Christmas was in the air at the Sokolewicz residence as my favorite holiday tradition, trimming the tree, drew near. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been obsessed. Perhaps it was the glow of twinkling lights and boxes of shiny heirloom ornaments. Or the spicy cinnamon and pine that mingled with sounds of sleigh bells and Bing’s beguiling voice. Or maybe, and most likely, it was the fact that I could scarf down endless amounts of sugar cookies, fudge and eggnog without even the slightest worry of an expanding wasteline.
Needless to say, I’ve been anxiously waiting to put up our tree since the day I spotted it at a little country store in Romeo, Michigan. Tall. Skinny. Imperfect branches laced with twigs and pine cones. It looked like it was plucked right out of a picture. My mom noticed my giddiness and before I knew it, the tree was transformed from a gorgeous display into our first housewarming gift, along with some of the daintiest icicle ornaments I’ve ever seen.
I think I begged Luke to let me put it up at least a dozen times since we brought it home, which was back in September. The sooner the better if you ask me. And because this marks the first Christmas season for Luke and me in our own home with our own tree and our own annoying tangled up lights, it was definitely worth a fancy fuss. I wanted lots of decorations. Lots of music. And definitely lots of food. Even if there were only two people on the guest list.
So I grabbed my cookbooks and flipped past steaks, roasts, and other holiday dishes that looked more like centerpieces than food, until I realized that a big, extravagant meal just wasn’t in the cards. I thought back to all the Christmas Eves spent with my family around heaping plates of coconut shrimp, fried mozzarella and spanakopita, and I knew it was just the walk down memory lane needed to make the night perfect. So I set out to make my very own finger food feast, featuring spinach-and-artichoke dip, stuffed mushrooms, and a hot chocolate fudge cake that was sure to send all those big chain restaurants running for their tip trays.
My original thought was to mix everything up on Saturday so I could simply pop it all in the oven Sunday night when the festivities began. But with a craft fair and film fest in town, we were helplessly exhausted come Saturday night, and Sunday was inevitably pegged as cook-clean-decorate-last-minute-headlines-for-work-night.
Ah, the joys of working in advertising. Why stop on Friday when the fun can go straight through the weekend? So as I started mixing and sautéing, I also started thinking up print ads for a little kid’s waterpark. How Christmasy.
Ok, so the spin dip went something like this. I defrosted the spinach in the microwave and had Luke squeeze the life out of it. I read that if you don’t squeeze enough, you’ll end up with watery dip, so I made him squeeze until the spinach resembled paper, and the only water left was coming out of his forehead. As for me, I was busy doing a number on the garlic. I placed a few cloves between two sheets of foil, whopped it a few times with my rolling pin, and in the words of Emeril, bam! Crushed garlic. A great trick.
Then I mixed the spinach, artichokes, cheeses, sour cream, pepper and garlic, spooned it into a baking dish, topped with more cheese and stuck it in the fridge. And that was that. One tip, though: Add the ingredients in the order they appear in the recipe. I added the cream cheese too soon, which made it a little hard to stir for my microscopic muscles.
The mushrooms were just as easy. I was very impressed with how smoothly everything went for these little guys. The onion, pepper and garlic cooked up nicely, and when I added the cottage cheese and bread crumbs, it clumped up into a perfect little cheesy ball. Not sticky at all, so it was very manageable. And surprisingly, there was exactly enough to fill all 24 caps. (I used regular mushrooms, by the way. The button variety looked too tiny to mess with.) I stuffed them, sprinkled on paprika, and threw them in the fridge.
With my meal prepared and my stress lowered considerably, I poured a drink and got a little writing done while Luke did the dishes. Then, when the temptation got the best of us, I popped my creations in the oven. A perk to making these two recipes together is that they require the same oven temperature, and the dip only takes 10 minutes longer. Gotta love that.
The results were fabulous. I’m a pretty big spinach-and-artichoke dip fan. It’s my appetizer of choice at almost any place that offers it. So you can believe me when I tell you that this version is awesome. Hands down, the best I've ever had. So creamy and cheesy, and not at all salty and greasy like the stuff you'll find at restaurants. We did swap out the baked chips for the full fat, fried version, though. Hey, it’s Christmas. (Almost.)
The mushrooms were delish as well. When they came out of the oven, I just topped them with a little parmesan cheese, and there you go. I’ll admit, they're not the best I’ve ever had, but I blame that solely on their lack of mozzarella and sausage. Even still, we were popping them like maniacs.
After our bellies were full, we pulled out the tree and started on the lights. No biggie, right? Well, this was the part I’d never really done before. My mom always miraculously lit the tree, and my brother and I entered just in time for ornaments.
So there I was, weaving the lights up and over, in and out, back and forth across every branch, twig and needle. (Have I mentioned my passion for perfection?) When the lights were finally up, it was well past 1 a.m., and we weren’t exactly in a "ooh, which sparkly ornament should we hang up next?" kind of mood. Or a Jingle Bells mood. Or even a big chocolaty piece of cake mood. Yeah, I said it.
So off to bed we went. I was disheartened, yes. It was sad to think that my first trimming the tree party never really was. But, lying under the covers, as I started to drift to sleep, a faint smile crept across my face because I realized that in order to finish the tree, we’d have to have another party.
And so it continues…
Yield: 5 1/2 cups (serving size: 1/4 cup dip and about 6 chips)
Yield: 5 1/2 cups (serving size: 1/4 cup dip and about 6 chips)
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided
1/2 cup fat-free sour cream
1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated fresh Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
1 (8-ounce) block 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened
1 (8-ounce) block fat-free cream cheese, softened
1/2 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, squeezed dry
1 (13.5-ounce) package baked tortilla chips (about 16 cups)
Preheat oven to 350°.
Combine 1 1/2 cups mozzarella, sour cream, 2 tablespoons Parmesan, and next 6 ingredients (through spinach) in a large bowl; stir until well blended. Spoon mixture into a 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella and remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes or until bubbly and golden brown. Serve with tortilla chips.
Nutritional Information: Calories: 148 (30% from fat), Fat: 5g (sat 2.9g,mono 1.5g,poly 0.5g), Protein: 7.7g, Carbohydrate: 18.3g, Fiber: 1.5g, Cholesterol: 17mg, Iron: 0.6mg, Sodium: 318mg, Calcium:164mg.
Source: Cooking Light, September 2007
Yield: 6 servings (serving size: 4 mushrooms)
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
2/3 cup fat-free cottage cheese
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/3 cup Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs
24 button mushroom caps
1/2 teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 350°.
Melt butter in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic; sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Stir in cottage cheese and Worcestershire sauce, stirring until cheese melts. Remove from heat; stir in breadcrumbs. (Mixture will be thick.) Spoon mixture evenly into mushroom caps.
Place the mushroom caps in an 11 x 7-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle mushrooms evenly with paprika. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes or until tender. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Nutritional Information: Calories: 104 (29% from fat), Fat: 3.4g (sat 1.9g,mono 0.9g,poly 0.3g), Protein: 8.2g, Carbohydrate: 11.4g, Fiber: 1.7g, Cholesterol: 10mg, Iron: 1.3mg, Sodium: 358mg, Calcium: 75mg
Source: Cooking Light, March 2002