Whether you’re planning an Easter gathering or are looking forward to plenty of springtime get-togethers with friends, don’t stress over anything. Here are some handy pointers from entertaining expert, Southern cooking show host, entrepreneur and caterer Vera Stewart, who will help ensure you are prepared for a fabulous gathering that you can actually enjoy! Plus, check out four of Vera’s family recipes, which all come from her new cookbook, The VeryVera Cookbook: Recipes From My Table (available for presale now here and here with an official launch on April 17).
Take it away, Vera …
1. Go step-by-step.
Having a party can feel daunting, but if you break your to-do list down into small steps and start a week or so in advance, you’ll be amazed at how simple the preparation feels. For example, gather your serving ware and label each piece so you know if you’re missing a platter for the dessert or if you have enough cups for your guests. These small steps will help eliminate any last-minute worries the night before.
2. Kickstart your cooking early.
When you want to spend more time with friends and family instead of in the kitchen, any preparation you can do the week of your event will help. The freezer and refrigerator are your friends! For example, low-maintenance options — like chicken salad and broccoli salad — can be prepared and stored in the refrigerator days before your event. This will not only help cut kitchen time on Easter Sunday, but it will also allow the flavors to meld together creating an even more delicious result.
3. Don’t stress about the setup.
Would paper plates and plastic silverware make your life a lot easier? Then embrace it! Don’t feel forced to get out the china and glassware if you’re keeping things casual, especially when spreads, dips and finger foods are involved. Dress up your table or kitchen with plastic eggs, vintage Easter baskets and photos of holidays’ past to put the focus on memories instead of serving ware.
4. Practice makes perfect.
While trying your hand at new recipes and techniques is never a bad thing, stick to tried-and-true favorites or simple dishes if you’re focused on a no-fuss gathering. Feeling confident in your menu is one way to eliminate stress. If there’s a recipe you’re dying to try, give it a shot a few weeks before Easter Sunday so you’re more familiar when the time comes.
5. Consider your clean up options.
There’s hardly anything more stressful than feeling obligated to clean the sink full of dirty dishes while your party is in full swing. To avoid this, set up soapy bins in your laundry room so you can transport the dirty dishes out of sight until your guests leave. If you opted for paper plates, make sure your trash cans are in plain sight so clean up is a breeze.
4 Easy Recipes to Whip up For a Springtime Gathering
Now! Let’s talk menu! When you envision a Southern get-together, you better believe the following four recipes from Vera’s new cookbook fit the bill. A dip, a couple of salads and a dessert? Yes! That’s the perfect menu! Take a look …
Vidalia Onion Dip
This dip is Southern to its core and completely irresistible. If you can find them, Vidalia onions from Vidalia, Georgia, are my first choice for this recipe. If you’re unable to get your hands on Vidalias, regular sweet onions will work. I serve this dip with Fritos Scoops!® corn chips, but you can choose any chip or cracker you prefer.
- 16 ounces cream cheese
- 11⁄3 cups Parmesan cheese, hand-shredded
- 1⁄3 cup Hellmann’s® mayonnaise
- 3 cups Vidalia onions, diced
- Preheat the oven to 325°F and prepare a 9-inch pie dish with cooking spray. Combine the cream cheese, Parmesan cheese, and mayonnaise with a mixer on medium speed, or until just blended.
- Stir in the onions by hand.
- Scoop into the prepared 9-inch pie dish.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until bubbly and browned on the top. Serve hot.
When we opened the Café in 2004, cold broccoli salad was very trendy and new. Wanting to incorporate new with our classic Southern, this became our standard side to our sandwiches. I recommend selecting a whole head of broccoli and cutting the florets yourself.
- 1 large head raw broccoli (approximately 6 cups broccoli florets) 1 cup bacon, cooked (approximately 6 to 8 slices)
- 1 small red onion, diced
- 1 cup dried cranberries (Craisins®)
- 1 cup Hellmann’s® mayonnaise
- 1⁄4 cup white wine vinegar
- 1⁄2 cup granulated sugar
- 1⁄2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
- Cut off the broccoli stems and halve broccoli spears. Place in a large bowl.
- Crumble the cooked bacon over the broccoli.
- Add the onion and dried cranberries.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, vinegar, and sugar.
- Pour 3⁄4 of the dressing over the broccoli and add freshly cracked pepper. Mix until well incorporated.
- Let the salad sit in the refrigerator overnight for best results.
- Pour the remaining dressing over the salad right before serving.
Vera’s Signature Chicken Salad
Perfectly moist and full of flavor, this chicken salad is great on a bed of lettuce, in a sandwich, or by itself. Tarragon adds a licorice-like sweetness, and pecan pieces provide perfect textural balance. The Café menu sandwich was served on a croissant and the chicken salad was also in our case in 1⁄2- or 1-pound containers. Don’t start the weekend without this in your refrigerator.
- 2 1⁄2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, raw 1⁄2 cup pecan pieces
- 1 cup green onions, sliced
- 2 cups Hellmann’s® mayonnaise
- 1⁄2 teaspoon ground black pepper 1⁄2 teaspoon garlic salt
- 1⁄2 teaspoon onion salt
- 2 tablespoons dried tarragon
- Boil the chicken breasts in salted water for about 10 to 12 minutes until a thermometer inserted in the thickest breast registers 165°F.
- Pulse the chicken in a food processor, leaving bigger pieces, or shred by hand for your desired consistency.
- In a large bowl, combine the shredded chicken, pecan pieces, and green onions.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the mayonnaise and seasonings.
- Mix some of the mayonnaise mixture into the chicken mixture until well blended.
- Continue to incorporate the mayonnaise mixture until you have reached your desired
- Store in the refrigerator and allow the flavors to meld overnight.
- Keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 6 days.
Vera, my grandmother, was quite the hostess. She was known for having friends in for teas and special celebrations. The crystal sandwich platter was hers. The lemon bars would shine like the sun from her dining room table. The perfect balance of sweet and tart, they are great in the afternoon or following a heavy meal.
- Floured baking spray
- 4 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for garnish
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 4 cups granulated sugar
- 1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 8 large eggs, beaten
- 3⁄4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- Preheat the oven to 350°F, and grease a half sheet pan (13 x 18 inches), with edges, with floured baking spray.
- Melt the butter in a large bowl in the microwave.
- Add the confectioners’ sugar and flour to the melted butter and mix until well blended.
- Press into the greased half sheet pan.
- Bake the cookie base for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown.
- While the crust is baking, make the lemon filling; stir together the sugar, flour, and
- baking powder in a large bowl.
- Add the eggs, lemon juice, and lemon zest and mix until well blended.
- Pour the mixture over the hot crust and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes.
- Let the bars cool completely.
- Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and cut into 1-inch squares.
- This pan will be very full and the lemon filling will go to the top of the pan. Be very careful when placing the pan in the oven for the second bake. The half sheet pan is the perfect height for the lemon bars, but I also suggest aluminum foil on the rack below the pan in the oven in case it spills over.
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