Halloween is right around the corner and, before we know it, miniature princesses and ghouls will be ringing our doorbell looking for treats.
After a busy day of helping at school parties and taking the kids trick-or-treating, I was often tempted to order takeout, as it was a convenient -- but not always healthy -- choice. As a big kid myself, I wanted the festivities to continue and not have to slave over the stove to make dinner. So in an effort to balance these two somewhat competing interests, I came up with our family's annual Halloween meal: Trick-or-Treat Beef Stew and Bloody Bones.
My husband and I have four children and, while they were in elementary school, I often served as a room parent for their class holiday parties, with Halloween being one of my favorites. These events often included a craft, games and most definitely food. Being the foodie that I am, I would try to make creative treats; the Halloween theme opened a window to all things ghoulish and sometimes even a little creepy. Veggie skeletons with skulls carved out of cauliflower, life-size gelatin brains, and ghosts-in-the-graveyard pudding treats were often on the menu. Yes, I actually own a brain gelatin mold and would serve it on a plate of lettuce with a small plastic knife for kids to slice their own piece of the brain -- they loved it!
Trick-or-treating always started as soon as school was over and ended at 7 p.m., rain or shine. Unfortunately, Halloween would often turn out to be a cold and damp day requiring umbrellas and jackets, but that never stopped our family. We would stay out right up until the end and head home with plastic pumpkins full of sweet loot. Then the real fun began, but not until after dinner.
I found planning ahead was my best bet on days like these when you want something warm, but don't want to take time away from your kids or guests. In an effort to stick to the Halloween theme, I once tried a recipe for a beef stew baked at a low temperature in a hollowed out pumpkin, but once was enough, and now the slow-cooker is my go-to method.
On Halloween morning, tender chunks of beef stew meat are browned and place in the slow cooker, followed by vegetables and liquid of some kind.
This recipe calls for beef stock and vegetable juice, but feel free to add your favorite beef stew partner -- perhaps red wine or even spicy Bloody Mary mix, perfect for the Halloween theme.
I typically use traditional stew vegetables, but feel free to add what you and your family like.
The best part about the slow cooker is that you load it up and let it cook all day, then it is waiting for you when you get home.
You might be asking "What about the Halloween theme?" Rest assured, I have not forgotten. Of course, if you have pumpkin-shaped bowls, feel free to load them with stew. But I don't, so Halloween creeps into our dinner as bread -- Bloody Bones to be exact.
Bloody Bones are freshly baked breadsticks, shaped like bones, with a side of marinara sauce for dipping. I have included a breadstick recipe you can make ahead and refrigerate, then allow to rise while you are trick-or-treating. But feel free to also use prepared breadstick dough from a supermarket. T
he shaping is what is important, so follow the instruction in the recipe for cutting and shaping the bread dough into bones. Either way, sprinkle with a little garlic salt and pop them in a preheated oven. While they bake, heat your favorite marinara sauce and, 10 to 15 minutes later, you have freshly baked "bones" to dip in marinara "blood." Yes, they are cute, but they are also tasty too.
Sadly, my kids no longer trick-or-treat, but they have fond memories of spending time together when they were young and even remember some of my themed meals.
I know this is not an advice column, but savor the time you have with your little ones and, if it helps, serve stew and breadsticks this Halloween, then get back to the important things like sorting and trading candy. Be sure to save a peanut butter cup for me!
• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge.