I get really stressed out when I have to plan a menu. Typically it goes something like this: Pull every cookbook out of my bookcases and scour them for just the right dishes. Find nothing that meets my expectations and reluctantly put them back — after double checking the ones that I think should be able to help but aren’t. Then I grumble about it and decide on the type of main course I want to serve and work from there.
Then I start the process all over again for dessert. It’s tiring.
As much as I love to cook, and cook well, I am in a never-ending quest to have every meal I serve — but particularly those to guests — be absolutely perfect. Perfect pairing. Perfect presentation. Perfect everything. And that, my friends, really stresses me out. But I’m working on relaxing a bit. No one needs that much pressure.
When I was planning the menu for a special lunch with a very good friend the other day, I decided to go simple. Yes, I went simple. I know — sometimes I go nuts with cooking huge meals, but I wanted this to be a comfortable, relaxed visit so I made two dishes that I could prepare most or all of ahead of time – a panini and a salad.
I mentally built the salad piece by piece. First, I decided to start with a bed of baby spinach. And what pairs really well with baby spinach? Strawberries! And I happened to have a few, so I sliced those up. Of course, the salad had to have cheese — everything needs cheese. Seriously, people.
But it needed something more to elevate this from just another spinach and strawberry salad to a WOW! (Did I mention that this was the first time ever that this friend ate something I cooked? It was. And we’ve been friends for, um, seven years. So, it had to be an all-around WOW! meal.) After scanning the cabinets, I found my supply of dry roasted almonds and decided to do a candied almond to toss in the salad too.
These almonds were awesome. Nice and crispy and sweet. Mmm. Shawn’s first response was “Wow, those almonds really make the salad!” I tend to agree. If you’ve never made candy before, don’t worry. These are super easy.
yields 2 cups
1/2 cup water
1 cup white sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 vanilla bean
2 cups whole dry roasted almonds
Stir together the water, sugar and cinnamon in a medium saucepan. Scrap in the center of one vanilla bean. Stir in the almonds. Turn on the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Continue cooking over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens (all of the liquid should evaporate, leaving a syrupy mixture that moves together when you tilt the pan).
Spread a sheet of wax paper on a baking sheet. Make sure that the wax side is up. Pour the almond mixture onto the sheet and separate the almonds. Let cool.
Store in an airtight container.
About the Author (Author Profile)Sarah W. Caron is a freelance writer, editor and recipe developer. Her work has appeared in countless online and print publications including iVillage, BELLA NYC Magazine, Yum for Kids magazine and more. She lives in Connecticut with her two kids, two beagles and husband.
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