Yesterday, I received the following question from one of my blog readers. Brandy asked:
Where do you place your appetizers so they get eaten? I always place mine on our island (which is front and centre, and our island is very large) but they never get eaten. And do you place small plates and napkins by the appies? Maybe I put too much out and it's overwhelming or I put them in the wrong spot...
Here's my reply:
My kitchen isn't super close to my living room, which is where everyone gathers, so I usually crowd my appetizers onto my coffee table so people can eat while they are talking. I try to serve items that don't require a plate (however, I do set out cocktail-sized napkins), but if that isn't possible then I'll usually put together a small spread on my dining table, which is located quite close to the living room, so people can easily access the food if I do this. It isn't perfect, but it does seem to work, and I never have a problem with the food not being eaten.
Okay, fabulous Family Bites readers... now it's your turn. Can you weigh in and let Brandy know where you place your appetizers when you're entertaining a large group or having people over for a few nibbles? Do you ever have the same trouble she does, with guests not eating the food that's being served? I know you all have awesome suggestions and we'd both love to hear from you.
Our Sunday suppers have been an excellent exercise in preparing quick cooking, easy-to-execute appetizers that offer everyone a little something to nibble on while they have a drink before the big meal. I’ve made nothing fancy to date, offering only the occasional cheese and cracker platter, bowls of olives and nuts, and some fresh bread with a nice spread.
However, all of this weekend cooking has turned my thoughts to holiday entertaining, and this year my goal is to make it as simple as possible. I want dishes that will be suitable for most eaters, are swift in their execution, and friendly for my wallet as we tend to feed A LOT of people in December and I need to keep the grocery bill in check when possible. Not to mention the small fact that by the time Christmas rolls around, I’ll be nearly 8 months pregnant and certain to be slowing down my pace just a little.
So here are three ideas I have for easy (not to mention gluten-free) appetizers to serve this holiday season. There is no denying that the bacon-wrapped potatoes are the definite crowd pleaser here. I discovered the recipe a few years ago on The Kitchn and was so pleased to see that it made the cut in the collection of recipes they chose for their newly published book. Having said that, never underestimate the simplicity of a bowl of mixed olives or some colourful goat cheese balls that look festive and seasonal on a plate.
What is your favourite easy appetizer to serve over the holidays?
Mixed Olives with Capers and Roasted Garlic
Combine the olives, capers, red pepper flakes, roasted garlic cloves, and olive oil in a medium bowl and mix well. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with the thyme and rosemary.
Bacon-Wrapped Potato Bites with Spicy Sour Cream
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Wash potatoes and cut into 1-inch pieces, keeping the chunks roughly the same size even if they aren't the exact same shape. If you can find small new potatoes you can use those instead, just cut them in half lengthwise. Place the potatoes in a medium pot, and cover with cold salted water: bring to a boil.
Once the water begins to boil, cook the potatoes for 3 to 4 minutes, until you can stick a fork into them without too much resistance. You want the potatoes to be almost, but not fully, cooked through so they won't fall apart during the next steps.
Drain the potatoes and put them in a large bowl. Add the rosemary, olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper, and toss until the potatoes are evenly coated.
Cut the strips of bacon into thirds crosswise. Wrap each potato bite in a piece of bacon, securing it with a toothpick. Put the potatoes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil spaced an inch or two apart.
Cook the potatoes for 15 minutes, and then flip each piece. Cook for another 15 to 20 minutes, until the bacon is cooked through and as crisp as you like it. Mix the sour cream and hot sauce in a small bowl. Pile the potato bites on a plate and serve alongside the dip.
Adapted from The Kitchn
Herbed Goat Cheese Balls
Line a plate or baking sheet with parchment paper and make small marble-sized balls with the goat cheese. Place cheese balls on the lined plate and refrigerate for 20 minutes minimum.
In three separate bowls place the dill, paprika, and poppy seeds. Roll 10 balls in each of the three coatings and set aside.
Pour the olive oil onto a serving plate and sprinkle with red pepper flakes and sea salt. Arrange the goat cheese balls on the platter and serve with toothpicks or small breadsticks on the side.
Looking for more holiday how-tos? Check out the rest of the series here:
On Saturday night we popped into Chapters on our way to a movie with the boys. We walked down the centre aisle of the store, bypassing the holiday decorations, cozy throw blankets, and must-have seasonal entertaining items, steering ourselves in the direction of the cookbooks. When we arrived at the main table in that section, I spotted our book sitting front and centre, nestled right behind Jamie's latest (and Ina's too), and it finally became official that not only did I write a book, but now it exists in stores for people to buy.
I'm at a loss for words as to what else to say about this right now. I been going to this particular book store for so long that one of the employees often asks me about my kids, and comments on their height and ages, each time she sees us in the store. To see something that I wrote sitting in the same space, the one I've been frequenting weekly for almost 15 years, is so surreal there really are no words to describe it. So for now I won't. I just thought I'd share that the book finally found a home in stores, and the thrill totally made up for the fact that I spent the following two hours watching “Dumb and Dumber To” (don't judge... I have teenage boys!).
When Julie and I set out to write our book, we never once discussed including a recipe for homemade fruit and nut crisps (brand name Raincoast/Lesley Stowe Crackers). Seems sort of silly since she’s the one who cracked the code on how to make them at home in the first place.
Since she did so all those years ago, variations on the recipe have appeared on popular blogs, cooking websites, and even in books. For good reason too, because it’s really something worth knowing how to make, especially as we enter the holiday season.
I used to snatch up boxes of those popular store-bought crackers to add a little something extra special to my cheese platter, but at almost $9 per package, it was a high price to pay for not a lot of servings. This homemade version yields nearly 8 dozen crackers (less, if you don’t cut them as thinly as instructed) and is made from things you likely already have hanging around in the cupboard, maybe with the exception of the dried fruit and/or nuts and seeds.
So, how do you serve these twice-baked beauties? Anyway you like, really! They pair perfectly with a creamy brie, work well with something strong and pungent like a favourite blue, and are the ideal vehicle for a smearable cheese, like Boursin or goat. They’re sturdy enough to use as the base of any hors d’oeuvres and pack enough of a flavour punch that they can be munched on their own.
As usual, my very favourite thing about making these homemade crackers is that most of the work can be done in advance. You mix and bake the loaves, then freeze them until you need the crackers. In fact, you can make them now and tuck a few different variations in your freezer until the holidays, when you’ll simple need to remove the frozen loaves, slice the crackers and bake them just before serving. That’s my preferred way of preparing them, but you can also bake them off a few days in advance, if you like.
How do you feel about homemade crackers? Is it something you’d make? Do you love them for entertaining as much as I do?
Looking for more holiday how-tos? Check out the series here:
Homemade Fruit and Nut Crisps
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Preheat oven to 350° F and grease two 8" x 4" loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray.
In a large bowl, stir together the flours, baking soda and salt. Add the buttermilk, brown sugar and honey and stir a few strokes. Add the pumpkin/sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seed, rosemary, and desired add-ins (choose from one of the options) and stir just until blended.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35-40 minutes, or until golden brown in colour and springy to the touch. Remove from the pans and cool on a wire rack.
The bread is easiest to slice when it's had the chance to cool completely. Transfer cooled loaves to a freezer-safe container and freeze solid, several hours or over night. If you're planning to freeze the loaves for longer than a day - they can be stored for up to 3 months - wrap them in foil before freezing.
When ready to bake the crisps, preheat the oven to 300°F.
Using a serrated knife, slice the loaves as thin as possible - 1/8" if possible - and place the slices in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake them for about 15 minutes, flip them over, and bake for another 10-15 minutes, or until crisp and deep golden brown. The edges should be curled slightly, and don't fret if they're still soft in the centre as the crackers will crisp significantly as they cool. Store in an airtight container or serve immediately.
Makes about 8 dozen crackers.
From Dinner with Julie
For the past two weeks, I have been relying on a lot of slow-cooked meals to help get dinner on the table on the days when it seems impossible to find the time to cook. This month is a busy one, and I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s taking two of us, plus an army of small appliances and well-loved cookware to make sure there’s something decent on the table each night.
From Monday to Friday this usually results in the use of our slow cooker, which allows me to toss some ingredients together in the morning, set it on low and leave it alone until much later in the day. On the weekends it’s my well-loved Dutch oven that’s being exercised, as I usually braise something meaty into tender submission, serving it with a favourite noodle or grain.
Last night’s dinner was a beef stroganoff that got the same low and slow cooking treatment as pretty much every other dish I’ve made in the past few weeks. This time I made the effort to carefully brown my beef and sauté my onions before slipping the skillet into the oven for a long, low simmer. This extra step really does make all the difference in a dish, and because this particular one isn’t comprised of a long list of ingredients, I wanted to make sure that the ones I used were as flavourful as possible.
While this dish certainly isn’t the prettiest one you’re going to put on the table this season – it’s awfully brown, don’t you think? - it just might be one of the tastiest. The braised beef simmers in a broth and red wine sauce before being whisked with sour cream, yielding a rich sauce that couldn’t be simpler to make. There is no fussing with a roux, no specialty ingredients that need to be sourced, and no extra time required to turn this slow-cooked dinner into one worthy of serving to your guests.
I recently learned that in Russia they like to spoon beef stroganoff over French fries or mashed potatoes, which would suit me just fine, but instead I served them with buttered egg noodles tossed with fresh herbs, steamed broccoli, and a simple salad. If mushrooms aren’t to your liking you can completely omit them from the recipe and add a little more beef instead, if you prefer. It turns out they aren’t really an authentic addition anyway, and seem to have been added to most Americanized versions of this dish that also happen to list canned mushroom soup as an ingredient. Let’s all agree that the mushrooms can remain optional (I vote yes!), but the inclusion of the soup that was popularized in the 1970s is definitely a no-go moving forward.
Slow Cooked Beef Stroganoff
Preheat the oven to 300°F.
Place the stewing beef in a large bowl and sprinkle with the flour, salt, and black pepper. Using a wooden spoon, toss to combine until the beef pieces are evenly coated with the flour.
Heat a large Dutch oven or oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and butter and warm until butter has melted. Place some of the beef in the hot oil - take care not to crowd the pan - and cook until browned on one side, about 2-3 minutes. Turn the pieces over and cook the other side for the same amount of time, or until completely browned. Transfer the meat to a plate and repeat with the remaining beef, adding more oil to the pan if necessary.
Once all the beef has been cooked, add the onion to the pot. Sauté for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently to scrape up any cooked on bits at the bottom of the dish. If needed, add a little more oil to the pan to keep the onions from sticking and burning.
Place the mushrooms, beef broth, red wine and mustard in the pot and stir well; cover and place in the oven. Cook for 2 1/2 - 3 hours. Remove from the oven and stir in the sour cream just before serving. Serve hot over buttered egg noodles or rice.
Note: Feel free to follow the recipe through to the browning off the onions, then dump everything into a slow cooker and cook on low for 7-8 hours. Remove from the heat, stir in the sour cream and serve as per the recipe instructions above.
In celebration of our new book, "Gatherings", which is due in stores any day now (the publication date was officially Monday but it’s taking a bit of time to find it’s way onto the shelves of the different stores) and the upcoming holiday season, I’m launching an eight-week series called “How to…”, a collection of ideas that will hopefully help you with some of the entertaining you may have planned for the coming months. None of these ideas are in our book, although in hindsight they likely could have been. Instead, I wanted to offer something new, and hopefully useful, as we head into the biggest entertaining season of the year. Are you as excited as I am?
First up… how to fill a bread basket. It seems simple enough, and really it is, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a little bread at the side of their plate when it comes to a meal, so why not make the bread basket a little extra special this season? It’s one of the easiest things to place on the table, and a little extra effort in assembling it is sure to impress your guests.
You can slice a baguette and lay the pieces on a small wooden board with a pot of softened butter, or you can offer a few different varieties, giving your friends a selection of fresh bread to choose from. Regardless of how you choose to approach your carbolicious offering, here are some tips to make you look like a pro while putting it all together.
I'm curious... do you have any burning how-to questions about casual entertaining? What are you most looking forward to serving this holiday season?
I’m so glad it’s November. October was one of heck of a busy month, and while November is shaping up to be the same from a work perspective, I relish the coming days of just putting my head down and getting it all done. October came with a lot of running around. I clocked too many kilometers in my van, and spent a lot of time out and away from the house. This month I’ll be lucky if I get to leave it, as I’m finishing up some big work projects that require me to stay stationed at my desk, but it’s a good month for that, don’t you think?
No matter how busy this month gets, the one thing that won’t be scratched from the calendar is family supper Sundays. It’s a highlight of my week, for sure, and yesterday we had half of our extended family here for a quick and easy dinner of Ina’s chicken stew topped with my sweet potato biscuits, and a salad made with crisp romaine hearts, tart apple slices, and crunchy pumpkin seeds. We capped the meal off with my sister’s caramel apple cups, the perfect four-bite finish to a seasonal supper, if there ever was one.
As soon as she arrived with these in hand, I went all paparazzi on her and snapped a few photos so I could share them today. They are a cinch to make, and please the palates of both adults and children alike. Although they do appear diminutive, they are sweet and satisfying, and when topped with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream, they end up as a perfectly sized portion for everyone.
How's November looking for you? Is it a busy or quiet month where you are?
Beth's Caramel Apple Cups
Preheat oven to 350°F, and lightly grease a regular muffin tin.
In a medium mixing bowl combine the graham cracker crumbs, butter and powdered sugar with a wooden spoon or spatula.
Distribute the mixture evenly between the 12 muffin cups, pressing along the bottom and sides to make a “cup.” Bake for 5 minutes and cool completely.
Mix the apples, sugar, brown sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg in a bowl. Transfer to a baking dish and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until apples are slightly softened
Divide the apples evenly between the graham cracker cups. Bake for an additional 8-10 minutes (or until all the melted butter has been absorbed); let cool completely.
Use a knife to loosen the apple cups from pan (they should pop right out). Drizzle with caramel sauce and serve warm, if possible.
Happy Halloween! As you probably guessed, we love this day, and although it's pouring rain as I write this, we're still looking forward to a night of fun with the kids. I have to admit, it's different not having Ben dress up this year. His fully embraces halloween, and has always been my costume-loving kid, so it's a little less festive now that he's in high school and doesn't feel as comfortable dressing up. Instead, he's having a sleepover with friends, Jackson's candy collecting with some of his buddies, and Rob and I will be walking around the neighbourhood with my sister and nieces. We have hot chocolate and warm apple cider ready for drinking (oh, how I miss my wine!) upon our return, and pizza for dinner to accommodate all of the comings and goings that will happen tonight.
Have a wonderful weekend, friends. See you next week!
photo via Country Living
Back in the summer, Rob and I spent a lot of time talking about how we wanted to bring our extended family together more frequently for shared meals. We see each other at birthdays and other holidays, but we don’t gather often for casual meals with our parents and/or siblings unless there is a special occasion clearly marked on the calendar.
As we were having these discussions, we also noticed that our boys wanted to spend most of their free time on the weekends with their friends, a natural behaviour of most tweens and teens, and Sunday afternoons often came with a request to go to someone’s house to watch football, or to invite a friend over for the day. I was starting to notice how much I disliked having our family divided up at the end of the weekend, and felt that having dinner together was an important way to finish off the fun of the previous two days.
The solution to both situations we were discussing suddenly became obvious, and at the beginning of September we launched what is affectionately known as Family Supper Sundays. The meal is exactly as the name suggests: every Sunday night we have dinner at our house and invite all of the (locally-living) members of our extended family. It’s mandatory that our own boys are here, and they are welcome to invite friends (and, eventually, girlfriends) to come too, but they know and understand that their presence is non-negotiable.