Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Easy Eats

The fabulous and fantastic MJ asked for tips on easy, quick entertaining.  Here are some tried and true quick meals I've made for easy, casual entertaining for a party.  I find finger foods and appetizers are perfect because they're easy to make, and I can mingle with guests.  I like to wrangle a guest or two to help pass out drinks, to make sure everyone's glass is full.  It helps break the ice and makes some people feel like they are doing an important job at the party.  They are.

I like to serve meals buffet style or family style, everything on the table and everyone can help themselves.  Or I just wrangle another guest or two to pass out the appetizers at the beginning, then everyone can help themselves to the food at the table.

Here are my easy eats dishes, ranging from easy no cook meals to ones that require a little bit more effort:

Dip & Eat

1. Buy celery and chop into stalks (I like to keep the leaves on the stalks; or just buy celery stalks) and buy baby carrots (or regular carrots, then peel and chop into baby size)
2. Serve with dipping sauce of choice: ranch, thousand island, cheese, and for a sweeter flavor, peanut butter.
I've also toasted bread, then cut them into 1 inch wide slices to dip in sauce to eat.

Cheese & Crackers

1. Buy a box of Ritz or unsalted saltine crackers (usually come in a box of 4 packets)
2. Buy a small rectangle of cheese (Cheddar, Colby Jack, Swiss, etc), cut into thin, small squares/rectangles small enough to fit on cracker. Or use Cheeze Whiz or any cheese spread you like on the cracker.
3. Peel and cut cucumbers into thin circles. I find 1 large cucumber is almost enough for each cracker packet.
4. Cut tomatoes (I like roma, or use any variety you like) into slices small enough to fit on cracker.
5. Assemble from the bottom up: Cracker, cheese, cucumber, then tomato. Serve on a large tray or plate.
You can make this up to at least a hour to half an hour before the party.

Pork Sliders

1. Buy breakfast sausage patties (the kind that is all ready cooked; they are more flavorful and you can just microwave them! I like pork; you can use whatever you cooked meat you like). Buy enough for your guests.
2. Buy a package of rolls small enough to fit the sausage patties (the ones common around Thanksgiving that you just brush with butter and heat in the oven will work). Or just buy a loaf of sliced bread and trim them to size. Or get those small frozen mini waffles that you can toast.
3. Sauce or condiment of choice: My go to is mayo ketchup mix--equal parts mayo and ketchup mixed together, the poor man's thousand island; use thousand island; or even avocado or guacamole; Sriracha for some heat. With mini waffles, I've used maple syrup or honey.
4. Cook/Microwave sausage patties. Cut rolls in top and bottom halves to make buns for patties. For extra flavor, toast the rolls lightly (I like to butter the inside ends that will hold the patty and lightly toast the buttered sides down in a pan on the stove-top or on a baking sheet buttered sides up in the stove; or just lightly toast the bread before trimming them to size to fit the patties; save the toast trimmings for use as bread sticks to dip in sauce).  Spread sauce on the toasted buns, then put the cooked patty between the bun slices to make your sliders (small hamburgers).
5. Optional toppings for flavor: pickles, onions, bacon, tomatoes, shredded cabbage/lettuce, stir fried bell pepper slices, caramelized onions, cheese, potato chips, fries etc.
You can make these an hour before the party; just keep them in a warm oven to keep warm.

Pigs in a blanket

1. Buy 2 cans of Pillsbury crescent rolls
2. Buy 2 packs of hot dogs (8 hot dogs/pack usually).
3. 8 slices of cheese, each cut into 6 strips.
4. Preheat oven to 375F or according to crescent roll directions.
5. Slit hot dogs to within 1/2 inch of ends; insert 3 strips of cheese into each slit.
6. Unroll dough into triangles. Wrap dough triangle around each hot dog. Place on ungreased baking sheet, cheese side up.
7. Bake at 375F for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown or according to crescent roll baking directions.
You can make these at least an hour in advance before the party, just keep them warm in a warm oven.

For Piglets in a blanket

1. Buy 2 cans of Pillsbury crescent rolls
2. Buy 2 packages of Lil Smokies or enough for 48 sausages (cocktail sausages, usually 48 from two 14oz packages)
3. Preheat oven to 375F or according to crescent rolls directions.
4. Unroll dough into triangles. Cut each triangle into 3 very narrow triangle strips.
5. Place sausage on widest side (base) of triangle strip and roll up to the point or tip of triangle. Place pointed side down on ungreased baking sheet.
6. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown or according to crescent rolls directions. Remove from sheet and serve warm.

Bacon Dogs

1. Buy 2 packages of hot dogs (8 hot dogs/pack usually)
2. Buy 1 package of bacon or enough for 16 slices (usually 16 slices/package)
3. Butterfly the hot dog (Slit it halfway deep from end to end to open the hot dog like a book)
4. Wrap or coil 1 strip of bacon around each butterflied hot dog. Stick toothpick through bacon at ends of hot dog if you find that you need to secure the bacon to hot dog. Just remember to remove toothpick if you use it before serving.
5. Heat frying pan on Low heat with 1 Tablespoon of vegetable oil (enough oil to lightly cover the bottom of pan); place bacon dog opened end down first into frying pan. Fry until bacon is crispy to your preference. Flip hot dog over carefully to crisp other side.  Remove after other side is done crisping.  You many need to remove excess oil if you have more hot dogs to pan fry.
6. Serve warm.  Optional toppings: cheese, onions, sauerkraut, etc. Use condiment or sauce of choice. Serve over toasted hot dog buns or with a side of baked potato. I make these about 2 hours in advance of the party at the latest and keep them warm in a warm oven.

Easy Baked Microwave Potato

1. Wash and scrub enough potatoes to fit in the microwave (start with 4 to 6 fist size Idaho russet potatoes). Use a fork to poke holes through potato to pierce the skins (it doesn't have to be a deep poke; just enough to break through the skin).
2. Place cleaned, poked potatoes on microwave safe dish in microwave.  Use the potato setting on microwave. If your microwave doesn't have a potato setting, I find that microwaving the potatoes 6 to 8 minutes is enough to cook them, depending on your microwave strength. Adjust cooking time accordingly, until the potato is fork tender (you can poke the potato with fork and the fork goes into the potato easily).
3. Serve warm with toppings of butter, salt, pepper, parmesan or other cheeses, sour cream, tatziki sauce, or favorite sauce or condiment like mayo.

Roasted Corn (courtesy of LX's great easy recipe)

1. Buy corn still in the husks, enough for your guests.
2. Preheat oven to 350F
3. Bake unshucked corn for 35 minutes.
4. When done, remove husks and serve with melted butter, salt, pepper. I like to add options like mayo, parmesan, or a squeeze of lemon or lime.

These are a few of the easiest dishes I make for casual, easy entertaining.  Sometimes, I just make sandwiches, my favorite being a simple egg salad:

Egg Salad sandwich

 You'll need eggs, salt, pepper, mayo, and bread.
1. Put 3 eggs (or enough eggs for your guests; about 1 egg per sandwich) in a pot and fill with enough cold water to cover the eggs.
2. Place pot on burner and turn on heat to Medium.  Once the pot comes to a rolling boil, turn off the burner.
3. Leave pot alone for at least 15 minutes.  The residual heat will cook the eggs.
4. After 15 minutes, pour out the water from the pot. Shake the pot to crack the cooked egg shell.  Then turn on the cold faucet and let it fill up the pot with the cracked cook eggs.  Let the cold water run til it overflows out of the pot.  Then turn off the cold water and leave the pot with the cold water alone for at least 1 minute (up to five minutes).
5. After 1 minute under cold water, reach into the pot and give each egg a gentle squeeze to crack most of the shell.  This will make it easier to peel off shells.  Now peel off the shells and put the egg into a bowl.
6. Lightly salt and pepper the eggs; you can always add more after you mix it for taste.  Add 1 Tablespoon of mayo to eggs (I use 1 Tablespoon of mayo to every 3 eggs; adjust according to your taste); use a fork to mash the eggs and mayo into a well mixed, chunky mixture.  Taste. Season according to taste.  A great substitute for mayo is avocado.  It's creamy and delicious and healthy.
7. Spoon mixture between bread slices.  Sometimes I like to toast the bread slices.  Eat sandwich.  Optional toppings and condiments include: pickles, caramelized onions, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, potato chips, and even ketchup and thousand island dressing, etc.

I hope you find these easy eats helpful and tasty.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hot pants

Recently, I've come to the realization that I am a liar.  Which is kind of funny considering that I'm the type of person who prefers to hear the truth (almost always), even when it hurts.  If I'm about to do something stupid, please, I implore you, anyone, to stop me before I make a huge mistake.  I tell all my friends to tell me the truth, because that's what friends do.  Stop me from making a jackass of myself.  Don't let me walk out in public looking like an idiot.  Let me know when I've got food stuck in my teeth; don't let me blather on with a chunk of spinach becoming a centerpiece on my front teeth.  Let me know if I've got a stain on my shirt that needs to be cleaned off.  Tell me if the person I'm dating is a total bitch.  Tell me if I'm being a total a$$hole without realizing it.  I like it when people tell me the truth.  It's a sign of respect and genuine concern.

So why is it that I have a hard time telling people the truth sometimes?  I know lying is wrong, but then, I find myself telling lies to cover up the truth.  And even in the middle of telling someone a lie, a part of me knows that maybe I ought to tell the truth.  It takes true strength to tell the truth; and while I'd like to think that I am a strong person, the truth is, I'm not as strong as I'd like to be sometimes.  The truth is, I don't like to hurt people; so I tell them lies; which is ironic because lying hurts people sometimes.

A friend called me on the phone.  She had recently given birth to another child a few months ago.  And she was calling to talk.  She went on about what her baby was doing; how much her baby was growing and eating, and how much weight she had to lose to get back to her pre-pregnant weight.  She went on for several minutes about how rewarding it was to be able to stay home for a few months to take care of her baby before going back to work.  Her conversation was frequently stalled by yelling at her other kids to stop doing whatever they were doing, telling me to hold on while she attended to whatever her other kids were doing, before she came back and continued telling me the trials and joys of motherhood.  All I could do was say, "Mmm hmmm" and "I hear you" and "Wow, that 's interesting" in my occasional, perfunctory replies.  I got the feeling she was bored and lonely.

She asked me if I wanted to come over for dinner and hang out.  If I was a good friend, I would've said, "Sure.  I'll come over."

But at that moment, I realized that I'm not that good of a friend.  I lied to her and said that I had so much work to catch up on and would be spending the night working.  But I didn't have any work.  I just wanted to hang out with my other friends at a World Cup Soccer party we had planned for the evening.  And it was a great party!  What a fantastic performance by team USA!  And let me add, how about that amazing Brazil vs Mexico tie?!

So why didn't I just tell her the truth of my plans for the evening?  It's because I'm a coward in addition to being a liar.  The truth is, I didn't want to hurt her feelings by letting her know that I'd rather hang out with my other friends, drinking and partying and watching the game, than come to her house and feel awkward in the chaos as she juggles control of her kids and be an unwitting, unwilling witness to the arguments she has with her husband over some issues.  Maybe they feel comfortable or trust me enough to speak freely in my presence over whatever disagreements they are having.  Or maybe it's the end of a long, tough day and they just don't care or give a damn who's there.  But either way, I feel uncomfortable, like I'm an intruder in someone's private life, and I feel uneasy bearing witness to what should be private discussions.

I don't like conflict.  I was raised to never start a fight; that being said, I was also taught to stand up and fight for what I believed in and never give up.  I was also taught to be nice to people and try to treat them right.  My mother used to teach us important social skills.  I remember her telling us that if we didn't have anything nice to say about someone, then don't say anything at all.  Try not to hurt people, if you can.  And therein lies the origin of my lying.

Now I don't lie all the time.  In fact, I can be pretty blunt and brutal with honesty, mostly by design, and a few times without realizing it--most likely after having a lot of drinks.  I value the truth and appreciate it when people are honest with me.  I try to do the same.  If I have a friend who's about to do something dangerous or crazy, of course, I'll stop them and tell them what I really think.  Still, if it's a choice between telling the truth and telling a lie, if the truth might hurt that person more than the lie, chances are, I'll lie, especially if it's something trivial or not that serious.  But sometimes, the line between trivial and serious disappears.  And that can seriously complicate things and make them worse.

Of all the questions that have made men sweat and panic when confronted with them, one of the most explosive has to be, "Does this make me look fat?".

And honestly, I've lied plenty of times and said, "No, you look great."  Because the truth is, I'd rather not hurt that person's feelings by letting them know that to me, they look like a mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion with their body stuffed and bursting out of those really tight, too small jeans.  Also, I'm not a fashion expert, so maybe what looks like sausage links and ham maybe a fashion trend I'm not aware of.  And besides, I've always felt that if the person felt good and comfortable wearing those clothes, then who am I to judge? Let them enjoy themselves and I'll keep my thoughts to myself.

It's a bit trickier and treacherous when a friend asks you "So what do you think?" when asking your opinion of their new significant other.  I've learned the hard way that even if the new person is an idiot and a jerk in my opinion, it's best to err on the side of caution and just answer, "If you're happy, then I'm happy," and then just try to be happy for your friend.  Love is blind; and your friend won't see or appreciate you pointing out the faults and shortcomings of their new lover.  Best to just stand by and support your friend; look out for them.  And as long as the new partner doesn't harm them, then let your friend be and keep your opinion to yourself.

I've lied to people about the things that are important to them.  A coworker once gushed and excitedly show me her newest pet, one of those small, bald dogs, mottled skin, mean looking squished face, somewhat blind and breathing heavily.  She asked me, "Isn't he cute?"

And I thought to myself, "My gawd!  That's the ugliest rat I've ever seen!  It looks like roadkill!"  Instead, I said to her, "Wow, I've never seen anyone quite like him before!".  Then proceeded to let my coworker go on and on about what a beauty her dog was.  Well, she was happy with him.  That's important; and the dog had an owner who truly loved him.

I also do the same thing when people show me their babies and proclaim how the baby looks like either the mom or dad.  Honestly, I can't tell if a baby looks like the mom or dad; to me, a baby looks like a baby--a teeny, tiny, fragile lump.  Ask me again in 20 years when that kid has grown up and looks like an adult and I'll give you a straight answer.  Until then, I just nod and go with whatever the parent is saying.  Let the parents enjoy their baby.  As long as that baby is loved, who cares who the baby looks like?

Liar, liar, pants on fire.  White lies are still lies. And sometimes, lies have the tendency to hurt not just the people being lied to, but the liar gets hurt as well.

A girlfriend surprised me by making dinner after I returned from a long road trip for work.  I was really surprised because she doesn't cook; and I was moved that she actually made the effort to put something together for me.  During our time together, we usually eat out, order in, or I cook for the both of us.  And after a long trip, I didn't feel like going out or cooking.  Coming home after being away for so long and finding her waiting there for me was a great surprise.  Having her actually put a meal together was even better!

To be honest, the salad tasted terrible.  It was too citrusy and sour and tasted a bit off.  But I just smiled and complimented her and washed it all down with the lemonade.  The frozen chicken pot pie she had bought from the store to heat and cook up in the oven was burnt on the top and somehow, still frozen on the bottom.  She apologized but I lied to her and said it tasted good and I liked it.  I couldn't really tell her how horrible it was.  Not after she went through all that effort.

It was a struggle for her to learn how to cook.  She was one of those people who rarely followed the recipe; and then wonders why the food turned out terrible.  And if she did follow the recipe, she'd have trouble adjusting it to real life, focusing too much on the content, not context, like keeping the heat at medium high, rather than lowering it when the food starts to cook too hot too fast, so in the end, it gets burned.  She also can't adapt the time, keeping to a strict time limit, rather than taking the food out of the oven when it's ready, she'll let it burn just to keeps the exact time the recipe states the food should be in the oven; and of course, she'll also take it out when it's not quite cooked yet, just because the recipe time was reached, rather than let it finish cooking for a just a few minutes more.  So we end up with undercooked food.

I don't know if cooking is an art or skill or a gift; maybe it's all of the above.  But I wasn't born a cook; I learned through trial and error and like any skill, through practice, I've developed a sense of how to put meals together.  I'd like to think that anyone can cook if they put in the time and effort and practice.  But then again, people are different.  And what may be obvious and readily learned by one person may be difficult for another to understand.

The meal was barely edible, but it was made palatable by the fact that my girlfriend had put in the time and effort to create something for us to share and enjoy.  And I didn't care that it tasted awful; what mattered was that she tried and made the effort to make something special.  Sometimes, nothing demonstrates love and devotion like a home cooked meal.  Looking at her eager, proud face, I didn't have the heart to tell her that the food tasted terrible; so I lied and told her it was great.  I was truthful about how much I truly appreciated her efforts and the time she put in to create this unexpected meal.  It proved that she loved me.  And after dinner, I was given further proof that she really did love me, and when I was left to spend the night alone afterwards, I was bathed in the complete knowledge that this woman truly loved me and I was truly a very lucky man.

Two hours later, my luck had changed for the worst, and I began to doubt her love for me as I spent the rest of the night throwing up in the bathroom.  Love may conquer all, but it sure as hell can't save you from food poisoning.  As I laid there on the bathroom floor, alternating between vomiting and dry heaving, sweating one minute then freezing the next, and praying to god--any god!--for relief, I started to wonder if she was some assassin sent to kill me.  I pondered what crimes and sins I had committed to earn such hatred and vengeance; surely, there were quicker ways to kill me! Perhaps she enjoyed making me suffer a long, agonizing death.  Was it part of the killing contract to prolong my suffering?

It's funny the crazy things that go on in your head when you feel sick and weak and dehydrated.  I remember thinking, "My gawd, I haven't even unpacked yet!  And my dirty laundry!  What's going to happen to my dirty laundry?  I hope whoever finds my body washes my laundry.  I've got some nice pants in that laundry.  And my camping trip!  What's going to happen to my tent and gear?  I haven't packed my new supplies together yet.  Now I'll never know if those bug repellant alternatives to DEET can keep the mosquitoes from biting me."  Thankfully, I passed out soon enough.

I awoke a few hours later on that cold floor.  I managed to gather enough strength to crawl into the tub and hose off; and when I was done showering, I made it back to the bed where I passed out for a few hours more.  I woke much later feeling much better.  I was able to get out of bed and found a bottle of ginger ale that I took sips of as I recuperated in the living room.

It suddenly dawned on me that my girlfriend might have suffered the same fate as I had.  I called her and sure enough, she had felt sick, too.  She didn't eat as much as I did the night before, but she was still nauseous.  Then she asked me if I had been sick, too.

And I immediately lied to her and said, "Nope.  I 'm just tired from the trip"  I couldn't bring myself to tell her the truth that she had poisoned us with her attempt at cooking.  I didn't have it in me to discourage her and make her feel bad about how things turned out.  She worked so hard and she deserved some credit for that.

I told her that I was coming over later and we ended our phone call.  I showed up at her place with some ginger ale and crackers.  They're the easiest and gentlest things we could've eaten after feeling sick.  I stuck to my story of being tired after such a long time on the road for work.  We were curled up on the sofa when I once again thanked her and praised her for surprising me with such a memorable meal--it may have been a disastrous meal for me, but it sure was something I won't ever forget.

I asked her about how she put the meal together.  And she beamed proudly and told me about her efforts.  I asked her about the salad and if she used oranges or lemons to make the salad dressing.  She looked confused and told me no, she just used oil and vinegar to make the salad dressing.

Now I was confused.  I was pretty sure I detected some very strong citrus flavor in the dressing and I told her so.  She told me it must have been from the citrus oil.  Now I was even more confused.  Citrus oil?  She told me that she used the citrus oil that I had on the kitchen counter.  I racked my brains trying to think of when I bought any citrus oil.  And I couldn't remember ever buying any citrus flavored oil.  I thought about the stuff that I left on the kitchen counter, and other than a trivet for hot pots and pans and some small kitchen appliances, the only other things I had left on the counter were the new camping supplies.

Then it dawned on me.  To my horror, I knew exactly where that citrus flavor had come from; it was the source of our poison.  And it was my fault for leaving it out on the kitchen counter.  But I had done it to remind myself to pack it with the other supplies for my camping trip.  It took all my strength to play it cool and pretend that I did buy some citrus flavored oil and I had left it out on the counter.  I didn't have the heart to tell her that it wasn't citrus flavored oil she had used in making the salad dressing.  Instead, it was citronella oil that she had used; that would be a mosquito repellent alternative to DEET that I was going to try out for the camping trip!  The salad dressing was made with mosquito repellant!

I blamed myself.  Sure, some may say, how come she didn't realize that she was using mosquito repellent instead of actual salad oil?  Well, it doesn't help that the bottle of citronella oil looks like a small bottle of salad oil.  And I was the one who left on the kitchen counter, so she could be forgiven for mistaking it for salad oil.  Perhaps if I had made an honest effort  to question the off-putting taste of the salad, I would've discovered that citronella oil was used in the salad and I would've saved myself a long night of unintentional, self-inflicted torture.  If I had been honest, I would've saved both of us some suffering and from being sick.

You would think that I would've learned from this awful experience to tell the truth.  But nope.  I still tell lies.  I really don't want to hurt anyone's feelings with the truth, so I keep on lying.  Even if lying leads to suffering all around!

After work, I picked up some muffins and some Irish Cream and French Vanilla coffees before stopping at my friend's house for a short visit.  I felt kind of guilty for lying to her so I could go the World Cup Soccer party.  Not that I would tell her about the party.  She didn't need to know.  And also, I kind of felt like it would be nice for the both of us to enjoy a short visit together.  I called her to see if it was okay if I stopped by to see her, and she was ecstatic.

I showed up at her door with the muffins (most of which her kids happily devoured) and let her pick which coffee she'd like to drink. I was given a quick peek at the sleeping baby before we returned to the kitchen where we caught each other up on what's been going on.  She was starting to make dinner and asked me to stay for dinner, but I told her I couldn't as I had other things to do--yes, another World Cup Soccer party but I wasn't going to tell her that.

Our conversation was interrupted by her kids, who asked me if I wanted to play the Memory Game with them.  Honestly, I didn't want to play the Memory Game then.  The Memory Game is a card game made up of pairs of pictures.  You play by placing all the cards upside down, then shuffling the cards and arranging them in rows and columns on the table.  Each person takes a turn to flip one card up, then try to find and flip up the other card with the matching picture.  If you find the pair, you keep the matching pair and you keep going.  If you don't match your cards, you flip the cards back down and someone else gets their turn. The person who makes the most matches win.

Granted, the Memory Game is one of those really fun kids card games; great for families.  But right then, I really wasn't motivated to play the Memory Game.  I had a party to go to, drinks to drink, and a team to cheer on.  But looking at those kids eager faces, I couldn't help but lie to them and say, "Sure, I'd love to play the Memory Game with y'all."

And we proceeded to play a few boisterous rounds of the Memory Game, complete with the kids squeals of joy and laughter.  With a new baby in the house, I figured the kids were probably craving some attention, especially since their parents were probably busy with the new baby.  No kid wants to be forgotten or left out.  I knew that by the time we were done playing, I'd be late to the party and miss out the beginning of the game.  But looking at these kids happy faces and hearing them laugh, I think I made the right decision.

They say that the truth will set you free.  And I believe it and I've lived it.  The most liberating and empowering experiences of my life were when I spoke the truth, stood up for what I believed in, and fought for the people I cared for and the ideals I believed in.  Truth will set you free.  But if lies will bind me, well, I don't mind, so long as I'm bound in the knowledge that the lies I've told bring genuine joy and happiness to the ones I love and hold most dear.  Some day, I'll be strong enough to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  But until then, until I find a way better way to keep the truth from hurting people, I'll have to make do with being a liar.  Hopefully, my pants won't catch fire; I have some very nice pants.