Double, double, toil and trouble

Shoot. I forgot how much I love Halloween until today. I’ll have to do better next year, but here’s a little last minute carving!

Happy Halloween everyone!

Trick or Treat!
Trick or Treat!
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Stress-Free Holiday Hosting

Hosting a holiday meal can be stressful, especially if it’s your first time. A couple weeks ago, my husband and I hosted our first ever holiday together – a Thanksgiving dinner for my family  – and I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with the way it all turned out.  We stuck to a simple roast turkey and a few basic sides – stuffing, roast vegetables, and a red cabbage salad. This number of dishes was easily manageable even for a couple of rookies. I’m pleased to report that everything turned out great! I don’t have a lot of experience cooking for a crowd  and apparently I’m not a very good judge of portions so there was more than enough food to go around and lots of leftovers (not that I’m complaining – the leftovers made an amazing turkey pot pie later in the week). The decor was simple but really made an impact – a tumble of mini pumpkins and gourds along the table with a few ivory pillar candles. This wasn’t the original plan for all these gourds but I’ll save that for a later post.

A runner of candles, mini pumpkins and gourds along the table

A runner of candles, mini pumpkins and gourds along the table

Row of three sweet little vases

Row of three sweet little vases

So despite a little initial trepidation, it turns out that hosting a holiday meal is no sweat! All it takes is a little planning and organization. Here are a few tips I learned in the process for hosting a memorable, stress-free holiday party:

1.  Don’t be a hero

I think that a simple dish that is well executed and beautifully presented is a much better bet than a challenging, impressive recipe with a high chance of failure. Now is not the time to be experimenting – choose trusted recipes that you’re confident with. This can be difficult if it’s your first time hosting a holiday meal, since there may be family favourites on the menu that you’ve never made before. If you decide to try something new, do a test run before the big day so you can make adjustments to the recipe if need be. This will also help you save time on the day of your party – I always find a recipe is faster to make the second time around. And if someone offers to bring something, let them! It’s one less thing that you’ll have to worry about, and guests love to contribute.

 2.  Get organized

I love any excuse to make a list, so this step is quite possibly my favourite. A few weeks ahead of your event, write out the entire planned menu. And I mean ENTIRE menu, from the main course down to the pickles. Don’t forget to include drinks, appetizers, desserts, and side dishes. Working from your menu, make a shopping list of all the ingredients you’ll need. Also jot down any special kitchen equipment or serving ware you’ll need, so you can be sure to purchase or borrow anything you don’t already have. You don’t want to have to make a last-minute trip to the store on the day of your party when you realize you don’t have a turkey baster (trust me).

3.  Stick to schedule

Choose recipes that can be prepped well in advance and that don’t require a lot of last minute fussing in the kitchen. Study the timing of each recipe – think about what oven and fridge space you’re going to need and plan accordingly. If your fridge looks anything like mine, I recommend cleaning it out a few days before your party to make room for all your groceries and prepped ingredients. Prepare as much as possible ahead of time. A lot of desserts like cakes and pies can be made 1-2 days in advance. Veggies can be washed and chopped the night before and stored in resealable plastic bags in the fridge. On the day of the party, start cooking an hour earlier than you think you need to – this will help you stick to schedule even with unexpected delays or emergencies.

 4.  Set the mood

I think the atmosphere of a party is just as important as the food that’s served. I tend to go the natural route in terms of party décor – flowers, pinecones, seashells, whatever – but this is really a matter of personal taste. Get creative and use things that you already have around your home. It doesn’t have to be expensive! I also love candles – they make even pizza night feel like a special occasion. Just make sure to use unscented candles anywhere near the food.

 5.  Relax and enjoy yourself!

The holidays are about enjoying time with friends and family and creating memories. By the time your guests arrive, most of the hard work should be behind you so pour yourself a drink and join in the festivities. Not everything has to be perfect. Chances are your guests won’t notice if something doesn’t turn out as planned, and even if they do, friends and family are pretty forgiving in my experience.

A charming hostess gift. Love this little guy.

A charming hostess gift. Love this little guy.

 

Life’s Better at the Cottage

We all need time away from the hectic pace of our busy lives to feel refreshed and recharged. While I love to travel, big vacations require a lot of planning and usually come with a hefty price tag. And if you’re anything like me, you try to cram so much sightseeing into such a short amount of time that your whirlwind trip can leave you feeling in need of another vacation. Sometimes a quick, local getaway is the best and easiest way to unwind.

Last week, I spent four days at a rented cottage in the beautiful Muskoka region of Ontario. I’ve visited this region countless times, but generally during the summer. Visiting in late September was a completely different experience. It was so quiet and peaceful, without the throngs of tourists typical of July and August. Every morning, we woke to the sight of mist rising off the lake. We spent our days canoeing and hiking. Evenings were passed curled up around the fire (and playing Trivial Pursuit, which we found in some old dusty cabinet. Turns out I’m terrible at Trivial Pursuit).

Looking out over the end of the dock on a misty morning

Looking out over the end of the dock on a misty morning

We arrived in Muskoka just a few days shy of the peak autumn colour change in the trees. The leaves were absolutely spectacular; blazing shades of yellow, red, and orange. With easy access to two provincial parks, there were tons of opportunities for reconnecting with the outdoors and taking in all the glorious beauty that fall has to offer.

Beautiful fall colours!

Beautiful fall colours!

Algonquin Provincial Park

Fall colour change along Highway 60, Algonquin Provincial Park. Complete with iconic  image of a truck carrying a canoe and pulling a camper

Fall colour change along Highway 60, Algonquin Provincial Park. Complete with iconic image of a truck carrying a canoe and pulling a camper

I spent many childhood summers camping at Algonquin, and it’s a place I will never tire of. There are several excellent hiking trails ranging from easy (as in, a boardwalk) to difficult (steep climbs, rugged, lots of wheezing) and a vast network of lakes and rivers to be explored by canoe. Just driving through the park along Highway 60 provides beautiful vistas of shining lakes and forested hills, and lots of chances to spot wildlife. If you’re lucky. We weren’t. The biggest thing we saw was a squirrel. For a short hike that offers a great autumn view, I recommend the Hardwood Lookout trail. Minimum effort, maximum payoff.

View from the Hardwood Lookout hiking trail, Algonquin Provincial Park

View from the Hardwood Lookout hiking trail, Algonquin Provincial Park

Oxtongue River – Ragged Falls Provincial Park

Ragged Falls

Ragged Falls

Until last week, I’d never been to the Oxtongue River – Ragged Falls park, which is located just outside of the west end of Algonquin. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it is – the falls have actually been named one of the top 10 waterfalls in Ontario. I got to see the falls twice last week. The first time was by canoe, when we paddled up the Oxtongue River from the cottage to the base of the waterfall. We spent about half an hour clambering on the rocks at the bottom before deciding it was impossible to reach the top that way. Later that afternoon, we returned to the park by car. A short, easy trail leads to amazing views of the thundering waterfall below. It’s no Niagara Falls, but it’s still pretty awesome when you stop and think about the sheer amount of water gushing over that cliff. In the words of my dad, “24/7. 365.”

For me, the best part of the entire trip was just the limitless amount of time. When you’re living the cottage life, the days seem to pass more slowly. There’s time to read. Time to think. Time to gaze at the stars. Time to just be.

For more information about the parks we visited, check out the Ontario Parks website at www.ontarioparks.com.

Late afternoon sunlight through the trees Ragged Falls Provincial Park

Late afternoon sunlight through the trees
Ragged Falls Provincial Park

Thanksgiving Crash Course

Every year at Thanksgiving, my family gathers around the table at my parents’ house to enjoy a roast turkey and all the fixings lovingly made by my mom. She’s a great cook and prepares the works – turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, tons of veggies, and pumpkin pie for dessert. Usually apple pie too, but I always choose pumpkin because it only comes around once a year. Thanksgiving is one of my favourite holidays. We always have great food and lots of laughs – just thinking about it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Simple e-vite sent out to my family. Unnecessary? Yes. But cute.

Simple e-vite sent out to my family. Unnecessary? Yes. But cute.

But this year, my husband and I have decided to step up to the plate. We’ll be hosting our first ever Thanksgiving dinner – first holiday meal of any kind, actually. We’ve wanted to do this for over a year and now we finally have a dining table big enough for a crowd! So we’re pretty excited, but as the day quickly approaches I’m realizing there are a lot of details to consider. I’ve never made a turkey and I have a lot of questions. Fresh or frozen? How far in advance should I buy it? Do I even have a roasting pan big enough for a turkey?! I’ve made stuffing before, but my mom was always right there to help me if I needed it. And it seems almost impossible to time all those side dishes to be ready together, especially since the turkey will be taking up prime oven real estate. I think I need a bit of a crash course in Thanksgiving dinner…

Since (Canadian) Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away, it’s time for me to get organized and start thinking about how to pull this off successfully. I love party planning and I’m always up for a challenge, so I’m pumped.

Here’s the menu:

  • Roast turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce
  • Stuffing
  • White balsamic roasted vegetables (potatoes, carrots, squash, brussels sprouts)
  • Red cabbage and apple slaw
  • Apple pie and pumpkin pie (with ice cream :-))

My mom has offered to bring the cranberry sauce and the pies, which is a bit of a relief. Even though I love baking, I’ve never attempted to make a pie crust. I don’t think now is the time to start experimenting (other than the turkey, stuffing, gravy, veggies, and coleslaw, of course). And I don’t even like cranberry sauce, so how would I know if I got it right? My husband and I have already done a test run of the roasted vegetables, and they turned out pretty well. This week we’ll be trying out the coleslaw (with turkey burgers, so it’s an accurate simulation). In the meantime, I’m reading a lot of turkey recipes to find one that sounds simple and fool-proof.

Let me know if you have any tips and tricks for a couple of rookie Thanksgiving hosts! I’ll keep you posted on how it all turns out. Hopefully there won’t be too many disasters…