Win a Free Copy of “Perfect Table Settings”!

The highlight of my week–so far, anyway–has been mastering the Elf Boot napkin fold. It’s one of more than 100 ways to fold a napkin in Denise Vivaldo’s new book, Perfect Table Settings (Robert Rose).

Win a free copy of Denise’s fun book, Perfect Table Settings: Hundreds of Easy and Elegant Ideas for Napkin Folds and Table Arrangements!

As Denise notes, cloth napkins are an eco-friendly choice and one of the easiest and cheapest ways to dress up your table. Dipping into her book is a little like opening a bag of potato chips–you can’t stop at just one. I started browsing and folding, working my way from simple folds, like the Bird’s Next and Pope’s Hat, up to the more advanced (and seasonally appropriate) origami that is the Elf Boot. Perfect Table Settings also has ideas for themed parties, tips on buying flowers in season and some simple recipes, too.

But you have to enter to win.

So here’s the deal. Only NOURISH Evolution members are eligible to win, so now’s the time to join if you haven’t already! Then, head on over to the Thursday Giveaway group in our community area and leave a comment to be entered to win (important: be sure you’re signed in to NOURISH Evolution so we can find you).

Lia will announce the winner in next week’s Friday Digest!

Good luck, and just to whet your appetite, here’s a picture of my Elf Boots! (OK, I just like showing them off!)

Holiday Menu for 8

We got together with friends last weekend for an early holiday dinner. It was a truly special meal, and this menu is in a similar vein. I have a soft spot for a traditional feast like this one, because it’s very similar to the special dinner my mom used to prepare every Christmas Eve.

holiday-menu-for-8Pre-dinner nibbles:

Coppa-Wrapped Dates with Blue Cheese are tasty little nuggets that will get the party off to a delicious start but won’t spoil anyone’s appetite. Open a bottle of Carbernet Sauvignon or Syrah to pour with these. Last weekend, I also baked a loaf of Nourishing No-Knead Bread–only I added golden raisins and walnuts. Then I thinly sliced and toasted the bread to serve with a selection of cheeses (Manchego works beautifully, so does a soft cheese like Brie).

To start:

This dinner gets a classic start with a simple salad of romaine lettuce tossed with our Bestest Buttermilk-Chive Dressing. The dressing is wonderful on its own, but I also like to stir in an ounce of crumbled blue cheese. Add s sprinkling of croutons and you’re ready to serve.

The main event:

Holiday entrees don’t get more traditional than our Prime Rib of Beef au Jus. Even better, our version includes a classic Yorkshire pudding side, which you can prep while the meat rests. This recipe serves 12, so you’ll have some tasty Boxing Day leftovers.

On the side:

Prime rib deserves some potato action, and our Celery Root, Potato and Apple Mash is an updated riff on plain-Jane mashed potatoes. I also like Brussels sprouts with this menu. Here’s how I make ’em: Blanch 2 pounds of trimmed and quartered Brussels sprouts (dunk ’em in boiling water for 2 minutes, then drain and plunge them in ice water). Cook 4 ounces diced pancetta in a saute pan over medium-low heat for 5 minutes or until crisp; remove with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat behind in the pan. Increase heat to medium-high. Add 1/2 cup thinly sliced shallots to the pan; saute 2 minutes. Add blanched Brussels sprouts; saute 3 minutes or until tender. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar; season with salt and pepper. Toss with the cooked pancetta.

Sweet finish:

All you need are 7 ingredients to make our Eggnog Flans with Maple and Toasted Walnuts. Remember, these need to made at least a day ahead.

All of us at wish all of you a happy, nourishing holiday!

A Perfect Table Setting, Made Easy

I fashioned elf boots out of napkins today. That’s them, in the picture below. Ain’t they cute? I’m not the handicraft-y type (despite Lia’s insistence last spring that I decorate Easter eggs and write about it), so these adorable elf boot napkins really are examples of if-I-can-do-it-so-can-you.

The only person in the world who could get me excited about performing the oragami to fold a napkin into a bootie is Denise Vivaldo, author of Perfect Table Settings: Hundreds of Easy Ideas for Napkin Folds and Table Arrangements (Robert Rose). She’s a top-notch food stylist–meaning her job is to make food look mouthwatering, and a big part of that is creating gorgeous table settings to showcase that food. Prior to food styling, Vivaldo ran a successful catering business in Los Angeles, where she created stylish events for celebrity clients. But, she points out, big-name clients didn’t always have big-time budgets.

“When we had low-budget parties, sometimes all we had for decor on the table was the napkin folds,” Vivaldo chuckles. “The cheapest way is to set a nice table is to have a set of cloth napkins and change the fold.”

Everything in Perfect Table Settings, from the 100 napkin folds (ranging from the super-easy Simple Upright to the advanced Elf Boot) is designed to offer affordable, real-world solutions to balance the often unrealistic expectations created by the many cooking and home style shows on TV. As a behind-the-scenes stylist, Vivaldo confesses to helping create some of those “simple” projects, and to some degree, this book helps atone for that. Unlike many of the crazy crafts she was charged with styling for some of the best-known personalities on TV, the strategies in this book are “supposed to be achievable for people.”

And they are, as evidenced by the fact that even I could turn a plain red napkin into the Elf Boot, thanks to the clear instructions and step-by-step photos in Vivaldo’s book. As I twisted and folded and flipped napkins, I couldn’t help thinking that if she tires of food styling Vivaldo should write instructions for assembling Ikea furniture (after, of course, penning a tell-all book about the many crazy characters with whom she’s worked over the years).

Since many of us want to set a festive table with panache this time of year, here are 5 tips from Vivaldo to create a gorgeous table for the holidays and everyday.

Opt for cloth. “There’s nothing easier or greener than investing in two sets of cloth napkins for your family,” says Vivaldo. If you want to experiment with different folds, 20-inch square napkins are your best bet. The fabric depends on your preference–100% cotton is great for everyday use, though a cotton-polyester blend tends to hold its color better and won’t need ironing.

Use napkin rings. These add style and sparkle to a table, but they originated with a practical purpose. “Napkin rings were meant to identify a napkin as yours so it  didn’t have to laundered every day,” says Vivaldo. Her suggestion: Buy a set of animal-theme napkin rings and assign a different critter for each family member to use for his or her napkin.

Go monochromatic. Pick a hue you love and stick with it. “Mixing colors is much harder than staying with one color,” says Vivaldo. One of her favorite themes is an all-white brunch. “It’s beautiful, because the food really pops on those inexpensive white dishes.”

Decorate with what you have. “You don’t have to buy an expensive flower arrangement to have a good-looking table,” she says. Instead, she’ll scavenge her yard for interesting and seasonal greenery–magnolia leaves are a favorite (“I use the gold side up, and with a few gold ornaments, they couldn’t be more beautiful”). She also suggests creating a simple, low-profile centerpiece with pillar candles and scattering seasonal fruit down the center of the table as a runner. Clove-studded oranges are lovely this time of year; so are pears.

Get out the fine china–but don’t worry if everything doesn’t match. If you’re missing a few pieces from Grandma’s china set, so what? Round it out with clear glass or simple white dishes. “They’ll work with everything on your table and won’t become dated. Any kind of glass adds some sparkle and pizzazz.” She’s also a fan of silver or gold chargers. “They’re not expensive and they totally dress up the table.”

Ultimately, Vivaldo’s recipe for a pretty table is simple: Mix some of your best china with some newer pieces and nicely folded napkins. Garnish with a few natural, seasonal touches. This time of year, she says, “Setting a table is as much of a tradition as the food you’re serving.”


Eggnog Flans with Maple and Toasted Walnuts

Eggnog Flans with Maple and Toasted Walnuts

Premade eggnog gives you a head start on this easy holiday dessert, while using maple syrup saves you the trouble of making caramel to coat the bottoms of the ramekins. You’ll need to make these flans at least 1 day (and up to 3 days) ahead, so the custard has plenty of time to infuse with the maple flavor.

eggnog-flans-with-maple5 large eggs
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2-1/2 cups low-fat eggnog
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons toasted chopped walnuts

Position 1 rack in middle of oven; position second rack in top. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

Whisk together the first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl. Place eggnog in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat; heat to 180 degrees F or until tiny bubbles form around the edges (do not boil). Gradually pour eggnog into egg mixture, whisking constantly. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a large 4-cup measuring cup or clean spouted bowl. Skim any foam from surface of custard.

Arrange 8 (5-ounce) ramekins in a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Place pan on a rimmed baking sheet. (This will make it easier to maneuver the pan in and out of the oven.)

Pour maple syrup evenly into ramekins. Top evenly with custard. Skim any bubbles from surface of custard. Fill pan with hot water to a depth of 1-1/2 inches. Place pan on middle rack of oven. Place a second baking sheet on the top rack (this prevents the tops of the flans from browning). Bake 45 minutes or until set. Carefully remove ramekins from pan. Cool to room temperature. Cover, and refrigerate 24 hours or up to 3 days.

To serve, run a thin, sharp knife around the edge of each flan. Place a dessert plate upside-down over each flan. Invert to unmold flan, allowing maple to drizzle over flan. Garnish with nuts.

Serves 8

Life Seasons

Normally, my mom starts e-mailing 3-4 times a day just after Thanksgiving. I’ll see subject lines like “Here’s What I’m Freezing,” and “Food!” and roll my eyes, thinking I don’t have time to think about all that yet if I’m going to tidy up work and take off for the holidays.

Except this year, I got a call from my dad on December 7th that my mom had had a stroke.

The days that mom was in ICU (in Connecticut) and I was in California, the lack of e-mails felt empty and depressing; their ongoing absence a constant reminder that this Christmas—and perhaps the indefinite future–would be very different than my family had envisioned.

I craved comfort food that week. I made Buttermilk Oven Fried Chicken with mashed root vegetables unexpectedly one weeknight, and a taco salad (a Mack family staple) the next. There was something in those foods that connected me to my mother, who I longed so fiercely to be with.

Now that I’m at my mom’s bedside, food continues to play a central theme. She tells me what I should be defrosting and had me bring in the pile of recipes she’d picked out to make. While her roommate, Margaret, and my brother talk classic movies, my mom and I plan Christmas dinner. A recipe, in fact, was the first thing my mother wrote with her therapist.

Not that any of that has translated to my mom’s kitchen yet. To me, it still feels too quiet and too empty without her and, to be honest, I’ve done all I can to avoid it. But I can feel that changing too. Over the past few days I’ve had time to mourn. Now it’s time to hope.

There are the recipes of my own that I’m printing out to cook for my daughter and husband and brother and dad (Alison’s Brussels Sprouts Carbonara and No-Knead Rosemary Olive Loaf are among them). There are the nuggets of nutritional advice that my mom is finally open to hearing and truly adopting.

“But I love potato chips, I love fried food,” Mom said to me pleadingly one afternoon when we were having a chat.

“I know,” I said. “And you don’t have to stop eating them entirely.” I talked about putting a handful of chips on her plate, closing the bag, and focusing on squeezing as much pleasure out of each bite as she could.  A lightbulb went off and I could see her process the possibility that by giving herself less (potato chips) she was actually giving herself more (pleasure without guilt, a favorite food without endangering her health). She looked visibly relieved.

Mom was quiet for a moment. Then she turned to look at me (which is a feat these days). “That Kale and Feta Tartine looked really good though,” she said, referring to a demo I’d just showed her that I’d recently filmed. “I want that on the list for when I get home.”

I’m still not sure when I’ll be able to serve Mom that sandwich at home, but I do know that I’ve already gotten the two greatest Christmas gifts I could ask for (or maybe one’s a birthday gift … I turn 40 today!): that my mom is here with us and that she’s willing to make changes. I’m holding out hope that mom and I (and Noe) will be in the kitchen together for many more Christmases to come.

Mom’s French Dressing Salad Recipe

This recipe–a zippy, tomato-based salad dressing recipe–is my adaptation of one that was handed down to my mom early on in her marriage by her Aunt Gladys. “This is the French dressing made and used in several of the Italian restaurants in the small town where I grew up, Princeton, IL,” Mom says in her notes. It has been a staple of our family for as long as I can remember. This French dressing adds peppy flavor to salads and sandwiches.


Knead-less Bread-Baking

When it comes to making bread dough, “kneading is an optional and flexible step,” says Harold McGee in his new book Keys to Good Cooking (Penguin Press). If you don’t want to hassle with kneading bread dough, you can let time do the work. The concept of no-knead bread has been around awhile–most recently popularized by Mark Bittman when he wrote about baker Jim Lahey’s technique several years ago in The New York Times. I gave it a try at the time, but my dog Rascal (NOURISH Evolution’s official mascot) ate the dough while it was proofing on the counter and I never got around to trying it again.

That is, until about a month ago, when a friend posted a Facebook link to a no-knead bread recipe by San Francisco-based cookbook author and cooking teacher Penni Wisner. Her recipe was a streamlined version of Lahey’s method and inspired me to give it another go. All went well–the ingredients came together just as she promised, Rascal left the dough alone, and resulting loaf was delicious with a lovely, chewy crust and tender crumb. Even better, letting time instead of elbow grease do the work yields a better-tasting loaf. “It has that long development, which gives it time to really increase in flavor,” says Wisner.

Wisner, who’s passionate about sharing this bread with everyone, agreed to let us share her recipe with the NOURISH Evolution community. She also has a few tips:

Pick the right flour(s). Yes, you can make bread with all-purpose flour, but you’ll get better results if you use bread flour (available at most supermarkets). “I do think it makes a difference,” says Wisner. Bread flour has a higher protein content than all-purpose, so it forms more gluten to give your bread structure.

Wisner also adds a little whole wheat flour. “When you add it whole wheat flour to the mix, your dough acts totally differently,” she says. “It absorbs more water. Also, the dough is more active and ferments faster.” More water in the dough means the bread will have a more tender, loose grain. We both favor mild-flavored white whole wheat flour, but regular whole wheat flour works just as well. (You could use all whole wheat flour, but you’ll end up with a pretty tough-textured loaf.)

Measure carefully. Take a tip from the pros, and use a kitchen scale to weigh out your flour. This ensures consistent results–and it’s easier than aerating the flour, then spooning it into a dry measuring cup and leveling it with a knife.

Mimic a bakery oven. Professional bakers use high-heat ovens with steam to give bread a delightfully chewy crust. You can imitate that by cranking your oven up to 500 degrees F and preheating a Dutch oven. You’ll add the dough to the hot Dutch oven and cover it for the first 30 minutes of baking–this creates the steamy environment. No-knead dough also tends to be loose, and baking it in a Dutch oven yields a loaf with a pretty boule-like shape. “If you do nothing else but change your baking environment and use a Dutch oven, you’ll get better bread,” Wisner promises.

Practice. Wisner’s recipe is good from the first loaf, and it gets even better the more you make it. You’ll get familiar with the climate of your kitchen (if it’s warm, you dough will proof faster and be wetter) and the quirks of your oven, just two factors that can influence dough.

You’ll also become more confident handling the dough. “It’s a soft dough, so it’s not necessarily what you’re accustomed to,” says Wisner. “I think dough responds to confidence. It sticks to you less, when you movements are more confident.” Like many avid bakers, Wisner believes every dough has its own personality. I certainly do, and can’t resist visiting it while it ferments to check on its progress.

I’ve found the biggest challenge is allowing the baked bread to cool enough to slice it. That, and keeping it away from the dog.

Knead-less Olive-Rosemary Bread

We’ve adapted this no-knead homemade bread recipe from San Francisco-based cookbook author and cooking teacher Penni Wisner’s foolproof formula. A long fermentation and baking the bread in a preheated Dutch oven yields artisanal results at home. You can play with different mix-ins–sub golden raisins and walnuts for the olives and rosemary, for instance, or stir in chunks of bittersweet chocolate for a variation of pain au chocolat. For the best results, Wisner recommends using a kitchen scale to weigh the flour, salt and water. It’s an essential for great at-home bread-baking.


Busy Night Menu for 4

‘Twas the weekend before Christmas and all through the house … everyone was in a flurry of activity. We know what it’s like– a weekend packed with activity, from holiday parties to shopping expeditions to marathon gift-wrapping sessions. Who has time to cook, much less eat? You do, with our streamlined, super-easy Busy Night Menu for 4.

To start:

Whip up a jar of Lia’s Mustard-Shallot Vinaigrette. Use some to dress a simple green salad for dinner tonight, and keep the rest on hand for suppers during the week.

Main event:

My Brussels Sprouts Carbonara with Whole Wheat Fusilli is one of our favorite go-to winter dinners. It’s creamy, comforting and filling. And ready in about 20 minutes. Open a bottle of Chardonnay to pour with this dish.

To finish:

Keep things super-simple and make a platter of Lia’s Chocolate Crostini with Orange Zest and Sea Salt. They’ll satisfy a yen for something sweet and get you out of the kitchen so you can put your feet up and watch a It’s a Wonderful Life or, if you’re in my house, Bad Santa!

Win a Free Download of the New iSpice iPhone/iPad App!

We recently checked in with our favorite spice girl, Monica Bhide, for her tips on the best ways to buy, store and coax more flavor out of your spices. So this week we’re excited to offer two free downloads of Monica’s hot, new culinary iPhone/iPad app, iSpice!

Win a free download of Monica’s new iSpice app for iPhone or iPad!

This is only one of two iPhone apps I’ve paid for (the other being Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio), and I love this app’s comprehensiveness. It covers everything from achiote paste to zhoug. (Thanks to iSpice, I now know zhoug is a Yemeni spice paste made from garlic, hot chiles, tomatoes, cilantro, parsley, olive oil, cumin, turmeric, curry powder and lime juice–sounds delicious!) Each entry tells you want a spice is made from and how it’s typically used, with links to recipes. This app is so thorough that it even lists oregano and stronger-flavored Mexican oregano as separate entries.

But you have to enter to win.

So here’s the deal. Only NOURISH Evolution members are eligible to win, so now’s the time to join if you haven’t already! Then, head on over to the Thursday Giveaway group in our community area and leave a comment to be entered to win (important: be sure you’re signed in to NOURISH Evolution so we can find you).

Lia will announce the winner in next week’s Friday Digest!

Good luck–and, remember, we’ll have two winners this week!