steal this idea: grocery store holiday décor

table setting

Hosting holiday parties is stressful — there’s just no way around it. Between the guest list, the menu and the drinks, it’s easy to completely overlook one of the most critical elements: décor. Nothing can deflate my festive mood faster than looking around my house and realizing it’s as utterly unimpressive as a holiday scene can be.

Fortunately, I’ve figured out a few tricks to make my next holiday dinner party fun, festive and — most importantly — frugal. The key for me was to splurge on one piece that’s a classic, and then supplement with dressed-up grocery finds. So, I nabbed a gorgeous Marimekko tablecloth I’m utterly in love with, and will use for years to come (plain white from your favorite bargain store will work just as well). Add some colorful napkins (mixed colors and patterns are especially good), and then hit the grocery store.

For the setting in this photo, I bought a dozen pears in different colors, a pile of fresh thyme, sage and rosemary, and a bag of unshelled nuts. I think my total at the register was about $17. Arrange the pears in a bowl, clear vase, or in a straight line along the table. Scatter nuts on the table, and accent each place setting with a little bundle of mixed herbs, tied with raffia or twine. If it’s not a sit-down affair, take the herb bundles and pop them into shot glasses or tea light holders for instant doses of green that also happen to smell amazing. Presto — your inner Martha is smiling, and your holiday spirit should be in full swing. –Becki S.

chic online invitations? we tried it!

invite

With the holidays performing their patented surprise attack once again this year, I again find myself (predictably) balancing big ambition and little time. In the interest of realistic planning, this means I had to make a choice: take the time to snail mail invitations to our holiday soiree or holiday cards, but not both. We’ve long been psyched about Pingg.com’s online invitation service so I decided to do some research to that end and was delighted to find Paperless Post. Another alternative to an everyday Evite, Paperless Post allows users to send fully customizable cards and event invitations to everyone on their list for a small fee. The site also offers a handy R.S.V.P. service that allows you to save an address book, keep track of your guest lists and send notes and reminders to invitees. Two standout features include the ability to have the envelopes addressed to each person individually, as opposed to a generic “open your invite” message and the option to assign a number of guest R.S.V.Ps to each piece, allowing the system to tally your count correctly without sending an invite to each individual person. Stamps start at $5 for 30, while custom coins (which allow you to select special customizations like envelope liners and logos) start at $5 for 25. As an added bonus, we earned 25 stamps just for registering, and have the potential to gain an additional 10 for each friend that registers. With my party invitations done and managed online, I’ll be able to devote time to keep up the holiday tradition of popping some handwritten season’s greetings in the mail. Anyone else have a great online card service to share? –Sarah C.

real life test kitchen: pear persimmon pudding cake with whiskey cream cheese icing

persimmonpear2

It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Never has that phrase been more true than in regards to this year’s Thanskgiving meal. Days before the holiday, Seattle was hit by a small, yet uniquely crippling snowstorm, nearly stranding my husband and I at work, and causing me to frantically shop for the holiday without my grocery list. I did a pretty good job remembering most everything, but dessert, which was supposed to be a Peach Pie with Gingerbread Crust from the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts, had been completely overlooked. Oops! So in my snowbound state, I scoured the fridge for what I could do with ingredients I had on hand. Persimmons? Check. A few past-their-prime pears? Sure. Add a frozen nub of ginger root, some cardamom pods, and I was in business. The resulting dessert was fantastic: a dense, rich, pudding-like bundt cake faintly spiced with fresh ginger and cardamom, glazed with a crazy-delicious Bushmills whiskey cream cheese icing. Perfect for holiday potlucks, lazy breakfasts and home-baked gifts, this recipe is one of my most delicious happy accidents! — Megan B. Click for pear persimmon pudding cake! (more…)

real life test kitchen: baba ganoush

baba

Baba ganoush. Fun to say, isn’t it? And after making my own, I can now say it’s almost as much fun to make. Prep is ridiculously simple — pierce a large eggplant and throw it in the oven. Including making my own tahini, the dish required only 15 minutes of total prep time. Several reviewers complained that at 1/4 cup, the lemon juice was overpowering, so I cut it back to 1/8 cup when making mine and the acidity level was perfect. Get the recipe, adapted from this one, after the jump. — Sarah L.

We’re taking the rest of the week off for the holiday – Have a wonderful one, and we’ll see you on Monday! But for now, click for quick & simple baba ganoush! (more…)

must read: canning for a new generation

shelterrific-canning for a new generation

Every year as summer fades, I regret not having taken full advantage of the summer’s Farmer’s Markets. I lament not eating enough ripe tomatoes, not going berry-picking like I’d planned, and missing the season’s sweet corn altogether. And then, I start to envision all of those domestic divas smugly mixing up batches of applesauce (with apples fresh from the u-pick orchard) at this very moment. And for just a moment, I think – hey, I could do that.

Fortunately, it only lasts a moment. I have such fond memories of helping my grandmother with canning projects as a kid. But, as nostalgic as it is, the idea of finding myself elbow-deep in a vat of tomatoes is, well, a little scary. Plus, short of Nana’s legendary apricot jam, most canned foods tend to taste more like survival food than serious cuisine. So, when Canning For A New Generation landed on my doorstep, I approached it with serious caution. But author Liana Krissoff has a way of making the whole process feel utterly do-able, with loads of tips and tricks, and recipes like Honeyed Fig Jam with Sesame Seeds, or Sweet Green Tomato Pickles to convince you it’s time to bring canning into the 21st century. If you’re mourning the end of summer’s bounty, you might want to pick up a copy just in time to whip up a few quarts of Pear Cider to get you through the winter. Can you feel the smug starting to set in? –Becki S.