Date Night Menu for Anytime

IMG_20190214_080440398Five years ago yesterday, I was on my way home from my fifth date with Will. We had gone to see a free movie screened at a local college, and I kissed him for the first time on top of a parking garage (I know, I am great at romance). During the drive I asked him when he wanted to get together next:

Will: “How about Friday?”

Me: “…..Isn’t that Valentine’s day?”

Will: “Yeah. Who else would I spend it with?”

I’ve never had any particular affinity with this weird Hallmark holiday, but I assumed anyone on their fifth date would be wary of spending a sixth on a high pressure holiday in a forced romantic environment with someone they weren’t sure about yet. But I was wrong. Thankfully, we both had the same vision for a great Valentine’s Day: dinner at home. We could be exactly as romantic (or awkward) as we wanted to be, and not have some terrible and expensive prix fixe meal.

And thus, our first Valentine’s Day together was also the first time I cooked Will dinner. We’ve done something similar every year since. No cards, jewelry, or boxes of chocolate. Just an excuse to enjoy a great dinner at home and each other’s company.

This is the menu I made for that Valentine’s Day. Just to be clear, I don’t make crackers for our date nights regularly (I guess I was just feeling extra that first time). That first year I tasked Will with bringing a bottle of white wine and dessert. I don’t repeat the same menu every year, but I usually make something a little special or different. One year it was steak frites, and this year I’m going to make either these cumin lamb chops of Korean-style fire chicken. Let’s reclaim Valentine’s Day as an excuse to have a great date night in. And if it doesn’t work for you to celebrate this week, there are 51 others in a year so take your pick!

Appetizer:

Dinner:

Dessert

  • 1 slice of chocolate cake and a chocolate bar (both purchased from Wegmans)
  • Rock Art Russian Imperial Stout (we still have the bottle from this, which is pictured at the top)
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Thanksgiving Gameplan

Thanksgiving Gameplan - Vegetal MattersI’m the boss at Thanksgiving this year. As always, with such power comes responsibility. There is a menu to plan, shopping list to make, tasks to dole out, and the added complication of not cooking in my kitchen, so I have to make sure any needed equipment makes the trip as well. This isn’t my first Thanksgiving rodeo though, so fear not.

My menu so far is easily executable versions of classics. Though what I consider classics may be debated. I to this day have never consumed green bean casserole. I have only once attended a Thanksgiving where marshmallows were allowed on top of sweet potatoes (it was with an ex-boyfriend’s family – maybe a sign that it wouldn’t last?). To me, marshmallows on sweet potatoes are as outlandish as capers on ice cream. Mashed potatoes are a given, perhaps something with sweet potato or a squash, and the green things vary. I think I recall sautéed green beans on the table growing up, but I can’t say that for sure. I’ve tried out Brussels sprouts the last few years which I love, but they aren’t appreciated by all. This year I’m going to use Thanksgiving: How To Cook It Well as my guide, but wanted to offer up a few options I’ve made before to fill out your menu.

The turkey. Every time I’ve been in charge of the turkey, I’ve made Alton Brown’s and it had not failed me. Brining makes for a moist bird, and his hands off approach is so logical – why would you keep opening the oven to baste when that lets all the heat out? Thought maybe it just appeals to me because I don’t want to be tending to the bird anyways. There is also a recipe for brined turkey in Thanksgiving that I may try out.

Stuffing (or dressing, if we are being technical). I’m most undecided about stuffing. This kale and caramelized onion stuffing looks so good, but I’m not sure it would be a crowd-pleaser. I may have to save that for anther time. I’ve made cornbread stuffing and more traditional bread and celery stuffing, but I can’t say any recipe stood out enough for repeating. Suggestions?

Mashed potatoes. I think this is the only Pioneer Woman recipe I’ve ever cooked. You would be creamy too if you had this much cream cheese, cream, and butter in you.

Sweet potatoes or squash. Chipotle smashed sweet potatoes are a bit of a departure from normal fare, but are a welcome spicy/sweet combination.

Green things. I’m deciding between these Dijon braised sprouts (which I like a whole lot) and the creamed ones with bacon in Thanksgiving. I may lean towards the creamed ones to make one more attempt at converting Brussels sprout haters, who are often swayed by cream and bacon. And I supposed I should offer a non-sprout green…maybe green beans?

Gravy. Yes, another Alton recipe (for big holidays, I tend to rely on my dependable favorites).

Cranberry sauce. I like my cranberry sauce in a blob rather than a cylinder. This recipe makes for the perfect complement to all Thanksgiving fixings, only has 4 ingredients, and can be made ahead. You can go even simpler as all you need to make cranberry sauce is cranberries, sugar/honey, and water, or fancier with the addition of liqueur or nuts.

Extras. This fresh cranberry cocktail is tart and festive. It takes a bit of premonition, but serving is easy. I’m not a huge pie fan, and the marbled pumpkin gingersnap tart with cheesecake swirls is just the perfect thickness and amount of pumpkin.

Even more ideas.  I made a Pinterest board a few years back to keep track of Thanksgiving ideas. Last year the New York Times posted Thanksgiving Recipes Across the United States. Some suggestions are very questionable, but they are fun to read through. And lastly, Thanksgiving can be an expensive meal not in reach for everyone. Many food banks and pantries are accepting donations right now for their Thanksgiving distribution. Here is a great list of foods to donate now and all year long.

How to throw the easiest rib party (no grill required)

Grill-less Ribs Party - Vegetal MattersWe celebrated a birthday in the house this weekend, and hosted a few friends to eat ribs on the deck. Besides planning out the party, my present was to actually be present for the whole thing and not hide in the kitchen finishing up tasks while our guests enjoyed bourbon punch without me. So I planned out a Southern menu where most everything is prepped in advance (and tastes better that way) for minimal stress and maximal birthday celebration.

The Menu

Appetizer

Drinks

  • Bourbon punch
  • White wine punch. I called this a sangria but revisiting now I don’t know if it qualifies. I added some peach schnapps and blueberries to white wine, and topped it with seltzer.
  • Assorted beers

Dinner

Dessert

  • Blueberry lemon pie with whipped cream (from Flour)

Notes

Overall, I was super please with this menu. Everything was meant to be prepared way in advance or just tossed together right before eating, so the majority of the work was done before noon the day of the party.

When I mixed the cheese dip by hand it was a little too textured for my tastes, so I threw it all in the food processor. I didn’t have harissa powder, so I used some spicy paprika.

I don’t have a blender, and didn’t want to go through the extra effort of blending the drinks when guests were here. I diluted it a bit by adding 2 cups to tea instead of one and then just served over ice.

I was limited with the ribs because we don’t have a grill, but I think these are probably the best ribs you can make without one. The meat doesn’t quite get to the fall off the bone texture, but they are still tender and flavorful, especially with the “sauce.” If you have a grill, Alton’s ribs are an excellent option. But really, I just want to buy a smoker. The beans and the ribs do have slightly different cooking times, but I put them both in the oven together at the ribs’ temp.

I’ve made the slaw and beans before, and both are real winners. Next time I will probably add a little more vinegar to the dressing for more zip in the slaw. And these baked beans are the bomb. My one fluke in all the planning was I forgot to soak the beans overnight, but right when I got up Saturday I boiled the kettle and poured that water over the beans and let them soak for an hour, then proceeded with the recipe. The dried beans stay nice and firm even after cooking for so long, and the sauce is just the right thickness. I used less bacon than was called for, and you could leave it out for a vegetarian side.

Even though this meal was Southern themed, I am a Northerner and I prefer some sweetness to my cornbread. Will declared this the best cornbread he’s ever had, and he is a more critical cornbread consumer than I am. Super moist from the zucchini with a toothsome crunch from the medium grind cornmeal and just the right sweetness. Heavenly with butter and mopping up the baked bean juices.

The only flaw in this plan is I don’t have  two ovens so the cornbread wasn’t ready right as the ribs were coming out of the oven. I sacrificed an earlier dinner time to have just from the oven cornbread on the table, but you could also make it the night before or in the morning if you aren’t making an oven hogging pie.

I think if I was doing this all over again the only thing I would change would be the pie. It was a whole lot of work (including making the crust the night before, rolling it out, chilling in the pan, blind baking, making the filling, and then finally baking the pie for an hour and a half), and I didn’t feel like I got the full return on my effort. I’m more of a cobbler/crisp fan anyways, and they are just so much easier.

Schedule of Events

Day before:
  • Pick blueberries (ok, you could just buy these, but there is a PYO farm a few miles from me and it is SO much cheaper)
  • Make rib rub
  • Soak beans
  • Shred slaw ingredients
  • Make slaw dressing
  • Make pate brisée (crust)
  • Mix corn bread dry ingredients
  • Make bourbon drink
Morning of:
  • Make beans (50 min on stovetop, 6 hours in oven at 225F)
  • Put ribs in oven (6 hours total, 4 at 200F, 2 at 175F)
  • Bake pie (chilled rolled crust for 30 min, bake bottom crust for 30 min, bake whole pie for 1.5 hours)
  • Make pimento cheese
  • Slice veg for serving with pimento cheese
Before dinner:
  • Bake cornbread (1 hour at 350F)
  • Reduce rib jus to make sauce
  • Dress slaw
  • Cut ribs and broil quickly to char

After dinner:

  • Whip cream for pie