Cooking for 25… Happy belated birthday, Aunt Ginny!

My Aunt Ginny’s birthday party was last weekend, and my mother and I (and several amazing helpers) concocted and executed a menu for 25 people:

Appetizers:

Mini Sandwiches: Egg salad, Tuna salad and Avocado-Cucumber
Onion Dip

Potato Salad (contributed by my lovely Aunt Darlene)
Pasta Salad
Shrimp and Orzo Salad (contributed by my lovely Aunt Candace)
Arugula Salad (my mom made this is and it was far and away the most popular dish; almonds, green apples, fresh Parm, evoo and s&p – adapted from a Whole Foods salad)

Main Dishes:

Chicken-Zucchini Skewers
Poached Salmon w/ Avocado Sauce and Dill-Tomato Sauce

Desserts:

Birthday cakes!

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Tuna Salad Sandwich Rounds (20-24 rounds)

Ingredients:
2 cans tuna in olive oil, drained
3 tbsp mayo
1 large roasted red pepper bottled in oil , rinsed, drained, and finely chopped
Finely grated rind of 1 lemon (I used less)
Salt and pepper
Unsalted butter, softened
24 thin slices whole grain bread (or whatever kind you like; we used a mixture of white and wheat)
Small bunch fresh parsley, very finely chopped

Method:

Mix the tuna and next 3 ingredients in a bowl; season to taste. Chill for 15 minutes up to overnight. When ready to prepare, Scoop salad onto rounds of bread, top with remaining rounds and lightly butter the edges of the sandwiches. Roll in fresh parsley. Stack, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Egg Salad Pita Pockets (20-24 pitas)

Ingredients:
8 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and chopped finely
4 tbsps mayonnaise
2 tbsps Dijon mustard
pinch cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
24 mini pita pockets (we used a mixture of white and wheat)
unsalted butter, softened
watercress sprigs for garnish

Chicken kebabs

Makes 6-8 kebabs (we quadrupled this recipe… it was epic)

1lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 zucchini, sliced very thinly lengthways
6–8 metal or wooden skewers or sticks of fresh rosemary, lower leaves removed, tips kept on

Marinade
1 handful of fresh coriander
1 handful of fresh mint
3 cloves of garlic
6 spring onions
1 red chili
zest and juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil

Cut the chicken into 1-inch cubes and place in a bowl. Blanch the zucchini strips in salted boiling water for 30 seconds then drain and allow to cool.

Blitz all the marinade ingredients (except the olive oil) in a food processor, then loosen to a paste with a little olive oil. Add the marinade to the chicken pieces and mix well. Allow to sit for up to an hour. Then weave the zucchini strips in between the chicken pieces on the rosemary sticks or skewers. Grill for around 8 minutes, turning regularly, until cooked.

If you need to keep warm, sprinkle with a bit more oil and cover loosely with foil.

**Recipe from: JamieOliver.com

Poached Salmon with Dill-Tomato Sauce

Sauce (for 1lb salmon)
1/4 cup light mayo
1 tbsp low fat milk
1 tbsp minced fresh dill or 1 tsp dill weed
1 tbsp lemon juice
freshly ground black pepper
1 small tomato, diced

Poaching (in the microwave!)
sprayed or lightly oil-coated ceramic or glass dish
2 salmon fillets
3 tbsps water, if more salmon use more water
1 tbsp butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp chopped fresh dill
4 lemon slices
Cover dish and salmon with plastic wrap; poke holes to vent.
Microwave on high for 6-8 minutes, turning 1/2 way through (unless, of course, you have a rotating tray in your microwave). Fish should flake easily with a fork.
Let stand 2 minutes, serve with sauce.
Thanks to my Aunt Ginny for this recipe! So easy and so delicious.

Gemelli with Tomatoes, Olives & Ricotta

Coarse salt
8 ounces gemelli (or fusilli or penne)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
10 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons capers, rinsed (optional)
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 cup grape tomatoes, quartered
1/3 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1/3 cup fresh basil, torn
Fresh ricotta cheese, for serving

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta, and cook until al dente. Drain. Drizzle with just enough oil to coat, so the pasta doesn’t clump.

Pulse sun-dried tomatoes, vinegar, capers, and garlic in a food processor. With machine running, add oil in a slow, steady stream, and process until smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

Toss together pasta, sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, grape tomatoes, olives, basil, and salt. Transfer to serving plates. Top with a scoop of ricotta, drizzle with oil, and sprinkle with pepper.

**Recipe from: Zested (the picture here is prettier than mine… check it out)

Photos:

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It was a wonderful party. I got to see my cousin Anna for the first time in years, and our two new baby cousins were there looking precious and perfect. And my Aunt Ginny, who has been there for me my whole life, was I hope at least a little surprised that we were all there!

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A funny thing happened on the way to this Monday… Which is greener, a meat or a veggie burger? Theory on politically-influenced baby names

-o- Happy day after Mother’s Day -o-

I have an absolutely wonderful mother. I got to spend Saturday evening with her and the rest of my family at a gala supporting Single Carrot Theater in Baltimore. We also had a wonderful brunch Sunday morning. My mom is a beautiful, kind, patient, capable, sweet, intelligent, and endlessly forgiving woman. I hope she and all the other mothers in the world had a lovely weekend.

Bonues: Nature’s toughest mothers from BBC.

-o- Which is greener: a steak or a veggie burger? -o-

If you love the planet, you love veggies… right? Conventional wisdom holds that beef – factory raised, hormone injected, delicious delicious beef – is terrible for the planet and you’re terrible for eating each raw tasty morsel. However, people are beginning to realize that its the overproduction of food that destroys its ‘green-ness.’

Raw veggies are of course the best for the energy-in energy-out ratio, but veggie burgers and all of the processes required to make them taste like beef could be worse that grass-fed beef people are trying to replace it with.

Experts weigh in on a Mother Jones forum.

-o- Top 10 Twitter pics of the week from Mashable’s Charlie White -o-

These are always so fun. Love Beyonce’s dress. Check them out: Slideshow.

-o- According to The Washington Post, graduates are facing a better markets this year -o-

Finally some good news on the employment front. While the recession has been relatively easy on those with higher degrees, matriculating students still didn’t have it easy. Now, students graduating have better chances of finding jobs than those who have graduated in the last three years. Here’s the article from The Washington Post.

-o- Van Halen’s “No Brown M&Ms backstage rule” -o-

Turns out he had a really good reason: Over-sexed over drugged rockstars try to get away with whatever they can. While that may regularly be the case, Van Halen’s brown M&Ms were really an ingenuous idea to detect venue neglect. If you haven’t heard the rumors and reasons… check out the NPR piece and video.

-o- Partisan divide in baby-naming? -o-

This is really kind of funny. Is nothing off limits? It’s not that people are consciously giving their kids  political names like Bill O’Rights, Ellie Phants, or Don Q. Kong (hmmm…). However political divides apparently influence parents and the names they give their kids. To find out how and to determine if you agree, see the NPR article.

-o- Cooking this week: Pasta Salad -o-

Here’s a Pasta Pomodoro salad from The Parsley Thief; we plan to add some shredded rotisserie chicken. Mmmmm. Doesn’t this look incredible?

(Image credit: The Parsley Thief)

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Thanks to Brian for helping me out this week… and happy four-year anniversary to my perfect man.

Christmas in Chadds Ford/Kennett Square, PA

All states have beautiful places, and it’s common for people to be attached to “their” parts of the country. I love Kennett Square and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. This area is, I think, a magical place to visit. The Brandywine River Museum is a popular destination around Christmastime; in addition to the always-showcased art of N.C. Wyeth, his son Andrew Wyeth and his grandson Jamie Wyeth, among others, there are several seasonal fixtures that are not to be missed.

Around the holidays, Longwood Gardens dresses their trees in thousands of tiny lights, which illuminate the garden in a most unique and unforgettable way. There is a fountain and light show in the open air theater and intricate decorations adorning every structure.

Visiting these places as a child are integral to the intense pleasure I recall feeling around Christmas. But this year for the first time, I became conscious of something I had always known: much of the fond and fierce attachment to places you’ve known and loved is intricately linked with those who were with you when you knew them. My family is there in almost every memory of walking through the greenhouses, singing carols while the fabulous organ trumped all voices, coming upon treehouses and lakes or streams with fish and birds unexpectedly, as though they weren’t where my parents had been leading us.

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-o- The Brandywine River Museum -o-


In the courtyard, local farmers and artisans sell their wares. For years I purchased beeswax ornaments for my grandmothers and begged my parents for flavored honey sticks to suck on… I didn’t really like them, but they were sort of like candy. There is usually a wonderful woman selling hot apple cider to help cut the cold, and though we missed it this year, there is often a vendor selling hot roasted chestnuts. This year, I bought a hand-crafted gold and mother-of-pearl ring from a jeweler out of Paoli-Malvern.

One of the best parts of visiting the museum during the holiday season is the train display. It was PACKED this year and obtaining pictures was tough, but I managed to get the waterfall and the adorable black bear family displays. The longest train this year was touted as having 140 cars, but my family counted 142!


Each year at least four decorated pine trees accompany the Noah’s Ark and “Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” displays crafted out of natural objects like pinecones, burrs and dried flowers.




The art of three generations of Wyeth artists and other brilliant painters, sculptors and illustrators adorn the walls. I enjoy perusing the galleries, but the holiday displays are truly what keep me coming back. Finally, though it is usually too cold to walk along it, I love the Brandywine River upon which the museum sits.

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-o- Longwood Gardens -o-

Even in the wind and rain, walking through the gardens when dressed with lights is a wonderful experience. This year, we made it to the Ballroom in the Conservatory just in time for one of the organ-accompanied caroling sessions. When Pierre DuPont commissioned the building of the organ, it was the largest ever purchased for a private residence. Some of the pipes of the organ are on display; the pipes that produce the deepest notes larger around than a man’s thigh and the ones producing the highest notes thinner than a pencil.

The ballroom:

Each year, the Gardens create a “Christmas Route” through the greenhouses that includes some of the most beautiful trees, flowers, cacti, bonsai and floral creations in the greenhouses. This year the route included a Gingerbread Room, filled with edible trees, a train, and tables filled a scrumptious-looking selection of desserts.




A few of the flowers:

The gardens are lovely in every season. In the summer, there are dozens of varieties of roses in a large stone square. In the spring you can walk among hundreds of thousands of many-hued blossoms and smell the scent of new growth in the are. But I am recommending now that you visit in the winter and see the lights, the imaginative Christmas tree and Poinsettia displays, and smell the gardenias and lilies that perfume the air in the extensive glass-walled conservatories.

And just when I thought the day couldn’t be improved upon, on the way out my parents bought me a cookbook from the gift shop, and it has quickly become one of my favorite Christmas gifts from this year. The New England Soup Factory Cookbook by Marjorie Druker and Clara Silverstein has over 100 soup recipes, and I can’t decide which to try first (and, as it happens, I got an immersion blender from my mother for Christmas!) Check out one of my favorites, Spinach, Feta and Pine Nut Soup, on how2heroes.
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Last Christmas, I gave you my heart… and the very next day I had to wait a whole year for it to come again!

And now it’s here! So I thought I’d revisit last year’s memories to get myself in the mood again (because in D.C. is it unseasonably warm).

Last Christmas Eve, Brian and I took our Dinah kitty and our Bean cat to Baltimore to spend Christmas Eve with Brian’s parents, his sisters and their partners. Brian’s sister Renee and her husband Ryan hosted a Christmas Eve dinner (which Renee’s husband’s family also attended) for which Cristin and I roasted several root vegetables and created an extravaganza of winter veggie goodness. Renee roasted a pork shoulder that got raves all around. There were also simple but perfect roasted potatoes of which I’m ashamed to say I likely ate the majority.

After dinner and gifts, Brian and I drove with our incredibly unhappy kitty cats to my parents’ house in the Philadelphia area. The drive was stressful, but in the morning we awoke to stuffed stockings on the feet of our beds and this beautiful display downstairs:

Our kittens were very naughty and wanted most of all to play within the branches of the tree; in their defense, it was the first tree they had ever seen. (This year Brian and I have a tiny little baby tree that I love if only because it’s our first one together.)


A few days later, we traveled to Washington D.C. to spend a few days enjoying the holiday atmosphere there. We saw a fabulous performance of Candide, ate scrumptious food, and walked the National Mall.

We also visited the ICE! How the Grinch Stole Christmas exhibit at the National Harbor. This is part of a Christmas tree made entirely of Christmas-themed marshmallow Peeps:

And this is Brian and I acting out the scene from the story in which the Grinch and Max take the sleigh to Whoville to steal Christmas; in hindsight I wish I had been the Grinch!

This and several other scenes were crafted entirely of ice and took dozens of artisans weeks to craft the two tons of ice into the 15000 square foot exhibit. It was cold, but fun!

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This year, we are doing things a bit differently. We are having a Christmas dinner Friday evening and then spending Christmas eve with my family in Pennsylvania. There we will probably see a movie that we all tried but couldn’t agree on, eat at a restaurant, and then get in our pajamas and watch Santa Claus Is Coming to Town! narrated by a Clay-mation version of Fred Astaire.

Christmas Day we will eat brunch with my dad’s sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews and then have dinner with Brian’s mother’s sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews.

I am so looking forward this family-filled season and I wish you all a wonderful holiday month!