Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Never too short to celebrate

My mom and I believe that everything should be a celebration. So when it comes to the winter solstice, it’s a no brainer. Being the shortest day doesn’t mean that there isn’t time to gather friends around the table. The winter solstice is a lot like our lives. This day of the year passes by in a flash just as our lives zoom past as if in a high speed chase. In the chill of the winter months the sun seems to be a distant memory and when it does peak it's head out it quickly returns to hibernation only a few short hours later. When the sun shines, I am out in it. Life may be short, but it is never too short for a celebration of simple occasions!

This year, we wanted to spend time with my cousin, Scott, and a few of our closest friends in Missoula, MT. We were determined to live even this shortest day to the fullest. We set out to spend as little time in the kitchen, so we applied every “operational work around” we knew. The first workaround was making the meal in advance. We made our Keep it Simple Shortcut Lasagna the day before and asked our guests to bring the bread. Then we purchased appetizers that we could quickly set out and add small personal touches that made them ours. We also bought a pre-made salad and pre-cooked ingredients to top our Sunset salad. We were hosting the party at my cousin’s gorgeous house on the top of the mountain just outside Missoula. To say his home is amazing is an understatement. It takes my breath away every time I step inside.

With everything prepared, I set out to make a special cocktail to serve. As I am scouring the liquor cabinet I come across an unopened bottle of Remy Martin XO. My cousin, Scott, decides that in addition to the Remy Martin, we should taste some really good rum to keep the cold winter night's chill at bay. We break out short glasses and begin our first official "rum taste". As our guests arrive they are given a taste of rum and eventually as the night progresses a taste of the Remy Martin. While dinner is served, we do an Italian wine taste and vote on our favorite. My favorite was the Montepulciano d'Abruzzo that we drank while we feasted on Keep it Simple Shortcut Lasagna, Easy Cheesy Garlic Bread, and Sunset salad. Our "operational workarounds" allowed us to relax and enjoy our company. Despite it being the shortest day, we all found time in our busy schedule and lives to come together to enjoy great food, lively conversation, and laughter that bubbled over. Long live the pre-made meal that tastes best after being refrigerated over night!

Keep It Simple Shortcut Lasagna

*One of the best shortcuts about this recipe is that we use uncooked lasagna noodles and by using a little extra sauce it cooks the noodles while the lasagna is in the oven!

1 box whole wheat lasagna noodles
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. Italian turkey sausage
1/2 cup white onion chopped
4 cloves garlic diced
2 lb. mozzorella cheese shredded
1 lb. lowfat or fat free ricotta cheese
1 egg
1 cup parmesean cheese
2 jars low sugar pasta sauce
1 can sliced black olives
3 tablespoons Italian herbs
1/4 cup of red wine

Cook meat, onion, and garlic in a sauté pan over medium heat until meat is no longer pink. While meat is cooking, mix the egg and ricotta cheese with parmesean cheese and iItalian herbs. Lay out 2 lasagna pans. The great thing about this recipe is that it will make two pans of lasagna. One to eat today and one to freeze for later! This will feed up to 16 hungry loved ones! If you only want one lasagna, cut this recipe in half.

Spray the bottle of each pan with cooking spray and spread a thin layer of tomato sauce along the bottom. Lay one layer of uncooked lasagna noodles on the bottom of each pan. Drizzle red wine over the uncooked noodles, then layer tomato sauce on top. Add ricotta cheese to the top of the sauce and use approximately 1/2 the cheese sauce for each pan in this layer. Next layer meat and use 1/2 the meat for each pan. Now top with 1/2 pound of shredded mozzarella cheese. Add more sauce over the cheese and top with uncooked noodles, drizzle with wine, then add more sauce. Sprinkle the top with leftover mozzarella cheese and parmesean cheese.

This can be made a day or two in advance and stored in the fridge or frozen for up to 3 weeks and prepared when ready. Once the occasion has come to cook, preheat the oven for 350 degrees and bake for 45-50 minutes and the top should be golden brown and delicious!

By using only two layers of noodles, it significantly reduces the amount of carbohydrates and using whole wheat noodles and low fat ingredients keeps this lasagna healthy!

Easy Cheesy Garlic Bread

1 loaf crust french bread
1/2 cup shredded parmesean cheese
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tbsp. garlic powder

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Slice bread into 1/2 inch slices. Place one layer of bread slices into a oven proof dish. Sprinkle the bread with olive oil, cheese, and garlic powder. Place another layer of bread and sprinkle with olive oil, cheese, and garlic powder. Repeat until all bread is in the oven safe dish and top with the remaining cheese. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. The cheese will be slightly melted and the bread will be soft. Serve on the table and let your guests enjoy the delicious bread that they will think you made from scratch!

Sunset Salad

1 box mixed green salad (we like the mix that has raddicio, spinach, romaine)
3 roma tomatos sliced
1/4 cup pre-cooked bacon diced
1 package sashimi tuna pre-cooked (you can also use smoked salmon)
1 package crumbled blue cheese (you can also substitute feta cheese if you prefer)
1/2 cup light balsamic vinegrette dressing (we love Paul Newmans!)

Place salad greens in a large bowl. Top with sliced tomatoes, bacon crumbles, tuna (or smoked salmon) and crumbled cheese. When getting ready to serve, top with the vinagrette and toss to ensure all salad is coated with the dressing.

Crudite and Dip Appetizer

Bunch of cut celery and baby carrots
1 cup blue cheese dressing
1/2 cup non-fat plain yogurt
Bunch of fresh basil diced
2 tbsp. italian seasoning
1 tbsp. garlic powder

Mix all ingredients above in a bowl minus the celery and carrots. Serve in a beautiful bowl and surround the dip with celery and carrots. Viola!

The Italian Flag

4 roma tomatoes
1 large fresh mozzarella cheese ball
1 package fresh basil
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp balsamic dressing
Salt and Pepper

Slice the tomatoes diagonally so each slice is cut into a perfect circle. Select a serving platter and drizzle 1 tbsp olive oil along the botton of the serving tray. Place the tomato slices on top of the olive oil. Pack as many as you can onto the platter. Slice the mozzarella balls into flat disks as well and place the cheese on top of the tomatoes. Next place whole basil leaves on top of the cheese and drizzle with the remaining olive oil and the tbsp. of balsamic dressing. Sprinkle with fresh ground salt and pepper and serve with whole wheat crackers on the side.

This is one of our favorite easy and healthy appetizers that is easy to pull together and surprises everyone with how flavorful it is!

Mental Health Tip: This meal is so easy to prepare because so much can be done in advance. We recommend this meal for large gatherings so you can have fun doing your own "tastings" like we did. Whether your traditions are conventional or a little outragious, enjoy them even on the shortest of days! No matter your mental state this time of year, this is a sure crowd pleaser that doesn't take too much of your precious time!

Peace and love from our cousin's kitchen to yours,

~"Too Lovely" Hot Messes in the Kitchen :)

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