Fancy Fruit Plates

I love getting together with friends when everyone literally brings something to the table. That kind of pot luck teamwork really makes any gathering more special and interesting because everyone brings something different. I’ve had birthday parties where five or so guests all bring a bag of the same kind of corn chips—and I love me a corn chip, but where’s the creativity? The personal touch? However, I’ve since learned that assigning food and drinks really is the best way to go so it’s clear that there won’t be any food overlap. Also, anyone with allergies or dietary restrictions can make sure that there’s something at the party for them to eat and enjoy too.

In the past, I’ve always been the first to volunteer a killer cheese plate with crackers, hummus-pita-veggie combos, mixing up sweets, and designing a spread for holiday parties, girls’ nights at my apartment, and end of the semester celebrations at work where everyone can relax and munch on plenty of good eats. Around the food is where most of any good party happens anyway, so it’s important to make that food great. With all of these experiences, I’ve amassed an impressive amount of pretty serving platters, trays, and travel-ready containers, which only excites me more to show up with something I’ve prepared.

Just this weekend, I had the pleasure of attending my good friend’s bachelorette party. Although I was unable to join in most of the daytime festivities (work, work, work), the evening portion included a bunch of girlfriends hanging out in another friend’s backyard under a brilliant August night sky. We laughed and cackled the night away, catching up on how our summers were going, and getting the details on the bride’s exciting and creative wedding preparations. My role for this part of the night was to not only provide all the paper and plastic wares for our snackfest, but I volunteered to bring some sort of fruit to accompany the other dessert treats. It is summer, after all, and fruit always makes for a refreshing bite.

Alissa & Chris about to leave for vacation in June 2017, in Deer Park, NY.

Since I’m writing about a bachelorette party that I attended this weekend, you might wonder what this has to do with Kissing Cooks, but Chris certainly had plenty of helpful input that inspired my final fruit product. For the last few weeks, he’d been hearing me debate about what fruit to bring, especially since my spending habits have been seriously budgeted and I knew that some of my fellow partygoers had allergies or dietary preferences. I didn’t want to just bring a bowl of watermelon. Not that there’s anything wrong with watermelon. I wanted something fancy (hence my affinity for pretty napkins from Sur La Table) and something very specific to me. I’m almost always looking for some whimsical or glamorous option that best represents who I am as a party participant and friend.

Since I was working most of the day and only had about two hours to prepare a fruit option, I didn’t want to rush cutting into a melon, not knowing until the last minute if the fruit was ripe enough (because that happened recently for a breakfast that Chris and I shared). I’m also not very handy when it comes to cutting on the large-scale. Give me an eggplant, cucumber, or apple, and I’ll happily chop away, but for some reason, the idea of anything the size of a football or larger gives me nightmares of a knife falling out of my hand and chopping off my toes. Yes, that was a real dream. I like my toes, so I wasn’t about to set up a situation where that could come true.

Anyway… Chris suggested chocolate covered strawberries because who doesn’t love chocolate covered strawberries? He’s knows my penchant for the more decadent things in life, so this was a great idea. Also, strawberries are relatively inexpensive if you catch the right sale because they’re very much in season right now. I was trying to build from Chris’ idea, but I wasn’t sure exactly where I wanted to go from there.

After work that Sunday, I hurried to the local Dollar Tree for my paper and plastic supplies, which was perfect for a party of about eight guests, so I didn’t need to buy much in bulk. With the bride’s gothic / punk wedding theme in mind, I grabbed cups, plates, flatware, and napkins in purple and red to create a luxurious and appropriate color scheme to celebrate my friend’s exciting journey to the altar. I grabbed four Hershey’s milk chocolate bars, which I knew were perfectly sized for melting in a double boiler since the bars can be broken into smaller pieces, thus melting faster. Then, among the clear plastic serving items, I found small square mini dishes, perfect for portioning out a variety of fruit to each party guest. A 12-pack was only $1, but just in case, I put two packages in my basket and headed to the register.

All of a sudden, my mind raced with inspiration (thank you, Chris) and I knew what I wanted to make. I headed to Stop & Shop, where strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries were all on sale, and as per my usual groceries, I also picked up some mandarin oranges and bananas. I pictured it perfectly in my head that I’d put a little of each fruit on each of the serving dishes, drizzle half of them with chocolate (since I was using milk chocolate, I still wanted my vegan friends to enjoy the fruit too). This would create a special little sample of everything for everyone to indulge in among the other homemade dessert varieties others were providing.

When I arrived home, I washed and divided all the berries into plastic containers, setting up an assembly line of ingredients. Following that, I cut two bananas in long diagonal slices and peeled two oranges, which I then segmented as well. I lined a long shallow rectangular container (perfect for serving and traveling) with damask print black and white napkins and set up each of the mini plates inside. Then, as my double boiler was warming and the chocolate was melting, I distributed a slice of banana on each of the mini plates, followed by a segment of orange, one whole strawberry (with the leaf still attached because I thought the green added a beautiful pop of color among the other bright fruit hues), about four or five blueberries, and a raspberry on top. Each plate looked like a lavish bite of summer. My plastic container held 15 of the plates, so I decided to make just a little more than half of each serving with the drizzled chocolate. I had a lot more cut fruit leftover, which I set up in a smaller container to give some to my parents (who always love and encourage my colorful and pretty food creations) and also for Chris to enjoy when he came over to my apartment the next night.

Once the chocolate was drizzled, I stored everything away in the fridge to give the chocolate time to harden. I only had about 20 minutes before my half hour drive to the party, so I wanted to make sure all was complete and ready for eating. I’m so pleased with how these mini plates came out. I love chocolate with fruit, especially oranges, which I thought really brought all the flavors together nicely.

Perhaps next time, I can drizzle dark or white chocolate, or even add some sugar crystal sprinkles or shredded coconut for additional texture and sweetness. Also, if I was looking to keep the calories down, I could avoid the chocolate all together and then the dessert wouldn’t require any cooking at all, which is perfect when on a time crunch before a party. Creating these mini fruit plates was not difficult at all, but it did take some time to set everything up just as symmetrically and picturesque as I wanted. My friend, the bride, deserved all the attention and care that preparing this dessert required.

Luckily, I ended up with some extra mini plates at the end of the night because there were just so many yummy food options during the party—we all left feeling so full and satisfied. Also, I had plenty of extra strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries to enjoy for breakfast the next morning, creating a healthy and refreshing parfait of fruit flavors atop my vanilla yogurt.

Thank you so much to Chris who always offers quick-fix tips any time I’m stuck trying to figure something out. I don’t mean that for just fruit either. It’s a wonderful thing when your partner can not only help you when you’re in need, but inspire you to be creative, especially when it’s for such an important occasion as my good friend’s bachelorette party. Chris gets one big smooch for this!

Alissa & Chris at Arooga’s in Patchogue, NY in May 2017.

As always… stay kissing and stay cooking!

How Do I Loaf Thee?

Deciding that the Kissing Cooks should take on a meatloaf recipe isn’t particularly novel, especially in the grand scheme of dinner planning for any American twosome. A home-cooked meatloaf is as standard a meal as hot dogs and apple pie are representative of this melting pot country of ours. Growing up, there was plenty of beefy meatloaf served, but I’ll admit, I didn’t love much of it. There always needed to be a little extra Parmesan cheese on it for me to come to terms that the meaty slice on my plate was to be eaten—no argument. That’s not to say that the meatloaf my parents made was inedible—they still make it to this day and rigorously enjoy second portions. It’s just that my palette has always swayed away from carnivorous, save for fowl, for no reason more than I just don’t often have the taste for it. Give me cheese, pasta, bread, veggies, and other leafy goodies, and I am pretty darn happy. It’s as simple as that. However, in my childhood, most foods leaned Italian in flavor (with cheese galore), which I never complained about, thus creating an enduring memory of meatloaf. Once I had my own kitchen, and cooking was up to me, interpreting my own meatloaf concoction just never occurred to me.

Now, I’m so much more aware of the groceries that I buy and how to stretch their value to get my money’s worth, especially since Chris and I are having so much fun in the kitchen. After every meal, Chris and I divide up leftovers so he can bring some to work for lunch and I can relive the previous night’s adventure for another dinner. This was definitely the case when turkey meatloaf became the star of this past Tuesday night.

You might ask, how did turkey meatloaf come to be? Well, something essential to know about Chris is that he’s somewhat of a meatball scientist (completely and unofficially unaccredited by any legitimate academic or culinary institution—I am totally granting him this title!). He’s experimented with different recipe combinations at length, combining breadcrumbs with doughnuts and adding hot sauce or brown sugar just to see what would happen. These experiences have extended to our very enjoyable turkey burger dinner from last week (see what those “Smoochburgers” are all about here). So, it was only natural to progress from meatball to burger to grand meatloaf status. I was tickled at the thought of this because as Chris and I grow as home cooks, so do our ideas.

I searched Pinterest for several different turkey meatloaf recipes, since turkey is the official meat of choice for the Kissing Cooks, and I even consulted my mother about the challenge. I already had a loaf pan for future gluten free bread baking aspirations, so step one was covered. After some clicking around, Chris and I agreed that this recipe would work best for our needs—and also, it seemed the simplest, without having to buy too many extra ingredients.

Before I get to the nitty gritty of meatloaf preparation (if there is such a thing), I wanted to share that when I first sat to write this post, I had a mild case of writer’s block. I usually have a cute, punny idea of how to kick things off. My brain was all “Loaf Birds,” because Chris and I are a couple, playing on the cliché of being love birds, and that our main ingredient is turkey. Then there was the “Birds of a Feather, Loaf Together” angle, but I don’t think I could say that title with a straight face and without Chris rolling his eyes. All was blank… until I remembered that lovely Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem (homaged above) and my writing wheels began to turn. Then, I did what any 21st century writer would do when not knowing how to start writing about the glory and pride that comes with making meatloaf. I typed into Google: “the origins of meatloaf” because I knew there had to have been some sort of beginning to the meatloaf mainstay—I just didn’t know what it was. Here’s what I found:

Wowie! Thanks, Wikipedia (a source I seldom encourage my students to use for their research papers)! Meatloaf is tried and true for more than 16 centuries, so how could Chris and I go wrong? The website goes on to list all the different ways how various parts of the world prepare a meatloaf, spanning continents where I’d never dream of eating meatloaf, such as Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, and Vietnam, to name a few. After all of these interpretations have been logged in the history books of cuisine, the thought of Chris and me embarking on our very own version, á la Long Island, felt all right and warm and fuzzy on the inside.

As usual we used ground turkey (Jennie-O), followed by an egg, half a yellow onion (which Chris valiantly prepared since my sensitive eyes teared up after one measly chop) (and a whole onion seemed much too much), gluten free Italian bread crumbs (Aleia’s), 1% milk, and salt and pepper. I whipped up the topping sauce, including ketchup (Heinz), honey mustard (Boar’s Head) for extra sweetness instead of the suggested standard mustard, and light brown sugar (Domino) because that’s what I had on hand. As instructed, we poured the tangy and sweet glaze over the top of the loaf, leaving some extra on the side for dipping. During bake time, we cleaned up and prepared the sides: steamed broccoli and gluten free macaroni and cheese, keeping in theme, we thought, with a hearty and classic dinner. That’s when the Riesling (RELAX) was poured and place settings were thus placed.

When we finally sat down, all was perfectly tasty and filling. There were certainly more servings (and onions in the loaf itself) than we could consume in one sitting. Chris was so excited at the prospect of meal prepping the same recipe for an upcoming work week’s worth of lunches. We then stored our leftovers in some containers, plopped down on the couch for a New Girl viewing, and enjoyed a mixture of sugar free white chocolate and milk chocolate pudding (an easy solution for when that gallon of milk is about to expire) topped with fat free whipped cream.

Thank you so much for your loyal support, taking the time to read what we’ve prepared, and following us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Alissa & Chris on the LIRR in January 2017.

As always… stay kissing and stay cooking.

A Muse Bouche: Pesto Festivo

Alissa & Chris for Oscar night in Saint James, NY in February 2017.

Inspiration comes in so many forms, especially when considering what to write. For Kissing Cooks, my mind (and heart, of course) is surging with ideas about how Chris and I can spend our time together—mostly for when we’re in the kitchen right now because it’s still winter here on Long Island and outdoor activities are a bit limited (though hopefully not for long). For us, the cooking routine and dynamics are interesting and new to explore because neither of us have ever had such kitchen chemistry with past partners, nor was the frequency and desire as excitedly present as we’re discovering. This is only further driving how we swap our inspirations, especially about all things creative, beyond shared cuisine too.

Alissa & Chris meeting Clinton Kelly at the Book Revue in Huntington, NY in January 2017.

Let’s get back to the food… Last week, I was watching an episode of The Chew, absorbing all the food information I could (like a student who dutifully attends a lecture—I’m no longer in school, which prompts me to seek education in any form I possibly can. My mind is always hungry for knowledge.). This is when I came across a seemingly straightforward and fast recipe for arugula pesto farfalle with chicken, presented by cohost Clinton Kelly (someone with whom I have greatly admired for a long time when it comes to fashion, food, and words). Clinton Kelly has already had somewhat of an influence on my relationship with Chris (see our About page for those adorable details), which made me all the more eager to explore how Chris and I could adopt this recipe as our own gluten free version.

Before I get into the who-did-whats of our food preparation, I’d like to address the fact that the title of this post is “A Muse Bouche: Pesto Festivo.” I pride myself as someone who appreciates language, both foreign and domestic. This title is not only a mix of French and Italian (two languages that have largely impacted my life in how I look at the world, write, dress, and decorate my apartment), but also admittedly, it’s misleading. An “amuse bouche” literally translates in French as a “mouth amuser” (as per Wikipedia), which is typically served in bite-sized form, like an hors d’oeuvre. While our mouths are thoroughly amused by everything having to do with kissing, food, and conversation, there’s nothing about this particular pesto-centric meal that qualifies it as a true amuse bouche. I’m clarifying to ward off anyone reading who has identified any misrepresentation of this appetizer course, which dates back to the 1960s. If further argument is needed, may I refer you to the first paragraph about how Chris and I are each other’s muses. And yes, wordplay is always invited to dinner!

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Secondly, “festivo” is Italian for “holiday.” My relationship with Chris began right smack in the middle of the end-of-the-year holiday season, and this has only been amplified by the fact that the decadence of awards season (movies, television, and music) also feels like a celebration. We’re such movie nerds that preparing for Oscar night felt like getting ready for a holiday in itself. In total, we saw three of the Best Picture nominees together (La La Land, Arrival, and Lion), and two individually (Chris: Hell or High Water and Alissa: Hidden Figures).

Alissa & Chris with Mr. Oscar himself (in mere poster form) while at the movies in Stony Brook, NY in February 2017.

So… Chris and I made plans to watch the Academy Awards together, as a time-friendly meal was on the horizon for last Sunday night, especially since I’d be at work for most of the day and couldn’t meal prep like I usually preferred to do. That, in combination with the fact that I love pesto (a consequence of savoring much of it in many different green forms during my time studying and writing in Florence), readied me for the challenge to switch farfalle out for brown rice fusilli (Tinkyada—I couldn’t find any gluten free farfalle at my local Stop and Shop), chicken thighs for grilled chicken strips (Perdue Short Cuts), and leave out the golden raisins all together (though I’m not opposed to using them in the future).

When I moved into my first apartment, my parents very generously gifted me tons of used and small kitchen necessities and appliances that were perfect for just such a bachelorette who wasn’t always so food-savvy (not that I really am now, but I’ve come a long way, if I may say so myself). Among these appreciated donations was a small 1.5 cup-size food processor (Kitchen Gourmet) that was stored and ignored for well over three years in my cabinet. Whenever I looked at it, I heard the whispered word “pesto” in the air, like the ghost of Christmas past was lurking in the shadows of my stacks of Cheerios boxes, haunting and taunting me to take on the challenge. Making fresh pesto never really seemed impossible; it was just never terribly urgent for me to explore, what with balancing two jobs, grad school, finances, an ever-changing personal life, and the need for sleep. That is, until now.

When Clinton Kelly (yes, I’m always going to use his first and last name, though we’ve met and hugged and shared some memorable laughs) whipped up his meal in mere minutes, I was determined to produce just such an effortless dinner for Chris and I to enjoy before the big night. Because my food processor is so small, it took a few more steps than I anticipated for the arugula pesto to come together. This entailed emptying out the grated Parmesan, walnuts (Diamond), garlic, and arugula from the bowl and refilling it with another round of the same unpulsed ingredients. Then I emptied that second mixture into the first batch so that the pesto could form with extra virgin olive oil in all of its gastronomic green glory.

Chris kept a watchful eye on the fusilli as we microwaved the chicken (time was an issue since there was also some red carpet watching and cleaning up to do before the ceremony started), while serving up some Riesling (RELAX, a new favorite of ours). Once all was ready, I spooned some pesto into our bowls first (as per Clinton Kelly’s instructions), followed by our pasta. We mixed the multi colored fusilli until all of its corners and curls were covered in the peppery arugula mixture, followed by the strips of hot chicken and topping it all off with dollops of part skim ricotta. There’s no such thing as too much cheese for the Kissing Cooks.

I needn’t capture how the rest of the night went. If you saw the Oscars, then you know. However, our pesto dish was a tasty success. No envelope mix up could deny that victory. Congratulations to all the nominees who worked so hard to present relevant and moving stories on the silver screen to audiences across the world, and inspiring Chris and I to learn more movie trivia along the way. The highly praised modern-day musical La La Land is a particularly special film for us; it was the first movie we saw in theaters (on our 15th date—who’s counting?—just two days after attending a meet and greet with Clinton Kelly who was promoting his essay collection, I Hate Everyone Except You). In addition, the film’s signature love ballad “City of Stars” performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone was the first song we slow danced to (actually in the movie theater during the end credits—Chris’ idea!). The soundtrack and score to the movie is also often playing during our at-home meals, lending its magical musing to every step of our romance.

Alissa & Chris rehearsing their Kissing Cooks ways before seeing La La Land in Farmingdale, NY in January 2017.

For dessert, we each indulged in some vanilla frozen yogurt (Target’s ever-reliable Market Pantry brand) topped with chocolate syrup, dark chocolate sprinkles, mini chocolate chips (Nestlé), whipped cream, and maraschino cherries. Overall, it was an utterly enjoyable night of cooking, cleaning, couture, cuddling, commentary, and cinema. We couldn’t ask for more!

As always… stay kissing and stay cooking.