Holiday Tips and Shortcuts

Time runs short when prepping for the holidays at one point or another for all of us. I’ve gathered up some tips and shortcuts to help you through the holiday season that have proven their worth in my kitchen.

Peppermint is Your Friend
Hard peppermint candy is a wonderful all-purpose garnish for the winter season. Peppermint sticks used as stir sticks for hot cocoa add a minty splash to each cup. Crushed candies can be used to accentuate cookies (see the cookies items below), cakes, and even sprinkled around the edge of plates holding sweet dishes or dusted over slices of chocolate pie. Peppermint isn’t the only mint around. Spearmint is also more available during this time of year, as are many other flavors of candy canes. Get creative with your combinations and surprise guests with a little something extra.

Spiral Ham Saves Time
A spiral cut ham, while a little more pricey, will also save a lot of time when it comes to carving. Guests may choose full or half slices, or even layering the meat into a roll for a quick snack later in the evening. Figure on 1/2 pound of ham per person. The saltiness of ham pairs well with crisp flavors such as apple, pineapple, and cranberry. A chutney of these fruits makes a lovely glaze for baking, and a colorful and tasty spread for snacking on those ham rolls.

Traditional Flavors – From Another Country
Take a step away from the usual at the dinner or gathering table by basing your meal plan in the flavors of someplace far away. Europe is full of possibilities, as are some places closer to home.
Surprise your family with a European flare. The flavors of goose, gingerbread, a cherry stollen, marzipan cookies, and mulled wine will are examples of foods that will change a holiday meal into something memorable.
Going with a Spanish flavors, using saffron, tarragon, fennel and cinnamon to flavor your traditional dishes. The change in spices will fill your home with elegant scents, and offer your family something they won’t be expecting.
A taste of Mexico is another popular change, usually done Tex-Max style. Instead of turkey and dressing, go with tamales and chili, refried beans, hot queso and queso flameado with tortillas and chips.
Let’s not forget Jamaica! Jerked pork, fruit salsas of mango and pineapple, sweet breads, and if you really want to go all out, try roasted breadfruit. The textures and flavors are amazing.

Cookie Exchange
If you find yourself in a time crunch for a cookie exchange, Bake simple cookies such as snicker-doodles or sugar cookies and dip each cookie half-way in chocolate. Add holiday sprinkles or crushed peppermint to add even more tasty appeal. Macaron style filled cookies are also quick with pre-made frostings that come in dozens of flavors. Store bought cookies can also be treated this way, though make them something exciting and special by choosing foreign imports (Mexico and England are popular). Gingersnaps and vanilla wafers make good sandwich cookies. Roll the edges of the filling with crushed hard candies to add color and a personal touch.

Holiday Cocktails
Bring the flavors of the holidays into your party season or family gathering with adult beverages based in apple cider. Mix dark rum, cider, and cinnamon in a pitcher to serve hot or cold. Cider is also a good base for brandy and mulling spices.

Use a crock pot to keep your warm drinks warm with a low setting. Serve as needed all night long.

Cookie Tins
Cookies make great holiday gifts. colorful containers, both plastic and metal are wildly available these days, making cookie gift giving simple and attractive for the holidays. Whether you buy specialty cookies, or bake your own, choose four or five of each type of cookie, place them in cupcake papers to separate them, and arrange them attractively into your containers. Each container should hold several different types of cookies. Make several containers at one time so as to not waste cookies! Use mini tins to make wonderful party favors for guests to enjoy after the event is over.

Brownie in a Jar
Another fun gift for individuals who like to bake is a recipe in a jar. Choose a pretty jar with a good lid. Mason jars are good for this gift, though other styles may be used. Layer the dry ingredients of your favorite brownie recipe into the jar. Recipes for cookies, pancakes, and other baked goods may also be used – the more colorful and different the layers, the better. Write out the instructions and wet ingredients on the back of a festive gift tag and tie it to the jar with a bright ribbon. Add a bow on top for that extra touch.

 

I hope you have as much fun – and time savings! – as I have had with these suggestions over the years.

— Ann Cathey

 

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Springtime Adult Beverages

Everyone should know that “adult beverage” translates to “alcoholic drinks”. The following recipes have been gleaned from several sources, including a local grocery circular. They all have some appeal to us, and so we share them with our readers.
POMEGRANITE VODKA COCKTAIL
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Serves: 4

Ingredients 
4 oz. orange juice
6 oz. 100% pomegranate juice
2 oz. lime juice
8 oz. Absolut Vodka
3 Tbsp. superfine caster sugar
½ Tbsp. ginger juice
1 orange, sliced and quartered

Directions 
Whisk together all ingredients to combine.

Divide among 4 glasses and serve over ice, or pour into a pitcher and pour over ice as needed.

Add a wedge of orange to the rim of the glass for a festive addition.

 

FIZZ BOMB
Hands-on Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 5 minutes
Serves: 4

Ingredients 
4 tablespoons powdered lemonaid
½ cup water
4-6 ounces tequila ro vodka
4 cups lemon sparkling water or ginger ale
8 scoops lemon sorbet

Directions 
Place lemonade mix into a pitcher and add plain water, stirring until dissolved.

Add sparkling water and alcohol. Pour into glasses.

Top each glass with 2 scoops lemon sorbet. Enjoy immediately!

Leave out the tequila for a great virgin drink.
SWEET BOURBON MOJITO
Hands-on Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Serves: 1

Ingredients per drink 
8 fresh mint leaves
1 Tbsp turbinado (raw) sugar
½ ounces club soda, chilled
Ice cubes
3½ ounces bourbon
¼ tsp almond extract
1½ ounces pineapple juice
2 tsp pure maple syrup
Pineapple wedge for garnish

Directions
Muddle mint leaves with sugar and club soda, then pour mixture into a cocktail shaker.

Add the bourbon, extract, juice and syrup. Shake well, then strain into an ice-filled rocks glass.

Garnish with a pineapple wedge.
BLOODHOUND WITH JERKY
Hands-on Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Serves: 4

Ingredients 
3 cups tomato juice
2 tsp. prepared horseradish
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
Juice of ½ lemon
½ tsp. ground celery seeds
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 large dash Tabasco sauce
Celery salt or kosher salt
Lime wedges
Ice cubes
6-8 oz. vodka
4 sticks beef jerky (I like Jack Links)

Directions 
In a large pitcher, combine tomato juice, horseradish, Worcestershire, lemon juice, celery seeds, pepper and Tabasco. Stir well.

Place celery salt or kosher salt on a small plate. Rim 4 glasses with the lime wedges and dip the rims, coating well.

Fill the glasses with ice and divide the vodka among them. Pour in the tomato juice mixture.

Garnish each drink with a beef jerky stick.

For an added treat, garnish with a skewer of grape tomato, beef jerky, and a mild or hot pepper. This garnish adds more color as well as a dash of panache.

 

Remember, always drink responsibly!

— Ann Cathey

Cruise Cuisine – Pancho’s, Cozumel, Mexico

 

In the duty-free marketplace on Cozumel, our intrepid fellows insisted that we have lunch at a local establishment they were already aware of. It’s called Pancho’s, as might be expected in the tourist area, but the food was not typical tourist fare. It was delightful to have real Mexican cuisine instead of the Tex-Mex hybrid dishes so profligate in Texas.

I started off with a coffee, while some of my fellow travelers indulged in frosty adult beverages as seen in a previous blog. The coffee was a locally grown blend, dark and rich, and served with heavy cream. it was so good I almost didn’t order food.

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My empty cup.

 

 

My partner wanted to try a Mexican beer in Mexico. Upon finding out that Dos XX was available on tap, he chose to make that his beverage experience.

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for the meal itself, we went with a couple of dishes we are quite familiar with, wanting to know how they would be served in their homeland. He went with the queso flameado (as we had previously learned to call it), while I settle for the chicken flautas.

The queso came all melty, as we know it, though it came in a shallower dish, and covered in a mild green sauce. It was served with flour tortillas as we are also used to. Somehow it tasted better than anything we had experienced back home.

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The flautas were just as I had been told to expect in Mexico. There was nothing added. Roasted chicken was rolled into tortillas and fried. The chicken was flavorful, but without all the crazy spices Tex-Mex utilizes. The sauce it was served with was a little sweet and a lot spicy, just as I had hoped it might be. There was even a large spoonful of guacamole to help cool my tongue after the first taste of that sauce.

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We were fortunate to be able to get a table on the “beach” as the hostess referred to it. It was outside on a built up bit of sand, with palm fronds for a ceiling and a view of old coral coastline and sparkling blue water.

 

We thoroughly enjoyed the laid back atmosphere and the chance to sit and do relatively little for an hour or so. We hope to be able to revisit Pancho’s and try some of the more adventurous items on the menu.

–Ann Cathey

Breezes on the Bay – George Town, Grand Cayman

As an offshoot of our Cruise Cuisine series, allow us to share with you the stop we made on Grand Cayman for lunch.

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When visiting George Town on Grand Cayman, be sure to look up Breezes by the Bay ~ Tropical Grill & Rhum Deck. It’s a lovely casual dining experience forlunch and dinner, complete with a brick oven for pizza and Caribbean fare. While they do not currently have a website, their Facebook account stays pretty active.

Breezes is located in the heart of George Town with great views of the waterfront from just about any seat in the house. They focus on classic Caribbean fare rather than touristy food, except for the pizza, of course. That is a familiar favorite in many countries. They have a large lineup of tropical cocktails, too.

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What Breezes has to say for itself.

 

The folks working there were all very nice, though keep in mind that English is not always their primary language. There were some barriers, but we got over most of them with little trouble. Our waiter was a first-day employee, and while he was trying hard, one of my table mates later wondered, “What was that guy DOING?”

Our excursion group had to try a little bit of everything. From snacking on jerk seasoned fries (“I’ve never paid that much for fries in my life, but hey – Grand Cayman is ‘spensive”), to the local version of pepper steak, to the brick oven pizza, everything was a delight for the palate, if a bit pricey.

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Jerk seasoned French fries.

 

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Quattro Fromage – the four cheese pizza.

 

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Jerk chicken pizza.

 

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Cayman Pepper Steak, with black bean rice, cole slaw, grilled plantain and breadfruit.

 

 

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Pina Colada

Frosty drinks in hurricane style glasses give the place a festive feel, though they do maintain a full bar for those not into frozen concoctions. This Pina Colada was overwhelmingly pineapple, which drowned out the more delicate coconut flavor, though the rum was full bore.

 

We also gave a local beer a shot. This is a glass of Iron Shore Bock from the Cayman Islands Brewery. It gave us a light head over a clear brown beer with only a little lacing. The aroma was simple and pleasing, mildly hoppy with a flavor of caramel malts. Not particularly strong on the alcohol, but that allowed a nice smoothness to the mouthfeel.

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Iron Shore Bock

 

 

This establishment is on the second and third floor of it’s building. There are wide tread stairs, but no elevator available as of our visit.

On the 1-5 scale, Breezes has earned:
Cleanliness – 4.5
Service – 3
Quality of food – 4
Flavor – 4.5
Pricing – 2.5 (Grand Cayman can be expensive)
Overall experience – 3.5

 

 

Breezes by the Bay
8 Harbour Drive
George Town, Cayman Islands
Phone: +1 345-943-8439

— Ann Cathey and Cruise Cohort
Additional photos by Christopher

Barcenas – Houston, TX

At first glance, Barcenas Mexican Restaurant looks like just another up and coming strip mall eatery. There area ctually three locations currently, serving Houston and Friendswood as well as the LaMarque location we were introduced to.

We happened to be there with some friends for a small wedding reception in the back room. Their Christmas finery was up and was fairly understated except for the whopper of a Christmas tree in the front entry. The rest of the decor was fairly laid back, but typical of the venue with broad swatches of earthtones highlighted by bright red and green accents.

Sadly I was unable to take photos of our food or the venue itself due to the occasion, but
rest assured it was very comfortable and the staff was on point.

When checking out a new restaurant, my partner and I usually have a specific dish that we
order as a litmus test. For Mexican food, that test dish is Queso Flameado. For those not
experienced with this excellent appetizer, it’s a hot dish of melted white cheese topped with chorizo. A lot of establishments will call it flameado, yet offer fajita chicken, beef or
grilled onions and peppers to top it off. Those variations actually have other names, but you get the idea.

The Queso Parrilla, as they call it, with fajita chicken was outstanding. The flour tortillas
served with it were a little small, and there were only three of them, but they were obviously made on site with a lovely flavor that complimented the buttery richness of the cheese.

While some of the rest of the party was much more adventurous, we stuck to known quantities for this visit. I ordered the flautas, while he chose a burrito plate. The portions were generous and very tasty.

Flautas – Three corn tortillas wrapped around Ranch chicken and deep fried, served with
Spanish rice and refried beans, a small bed of lettuce topped with sour cream and guacamole.

Burrito Azteca – A large flour tortilla stuffed with fajita chicken and white cheese, topped
with moderately spicy chipotle sauce. Served with Spanish rice and refried beans.

“Big, warm, and flavorful. Definitely a $10 burrito plate.”
— Christopher

A bar is available , specializing in margaritas, cocktails, and a small list of beer and wine. Check out their full menu  for the wide variety of entrees and appetizers they offer, then go give them a try when you are in the area.

Barcenas offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as banquet and party services, with three locations to serve you.

On the 1-5 scale, Barcenas gets:
Cleanliness – 4.5
Service – 5
Quality of food – 4.5
Flavor – 5
Pricing – 3
Overall experience – 4.4

Barcenas Mexican Restaurant
11013 Delaney Road
La Marque, TX 77568
(409) 908-9801

Let us know if you go, and what you think about Barcenas.

— Ann Cathey

Foodie Fights!

Foodies find the silliest things to argue over. I mean, really – they’re foodies. They should
be open to new experiences, right?

These are some of the things I’ve recently seen hotly debated on Facebook and other places on the web, with my personal opinions:

1. Cornbread: sweet or not sweet?

Personally, I’m nto a fn od sweet cornbread, though I will make it upon request. The sweet
tends to cloud savoury flavors from dishes like chili or beans. I can see a certin attraction
for sweet cornbread for beans cooked with a hamhck, or as a treat with butter and honey.
2. Chili: beans or no beans?

Who cares? Chili was originally a dish created to serve the worst cuts of met, and meat that
had just started to turn. It’s been turned into a gourmet delight with everything but the
kitchen sink added to recipies from all over the world.
3. Does pineapple belong on pizza?

Why not? Unless, of course, you are allergic to pineapple or are overdosing on vitamin K.
Again, it’s a personal preference, like anchovies.

 

4. Chocolate (cocoa): sweet or savoury?

Yes! Cocoa was not origianlly a confectioner’s device. It’s earliest use was as a spice and
thickening agent. Europeans found it tasty and began the practice of chocolate as we know and love it now. It’s still a valuable spice, being an excellent additive for chilis and stews,
savoury breads, and coffee – without all the sugar.
Share your thoughts with us!

— Ann Cathey

Gypsy Joynt – Galveston, Texas

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In a building that has survived multiple hurricanes, a little hippie restaurant opened that’s a definite winner. Gypsy Joynt is an eclectic mix of atmosphere, food, coffees, and desserts that’s sure to grab your attention. Don’t be fooled by the exterior where the flagpoles proudly bear bandannas, t-shirts and jeans, this place rocks.

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From the time we walked in to the time we left, we were treated to an array of Rolling Stones music. Seemed to be the sound of the day and we didn’t mind in the slightest. The dj booth is built of what looks like scavenged wood, with racks of LPs, and a command station presided over by a computer that rules the sound system. I didn’t get too good a look at the rest of the goodies in the booth, as there was so much more to see.

There’s a lot of dark wood, including the tables and mismatched chairs, that helps to give a comfortably cave-like feel to the interior, Shawls hung over the windows, scarves and beads from the ceiling, with a scattered mix of period posters, toys, and other implementada ranging from the late 50’s to the mid 70’s along the walls. The bar top (they do serve beer) where you place your order, is cut from an old pool table. The slab still has it’s felt jacket, and the pockets their leather baskets.

Pick up a menu and be prepared for a wild ride!

From pizza to focacia sandwiches and wraps, to salads to a truly decadent dessert bar, this place seems to have a little bit of everything.

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Smoretella – Nutella, toasted marshmallow, Graham cracker.

Autumn Cocoa – fudge, pumpkin spice, homemade pumpkin marshmallow.

 

 

Rocco Rocks – mac-n-cheese and brisket pizza. Think what you will, but one of our tablemates called it “possibly the perfect pizza”.

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dsc_0021Big & Sloppy – a chili cheeseburger that might best be served on a plate instead of a burger basket! I ordered bunless and was not disappointed. The grilled sirloin patty was served up beneath sliced cheddar and a ton of house-made chili. The chili wasn’t hot, which was a very pleasant change from today’s trend toward scorching your face off, though it usually comes with hot onions and jalapenos. Yes, those are sweet potato waffle fries.

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I Love Lucy – This lovely combo sandwich was ordered as a wrap. Stuffed with ham, pulled pork, Swiss cheese, house-made pickles and mustard, it was a tasty and filling meal when coupled with the sweet potato waffle fries.

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House-made pickles – What a pleasant surprise! With a firm crunch, these thick wavy slices come in somewhere between hamburger dills and kosher, with a sweet afterglow on the back of the tongue.

 

When next you are on Galveston Island and feeling a bit peckish, skip the Strand and give this Joynt a try.

On the 1-5 scale, Gypsy Joynt gets:
Cleanliness – 4.5
Service – 3
Quality of food – 5
Flavor – 5
Pricing – 3.5
Overall experience – 4.2

Gypsy Joynt
2711 Market Street
Galveston, Texas 77550
409-497-2069

 

— Ann Cathey