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Celebrate the Special People In Your Life This May

It’s May, so that means it’s time to put away the heavy roasting pans, pull out the dainty tart and springform pans, iron pretty pastel cloths, and get ready for this month’s important celebrations. Just around the corner are high school and college graduations, bridal showers in advance of June weddings, and perhaps most important, Mother’s Day.

Most of us have good intentions when the need to honor the special people in our lives arises. However, the thought of preparing a seated, formal meal for a crowd or even our own families often causes us to pass entertaining duties to others. However, there is a solution to the never-ending list of excuses we can use to talk ourselves out of treating those we love to a memorable gathering and it’s very simple:

Plan a menu filled with easy-to-prepare dishes that don’t require hours in the kitchen. And here’s a point to remember when deliberating over the menu for these women-centric celebrations. Most females prefer meals that are on the light, healthy side. So, save the grilled steaks and heavy desserts for Father’s Day or Fourth of July cookouts.

Serving light, simple food doesn't mean its appearance or taste will be compromised. The best food comes from taking excellent-quality ingredients and cooking just enough to enhance them. And it’s even acceptable to supplement prepared dishes with some that are purchased from a local caterer or deli or even the supermarket.

If you’re planning to cook everything from scratch, it’s important to prepare as much as possible in advance, leaving only last-minute heating or plating tasks for the day of your special gathering or meal.

Many dishes can be assembled the night before, refrigerated, and then taken out just as the event begins. Marinated or pasta salad tossed with a light sun-dried tomato vinaigrette dressing and served with grilled chicken bites, sautéed shrimp or chopped salami can serve as a side dish, or, depending upon how many ingredients are added, the main entrée.

Most females love bread, so consider creating a fragrant bread tray filled with an assortment of cheddar cheese scones, sliced bagels, small biscuits, and loaves of gourmet breads in a variety of flavors. Layer the different varieties on a large platter accompanied by small bowls or jars of flavorful jams, cream cheese and fruit or butter spread.

Dessert should be the crowning touch to any special event. Cheesecake is a crowd-favorite, but after suffering a second-degree foot burn while removing an Easter cheesecake from a bubbling water bath, I searched for a safer version. A friend recommended one that’s easy to assemble, light and lemony, and, most important, can be baked sans water bath.

Here are a few of my favorite springtime recipes (all can be doubled or tripled easily to fit your crowd), each of which is perfect for any springtime celebration.

Marinated Tomato Salad

4 medium Roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped

3 tablespoons celery, diced

3 tablespoons red onion, diced

1/3 cup Italian dressing

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons basil, fresh,

Mix all ingredients together and chill prior to serving. Serve as a side salad, as a condiment to grilled meats or vegetables. Can be pureed and used as a sauce also.

Sun-dried Tomato Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil

1 tablespoon ketchup

1 cup Italian dressing

1/4 teaspoon dry basil

Place torn tomatoes in food processor with ketchup, process until chopped. Add dressing and basil and process further to blend.

* Can use for a salad dressing, marinade, or a sauce.

Marinated Grilled Chicken Bites

1 recipe sun-dried tomato vinaigrette

4 (4-ounce) boneless skinless chicken breasts

1/2 teaspoon Creole seasoning

1/2 teaspoon season salt garlic

Flavored vegetable spray as needed

Using half of the recipe of marinade, spread over chicken breast and allow to marinate under refrigeration for at least 30 minutes. Preheat grill to moderate high heat. Season chicken with blend of spices and vegetable spray. Carefully season grill with vegetable spray. Place chicken on grill allowing marks to develop, turn chicken 90 degrees to create cross hatch marks, flip, baste with remaining marinade, and finish until done (165 degrees internal). Cut into bite-size pieces.

Sweet Tomato and Penne Pasta Salad

1 recipe sun-dried tomato vinaigrette

4 Roma tomatoes, washed and cut into eighths

1/4 cup red onion, diced

1/2 teaspoon Season Salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

3 cups penne pasta, cooked

Mix all ingredients together, chill and serve.

Lemon-Berry Cheesecake

Nonstick cooking spray

1 cup graham cracker crumbs (can substitute shortbread or other favorite hard cookies)

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese

2 cups cottage cheese

3 large eggs

3/4 cup sugar, plus more for the berries

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Sliced strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Spray a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray. Use the bottom of a glass or measuring cup to press the graham cracker or cookie crumbs into the bottom of the prepared pan. Spray the crust lightly with cooking spray.

In a blender, combine cream cheese, cottage cheese, eggs, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, flour, and vanilla and blend until smooth. Pour into the crust and bake for 40 minutes. Let cool completely. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or, for best results, chill overnight.

Toss the berries in a bowl with a little water and a sprinkle of sugar. When cheesecake is firm, lightly spread sugared berries over the top.

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