combined.
Remove from heat and stir in chocolate chips until fully melted.
Pour into ice cube tray and freeze.
We at Coffee Talk have been enjoying our Christmas break, but next Tuesday, we’re back in the FRESH Taste Kitchen at 10 a.m., ready to start a new year, and maybe start working off a few of those cookies.
So, what better guest to kick off a fresh approach to the new year than our own resident healthy living expert, Karen Daniel?
Karen has years of experience working with nutrition, natural remedies and healthy living, so I hope you’ll join us for what promises to be a very practical, inspiring Coffee Talk session. I have been talking with Karen and here’s an example of the type of wisdom she’ll be sharing with us, next Tuesday and also on Jan. 31.
Lifestyle, not diet: Diets don’t work for most of us, and if they do, we put on the weight as soon as we quit the official “diet.” Karen says we need to think about making a lifestyle change – small, incremental improvements in what, when and how much we eat. When eating better is a habit, you won’t fall off the wagon so hard.
What if you crave sweets? Sugar is empty calories, yet if you’re used to eating a lot of sweets, you may have trouble quitting cold turkey. Karen suggests satisfying this craving with vegetables with a high sugar content, like carrots, sweet potatoes and green peas, or with a high-sugar fruit, like bananas or grapes. As you eat more produce, and less refined sugar, you’ll find your tastes actually change, and you’ll taste and enjoy the natural sugar in fruits and vegetables much more.
What if you crave salt? If you crave chips and fries, you may have an electrolyte imbalance. One way to help with this is to take an electrolyte replacement, like the Nuun sports drink tablets, which dissolve in water and help you become optimally hydrated – with no sugar and less than 10 calories per drink.
Don’t forget to exercise: Yes, it burns calories. But even better, exercise can increase your levels of endorphins _ chemicals in your brain that reduce stress and pain, increase feelings of happiness, and even reduce appetite. So you get a triple whammy every time you lace up your gym shoes.
Stay tuned for a new fat-fighting product: Karen also promises to talk about a new product that will be debuting at FRESH in the healthy living department in 2012. She won’t share it just yet, but she says it will be new to Tyler and may be exactly what you need to help lose a few stubborn post-holiday pounds. So be among the first to hear the news on Tuesday!
For big gatherings, buffets just make more logistical sense than family-style seating or dishing out each plate, restaurant style. (Unless you’ve got your own live-in personal chef. In which case, I’m coming to your house for dinner.)
But buffets don’t have to be big and messy and dull. Paying attention to the details can mean the difference between a serving line that’s a big jumble of dishes crammed together, and an elegant buffet that actually looks festive and inviting to guests.
Have a serving plan: Several days before the party, go through the menu and mentally assign containers and serving utensils to each dish. (Personally, I am obsessive enough that I actually go into the kitchen and hunt them down, and create a written list. It’s the only way to remember if you left your favorite platter at your friend’s house on bunco night.) If you don’t have enough, now is the time to borrow extras from family members or neighbors, or buy what you’re missing. If you’re the super-organized type, or this is the first time you’ve hosted a party of this size, actually haul everything out, and try arranging them on tables and counters, so you are sure you have enough room. Finally, make sure you have at least a couple of extra serving spoons and forks stashed away; in my house, anyway, these are always the things that disappear at serving time, and you will want to have some backup.
Don’t worry about matchy-matchy: If your china won’t accommodate everything, or you don’t have enough silver platters, it’s fine to mix and match. To make a more interesting table, mix and match shapes, sizes and colors of serving vessels.
Create some height: Buffet tables look better if everything isn’t down on the same level, or the table isn’t just a big mass of flat square containers. This can be as simple as using a couple of pedestals or cake stands to support serving containers. Or turn over a couple of cake pans, cover them with linens that complement your tablecloth, and place containers on those. If you are using chafing dishes for your main courses, balance their height with some low platters on either side.
Try “food stations:” If your party, and your house, are large, take a page from upscale catering venues and create “food stations” in different areas, rather than one immense table. You can put appetizers in the living room, main course and veggies on the dining room buffet, dessert in the kitchen or even on the patio if it’s warm enough. Or put all the cold dishes on one table, all the warm ones on another. If you’re renting tables, get a few small ones rather than one large one; it also gives you more flexibility.
Make it neat: If you have room, place a small saucer or spoon rest by each large serving container, so people have a place to set utensils rather than just leaving them stuck inside the dish.
Individual servings: Since most of the food will probably be served in larger containers, break up the monotony of large platters with at least one dish served in individual containers. You can group these together on a tray, as a caterer would. Be creative: You could serve shrimp cocktails in shot glasses or espresso cups, a single-bite appetizer in ceramic spoons, or individual servings of dipping sauce in little bowls, even plastic ones.
A family movie night is just the kind of low-key evening you probably need about now. So gather the kids and cousins, pick one of your favorite holiday movies, and then take it up a notch, by matching your movie-night snacks to the film. A little holiday inspiration:
A Christmas Story
The movie: All Robbie wants for Christmas is a BB gun – but his mother is convinced he’d put his eye out.
The snacks: Chinese food, of course! (This is obvious if you’ve seen the movie, but if you haven’t, we don’t want to give it away.) Create a family dim sum feast with ready-to-heat snacks from our frozen section, like red-bean rice buns, coated in sesame seeds; steam-and-go buns, filled with pork or chicken and easy to heat in the microwave; or mini spring rolls. (Ling Ling, in chicken or veggie, is one to try.)
A Christmas Carol
The movie: The classic Charles Dickens story of Tiny Tim, Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas. Merry Christmas, every one. There are tons of versions, including a sort-of-creepy animated flick from 2009 starring Jim Carrey, but we like the 1999 one, with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge, and the 1951 black-and-white British version.
The snacks: Traditional English desserts, of course. For adults, try a bread pudding with a brandy butter hard sauce; the one we stock, by Wilkin and Sons, is very traditional. Kids might like a simplified version of an English trifle (cake, custard, fruit and whipped cream.) Or, go even simpler, with scones and jam. We always have them fresh-baked in our bakery if you don’t care to make your own.
It’s a Wonderful Life
The movie: I know several families that don’t consider it Christmas if they don’t watch this Jimmy Stewart classic at least once. Some kids may feel it’s a little slow going, but if you can get them hooked, softer-hearted kids may be tearing up by the end.
The snacks: All-American, simple fare matches this one best: Hot chocolate, mulled cider, and popcorn. If you’re really feeling nostalgic, get the kids to help you make some popcorn balls. This recipe is super-easy, though it works and tastes much better if you make popcorn on the stovetop, the old-fashioned way.
Christmas Marshmallow Popcorn Balls
Makes 12 to 14
12 – 14 cups popped popcorn
1 stick butter
1 (16 oz) pkg miniature marshmallows
Few drops red food coloring (optional)
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
Pop popcorn; set aside. If you must use microwave popcorn, select one with as little salt and butter as possible.
In a large, microwave-safe container, melt marshmallows and butter on high for about 45 seconds; remove and stir. Microwave on high an additional 30 seconds to 90 seconds, or until mixture is smooth.
Stir in pinch of salt, and, if desired, red food coloring. Pour marshmallow mixture into very large bowl and add about half the popcorn, stirring to coat. Add more popcorn, a cup or two at a time, until you get the desired consistency – sticky enough to hold together, but not too gooey. About 13 or 14 cups of popcorn is probably about right.
When popcorn mixture is cool enough to handle, shape a handful, about one cup, into in a ball, packing it together lightly. Transfer to a cookie sheet to finish cooling.
While popcorn balls finish cooling, melt chocolate chips in microwave-safe bowl, for about 90 seconds, or until smooth, stirring every 30 seconds or so. Using a small spoon, drizzle chocolate over cooled popcorn balls. Allow to set before serving, at least 1 hour.
After about three months of doing Coffee Talk every Tuesday with all our FRESH shoppers, I tell you, I feel just like Oprah. OK, I’m not a multi-bazillionaire media mogul yet, but hey, she started small, too, right?
So for the final Coffee Talk of the year next Tuesday, I’m pulling a full Oprah and unveiling My Favorite Things.
Surely you know about Oprah’s favorite things. She unveils them every holiday season – wonderful, luxurious little treats, from chicken pot pies to lipsticks to soap. And then she gives them away to lucky fans.
So that’s what I’m going to do, too. At 10 a.m. Tuesday, during our final Coffee Talk of 2011, I’ll be unveiling my very favorite products from the thousands of wonderful goodies I’ve tried since FRESH has opened.
And then I’ll be giving some of them away, with the help of a very special surprise guest who will act as my Christmas Elf.
Now, I can’t spoil the fun, so I can’t tell you yet what my favorite things are. (A pasta sauce? A Belgian chocolate? Our housemade brioche? Sorry, my lips are sealed.) But I can tell you, I’ve been up and down every aisle, reminding myself of all the new and unique things I’ve tried since FRESH opened last March, and I’m really excited with what I’ve chosen to share with you.
You’ll just have to find out for yourself Tuesday in our FRESH Taste Kitchen. Show up a little early, get some coffee, talk amongst yourselves – and get ready to celebrate with a Very Special Episode of Coffee Talk.
Are you saving up for your Cuisinart cookware through our sticker saver program? If not, I’ve gotta ask – what’s wrong with you? Cuisinart pots and pans for home use offer a great deal on both value and longevity, and this is a chance for you to get some at half-price, or even free!
Our sticker-saver program is super-easy to use, and for those of you of a certain age, it might remind you of the green-stamps rewards program popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
If you haven’t already, pick up a sticker-saver flyer next time you check out at FRESH. You’ll be rewarded with 1 sticker for every $10 you spend in the store. And check this out… as a bonus, FRESH is offering double stickers on every purchase between December 11th and 24th!
Paste the stickers into the booklet (a great task for the kids or grandkids.) Then, watch them add up. You can get a free pan with as few as 30 stickers, and a half-price pan with as few as 15.
You may identify Cuisinart mostly with food processors – the company was one of the first to introduce them to the U.S. back in the 1970s – but in more recent years they have really expanded, making everything from mixers to microwaves.
The Cuisinart cookware we’re offering is high-quality stainless steel, and you can choose from 10 different pans, including a lasagna pan, non-stick skillets, and covered pour pans in several sizes. (I’m saving for the 6-quart covered stockpot, a size that I use frequently. It’s regularly $49.99 at retail but free with 80 stickers.)
But don’t waste time. You can collect stickers through January 25, 2012, and you can redeem them any time between now and Feb. 8. However, quantities are limited, so for the best selection, select your reward soon.
Every child is charmed by a gingerbread house. So why not make one as a family project this holiday season?
You don’t have to be a master baker, or even much of an artist, to pull this off. You can find lots of patterns and instructions for simple gingerbread houses, many of them online for free. And, if you look at it more as a family art project than a culinary one, you don’t even have to worry so much about what it tastes like. Just have fun, and worry about the mess later.
Work ahead: If you are making your own gingerbread, you can make the dough a week or two ahead, and bake the cookies up to a week before. This gives the cookies time to harden, and is especially recommended if your children are younger, and will get bored with waiting for cookies to bake and cool enough to be handled.
Concentrate on the decorations: Since decorating is the fun part, you can even assemble the house while the kids are otherwise occupied, and just let them have the fun of decorating. Make sure you have lots of candy canes, sprinkles, gum drops, sugar crystals, cut-out Christmas cookies (you can buy these from a bakery), peppermint disks, and whatever else you think you might want to use.
Take shortcuts: Use graham crackers for walls instead of baking your own cookies. Vanilla wafers, gingersnaps, or other small wafer-type cookies can be used for roof shingles. Crackers, pretzels or even sandwich cookies can be used to create doors, windows or shutters. Prepared tubes of decorator frosting and gels, in a variety of colors, can be used to add color and patterns to the house. However, do not try to use prepared, canned frosting as a substitute for royal icing, the icing “glue” that will harden and hold your house together. It won’t be strong enough.
Don’t forget the base: Your cookie house will look more finished if you place it on a decorated base. You can take shortcuts here too. Pretzel sticks can be pressed into a frosting base to make a picket fence. Chocolate disks can be used to make a “cobblestone” path. And you can make “Christmas trees” with cone-shaped ice cream cones; simply frost them with green frosting, place on the base, and decorate with M&Ms, sprinkles, and piped frosting “garlands.”
Consider a kit: Dancing Deer makes two different cookie house kits, taking much of the guesswork out of the project. The regular gingerbread house kit contains cookie dough mix, royal icing mix, a pastry bag for piping the icing, and gingerbread man cookie cutters. The pre-made house contains already-baked cookies, so you just assemble and decorate. In both kits, the package cleverly serves as the form for the house – you just attach the cookies to the box with icing, and you’re ready to start decorating!
Cookies and fudge and pie – oh, my. Traditional holiday snacks and desserts aren’t exactly health food. So, try to even things out with some of these new holiday snacks we’ve brought in. They’re festive and rich, but at least a little bit healthier than mainlining a platter of Christmas cookies.
Fix mix pretzels and popcorn: Popcorn or crunchy pretzel nubs, drizzled with caramel, dark chocolate and white chocolate. Salty and sweet, all at once – but thanks to the pretzel or popcorn base, the calories stay under 150 per serving.
Popcorn, Indiana flavored kettle corn: Famous for their kettle corn, this snack maker has a lot of decadent flavors, just in time for the holidays. But they’re not nearly as bad as knocking back a few cookies. Cinnamon-sugar popcorn, crunchily sweet with just a bit of salt, is only 130 calories for 2.5 cups! And even the black-and-white popcorn, drizzled with white and dark chocolate, is just 140 calories for a 1.5 cup snack. Plus, there’s no cholesterol, no gluten, and no preservatives in these natural, simple treat.
Immaculate Baking Co. cookies: OK, yes, they’re cookies. But these ready-to-bake, pre-shaped balls of cookie dough come from a company that’s committed to natural ingredients, and gives a portion of its income to charities that support children and the arts. Their holiday flavors include gingerbread spice, vanilla sugar, and my chocolate-peppermint cookies, and they’re just 70 calories each. And you can keep them in the fridge and just bake a few at a time, so you won’t be so tempted to over-indulge.
Stacy’s Simply Gingerbread Pita Chips: These crispy baked chips, from the Stacy’s line of bagel and pita chips, taste like gingersnaps. They’re not-too-sweet, fragrant with cloves and cinnamon, and really crisp and crunchy. A serving has 140 calories, about a third of them from fat.
To brine or not to brine – that is the Thanksgiving question.
Fans of the brining process – which simply means soaking meat in a mixture of water, salt, sugar and spices/herbs before cooking – say it’s the only way to cook a perfect turkey.
And, yes, when done properly, it gives you a well-salted, perfectly seasoned, moist turkey. When done improperly? You get something that is overly salty or spicy, or that gets too dry, or that simply tastes like deli meat instead of a perfectly roasted bird.
Brining is similar to a marinade. It works by allowing the salt and seasoning to permeate the entire turkey, not just the skin. There are commercially prepared brines, and nearly every celebrity chef, from Bobby Flay to Paula Deen to Alton Brown, has his or her own favorite spices and techniques.
If you’re thinking of trying it for the first time this year, here are my tips:
- The brine must be cooked. You can’t simply mix all the ingredients together; you must bring the brining solution to a boil for at least five minutes, to allow the sugar and salt to dissolve and to bring the most flavor out of the herbs. However, you then must allow the brine solution to cool completely before submerging the turkey. Shortcut: Use less water than called for, then cool down the solution quickly by adding ice cubes.
- Salt/sugar/herbs. Some brine recipes simply call for salt and herbs, but I think sugar is a necessary component. It serves as a counterbalance to the herbs and helps deepen the natural flavor of the poultry. Then, add herbs of your choice, such as thyme, garlic, peppercorns, garlic or sage, to complete the flavor profile.
- Don’t overdo it. If you let the turkey marinate too long, it will over-season. Many recipes recommend a 24-hour brine, which is fine for a big turkey. For a more typical 10-12 pound turkey, however, just soak for 10-12 hours, or roughly one hour per pound.
- Don’t brine a self-basting turkey. It will be too salty.
- Consider a kit. If you aren’t sure what to put in the brine solution, get professional help. Urban Accents has introduced a Gourmet Gobbler kit, which includes everything you need to make a perfect turkey. It has a brine blend (including sea salt, sugar, peppercorns, sage, rosemary and bay leaves) plus a peppercorn-spiked rub, and a heavy-duty, reusable brining bag that can hold a turkey as big as 24 pounds.
Getting ready for the holidays can feel like running a marathon, except without the months of training – all the cleaning, cooking, shopping and, my favorite, list-making.
So why not enlist the help of your kids? More than free labor (although that in itself is a plus), you’ll have a chance to help your family define what’s important about the holiday season, and develop your own traditions.
Focus as a family: Do you ever feel like no one appreciates all the work you do at the holidays? Maybe that’s because you do too much. This year, simplify. Early in the season, have a family meeting and create a list of priorities for the season. Let everyone choose one favorite can’t-miss activity, and consider skipping everything else. Suggest at least one new activity that can be a new family tradition, and make sure you choose at least one that truly signifies the meaning of the holidays for you – whether it’s donating to a local charity, going caroling at a senior citizen center, or attending a special worship service. You may be surprised that kids will pick an evening of board games and hot chocolate over going to the mall or yet another holiday party.
Make some gifts: Small kids love making greeting cards and presents. Set aside a weekend afternoon for making cards or crafts for their preschool and Sunday school teacher, soccer coach, dance instructor and the like. (Add a gift card to a popular restaurant or local store as your contribution.)
Bake it up: Nearly everybody loves sweets, and almost every kid enjoys getting their hands dirty in the kitchen if cookies or candy are involved. Choose a couple simple recipes – maybe a trail mix or a slice-and-bake decorated cookie – that kids can finish mostly or completely by themselves. Let them wrap up their creations – those paper boxes that look like decorated Chinese-food takeout boxes are an inexpensive, easy option – and present to neighbors and friends as an inexpensive, personalized holiday gift.
Clean as a family: The least fun of the holiday prep activities, but the easiest to share. (Many hands make light work, as the saying goes!) For older kids, you can assign each a room or few tasks that they need to prioritize through the holidays – making sure the guest bath is always presentable, or keeping the dining and kitchen tables free of clutter. For younger kids, have nightly 10- or 15-minute “cleaning bursts,” where you work together to pick up toys, wipe down counters, or any other tasks that
Designing centerpieces: You probably already have a full set of holiday decorations, but let children make their mark on the holiday decor by letting them pick a favorite flower, plant or candle for the dinner table, and build your design around their favorites. Encourage simple, like a line of mini-pumpkins and votive candles, marching down the center of the table, or a collection of three miniature poinsettias grouped together. Your children pick something gaudier than you would prefer? As long as it fits in your budget, let them have it; it’s their holiday, too. And who knows? That goofy papier-mâché snowman they pick out may end up being a treasured family heirloom.