It’s hard to believe that we are mere weeks away from Christmas and only days from Hanukah, and our schedules are not slowing down. The days are reaching their shortest mark, making it dark before five and holiday festivities are happening from elementary school to office Christmas parties. All the while, life still goes on with sports events, scout meetings, doctors appointments, oh, and have you even finished Christmas shopping yet?

Yes, the holiday season is wonderful, but, boy oh boy, is it busy! So here in the LAF kitchen, we put together recipes to help ease you through the insanity of the holiday season. From appetizers to serve at your Christmas parties, to quick crockpot recipes for a healthy meal, to a fancy side dish to dazzle your guests for Christmas dinner. This month, we are all about ease and flavor, and we are here to show you that you can have both.

So let’s talk holiday parties! There are so many parties to attend during the holiday season, let alone hosting your own. Here are a few quick and easy recipes to make this party season a bit brighter.

Kale and Ricotta Bruschetta
Bruschetta is often considered a Summer treat, as the word has become connected with a tomato and basil spread on crusty bread, but in Italian, bruschetta (brew-skēt-ah) simply means grilled bread, but we have become too familiar with tomato (or pomodoro) bruschetta. For the holiday season, we are mixing up this grilled bread with two delightful winter bruschetta recipes.

1/2 pound kale (preferably lacinato or Tuscan kale)
4 tbs. extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) (plus oil for bread)
6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 serrano pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 cup water
2 tbs. lemon juice
1 cup ricotta cheese
6 slices of small Italian or French loaf, sliced on a diagonal

Trim kale by removing the tough stems and ribs, then coarsely chop.

In a large pot, heat two tablespoons of EVOO, add garlic and pepper and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chopped kale and sauté on medium heat until it begins to wilt, about five minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and add 1/2 cup of water and two tablespoons lemon juice and cover. Continue to cook over medium heat until the kale is tender, about 15-20 minutes. Drain off extra liquid and set liquid and kale aside to cool slightly.

In a medium sized bowl, add ricotta cheese, and whisk in two tablespoons of EVOO until smooth. If needed, add a tablespoon of the reserve liquid to the ricotta to loosen the consistency slightly.

Fold in the cooked kale and mix gently until ingredients are well incorporated. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

Heat oven to 375 and place sliced bread on a baking sheet. Drizzle or brush each piece with EVOO and place in oven until bread it just starting to turn golden brown, approximately five to seven minutes, depending on your oven. Keep and eye on the bread, as it goes from golden brown to burnt in a blink.

Remove bread from oven and place on a serving platter when cool enough to handle. Spoon the kale ricotta mixture on the bread (crostini) and serve.

Roasted Tri-Pepper and Caper Bruschetta
2 red peppers
2 yellow or orange peppers
2 green peppers
6 tbs. EVOO
6 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped (3 tsp.)
1/4 capers, rinsed well
1 tsp. red chili flake
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
6 slices of French or Italian bread sliced on an angle

Preheat broiler. Rub peppers with two tablespoons of EVOO and place on a baking sheet and broil, turning often, until all sides are charred and blistered. Transfer peppers to a paper bag and seal tightly, or place in a bowl and wrap tightly with plastic wrap and allow to steam for ten minutes.

Once steamed, remove peppers and peel off charred skin (dipping your hands in water often speeds this process). Core and seed pepper and rinse to remove any pieces of charred skin, then cut peppers into one-inch wide strips and set aside.

In a pan, combine the remaining EVOO and garlic, warm over medium heat until the garlic starts to turn golden brown. Remove from heat.

In a small bowl, add capers and balsamic and stir. Whisk in the garlic oil. Add the chili flakes and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add sliced peppers to the mixture and toss to coat and let marinate for at least an hour before serving. (This mixture can be made up to three days in advance and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

Heat oven to 375 and place sliced bread on a baking sheet. Drizzle or brush each piece with EVOO and place in oven until the bread just starts to turn golden brown, approximately five to seven minutes, depending on your oven.

Place bread on a serving platter and spoon the pepper/caper mixture onto bread and serve.

Roasted Turban Squash and Black Bean Salsa
Looking for something completely different to boast your culinary flare? Try this roasted squash and salsa dish. Turban squash is most commonly known as a cool shaped and colorful squash that sits out as a decoration, but very rarely is it seen as an edible squash. The turban squash are the squash that look like they have a cap on them, hence the name. They are also referred to as Turks cap or Turks turban squash. They have a thick, hard skin that protect a rich, earthly, and slightly sweet amber flesh inside. When cooked whole, they provide a beautiful serving vessel that adds a touch of flare to your table. This dish is not only easy, but it is also vegan.

1 medium sized turban squash, washed and dried
2 jars of your favorite black bean and corn salsa
EVOO to brush the inside of the squash
Salt and Pepper
Aluminum foil to wrap the squash

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cut the cap off of the squash, just below the “cap,” to create a lid. Remove seeds and scrape as you would a pumpkin (save the seeds for roasting, as they are delicious).

Brush the inside with EVOO and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place the lid back on squash. On a rimmed baking sheet, place a piece of foil larger enough to cover the squash. Place squash in the center and wrap completely in foil. Place in oven and roast for approximately 35-40 minutes, just enough for the squash to start getting tender. Carefully remove from oven and open foil to allow squash to cool enough to handle.

Drop oven temperature to 400 degrees. Remove cap when cool enough and pour one jar of black bean and corn salsa into the squash (you can scoop some flesh out if you would like a deeper cavity). Place lid back on squash and re-wrap with foil. Place back in oven and roast until the squash is tender, about an hour (This is an approximate time, as some squash are thicker than others, so it is really a matter of tenderness.

Once squash is easily pierced with a knife, remove from oven and allow to cool slightly. Remove the cap and spoon the flesh into the salsa, no digging too deep on the bottom or sides to maintain the squash’s shape. Add more salsa from the second jar to fill the bowl, as the squash absorbs the liquid.

Carefully transfer the squash onto a platter and finish with fresh cilantro. Serve with a thicker tortilla chip.

Oreo Truffles
Looking for a quick and easy treat to bring to the cookie exchange, office party, or just have out for the holidays? Look no further than this recipe for Oreo truffles. Easy, elegant and delicious!

1 package cream cheese, softened
40 Oreo cookies (or whatever cream filled chocolate cookie you like), finely crushed and divided
4 packages (4 oz. each) of semi-sweet bakers chocolate, broken into pieces and melted

Crush Oreos in food processor until finely crushed and set aside. In a large bowl, mix softened cream cheese and three cups of the crushed Oreos until fully blended.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with wax paper. Scoop cream cheese mixture and roll into one inch balls, creating approximately 48 balls. Place on lined baking sheet and freeze for about ten minutes. Remove from freezer and dip each ball in the melted chocolate and place back on the lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the balls with remaining crushed Oreo mixture. Refrigerate until firm, about one hour.

If you want to make these more adult friendly, you can add two tablespoons for your favorite liquor to the cream cheese mixture. Chambord, Bailey’s, and Grand Marnier all add a great flavor to these truffles. You can even split the batch and make some for the kiddos and some for the adults. The recipe is so easy that it gives you lots of play room.

Julia Child’s Ratatouille
Now, since we are talking holiday parties, let’s talk about the biggest one of the month: Christmas. Most everyone goes all out for Christmas dinner, whether you celebrate on Christmas Eve or Christmas day, creating a beautiful Christmas dinner is an event. For this very special celebration, we have a beautiful ratatouille recipe that will leave your guests awestruck and speechless, because this dish is not only visually stunning, it is outstanding in flavor. Plus, this dish is easy to double. Simply increase pan size. Makes four servings.

1 six-oz. can tomato paste
1/2 onion, chopped
2 1/2 tbs. minced garlic
4 tbs. olive oil (divided)
3/4 cup water
1 small eggplant, thinly sliced
1 zucchini, thinly sliced
1 yellow squash, thinly sliced
2 bell peppers, thinly sliced (one red and one yellow or orange add vibrant color to the dish)
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves (can substitute basil leaves if necessary, but thyme is best)
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Place a skillet over medium heat and add the chopped onion, sautéing the onion until tender and translucent (only a few minutes). Then, add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Remove the skillet from the heat and set aside.

Get a 10×10-inch baking dish and lightly grease with cooking spray. Mix the tomato paste, sautéed onion and garlic, water, and one tablespoon of olive oil together in a bowl until everything is thoroughly combined. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and then generously spread this mixture along the bottom of the dish.

Toss sliced vegetables in a bit of olive oil, just enough to very lightly coat them.

Take the thinly sliced eggplant, zucchini, squash, and peppers and begin arranging them along the outer edge of the dish – alternating between vegetables. Follow the outer edge of the dish and then work in a circle toward the middle until you get to the center.

Finish by drizzling the top of the vegetables with two tablespoons of olive oil and adding salt and pepper to taste. Then, sprinkle the top with thyme leaves. Cover the dish with a piece of parchment paper, trimmed enough to fit inside the dish and cover the vegetables. Bake until the vegetables are tender and fully roasted, about 45 minutes.

If you can find Japanese eggplant, it is best, as it’s the perfect size. But if not, look for the smallest width eggplant you can find. When using eggplant, it is always important to allow time to salt and let sit. To do so, take a paper towel lined baking sheet, and place sliced eggplant on the paper towels. Sprinkle both sides of the eggplant with kosher salt and let sit for 30 minutes, to draw moisture out. This will keep the eggplant from getting soggy. Brush off the salt and use in recipe.

Crockpot Carnitas
Now that we have the parties covered, let’s talk about how to eat good, home cooked food while doing all of this running around! This month, we have two easy recipes to fill the house with delightful smells, without keeping you trapped in the kitchen.

Carnitas means “little meats” in Mexico and are traditionally made by braising or simmering pork in oil or lard. This crockpot recipe makes this decadent dish simple and easy. We love this dish for many reasons; not only does this make Taco Tuesday even better, but the leftovers are almost better than the dinner itself! This recipe calls for frying off the pork after it’s cooked in the crockpot all day, and although it is not a mandatory step, it is the difference between good and Holy Sweet Mother of Pork Deliciousness! The end result is an abundance of flavor, texture, and versatility.

5 lbs. pork shoulder (pork butt), skinless, bone-in
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded and ribs removed, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 oranges, juice only (approximately 4 oz. of juice if you are in a pinch)

Rub
2 tbs. kosher salt (1 1/4 tablespoon of table salt)
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tbs. dried oregano
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tbs. olive oil

In a bowl, add the rub ingredients and mix well. Rinse and dry pork shoulder well and cover pork with rub, wrap pork in plastic wrap and refrigerate for four hours, or overnight. (In a pinch, you can rub the pork in mixture and put straight into the crockpot, but we suggest some marinating time.)

Remove pork from refrigerator and let set for 30 minutes. While pork rests, prep the rest of the ingredients.

Place pork butt, fat side up, in crockpot. Top with onion, jalapeño, and garlic. Spread over the pork and squeeze the juice of the two oranges over the top and place on the lid. Cook on low for eight to ten hours, or on high for six (low and slow is always better). When done, allow to cool for a bit and remove the pork to a large rimmed dish. Using two forks, shred the pork.

Allow the liquid in the crock to cool and skim the fat from the pot. If you have a lot of juice, you can turn the crockpot on high and cook down the liquid until you have about two cups of juice left. Set aside.

To serve, heat one tablespoon of canola oil in a large non stick skillet over high heat. Place shredded pork into the pan and press down to sear the pork. Cook until the bottom is browned and crispy. Place on a serving platter and pour the reserved juices over the pork and serve.

Use Carnitas for everything from Mexican food, to Asian noodle soups, to a flavorful additive to your favorite salad. You will find yourself making this throughout the winter.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! May peace, happiness, and good cheer follow each and everyone one of you through the New Year.

Life’s a Feast!

For Kids, By Kids

What if you could have one wish come true this December? What if you could have a snowman inside your home without it melting? Well, now you can this winter! I present my Christmas gift to you, a recipe for a snowman in a snow globe.

Snowman in a Snow Globe
This story (recipe) is about a snowman who, on one cold winter day, was walking along enjoying the sparkle of the freshly fallen snow. He found a jar so he decided to crawl into it. The next thing the snowman knew, he was in a child’s cup of hot coco.

This recipe is a great gift idea to give to teachers, grandparent, or your friends. It is also good because it doesn’t need the oven or stove. I hope my gift to you is one of the best you receive all year.

3 large marshmallows
Icing pens in black and orange
1 giant chocolate button
1 Rolo candy
2 tbs. cocoa powder
2 tbs. Ovaltine powder
Handful of mini dehydrated marshmallows
1 cookie (small enough to fit in a jar)
3 strawberry laces
1 wooden skewer or cocktail stick
1 large jar

Ribbon and gift tag
Slide the three large marshmallows onto the skewer (cut off extra stick). Take the black and orange icing pens and draw the snowman’s face and buttons on the marshmallows. Next, take some more black icing and “glue” the button and Rolo candy together to form the hat. Put some icing on the bottom of the hat and stick it on the snowman’s head. Next, grab the strawberry laces and make the snowman a scarf. Then ice the cookie to the bottom of the snowman. Let it set for a few minutes.

Put the Ovaltine and cocoa in the jar and carefully place the snowman in the jar. Scatter some mini dehydrated marshmallows around the snowman. Now screw on the lid and tie on the gift tag. On the tag write the following instructions: Enjoy this gift of a snowman in a snow globe. Remove the snowman and warm 1 1/4 cups of milk. Add snowman to the milk and stir to your liking.

Happy Holidays!

Angela and Carolyn Linton-Canfield
After 18 years working in the food and beverage industries of Chicago and San Francisco, Angela and Carolyn started a private chef and catering company, Life’s a Feast, in the tri-state area. They embrace their passion of cooking, entertaining, and creating one-of-a-kind experiences for their clients. Carolyn and Angela now share their passion with viewers on their cable show Life’s a Feast, available on Mediacom and their YouTube channel, Life’s a Feast LLC. Both share their expertise on food and wine on our website, their website, as well as their Facebook page. Recipes and photos are the copyrighted and intellectual property of Life’s a Feast, LLC.

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