Tex-Mex Thanksgiving

The holidays started last month with my husband’s birthday, followed by Halloween.  Even more than usual, they are flying by.  And no, it doesn’t help that Thanksgiving is late this year, making Christmas early.  I just have this feeling in the pit of my stomach, or the back of my brain: I should have finished my Christmas shopping last week already.  For those of you who have already finished your Christmas cards (memo to self: get Christmas cards), thank you for your inspirational role-modeling.  I’m hoping next year will be more organized.

In the meantime, I did plan my Thanksgiving celebration; it’s Tex-Mex this year, in honor of my son’s new Mustang status.SMU DreamerI just read it off to my son, who is in Dallas at SMU, and he said that it was making him hungry already.  So, I’m sharing it with you here.  Special thanks to Kim Pierce, who wrote a great piece for the Dallas Times on a Tex Mex Thanksgiving, way back in 2007 (talk about planning ahead!).

And I also got my invitations out, thankfully.  They were easy to do, but a nice blend of traditional Thanksgiving, and Tex-Mex touches.Tex-Mex Thanksgiving invite

Here’s my plan for the menu:

I’ll start with simple cheese quesadillas (for the few picky eaters in my family), garnished with my guacamole because I love it, and accompanied by Chipotle Shrimp Tacos.  Because Thanksgiving dinner is such a huge meal, I’ll substitute for the soup course with a light salad (thank you, Martha!), sprinkled with pepitas.

The entrée, high-heat roasted turkey (seasoned with Tex-Mex spices), will follow.  The seasonings for the Tex-Mex rub on the turkey are simply borrowed from the seasonings recommended by Kim Pierce for the chili gravy that she wrote about.  The high-heat method is straight out of Fine Cooking; their technique is not only easy but delicious.  I’ll just make a simple pan gravy from the turkey drippings; I think it will be a lighter complement to all the food on the buffet.

Now for the sides: Ancho Chilis Stuffed with Sweet Potatoes, Cranberry-Mango Relish, Tex-Mex Zucchini, Smoked Baked Potatoes with El Rancho Chili con Queso, Mexican Corn Stuffing Casserole (without the cheeses), and Flaky Cheddar Jalapeno Biscuits.  The sweet potato, cranberry, and potato dishes are from Kim Pierce’s article also; they read like authentic Tex-Mex recipes (not just traditional Thanksgiving dishes with Tex-Mex spices – like, ahem, my roast turkey recipe – !)   The zucchini recipe is from Fine Cooking, too, and the stuffing recipe is from cooksrecipes.com.  The biscuits will be a blend of two recipes, Flaky Angel Biscuits and Cheddar and Jalapeno Biscuits (from Simply Recipes.com).

Now, for the dessert.  It might just be my favorite part of the meal… Pumpkin Flan (adapted from a special family recipe), Pecan Pie (because my from-Houston-friend says every Texan serves pecan pie at Thanksgiving), and Chocolate Tres Leches Cake, because we need something chocolate, don’t we? (The Chocolate Tres Leches Cake is also from Fine Cooking.)

I know I have so much to be grateful for.  My family is basically healthy; my living-away-from-home-son is happy where he is, my teenage daughter is finding her way (whether she realizes it or not); my husband is infinitely patient with all of us; my dog plays like a puppy still; I have made some new friends who have stepped up as old friends have moved on; I still have old friends; and I have Thanksgiving Dinner coming up.  I am looking forward to the Conversation Starters we always use,conversation cupthe Pictionary Challenge that always follows, and our tradional placecards. Turkey place cards I thank God for these blessings, and I sincerely hope that you are blessed as well.  Happy Thanksgiving!  Feliz Día de Acción de Gracias!

The end - SMU Dreamer!

Frontier Party for 6-year-old

There’s a general, well-known rule of thumb for the number of guests at a kid’s birthday party: Child’s age + 1 = number of guests. That works really well until your child enters compulsory education; then his classmates become his daily playmates, and ideally, he can’t narrow down his list of closest friends to just seven. In a perfect world, I like to think that means I’m raising a child who is inclusive and friendly. In the real world, when my son turned six and was just in kindergarten, that meant that I was faced with managing 38 (including my own) children for two hours. (The two-hour time limit was my arbitrary window of insanity.)The birthday boy

Well, my son came up with an idea that was actually do-able: a Frontier Party. He was very clear that it was not a Cowboy Party, or a Pioneer Party. All the days we’d played hooky from preschool and gone to Disneyland instead had paid off, and he wanted to recreate Tom Sawyer’s Island and Fort Wilderness in his backyard for his birthday. I think he also thought he wanted a coonskin cap, like the one Daniel Boone wore, and were then available in Adventureland in the Bazaar. (Now, I think they can be purchased at The Briar Patch, just past the Haunted Mansion, on your way into Critter Country.)

That many invitees plus limited time (I admit, his birthday had snuck up on me!) meant I needed an invitation that was easy to do. I found some printer-friendly paper at a local stationery store (my paper was decorated with cartoon-like mountains and trees, but any paper with “Mountain Scene” or “Fall Foliage” would do), and one night (very late) sat up and typed out the text. I was a little bit punchy, but the end result had a cute flavor and I think worked out well:

Frontier Invite-Blog-RevisedHowdy!  This here is a formal invite to head west to the edge of the Eastbluff Wilderness and rendezvous with the Scouting Party gathering there to celebrate Danny Smith’s 6th birthday on Saturday, November 11th from 2:30 – 4:30 pm…  Explore the frontier on a scavenger hunt, cook up some wild grub, tell tall tales ’round the campfire, and generally have a hoot…  Rsvp to the bona fide, certified rangers at 123.456.7890 by November 6th…  Hope to see you there!

(Because we were inviting everyone in his kindergarten class, I didn’t even have to pay for postage: I just dropped off the invitations the next day at school, and one of the volunteer-moms distributed them in the kids’ take-home bags.)

Frontier envelope

Once the date and time were set and the invitations were done, I had to plan the actual party. I started with activities; I was looking for ideas that were kindergartner-friendly and wouldn’t break the bank, and theme-oriented, of course. I figured the kids could do crafts for the first 20-25 minutes of the party, while everyone was arriving. The second half-hour would be devoted to the scavenger hunt (ahem, the tracking party), followed by 30-40 minutes of cooking lunch (hot dogs and s’mores) over campfires, eating cupcakes (instead of birthday cake), and finally, opening gifts. After that, it would be time for the guests to go home – phew!

By party day, we had 30 scouts to accommodate. I rented three kid-sized tables and 30 kid-sized chairs; I covered the tables with plastic tablecloths from Party City (light greengreen, and orange), and purchased paper plates and napkins in similar “frontier foliage” colors: mostly dark green, and some brown, orange, and yellow. (I didn’t need cups because I was serving juice boxes for beverages, and I didn’t need silverware because the food was all handheld).

The party starts

I also printed up name tags (just pre-printed package labels with a sticker) for each guest when they “checked in” at the front gate; I wanted to make sure the adult-helpers could identify each guest by name.

Name tag girl

The craft activities were simple, but cute and easy to execute:
1) Wampum bracelets (for trading with Indians) – made out of leather laces (that I pre-cut) and pony beads.


Serendipitously, this reinforced the patterns and sequencing tasks the kids were doing in school, so it was definitely age-appropriate.Lance6bday32) Bird seed feeders – made from toilet paper rolls smeared with peanut butter, then rolled in bird seed, and strung with red yarn for hanging. (I also had a box of baggies and a black sharpie – to stash the finished feeders and label the bags.)

Making bird feeders3) Pretzel log cabins – made from stick pretzels and peanut butter, stacked like Lincoln Logs. (The scouts constructed these on small paper plates that were then labeled with each scout’s name with another black sharpie, and placed in a baggie.)

Peanut butter crafts

4) Leaf rubbing placemats – made from purchased plain white placemats, various leaves collected at our local park, and crayons.


5) Coloring pages – reproduced from some very old Disneyland coloring books, with images of Trapper Mickey heading off into the forest with Goofy, or sitting around a campfire with Chief Donald.


Wolf TrackCrafts were followed by a scavenger hunt, thanks to the creative talent of my party-planning-friend-in-arms (hmm, -cahoots).  The scouts were divided into six scouting parties of five, each led by a mom or dad who had volunteered to help.  RaccoonTracks

Each scouting party was given a brown bag with handles (recycled from the local supermarket), and labeled with the party’s name.  Each bag also contained a small compass, and a baby-food jar with a punctured lid for collecting insect specimens.


Our six groups included the Bear, Wolf, Porcupine, Cougar, Fox, and Raccoon groups. Each bag had a large picture of that group’s footprint or track.PorcupineTrack

This was important because each group had to find their “track” clues in the neighborhood to help them collect the items on their scavenger list.

The tracking clues were simply plain pieces of paper decorated with a group’s specific track and then taped to the ground.

CougarTrackUnder the paper was the actual item to be discovered or a clue as to where the next item could be found. BearTrackThe supervising parents, or “guides,” had been given some directions as to where to lead their scouting party in case finding all the items became too daunting.  (Earlier in the day, we had distributed water bottles and feathers for later collection.)

Frontier Scouts’ Scavenger Hunt Directions:
Porcupine Team

Follow the trail, and you shall find
All these things we have in mind.
With your eyes only, watch out for:
   someone wearing green clothes
   a flag
   a dog
   a cat
   someone on a scooter
   a spider web
Leave the Scout Camp gate and head south (right).
Beware of a monster poisonous spider in a tall palm tree as you hike.
A brainless man with straw for arms you shall pass.
   Don’t be fooled by his smile.
   Keep on the path headed south.
DO NOT DISTURB THE OCCUPANT. It could be Dracula’s home. Save your blood. Continue slightly south-east.
Don’t forget to stop for water by a bush with yellow flowers. Scouts can’t get dehydrated.
(At Tommy Smith’s house: 1234 Buckingham):
   Two short palms guard the gate.
   Enter now – don’t dare wait.
   At the door, you shall meet
   A fair lady that you shall greet:
   “Lady, lady, what windy weather
   Will you please give us a feather?”
When two roads cross, it’s a dangerous place. Make sure that the direction that you face is east (left). Cross with care. Crazy wagon drivers may be there.
Trudge up a steep hill.
   Another crossroad you shall find.
   Stay with your leader – don’t get behind.
   Cross safely… if you can.
The third crossroad is very tricky… a wrong turn would be fatal. Go west (left). Proceed to a great open wilderness (park).
Remember – no collecting from settlers’ or squatters’ yards. It might make them ornery and cantankerous. Collect from the great open wilderness:
   6 different leaves
   6 different flowers
   6 stones
   1 piece of litter
   6 sticks
   1 pinecone
   1 sweet gum ball
   1 live bug
   1 lost toy
   1 bottle or can
Leave the northern edge of the wilderness, heading west. Under the porcupine tracks, find a penny. (Please retrieve the track!)
At the street sign that begins with “A,” you will find a scout’s collection. Collect a picture of your team animal.
Head down the mountain and at the second street that begins with a “B,” turn south (left), and return to Base Camp. Welcome Home! Now, c’mon in and we’ll rustle you up some grub!

But it was just daunting enough, and all the kids had a great time running through the neighborhood, stopping at some pre-arranged “cabins” to collect items that couldn’t be found in nature, and going to our local park (a five-minute walk away) to collect the nature items.

Meanwhile, I stayed at home and set up the “campfires” – portable, disposable barbecue grills that I purchased at end-of-summer sales at our local super market (of all places!).

Roasting hot dogs with help

Two more volunteers helped me get the coals going, and set up the food supplies: juice boxes, wooden dowels (that had been pre-soaked in water since the night before) for skewering, hot dogs, hot dog buns, ketchup and mustard, plates, and napkins. The roasting activities were all supervised by the parent “guides” and any parent stragglers who were hanging around – and believe me, there were plenty of stragglers!

There were also healthy alternatives, like celery sticks, baby carrot sticks, grapes, and black olives for sticking on your fingers (of course).

Eating lunch

Hot dogs were followed by s’mores: marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers.

Finally, the s’mores were followed by singing “Happy Birthday” and cupcakes, one of which had birthday candles for the Birthday Scout.

Some of the party-goers started going home at that point; each guest left with a Kraft bag labeled with their name in green or copper-colored puffy paint (for that tactile feeling), and filled with a small compass and flashlight (both from Oriental Trading), and their craft activities (the bird feeder, wampum bracelet, log cabin, placemat, extra coloring pages, and a homemade shortbread cookie in the shape of a maple leaf.) I heard one of the moms say how pleased she was with the low-key nature of the party favors – they were simple and personal.

The scouts who wanted to stay helped my son open his gifts. And that was the end of the party! It was two hours of jam-packed fun. It was not outrageously expensive, but being organized and prepped meant that every minute was filled with meaningful activity.


Southern-style Thanksgiving

My son will be going away to college next year (if he gets his wish), so in bittersweet honor of his “last year at home,” I gave him the choice of “what kind of Thanksgiving should we have?” Did he want Napa-style? New England-style? Southern? Tex-Mex? Vegetarian? (That last suggestion was a kind-of joke; he’s a decided meat-eater.) Southern, he said. Really? Did he really know what Southern-style Thanksgiving meant? Turns out, he did, no, really. It’s all about the cornbread dressing, he said. And the biscuits. Needless to say, I was completely dumb-founded and impressed – and I will take his comments as compliments.He was right about the cornbread dressing, and the biscuits. But I have a few other Southern tricks in my apron pocket, thanks to Lee Bailey and my longtime partner-in-party-planning. Lee Bailey was a designer-writer-photographer-stylist, Louisiana-born and –bred, who wrote almost 20 fantastic cookbooks. Based on his recipes and comments, Mr. Bailey must have been a bonafide Southern gentleman, the epitome of Southern graciousness. Which reminds me of my party-planning-partner of arts-and-crafts fame – she is also Louisiana-born- and –bred, also knows her way around a Southern kitchen, and is bonafide Southern graciousness personified. So, planning a Southern-style Thanksgiving will make me bring out my favorite cookbooks and recipes for a gracious holiday that will hopefully inspire my teenage son to return home for holidays! (Phew!)

Hawaiian Luau Birthday invitation

My kids were at an age (5 and 7 years old) when they wanted a hand in everything.  And I have always thought (still do) that children’s art efforts can be very appealing.  So I thought to put them to work on the invitations.  At the same time, I wanted our guests to know just how far the “birthday boy” had come, so I needed to show “then” and “now” images.  The combination of needs resulted in a triptych card (cream-colored cardstock, (6 1/2 ” x 12 3/4″), with before and after photos and artwork by my kids to set the island theme:

The initial opening of the card revealed the “now” picture; both photos were “matted” on tropical flowered paper:

The next unfolding showed the artwork and the party details:

In signature primitive style, with their Crayola watercolor paint set, my kids painted the ocean, a wave on the sand, and a palm tree on the beach.  They did this 40 times (for 40 invitations)!  They added a few assorted stickers (a sun and a Hawaiian image) and I added a vellum sheet with all the pertinent details, affixed with tropical flower stickers.

The invitation said this (Microsoft Windows 2010 Ravie font, boldface in orange):


Chris, our big kahuna,

is celebrating

a special birthday:

Hukilau down to the

Sandalwood Beach Bungalow

for a luau!

Saturday, October 5th

4:00 pm

Rsvp to the natives –

Sandy, Vince, or Tina


by September 22nd

No gifts, please –