Category Archives: Appetizers

Hosting a Cookie Swap Party

Disclaimer: Some of the links take you to a product, which if you buy, will give this blog a tiny commission, so I can eat more cookies. Thanks!

 

With the winter holidays just around the corner, you may be feeling stressed already, sad and anxious, dreading travel and spending time with crazy aunt Millie… or you might be filled with the holly jollies, stringing lights everywhere, humming Christmas tunes to yourself, and dreaming of all the seasonal things you plan to do.

Hopefully, you have several things to look forward to this holiday season. Regardless of if you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Quanzaa, the Winter Solstice, or anything else, the winter holiday season is always a season of joy, love, tradition, and generosity. And food. Lots and lots of food. Especially desserts.

If you don’t have holiday traditions already in your own family or friends group, might I recommend starting one?

There are a million and one ways to enjoy the winter, regardless of what you believe, what the weather is like, and where you live. But one of my all-time favorite traditions that I hope to start myself in my new home state is a Cookie Swap.

There are basically two ways to do a Cookie Swap.

  1. Everyone brings already-made cookies, in an agreed-upon amount, and each person goes home with some number of each kind of cookie
  2. Everyone brings a recipe and ingredients, and then you bake them all together; each person still goes home with some number of each kind of cookie

Obviously, the kind of party you could or should host depends upon who has the facilities. If you are all in college or graduate school or tiny one bedroom apartments, then baking six dozen of five kinds of cookies might be a stretch. But if you have a decent sized kitchen with lots of counter space, I’d recommend that route!

A cookie swap is an awesome holiday tradition for several reasons.

Saves Time

If your family is at all like mine, you used to spend a LOT of time making cookies. Like, weeks upon end of flour, butter, sugar, mix it all together. Add the eggs, add the milk. Roll, make sure they are all the same size, dust with flour, roll some more, preheat to 350. Set the timer, whip the filling, thaw the dough, chill the icing.

The time it takes to make each kind of cookie is quite nearly inversely related to how delicious it is. Sure, there are some exceptions (really outstanding sugar cookies? sure) but that’s pretty much how it goes. You know that those cookies only Nana knows the full recipe for and take 18 hours in total are damn delicious.

My very scientifically accurate cookie vs time graph

So imagine you wanted to have all those tasty cookies, which on your own would take about 96 hours of work to create. But then you get to have them all, after only one day. Magic and sorcery you say?

Nay. Only the magic of teamwork.

Saves Money

In a similar way that you can use the magic of scale to save yourself time making lots of kinds of cookies in one go, you can also use the magic of economy by purchasing ingredients in bulk. You can probably find a cheaper price per pound on sugar if you know you will need 30 pounds of it versus 3.

You can agree to buy all ingredients at once and then split it all ways, or assign specific ingredients to certain people. It helps to have at least one very organized person in the group to organize the little details like this.

It is also very likely that you will save money versus buying holiday cookies at the store. Sure, if you buy generic crap off the day-old bakery shelves, you definitely will find better deals. But for a homemade, unique, made with love dozen cookies? Those things sell for easily $5-$20 per dozen, depending on the intricacy of recipe.

Bonding

Along with saving money on the actual cookies themselves, you are saving yourself some money by enjoying some frugal entertainment. Instead of going out to a movie and spending $15 on tickets plus $10 on concessions, a happy hour with $8 drinks, or dinner and maxing out your credit card, you can make new friends, and get closer to friends you already have in the comfort of someone’s home for almost free.

You can start many more traditions inside this tradition as well. Maybe make up your own words for traditional Christmas songs. Or have a theme, like a type of nut, a color, or “frosted” each year. One of the best ideas I’ve seen is to have everyone write down their recipe in a journal. Then each person gets to take home a copy, that will have all the cookie recipes each year.

Imagine a few decades from now, passing those books on to family or loved ones, and telling stories of holidays past. That time you spilled the flour all over the floor, the time your friend set off the smoke alarm because she got drunk and forgot to set the timer, or that time your cute neighbor came over to crash the party because it smelled so good.

If you think this sounds great, then now is your moment! Here is how to set up your very own cookie swap:

  1. Decide if you want everyone to bake at home, then just bring cookies and hang out, or if you will all bake together.
  2. Determine who would be interested in coming, and from there who could host the party and when.
  3. Invite a group of about three to seven people. That would be enough variety but not overwhelm most kitchens.
  4. Choose your cookie recipes. It could be a family recipe handed down for generations, or a new one you’ve always wanted to try. I wouldn’t recommend going too crazy your first year, unless you are already a pretty accomplished baker.
  5. Compile all the recipes and figure out your shopping list. Obtain all the ingredients. (And maybe a gallon or two of eggnog, wine, or whatever holiday beverage tickles your fancy)
  6. Show up! Make sure to have plenty of baking sheets, cooking spray, tin foil, wax paper, hand towels, a mixer, whether a hand mixer or standing like a KitchenAid, and plastic ware or tins for everyone to take home their bounty.

That’s all there is to it! If you are the host, be considerate of guests with little touches like holiday music, holiday scents, and having plenty of drinks and snacking foods. If you are attending, be considerate of your host and make sure you help clean up afterwards! Cookie baking does turn your kitchen into a flour-and-egg warzone.

 

Do you have any fun holiday traditions? Have you ever hosted or attended a cookie swap?

Restaurant Review: Rock’n’Roll Sushi

Since it’s been a while since I’ve done a food review, I figured it was about time! I’ve been to several wonderful places now throughout the Triangle, including Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill. Even a few far-flung places like Asheville and Sunset Beach. In case this is your first BE review article, I’ll remind you of the rules.

Food locations will be evaluated based on:

  • Taste: 1 (wet toast) – 10 (your taste buds have died and gone to heaven)
  • Atmosphere: 1 (gas station bathroom) – 10 (best you’ve ever experienced)
  • Value: 1 (not worth it) – 10 (super duper deal)

All opinions are those of the Budget Epicurean.

 

Today’s review is for a new sushi restaurant in Durham: Rockin’Roll Sushi Express! Located in a shopping plaza at 3405 Hillsborough Rd, Suite E, Durham, NC 27705, they are convenient to downtown Durham as well as the rest of the triangle via highway 85 & 147.

Y’all know I love my sushi, whether homemade or with a burger inside, and was a regular at my old favorite sushi place in Connecticut. Hubs and I have been known to take down plates of nearly 100 nigiri before. So now that I’m a Carolina girl, I had to find an AYCE place to satisfy my insatiable sushi cravings, without breaking the bank.

For only $10.99 each, this place fits the bill!

Not only is it quite affordable, and all you can eat, it is also free entertainment! The restaurant operates with 2 large conveyor belts on each side of the room, which rotate around several tables and chairs. There are little doors in the glass that the customer opens to pull out the dish they want as it rolls by.

According to the adorably named Get-Offline.com, “The conveyor belt sushi (Kaiten-sushi) is a Japanese fast-food style sushi concept. Initially invented so that sushi chefs could quickly serve customers with fewer servers, the “Kaiten-sushi” has since taken off as a fun and fresh way to dine out.”

The conveyor belt rolls by at a pretty decent clip, not so fast that you can’t grab the things that catch your eye but fast enough that by the time you polish off your third roll the thing you wanted seconds of is coming back around.

They have a good assortment of your standard expected rolls like California, Philly, Tuna and Spicy Tuna. They also have some pretty creative specialty rolls, like the Crazy Monkey Roll with fried bananas, or my favorites, the Naughty Crab and Volcano Roll.

Seriously, the Volcano Roll is deep fried goodness. I’d recommend you eat your fill first, because this bad boy takes up a lot of stomach space. They also have plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, including a cucumber roll, avocado roll, and seaweed salad roll.

Obviously, as an all you can eat place, you cannot expect the most amazing delicacies of all time. You get what you pay for, folks, and this is pretty typical American style sushi. Though I must say, the nigiri slices are generous for the fact that you can have as many as you can handle.

If you’re like me and enjoy a light bowl of miso soup before digging in or in between courses, you’re in luck! There is a miso soup dispenser. Yup, you just put your styrofoam bowl underneath and press the button, and a stream of piping hot miso comes pouring out.

The down side is you cannot choose your volume, every pour is the same amount. But they do offer traditional toppings of tofu pieces and chopped green onion. Not to mention literal gallons of soy sauce, yum yum sauce, and teriyaki sauce.

There is also a salad and toppings bar that is included. This has goodies like seafood salad (which is apparently some of the best my grandma has ever tasted, and she is a bit of a seafood salad connoisseur so that’s quite a compliment!) regular green salad, edamame, pickled ginger, and seaweed salad.

I personally had at least 2 big helpings of the seaweed salad. Something about that slimy stuff, I just can’t get enough of the salty umami flavor. There are few dessert options, but they do have oranges and a strange cheesecake like thing. It isn’t very powerful, but it is somehow perfect after a belly full of fish, rice, and soy sauce.

I see this as a personal challenge now, every time I go I need to have more plates! The rolls come with 4 or 6 pieces, and the nigiri come as a set of 2. The plate colors don’t matter, because it is all included in the admission price. This makes me more willing to try things I’ve not had before, and I appreciate not losing out because I like the typically pricier raw fish pieces the best.

There is some soft rock and pop mix playing as you eat, and generally all the diners keep to their own tables. The decor is really fun, with bright photos and definitions of common words like unagi and kani salad on the walls. The bathrooms were quite clean, as was the entire restaurant. There is a self-serve trash area to clear the plates and put them in bins for washing. And you can see the sushi chefs behind the bar at the back, making rolls as fast as you can eat them.

Overall, I’d rate Rock’nRolls:

  • Taste: 7
  • Atmosphere: 8
  • Value: 10

White Bean Rosemary Hummus

 

Hummus is a wonderful thing. It is delicious and versatile, you can add it to sandwiches and wraps, stir some into soups to thicken it and add flavor, or eat it alone or with chips or crudites.

But hummus is so expensive at the store! you say. I know, I don’t love paying $3 for 8oz either.

Ever tried making your own?

It’s super easy, I promise. Do I look like a girl who likes complicated? (Well, maybe sometimes. It is fun to get a little crazy and make a giant Ethiopian feast every now and then. But mostly I like plain and simple, the cheaper and faster the better.)

One of the reasons hummus can get so expensive is the tahini paste. Marketed as a key ingredient, it helps give hummus that earthy umami flavor and smooth texture. But what if I told you instead of a $10 ingredient, you could use a $1 ingredient, and it would taste essentially the same?

Think about it. What is tahini paste? It’s ground sesame seed. Which is kind of like a nut butter. And guess what tastes similar? Other actual nut butters! I’ve used peanut butter and almond butter before, I think Almond Butter is my favorite!

Oh, and what if you don’t like chickpeas? Or think those are too over-priced as well? Good news! You can make black bean hummus just as easily, or try this amazing white bean recipe below. Each creates a slightly different flavor and texture, try them all and make a big dip buffet!

Ingredients:

  • 1 can white (cannelini) beans, drained
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
  • 2 tbsp almond butter
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • Dash of salt to taste

Step 1: Drain beans, add to blender. Add in the garlic, lemon, oil, almond butter, and rosemary. Blend well for about 1 minute, until it is a thick paste. Add some more oil or a dash of warm water if you’d like it thinner.

This recipe makes about 2 cups prepared hummus. I pack it into small containers and take it to work with diced up fresh veggies as my afternoon snack most days! It is also great for parties and potlucks.

 

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Yogurt Dipped Blueberries

 

Are you ready for the 4th of July?!?

Weird how it’s on a Tuesday this year, but Monday isn’t a holiday… maybe if we all sign a petition, the government will declare a 5 day weekend?

Hey… a girl can dream.

Speaking of dream, these little treats are a dream come true! They are tiny (a favorite for kids), chilly (great on a hot summer day), and healthy (a win for everyone!). They take some prep time, just because you need to freeze the berries ahead. But you can also buy frozen blueberries, and have these babies ready to go way faster! Try different yogurt flavors, or different berries.

yogurt berries and honey

Ingredients:

berries in yogurt

Step 1: Freeze your berries a few hours to overnight. This is so the yogurt sticks better and freezes faster. I’m not sure if this would work with fresh berries, I haven’t tried it. Or just use frozen berries.

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Step 2: In a bowl, mix the yogurt and honey. Or use an already flavored and sweetened yogurt. Mix the berries around so they are coated on all sides, then use a fork to put them on a plate lined with wax paper. Freeze for at least 2 hours.

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After they are frozen, you can put them in a bag or container. Then you can pull them out for any party, picnic, get-together, or afternoon snack attack. You can definitely feel at ease feeding these to little ones, and not at all guilty sneaking a few yourself. Go ahead and have 2 handfuls, these are super healthy for you!

 

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Easiest Ever Crockpot Sweet and Sour Meatballs

 

Sometimes you need to bring a dish to a potluck or birthday party. Or there’s a big game on and you’re hosting. Or maybe you just want to try something different for dinner, but don’t have the energy or time for something complicated.

Allow me to help!

This recipe for sweet and sour meatballs is a longtime classic in my family. There are only three ingredients, though one of them may be surprising to you. Trust me, the finished product is delicious!

Using a slow cooker makes this as simple as: pour, mix, turn on. Done.

Three ingredients sweet and sour meatballs

Ingredients:

  • 1 jar cocktail sauce
  • 1 bag mini meatballs
  • 1 ~12oz jar jelly (grape or blackberry work best)

Optional: You could add some vinegar for more tang, or some cayenne or other red pepper for a bigger bite.

sweet and sour crock pot meatballs

Step 1: Pour the meatballs in the crock pot. I poured them in right from frozen and it works just fine.

Step 2: Pour in the cocktail sauce & jam, and mix well. Turn to low for at least 4 hours, up to 12 hours.

sweet & sour meatballs in a slow cooker

You could serve these on buns, or with toothpicks, or on skewers like a kebab. The flavor is surprisingly complex for just two ingredients!

 

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Mini Apple Pie Bites

 

These little gems were inspired while searching for healthy options to make for Pi Day (March 14 = 3.14) to take to work and share. While I do love pie, I don’t love butter, preservatives, saturated fat, mountains of sugar, etc. But I also don’t want to eat a bland, tasteless pile of cardboard and call it “pie”.  So what’s a health-conscious dessert lover to do?

Make these!

Mini Apple Pie Bites

They are like a mix between apple pie and apple crisp, in a bite-sized muffin-like package! And with about 50 calories per mini muffin, you can easily have 2 or 3 and not even feel bad. They are very easy to customize too. Add raisins, mash in a banana, change the spices if you don’t like nutmeg. If you add some protein to the recipe these would make a great pre- or post-workout snack.

This recipe makes about 24 mini muffins, or you could make a dozen normal sized muffins. If I had known how delicious they would be, I’d double or triple the recipe! This will become a staple in my house I’m sure. Better stock up on applesauce…

Apple Pie Bites Ingredients

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 cup pancake mix
  • 2 cups applesauce
  • 1 whole apple, diced small
  • 2 tbsp syrup or sugar
  • Sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg

mini apple pie bites mixed ready to bake

Step 1: Wash your apple, and dice very finely. Once baked this gives your pies a sweet, chewy texture. If you don’t want any chunks at all, just replace with another 1/2 cup applesauce.

Step 2: In a bowl, mix all the ingredients well. If too dry, add a bit of water or apple juice. If too moist, sprinkle in more oats until you get the consistency you desire.

mini apple pie bites in tin

Step 3: Spray a mini muffin tin, and add 1 tbsp of the mixture. Bake at 375 for 17-20 minutes on the bottom shelf of the oven, until pies are solid and turning brown on top. Let cool, then pop out onto a plate.

Mini Apple Pie Bites

Mini Apple Pie Bites

Ingredients

  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 cup pancake mix
  • 2 cups applesauce
  • 1 whole apple, diced small
  • 2 tbsp syrup or sugar
  • Sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg

Instructions

  1. Wash your apple, and dice very finely. Once baked this gives your pies a sweet, chewy texture. If you don't want any chunks at all, just replace with another 1/2 cup applesauce.
  2. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients well. If too dry, add a bit of water or apple juice. If too moist, sprinkle in more oats until you get the consistency you desire.
  3. Spray a mini muffin tin, and add 1 tbsp of the mixture. Bake at 375 for 17-20 minutes on the bottom shelf of the oven, until pies are solid and turning brown on top. Let cool, then pop out onto a plate.
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I can’t wait to share these at our Pi Day party!

 

Make Ahead Egg Muffins

 

Usually, my morning routine looks something like this:

6:10 – hit snooze
6:17 – hit snooze
6:24 – finally get up, go make coffee
6:25-7:15 – enter a black hole in space and time
7:16 – realize I’m gonna be late if I don’t move it
7:17-7:20 – pack lunch, maybe breakfast
7:21-7:30 – run out the door and pray for light traffic

Now, I don’t know what your mornings are like. But if you’re anything like me, you like your sleep and don’t have time for a long and leisurely brekkie every day. And if you do, good for you! You can still use this quick-and-easy make ahead recipe and then have more time for you in the AM.

Make ahead egg muffins in muffin tin

These egg muffins are so simple, and you make a dozen at once. That way you can put 2-3 in baggies and refrigerate or freeze. Then breakfast all week is only a push of the microwave button away! You can scale up to feed a big family, or even make just one serving by mixing 2 eggs and desired ingredients in a coffee mug and microwaving. (Didn’t know that little trick? Oh yeah, it’s the best.)

You can also customize it to your taste preferences. Anything you would normally eat with or in scrambled eggs you can probably adapt to this recipe. Try sausage, or bacon, or ham. Vegetarians, this is a blank canvas! Add zucchini, shredded carrots, sweet potato, broccoli or cauliflower. And cheese is optional, but highly recommended!

Butter mushrooms and onion

Ingredients (makes 12 egg muffins):

  • baker’s dozen (13) eggs
  • 1 med onion, diced
  • 1 pint mushrooms
  • 1/2 stick butter
  • 1 cup raw spinach
  • Optional: shredded cheese, breakfast meats, other veggies

butter and onions in pan

Step 1: In a pan over medium heat, add the butter and diced onion. Cook 10-12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until onion becomes soft and see-through. Pre-heat the oven to 350, and spray a muffin tin really well with cooking oil. (Stuck, baked-on egg is the worst.)

scrambled egg and greased muffin tin

Step 2: Add the diced mushrooms, and cook another 5-7 minutes, until softened. You can add a few tbsp water or chicken stock if they seem to be sticking or burning. Just before pouring into the muffin tin, add the spinach to wilt.

scrambled egg in muffin tin and eggs

Step 3: Break all the eggs into a bowl, and whisk violently for a minute or two. Mix in the cooked onion, mushroom, and spinach. Pour into the muffin tins until 2/3 full; leave a little room because the egg will puff up as it cooks.

make ahead egg muffins with cheddar cheese

Step 4: If desired, sprinkle with shredded sharp cheddar or whatever cheese you like. Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, until egg is fully cooked. Watch carefully at the end so that it doesn’t brown or burn.

I’d recommend letting these cool for a few minutes, then removing to a different plate or container quickly. You don’t want the egg to set and harden in the tin. It’s so easy to whip up a batch of these on the weekend, and you can even mix up the mix ins to have tons of options every day.

As for the cost? A dozen eggs is .99 – 1.29, or 4.50 for organic cage-free. Depends greatly on what you use to mix in, but the cost for an onion (~.50), mushrooms (.99 on sale), butter (maybe .50), and spinach (~.25 for 1 cup) for me comes to about 2.25. This makes 12 muffins, and I generally eat 2 for breakfast, so 6 servings. Let’s estimate high:

4.5 + 2.25 = 6.75 / 6 = basically just barely over a dollar per day, and that’s if I use the fancy eggs! For plain jane eggs, the cost drops to maybe 50 cents for an awesome breakfast that includes protein, fats, and a serving of vegetables! I can get behind that. I hope you can too!

 

Balsamic Berry Sauce

 

Fresh berries are nature’s candies. Bright and juicy, they are one of the most healthful natural foods. Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, whatever the color they are super! If you want to use them for something other than snacking and parfaits, here is a great dessert sauce recipe!

This sauce is a perfect accompaniment to ice cream, or poured over angel food cake, or even by itself with some fresh cream. It would make a great sauce for chicken, duck, or pork as well. You may like it so much you just eat it from the pan with a spoon! Not that I would or did do that…

Frozen berries would work just as well, you would just have to cook it a little longer to evaporate the extra water. The longer you simmer, the thicker and more syrup-like this will become. You could even use it on top of pancakes! I used half blackberries and half raspberries, you could mix however you like.

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup fresh or frozen berries
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar

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Step 1: In a frying pan, mix berries with sugar, lemon juice and balsamic. Bring to barely a simmer, and cook on low heat for 20-25 minutes, until berries have liquefied and the mixture has become thick and syrupy.

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Step 2: Pour over some high quality vanilla or flavored ice cream, and enjoy warm!

This is delicious warm, and has a nice little tang from the vinegar. The lemon juice brightens it, but it is not absolutely required. You could try cherries too, I bet that would be the bomb diggity.

 

Last-minute Valentine’s Day meal ideas

 

 

So, you want to have a romantic dinner but don’t want to shell out $20 and up? Me too!

With Valentine’s Day only 2 days away, you may be thinking about having a special meal with a special someone. It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking for yourself, some of your girlfriends or bros, your significant other, your parents, your dog, whatever, cooking a meal is always an act of love. An act of survival too, sure, but also you’re taking the trouble to turn raw ingredients into something edible.

Even if it’s a box of easy mac, or as fancy as a seven course meal, the person enjoying the finished product knows a little dash of love went into it.

And while a romantic dinner out on the town is nice every now and then, there are several advantages to cooking at home. One, you get to control the ingredients that go into your food. Restaurants use all kinds of ingredients you might not want to know about: stabilizers, emulsifiers, preservatives, MSG, salt and sugar by the tablespoon. At home, you know what is going into your food, and thus into your body.

Two, you can control portion sizes. There is a ton of research out there, not to mention if you’ve been around 2-3 decades or more you can see it for yourself, pointing fingers at ballooning portion sizes as a contributor to the obesity epidemic. When you eat out, you want to “get your money’s worth”, and restaurants know that giving you more food but with cheaper, less healthy ingredients, is good for their bottom lines. Terrible for your bottom, however, which will expand along with the size of the plate.

And finally, it is far cheaper per meal to cook at home. If you go out to a moderately priced chain, you are hard-pressed to find a full meal for less than $15 for dinner. Then add in tip, time, and gas money to get there. If you go out to a nicer restaurant or a place with a prixe-fixe menu, you are probably looking more into the $50 per person range. Restaurants know people want a special experience for Valentine’s Day, and take advantage by making fancy looking and sounding menus and tripling the prices.

Why not have just as special a meal, in a quiet place where you can actually hear each other talk, with no rush because the place wants to turn over your table? That’s right, I’m talking about your home!

Oh, and yes, you do have to do your dishes unlike at a restaurant. But you know what? That can be part of the experience if you know your dining partner well. Make it into an assembly line as you wash and dry together, laughing and maybe splashing each other throughout. Or tag-team dishwasher loading, then curl up on the couch with a good movie while it runs. You can make even chores fun if you try!

 

And now for the potential menu!

Below are a wide range of recipes, each will take you less than an hour, and I specialize in recipes that are affordable and simple. You won’t find more than 10 ingredients, and most of them you likely already have on hand.

Choose a few things that you know how to make, or know you will enjoy eating, and make some magic happen.

 

Appetizers – having multiple courses helps spread the meal out, giving you time to talk to your dining partner and bond. Appetizers don’t have to be complicated, give one of these a try.

Main course – even if you think you can’t cook, you should give it a try! Start with something very simple, and give it a test run today. Then you may find some ways to tweak it or make it better or easier. Or just jump in with both feet, what’s the worst that can happen, you order a pizza later?

Dessert – everyone loves dessert! You could even make your entire meal just a dessert buffet! But I’d recommend choosing just one thing you feel you can make, then sprinkle in an extra cup or two of love, and enjoy it.

Drinks – for adults and under-agers alike, a special drink makes a memorable addition to a special meal. You don’t have to get crazy with dozens of ingredients and multiple steps. Even something as simple as adding thinly sliced citrus to a glass of water can elevate the everyday to the special day.