Archive for April, 2008

Serving that Huge Group of Guests

You don’t have to be a master chef to successfully prepare and serve dinner for a medium-to-large group of people when entertaining, but it certainly helps to get a few tidbits of advice from one! As the executive chef for Golden Oaks, a large elderly-living facility in California, Justin Chinchen would unquestionably have some advice on preparing meals for a crowd.

When planning a dinner party at your home, Justin firmly believes that the first step should be setting and sticking to a budget that will cover the cost of the food.

The second step should be to decide on a theme for decoration and menu, that’s determined by the current season and functionality. Justin feels that the meal is “beyond the food–it is also about the decoration and set up. The host or hostess has to be a little bit artistic.” If your dinner party is in December, for example, it makes sense to focus on a Christmas theme.

Decor also extends to the table seating. If you’re having a party where the majority of the guests are couples, then seat them beside each other; but it this is a singles crowd, then merely stagger the men and women.

When it comes to deciding on your menu, Justin has some more advice. First off, think about how the dish will hold up for the size of your party. While you may be able to get away with cooking up a succulent and scrumptious dinner of halibut for your family of four, that same dish will dry out before you are finished serving it to all of your guests. And a plate of sauteed shrimp will most likely lose its heat by the time people start forking it in.

What’s on the menu also depends on the reason for the function. “Is it for a birthday party? Then plan your menu around the ‘pickiness’ of the birthday person–your guest of honor.” Or if you simply want to entertain people in your home “just because,” pick a few of your favorite dishes to prepare–but skip the new recipes; cook what you do best so that you are sure to impress.

Finally, decide on how you will serve the delicious meal to your guests. Will it be family style? Individually plated up? Buffet? Try to keep in mind the amount of guests, how long it will take to serve with each different style, and what would be easy on you as the host or hostess–since you will be cook, server, and entertainer all at once.

And as for not becoming “stresserated” (Justin’s five-year-old daughter’s word for stress and frustrated)?–that comes with experience and plenty of preparation. Learn to always be thinking about the next step in your meal preparation. Timing is everything. “If your pork roast needs to be in the oven for two hours…put it in! Don’t be chopping up your lettuce for your layered salad instead of popping your meat in the oven!”

Scheduling, as well as planning your budget, menu, and theme, are all crucial; down to the last dish going on the table.

~Kristin Walder, 4/26/2008


Wit and Wisdom from a Recipe Contest Vet

If you’re a novice cooking contest hobbyist, you may be able to learn a thing or two from Ronna Farley. As a previous winner, and frequent qualifier, of both recipe entry and cookoff-style contests, Ronna has no doubt earned her place in the figurative Cooking Contest Hall of Fame. With another Pillsbury Bakeoff fresh in the can until 2010 (the contest was on April 15 and is held every two years), what better time to speak with a two-time past finalist of this American institution?

It should be noted that Ronna’s competitive accomplishments aren’t limited to the Bake-off (referred to as “PBO” on the contest circuit). She’s participated in numerous challenges over the course of three decades, ranging from the very minor to the very renowned. Check out my recent Q&A with Ronna:

TM: Ronna, how long have you been entering recipe contests? Can you give us a brief history?

RF: I started entering the Pillsbury Bake Off as a young bride around 1973. I don’t remember what my first entry was, since it is so long ago. It probably wasn’t very good anyway! Then, I (was chosen as a finalist for) Bake Off #26 in San Francisco in 1975, with the recipe “Ham and Cheese Crescent Snacks.” After that, I toyed around with entering over the years, but nothing happened.

TM: We know that you enjoyed additional success with PBO later on, but did anything happen in the meantime?

RF: Around 1976, I was in a local contest – a Chun King Wok Cook Off, with my Oriental meatball recipe. They showed some of it on local TV. For awhile, that was pretty much it for cook offs. I have won some smaller prizes like wine glasses, salad bowls, and cook books.

TM: And then…

RF: In the summer of 1999, I was asked to participate in Pillsbury Hall of Fame Contest to celebrate 50 years of the Bake Off. My Ham and Cheese Crescent Snacks was voted 1st out of 3 recipes in the category, so I got to go to the Bake Off in San Francisco in 2000, and I could bring a guest. I brought my mom, since she always had an interest in the Bake Off, and we had a great time!

TM: Your most notable accomplishment is your third Bake Off experience. Tell us about that.

RF: I found out I would be in the 43rd Bake Off in 2006, and I won the Snack category with my Choco-Peanut Butter Cups. The prize was $10,000 and a GE Trivection oven.

TM: Since you were unable to enter (due to winner limitations) this past contest, what have you been up to for the past two years?

RF: I participated in the Crisco Country Cook Off in June 2007. It was a one-week trip for two to the Country Music Festival in Nashville, Tennessee, including all concerts. My husband and I loved it, and I placed second in the appetizer category. I also participated in the National Oyster Cook Off in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in October 2007. There were 4 categories and I placed 3rd, winning $150. I hope to be included in that once again this year, since it was only 1 1/2 hours from my house.

TM: Finally, what tips do you have for novice contestants?

RF: Well, how many recipes I enter depends on how busy I am, but if I get inspired, I’ll enter as many as a dozen! I think I’m better at creating dessert recipes than main dish recipes, so (what you choose to enter) should depend on that, and also on what kind of recipes they are looking for.

I find it discouraging when I don’t win in a contest, but, I just shrug it off, and start to work on another contest. There are so many that I think we all “hit” with something eventually. I suggest not giving up, and just keep trying!

Stuffed Jalapeños

For those who like a little spiciness (make that a lot!) in their appetizers, this quick recipe is for you. But those who have sensitive taste buds should probably avoid this dish!

  • Use jalapeños that have been canned whole. Slice them in half (I recommend wearing gloves), and scrape out the seeds.
  • Stir up a mixture of cream cheese, shredded cheddar cheese, chopped green onions, and garlic salt, all to taste.
  • Fill the jalapeños with the mixture; place on baking sheet.
  • Broil in the oven for roughly 10 minutes.

A homemade Starbucks pesto spread? Kind of…

Ok, I know the food at Starbucks is a little on the pricey side. But everyone has at least one favorite item from the illuminated case. Mine? The Turkey Pesto Baguette, hands down. However, the last time I slapped down that $6.75 (or is it $7.45?) , I arrived at a crucial decision: Figure out how to duplicate their delectable pesto spread – and don’t forget those dried cranberries. Hence, I present you my version, which also pairs nicely with bagel chips, Wheat Thins…pretty much anything you’d like to add some oh-so-worth-it calories to.

Turkey Pesto Spread, ala Starbucks

  • 8 oz. whipped cream cheese
    12 basil leaves, washed with stems trimmed
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • Dried cranberries as desired

Mix cream cheese, basil, garlic powder, and salt in food processor until cream cheese is smooth and basil appears minced (about 30 pulses, or 45 continuous seconds). Spread desired portion (I think Starbucks uses about 2 tbs.) on baguette sandwich, topping with cranberries as desired. Transfer unused portion to storage container.




Some people may enjoy a dry bite of traditional cornbread, such as Mark Lowry, who believes that “Sugar in the cornbread is cake. When you bite into cornbread, it’s supposed to suck 90% of the moisture out of your body.” But for those who have a sweet tooth, and wish to retain their body’s hydration, this recipe is for you!

-1 cup corn meal

-1 cup flour

-2/3 cup sugar

-1 tablespoon baking powder

-1/2 teaspoon salt

-1/3 cup oil

-2 eggs, beaten

-1 1/4 cup milk

-3 tablespoons margarine

Combine wet and dry separately, then mix together. Pour into a greased 8″*8″ pan. Bake in the oven at 425 degrees for 25 minutes.

Surrounded by Snow-Line’s Cider Apple Doughnuts

As I walk in to work at Snow-Line in Oak Glen, CA, the apple cider doughnut scent that normally invites customers and lures business to this rustic barn-turned shop instead turns my stomach and squishes up my nose. It’s not that the doughnuts are anything but scrumptious; it’s simply that working full shifts constantly surrounded by the mixed smell of sugar and cooking oil can get a little old after the second day. And while you can have as many of the sugary treats as you want when working, most of us workers only resort to snacking on them when we forget our lunch. But for those not working behind the doughnut counter, the aroma of apple cider doughnuts rolling off the fryer is irresistibly tantalizing.


photo from

And the people keep coming for those doughnuts from all over with good reason. Even the well-know southern-California PBS personality Huell Howser has visited and devoured a number of doughnuts packaged by the dozens in sleek paper white bags. Some of the visitors to Snow-Line may come to catch a glimpse of Huell Howser, but they stay for the doughnuts. The entire season I worked up at Snow-Line, only a handful of customers insistently argued that these doughnuts were anything but absolutely delicious.

The fresh, made-on-the-spot apple cider mixed into the dry ingredients provides an extra something-special to the ordinary sugary doughnut, while the cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top of the warm doughnuts sweetens up the treat even more.

Snow-Line may be only one of many little shops up in Oak Glen selling fresh apple cider (although they add an extra twist to the typical cider by adding cherry and raspberry flavoring), cutesy gifts, and various apple season items, but they are the sole provider of the apple cider doughnuts. And those doughnuts are something that, given the chance, you do not want to miss. So the next time you happen to be remotely near Oak Glen during the apple season of September to November, be sure to taste Snow-Line’s right-off-the-fryer, extraordinary deliciousness, apple cider doughnuts.

~Kristin Walder, 3/28/08

Pineapple Chicken, Better Homes and Gardens Feb. 2008


I love the simplicity of BHG recipes. But if you’re a complex person like me, you may find it necessary to add your own complicated touch to easier formulas. So, my version of this recipe (just a slight alteration to the measurements and method) appears below. However, if you’re a by-the-book type (BOOO!), the original can be found here. My version (I figured, why not change the name too?) is as follows:

Coconut Curry and Pineapple Chicken over Rice

6 boneless/skinless chicken thighs

1 tsp. curry powder

1 tsp. garlic powder

¼ tsp. salt

2 tbs. olive oil

1 sweet red pepper, cut into strips

1 pineapple, peeled, cored, cut into strips

1 serrano pepper, cut into thin strips

1 cup unsweetened coconut milk (or light coconut milk)

2 tbs. packed brown sugar

5 cups cooked brown rice

1. Sprinkle chicken with curry powder, garlic powder, and salt. In 12-inch skillet or wok, heat oil, add chicken, and brown on both sides (one minute per side). Reduce heat to medium-high and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove chicken from skillet and set aside. Drain off fat, reserving apx. one tbs. in skillet).

2. Add sweet pepper, pineapple, and serrano peppers to skillet. Sautee for two minutes over medium-high heat. Return chicken to skillet; add coconut milk and brown sugar. Bring to a boil uncovered. Reduce heat to simmer and cook uncovered for 20 minutes (sauce will thicken as mixture cools). Test chicken for doneness, remove from heat. Serve over cooked rice. Makes 6 servings.

– Brook Flagg 4/3/08