December 16, 2013

Christmas is in the air. At our house, the tree and house are fully decorated, there are plenty of presents to wrap, Christmas music is always playing in the kitchen, and the boys keep asking when we can assemble (and eat) the gingerbread house.

This year I was on the ball and ordered our Christmas photo cards early. I hoped to get them sent out after Thanksgiving. I've had our cards for well over a month, but they're still patiently waiting for me to stuff them in an envelope with our annual holiday letter.

A new tradition we started this year is Elf on the Shelf. Our oldest, Kellan, is especially excited each morning to see if Elfie has moved and what he's been doing. I had seen Elf on the Shelf in the past couple of years, but didn't decide until this year to give it a try.

Each elf is magic and flies to the North Pole to report to Santa each night. The elves also teach children self-control as children are not allowed to touch the elf or he or she will lose the magic power.

My mom and I have started planning our holiday meals for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We have an abundance of soups, a variety of paninis and appetizers planned.

To our appetizer table I will add a tray of treats from my annual cookie exchange with teachers at my school to share with my family. After the cookie exchange today, I will put the tray of cookies in the freezer to ensure they don't get eaten and make it to Carroll.

Marinated Mozzarella

This year at Thanksgiving I tried a new appetizer. I marinated mozzarella balls I found in the gourmet cheese section at the grocery store along with cherry tomatoes. That evening I served some of the mozzarella and tomatoes atop mixed greens as the dinner salad (no additional dressing required). On Thanksgiving Day I set them out with toothpicks as an hors d'oeuvre. The marinated mozzarella was quick to prepare and even more flavorful the next day.

3 (8 oz) blocks mozzarella cheese (I used mozzarella balls)

1 (8.5 oz) jar sun-dried tomatoes, drained and halved (I used one container of cherry tomatoes)

1/2 cup olive oil

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Garnish: flat-leaf parsley sprigs or fresh rosemary stems (I used parsley)

Cut blocks of cheese into 1-inch cubes. Arrange cheese cubes and tomato halves in an 8-inch square baking dish (I used a glass pie plate). In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup olive oil, chopped parsley, and next 6 ingredients; pour evenly over cheese cubes. Cover and chill at least 8 hours or up to 24 hours. Transfer mixture to a serving plate. Garnish with fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs, or spear tomato halves and cheese cubes with short rosemary stems, if desired. Drizzle with marinade, if desired.

Honey-Chipotle Meatballs

Recently I had baby back ribs brushed with a honey-chipotle glaze. I loved the combination of the sweet and slightly spicy sauce. Martha Stewart has a recipe for honey-chipotle meatballs that works well as a holiday appetizer. If you choose to use pre-made meatballs, double the recipe for the sauce (the honey, chiles and vinegar), pour over the meatballs and heat through.

1 1/2 pounds ground turkey

1/2 yellow onion, diced small

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

2 tablespoons honey

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped chipotle chiles in adobo sauce

2 teaspoons cider vinegar

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix together turkey, onion, garlic, salt, and ground pepper until combined (do not overmix). Form into 16 meatballs. In a small bowl, stir together honey, chiles, and vinegar.

In a large ovenproof skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high. Add meatballs and cook until browned on all sides, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer skillet to oven and bake 5 minutes. Remove from oven, pour honey mixture over meatballs, and swirl skillet to coat; bake until liquid is reduced and meatballs are glazed, 5 minutes, swirling halfway through.

Make-Ahead Snowman Cheeseball

If you're looking for a fun and festive centerpiece for your appetizer table, Betty Crocker has one that could be used for any winter party. Your little snowman will be so cute guests might be reluctant to dig in!

3 packages (8 oz each) cream cheese, softened

4 cups shredded Cheddar cheese (16 oz)

2 tablespoons basil pesto

1 tablespoon grated onion

1/4 teaspoon yellow mustard

2 drops red pepper sauce

1 container (4 oz) whipped cream cheese, softened

Mix the packages of cream cheese and the Cheddar cheese and divide into 3 equal parts. Combine two parts to equal two-thirds of mixture; mix in pesto. Mix onion, mustard and pepper sauce into remaining one-third mixture.

Cover each cheese mixture and refrigerate about four hours or until firm enough to shape. Shape each cheese mixture into ball. Wrap each ball, label and freeze. About 12 hours before serving, remove balls from freezer. Thaw in wrappers in refrigerator.

Arrange balls on serving plate with smaller ball on top for head of snowman. Frost snowman with whipped cream cheese before serving. Decorate as desired. Store covered in refrigerator. Serve with assorted crackers or small bagel chips.

Decorating Tips: Use your imagination to decorate this whimsical snowman! You can use fresh rosemary and dried cranberries to create a pretty wreath crown to place on the snowman's head, chopped olive pieces, raisins or bacon pieces (for eyes and buttons), pimiento or red bell pepper (for a mouth), radicchio or carrot ribbon (for a scarf), and asparagus spears or celery sticks (to make arms).

Holiday Bacon Appetizers

Everything is better with bacon, and cheesy crackers are no exception. Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, recalls these crackers were the hit of her parents' dinner parties in the 80s. They are very simple to make, but be sure to allow two hours of baking time or make them ahead and serve them at room temperature.

1 sleeve Club-style crackers

3/4 cup grated Parmesan (from the green container)

1 pound thinly sliced bacon

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Lay the crackers face up on a large rack over a baking sheet (or broiler pan). Scoop about 1 teaspoon of the grated Parmesan onto each cracker. Cut the package of bacon in half (or cut pieces individually) and carefully, so the cheese doesn't fall off, wrap each cheese covered cracker with one half piece of bacon, completely covering the cracker. It should fit snugly around the cracker but not be pulled too taut. Place the bacon-wrapped crackers onto the rack. Place the baking sheet in the oven for about two hours. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

Tom's Con Queso

Many have a favorite recipe for a nacho cheese dip that includes the boxed cheese. Personally I have fond memories of jars of Cheese Whiz in the 80s. I remember playing restaurant with my older brother, Tom Burns. Cheeze Whiz spread on crackers was the fancy dinner we took turns ordering from each other.

1 large onion, chopped

1 (28 oz) can petite diced tomatoes, undrained

2 (4 oz) cans green chiles, diced

2 jalapeños (fresh or pickled), minced, or less to taste

10 drops Tabasco sauce

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

16 oz Cheez Whiz jar

1 bag large corn chips

Sauté the onion until tender, about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, green chiles, jalapeños, Tabasco, garlic, and oregano. Cook until most of the liquid is evaporated, about 15 minutes. Add the Cheez Whiz and stir until melted. Serve with large corn chips.

Grinch Fruit Kabobs

To top off all of the salty appetizers, fill a bowl with something healthy and refreshing that your little elves will enjoy eating and assembling.

Mini Marshmallows (to resemble ball on top of hat)

Small strawberries, tops sliced off (to resemble hat)

Banana, peeled and thinly sliced (to resemble fur trim on hat)

Small green grapes (to resemble the Grinch's head)


First wash the strawberries and grapes. Next slice the strawberries, grapes and bananas. On each toothpick assemble the kabob as follows: one mini marshmallow, one strawberry (upside down), one banana slice, and one green grape.