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By Karen Schulz

Twenty-three years ago I attended my first cookie exchange in San Francisco, and it changed my life forever. That may sound extreme, but it is completely true. People may view a cookie party as strictly suburban, but they would be wrong. It is the perfect launch to the holidays and an excuse to drink cocktails and eat cookies with friends and strangers, no matter what your age or where you live.

I was 25, had just moved to San Francisco where I only knew two people, a friend from high school and my boyfriend, now husband, Garth. I had no job, a pittance in my pocket, and only a temporary place to lay my head. Enter Alexa!

Alexa is Garth’s friend from college and I have yet to meet a better welcome wagon. She looped me right into the mix and invited me to her cookie exchange. Of course I said yes, even though I was a little nervous about what to bake and did not know what to expect.

The party was in Alexa’s small apartment. There were probably ten girls there, all strangers to me, but by the end of the night I had ten new, wonderful friends. Alexa created the perfect stage for ushering in the holidays. She prepared a delicious dinner, gathered interesting fun people to talk to, served cocktails, and, of course, cookies. The cookies made for a great icebreaker, and we all left with samples, recipes, and new friends. It was the perfect “hen party”.

When we moved to New York City a few years later, I kept Alexa’s tradition alive. I copied her idea and started hosting my own cookie party in our tiny apartment with a hodgepodge of friends. For many years I cooked with love for everyone until it grew too big, at which point I splurged on a caterer. The party morphed and grew in new directions. One year I brought in a sushi chef, another year a friend came dressed as Santa. But some things were constant. The date was always the first Thursday of December (which ensured my house was decorated, lights were up, and I could enjoy the atmosphere all month long), and the guest list was always purposely eclectic. There were old friends, new friends, work friends, friends of friends, and my favorite category, people I bumped into now and again but always wished I saw more often. One year I even invited the girl I found myself next to in line at Starbucks each morning!

The format is everyone brings two-dozen cookies along with copies of the recipe to swap. It was hilarious to see the various approaches to the cookies. On one end of the spectrum was my friend, Nicole, who would start stressing about her recipe in August. On the other end, my friend Kim from New York City would dump a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milanos into a Tupperware with a typed-up list of ingredients for her “recipe.”

Eventually, it was officially too big, so I thought I would take the next year off. Instead, I handed it over to my sixth-grade daughter, Ainsley. That was seven years ago. She has been the keeper of the cookie party tradition, but now we are on the eve of yet another shift in cookie party evolution, as she will be graduating from high school next year.

Watching her usher in the holidays with an evolving orbit of beautiful friendships is incredibly heartwarming for me. We serve festive appetizers and a Gramma Napoli dinner with Caesar salad each year. She has added a Yankee Swap element to the night, which is always good for a few laughs. We buy and wrap small gifts in the $5 to $10 range, some are amazing and some are not.

And when it comes to the cookies, her friends are just like mine. Some are nervous, some are totally into it, and some are like Kim. Regardless, they love to swarm the cookies after dinner, fill their tins, and spread the holiday spirit.

So not only did Alexa’s party change my life, but it has changed my daughter’s life and, who knows where the chain will lead. All I know is I will soak up every moment of this year’s cookie party and will look forward to what next year will bring. Maybe new college friends will make an appearance, or maybe there will be a mother/daughter twist? It really doesn’t matter, as long as there is a room filled with people you love spreading holiday cheer, and, lots of cookies.

Dining In

By Karen Schulz

Brussels sprouts have had a bad rap. They may be the leading least liked vegetable out there, especially among children, as they can be bitter and can emit an off-putting aroma. 

But it’s easy to come to their defense, because, if properly cooked, Brussels sprouts are delicious. They are also high in protein, making them a go-to ingredient for those meat-free nights, and rich in Vitamins K and C. 

The great thing about the following recipe for Creamy Brussels Sprout Spaghetti is that the sprouts are thinly sliced, therefore the flavor is tempered due to smaller amounts in each bite. I also often buy the sprouts pre-sliced if I do not want to be bothered with my food processor, which upgrades this recipe from easy to super easy.  

The unsung hero of the recipe is the salty ricotta salata, which you add just before serving. It adds depth of flavor and your kids will love it. If your market has a fine cheese section, you’ll usually find wedges of it there.

I have served this dish to kids and have given the recipe to friends who boast the pickiest eaters and I have heard nothing but rave reviews. One mom even texted me to thank me because her daughter asked for seconds! 

It’s a win-win when nutritious food is also delicious.

<<Creamy Brussels Sprouts Spaghetti>>

Serves 4

<Ingredients>

1 lb. spaghetti

5 T. unsalted butter

¾-1 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and sliced

2 garlic cloves, sliced

½ cup heavy cream (add more if you feel it needs it)

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

3 oz. ricotta salata, thinly sliced

<Directions>

Cook the spaghetti according to the package directions. Reserving ¾ cup of the cooking water, drain the pasta and return it to the pot.

Meanwhile, heat 3T. of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the Brussels sprouts and cook, tossing occasionally, until tender but still bright green, 4 to 6 minutes. Add garlic, cook until fragrant, approximately 1 minute.

Add sprouts, cream, remaining 2 T. butter, ½ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. pepper, and ½ cup of the reserved cooking water to the pasta and toss to coat. (Add more cooking water as needed.)

Serve topped with ricotta salata.

 

Makes 10 pies

<Ingredients>

For the cookies:

1½ cups all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled

1½ t. pumpkin pie spice

½ t. baking powder

½ t. baking soda

½ t. kosher salt

1 cup pure pumpkin puree

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup packed light brown sugar

½ cup canola oil

1 large egg

1 t. pure vanilla extract

For the filling:

4 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature

4 T. unsalted butter, at room temperature

1½ cups confectioner’s sugar

½ t. pure vanilla extract

<Directions>

Preheat oven to 350°. Place racks in the upper and lower thirds. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with parchment.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together pumpkin puree, sugars, oil, egg, and vanilla until combined. Stir in the flour mixture until just moistened (do not over stir).

Drop mounds of the dough, approximately 2 T. each, onto baking sheets, spacing them 2 inches apart. Bake until golden and firm to the touch, 12-14 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes in the pan, then transfer to wire rack to cool completely.

With an electric mixer, beat all filling ingredients until fluffy, 2-3 minutes.

Spread a heaping tablespoon of filling onto the flat side of half of the cookies. Top with the remaining cookies. If soft, chill for 20-25 minutes.

 

By Karen Schulz

Back to school also means, back to the kitchen, my favorite classroom, and this burrito pie recipe gets an A+.

This protein-packed dinner is not only delicious but yields plenty for leftovers. It can stand alone, as it incorporates all of your food groups, consists of ingredients usually already in your pantry, and is perfect for cooking together if you have kids who are willing.

You can prep the pie in advance and pop it in the oven at dinnertime, or you can cook it completely in advance and simply reheat it for dinner. Feel free to substitute ground turkey or chicken for the ground beef, and play with the heat. If your family is not afraid of a little spice, turn it up a notch with a little extra chili powder, or add some jarred jalapenos to one of the layers.

Kids who cook, are a lot more likely to try and/or eat something that they helped make. Trimming the tortillas and building the pie layer after layer are fun ways for the kids to help out with this dish. If you have picky eaters, definitely get them in the kitchen to help with the cooking. You can also have your child make a salad, which is a perfect accompaniment to this dense, filling main course. Let them choose what goes in the salad, maybe something harvested from your garden, or have them add colors with carrots and radishes.

Whatever is on the menu, the kitchen is a wonderful learning environment offering lessons in science, math, teamwork, patience, nutrition, motor skills, and so much more. So, whenever you can, rope a child in to help with dinner. Who knows, a fun conversation may happen over some chopping and stirring.

<<Burrito Pie>>

Serves 8-10

<Ingredients>

2 T. vegetable oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

¾ lb. lean ground beef

2 t. chili powder

1 t. cumin

½ t. kosher salt

¾ cup water

1 15-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed

1½ cups frozen corn kernels

4 10-inch flour tortillas

½ cup sour cream

1 cup salsa

8 oz. cheddar or Monterey jack, grated

In a large skillet over medium-low heat, warm the oil. Add the onion and sauté for about 5 minutes until softened, stirring often. Add the garlic and stir for another minute.

Turn up the heat to medium, and add the ground beef, chili powder, and cumin. Cook until the beef is browned, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Add the salt, water, black beans, and corn, and bring to a boil. Stir occasionally, until the liquid evaporates, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes.

Heat oven to 350°. Using the rim of a 9-inch spring-form pan as a template, trim three of the tortillas to the size of the pan. Leave the fourth tortilla untrimmed. (If you do not have a spring-form pan, you can use a 9-inch round cake pan and serve it like lasagna.)

Butter the bottom and sides of the pan. Press the untrimmed tortilla evenly into the pan’s bottom. Spread 2 T. of the sour cream over the tortilla, followed by ¼ cup of the salsa. Spoon and spread a quarter of the beef mixture over the salsa, then sprinkle a quarter of the grated cheese evenly over the top.

Place one of the trimmed tortillas on the top of the cheese, then repeat the layering of the sour cream, salsa, beef, and cheese. Continue this until the ingredients and tortillas are used up. You should end up with four layers, topped with the final sprinkling of cheese.

Bake the pie until heated through, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and remove the rim from the spring-form pan, if you used one. Slice the pie into wedges using a sharp knife.

 

By Karen Schulz

When I think of Thanksgiving, a few things immediately come to mind: family and friends gathered around the table; the Rockettes at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade; and mushy food.

Growing up, the Macy’s Parade was always on the TV while the cooking frenzy ensued. Gramma Napoli would be on high alert waiting to announce the moment when it was time for the Rockettes to perform. She would proudly gather everyone around to watch my second cousin, Barbara, seventh from the left, kick those famous kicks. This was such a thrill and to this day, I still pause for the Rockettes.

While I adore the meaning and many traditions of Thanksgiving, I am not a big fan of traditional Thanksgiving food. It is often bland, and there is no chocolate in sight. Mashed root vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, turnips, and parsnips fulfill your carb quota for the month and even the veggie casseroles and fruit take their place in the mushy parade. From the green bean casserole with mushroom soup and fried onions, to the canned cranberry sauce — I rest my case.

This Thanksgiving, maybe it is time to phase in some new traditions and flavors.

You do not have to eliminate the canned cranberry sauce, but you can also serve a beautiful Cranberry Apple Salad Mold. My mother introduced this salad years ago and it is now one of my favorite parts of the meal. It is colorful, refreshing, has texture, and is delicious. And, since you make it the day before, it’s one less thing to worry about on the day of, when the kitchen gets crazy.

Consider substituting Butternut Squash Tart with Chile Honey for one of the usual side dishes. It is a showstopper and is a perfect combination of sweet and spicy. You can even serve it as an appetizer in small slivers.

Each year we go to my brother’s house for Thanksgiving and I am on pie duty. I’ve often suggested some tasty alternatives to the traditional pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies but I get a lot of push back from the family. So, this year I decided to add more desserts! I will be debuting Pumpkin Whoopie Pies, which will bring the total to four desserts for eleven people. This might sound excessive, but these pies are worth it. I made them last week and to quote my 14-year-old son “These might be the best dessert ever. Can you please make them for Thanksgiving?” Done.

Happy Thanksgiving. May you find comfort in family, friends, traditions, and new flavors at your feast.

 

 

Dining-In

Short Stacks Aren’t Just for Pancakes

By Karen Schulz

When I think of summer, I immediately think of lobster, fresh corn on the cob, and glorious tomatoes of all colors. As a child, I remember eating tomatoes like apples, sprinkled lightly with salt. Mom would make all kinds of tomato salads on hot summer nights, depending on what was ripe in her garden.

Tomatoes can be the star of the show with just a little salt and pepper, some thinly sliced red onion, and a small amount of red wine vinegar and olive oil, or they can be a part of a bigger story. Just the other night I made a tomato salad with halved cherry tomatoes, three small sliced cucumbers, red onion, and an avocado. I drizzled some fig balsamic glaze on top with some olive oil, salt, and pepper and it was the perfect side dish to the rich steamed lobster with butter.

Nothing beats a classic Caprese salad with fresh mozzarella and basil. The kids can even throw that together for themselves. However, as I am always looking for delicious new ways to enjoy the handsome heirloom tomatoes grown in an extreme array of colors, I discovered a new favorite way to feature these showstoppers.

Stacking slices of heirloom tomatoes with avocado and red onion is not only a special and unique presentation, but also an absolutely delicious combination. I have served this salad for family dinners as well as dinner parties, because it is impressive-looking. The dressing will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator, so consider doubling it to have on hand.

Stock up on some colorful heirlooms during your next trip to the farmer’s market and see how you stack up.

Heirloom Tomato and Avocado Stacks

Serves 4

<Dressing>

⅓ cup low-fat buttermilk

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 T. reduced fat sour cream

1 T. reduced fat mayonnaise

½ t. grated lime zest

¼ t. minced fresh garlic

¼ t. kosher salt

⅛ t. ground cumin

Dash of ground red pepper

<Salad>

4 medium heirloom tomatoes (about 2 pounds), different colors

¼ t. kosher salt

¼ cup red onion, sliced vertically very thinly

1 avocado, small dice

Fresh ground pepper

To prepare dressing, combine first nine ingredients in a small food processor or blender; process 30 seconds or until pureed, scraping sides of bowl occasionally. Cover and chill.

To prepare salad, slice each tomato crosswise into four equal slices (about ½-inch thick). Place one tomato slice on each salad plate. Sprinkle slices evenly with ¼ t. salt. Top each serving with a few onion pieces and about 1 tablespoon avocado. Repeat layers three times, ending with avocado. Drizzle 2 tablespoons dressing over each serving. Top with black pepper.

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