Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Holiday Party Planning

It's that time of year again of cocktails & friends, feasts & fun, games & dinners, under-cooked turkeys & panic attacks - The Holidays!

Having a simple dinner party seems easy, until you feel like a one-man failed circus act in your kitchen, scrambling to get it together while all your guests are having fun in the next room. This post is going to help prepare you so you are not slaving away in the kitchen while the party goes on without you. Here are some good steps to plan ahead, make a delicious meal, and keep things easy-going. 

First off, what kind of meal are you going to serve?

  • Plated Dinner - this requires the most work. Timing is everything and you will need help, depending on how many guests you plan on serving. Plan on spending more time in the kitchen and being the last one to eat. 
  • Family Style or Buffet Style - easier in that you don't have to spend time plating each person's meal. Everyone grabs their meal from a buffet or from dishes in the center of the table.
  • Hors D'oeuvres/Appetizers - most finger foods can be made in advance. Extra food can be waiting in the kitchen to refill when things run low.  

One month before...

Find out how many guests you will be having. 

Finding out how many guests you will be having is key for shopping and finding out how much food & drink you're going to need. A good rule of thumb: number of guests + 3, is a good way to stay prepared. Even if less people than you expected show up, that's just more leftovers for you anyway. 

If you will be holding a plated dinner, this is key - there can sometimes be a 1-2 spot leeway if there are unexpected guests, depending on how formal it is. But for the most part, individual portions are hard to be flexible with. For family style, buffet style and hors d'oeuvres parties, it's a "you snooze you lose" situation and you should just tell guests to arrive on time if they want to eat. "Fashinably late" = hungry. 

Two weeks before...

Find out what food is in season in your area - go to the farmer's market, talk to your local farmer, search online. Your farmer's market may be closed for the season, but some of them are open the day before Thanksgiving. You can find out by looking up the market's website or going to your town's community center. 

From here you can start planning your menu. Are you going to have the traditional turkey, pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes with marshmallows? Or are you going to switch it up with pheasant, bourbon pecan pie, cassoulet, roasted beet salad and mushroom tarts? 

One week-3 days before...

Start your prep! 

You can freeze or refrigerate a lot of your prep (unless you're living off the grid with no running water or electricity...wait, how are you reading this anyway?). Here are things you can prep ahead of time to freeze or refrigerate: 
  • pie crust - if you are doing cream pies then you can bake them off and freeze 'em. If you're making fruit pies and such, portion out your dough, wrap them well and freeze or refrigerate
  • pie filling - this is not recommended with nut pies like pecan or whole fruit pies, but you can make your pumpkin/squash, cream & citrus pie fillings ahead of time
  • brines and rubs - if you're brining your meat you can make the brine now and refrigerate 
  • cookie dough & frostings
  • dips
  • deviled eggs - 3 days before cook your eggs, peel them and hold them in salt water. Holding in salt water keeps them fresh and hold shape
  • cocktail mixers
  • charcuterie & cheese - like sausages, pates, bacon, ricotta, mozzarella...
  • homemade pumpkin puree
Other things you can make ahead of time: 
  • candy
  • pickles & jams
  • crostini, crackers, chips, popcorn, snacks - if you have airtight containers to keep them in
  • dry ingredients - if you want to get super-duper organized and ready, portion out all your spices and dry ingredients for your recipes. You can put them in small tupperwares or sealable plastic baggies, label them and have them ready to go for faster cooking. Just makes sure to read your recipes thoroughly to make sure you aren't combining things in the wrong order 

One day before...

  • bake pies
  • bake cookies & muffins
  • bake bread and dice for stuffing
  • brine/rub meat
  • potatoes - you can peel them ahead of time and hold them in water in the refrigerator to prevent from turning brown
  • deviled eggs - pull your pre-cooked eggs out of the salt water, cut them in half, make the filling and hold in a piping bag. Place the empty egg white halves in a tupperware between wet paper towels. The day of just pipe the filling into the eggs and plate! 
  • chop vegetables

Day of...

The day of should be dedicated to meat and veggie dishes. Make sure you do your research to find out exactly how long your meat or poultry needs to cook. The rest of the time should be easy making mashed 'taters, gravy, etc. 

Make the kids do the dishes. 

I hated this part of holidays as a kid, but now that I'm an adult I get it. We deserve a break! You just spent a whole month preparing for this party, it's time to enjoy it! Or you may get that one friend who insists on doing the dishes, LET THEM. So sit back, untie your apron, sip on your hot buttered rum and enjoy the time talking to your friends and family. Because that is what it's really all about.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

How To: Shop For Meat

Where to go and what to look for when you're buying meat! 

The holidays are coming up soon! What are you going to cook for your dinners? For most homes in the US, the centerpiece of holiday dinners is a roast of some sort - roast turkey, beef roast, rack of lamb...however, not all of us know what to look for when purchasing meat. What is good for the animal and the environment, as well as for me and my family? Here is some basic info and help in defining some of the "buzz words" you see (i.e.: CAFOs, organic, grass-fed). Don't let buying meat be an added stress to your holidays. Explaining your "it's complicated" relationship status to your uncle you haven't seen in a year is stressful enough.

Happy, free-range chickens find all kinds of bugs in grass!

Why is what the animal eats important?

"You are what you eat" applies to animals, too. Just like humans, everything an animals eats goes through the bloodstream and into every cell in their bodies. GMOs, hormones and antibiotics have the same affect on animals as they do on humans. If a cow eats corn that has been genetically modified, those organisms make their way into the fat and muscle tissues that we eat. (Here are some helpful links on GMOs, hormones and antibiotics if you want more info on how they affect animals, humans and the environment.)

What should animals be eating? Each animal has evolved and bread to eat certain things. With cows, for example, they have been eating grasses for millennia, but many confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have been feeding cows corn. Though, this adds a lot of fat to the muscles (which is a good thing for flavor), the enzymes and microbes in cow's stomachs cannot correctly process corn. It makes them sick, then they are given antibiotics, then they develop immunities to those antibiotics, then they get sick again and we're eating sick animals...it's an ugly cycle. Here is what animals should be eating: 

Cows: grasses

Sheep: grasses 

Poultry: grains, grass, bugs 

Pigs: "slop"- roots, fruits, veggies, plants, grains...just about anything. Pigs are the garbage disposals of farm animals. 

Meat that is "certified organic" comes from animals that have been fed an organic diet with no GMOs, antibiotics or hormones. This is what you want to look for. However, as I have mentioned before, not all small farms can afford to become certified organic. So, talk to your farmer to find out what their practices are. Butchers always know what's happening with their meat sources as well. 

What are CAFOs? 

Confined Animal Feeding Operations = no bueno. This is where all the ugly stuff happens: hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, animal maltreatment, e-coli, toxic waste & poop lagoons. Yes, poop lagoons. This is where thousands and thousands of animals are crammed together, walking around in their own crap and then get slaughtered for our hamburgers. In my opinion, there is nothing good about a CAFO. 

Temple Grandin in her natural habitat.

What about animal treatment? 

This is where it becomes a matter of personal conviction, mostly. One point I will make, is that if an animal is under stress, they release toxins into their bloodstream, which makes the meat taste bad and is not that great for us to be ingesting. Temple Grandin is the patron saint of animal slaughterhouses. She invented humane livestock handling procedures that are used today. (You should watch the movie about her, it's awesome!)

So, where do I find meat that doesn't have all the bad stuff? 

I think Mr Butcher has the hots for mom! 

Local Butcher - The "local butcher" is different from your chain supermarket butcher at Fred Meyer or Publix. While, most supermarkets these days will carry organic meat options, they are very limited and are almost always imported from far away. The local butcher I'm talking about may be a tiny little hole-in-the-wall shop that specializes in local products. Do an internet search for butchers in your local area. The benefit of going to a smaller butcher shop is that they can tell you all about where your meat came from, how it was raised and what it was fed. If you are in a remote town you may not have a local butcher, but there are other options...

Farmer's Market - Sometimes local butchers or farmers set up a booths at the local farmer's market. They'll have a smaller selection to sell (usually cured or frozen), but from there you can find out where their farm or brick and mortar shop is located and what other items they sell. 

Local Farms - This requires the most work, but it will be worth it, I promise! You're going to have to do an internet search for local farms in your area that raise animals (or ask around at the farmer's market). Local Harvest is a great resource to get you started. This is the best way for you to get the inside scoop on animal care - you get to talk one-on-one with the farmer and ask them all the questions your heart desires about their practices. And if you have trust issues, you can even go and visit the farms, pet the animals and even name your dinner (just kidding, that is not recommended). 

The cost per pound for buying retail meats vs. purchasing a whole animal is significant. Buying meats retail can cost upwards of $15-$20 per pound whereas the cost of whole animals is $5-$7 per pound. If that doesn't convince you, nothing will. 

Depending on the farm, if you're purchasing larger livestock you can choose to buy a whole, half or quarter animal (I've had groups of friends all pitch in for a whole cow and divide it between everyone). Just a word of warning if you purchase a whole animal for yourself - unless you're feeding a whole village in one night, remember how big a cow is and think about the freezer space you're going to need. 

That's the gist of it...

If you don't want nightmares and panic attacks from worrying about your unborn children having three eyes from you eating McDonalds when you were a broke college student, then refrain from investigating any farther on these subjects; I'm like your mom who covered your eyes in the movie theater during the sex scenes - you don't need to see it. 

So what's for dinner? A delicious turkey who spent it's life frolicking in a picturesque field with all his best friends, or an E-coli infested Franken-Bird? The blood is off my hands. 

*all photos in this post were found on the internet