Hosting a large brunch? Hold the bacon

Two tips for hosting a large brunch (or any meal)

Some people are natural party hosts.

I am not one of them.

Or at least, I have not achieved a level of mastery or ease in this process.

I work hard to plan every detail so I don’t stress the day of the party. This means I am always looking for easier ways to host, especially when it comes to meal planning.

One day I’ll learn to relax. Well, maybe…

Earlier this month we hosted a large brunch held in honor of a bride and groom on the day after their wedding. Here was the good part: technically I wasn’t hosting the party and it wasn’t at my house, but I played a role.

The brunch went well, and the bride and groom had a great time (as far as I could tell).

On a side note, I don’t believe that the perfect food and the perfect presentation make a party. It’s the people. It’s the host(s) bringing these people together. It’s the feeling of camaraderie that each guest leaves with. To me, that’s the mark of a truly successful party.

But these guests needed to eat.

During the party, I learned a couple beginner lessons about meal planning for larger groups, and here are my top two takeaways:

  1. Serve food that is low-maintenance. Cut it once and serve, or throw it in a crockpot and let it cook.
  2. Outsource. If you don’t have time or the inclination to bake or make it, purchase the food from somewhere that excels in it. Or ask a friend to bring their specialty.

Following these principles, more or less, this was the menu:

1. Croissants. Some with chocolate. Some without. All very yummy. My friends picked these up from a local bakery that morning. We cut the pastries up into more manageable pieces so that guests wouldn’t get overwhelmed by their size.

2. Bagels and Cream Cheese. Get your bagels fresh as well as your cream cheese. Find fun flavors. Just cut and serve.

3. Fruit Salad. My favorite is a variety of berries plus mint and honey. I’ll share this recipe in a future post. I usually keep half of the salad in the fridge so that there is fresh fruit for the stragglers. We also cut up melons.

4. Bundt cake. I am not sure what was in it, but my friend’s mother can bake a cake! I snacked on it all day.

5. Egg, Ham and Spinach Breakfast Casserole. Not all egg dishes can stand the test of a five-hour brunch, but this one worked well! The Greek yogurt preserved its moistness and the crockpot kept it warm. The initial prep took a little time but then you can forget about it. We doubled the recipe, and added a least another half hour to the cooking time. Here is the recipe we used.

We left these foods out for guests as they came, chatted with the newlyweds, and left. I only had to remember to put the fresh fruit out at the half-way mark.

And as it happens, we had one dish that didn’t work quite as well. There’s always one in the bunch.

Bacon. I admit the bacon was hugely popular. We would pull one batch out of the oven and it was gone in minutes. We served Uncured Apple-Smoked Bacon from Trader Joe’s and we threw it in the oven to make for a more simple preparation. But we had to cook batch after batch, which took time and attention. Although it was popular, I would omit this for the next brunch for a large number of people or over a long duration of time. It’s not worth the effort to keep it going the entire party.

When serving for large numbers, it’s always simpler to serve things that don’t need attention. Either outsource your food or serve food that is low maintenance. Also, serve food that you know will work.

Otherwise, you will miss the party.

Kitchen Hack: Use a melon baller for bell pepper prep

Use a melon baller to make bell pepper prep easier

I’ve been on vacation for the past few weeks, and now I am back with an oldie but goodie: Use a melon baller to clear out those hard-to-clean bell pepper insides.

You know those three or four cliffs of veggie pulp that really make it difficult to cut the pepper properly? I’ve struggled for years to give my peppers a clean look.

I bought a melon baller a couple years ago when I was going to make an elaborate fruit bowl. No one mentioned to me how difficult it was to make fruit balls look good. Melon fail.

This year I resurrected our melon baller to help with bell pepper prep. Just scoop the pulp and seeds out (gently). The insides are now clean, smooth and ready.

Then cut your slices. So much easier.

Last weekend I roasted them in the oven with a basic dressing: balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary. Marinate and throw in a 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Yum!

A Trick to Serve Hot Dogs – A Shortcut Dad Guest Post

This post is by The Shortcut Dad. 

A hotdog tutorial by The Shortcut Dad!

Ever since I was a kid, hot dogs have always been one of my favorite foods. The Shortcut Mom, ZJ, and I all enjoy them today, but we serve them differently. ZJ is still at the stage where we cut his food into pieces, and Deb likes to eat hers without a roll. My preference is to have my hot dogs on a bun, but as the only one in our home who does it creates a minor dilemma for me. Since I don’t eat hot dogs that often do I buy hot dog buns, knowing that they will go bad before I get to use them all or do I allow them to take up valuable freezer space? Thankfully, I’ve found a better way.

Nobody really likes the ends on a loaf of bread for their sandwiches, but they make the perfect substitute for a roll to eat with a hot dog and a slice of cheese.

What follows is an easy recipe – note that we keep our bread frozen to last longer, and for this recipe it assumes the same for cooking a hot dog in your toaster oven:

1. Set your broiler for 450 degrees, generally the highest setting for a toaster oven, and put some aluminum foil in the toaster tray to make cleanup easier.

2. Before cooking, put a lengthwise split, several sideways splits, or both to help grease drain from your hot dog. If you’re eating it on a hot dog bun, take the bun out of the freezer when you put the hot dog in the broiler.

3. Let the dog cook for 7-8 minutes, then turn it to the other side. If you’re cooking with a bun open it now so the inside can thaw. If you’re using a bread loaf end piece take the bread out of the freezer now. You can also set the cheese on whatever bread you are using at this time.

4. Give the hot dog another 7-8 minutes or when it looks ready. When you take it out put it on the bread and place it in the microwave to melt the cheese.

5. Depending on how deeply the bread was frozen, set the microwave for between 12 and 17 seconds. This is enough time to melt the cheese and thaw the bread without turning it soggy.

Lunch is served!

Ridiculously Easy Recipe: Two-ingredient chicken and salsa

Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy!

Did I mention how easy this recipe is?

This simple slow cooker chicken recipe is from Holly Homer at Kids Activities Blog. It requires two ingredients and a slower cooker. There is virtually no prep, which is perfect for days when everything has gone crazy.

Ingredients:

  1. Chicken (frozen is fine)
  2. Fresh salsa

Mix the salsa and chicken in your slower cooker, and set it to cook. You can cook it half a day on high, or a whole day on low. And voila! Easy chicken. Shred the chicken and serve.

Ridiculously Easy Recipe: Chicken and Salsa

You can eat the chicken by itself, or mix it with rice. It would also taste great in a taco or fajita.

Use fresh salsa if you can, but you could substitute that with jarred salsa.

Click here to see the original recipe!

So easy! Chicken and Salsa. That's all you need!

Three words: Cook. Pasta. Faster.

You can shave 4-5 minutes off your pasta prep time with this shortcut.

Last week we had one of those nights. I got back from work late. Our toddler’s tummy was rumbling and we didn’t want to give him a snack or he wouldn’t eat dinner at all. Oh, he was a cranky toddler.

We were going to grill for dinner and all of a sudden, a very menacing thunderstorm approached. I didn’t see it on my weather app. Surely it couldn’t rain if it didn’t say so on my app, right?

We had to change directions, which was fine. I chose the Easy Ham and Cheese Pasta, which we love. We had ham and peas in the freezer, cheese in the fridge, pasta in the cupboard and spices on the rack. We were set.

It’s an easy recipe to begin with, but this time I decided to see if I could cook it even faster. My son’s whining tends to push me toward innovation. 

Recently, Huffpost ran an piece on how to cook pasta in less time. Here are the key points:

  • Use a frying pan, sauce pan, skillet or the equivalent, instead of your normal pot.
  • Put the pasta in first, then add the water. (The instructions said just enough water to cover the pasta. I added a bit more than that.)
  • Turn on the burner and boil until done.

First, by using a frying pan there is more surface to heat and it takes less time for the water to boil. I definitely noticed a difference in the time it took to heat the water.

Second, the noodles start to cook from the time you turn on the burner.

Pasta doesn’t take long to make but this saved me about 4-5 minutes from the total time.

I can see how it would be a sin to cook like this if you are serious about your pasta. Or, if you are making a very large batch. I agree that the tried-and-true way would work best.

This trick is absolutely perfect if you are cooking a quick meal for a hungry family. I’ve used this a few times since then and it’s the only way I’ll cook pasta now.

Here is a YouTube Video to see exactly how it’s done.
Life Hack: Cook pasta in half the time!
Life Hack: Cook pasta in half the time!

This post is part of the Mom Blog Party.

How to make a simple meal divine with the right ingredients #WFMfoodie

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

 

A recipe doesn’t need to be complicated to be good. That’s been my mantra since I became a mother. A simple meal is always better in my book.

I’d like to go a bit further: A high-quality sauce, oil or ingredient can make a simple meal divine.

As a working parent, I’ve mentioned that I don’t have time to cook every night. I never have time to make sauces, and I look for shortcuts whenever I can.

Last week I attended a tasting at the Whole Foods Market in Arlington, Va., which introduced their new program: WFM Foodie. Whole Foods Markets across the country are highlighting special products they think their customers may like.

WFM Foodie products are high-quality, no preservatives, all natural. And hand-picked by foodies. We tasted a variety of the olive oils, sauces and black-bean noodles. All fantastic. And from what I saw: all very simple to incorporate into a meal. The product is simple, not the taste.

Here is what it boils down to: A well-thought out, high-quality ingredient can make almost any meal better.

I am saying this out loud because sometimes I just rush through the meal-planning process and forget that I can change things up with a good product. I used to embrace this concept a lot more, pre-baby.

Also, buying the right ingredients (not more ingredients) is often a great way to cut down time in the kitchen. 

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

At the tasting, Jackie from Whole Foods introduced a few products (and recipes), which I think are worth mentioning:

Christian Potier Sauces: I am very excited about this find. Christian Potier was voted the best sauce chef in France by Gault & Millau, and he was able to package his magic in microwave pouches. We tried the Bernaise (over grilled aspargus) and it tasted great.

Great ingredients make simple meals better! On a busy night, just grill up asparagus, heat up the sauce and there is your side dish. It would work great on Eggs Benedict as well. Christian Potier has other varieties too.

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

Black Bean Noodle Salad

Black Bean noodles: Yes, you read that right. Noodles made of black beans. Created by Explore Asian Authentic Cuisine, these noodles are full of protein, which I love. Very healthy. Very little sugar. Organic.

We tasted the Black Bean Noodle salad (above), which cooks up very quickly. Click here for the recipe.

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

Tandoori Salmon

The Sassy Indian Olive Oil: Oh my, so tasty. We ate grilled salmon, finished with this Tandoori olive oil that truly added that extra something. This main course only has four ingredients and takes no time to make. So delicious! Click here for the recipe.

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

Smoked Arbequina Olive Oil

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

I also enjoyed the smoky flavors of the Castillo de Canena Smoked Arbequino (used as a dressing above). A little pricey but worth the splurge.

Great ingredients make simple meals better! Here are some examples.WFM Foodie items are usually located in a display at the front of participating Whole Foods Stores. It’s a good place to start if you are looking for some new flavors this summer.

A simple way to add foam milk to your morning coffee

Make foam milk at home! www.theshortcutmom.com

I love coffee. I used to get lattes from the local coffee shop every single day for years, until I realized it wasn’t so good for my pocketbook or my waist. (I always came back with one of the yummy pastries, too.)

Now I can take my home-brewed coffee up a notch. Turns out that it’s very simple to make your own foam milk at home. All you needs is a mason jar, a microwave and, of course, some milk.

  1. Put milk in a mason jar.
  2. Put the lid on and shake for at least 30 seconds. (The longer, the better.)
  3. Take the lid off and microwave the jar for 30 seconds. (The key is to take off the lid before it goes into the microwave. Very important point.)
  4. Spoon foam into coffee.

I love this hack because I can’t always go to the coffee shop and I don’t want to own another appliance to froth my milk.

Watch this video from America’s Test Kitchen.on how to make foam milk for your coffee:

My new favorite kitchen tool: a microwave popcorn bowl

Momhack: Use a bowl specifically made for microwave popcorn
Popcorn is one of the greatest things on Earth. Not only does it taste good but it’s fun. My son particularly loves it, especially the sweet kind.

Lately I’ve been experimenting with DIY air-popped popcorn. A few months ago, I found a way to simply pop your own popcorn in a paper bag. All you need is a paper lunch bag, a quarter cup of kernels, and a microwave. Genius, right?

Momhack: Use a bowl specifically made for microwave popcorn

This spring I graduated to the next level of popcorn making. Here is a slight twist on DIY air popping: There is a bowl specifically made for air popping popcorn. This Nordic Ware version is less than $10 from Amazon, and I am sure there are other brands out there that work just as well.

Put some oil or butter on the bottom of the bowl before adding the kernels to give it a nice flavor if you choose. I use coconut oil most of the time.

Place the lid on the bowl and about 3 minutes later is perfection. Sometimes if I am feeling it, I’ll add more butter.

What I love about air popping my own popcorn is that I can control what’s in my snack. I can add pure butter or salt or sugary toppings to my preference. Or nothing at all. It’s cleaner and I know what’s going in my body.

It’s also cheaper because a bag of popcorn kernels costs less than buying anything prepackaged!

What’s for breakfast? Power pancakes!

Healthy and easy power pancakes! The Shortcut MomThis year I decided to put my sports bra back on and start exercising again, post baby. Serious exercise. I love it — a hard workout always invigorates me.

It also increases my appetite.

The next morning (post workout), I am ravenous, so I started to eat more protein for breakfast. And yes, I quickly grew tired of scrambled eggs.

When I read about protein-packed pancakes, I was all in.

I love, love, love pancakes. However, when protein is the main ingredient instead of flour, it is more challenging to make these pancakes as tasty.

On top of that, any recipe I use should also be simple and quick. I need to be able to make it in the morning before work with a toddler in tow.

I experimented with several types of protein pancakes and found one that really tastes like a pancake.

Healthy and easy power pancakes! The Shortcut Mom

There are three key ingredients in these power pancakes: oatmeal, cottage cheese and egg whites. You can add other flavors to your liking but the basic components are healthy and easy.

1/4 cup oatmeal
1/4 cup cottage cheese
1/4 cup egg whites (or less. Too many eggs ruins the pancakes. Trust me)

It’s 1:1:1

Optional: vanilla extract, stevia (or other sweetener), chocolate chips, fruit (bananas, yummy!)

Take one-part oatmeal, one-part cottage cheese and one-part egg whites and mix it up in the blender. It only takes a few seconds. (Then try this blender cleaning hack afterwards.)

Add your optional ingredients, then cook up your pancakes. I eat them with almond butter. I can still taste this morning’s batch!

After eating these power pancakes, I feel filled-up full and ready for the day, without that “oh-my-goodness-what-did-I-eat” feeling.

As a shortcut, I often make the batter at night, add a little water or milk in the morning and whip them up before I go to work.

Here are two of my favorite pancake shortcuts:

A better way to powder your pancakes: Easy DIY sugar dispenser

DIY powdered sugar dispenser: Use an old spice jar!

Kitchen hack: Clean your blender faster

Clean your blender faster! #momhack

 

Easy Protein Power Pancakes

Keywords: fry breakfast gluten-free

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup oatmeal
  • 1/4 cup cottage cheese
  • 1/4 cup egg whites

Instructions

Blend ingredients in blender or other mixer.

Make as you would normal pancakes.

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Freeze your own rice: simplify dinnertime and save money too!

Freeze your own rice: save time and money!Frozen rice is a gift from God. It can save 20-30 minutes on busy nights. Just pop it in the microwave (or heat on the stove) with a little butter and spices.

I used to buy frozen rice at the grocery store until I realized I could cook and freeze my own rice at a fraction of the cost. Frankly, I think it tastes better, too.

Step 1: Make a big batch of rice.

Freeze your own rice: save time and money!

Step 2: Let it cool some and put 1-2 cups of rice per freezer bag, depending on your usage.

Step 3: Refridgerate the rice bags, and when cool, transfer to the freezer. Make sure the bags lie flat so that it doesn’t take up too much space when frozen.

So easy. And so much cheaper than buying pre-packaged frozen rice!