Category: Food & Recipes

Party Tips from Food Writer Ruth Reichl

“I was not prepared for the feel of the noodles in my mouth, or the purity of the taste. The noodles quivered as if they were alive, and leapt into my mouth where they vibrated as if playing inaudible music….The restaurant’s sea urchins were fabulous too: great soft piles of orange roe as succulent and perfumed as hunks of ripe mango. Claudia refused to taste them. She merely shuddered when I offered her raw shrimps, which melted beneath the teeth with the lush generosity of milk chocolate.”

I think even a non-sushi-lover could be persuaded to eat Japanese food by Ruth Reichl. The above excerpt is from her food memoir Garlic and Sapphires, about her time as restaurant critic for the New York Times.

I have a terrible writer-crush on Ms. Reichl…even her tweets make my mouth water. Who knew you could pack so much descriptive power into 140 characters?

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BEST Baked Chip Dip Ever. So easy.

I learned this recipe from my friend Jocelyn. She used to bring it to our newlyweds small group, and the entire pan would DISAPPEAR in minutes. If you didn’t hustle to the table, you missed out. Super easy:

  • Spread a package of cream cheese in the bottom of a square glass baking dish
  • Pour a small jar of salsa over it
  • Sprinkle with shredded cheese (cheddar or Mexican blend)

Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes till the cheese is melted. Serve with any kind of tortilla chips. We are partial to the King of Chips: Tostitos with Lime.

How to Host a Cookout

I was just talking with a friend who has been unexpectedly thrust into hosting a cookout for about 20 people at her home in a couple days. She had a minor panic, being unsure about how to put together the event, how to handle the food, what was expected of her as the hostess. Here are some ideas I threw out there for her…with summer cookout season still going strong, especially heading toward Labor Day Weekend, maybe these will help someone else too.

-It’s less about the venue and the appearance and more about the warm welcome
For a casual cookout, you don’t have to have perfectly coordinated luau themed decorations and linens, tiki torches, and a roast pig (though that would be hecka fun). You don’t even have to have a sculpted lawn and matching patio furniture. Your house doesn’t have to be spotless, just reasonably picked up. Just be prepared, then remember to be calm and smile. Your guests will remember the feel of the party more than the details of how it looked.

-The role of the host is to give direction without overly herding people
You don’t have to force people’s every move, but you do need to give gentle direction. Laissez-faire hospitality can leave people wandering around aimlessly and having to ask awkward questions. Anticipate their questions and provide answers before they have to ask. “I’m so glad you’re here! Thanks so much for bringing chips. You can put them on the table there. Please help yourself to a drink from that cooler there. The bathroom is inside through the patio doors, on the other side of the kitchen. We’ve got burgers on the grill – we’ll be ready to eat in about 20 minutes. In the meantime, enjoy the veggies on the table.”

Make introductions. Try to mention a common interest as you make the introduction. Make sure everyone has someone to talk to. You cannot make people be friends, but at least you can set conversations up for success.

Orchestrate the evening. Let people know what to expect, what will be coming up – think of it as a casual Order of Ceremony. “Okay, the burgers are coming off the grill! We have buns and condiments on the table by the plates. You can form a line here. Sarah, would you mind going through the line first?”

“It looks like everyone’s almost done eating. There’s a trash bag right here when you’re done with your plates and cans. In about 15 minutes, we can move to the lawn – we have croquet over here, bocce there, and a volleyball net in the backyard. We’ll eat dessert around 8:30.”

-Cookout food should be simple
If you have grill skills, you can do hamburgers, chicken (boneless skinless thighs fit perfectly on a bun and are less expensive than breasts. If you do breasts, you can usually cut them in half for grilling), and sausages (bratwursts or sweet Italian sausage can be a nice change from hot dogs). You might want to have a box of veggie burgers on hand in case you end up with some vegetarians. Provide nice buns, sized appropriately for the various meats. Have condiments – ketchup, mustard, mayo, and a plate of lettuce and sliced tomatoes (skip the sliced onions – no one wants to be concerned about onion breath at a social occasion).

Really you can skip potato salad, coleslaw, etc. Cookouts seem to be more about the meats anyway. Maybe do a veggie tray and a fruit tray, some chips, maybe cheese and crackers.

Desserts can be simple too – cupcakes, watermelon, and brownies.

If you have a gathering of foodies, then definitely grill marinated fish and vegetables, serve exotic salads and appetizers, pair wines with the food, and have your pastry chef friend bring dessert. (And invite me.)

Get enough flats of water bottles (they often come in 24-packs) for each guest to have at least one bottle of water. Have a nice mix of carbonated and non-carbonated drinks, caffeinated and non-caffeinated. So, maybe Coke, Root Beer, 7-Up, and Lemonade or iced tea. If you’re doing alcohol, you can serve bottles of beer (some light, some regular – the Sam Adams summer pack is a nice assortment: Boston Lager, Light, Summer Ale, Blackberry Wit, Hefeweizen, and Pale Ale) and bottles of malternatives like Mike’s Hard Cranberry Lemonade. Stock a couple coolers with ice ahead of time.

-Paper goods
If you do drinks in cans and bottles, you don’t have to buy cups. This leads to fewer spills and avoids the whose-cup-is-this? awkwardness. If you have only finger foods, you don’t have to get silverware. Sturdy paper plates (like Chinet) and napkins (or a roll of paper towels can be less expensive) are all you need.

-Getting guests to contribute
It’s generally acceptable for a cookout to be a potluck. You can either wait for guests to ask what they should bring or just declare it a potluck from the outset. Give clear direction about what you want guests to bring. Single guys should usually be tasked with bringing drinks or chips or ice. (Be clear about what kind of drinks, for example, cans instead of 2-liters.) You can assign desserts and/or side dishes to the ladies or culinarily skilled men. BYOM (Bring Your Own Meat) can work well.

-Have fun
Relax and enjoy the summer with your friends.

What are your best cookout hospitality tips?

“Mancake”: In Which I Try My Hand at Food-Memoir Writing

Kaye Dacus just hosted a contest at her blog to promote her new book Menu for Romance. It’s a modern romance set in the same Louisianna town asher first book Stand-In Groom; the main character is a chef. So entrants had to write a 500-1,000 word essay about their favorite foods.

She announced the winners today. Those who entered but didn’t win the grand prize were entered in a drawing for other prizes. I was delighted to win one of the second-place prizes: one of her new books, a related DVD, and a gift card to Amazon!

The grand prize winner wrote a moving essay about cooking hamburgers with her dad on her first trip home from college. When I was in Colorado last week, I came across journal entries and a newspaper story I wrote about my first trip home from college, so those emotions were fresh to me, and Liz did a great job capturing them.

Here’s my entry. I have many favorite foods, but I chose this one as a little gift to Matthew. I did this while I was gone last week, so he has no idea. I can’t wait for him to discover this! A big thank-you to my friends who edited this for me.

“Mancake” by Becky Castle Miller

My friend Matthew froze, fork in mouth. The college buddies around us, all in on the secret, shoveled cheesecake into their concealed smirks. It was the first time I had ever left this life-of-the-party extrovert speechless. His silenced reaction made me happier than the enthusiastic delight I’d been anticipating for hours.

Earlier that day, I had slipped out of the off-campus house where a group of us were crashing before dispersing for the summer. At the grocery store, I built a tower in my shopping cart: five packages of Philadelphia, a box of Honey Maid, a half-dozen eggs. Ten dollars equaled a sizable sum to my thin wallet, but I pictured his green eyes crinkling in a smile and swiped my debit card.

Hurrying back to the house, I rummaged through the unfamiliar cupboards. Mixing bowls, measuring cups, electric beater; check. As I assembled my baking arsenal, I meandered through my memories of our freshman year. A ready laugh, gentlemanly manners, butterflies in my belly the first time he edited a newspaper story for me; check. His red ink on the page meant more to me than a Valentine – at last I had found a literate (male) peer!

I dumped neat graham cracker squares into a Ziploc bag and pounded them into crumbs. Unable to find a rolling pin, I pressed a meat tenderizer into service, pulverizing the bag and dusting the linoleum with dessert sand. Butter swirled like melted dandelions into the graham cracker flakes. I stirred in gritty sugar granules and pressed the warm mixture into a springform pan. Reflections rose of the hours we had spent swapping anecdotes, like the way his mother’s promise of cheesecake for a high score prompted his brain and stomach to pony up a 1500 on the SAT.

As the crust briefly browned in the oven, I unwrapped each package of cream cheese, licking the soft, sweet smears off the foil. The steady tambourine of the beaters against the sides of the metal bowl became white noise as I recalled the friendly rivalry of our unplanned poetry slam. I had one-upped his rhythmic invitation to the first meeting of our literary club with my long RSVP that matched his meter and rhyme scheme exactly.

The timer dinged, reminding me to check the crust. Perfectly crispy.

I creamed in the sugar then added vanilla and milk. Carefully cracking eggshells, I thought about the gut-twisting email I had opened one night: “We can’t spend time together any more…I’m too emotionally invested, and I’m still committed to not dating this year.” The heartbreaking weeks until we reconciled our friendship ceased to matter after the all-night conversation in which he confided that the romantic sonnet he’d shared with our literary club was actually about me. Twitterpated — that’s how my girlfriends described my demeanor the entire next day.

Six egg yolks, added one at a time, lent their golden tone to the wedding-dress-white batter. The spatula silently spread the finished filling over the almond-brown crust. I slid the cheesecake into the oven where it would bake at 200 degrees for several hours.

I pondered the ambiguity of our current relationship status while I dressed for the commencement ceremony where Matthew was singing with the university chorale. I would be heading to China while he jetted off to New Zealand, interest expressed but no commitment communicated. If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, I was determined to test the axiom.

When I returned to the house ahead of him, a scent warmer than any vanilla candle greeted me. Caramel on top, glossy like the finish of satin paint, the cheesecake awaited its debut. I hid it in the fridge until everyone congregated for dessert after the evening’s trip to the symphony.

Behind his back, I carefully removed the springform ring, showing a three-inch-thick rainbow in shades of tiramisu.

When I served his plate, he raised an eyebrow. A notorious cheesecake critic, he would not be kind to any specimen that fell short of the standard: his mother’s genius-making cheesecake. With Simon Cowell-like precision, he sniffed to begin his inspection. It passed the first test: “This smells like my mother’s cheesecake,” he said.

He cut into the slice, ears tuned for the tell-tale “thup” he had always told me marked a properly textured cheesecake. It passed the second test: “This sounds like my mother’s cheesecake.”

Awaiting the final verdict, I tasted my wares. Heavy on the tongue, sweet without being cloying, smooth as dulce de leche, it passed my test: it was the best cheesecake I’d ever eaten.

When he finally took a bite, Matthew paused. He later confessed that if he’d had a ring in his pocket, he would have proposed right then. Around the mouthful, he managed, “This tastes like my mother’s cheesecake!”

“It is your mother’s cheesecake!” I revealed with a grin. “I emailed your sister for the recipe.”

It took him 18 months to get that ring, but he did propose. Two years later, we served cheesecake at our wedding.


That’s us at our annual symphony outing a year later. Thanks, Lisa, for the picture!

Feeding People

I was feeling a little stressed and overwhelmed yesterday, having taken on too much (as usual), and felt for a few minutes like I’m no good at anything I try to do. The house was a mess, K was fussy, it’s like slogging through mud to finish my work projects, I sent my birthday invites wicked late… Contrast that with this morning, when, as I loaded boxes of food into the car, I felt peaceful and calm and thought, “I am really good at feeding people!”

A couple years ago, Matthew and I led a Vision Seminar for the college and career group at our church, challenging them to find what it is God has planned for them to do with the gifts He’s given them and then do it. That process begins with considering your talents. We used the excellent series of questions in the book More Than You and Me by Kevin and Karen Miller (who might just happen to be related to us). The book is out of print, but you can get used copies on (It’s the best marriage book we’ve ever read, and I’m not just saying that because Matthew’s aunt and uncle wrote it. If you’re married or planning to be married, read it! It’ll change your marriage and your life.)The questions help you examine how God might have uniquely gifted you for serving other people. (Questions like: what can you do for long periods of time without getting tired? What can you fail at and then, instead of getting discouraged, try it again?)

I looked over my answers when I was done and realized that in some form or another, “cooking” was involved in every single one. I took the hint and joined the meal team at church.

I’ve also found other ways to serve people through food, starting with my own family. I love cooking for my husband and packing tasty lunches for him (and it works out really well – he enjoys EATING!), and I feel very blessed to be still almost-exclusively-breastfeeding my seven-month-old (which gives “feeding people” a whole new and much more personal meaning!).

Just this week, I’ve been able to contribute to our grocery bill by cooking for our upstairs neighbor, a young bachelor friend of Matthew. Boomer was spending exorbitant amounts of money eating out every day, so Matthew worked a deal where I pack a lunch and dinner for Boomer to take to work every day, and he pays … well, now that I think about it, pretty much half our weekly grocery bill. (He eats a LOT…he’s a big guy, and he does manual labor.) It saves him money and helps us out a ton.

This morning I was able to bring a meal to a couple in our Centering Group (couples in our midwifery practice who had babies in October – we get together once a month); the husband had a major accident at work and is recuperating. I also got to bring a meal to a couple in our newlyweds Sunday School class; the wife has mono. This weekend, we’re having a couple families over for pizza Friday night, our pastor is coming over on Saturday morning for brunch to talk about where we’re at in our preparation for joining Wycliffe and how our church can help, and on Saturday afternoon I’m hostessing a table at the annual Women’s Tea.

There are many things I struggle with doing, feel overwhelmed by, or fail at. Feeding people is not usually one of them. I like having something I can do that’s a tangible way to bless people, to connect with people, to facilitate relationships and communication.I don’t say all this to toot my own horn. I mention these anecdotes to spark your thinking…what are YOU really good at, and how could you use it to serve people in a way that comes naturally to you, rather than struggling to do things you’re not gifted to do?

Fall Breakfast

I found this fabulous recipe online last week, and I have made it twice since then. It had some uninspired name like “Apple Sausage Breakfast Casserole,” so I have redubbed it “Fall Breakfast,” because it simply tastes like Fall. Of course, I had to play with the recipe, try some different things…

Here is my version of the recipe:

1 lb. sweet Italian sausage taken out of casings, or bulk pork sausage – I tried both
2 tart apples, coarsly chopped in a food processor
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 1/2 cups pancake batter or a box of Jiffy corn muffin mix, prepared – I tried both
1 tablespoon butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a large skillet, saute sausage until browned. Place sausage in a baking dish. Add apple to the skillet and sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Saute a few minutes until apples just lose their crispness. Layer on top of the sausage. Pour the batter over the apples and bake until nicely browned, about 10-15 minutes. Serve hot.

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