How-To: Fall Tablescapes Made Easy

Toronto has a plethora of great restaurants. Whatever you’ve got a hankering for; chances are you can find it among the city’s thriving foodie scene. In the past few months I have eaten out a lot and with November looming and the holiday parties about to start, I want to change gears, simplify and return to the “dinner party”.

I love eating at friends’ houses and hosting at ours as much as I do patronizing Toronto’s finest restos.   It’s fun to play the host, decorate the table and fuss with the menu. My partner-in-crime is a fabulous cook (thank goodness one of us is!) and so while he handles everything in the kitchen, the table is left up to me.

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Here’s my take on a casual dinner setting. I never buy “all new”, instead I prefer to buy versatile pieces to add to my collection and re-purpose what I already have in my cupboards. The napkin is 100% linen and adds some whimsy to the table. Ideal for Thanksgiving, but it works for any meal because aren’t we always thankful to break bread with loved ones?

The chalkboard napkin rings work double duty as place cards and writing the guest’s name is the perfect job for little helpers.

I love fresh flowers on the table, but we all know the cost of larger arrangements can quickly burst the budget. A trick that an event planner once taught me was to create several smaller arrangements using cheaper flowers (think mums, carnations, baby’s breath, daisies) for the bulk of the display and then add a few stems of a more expensive bloom. Baby food jars, mason jars, small glasses are all easy, affordable vessels that can be dressed up with spray-paint, ribbon, twine or left as is. I am crushing on these green mason jars!

My glassware is a mason jar with a handle and instead of a traditional wine glass I opted for a terra cotta wine chalice.

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I swapped out my everyday flatware for a gold set that works well with this ivory plate and matching “thankful” bowl. I like the weight of this dinnerware – it’s rustic and reminds me of the harvest.

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To increase the “wow factor”, I traded the dinnerware for a bone white plate and an inexpensive gold charger from the party store. Here’s a tip: share! My sisters-in-law and I shuttle serving dishes, chargers and linens back and forth from each other’s house whenever one of us is hosting a dinner. It cuts down on the cost, and you can have more fun setting the table.

The stem-less wine glasses go well with these liqueur ones that add a pop of colour to the table. Indigo has a collection of reasonably priced linen napkins in a variety of colours. This barn-red reminds me of the autumn leaves but will work on a holiday table too.

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For a centerpiece I took a pumpkin from my son’s collection (where does he keep getting these from?), a pinecone from our Christmas stock and a stem of hydrangea. I grouped them together on a white cake plate for a more polished look, but I really like how the cluster looks earthier on this wooden pedestal.

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My grandmother’s china is one of my most favourite possessions and it has taken me a long time to get over my fear of shattering a plate. Every time I use it, I think of her and I know that she wouldn’t want me to keep it the cupboard like some sort of shrine, so I use it. I am sure there will be a day when a bowl gets chipped, and I am sure that I will feel a pang of sadness or guilt, but at least the set is being used.

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Here’s a more glam setting complete with a silver charger and matching napkin ring. My best Waterford crystal red and white wine glasses (not many have survived the ten years since my wedding registry) and champagne flutes (that I trekked home from a European back-pack adventure more than 12 years ago).

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Instead of a cake plate, I used the same cluster and placed in my great-aunt’s crystal bowl – that usually holds oranges on the kitchen table.

Here are some tabletop accessories that would make a nice addition to any collection.

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Linen napkins from Madderroot via Etsy

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Linen napkins from RecoverMeDesign via Etsy

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Linen napkins from Rosyeco via Etsy

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Copper napkin rings from Indigo

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DIY Hand-dotted glassware via 4Mothers

Thank you Indigo, for sending over the plate, bowl, gold flatware, linen napkins and wooden pedestal. We sure do love your store! Indigo didn’t pay me to write this post or to use their products . . . yup, I just really like ‘em.

Summer Recipes Continued: Cedar Planked Salmon

This dish has long been a summer favourite of ours. In the interest of full disclosure, I take no credit for this recipe — this version of it (there are likely hundreds) originated with my Dad, who got it who knows where.   If you haven’t yet tried grilling salmon or any other fish on a cedar plank, you should.  The cedar imbues the fish with a sweet, smoky flavour, and your kids will find it highly amusing that you’ve cooked dinner on a piece of wood.

As long as you remember to soak your cedar plank in advance, this dinner comes together in minutes.  Be sure to get the freshest WILD salmon you can find — the fine folks at the Vancouver Aquarium’s OceanWise program can tell you why you should avoid the farmed Atlantic salmon that you so often find at your local fish counter. A nice wild sockeye will do.

Summer is the time for wild salmon, so treat yourself.

What you need:

  • One length of cedar, approximately 7 inches by 15 inches. Grocers and fish counters often sell planks at ridiculously inflated prices. You can use clean, untreated cedar from your hardware store — just be sure to give it a good scrub first
  • A side of fresh wild salmon, skin on. A side will usually feed 5-7 people, depending on the variety of salmon you get
  • vegetable oil, for brushing
  • kosher salt
  • half a cup of fresh dill, minced
  • 1 half of a red onion, finely diced
  • freshly ground pepper, to taste
  • lemon wedges, for serving
  • a spray bottle filled with water, for safety reasons

Important: About 6 hours before you want to eat, set your plank in a basin of water to soak. We’ve soaked for less than 2, and the smoke that emanated from the board made us all very nervous.

Method:

Preheat your barbeque.

Prepare the board: Take your board and pat it dry. Brush cooking surface of the plank with oil.

Prepare the fish: Generously sprinkle the plank with the kosher salt — it will seem like a lot of salt, but don’t skimp.

Lay your salmon skin-side down on the plank. If the tail end is thin, fold it under so that the fish is of uniform thickness throughout. I like to cut my salmon into serving-sized pieces before cooking, for the sake of convenience.

Cover the fish with the dill and onion.

Set the plank on the grill, close the lid, and cook the fish for 12-15 minutes, or until it easily flakes with a fork. I prefer my salmon on the slightly undercooked side, but your taste might vary.

Keep the water bottle on hand in case the board catches fire. I find that cooking the salmon on indirect heat by turning off the burner right under the plank keeps flareups to a minimum, but safety should be your priority.

When done, remove the salmon from the board, remove the skin, and serve with freshly cracked pepper and lemon, or a dill-mustard sauce, if you’re so inclined. We had it with grilled fava beans on the day that the photo, above, was taken.

If dill and onion aren’t your thing, we’ve had great success with this recipe too.

May I have some more, please?

Here’s one of the things that has always worried me about having two boys: that one day, I might have to get a second job to keep us all in groceries. It happens to all of them, doesn’t it? One day they start eating, and a week later they’ve grown a foot taller, and they just keep eating constantly until they’re 25 and hopefully by then they’re buying their own food or at least bringing home dinner every now again but in the meantime you’ve wasted away because you continue to buy one pork chop too few, and you’re not going to deprive your growing boys, are you?

Tonight, they plowed through two packages of Italian sausage, an entire head of broccoli, and two servings each of these potatoes. Usually, we only make one package of sausage, and there are always left over broccoli bits or potatoes. It makes me wonder whether we’ve been starving them all these years. They’ve never been huge eaters — grazers, more likely — but have they been eating only half a sausage each all this time out of politeness? Has the sudden abundance of food made them reckless? I’m not sure what’s going on.

(Photo courtesty of Flickr Creative Commons/stu_spivack)

I do know this: the shoes we bought Sebastian at the beginning of January are already too small — and we had sized up a half-size larger than he’d been wearing so that he’d have room to grow. Daniel’s pants are all too short. They can’t keep their eyes open past 8:30. It might be too soon for a declaration, but I sense a trend: my bird-like grazers are on a growth spurt and appear to have turned into fully fledged eaters.  Send help. And more broccoli.

 

Surviving 6 p.m.

Dinner time.

These two words strike fear in the heart of working parents everywhere. I’m sure someone out there has mastered the art of getting a nutritious, inexpensive and quick dinner (that everyone in the family will eat!) on the table every night, but it sure isn’t us. Given our schedule and after-school activities, dinner needs to be more or less prepared by the time we get home; or at the very least, ready within 20 or 30 minutes. The more we can do in advance to prepare, the better.

Here are some of ways to maximize your time with a little bit of planning:

  • if you buy big club packs of meat for the freezer, package your chicken breasts or pork chops in meal-sized portions and add your favourite marinade to the bag (bottled will do)before you freeze it. The meat marinates as it defrosts;
  • whenever possible, cook extra, especially when cooking on the weekend. It takes as long to make two chickens as one, and then you’ve got chicken for the week.
  • use a menu-planning service. We’ve just started using Six O’Clock Scramble.  Having someone else do the shopping list is a lovely perk;
  • as Nathalie suggests, breakfast for dinner is your friend.  Peter makes a big batch of waffles every weekend and freezes them — a couple of those with some sausage and sliced fruit make a perfectly decent dinner.
I’m also always on the lookout for ways to maximize the nutritional punch of anything we cook. Here’s a recipe for a sauce that I made this weekend that does just that.  It’s nothing fancy — just a standard tomato sauce that you can rely on for any number of meals: pasta, chicken parm, or meatball subs.  I feel a bit guilty suggesting that you use canned tomatoes when the stores are full of bushels of beautiful Roma tomatoes just begging to be made into sauce, but such is life. Unlike those homemade tomato sauces, this one can be on the table in just over half an hour.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m guessing it can also be easily doubled or tripled; the proportions should be about right for everything except the oregano. No one needs that much oregano!

Sneaky tomato sauce

1 onion, finely diced

1 clove garlic, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup dry red wine (Technically optional. Skip as your conscience dictates).

3 carrots, peeled and diced

1 stalk celery, diced

2-3 Roma tomatoes (optional — when in season)

1 398 ml can low salt tomato sauce

1/2 can tomato paste

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped, or marjoram if you prefer. You could also use basil, but I despise dried basil, so I don’t)

salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large sauce pan. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the onions are soft and start to take on colour — about 8-10 minutes. You want them on the verge of caramelization, not scorching, so turn down the heat if they go too fast. When the onions are browned and softened, add the wine (if using; if not, skip to next step) and stir until the wine is reduced by half.

Stir in carrots, celery and tomatoes if using.  Reduce heat and cook covered, stirring occasionally until the carrots are softened.  At this point, add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, oregano, sugar, and salt and pepper, cover, and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes until the carrots are completely softened.  Remove from heat and let cool for five minutes.

Here’s the sneaky part: at this point, carefully transfer the sauce to your blender, or use an immersion blender to process the sauce until smooth. Once blended, season to taste. The carrots and celery lend a nice sweetness and thicken the sauce so that you don’t have to cook it for hours.  Serve as you would any other tomato sauce.

Budding Gourmet in the House?

This is how I know I’m a lucky Mom:

This is my six-year old, Sebastian. He made dinner for me last Saturday night. Peter and Daniel were out of town this weekend, so Sebastian decided that he’d look after making a meal for the both of us.  From scratch  and  by himself, more or less.  I looked after getting the baking sheet in and out of the oven. I cut the chicken, too. But he supervised, “to make sure I didn’t  cut myself.”

His menu: crunchy homemade chicken fingers, asparagus, and potatoes.

He set the table, and wouldn’t let me into the dining room until it was ready.

Hot chocolate for him. Milk for me, on his insistence.  Because it’s good for me.

I think I should let him cook more often.