Christmas Hacks & Wild Rice Pilaf with Roasted Mushrooms & Kale

I seem to be acquiring a fascination with life hacks. Now, you ask, “What exactly is a life hack and what does it have to do with having a sane Christmas?” Well, a hack is any simple tip that changes your life for the better … or at least some tiny aspect of it. These clever, little tricks won’t change the world; they just make day to day life easier. Especially during the holidays.

Here are a few thoughts and tips for a saner Christmas:

1. Do you have a passel of grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins and/or friends’ kids hoping for gifts? More important, is shopping for them impossible at best? I get it. Who can remember who loves pink (did she mean Pink!) and who will or won’t wear Converse? Not to mention sizes.

Take it easy on yourself; get them all the same thing. Fun and funky socks, hand warmers or caps for skating and sledding. Beanbag chairs or popcorn poppers for dorm rooms. Don’t forget, music gift cards (or almost any gift card for that matter). They fit every shape, size and taste.

2. While we’re on presents, remember two important words – GIFT BAGS. Instead of spending hours and hours wrapping, slip everything into a cute and colorful bag. Okay, you’re right; they are more expensive so don’t throw them away. A new tag and they’ll be just as beautiful and easy next year and the year after.

3. Save a trip to the florist. Instead, take a walk in the woods for greens for the mantle and door. (The fresh air will do you a world of good.) Fill bowls with shiny ornaments and hang more decorations from the chandelier for a festive table. Combine children’s blocks or Scrabble tiles to spell out festive notes of holiday cheer. Add lights; lots and lots of sparkling, little white lights.

4. Make choices. If you love to bake then have at it with cookie after cookie, batches of brownies and pies to die for. If not, head for the nearest cookie walk. You’ll find them at craft fairs and church jumbles. Order pies from your favorite bakery or let your sister bring dessert.

If cooking truly is your thing, don’t hesitate. Go for it with a Christmas Eve feast of the seven fishes, a fabulous Christmas breakfast and/or even more fabulous dinner. But, if you are like my mother, choose your dishes wisely or organize a potluck.

I still remember the shocked look on my grandmother’s face when Mom threw caution to the wind and announced she was serving rib roast for Christmas dinner. Turkey with all the trimmings is a loads of work and she’d just done it for Thanksgiving. A roast beast, beef or pork, is a lot easier and just as delicious. Although Mom tossed a longstanding tradition to the curb, no one stayed home to protest. Dinner was absolutely delicious and fixed in half the time. Go Mom!

It’s okay to share the work with family and friends. Invite everyone to bring a dish. Just let them know your plans and suggest an appetizer, side dish or dessert to bring. If your cousin can’t cook to save her life, ask her to bring wine or a pie from the bakery.

5. Give yourself a gift. The gourmet coffee you love but is too expensive for every day. A new scarf because, as we all know, you can’t have too many scarves. Indulge in a great hat, a favorite artist’s new CD or a facial at your favorite spa. Enjoy a guilt-free nap, take a walk, meet an old friend for tea and a chat … you get the picture.

Have fun and enjoy a great holiday! Bon appétit!

Wild Rice Pilaf with Roasted Mushrooms & Kale
Take your pick – this festive side dish is great with beef, pork, lamb or poultry. Enjoy!
Serves 8-10

4 cups chicken stock or broth
2 cups mix of wild, brown and red rice
2-3 tablespoons butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 pounds whole mushrooms, stems removed
Olive oil
Sherry vinegar
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1-2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
About 1 pound baby kale, roughly chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
Garnish: fresh chopped parsley and chopped, toasted pecans

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Put the chicken stock in a pot, bring to a boil, add the rice and 1 tablespoon butter, season with salt and pepper and cook until tender, about 45 minutes. Reserve.

While the rice cooks, put the mushrooms in a roasting pan, lightly coat with equal parts olive oil and vinegar, season with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Roast the mushrooms at 400 degrees, cup side up, for 15 minutes. Turn the caps and roast for an additional 10 minutes or until nicely browned.

Set aside until the mushrooms are cool enough to handle and then chop and reserve.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat, sauté onion, carrot and celery until the vegetables are tender. Stir in the garlic and thyme and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the kale and continue cooking until it wilts. Add the white wine, raise the heat to medium high and simmer until reduced by half. Add the mushrooms and toss to combine.

Can be made ahead to this point, cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate separately for up to a day. If prepping ahead, reheat the vegetables in a large skillet before continuing.

Add 1-2 tablespoons butter to the vegetables, melt and stir to combine.

Add the rice to the skillet and toss to combine and sauté until piping hot. Transfer to a serving dish or individual plates, sprinkle with fresh parsley and pecans and serve.

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One Year Ago – Maple-Nut Sundaes
Two Years Ago – Rosemary Cashews
Three Years Ago – Greek Stuffed Mushrooms
Four Years Ago – Ginger Crème Brûlée
Five Years Ago – Aunt Anna’s Pecan Pie
Six Years Ago – White Chocolate & Cranberry Trifle
Seven Years Ago – Chicken with Mushrooms, Tomatoes and Penne

Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

What are your favorite sanity saving holiday tips? Feel free to share!

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook. © Susan W. Nye, 2015

In the Spirit & Citrus & Spice Sugar Cookies

 Once Thanksgiving has come and gone, it’s time to get in the Christmas spirit. Depending on what else is going on … well, getting in the spirit can be a snap or close to impossible. We’ve all had those times when suddenly it is Christmas Eve. Where did the time go? Why is the tree still in the garage? What happened to that wreath I bought the day after Thanksgiving? The stockings haven’t been hung by the chimney with care. And oh my gosh, I still have to wrap the presents or bigger gosh … I haven’t even bought them yet!

If you are having trouble getting into the holiday spirit, here are a few tricks:

1. Get an advent calendar. Make sure it’s the kind with a chocolate behind every door. As the days lead up to Christmas, the calendar will help you keep track of time. The chocolate will give you a lift on a cold winter day.

2. Bake cookies. An afternoon of warm, sugary aromas will take you back to your childhood; baking with Mom and Nana. Nothing says Christmas memories like a batch of cookies.

3. Deck the halls and trim the tree. Spend a Saturday or Sunday pulling out the nutcrackers and filing bowls with shiny, glass ornaments. The smell of the tree and the greens on the mantle will blend beautifully with the cookies.

4. Check out the lights. A drive through the town to see the lights is a time-honored tradition in my family. Every town has their prime spots for decorations. Perhaps it’s Main Street where the Inn, is all done up in shining glory. Or that junction with the post office and community center. Take your pick and enjoy.

5. Make a gift. Knit a scarf, roast some nuts or decorate a tote bag. Psychologist tell us that creating and giving a special present brings joy to the gifter as well as the recipient. It really is more fun to give than receive.

6. Host a Christmas movie marathon. Pop some popcorn and settle in with Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby and/or Tim Allen for a relaxing good time. If you think you don’t have time for a Christmas movie, you can knit or wrap presents while you watch.

7. Play Christmas carols. Whether it’s your favorite radio station in the car, a stack of CD’s you’ve been collecting for years or Pandora … have yourself a merry little musical time.

8. Re-read a Christmas classic. Dickens or Seuss or something else entirely, an old favorite will fill you with the joy of the season. Share that story by reading aloud to an elderly loved one with failing eyesight. Or ask a child who loves books to read it to you.

9. See a holiday spectacular. You don’t need to go to New York to see the Rockettes. (Although a trip to the Big Apple could be fun!) You’ll find Christmas revels, dancing nutcrackers and great concerts much closer to home. From a sing along at your local church to something a bit more professional at a nearby arts center, there are holiday performances everywhere.

10. Invite friends over. No one says it has to be a big, fancy do. Host a cookie swap or a skating party, sing a few carols and sip hot chocolate or something stronger.

Have fun and enjoy the spirit of the holidays! Bon appétit!

Citrus & Spice Sugar Cookies
sugar_cookies_03These aren’t your same old-same old sugar cookies. They are buttery delicious with just the right touch of citrus and spice. Enjoy!
Makes about 2 dozen cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out the dough
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
Grated zest of 1/2 lime
Grated zest of 1/3 orange
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
Pinch nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup softened unsalted butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon each lemon, lime and orange juice
Sanding or colored sugars or Citrus Icing (optional)
Garnish: sprinkles, chocolate chips, candies or colored sugars (optional)

Put the flour, grated citrus zest and spices in a medium bowl and whisk to combine.

Beat the butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the brown sugar and beat 2 to 3 minutes more. Add the egg and vanilla extract and beat until smooth.

Turn the mixer to low and gradually add the dry ingredients. Divide the dough into a 2 balls and then flatten into disks. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for 2 hours or until firm.

Evenly space the racks in the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Put the dough on a lightly floured work surface. Roll out the dough and cut into cookies with decorative cutters. Transfer the cookies to a parchment-lined or nonstick baking sheet. Press excess dough together, roll and cut more cookies. You may want to stick the dough in the freezer for a few minutes to re-chill it.

If you like, sprinkle the cookies with sanding or colored sugar before baking. Bake until the cookies’ edges are golden, about 10 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Ice the cookies with Citrus Icing and decorate with sprinkles, chocolate chips or candies. Let sit until the icing sets, about 30 minutes.

Citrus Icing
1 3/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons powdered eggs whites or meringue powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch salt
4 – 6 tablespoons mix of lemon, lime and orange juices
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted (optional)
Food coloring (optional)

Put the confectioners’ sugar in a medium mixing bowl, add the powdered eggs, cinnamon and salt and whisk to combine. Whisk in the citrus juices until the icing reaches the desired consistency for painting, piping or drizzling. Whisk in the melted butter.

Transfer the icing to small bowls and add drops of different color food coloring.

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One Year Ago – Peppermint Bark Cookies
Two Years Ago – Mixed Reds & Greens Holiday Salad
Three Years Ago – Snowy Pecan Balls
Four Years Ago – Chocolate Truffles
Five Years Ago – Smoked Salmon Mousse
Six Years Ago – Roasted Beans
Seven Years Ago – Winter Soup with Pasta, Beans & Greens
Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

What about you? How do you get in the holiday spirit? Feel free to share!

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook. © Susan W. Nye, 2015

Thanksgiving Tips, Tricks & Hacks & Butternut Squash Crostini with Goat Cheese & Balsamic Reduction

Thanksgiving is the foodiest holiday of the year. Did you invite the whole famdamily and half the neighborhood to feast at your house this year? Moreover, are you cursing that moment of weakness? Blame it on the euphoria of another Patriots’ victory or the extra glass of wine but you invited everyone, yes EVERYONE, for Thanksgiving. In the cold light of a rainy day, it now seems a bit daunting. Don’t despair it’s all in the planning plus a few tricks and a hack or two.

Here goes:

Make your lists early, like now. Check them twice. You need two lists. The first is the all-important shopping list of what to buy, when and where. The second is the just as important To Do list. Follow both as if your life depended on it. Your life doesn’t but your sanity might.

Start early, now would be good. You have your lists, so, anything that can be done in advance; do it. I like to begin my Thanksgiving feast with Roasted Butternut Squash Soup. If you do too, make it this weekend and freeze it. Same goes for the lovely pie dough we all like so much. Make and roll out the pastry and freeze it in the pie plate or flat on a cookie sheet.

If someone offers to bring a dish, say yes. But remember, as chief cook and bottle washer, you call the shots. Be polite but firm. If you have enough sweet potato casserole to mortar a large chimney but need another pie, say so. Stay strong. If no one offers, the bakery is there for a reason.

In addition, as dinner comes down to the wire, a handful of helpful Hannahs will flock to your kitchen. Have a list of simple tasks, things like opening wine, pouring water and tossing salad, and be ready to delegate. It will help get dinner on the table faster and the Hannahs out of your hair.

It’s the chopping-ist time of the year. What with onions and celery for stuffing, squash for roasting and potatoes for mashing, it seems endless. Begin early and store chopped veggies in the refrigerator. If a recipes calls for a boatload of finely chopped or diced veggies, your food processor can be your best friend. Cut the vegetables in chunks, throw them in the food processor and pulse to chop. Don’t overdo it, you want finely chopped not purée.

Speaking of recipes, don’t clutter the counters with cookbooks, laptops and tablets. Photocopy your favorite recipes or print from the web. Then, use painter’s tape to stick them onto the kitchen cabinets. It’s a win-win; more counter space and your recipes are at eye level.

Speaking of clutter, unless you have an extra refrigerator in the garage, chances are good that you’ll run out of cold storage. If the weather cooperates, store goodies on the screened porch. But watch out! If temperatures plummet into the teens overnight, well, iceberg lettuce anyone? To keep food from freezing, store it in a cooler. If it’s really cold, wrap the cooler in an old blanket or quilt. On Thanksgiving Day, use those same coolers for ice and drinks.

If you don’t have an instant-read food thermometer, now is the time to buy one. For less than $10, you can finally, once and for all, end the “is it done yet?” debate. Just stick the thermometer in the thickest part of the bird and get a reading of 165 degrees before pulling it out of the oven.

And to keep everything warm? As long as you don’t carve it immediately (and please don’t, it should rest for thirty minutes), that big old turkey will stay warm for at least an hour. Loosely cover with foil and set it out of the dog’s reach. Use the time to heat up the Broccoli Purée, bake the Decadent Cheesy Potatoes (my niece Emily’s favorite) and make the gravy. By the way, a thermos is perfect for keeping the gravy nice and hot.

Here’s to a happy and sane Thanksgiving! Bon appétit!

Butternut Squash Crostini with Goat Cheese & Balsamic Reduction
You can’t celebrate Thanksgiving without at least a little butternut squash and/or pumpkin. Enjoy!
Serves 12

About 2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 shallot, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh chopped sage
1/2 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon cognac
1 baguette, sliced on the diagonal about 1/2-inch-thick and toasted
10-12 ounces goat cheese
Garnish: Balsamic Reduction (recipe follows), toasted hazelnuts and chopped chives

Butternut_Squash _Crostini_w_Goat_Cheese_Balsamic_Reduction_01Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Divide the squash onto 2 rimmed baking sheets, drizzle with enough equal parts olive oil and vinegar to lightly coat, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss to combine. Spread the squash in a single layer. Roast at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Add the shallot, toss to combine and roast 15-20 minutes more or until the vegetables are tender.

Combine the squash on 1 pan, sprinkle with sage and thyme, drizzle with cognac and toss to combine.

The squash can be prepared in advance, cooled, covered and stored in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before serving.

To assemble and serve: spread a layer of goat cheese on the toasted baguette slices and top with butternut squash. If you like, you can warm the crostini in a 350-degree oven for 5-10 minutes. Drizzle sparingly with Balsamic Reduction and sprinkle with hazelnuts and chives.

Balsamic Reduction
Makes about 3/4 cup

1 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon finely chopped sage
1/2 teaspoon thyme leaves
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon or to taste honey
1/4 cup or to taste extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Put the vinegar in small, heavy saucepan and bring to a boil the over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until reduced by half. Remove from the heat and stir in the shallot, garlic and herbs. Cool to room temperature.

Remove the bay leaf and, using a rubber spatula to press on the remaining solids, strain the vinegar through a sieve into a bowl. Season with salt and pepper and whisk in the mustard and honey. Continue whisking and slowly add the olive oil until thick and well combined. Serve at room temperature.

Coverr and store extra Balsamic Reduction in the refrigerator.

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One Year Ago – Moroccan Spiced Vegetables & Chickpeas with Couscous
Two Years Ago – Smashed or Mashed Potatoes
Three Years Ago – Apple Muffins
Four Years Ago – Mixed Greens with Warm Roasted Squash
Five Years Ago – Spinach Ricotta Pie
Six Years Ago – Seared Scallops with Lentils
Seven Years Ago – Tomato, Olive & Feta Tart

Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

What about you? What your favorite kitchen tip, trick or hack for Thanksgiving? Feel free to share!

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook. © Susan W. Nye, 2015

Picking Blueberries & Summer Salad with Green Beans, Blueberries & Goat Cheese

blueberriesLast week, in praise of August and the start of blueberry season, I gave everyone a yummy recipe for Blueberry Clafouti . That’s when I started to think, can you get too much of a good thing? Not when it comes to blueberries. Not only are they delicious, blueberries are one of nature’s super foods. Why not head to a pick-your-own farm and, well, pick some of your own? Don’t worry about picking too many. Any extra will freeze beautifully. When it’s cold and snowy, toss the frozen berries in smoothies, muffins and pies for a taste of summer.

Picking blueberries is a great way to spend a morning, especially now when the days start out a little cooler. If it’s your first blueberry picking adventure, there are a few things you might like to know:

Before heading out: Always give the farm a call before heading out. Your favorite pick-your-own blueberry farm may not open every day. Changes in weather effect how fast or slow the berries ripen. Farmers open their fields to pickers when fruit is bountiful. If it’s cool or rainy for a few days, some fields may close for a while. Many fields close at mid-day so get there early!

Bring your own bucket. Not all growers provide containers.

Lather on the sunscreen, wear a hat and bring plenty of water and a snack.

In the field: Select plump blueberries with a light gray-blue color. If there is a hint of red, the berry isn’t ripe. If you pick one by mistake and leave it at room temperature there is a good chance it will ripen. Blueberries which are still white or green will not ripen after they are picked.

To pick, hold your bucket under a bunch of blueberries with one hand. Use the other hand to cup a ripe bunch and gently rub the berries. The ripe berries will drop into the bucket. The unripe ones remain attached to the bush, waiting for you to return in a few days.

Most pick-your-own farms sell berries by the pound. You’ll need to pick about three cups for one pound of fresh berries. A pie takes about one quart of blueberries.

Once picked, keep the berries in an open container and out of the sun.

In the kitchen: As soon after picking as possible, get the blueberries into the refrigerator. Store the berries in shallow containers, lightly covered, in the refrigerator. Don’t wash the berries until you are ready to use them. Dampness makes them susceptible to spoiling. If you can’t use the berries within a week or so, freeze them.

Freezing berries: Rinse the berries in a large colander, remove any stems or stray leaves and drain. Place a clean, dry dish towel on the bottom of a rimmed nonstick baking sheet, add the berries in a single layer and gently roll around to dry. Remove the towel and again arrange in a single layer on the baking sheet.

Place the baking sheet in the freezer. Once the berries are frozen solid, place them in plastic, re-sealable freezer bags or air tight plastic containers and return to the freezer. They’ll be ready and waiting for blueberry pancakes and taste of summer on a cold winter morning.

Have fun and bon appétit!

Blueberry Salad
blueberry_salad_01A delicious way to use some of those berries. Top with grilled chicken or shrimp and it’s a one dish supper. Enjoy!
Serves 8

1/4-1/2 pound green beans – use haricot verts or thin green beans if you can find them
About 8 ounces mixed baby greens or spinach
About 4 ounces crumbled goat cheese
1 1/2 cups blueberries
1/2 cup roughly chopped pecans, toasted
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Blanch the beans in boiling salted water for about 2 minutes. Drain and transfer to an ice bath to cool. Drain well.

Toss the beans and greens with enough vinaigrette to lightly coat. Put the salad on individual plates or a large platter, sprinkle with goat cheese, blueberries and pecans and serve.

Balsamic Vinaigrette
Juice of 1 orange
2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons wholegrain mustard
Extra-virgin olive oil to taste

Put the orange juice, vinegar, shallot, garlic and mustard into a blender, season with salt and pepper and process until smooth. With the motor running, add olive oil to taste and process until smooth and emulsified.
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One Year Ago – Shrimp Salad Niçoise
Two Years Ago – Insalata Caprese
Three Years Ago – Mojito Melons
Four Years Ago – Grilled Antipasto
Five Years Ago – Nana Nye’s Fish Chowder
Or Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

What are your favorite pick-your-own fruits and vegetables? Feel free to share. Let’s get a conversation going.

Want more? I’ve got links to lots more to read, see & cook as well as a day in the life photoblog! In addition, I hope that you will take a minute to learn about my philanthropic project Eat Well-Do Good. © Susan W. Nye, 2013

Ready for My Close-Up

Almond_Joy_Sundae_03I’m back WMUR/Channel 9’s Cook’s Corner today. New London celebrates Chocolate Fest this coming Saturday – March 9th and I’m one of the (illustrious) judges! (Sorry – I don’t take bribes.) To get in the mood, I’ll be making Death by Chocolate Sauce Cook’s Corner today.

This I hope you enjoy the segment and love the chocolate sauce!

Want more? Click Here! for a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog!

Love chocolate? I’m always happy to hear from you! Let’s get a conversation going. To make a comment, just click on Comments below. I’d be delighted to add you to the growing list of blog subscribers. To subscribe: just scroll back up, fill in your email address and click on the Sign Me Up button.

© Susan W. Nye, 2013


Holiday Special – Christmas Cookies

sugar_cookies_03What’s your favorite holiday treat? Something from your grandmother’s kitchen? Or maybe you have a new favorite from that sweet little pastry shop down the road. Could be you are looking for something new. Shortbread is terrific for the holidays and I promise you will love my Macadamia Nut Shortbread. Or try my holiday favorite – Snowy Pecan Balls. For a hearty treat on a snowy day, bake up a batch of Root ‘n’ Tooty Good ‘n’ Fruity Oatmeal Cookies. They’re just what Santa needs to keep going on his round-the world ride. And how about some Snowman Cupcakes? Gingerbread would be a great choice!snowman_cupcake_02

If you are rushed (and who isn’t), Sweet Dream Bars are quick and easy. The chocolate lovers in your family will love my Triple Threat Brownies.

Then there are lovely homemade chocolates and candies! My Chocolate Almond Brittle is positively addictive. And my Chocolate Dipped Orange Caramels are no less delicious. For a luxurious treat, try my Chocolate Truffles. Christmas candies are great on your holiday buffet table and make great gifts.

If you are thinking of something sweet as a hostess gift or stocking stuffer, don’t forget my Death by Chocolate Sauce. (But save some for yourself!)

Enjoy everything the holiday season has to offer and bon appétit!

For a complete list of and links to all the recipes on this blog Click Here!!

What sweet treats will you be making during the holidays? I’d love to hear from you. Let’s get a conversation going.

Want more? Click here for more seasonal menus! In addition, I hope that you will take a minute to learn about my philanthropic project Eat Well-Do Good. © Susan W. Nye, 2011