My brother and husband have been giving me a bunch of crap because I did not respond to all your generous posts yet. Please don't hate me, I love you so much for reading this right now, I can't stand it! The thing is that I have been thinking over all your questions, trying to think of a comprehensive post. But screw it, I suppose. Completely throwing all fairness and first-come, first-serve rights to the wind, I am going to answer Katie's questions first, since she wanted a recipe for this weekend. Sorry Cara, Jeffrey, and all you other lovely people that responded via facebook - I promise, I will be getting to you very soon! Tell my husband to buy me a laptop so I can blog on my hour-long train ride to and from work.
Now, Katie asked about a recipe to prepare for her entire family. Well, when preparing for a crowd, even if they are your loving family, I have two suggestions: cook something simple and cook something you've DONE BEFORE.
Really, most people will appreciate a home-made dinner even if it isn't the most complex thing they've ever eaten. It's usually the fact that you made it for them and, of course, that you made it with love.
I should also include the caveat here that I make a lot of italian food these days because my husband loves it (I am pretty sure that he is 70% pasta) and frankly a lot of it is easy to make. Cut these vegetables, saute, add booze, serve! Cooking with booze (and drinking it, of course) completely changed the way my mother and I approach every recipe, but that revelation was so life-altering that it deserves it's own post. Or three.
Anyways, Katie, I would suggest that you do something you're already really good at - one of those recipes that you don't need to look at the recipe very much while you're cooking. You'll feel comfortable and you have much less chance of getting caught up by the timing issue.
However, if you really want to try a new recipe, I have a great one that I've made twice now, and it is SO EASY. And sure crowd pleaser. It's Penne Alla Vodka, Rachael Ray style.
Another caveat: this recipe really is easy, but I can't do it as fast as Rachael Ray does, even with my abbreviated mise en place. That woman has the best sense of time management of any human being alive - she's truly gifted. Still, there are limited ingredients, very little chopping, mostly measuring and stirring. Also, with this recipe, I let the sauce simmer probably for ten minutes after all the ingredients were in the pan, stirring often - it was just a little too thin for my taste and as you let it simmer, it thickens up.
With this easy recipe, I served some sauteed chicken. I took some boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded them out by putting two breasts at a time in a gallon plastic bag and beating them up until they were about a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch thick, seasoned with salt and pepper, and put them in my biggest frying pan (the same pan I am using to make my sauce, which is a 5.5 qt pan with high sides - if you don't have a big enough pan, I would use a large pot for the sauce and a seperate frying pan for the chicken) in just a bit of olive oil, maybe two tablespoons TOPS. Just enough to lube the pan. Leave the chicken in the hot pan until it forms a nice crispy brown crust - mine takes about 4 minutes per side, but every stove is different. Try this a couple of times (in different meals, not just this one) by checking the breast every so often. This isn't going to ruin the sear, and soon you'll learn how long it takes on your cook top for other recipes. The juicy, crusty chicken worked really well with the very decadent sauce.
And the great thing about the sauce is that it's cost friendly. I omit the basil leaves at the end, because if I'm not using the basil leaves in another dish that week they are just going to spoil in my fridge, but they do add a nice touch and lovely dimension of flavor at the end.
And that's it. I'll tell you, this is Joe's favorite dish so far, it doesn't take very long, and it really pleases - I'm sure your family will appreciate it.
If you're interested in making a vegetable side dish, which I often forget about, I recommend roasted vegetables. My specialty is roasted asparagus, the recipe I will include here, but you can roast broccoli or zucchini or peppers or pretty much anything you like with this recipe! Roasting is super easy and makes even some of the usually bland or bitter veggies taste good - I even like roasted brussel spouts (although with a fair amount of bacon, I will admit.)
1 bunch Asparagus spears
olive oil (start at one tablespoon and add more if you feel you need it)
3 garlic cloves, sliced
Line a baking sheet with heavy duty aluminum foil (or two layers of the regular stuff) for easy clean-up. The amount of asparagus is relative to the number of people you're serving - I recommend about 1 bunch at the store for two people (I eat a whole bunch myself, I LOVE this stuff.) Bend each asparagus spear until it snaps in half naturally (or, snap one and then line up all the asparagus spears with the snapped spear and cut to the same size, like Rachael Ray does - that tends to work fine). Also, slice a couple of cloves of garlic into thin slices (I like a lot of garlic but you can use as much as you prefer.) Put the spears on the pan and sprinkle some salt and pepper on them and drizzle some olive oil JUST TO COAT. You don't want them drowning in olive oil. Line up the asparagus in lines so that they form what looks like rafts and then put the garlic slices on top - try not to let any garlic fall on the pan, it will just burn and add nothing to your dish. Drizzle the tiniest bit on olive oil on top of the garlic (OR, before putting the garlic on the asparagus, toss the slices in a little olive oil to coat.) Cook at 400 degrees for 15 minutes or until the asparagus gets a little carmelized on the outside (that gorgeous golden brown crunchy goodness.) It's my favorite vegetable recipe ever, I make it several times a week in my toaster oven!
Now, for dessert, I will admit, I don't make dessert that often. But I wonder if you wouldn't be interested in this recipe that I made for Joe the other day. I saw similar recipes in two different magazines this month, and I made my own twist and I'll tell you, it's RIDICULOUSLY good. Not healthy, in any sense of the word, but amazing. It's Grilled Chocolate Sandwiches!
(Grilled in the same sense as a Grilled Cheese. Oh, you are SO intrigued, I can tell!! Joe made a suspicious face at this sandwich for a full 60 seconds before finally trying it, and the progression of his enjoyment was hilarious. "Huh, that's good... oh wow, that's really good. Bonnie, this is really good. Oh my GOD. BONNIE, MAKE ME EIGHT MORE!" Yes, it was sort of a food-gasm. I couldn't have been more proud. And I quite agreed. )
One loaf of Challah Bread (also excellent for French Toast if you have leftovers)
Thin chocolate bars in whatever chocolate you prefer, milk or dark or whatever (Hershey works very well)
Butter or butter spread, whatever you have around.
Cut the challah bread relatively thin, maybe to a half-inch thickness, and butter one side of each, just like a grilled cheese. Place one piece of bread in a frying pan, buttered side down and layer the chocolate bar pieces in one layer. Place the other piece of bread on top, buttered side up, and cook just like you would a grilled cheese, getting the buttered bread crispy and the chocolate melted. My chocolated melted fine, but if yours isn't melted at all by the time you flip, put a lid on top of the pan as the second side browns - this will trap the heat and the chocolate should melt by the time it's done. Because challah bread is usually narrow, you should be able to put several sandwiches in one pan at the same time. Put all these on a plate with a little powdered sugar if you want to be fancy. Then serve! This is untraditional but sure to interest your guests and sure to please - it is ridiculously delicious.
I hope this helps and that everyone else enjoys these recipes. Kate, if you try it, tell us how it works out!