Category Archives: Home Ec.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo: Make (and Take) a Great Guacamole

Cinco de Mayo is upon us — the 5th of May, a holiday celebrated by Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and others. It commemorates the 1861 Battle of Puebla, in which the Mexicans stopped the French from annexing their country. (The French did end up ruling Mexico for a short time afterward, but no matter.) As it happens, Mexican Independence Day is much more widely celebrated in Mexico than Cinco de Mayo — it’s in September and marks Mexico’s 1810 independence from Spain. This site features a good history of Cinco de Mayo.

Cinco de Mayo certainly offers an opportunity to celebrate with friends, music, and good Mexican food and drink. There is perhaps no more popular and delicious a dish than a good homemade guacamole, which is very easy to make (provided you have access to fresh avocados) and always tastes a great deal better than anything store-bought.

Because I live with Lippy, the Tequila Whisperer and a fine guacamole maker, I got to ask him for a few of his trade secrets.

Lippy’s Guacamole

You’ll need:

4 avocados (approx. 1/2 avocado per person)
1/4 red onion chopped
1 medium tomato, cut in small cubes
1/2 bunch cilantro, leaves only, finely chopped
1/2 c. fire-roasted green or tomatilla salsa
4 tsp. salt or more, to taste
Lime juice, optional

When buying avocados, make sure you choose ones that are ripe, but not overly ripe. When you press in the center, there should be some give. If they are too firm,they are flavorless and hard to work with. If they are too soft, they are watery and lose their flavor and texture.

Cut avocados in half, around the pit. Remove the pit by gently inserting a knife and coaxing it out. You can remove the avocado meat many ways, either by scooping it out or by scoring pieces with a knife and releasing them. (They should remove from the skin easily.)

Place avocado halves or pieces in a bowl. Add all remaining ingredients except lime, and gently mash together. The result should be mixed but fairly chunky. Taste and add salt, salsa or cilantro as needed.

Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time. If you’re not going to serve the guacamole right away, or if you’ll be bringing it to a gathering, you may want to employ Lippy’s trick to keep it from turning brown. (Green guacamole is so much more attractive!) Squeeze a layer of lime juice over the top of it and let it sit there, then mix the lime juice in just prior to serving. (The acid in the limes stops the guacamole from oxidizing.) An alternative (or addition) to the lime juice is a layer of sliced limes, covering the whole top, which can appear festive and decorative. Lippy cautions: Use as little lime juice as possible, just enough for a layer of cover, because lime can be a bit overpowering and not to everyone’s taste.

Serve with tortilla chips or as an accompaniment to any Mexican dish. Enjoy! Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman. Guacamole on counter: Jon Sullivan, pdphoto.org.

Fool your Family with Easy April Fools Day Pranks

Though we all love a good laugh year-round, April Fools Day offers some great opportunities to crank up the pranks. Here are a few simple pranks that are great for all ages and use simple kitchen ingredients.

Why do we even celebrate April Fools Day?

Even though the Julian calendar, which we use, was adopted in 46 B.C., many Europeans were resistant to the change — really resistant, as it turns out. For centuries, their New Year coincided with Easter and other Spring celebrations. In the 1560s, France’s King Charles IX finally decreed that the New Year should officially begin on January 1, and Pope Gregory in Rome followed a full 18 years later. It is said that the Europeans who hadn’t gotten the memo on the date change continued to celebrate New Year’s in April, thus they were considered fools, and the source of our modern day pranks.

In France, the fools got paper fish hooked to their backs. These are vintage “Poisson d’Avril” (April Fish) postcards:

Other theories hold that April Fools Day arose from the Spring renewal festivals that have long been held throughout the world. These have wonderful names and customs – Hilaria in Rome; Holi, the festival of color in India; Hock-Tyed, a randy event in Great Britain.

The Museum of Hoaxes site has more information about April Fools Day in history and literature. The infoplease site casts some doubt on the calendar theory and posits another, from Boston University History Professor Joseph Boskin, who explained that a group of court jesters told the Roman emperor Constantine that they could do a better job of running the empire, so he let a jester named Kugel be king for one day. “It was a very serious day,” Boskin said, and his story was run by the news media in 1983.

There was one glitch: Boskin himself had made the story up — in great April Fools Day tradition.

Fun and Easy Food Pranks

So, what are some fun and easy April Fools Day pranks that you can pull on your family? I’ve often used mealtimes to turn the tables and have some fun with food pranks, many of which will be a treat to eat even after the joke’s over. All of these are quick and easy to pull off, with ingredients available at most grocery stores.

Fishy Fish Sticks

What you’ll need:

Log-shaped candy bars such as Twix, Mounds, or Kit Kat, or wafer cookies
Shreded or toasted coconut, or crushed graham crackers
Peanut or other nut butter or corn syrup

How to do it:

If you are using shredded coconut, toast the coconut by placing the shredded pieces on a baking sheet and baking at 350 degrees for 2-4 minutes, or until it is light brown with some white shreds remaining. Allow the coconut to cool and then spread it, or the graham cracker crumbs, atop a sheet of wax paper. Roll the candy or cookies in the peanut butter or corn syrup until they are lightly coated, and then roll the coated candy/cookies in the coconut/cracker crumbs. (Note that some candy bars may have to be cut to more closely resemble the shape of a fish stick.)

Sweet Potatoes

What you’ll need:

Vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt
Butterscotch or caramel sauce

How to do it:

Place a scoop of ice cream or frozen yogurt on a plate. Top with butterscotch or caramel sauce. Let the sauce drip down to resemble gravy.

Different Dog

What you’ll need:

A banana
A hot dog bun
Peanut butter
Vanilla yogurt
Red and yellow food coloring

How to do it:

Place the banana into the hot dog bun. Mix drops of red food coloring into a couple of spoonfuls of peanut butter until the color of the peanut butter resembles ketchup. Mix drops of yellow food coloring into a couple of spoonfuls of yogurt until the color of the yogurt resembles mustard. Generously spread the “condiments” over the banana to make the hot dog.

Not So Fried Egg

What you’ll need:

Lemon or vanilla pudding or yogurt, or a canned peach half
Marshmallow sauce (used for sundaes)
Piece of toast (optional)

How to do it:

Spoon a generous amount of marshmallow sauce on a plate or a piece of toast. It will spread. Finesse it with a spoon into an egg-white shape. Place a small, neat spoonful of pudding or yogurt, or the canned peach half on top of it so that the whole resembles a fried egg.

Smile and Say “Grilled Cheese”

What you’ll need:

A pound cake
Buttercream or white frosting
Red and yellow food coloring

How to do it:

Cut the pound cake into slices to resemble bread. Toast them in an oven (on a cookie sheet) or in a toaster oven just until they turn golden brown. Once they’ve cooled a little, stack two slices for each sandwich and cut each stack in half diagonally. Mix drops of the red and yellow food coloring into the frosting, stopping when the frosting appears like American cheese. Carefully spread a generous amount of frosting onto the bottom slice, then gently press the top slice over it. This will make the frosting ooze a bit over the sides of the “bread”, so that the whole resembles a melted cheese sandwich.

A Stiff Drink

What you’ll need:
A package of flavored gelatin.

How to do it:

Dissolve the gelatin according to box directions. Pour the gelatin into drinking glasses and place a plastic straw in each. Refrigerate the gelatin until firm, then watch when someone tries to drink their “drink”.

A Meaty Dessert

What you’ll need:

A meatloaf recipe
Mashed potatoes
Cake decorators’ icing

How to do it:

Combine the ingredients for the meatloaf recipe. Before baking, divide the mixture into the two round cake pans and pat it flat. Bake as usual, shortening the cooking time to adjust for the thinness of the meat loaves. Prepare the mashed potatoes, adding a little extra milk to them and whipping them until they are fluffy. Once the loaves have cooled a little, place one of them onto a plate and cover it with a thin layer of mashed potatoes. Place the other meatloaf on top of the potato layer, and finish frosting the “cake” with the remaining potatoes, swirling them with a knife to imitate cake frosting. Decorate the top with a fun April Fools’ message.

Backwards Meal

Even if you don’t have time to make or buy special food, you can serve a meal backward, starting with dessert. Or you can have a whole backwards day where meals are concerned. Even a few drops of food coloring can instantly change a bowl or oatmeal or a scoop of mashed potatoes.

Have fun and get silly! Happy April Fools Day.

Photos: Wikimedia, Blogger of the Beach, Susan Sachs Lipman

Miniature and Whimsical Food for Leprechauns, Fairies and Elves

If you wish to entice a leprechaun this St. Patrick’s Day, you’re going to need some leprechaun-scaled food. The same applies for fairies, elves, gnomes and other small, whimsical creatures. Here are some tantalizing ways to satisfy hungry leprechauns and fairies who have come to tea.

Mini Burgers

You’ll need:

A box of Nilla wafers
A bag of small peppermint patties such as York
Shredded coconut
Green food coloring
Red or yellow “Fruit by the Foot” (frosting can be substituted)
Sesame seeds, optional
Corn syrup, optional
Toothpicks, optional

1. Dissolve a drop of green food coloring into a cup of water.

2. Place about 1/4 cup of shredded coconut into a mixing bowl and pour the food coloring over it. Mix the coconut to coat it with color and then let it sit a few minutes to make sure the color is absorbed. Pat dry with a paper towel. That is the lettuce for your burger.

3. Roll out the “Fruit by the Foot” and cut small squares of red or yellow to represent tomato slices and cheese.

4. If you wish your Nilla wafer “buns” to have sesame seeds on it, place the desired number of wafers on a flat surface, covered with wax paper. Dip a toothpick into the corn syrup and dot the wafers with drops of the syrup. Carefully place a sesame seed on each syrup drop. Let them sit for a couple of minutes to dry.

5. Assemble the “burger” by starting with a wafer for the bottom bun and then adding a peppermint patty, the fruit square(s), the coconut, and, finally, the top bun.

6. Nibble with tiny bites, just like the leprechauns do.

Jell-O Rainbow

You’ll need:

One small package each of gelatins in red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple
Hot water for each package, per package directions
Approx. 2 c. Cool Whip, if you want a white layer between colors
Many small containers or one large flat one (like an 8×8 pan)
Non-stick spray

1. Dissolve Jell-O in boiling water (Do not add cold water). Spray large flat pan or separate bowls (as flat as possible) with non-stick spray.

2. Place each color in a separate bowl or place 2/3 of your first color in the flat pan as a layer. Chill, trying to keep the Jell-O flat.

3. If making one large pan, wait until gelatin is set to add a next layer of color, in rainbow-color order, listed above. Repeat with all colors. If you want white between your color layers, then mix 1/3 c. cool whip into your remaining 1/3 c. Jell-O and add that layer to the previous layer, letting it set before moving on.

4. If making many small pans, once gelatin is set, cut each color into uniform squares or rectangles. Place shapes on platters or plates in rainbow-color order, listed above.

5. If making one large mold, wait until the final layer has set and carefully cut the Jell-O so that it reveals the rainbow through each layer.

This is a great blog post about Jell-O Rainbows.

Other miniature and whimsical food ideas include:

Cucumber-round sandwiches with cream cheese inside

Sandwiches cut in flower or other shapes with cookie cutters

Chicken tahini salad on mini pita rounds

Mini bagels spread with cream cheese and covered with sprinkles

Mini mushroom cupcakes with red frosting tops covered with round white sprinkles

Shamrock mini cupcakes

No-bake mini heart cakes

Animal-cracker “sandwiches” with jam inside

Jell-O butterflies or other shapes using cookie cutters

Juice served in miniature tea cups or plastic mugs, available at craft and hobby stores

You may want to do more than put out food for your leprechaun. If you wish to capture one, here are three leprechaun catchers you can make.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day and Equinox (surely a magical time).

Photos: Saucy Dragonfly, Mark Flickett

Happy Pi Day! Celebrate with Pie

I first learned about Pi Day when my daughter was in Middle School. I wondered where this day had been my whole life. Best celebrated at 1:59 p.m. on March 14 to match the first few digits of the number Pi (and the extent of most people’s memorization, 3.14159), with a pie, of course — savory or dessert version.

Math moment: What is Pi anyway? Ahem — Pi is the number expressing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It’s used in engineering, science and statistics and begins with 3.14 and goes on into infinity. It’s also captured a lot of people’s imaginations. The record for Longest Pi Recitation belongs to belongs to Japan’s Hiroyuki Goto, who memorized 42,195 digits. How is that even possible?? A teen holds the North American record.

It seems Pi Day as we know it didn’t catch on until about 20 years ago, when it was begun at the San Francisco Exploratorium. Now it is celebrated around the world.

I’ve gathered a few pies to help you celebrate. It seems like a more fun way to mark the day than memorizing digits. But, to each his or her own!

From the Gourmand Mom comes everything from Pumpkin Coconut Pie to Black Bottom Banana Cream Pie.

This is my own recipe for Classic Apple Pie. You could add a Pi symbol in crust (or cut out a Pi symbol)  to the top of this, or any, pie.

Seeking something savory? This Shitake, Leek and Chicken Sausage Pie comes from Pie Maven.

When I think of Pie Mavens, I think of my friend Leah Brooks and her stunning and sometimes unexpected fruit pies, like apple with thyme or double lemon blueberry, or her chocolate cream, pumpkin, lattice-topped cherry, or perfect pecan pies!

This one from Serious Eats may take the, uh, cake. It is made in the shape of the pi sign!

Enjoy your Pi Day!

Photos: Orlando News Center, Serious Eats

Image: allisonweiss.tumblr.com

Easy Stir-Fried Ginger Chicken in Lettuce Cups

Some good friends recently made this dish for us. It was so tasty, healthy and filling that I asked for the recipe and quickly tried it at home. When my daughter licked her plate clean, I knew I had a winner, and this dish quickly became a staple at our house.

Officially called Stir-fried Garlic Chicken with Cilantro, the dish was pioneered by inventive San Francisco chefs Anne and David Gingrass of Postrio and Hawthorne Lane restaurants. In addition to being tasty and easy to make, it’s low in fat, and the ginger and garlic offer powerful health benefits. You can adjust the spices to your tastes. I like the dish on the gingery side.

2 pounds coarsely ground boneless and skinless chicken (leg meat is ideal)
1 teaspoon chili flakes, or more to your taste
2-4 cloves finely chopped garlic (the original recipe calls for 4 Tbsp.)
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
4 scallions, thinly sliced
Leaves from 1 bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
8 cups loosely packed julienned spinach leaves
24 outer leaves of radicchio or other lettuce
Fresh cilantro sprigs for garnish

1. In a large bowl, combine the ground chicken with the chili flakes and 2 tablespoons each of the garlic and ginger. Mix gently until flavorings are evenly distributed.

2. To prepare the stir-fried chicken, heat a wok or large skillet until very hot. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, then the chicken mixture. Stir-fry slowly over medium heat, allowing the meat to brown lightly. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons each garlic and ginger and stir-fry quickly over high heat until fragrant, then add the red wine vinegar, soy sauce and demi-glace. With the pan still on high heat, let the liquid reduce until it begins to coat the meat. Remove the pan from the heat and add the scallions and cilantro; then toss to mix thoroughly.

3. Make a vinaigrette for the spinach in a large salad bowl by whisking together 2 tablespoons olive oil with the sherry vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper. Toss the spinach with the vinaigrette to coat it lightly. Place 3 radicchio leaves on each plate, then fill the leaves with the spinach salad. Spoon a small amount of the stir-fried chicken over the spinach and garnish with cilantro sprigs.

Yield: 8 servings.

Here are more tasty and low-fat recipes. Enjoy!

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Three Great Christmas Cookies

Heading somewhere for the holidays and in need of a dessert or hostess gift? Or simply haven’t gotten your fill of your holiday baking? These three relatively simple, festive and classic holiday cookie recipes should help you in either case.

Spritz Cookies

I grew up making Spritz cookies every holiday season. A certain whiff from an electric beater takes me right back to childhood winters.

Spritz cookies are made by pressing the soft dough through a cookie press and through various plates with interchangeable shapes. I love the efficiency and fun of pressing out lots of little cookies. Once pressed onto a cookie sheet, you can decorate them with the sprinkles of your choice. I think one of the keys to good Spritz cookies is: Be sure your recipe includes almond flavoring (or add 1/2 tsp. per 4-5 cups of dry ingredients, or half as much as your vanilla flavoring). The other is: Have fun decorating. This can be a very festive and delicious cookie. If you do color the cookies (which I recommend!) you might want to try professional paste frosting colors, which, with a little patience, produce a nice deep color. (You can get a box of 8 small color jars from ChefMaster, available at specialty baking stores, for around $7).

It also takes a little practice to learn to press the right amount of dough out per cookie. (Most presses have adjustable settings.) The good news is you can just scoop dough that didn’t work out back into the press and try again.

This site, from Wilton, offers the classic Spritz recipe, plus links for buying a cookie press. I recommend the reasonably priced Cookie Max.

Butterballs

You may know them as Mexican Wedding Balls, or Russian Tea Cookies. Butterballs are mine (and a lot of people’s) favorite cookie — They’re tasty, melt-in-your-mouth buttery, sugar-coated, and just all-around great, any time of year. I find the ones in The Silver Palate Cookbook to be the best of the best, perhaps because they’re largely sweetened with honey, which provides a great taste and crunch.

Here is a copy of the recipe, from The Silver Palate Cookbook.

Sugarplums


One more from the Silver Palate team — This one is in The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook: Sugarplums. Mythical, festive, evocative Sugarplums. (Blame it on The Nutcracker and The Night Before Christmas.) They are certainly as much fun to pop into one’s mouth as they are to contemplate. The original recipe calls for corn syrup and cognac. I substituted agave syrup, a mild and more natural sweetener for half the corn syrup, and all of the cognac (using a little under 1/3 c. for the cognac portion.) And I did away with the cherry on top, the better to enjoy the pure, undiluted Sugarplum experience.

Here’s hoping you have a warm and yummy holiday!


Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Build Your Dream Gingerbread House Part Two

Creating and designing gingerbread houses is a fun and classic holiday activity. It can also — let’s face it — be messy and time-consuming, what with baking the pieces for and constructing the house, gathering all the needed supplies, and having an area in your home that you don’t mind getting a little frosting-spackled.

The clever solution for would-be gingerbread architects who are a little short on time and materials? Find a spot that supplies all the needed ingredients and merely requires you to show up, be creative and pay for what you use.

One such spot is Mill Valley, CA’s Gingerbread Builders, which offers standard and custom houses and everything you need to create stunning ones, including catalogs for inspiration, staff assistance, plenty of time and all manner of frosting and candy decorations. And best? It’s open every day on a drop-in basis.

Other Bay Area spots offer gingerbread house workshops at specific times. These include the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, Cake Art in San Rafael, Autumn Express in San Francisco, and Spun Sugar in Berkeley.

Across the country, in Lexington, MA, Wilson Farm offers a gingerbread house workshop on a historic farm that features lots of other fun activities. In Newton, MA, Create a Cook has a two-part gingerbread house workshop, in addition to other kids’ cooking classes.

New York City’s Taste Buds offers lots of gingerbread house and holiday cookie workshops.

Chicago’s Emerald City Theater features gingerbread house making in conjunction with other theater activities.

The Creative Discovery Museum in Chatanooga, TN, has lots of gingerbread house workshops.

In Camano Island, WA, you can decorate a gingerbread house outdoors at the Cama Beach Nature Preserve with Gingerbread Lady Alice Blandin. (Register by Dec. 6.)

In Toronto, the very special-sounding Madeleines, Cherry Pie and Ice Cream offers drop-in gingerbread house creating, along with owner/ baker/cake decorator Kyla Eaglesham.

Seeking a larger project? This person in my town transforms their house into a lifesize gingerbread house each year!

So, whatever your taste, time allotment, budget and desire, there’s a gingerbread house project for you, and a place to create it!

For more ideas and how-tos, see my earlier post about Constructing and Decorating a Gingerbread House. Have fun!

Photos: Top Three – Gingerbread Builders, Kyla Eaglesham, Susan Sachs Lipman