SEMI-HOMEMADE

I am a huge fan of semi-homemade.

Because I love to cook.  I love to love people with food.  I love to be enjoyable when I sit at my table to share life with those who are gathered there.

And sometimes it is impossible to experience all of those loves, simultaneously, with from-scratch cooking.

So thank goodness for the modern convenience of semi-homemade….and Costco.

When I am pressed for time, I have found that adding a few fresh ingredients to pre-made products can create an inviting meal in a fraction of the time.

A sprinkling of fresh herbs, freshly grated Parmesan, and a few grinds of fresh pepper transforms an ordinary bowl of noodles, jarred sauce, and frozen meatballs into something lovely and satisfying.

Or finishing orange chicken (purchased in the freezer section at Costco and baked in my oven) with thinly sliced green onions and a light sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds, served with steamed rice that is elevated by the addition fresh cilantro and a squeeze of fresh lime juice creates a dish that is easy to make and pleasing to all of the senses.

You don’t have to cook from scratch to serve up a meal that says, “I care about you” to loved ones at your table.  You just have to serve a meal with love. 

Semi-homemade and reheated premade products – enhanced by a thoughtful finishing touch – are a great way to say to nourish the bodies and souls of those gathered around your table for a shared meal.  From scratch cooking really is optional.  Especially when short-cuts enable you to engage with the people gathered around your table in ways that are hospitable, not frazzled.

I believe this strongly, I live this often, and I’m adding a tab to my recipes page for “Semi-Homemade recipes and menus”.

Here’s a few recipe links that have been recently added:

If you have any ideas for semi-homemade goodness, please share with us in the comments section.

Happy Cooking!

CLEANING REALLY IS OPTIONAL

Hospitality and entertaining are not the same thing.

“We invite people into our home to create moments that matter, not moments that impress.”

This is one of my mantras.

I keep saying it because I believe that it’s true.  And it’s what I practice.

On Easter Sunday we invited our community to join us for a hot dog lunch and backyard wiffle ball.  This was the climax of a very full weekend.  That morning I woke up tired and so I chose to sit in my chair to enjoy a cup of coffee before the Easter service instead of cleaning my house like my hair was on fire.

It was lovely.

So when people came over after church the beds were unmade, clothes were strewn across the bedrooms, hand towels were hanging haphazardly in the bathrooms, and my kitchen was cluttered with dirty dishes and items on the counters waiting to be put away.

And you know what…we had a great time.  We laughed and played and ate and shared life.  Even though my house actually looked like imperfect people live here.

When our desire is to gather people around our table to connect in meaningful ways, cleaning really is optional.

WHEN PASSION SURPASSES YOUR ABILITY

“On the first morning, when one of the chefs asked me why I took the class, I told him that my enthusiasm for cooking had outpaced my technical skills.” – Shauna Niequist, Bread & Wine: a love letter to life around the table.

I have felt this same dilemma.  My passion for cooking far surpassing my abilities.

If I could squeeze more life out of this one, I’d enroll in a full-time culinary arts program.  But since I don’t want to quit any of my established roles with family, friends, and vocation – graduating from a prestigious cooking school will not be a part of my story.  Because a good and bad part of being a grown up is accepting that I have to choose to say no to many good things to be great at a few things.  And for me, saying yes to writing and speaking about hospitality means saying no to culinary school.

Nevertheless, I can still push through the plateau of my cooking abilities by inventing creative opportunities that better fit my resources of time and money.

Of course – for foodies like me – culinary programs, cookbooks, and recipe magazines are inspiring.  But nothing develops skills like actually rolling up your sleeves and practicing.  We can be inspired by watching someone else, but we can’t truly learn until we do it ourselves.

And so, one of the ways I have learned to be a better cook – with the resources available to me for professional development – is to gather with friends who share my passion and simply cook together.

Back when our kids were all school-aged, Carla, Rachel, and I would gather monthly in one of our kitchens so the host could demonstrate how to prepare a recipe that she had mastered.  A home-cooked dish that people around her table love to eat.

We learned new recipes and techniques.  We test drove each others kitchen gadgets.  We talked about the best places to purchase ingredients.  And, of course, we feasted – just the three of us – at our tables.

We taught each other how to make shrimp ceviche, chicken curry, and apple cake.  We didn’t just learn how to prepare recipes – it was a time to learn about the best citrus juicers, the best ethnic markets to shop at, and the best pans for getting crispy edges on baked goods.  And as we stood in the kitchen cooking, we also shared about our lives, and our families, and our dreams.

We gathered to cook, to laugh, to learn, and to eat.  Pretty much my favorite things about this life.

Learning to be a better cook with women who have become two of my dearest friends has yielded a great return for the investment of 2 hours a month and the cost of ingredients.

If you want to be a better cook but can’t afford the time or money for a formal culinary education, I encourage you to invite the best home cooks you know into your kitchen and cook together.  I am certain that you will be pleasantly surprised by the joy of developing your culinary skills and meaningful friendships.

TIP #5 – BE A GUEST

The menu was Mediterranean.  The potluck was DELICIOUS.  The table was gorgeous – and it wasn’t mine.

This is my friend’s table, where I experienced the blessing of being a guest in someone else’s dining room.

It was lovely.

The guest list was made up of 12 friends, representing multiple demographic boxes, who know each other at varying depths, from acquaintances to soul-bearing.

The reason we gathered was simply because we want to share life by sharing food.  So together we’ve created a monthly supper club.

Sitting at someone else’s table – my soul being fed and nourished by someone else’s hospitality – reminded me how delightful it is to be a guest.

Even though I love to gather people around my table – it really is my favorite – supper club is already teaching me that to be a good host, it’s important to intentionally make time to be a guest at someone else’s table.

Because being nourished at another person’s table:

  • breaths life into my passion to nourish others at mine.
  • teaches me fresh ideas about how to host, entertain, organize, and care for the needs of my guests.
  • gives me an opportunity to recognize that I can also connect with people gathered around the table simply because of who I am, rather than what I do.

The last point is important enough to repeat – being a guest gives us an opportunity to connect with other people because of who we are.  If we are always the one hosting and serving, it becomes very easy to rely on our ability to DO things for other people as our confidence in making meaningful connections.  There is something raw and beautiful and vulnerable and necessary in experiencing the slight (or not so slight) discomfort of letting other people get-to-know us even when we aren’t doing something tangible for them.

I believe that this is a significant way that we connect to the delight God feels for us because of who we are – his beloved creation.  The pleasure of a father who’s love is never-ending and never-changing regardless of what we do, or don’t do.

If you are reading this because you love to practice hospitality, I hope you have many, many opportunities to be a guest at someone’s table.  A practice that completes the circle of loveliness created by our passions for hospitality, community, and meaningful living – by connecting to an awareness of the value of who we are, not just the beauty of what we do.

 

 

TIP #4: HOMEMADE FOOD IS OPTIONAL

I love to love people with food, and this is one way to love guests with pizza delivery.

The heart of hospitality is not serving great food to your guests.  It is inviting people into our homes to receive the gifts of care and belonging.  Sometimes I have the energy to do that with homemade food, and some days I don’t.  The trick is honestly assessing what can I graciously provide with the resources available to me every time company is coming – and that includes not just financial resources, but time and energy as well.

Saturday was very full. I worked all day and hosted out of town friends for dinner. I opted to take a nap in-between work and dinner, and then order pizza rather than cook.  Because exhausting myself in the kitchen and then feeling fried when my friends arrived completely smothers the beauty of gathering friends and family around our tables.

I set my alarm to wake up from my nap in time to order pizza, set the table, light some candles.  I served my guests a lovely meal that took 5 minutes to prepare.  And so at the end of a busy day, I was refreshed and glad to spend the evening visiting with life-long friends around my dining table.

People are always more important than the food. And our tables can be just as inviting with take-out when our motivation is to make meaningful connections by sharing a meal.

Homemade food is optional.

TIP#3: THE BLANKET BASKET

As I nourish community around my table, the blanket basket is a simple provision that fosters an atmosphere of intimacy and literal warmth.

Blankets, like food, represent being cared for and loved.  They are a significant part of inviting people into a space of belonging and lingering.  And they encourage the feeling of community and family as you gather people around your table.

Putting a blanket basket together is easy.  I purchased a large wooden crate from Home Goods – a large plastic bin will do – and I began buying fleece blankets (a few at a time) until my crate was full.  I also included a few blankets that I received as gifts over the years.

I often find lightweight fleece blankets (that are the perfect size for wrapping around your legs or your shoulders while you sit at the table) at CVS and Walgreens on sale for 3 for $10.  They are great for outdoor use, and are machine washable on the delicate cycle.  (I’ve never tried putting them in the dryer, I just lay them over the backs of the patio table chairs and they dry quickly.)

If you nourish your community on your patio, simply setting out a blanket basket at your next gathering will significantly influence the connections being made around your table.  Because when people’s basic needs – like hunger, warmth, and belonging – are thoughtfully cared for, they stay at the table long past the end of the meal to talk, laugh, and share.

And generally the longer a conversation lasts – the more personal and intimate in becomes.

Blankets.  A simple addition to our community meals that offers invaluable benefits.

Is there anything simple that you provide for the community who gathers at your table that significantly develops the connections being made?  Please share your ideas in the comments section.

TIP #2: AN IDEA FOR ORGANIZING HELP

I’ve been hosting community dinners long enough to anticipate the rhythmic ebb and flow of our guests.   Every winter the number of people sitting around our table shrinks to an intimate size as we approach the busyness of the holidays.  And then grows exponentially in January as everyone is eager to renew commitments to things that matter.

This rapid increase always requires me to adjust how I organize my time, as well as my tasks.

I love to love people with food.  Cooking by myself is enjoyable when I can single-handedly manage the preparation required without getting frazzled.   However, I definitely have a limit and, once I cross it, cooking becomes stressful if I don’t ask for help.

I typically feel overwhelmed when providing enough food requires more than simply doubling recipes.   Tripling and quadrupling recipes – as well as the set up and clean up necessary for a group of that size – requires assistance.  Everyone who is a part of our community dinners is willing to provide relief.  I just need to be honest with myself and others that I need help.  And ask.

But how I ask matters.

If I have to give everyone constant direction, then I’m merely doing different work rather than less work.

I have learned that when I’m organizing a community of people with varying personalities, kitchen experience, and work initiative three things are necessary in order for my request for help to actually result in reduced work for me:

  • I must be specific about what I need.  A general call for help doesn’t really result in a lot of assistance, even if guests are well-intentioned.  My requests need to be clear and directed at individual people.  “(Insert name) can you please set 12 glasses on the table.”  “(Different name) can you please put 12 plates on the table.” Etc.
  • I need to invite people to rummage through my cupboards and drawers, and know where things are.  I want the community that I cook for to feel at home in my kitchen and around my table.  I want them to know where things are and feel confident finding and grabbing what they need without having to ask me.  But many people will not give themselves permission to do this.  I need to invite them.
  • People need to have the freedom to do things their own way.  I don’t care if the napkins are on the right or left or middle of the plate.  I don’t care how my dishwasher is loaded as long as nothing will break and everything is dishwasher safe.  Micro-managing does not save me any time or energy, and it does not make people eager to help next time.  I will not create community in my home by doing everything for my guests.  A significant contributor to community development is affirming how our guests add value to the effort of running my home by their unique creativity, competence, and usefulness.

When the numbers for Monday night dinners are big, I ask three ladies to help me cook every week.  I circulate a sign-up sheet every Monday night so that no more than three people plan to come early the following week to help prepare dinner.  (More than three is too much help and I get over-whelmed with organizing the assistance.)  And then as additional ladies arrive, they check the large wipe board in my kitchen to find out how they can help.  I’ve written out every job that needs to be done:

Each week I fill in what we are having for dinner, how may people are coming, and what is needed on the table for the meal (plates or bowls, forks and/or spoons).  As the ladies arrive in the hectic minutes just before meal time, they can check the board for what still needs to be done and then initial what task they will complete.  This system frees me up to chat with the ladies while I cook, rather than constantly giving out the same instructions – which I find exhausting.

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(The N/A’s indicate that it’s too cold to eat outside, and so the things we do to prep the patio table aren’t necessary.)

Your boundary where you need help to enjoy nourishing community may be different than mine.  But the important thing to realize is that we all have a limit.  Be honest with yourself and your community about where your limit is, asking for help when you get to that point, and develop a system that works for you that actually makes help helpful.

And you don’t need a white board in your kitchen – a large chalkboard that you purchase from a discount store will work just as well.  However, if you’d like to create a white board on a pantry door in your kitchen, you can purchase a roll of white board material online that that can be cut and adhered to a door face.

What organizing ideas have worked well for you when you need help in the kitchen?

TIP #1: HOW TO MAKE A SIMPLE HOME-COOKED DINNER FOR 14 PEOPLE

Thursday was one of those days.

I was busy all day with a full schedule of back-to back-meetings, appointments, errands, household chores, and carpool duties.  And 10 young men were coming to my home at 6pm to join my family for dinner.

I started cooking at 5pm.

Here is what I did:

I dumped a large bag of premade frozen meatballs into a large pot with two large jars of all-natural, quality spaghetti sauce and set it to simmer on low until dinnertime, stirring occasionally.

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I boiled two, 1 lb packages of pasta according to package directions, and mixed it with browned butter and mizithra cheese.  (But the pasta went fast, next time I’ll make three.)

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I opened a large bag of pre-trimmed and washed green beans, and put them in a rimmed baking sheet.  I drizzled some garlic olive oil on them, added a few garlic gloves (unpeeled), and, roasted them in a 450 oven for 30 minutes, stirring once after 20 minutes.  I let them cool for a few minutes, easily removed the garlic from the paper skins, mashed the roasted garlic in my fingers, stirred it back into the roasted green beans.  I finished it by adding some fresh ground pepper and salt on top.

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I sliced two freshly baked baguettes from a local grocery store and served it with premade pesto.

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And for dessert we enjoyed some Jo-Jo’s ice cream and cookies from Trader Joes to kick off the Christmas season.

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That was dinner.  We were sitting at the table by 6:10pm, and I had the energy to engage in fun and meaningful conversation with the loved ones gathered at my table.

I LOVE to cook and present a prepared from scratch meal.  But the time needed for that is not always realistic or practical.  My general rule is that I only cook from scratch when I know that I have enough time and energy to cook for hours with out becoming stressed out at my family and guests.

If my goal is to love people with food, then my attitude and tone when I sit down to eat and talk with my people is far more important than the meal on the table.

You  can nourish your community with simple, semi-homemade food that is prepared and served with love and kindness.  No exhaustion and drudgery in the kitchen is necessary.

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