Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Eve spread

Last New Year's Eve was cold and snowy and we decided to stay in. Even if we weren't partying, I wanted special nibbles to pass the time till the ball dropped. I wanted them to be easy to make and made with ingredients I already had or ones that were at least inexpensive to purchase in one quick trip. I was also looking for one last hurrah of fat and sugar calories before buckling down for better health in 2009 but I didn't want to get too crazy. So the sausage balls made with Bisquick and cheese were out, as badly as I wanted the foods to taste homey and comforting and be filling. I think I did OK. Even the husband said "That was a pretty good spread."

Clockwise from left: deviled eggs, chicken wings with raspberry barbecue sauce, pepperoni rolls, hummus with herbed pita crisps and brown-sugar bacon (not shown.)

Three of the starters came from Katie Lee Joel's cookbook, "The Comfort Table". But here's a sampling of some of her recipes. (She and Billy split in May and I've noticed the book has been rereleased with "Katie Lee" on the cover.)

Her deviled eggs are nothing special, no matter how much Paula Deen raves about them. Cooks in my family make them better. I prefer a tangier filling. But here's her recipe because that's what I made last year.

from "The Comfort Table" by Katie Lee, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2008

1 dozen large eggs
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon yellow prepared mustard
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place the eggs in a large saucepan and cover with water. Add the vinegar. (Note from Cynthia: According to more than one site, adding vinegar to the water in which you boil eggs might keep them from cracking and if they do crack, it keeps the egg in the shell instead of it spilling out in the water.) Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn off the heat and cover. Let sit for 15-18 minutes. Drain off the water. When cool enough to touch, remove shells.

Slice each egg in half lengthwise. Remove the yolks and place them i na food processor. Arrange the whites on a serving platter. Add the mayo, mustard, salt and pepper to the yolks. Blend until smooth. Scoop the yolk mixture into a resealable plastic bag. Use scissors to snip off a bottom corner of the bag. Use the bag like a pastry bag to pipe the yolk mixture into the egg whites. Sprinkle each deviled egg half with paprika. Cover loosely and chill until serving time.

from "The Comfort Table" by Katie Lee, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2008

For the pita crisps
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 tablespoons minced fresh herbs (chives, parsley, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, etc.)
4 pitas, split in half and each half cut in fourths (use whole-wheat for a nuttier flavor)
Kosher salt

For the hummus
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained, juice reserved
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup tahini
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt

OR just buy premade hummus

For the pita crisps
Preheat the oven to 400. In a mini food processor, combine the butter and herbs and pulse until well-combined. Spread the herb butter onto the pita slices. Sprinkle with salt and bake until crisp, about 10 minutes.

For the hummus
In a food processor, combine the chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, tahini and cumin. Pulse until smooth. With the food processor running, add the olive oil in a steady stream. Season with the salt and puree until very smooth. If the mixture is too thick, add 2 tablespoons of the reserved chickpea juice at a time until the desired consistency is reached.

from "The Comfort Table" by Katie Lee, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2008

I was going to make this for Christmas Day breakfast but an ice storm kept my guests away. Break it into 1-inch pieces for a cocktail-party snack.

1 pound applewood-smoked bacon
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. Place a wire cooling rack on top.

In a medium bowl, combine the brown sugar and mustard. Add the bacon and toss to coat. Lay out the bacon slices flat on the rack. Brush with any remaining sugar. Roast the bacon for 25-30 minutes. Let drain on the rack for a few minutes before serving.

If I make wings, I'm going to coat them with a spicy honey barbecue sauce made in West Virginia that I got as Christmas present. I have everything to make the brown-sugar bacon but I might save that for breakfast tomorrow. I am definitely trying new versions of Chex Mix, which Katie Lee was a spokeswoman for this holiday season. I'm most interested in the Buffalo and Deviled varieties.

Buffalo Chex Mix

I might make a Pampered Chef Classic Reuben sandwich ring. I might also make Katie Lee's Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip. I already promised the husband we'd toast with ice cream floats.

I guess I better get moving if I want to do all that.
Happy New Year!

from "The Comfort Table" by Katie Lee, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2008

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
1 9-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts (or drained jarred or canned, but not marinated)
1 cup steamed spinach (1 pound raw or 1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, well-drained)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 garlic cloves
6 large fresh basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup shredded mozzarella

Preheat the oven to 375. Grease a 2-quart baking dish.
In a food processor, combine the cream cheese, artichoke hearts, spinach, mayo, Parmesan, garlic, basil, salt and pepper. Spoon into the baking dish. Top with mozzarella. Bake until bubbling and the top is golden brown, 25-30 minutes.
Serve with crackers, tortilla chips or toasted rustic bread.

from The Pampered Chef "All The Best", 2003

2 cans crescent rolls
8 ounces sliced deli corned beef, chopped
1 8-ounce can sauerkraut, drained and squeezed dry
1 1/4 cups shredded Swiss cheese, divided
1/4 cup Thousand Island dressing
2 tablespoons snipped fresh parsley
1 garlic clove, pressed
1 egg white, lightly beaten

Unroll 2 packages refrigerated crescent rolls and separate into 16 triangles. Arrange triangles, slightly overlapping, in a circle on a round baking stone or pan with wide ends 4 inches from edge. (Points will extend off the edge.) Roll wide ends of dough toward center to create a 5-inch opening.

Preheat oven to 375. Combine corned beef, sauerkraut, 1 cup of the cheese, dressing, parsley and garlic; mix well.

Scoop filling evenly over dough in a continuous circle. Bring points of triangle up over filling and tuck under dough at center to form a ring. Filling will show.
Brush with egg white. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Party time: Tips for smoother small talk

Tis the season for office Christmas parties. Does the thought of mingling make your palms sweat -- especially at your spouse's office soiree where you likely know no one or anything about them or at least nothing you can say to their face? If you need help making small talk, the tips here are timeless despite the fact that I wrote this four years ago.

I can talk to my colleague about anything EXCEPT work from 9-5, but we can’t seem to think of anything to talk about other than work when we go out to lunch. I have just enough social skill to know you shouldn’t talk about work at a party and I, like maybe some of you, worry about being engaging while mingling.

But what I’ve learned is that the best small-talkers are engaged. They succeed by showing genuine interest in others. And they’ve likely done their homework before the event.

See, by staying in a corner at a party or, worse, finding the TV and gluing yourself to the ballgame, you look like you don’t want to be there. At worst, you look stuck up. While making a favorable impression is important, to make friends or keep your job, it’s far more important to put others at ease and make them feel valued. When you invest in other guests, you’re also contributing to the event, said Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk.” And I think that’s a way to thank your host for the invite.

Making small talk is a skill. Like penmanship, it requires practice to do well.

If you’re not sold on trying this yourself by the end of my column, at least try to look approachable. Smile, make eye contact and wait for the small-talkers to come to you.

It’s not easy for wallflowers to uproot their feet. Especially when you walk in fashionably late, as we did to my husband’s office Christmas party, and everyone’s already paired up at tables and gabbing away.

I dragged the husband to the table where the boss’s secretary sat with the office courier and his wife. There I was able to employ a tip I’d learned. Listen to other conversations to find something to talk about. The boss’s wife asked the secretary how her daughter liked her new job. Bingo. When the Mrs. moved on I found out the daughter is a hair dresser who opened a Christian bookstore.

If you hit it off with someone it’s hard to move on, but you can’t monopolize that person’s time. Leaving at the top of your game leaves people wanting more: “Be bright. Be brief. Be gone,” advises “Mingling Maven” Susan RoAne.

And what if you can’t get away from someone? I didn’t have to employ an exit line, but I had one ready: “The caprese salad looked good but I didn’t try it the first time through the buffet line.” I would never use one source’s suggestion: “I’ve enjoyed our talk but now I have to make-believe I’m interested in everybody else.” Wouldn’t that say to the person that you were just pretending with them, too?

Next, I employed Tactic No. 2, find someone who looks approachable, and Tactic No. 3, ask about something you know about them. In this case, it was the dispatcher and I knew she had penpals in Iraq. Here is where it helps to have a spouse or friend who has done a little reconnaissance for you.

If you don’t know anything about anybody, rely on “free information.” Maybe talk about how nervous you are making small talk or ask if they read my column.

You do have this in common: You’re all at the same event. Ask what they do for the company or how they know the host. You’re all in it together and can help each other get through it. And I got through it better than I ever have.

With each smooth transition from guest to guest, I got more confident. Maybe I should’ve shared these tips with my equally backward husband because much too soon, he told me it was time to go.

Now I just have to get invited to another party to keep practicing.

This column was first published Dec. 29, 2005, in The Dominion Post newspaper, which holds the copyright.

Leave a comment with your best and worst conversation starters.

I only look like the life of the party. Ha! Seriously, that's not an alcoholic beverage in my hand -- I'm at church -- it's EVOO. I dressed (or tried to dress) as Rachael Ray for Halloween this year.
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