Monday, January 17, 2011

The Lost Art of Dining

A glimpse in a drawer of my hutch, which contains almost anything I'd need for the table: serving utensils, corkscrews, taper candles, and plenty of votives and tealights.
As I was folding linens warm out of the dryer this morning, I started thinking about how I love to layer colors, fabrics, and serving pieces on my table, reflecting the shifting seasons outside my window. My mind wandered to making everyday meals special, taking just an extra minute or two to make an ordinary occasion extraordinary. I know that statement is cliche, thrown about by hordes of Food Network stars, but it really seems like so many people rush through their meals, eating right out of the carton, right on the couch. What's wrong with using real dishes and napkins and lighting a candle or two? What's wrong with turning off the television for 20 minutes and looking into the eyes of your family and friends? I wholeheartedly believe many of us have lost the art of dining. 

It all starts with setting the table. It's the tablecloth, the place mats, the runners, and the centerpieces that set the stage for your meal. Each season I use different color schemes: the pastels of Spring give way to the punchy colors of Summer; the burgundies and golds and plums of Fall transform into the reds and golds of Winter. My favorite places to find inexpensive linens are Home Goods, IKEA, and Pottery Barn (on clearance). No paper napkin or vinyl tablecloth can come close to the snap of a cloth napkin and the pretty draping of a tablecloth! I know many people are worried about the inevitable spills, drips of candle wax, and lipstick stains, but with today's easy-care fabrics, linens are nearly indestructible!

Once the foundation is made, it's time for the accessories and serving pieces. Balance and height are important on a well-dressed table, and I'm a big fan of the silver candlesticks (above) that I found on clearance at Pottery Barn. They add height, visual interest, and what I believe to be a critical element of the dining table: candlelight. Vases of flowers, votives, baskets of fruit, cake pedestals, and even small pots of herbs can make the most of a table. 
Some of the cloth napkins I use over the course of the year.

My mother loved to say that things weren't worth having if they were not used. I keep that in mind when it comes to using my serving pieces and dishes, many of them antique, in everyday life. Why save the prettiest dishes for the holidays or a special occasion? All meals, down to the $1 box of macaroni and cheese, are elevated to a new level on good dishes. Pull out what you have and use them; don't let them collect dust in the cabinet!

It takes only seconds to light a couple of candles, turn off the TV, grab cloth napkins, and pull dishes out of the cabinet, but I swear it will make a huge difference. Conversations commence, we pay attention to one another, and we connect. It's a special and calming respite, even if only for a few minutes, from the rest of our hectic day.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter Belly Fillers

There's something so satisfying about a hearty soup on a cold winter's day. Since the winters are really, really long in the upper midwest, most households seem to have a treasure trove of cold-weather recipes to share. The two I'm sharing are easy classics: sweet chili, with an unorthodox ingredient; and turkey dumpling soup, a soup with endless flavor combinations.

This sweet chili recipe came from friends of our family. I remember coming home from school on the late activity bus, the church bells tolling 6 PM and the skies already dark. I'd trudge up the steps to the back door, and upon entering the kitchen the intoxicating smell of chili powder and onion would overwhelm me. My Mom made this recipe at least once a month, and would always serve it with a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. When I make it for the family now, I always serve it with the best cornbread we've ever had: Golden Sweet Cornbread from

Sweet Chili (6 large servings)
  • 1# lean ground beef
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1-46 oz bottle or can of tomato juice
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped
  • 2 cans of beans (any combination of chili or dark red or light red kidney beans)
  • 1 tbsp of chili powder
  • 5 tbsp sugar
  • 1 large can of stewed tomatoes, broken up with a fork into chunks (optional) 
  • Shredded cheddar cheese (optional)
 1. Brown the hamburger in a good size pot, and salt and pepper to taste. While the hamburger is browning, chop the onion and add to the pot. 
2. Once the hamburger is browned and the onion sauteed, add the two cans of beans (if using kidney beans drain first), the tablespoon of chili powder, and the 5 tablespoons of sugar. If adding tomatoes, add them here as well. Stir gently to incorporate the sugar and chili powder.
3. Slowly pour the tomato juice into the pot and reduce the heat to low-medium. Simmer the chili for at least half an hour, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle cheddar cheese on each portion and serve. 

This chili also makes a phenomenal leftover, and it can be argued that it is even better the next day! This recipe is really adaptable, so feel free to try different mix-ins. A can of tomato paste as a thickener, a few splashes of Tabasco, some diced green chiles, or serving with dollops of sour cream all change the texture and flavor of the recipe.

The below recipe for turkey dumpling soup is something of my invention, but is similar to so many of the soups I grew up with. Many of the best meals that came from my Mom's, Grandma's, and Aunt's kitchens never had a real recipe for them. You used what you had on-hand, you never paid too much attention to the measuring cup and measuring spoon, and experimenting with flavor was part of the fun of cooking. My Aunt Karen, who has since passed away, used to send home big Tupperware bowls of dumpling soup with my Dad. This recipe is very much an homage to the delicious dinners she sent home to us over the years.

 Turkey Dumpling Soup (6 large servings)
  • 2 cups of shredded or chopped cooked turkey (a great way to use holiday leftovers! Chicken is also a great alternative to the turkey)
  • 1-48 oz carton of chicken broth
  • Spices: salt and pepper, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, parsley, garlic powder, sage, etc. 
  • Vegetables (the more the better!): 2 cups of sliced carrots; 1 cup of celery; 1 cup of chopped onion; 1 cup of diced parsnips, rutabaga; 1 can of corn 
For the dumplings:
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 3 tbsp shortening
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • Spices: thyme, rosemary, pepper (optional)
1. In a good size pot bring the turkey, broth, and spices to a simmer. Feel free to experiment with the spices; I'm a big fan of cracked black pepper, garlic powder, a sprinkle of kosher salt, and about a teaspoon of tarragon. However, the possibilities are endless. A healthy sprinkle of thyme or rosemary, different kinds of ground pepper, and parsley can all add color and flavor. One thing I will say is to stick with only one of the "stronger" spices, e.g. tarragon, thyme, sage, or rosemary, so that the spices don't compete with each other. 
2. With the turkey simmering in the broth, add whatever combination of vegetables you'd like. I tend to use a lot of carrots, onion, and celery, but the vegetables I listed above are all tasty. The measurements are also flexible, depending on how chunky you want your soup to be! If using corn, add to the soup right before the dumplings are made, as the corn does not need to be cooked as long as the other vegetables.
3. While the soup is simmering, make the dumplings: blend the flour, salt, and baking powder together in a bowl, and then cut in shortening. If adding herbs (1/2 tsp of thyme, some cracked pepper, etc.), add them at this step.  Mix together using a fork or your fingers until well combined and mealy. Add the milk and mix only enough to fully incorporate the flour and to get the dough pulled together. 
4. Drop the dough by large spoonfuls into the top of the soup. You should be able to cover the surface of the soup with about 12 dumplings. Cook the dumplings for 10 minutes, then cover the pot and continue to cook for another 10 minutes.