Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eat Real Food and Share It with Those You Love...Fearlessly

We’ve been on vacation for the past few weeks, doing a little relaxing and reflecting on our year.  It’s been a big year, and we’ve learned a lot.  More on that later this week.

In the meantime, New Year’s Eve is coming up in a few days, which means parties and potentially opening your home to your family and friends to celebrate the coming year.  And to many, it means stress and anxiety.

We want to put an end to that.  Stress over entertaining, that is.  Not parties. 

As with everything in life, our message is be nice to yourself.  Don’t think that every little detail has to be perfect.  You’ll drive yourself crazy.  Just dim the lights, light some candles, put on great music and meet your guests at the door with a drink and a big smile.  Your joy will put everyone at ease, and you’re guaranteed a great party.

If you need a little more help than that, here are a few of our tips for easy and fearless entertaining.

1.    Determine a budget, and plan your menu accordingly.  You don’t have to spend a fortune to carry off an elegant, delicious party everyone raves about.  Low-budget and big-punch items include things like grilled vegetables, antipasti platters and bruschetta with simple homemade toppings.  We have a few recipes for you, below.  And don’t be too ambitious!  Make three or four items and then take a little help from the deli section of the grocery store, with a selection of a few artisan cheeses and bowls of good-for-you olives and nuts. 

2.    Consider allergies or dietary restrictions, but don’t stress about it.  We ask guests to let us know if they have specific dietary restrictions, and we always serve at least one vegetarian and gluten-free option, just in case.  But if you’re feeling overwhelmed and you have guests with specific allergies or aversions, ask them to bring a dish to contribute!  Friends will be more than happy to help. 

3.    Create a drink station Create a pretty drink station away from the food, so that everyone is not all bunched in the same area.  And when it comes to drinks, there are several ways to keep costs down.  One, ask each guest to bring a bottle of wine or nonalcoholic beverage in lieu of a hostess gift.  Set a price limit if you want, so guests do not feel obligated to bring an expensive bottle.  Two, decide on only one signature cocktail.  This has two advantages—it limits the number of spirits you need to buy for the party, thus reducing your cost.  It also allows you to make large batches of the cocktail ahead of time, making serving easier.  Please don’t plan on mixing cocktails one-by-one!  You’ll be at the bar all night long.  Make sure you provide interesting and delicious nonalcoholic options as well, including lots of pitchers of water to keep guests hydrated! 

4.    Use white serving platters.  It’s the secret all great restaurants know—food looks best on a white background.  And arranging food on big platters—even if it’s just cheese and crackers—makes it look fancy and festive.  You can buy very inexpensive plain white platters at discount stores like Target and TJMaxx.  And if you really want to get fancy, put little place cards next to each with a description of the food.  That also helps to identify foods for anyone who may have allergies or dietary restrictions.

5.   Be organized!  You know how much we love lists.  Make a complete grocery list of all of the items you will need for the party.  Check them off as you purchase them.  Try not to leave all of your shopping for the last minute.  Pantry goods can be purchased days and weeks ahead of time.  If you have children (or spouses!) who might be tempted to snack on things like nuts, chocolate or crackers, you might want to hide them until the party.  Just don’t forget the hiding place!

6.   Don’t forget the bathrooms Make sure your guest bathrooms are stocked with toilet paper, fresh soap and clean towels.  A discretely placed plunger is not a bad idea either, just in case.

7.   Candles, flowers and good music can cover a lot of flaws!  It’s really true.  If the vibe is great, people will remember a great party.  Use white, unscented votive candles.  They are inexpensive and easy to replenish—and they won’t tip over if accidently bumped.  Keep flower arrangements simple—all one color is usually best, arranged in a short glass vase.  Short, square glass vases can be purchased very cheaply at floral supply shops.  And don’t forget the music.  Ask a friend with great taste in music to create a playlist for the party, and then ask them to make sure it keeps playing!    

8.   Create a timeline While this may seem like a silly step, we find it’s essential for making sure everything gets done on time, before the first doorbell ring.  It’s easiest to start from the time of the party and work backwards, beginning with what needs to be prepared or finished at the last minute to what can be prepared hours or days ahead of time.

9.   Prep as much of the menu ahead of time as you can.  Cut up the vegetables, make the dressings, bake the desserts…  Look at your recipes and think about what can be made days (or even weeks) before the party.  

10.  Relax!  If you’re not having a good time, your guests won’t have a good time.  And if anything goes wrong, just laugh.  It will make a great story.

Here are a few recipes for easy, make-ahead small bites for your next party.

Bruschetta Bar with Ceci Beans & Tuscan Greens
A bruschetta bar is a great way to serve easy, inexpensive and yet delicious appetizers for your holiday 
party.  Bruschetta is basically just grilled bread and is a base for an endless number of delicious 
toppings, from the traditional tomato and basil to the ceci beans (garbanzo beans) and Tuscan greens 
(cavolo nero kale) featured here.  Be sure and choose great-quality bread with a good crust and chewy 
center.  These can be served hot-off-the-stove, but are also great at room temperature—perfect for a 
make-ahead party.

Serves 8

4 -  1 inch-thick slices great-quality crusty bread
1/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove

Preheat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat.

Brush each side of the bread with the olive oil.  Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black 
pepper to taste.  Grill bread, about 1 minute per side, until grill marks appear and bread is 
toasted.  Rub one side of the bread with the garlic clove.  Cut each slice of bread in half on the 
diagonal.  Set aside until ready to top and serve.

Ceci Beans (Garbanzo Beans) Topping

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons black olive tapenade
1 cup cooked ceci beans, still warm*
2 tablespoons cooking liquid from beans
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh basil, torn or sliced
Zest of one lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium-low heat.  Add garlic and cook about 30 seconds, until 
garlic starts to soften.  Add red pepper flakes, rosemary and black olive tapenade.  Fry until 

Pour olive oil mixture over cooked ceci beans.  Add balsamic vinegar, cooking liquid, fresh basil 
and lemon zest.  Toss together, mashing some of the beans slightly with the back of your 
fork.  Taste for seasoning, and adjust as necessary.

Spread topping over grilled bread, drizzling with extra olive oil if desired.  Serve warm, or at 
room temperature.

Tuscan Greens (Cavolo Nero, or Dinosaur Kale) Topping

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 bunch Tuscan kale, ribs removed and thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Zest of one lemon
¼ pound parmesan or ricotta salata

Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium-low heat.  Add pancetta or bacon and cook until fat is 
rendered and pork is beginning to brown.  Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook about 30 
seconds, until garlic starts to soften.

Add kale, salt and pepper and cook, adding a little water if necessary, until kale is wilted and 
tender, about 5 – 10 minutes.  Season with nutmeg and lemon zest.  Top grilled toast with greens 
and shavings of parmesan or ricotta salata.

Polenta Coins with Mushroom Sauté
Polenta coins—or cups--make a great vehicle for any sort of filling, from mushrooms to braised 
meats.  Make the polenta up to two days ahead of time and then reheat in the oven right before the 
party starts. This recipe is a great option for your guests following a gluten-free eating plan. 

Makes about 16 - 24 polenta

2 cups polenta
8 cups water* or low-sodium chicken stock
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
1 ½ pounds mushrooms, sliced (any varieties you like)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup shallots, minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup dry white wine, or dry sherry
1 tablespoon butter

Add chicken stock to a large sauce pan and bring to a simmer. Whisk in polenta, being careful to 
avoid splattering corn meal.  Cook for 30 minutes or until tender, whisking frequently. Add
butter and parmesan cheese.

Line a deep-rimmed baking sheet with wax paper. Pour polenta onto tray and spread evenly to 1 
inch thick. Allow to cool at room temperature; transfer to refrigerator and chill until set, at least 
two hours.

When chilled and set, cut circles into the polenta using a 2’ cookie cutter, or cut into 
squares.  Scoop out the centers of each polenta circle with a teaspoon, being careful not to make a 
hole in the bottom of the circle.  When ready to serve, reheat coins in a 250 degree oven until 

In the meantime, make the mushroom sauté.  Add the mushrooms to a large, dry skillet set over 
medium-high heat.  Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms begin to caramelize.  Remove 
mushrooms from pan.   

Reduce heat to medium and add the shallots and red pepper flakes.  Cook until the shallots are 
translucent.  Add the mushrooms back to the pan, with the fresh thyme, salt and pepper.  Add 
wine and cook until liquid is reduced to about a tablespoon.  Remove from heat and stir in 
butter.  This can be make a day ahead and reheated before serving.

Fill warmed polenta cups with mushroom sauté and serve warm or at room temperature. 

*If you want to make this recipe vegetarian, use water and season well with sea salt.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Top Five Foods We Can’t Live Without

When McKenzie’s in Bellingham, it’s just one more excuse to have a dinner party, or three.  Such has been the case this week, with several impromptu gatherings one right after the other.

On Sunday, a friend and his seven year old daughter came to dinner for braised chicken or black bean tacos.  She’s a vegetarian and wise beyond her years, enthusiastically hopping onto the dance floor, lip syncing to the Black Eyed Peas or showing off her tae kwon do.  She’s also a curious cook, eagerly pitching in to make dinner, rolling and pressing homemade corn tortillas.  It’s fun having kids around, especially in the kitchen.

Homemade corn tortillas make all the difference, by the way.  They couldn’t be easier.  Even a seven year old can do it.  Save yourself some hassle and buy a tortilla press like this one.

Monday Night Football seemed like a good excuse to make bison burgers and sweet potato fries.  We’re not sure who won (or even played), but by the end of the night we’d planned to build a pizza oven and knew a lot more about best and worse kissing experiences.  Good party.

Tuesday night, we asked a videographer friend if he would mind shooting some footage of us for our website.  We invited over a few other friends, made several versions of our favorite pizzas and hammed it up for the camera. 

These three dinner parties provide good examples of our food philosophy—eat real food and share it with those you love.  For the past three days, we’ve laughed a lot and learned more about our friends.  We say it often, but food truly is more than just food—it creates a vehicle for developing sensory memories and nurturing relationships.  

We’ve gotten into the habit of playing a version of 20-questions during dinner parties, which sometimes helps us learn as much about ourselves as about our dinner companions.  Depending upon the mood of the evening, the questions range from, “What’s the best decision you’ve ever made?” to “What are you most proud of?”  

But our favorite ubiquitous question is, “If you could only eat five foods for the rest of your life, what would they be?”  

It’s funny to see how people respond.  Some people rattle off a list right away and some debate with themselves for the entire evening, never able to narrow it down.  

We have rules for the answers. 

No combination foods, like pizza.  But homogeneous foods, like bread, are allowed.  There are some gray areas, like the friend that added falafel.  That’s still up for debate.  You can give a general category, like cheese, without specifically saying the type of cheese, like manchego.  And if you choose something like ice cream, it can’t be coconut chocolate chunk with almonds.  It has to be vanilla or chocolate or root beer.  Everyone gets water.  

Hey, it’s our game.  
In our informal poll, cheese and ice cream come out on top, and avocado often makes the list.  Beer also comes up frequently.  It’s known as liquid bread, after all.  

 Here’s our list of the Top Five Foods We Can’t Live Without:  

Pears (McKenzie). 
Wine (Lisa).      

Yes, we have basically the same taste.  You’re not really surprised, are you?

As long as we’re giving you our list, we might as well tell you why they’re good for you.  



Choose breads from whole wheat or whole grains, which contain a host of good-for-you nutrients including B vitamins, Vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron and fiber.  Research shows eating more whole grains reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity.  

Be careful!  Many breads are deceptively marked “wheat” or “seven-grain.”  Don’t be fooled by marketing.  Look at the ingredient list, and if the first ingredient listed is not whole wheat flour or another whole grain—the word “whole” must be there—then the bread is actually made from a processed flour and won’t contain the same amount of fiber and micronutrients.  

Also, while you are already looking at the label, make sure the bread you’re choosing does not contain high fructose corn syrup.



We love cheese.  And luckily, in small quantities, cheese is good for you, since cheese is a good source of calcium and protein.  Just don’t overdo it.  

Keep an assortment of cheeses on hand for last-minute guests or for when you just don’t feel like cooking dinner.  Hot, browned cheese toast on chewy whole wheat bread paired with a salad and a glass of red wine can be mighty satisfying. 



Eggs are one of nature’s most-perfect foods—filled with choline, folate, iron and zinc, all for only about 80 calories.  Eggs are a great source of protein and relatively inexpensive.  Choose eggs from a local and sustainable farm, if at all possible.  It’s better for you, the chicken and the environment.  And it tastes better.  

Eggs are also a quintessential go-to fast food, whether poached, boiled, fried, over-easy, over-hard or scrambled.  A poached egg over spring greens makes a perfect summer supper.  Or put that same egg over a spicy stew of eggplant and tomatoes and you have shakshuka, a Middle Eastern specialty.  See our recipe, below.  



Avocados  are delicious.  

Once vilified as being ‘fatty,’ the smooth and creamy fruit is now considered a nutrition power-house, rich with good fats, vitamin E, vitamin C, folate, fiber, iron, potassium, lutein and beta-carotene.

They can be used in myriad recipes, from cupcake frosting to yogurt dips.  We like them best layered on our egg sandwiches or tucked into our fish tacos. 



A pear isn’t really just a pear, or a body shape.  Anjou, Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Concorde, Forelle, Seckell—each has their own flavor and texture.

Pears are high in fiber and a good source of potassium and vitamin C.  Try substituting pears for apples in your favorite recipes.



Like dark chocolate, red wine is a sublime indulgence that doesn’t really need validation.  But when the doctor says it’s good for you—it’s even better. Red wine contains anti-aging antioxidants like polyphenols that help to reduce inflammation in your body—good for your heart and your skin.  Stick to one glass of red wine a day for women and two glasses a day for men.

And now, one of our very favorite recipes containing a few of our favorite runner-ups—eggplant and tomatoes.  Shakshuka.


This thick and savory tomato stew showcases beautiful farm-fresh eggs poached right in the sauce.  It’s the ultimate comfort food and can be easily scaled to feed a crowd—the simple ingredients make for an easy impromptu dinner party.  


Serves 6

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste*
3 – 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra as needed
1 eggplant, cut in large dice
1 red onion, minced
1 red bell pepper, cut in large dice
1 small Calabria pepper, minced
2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, tomatoes diced
1 fresh tomato, diced
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
6 farm fresh eggs
4 ounces goat cheese, cut in 6 discs
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

*Season vegetables with sea salt and freshly ground pepper as you cook, adding a little bit at each step until desired level of seasoning is achieved.  

Heat heavy-bottom pan over medium heat.  Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and heat until shimmering.  Add about ½ of eggplant in one layer in the pan.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until eggplant is tender and brown.  Remove eggplant with a slotted spoon and drain on a plate covered with a paper towel.  Repeat with remaining eggplant.

Add another 1 - 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add onion, red bell pepper, Calabria pepper and garlic.  Cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent and peppers are tender.  Be careful not to burn the garlic.  Reduce the heat to low if necessary.  

Add diced San Marzano tomatoes with the juice, fresh tomato, coriander and cardamom.  Add back in reserved eggplant.  Cook at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until Shakshuka is thick and flavorful.  If too much sauce has evaporated (it should be the consistency of thick pasta sauce), add a little water to thin.

Break each egg into a small bowl or ramekin and then slide into the sauce.  Add goat cheese.  Cover Shakshuka and simmer about 3 – 4 minutes or until whites of eggs are set.  Sprinkle with parsley.  

Serve with lots of fresh pita or bread, for soaking up the sauce.  

Enjoy, preferably with those you love!