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Pulling off Easter Dinner– A few tips to keep it simple.

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Hosting a large family dinner can be a daunting task, especially at a holiday. There are a few things you can do to ensure that the day goes smoothly and guarantee that you enjoy the day too. No one signs up to host a family meal saying, “Sure, I’d love to have you come over to a enjoy a stress-filled, resentful, exhausting nightmare together.” But, this is what these days are for some frazzled hosts.

This post was inspired by a hopeful co-worker who popped into my classroom this week to ask for help. She is hosting Easter dinner for her entire family for the first time ever. She was feeling intimidated, but hopeful that with a few suggestions, she could pull it off. I gave her some tips and a sold menu, and she left work on Friday feeling determined and optimistic. After seeing her relief, I thought it would be a good idea to share them with all of you.

1. The Menu

My co-worker had the challenge of incorporating traditional favorites, but accommodating a family member who is vegetarian and a family member who is vegan. Here is what we came up with:

Honey Glazed Spiral Ham— Don’t be afraid to go with a store-bought ham. They are very tasty and easy to make.

Oven Baked Risotto— This is a crowd favorite, and if made with vegetable stock & a butter alternative, it will please both the vegetarian and vegan. Additionally, it’s a sophisticated alternative to potatoes.

Quiche– A quiche is a nice option for vegetarians, and it works for meals throughout the day. Go plain, or add variety with different vegetables.

Clementine Balsamic Glazed Carrots— Roasted whole carrots are a beautiful symbol of the spring season. Not to mention, the flavor is the perfect complement to the sweet ham.

Garlicky Green Beans— Toss some skinny fresh green beans with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh minced garlic. Saute until bright green and slightly tender. Remove from heat, and transfer to a serving bowl quickly so they don’t over cook.

Spinach and Strawberry Quinoa Salad— Adding cooked & cooled quinoa is a great way to add texture and update this classic salad.

2. Appetizers

My advice is to limit appetizers when hosting a large sit-down dinner. The first reason is practical. Since you are spending so much time, energy, and money on this meal, you don’t want your guests to fill up on snacks before dinner. The second reason is procedural. You will be far less stressed as a cook if you are not trying to prepare appetizers when you really need to be devoting your time and energy to the main course. I would suggest a simple cheese and cracker plate and some fresh fruit. Fruit is a great option because if hungry kids ruin their appetites with fruit, is that really such a bad thing?

3. Working Ahead 

The key to sanity and effective kitchen management is to do as much as you can ahead of time.

A few days before:

  • Set the table
  • Clean the house
  • Shop for groceries
  • Make the quiche and freeze
  • Lay out serving pieces and cookware needed
  • Clean the fridge, creating space for prepped ingredients and leftovers

The day before:

  • Wash the fruits & vegetables
  • Do all dishes and run the dishwasher. Be sure to unload it too!
  • Make quinoa and store in the fridge.
  • Pre-slice the cheese.
  • Defrost the quiche in the fridge.

The day of:

** Keep up with dishes and cleaning in the kitchen as you are cooking. Staying on top of things and keeping the kitchen clean as you cook will reduce your stress later.

  • Before guests arrive–
    • Prepare the salad (do not put the dressing on until you are ready to serve it)
    • Make the ham, slice it off the bone, and arrange on a platter.
    • Warm the quiche.
    • Assemble to fruit plate.
    • Measure and prep all ingredients for the green beans, carrots, and risotto.
    • Arrange the drink table. Add ice and cold beverages just prior to guests’ arrival time.
  • About an hour before dinner–
    • Make risotto & carrots.
    • Let guests know that you will be eating in an hour.
  • Fifteen Minutes before dinner–
    • Warm ham and quiche in the oven.
    • Toast rolls or bread.
    • Dress the salad.
    • Make green beans
  • Five minutes before dinner–
    • Put the food on the table.
    • Encourage guests to get a fresh drink
    • Start the dishwasher with any random dishes left over from the prep.
  • Dinner time–
    • LET IT ALL GO!!
    • This is what you have been planning for. Be sure to sit, enjoy dinner, and take time to have good conversation with those you love!
  • After dinner–
    • Let guests help to clear the table.
    • Put away clean prep dishes from the dishwasher.
    • Load the dishwasher with dinner dishes.
    • Sit and enjoy family and your dinner success!
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Balsamic & Clementine Roasted Carrots

Looking for a new way to cook carrots? This is a simple way to update this Easter staple, giving it a complex flavor. While the finished dish looks sophisticated and gourmet, the recipe is really very easy and mess free!

Ingredients:

  • 8-10 whole carrots, cleaned and sliced in half, lengthwise
  • 4Tbsp. of balsamic vinegar
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 clementine

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 425°, & line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or spray with cooking spray.
  2. Combine oil, vinegar, and the zest of 1 clementine in a glass bowl, & whisk together. Save the clementine.
  3. Coat the carrots with the vinegar blend.
  4. Roast for 30-40 minutes until tender, but not mushy. (Insert a fork to assess the firmness)
  5. Remove from the oven and squeeze the juice of the clementine over the carrots.
  6. Transfer to a serving bowl and serve warm.
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Cajun Pierogi

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I love Cajun food, and I have a favorite local Cajun restaurant that serves the tastiest Cajun pierogies. Well, the other day, I found myself craving this awesomeness, and dinner out was not in the plans, so I embarked on a mission to recreate them at home. Warning, this is kind of a slacker/cheater recipe. I did not go as far as making my own pierogies. I’m an Irish girl, and really have no experience with them other than what I have ordered out. I purchased Wegmans brand roasted garlic pierogies, but you can also use a classic cheddar variety. This is a simple recipe that can be whipped up quickly, without many ingredients, so you may want to keep a  box of pierogies in your freezer, so you can whip these suckers up in an appetizer or dinner emergency!

Ingredients:

  • 1 box of frozen pierogies (I used Wegmans brand roasted garlic flavor)
  • 3 Tbsp of butter
  • 1 large shallot
  • 3-4 Tbsp of Cajun Seasoning

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Preparation:

  1. Thaw pierogies according to the package instructions.
  2. In a medium skillet, melt butter and add sliced shallots.
  3. Add pierogies, sprinkle generously with Cajun seasoning, and brown each side for about 3-4 minutes. Be sure to season each side.
  4. Remove from skillet and serve immediately, topped with the sautéed shallots.

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Serving Suggestion: These pair very well with Crawfish Garlic Toast for a Cajun themed dinner!

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Ridiculously Easy Roasted Corn

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I love fresh veggies in the summer. We are so fortunate to live in an area surrounded by local farms that offer fresh veggies at a very low-cost, and I really wanted to enjoy these treasures year-round, so I bought a vacuum sealing system for $20 on an online yard-sale and realized that it was the best money that I ever spent!

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My freezer is full of green beans, berries. tomatoes, and corn. At the end of the season, I went to the farm across the street and bought three dozen ears of corn, then blanched them, and cut the corn off the cob. I then vacuum sealed them in family sized portions. It has been so nice to open a bit of summer during the doldrums of winter.

Last night, I was making a nice dinner for my husband, and I pulled out a pack of corn. I debated just steaming it, or sautéing it with some zucchini, but then I decided to roast it since the oven was hot, and I really didn’t feel like tending to the stove. Well, this was a stroke of brilliance. I will make corn this way from this point forward!

It’s so easy, with one step clean-up, and fool-proof instructions.

Here is the recipe!

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Ingredients:

  • Corn (frozen, or fresh off the cob)
  • Olive oil spray
  • Salt & pepper
  • Fresh thyme
  • Parchment paper

Procedure:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. Spray paper with olive oil spray (Really,you can use any variety of spray.)
  4. Spread corn in a single layer.
  5. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and fresh thyme.
  6. Roast in the oven, about 15 minutes, until the edges start to brown.

That’s it! The nice thing about this recipe is that you can make the whole dish while any meat you are preparing gets a chance to rest. You capitalize on an already hot oven, and it requires no attention. Once it is done, transfer the corn to your plates, or a serving bowl, then sweep the parchment paper into the trash, and clean-up is complete! It doesn’t get any easier than that.

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My Super Renegade, Rebellious Ciabatta Stuffing

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Look out people, I’m on a rant. Yup, it’s only been five minutes since my last post, but I’m on a roll. I have been nursing my wounds all week from the news that I was not allowed to “go all food fairy” with Thanksgiving this year. Apparently, change is not appreciated in my family with regards to the Thanksgiving meal, but I have other plans. On this, the most peaceful of holidays, I am waging war on tired recipes. Today, I am thankful for my creative mind, and my cooking skills. Today, I plan to go rogue, be the lone wolf, and make a maverick stuffing! (Ok, I still plan to also serve the preferred Simple Sausage Stuffing, but whatever!)

My rebellion was a departure from all of the traditional ingredients. I swapped dried bread cubes for a loaf of fresh ciabatta bread. I’ve ditched the onions for shallots & garlic, and I tossed the celery in favor of fennel! The sausage stayed, because it’s tasty. I pureed, sauteed, tossed, and baked. Then we tasted, smiled, and let the satisfaction seep in. I have done it. I have created a stuffing that my kids adore! In fact, they cried when I swatted their hands away and stashed the new deliciousness for its formal unveiling tomorrow. Mission complete, rebellion successful, personal satisfaction.

I am now one happy lady that did “go all food fairy” this year, and I’m pretty damn proud of myself!

HA!

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Ciabatta Stuffing with Fennel & Sage Pesto

Ingredients:

3 loaves of fresh ciabatta bread

4 cups of chicken stock

1 roll of sage sausage

1 bulb of Fennel

4 shallots

4-5 cloves of garlic

1/4 cup of fresh parsley

10-15 fresh sage leaves

4 sprigs of fresh thyme

2 Tbsp. of olive oil

Preparation:

Cut the bread into large cubes and place them in a large roasting pan.

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Next, brown the sausage in a large skillet, until fully cooked. Drain and set aside, but do not wash the pan.

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Now, combine the parsley, sage, thyme, garlic, shallots, and olive oil in a food processor and chop until fine.

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Dump the pesto into the same pan that you used to cook the sausage.

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Coarsely chop the white bulb of the fennel into pieces (save the pretty tops), and add to the pan.

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Sautee for 5-7 minutes over a medium heat until the fennel starts to soften and the garlic and shallots have also browned a bit. Next, add the stock and stir, de-glazing the pan and scraping up all of the yummy leftover sausage bits.

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Toss the drained sausage with the bread cubes, then add the liquid mixture, pouring it evenly over the bread and sausage.Use a large spoon to toss the stuffing, ensuring that everything is well mixed, but being careful not to smoosh the bread into a paste.

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Once it is well mixed, chop the feather fronds of fennel and sprinkle them evenly over the top of the stuffing to make it look really pretty. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes, or until it is hot and the cubes on top are brown and crispy.

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Crazy Good Cranberry Sauce

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IT IS NOT TOO LATE!! I promise you, there is enough time to make homemade cranberry sauce, and you really need to do it this year!

The other day, I was curled up on the couch with my cup of coffee watching Good Morning America, and I saw a segment about nutritional traps at the holidays. They showed a plate of jellied cranberry sauce, you know, the kind from the can with the ridges on it. I have to admit that I love this stuff. Not only do I eat it plain, but also in a warm dish mixed with baked apples…mmmm.

Well, to my horror, the expert then whipped out a tray of chocolate eclairs and proclaimed that my beloved canned cranberry sauce had as much sugar as the WHOLE TRAY OF ECLAIRS! Holy cow!! It was then and there that I decided I would make my own.

Once I finished my coffee, I headed right to the store to get some ingredients. This was my next mission, to make the best damn cranberry sauce, ever.

Well, the trip to the store was successful. In fact, my creative juices were so abundant, that I made three different varieties to ensure that I could make a sauce that was a worthy replacement of the traditional can. (In case you did not read my last post, my family is a bit possessive of their “traditions”, even if they come in the form of a gelatinous cylinder with decorative ridges in the center.)

Luckily, my efforts were not in vain. I had two good recipes and a third that was a bit of a puzzle. So, I did what any sane human being would do, I took all three varieties to work and made my colleagues taste test them in between parent teacher conferences. One was immediately ruled out for being just plain gross. This was actually a Pinterest find, not a creation of my own. The pictures were so pretty; I was sure the recipe would be just as great. No such luck. It could only be described as “earthy”. UCK! It tasted like I mixed it in a tree stump out back. Not a winner. But the other two were so AWESOME, I am including them below.

Now that the truth is out, and you know what I know about canned cranberry sauce, I am empowering you with the necessary plan to make your own, please. It is so freakin’ easy. If you can boil water, you can make this recipe. I promise!

You are welcome, happy Thanksgiving, eat well, & enjoy your family 🙂

Grand Orange Cherry Cranberry Sauce

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Ingredients:

1 12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries

3/4 cup of dried cherries

1/4 cup of water

1 cup of orange juice

2 Tbsp. of light brown sugar (you can add a little more if you like your sauce sweet)

2 Tbsp. of orange zest (1 orange worth)

1 Tbsp. of Grand Marnier Liqueur

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Preparation:

Mix all ingredients except for the Grand Marnier in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and cook until the cranberries split open and the liquid starts to thicken (about 10-15 minutes) Stir it often. Remove from the heat, and mix in the Grand Marnier, stirring well and smashing any whole cranberries with the back of your spoon. Transfer to a dish and cool before serving.

Simply Scrumptious Cranberry Sauce

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Ingredients:

1 12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries

1 cup of cranberry juice

1/2 cup of palm sugar (use a little less if you prefer it to be more tart)

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Preparation:

Mix all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low and cook until the cranberries split open and the liquid starts to thicken (about 10-15 minutes) Stir it often. Remove from the heat, stir it well, smashing any whole cranberries with the back of your spoon. Transfer to a dish and cool before serving.

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Thanksgiving: Traditional or Trapped?

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I had a great idea for Thanksgiving this year. I usually cook for about 26 people, but this year I am only cooking for 19. With the smaller number, I thought I’d change it up a bit. I sat down yesterday to draft a menu and update some of the side dishes. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with the old favorites, they have been made for years for a reason, but I just thought we’d add variety.

I casually mentioned the changes to my husband, who balked. He wanted to keep the traditional offering, but I have to admit I was annoyed by his response. This is the man that insists that I make his mothers “traditional” stuffing, and when I say traditional, I mean boring. He has also been known to profess that “Turkey is turkey!”

Ummm. No, it’s not!

Whatever! I did what I normally do when I don’t like his response, I called my sister. Can you believe she sided with him? And to make things worse, my niece piped in her dissent!

Et tu, Brute? 😦

My sister had me on Bluetooth, so it went more like a conference call.

Me: “I was just calling to ask if corn casserole is a necessity, or if I can make a corn & quinoa salad instead.”

My Sister: “Wait, you can’t change Thanksgiving! It’s a tradition.”

My Niece:  “Is she asking if she has to make corn casserole???”

Me: “I just thought I’d update the menu a bit. Simplify it a little.”

My Niece: “I wait 364 days to have corn casserole. You have to make it!”

My Brother-In-Law: “Ugh! Is she going all Food Fairy on us?”

Me: “Can I at least make carrots with parsnips?”

My Sister: “What are parsnips, and who would eat them? I am completely content with all yellow, brown, and white food on my Thanksgiving plate!”

Me: “Well, I thought some of it could be healthy, I know we have all been working hard to eat well.”

OVERWHELMING CHOURS: “NO ONE CARES ABOUT HEALTHY ON THANKSGIVING!”

So there you have it, the menu will stay the same. I tried to explain my disappointment to my husband, after the phone call ended. I shared my desire to update, simplify, and add new variety. I vented that my sisters get to change up Christmas and Easter. Why can’t I change Thanksgiving? To that, he explained how Thanksgiving is about tradition. Unfortunately, I chose a holiday where no one wants change. They DO wait 364 days to indulge in family food traditions and dishes that are reserved for this special feast. How can I argue with that?

This year, then menu will be the same, with minimal innovation, and I think I am okay with it.

Thanksgiving 2012

The menu:

Brined & Roasted Turkey

Simple Sausage Stuffing

Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Corn Casserole

Garlic Tossed Green Beans

Escalloped Apples & Cranberries

Cranberry Sauce

Roasted Carrots & Parsnips

Meme’s Green Jello (AKA “The Green Sh#*%”)

Sweet Potato Gratin –(which my other sister makes her own & brings it anyway)

Garlic Roasted Cauliflower

Apple Cider Doughnut Bread Pudding

…and most importantly, fall sangria!

Happy Thanksgiving,

Kelly

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Lemon Lavender Asparagus

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On most days I will agree with my husband that Target is a trap. While I love to wander the bright clean aisles, convincing myself that I need everything I see, I have often found myself wondering exactly how I could have spent $100 in 10 minutes, when I only came for one small item, like Band-Aids. But, Oh! How I love a productive trip to Target.

As I was walking through the grocery section, assessing my “needs”, I stumbled upon a pretty jar of lavender.

Whoa! They actually sell this at Target?

Ohhh!! It looked so pretty. I had to have it. This was not a “want”. It was a NEED!

So I tossed the pretty bottle into my cart of “essential things I have to have” (aka– $100 of stuff that I didn’t need before I walked in to the store) and off I went to figure out just what you do with a jar of culinary lavender.

I have to admit that I intended to use it in a martini or infuse it into something, but then I had a moment of creativity and it totally worked. I sprinkled it onto my asparagus and what a beautiful thing that was.

While my husband may roll his eyes at me and grumble about all of the “crap” (It is so not crap!) that I come home with, this time I am going to celebrate a victory. Just this once, I actually used an impulse buy, and it was worth the money spent. I highly encourage you to follow suit, give into the impulse, and invest in a jar of lavender for yourself.

Lemon Lavender Asparagus

 

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch of asparagus
  • 2-3 Tbsp. of olive oil
  • 2 Tbsp. of lemon zest
  • 1 Tbsp. of lavender

 

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 425˚.

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Wash asparagus well, and pat dry.

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Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and spread asparagus evenly.

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Drizzle with olive oil.

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Sprinkle with zest and lavender.

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Roast in the oven for about 20 minutes, until tender. (Cooking time may vary based on the thickness of the asparagus)

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This may be served hot, or at room temperature.

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Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Yoga Pants

1-IMG_2668I don’t really love tomatoes raw, but once roasted, I could eat them until I burst. Seriously, I need to wear my yoga pants (aka “buffet pants”) when indulging in any roasted tomatoey goodness. I even went as far as to plant a bazillion cherry tomato plants in various parts of my backyard to satisfy my need for these yummy little savory treasures.

My passion err..obsession for roasted tomatoes started with a recipe that I saw for French bread pizzas. The recipe called for roasted cherry tomato puree as the pizza sauce. Once I made these, it opened all new doors. I now use roasted cherry tomatoes on a weekly basis for a multitude of recipes. They’re simple, easy, and packed with flavor.

Try them, but I take no responsibility for creating a new addiction, or causing you to need stretch pants to accommodate your overstuffed belly.

Ingredients:

2 pints of cherry or grape tomatoes

2-3 Tbsp. of olive oil

1-2 sprigs of fresh thyme

Salt & pepper (to taste)

Preparation:

1.       Wash & dry the tomatoes.

2.       Slice them in half.

3.       Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees.

4.       Place the tomatoes in a casserole dish or roasting pan so they cover the bottom in a single layer.

5.       Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt & pepper.

6.       Add thyme, and toss, coating all of the tomatoes.

7.       Roast in the oven on 425 for about 35 minutes, or until they are withered and caramelized at the edges.

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Serving Suggestions:

1.       Allow them to cool and toss with fresh basil, mozzarella, and balsamic vinegar.

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2.       Roast 3 cloves of garlic with the tomatoes. Puree with a hand blender, add a sprinkle of sugar if you like the sauce a bit sweet, and top raviolis, or use it as a pizza sauce for French bread pizza.

3.       Toss with mozzarella, basil, balsamic vinegar, and large croutons for a tasty panzanella.

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Oven Baked Risotto

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I love risotto and all its creamy goodness, but I hate that you have to just stand by, stirring and adding broth. Its like babysitting. I have 3 kids. I do not need the added responsibility of babysitting food. So, here is a recipe for an easy weeknight risotto. No stirring, adding, stirring, and adding, jsut mix and bake. It’s simple, tasty, and a hit with my kids.

Enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 2 Tablespoons of melted butter
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • salt & pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Pour the butter in a 9×13 baking dish
  3. Add the Arborio rice, garlic, salt and pepper.
  4. Mix well.
  5. Pour the chicken broth over and cover with tin foil.
  6. Bake for about 35 minutes.

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