Jane Lawson’s sons, Kellan, 5 1/2, and Carsten, 2 1/2, dressed up as a ninja and a puppy dog for Halloween.
Jane Lawson’s sons, Kellan, 5 1/2, and Carsten, 2 1/2, dressed up as a ninja and a puppy dog for Halloween.
November 4, 2013

Halloween 2013 is a thing of the past, but I can definitely say this year we maxed out on our Halloween fun. We attended several Halloween events around the Des Moines area including an event at Living History Farms, Night Eyes at Blank Park Zoo, The Great Pumpkin Party at Valley Church, trunk or treat at Kellan's school, and a Halloween party at our fitness club.

Kellan's school in West Des Moines has a traditional Halloween parade and party. I was fortunate to be able to be at his school to see over 600 students and staff members parade through the hallways of the school in Halloween costumes. It was an amazing sight as my district does not allow any type of Halloween costumes or parties at school. Our students instead have a fall harvest party.

Carsten had fun at his Halloween party at his day care provider's home decorating cupcakes and eating lots of sweet treats.

After the big finale of an unseasonably warm Beggars' Night, the boys wore their costumes one last time for a total of seven times.

We spent the six weeks preceding Halloween visiting stores to look at spooky decorations, watching Halloween movies, and reading Halloween books. We also visited two pumpkin patches as part of our annual fall tradition.

This year it seemed the boys couldn't get enough Halloween in their systems. It was the main topic of conversation for a month. Yesterday Carsten asked to put on his puppy dog costume again.

It's hard to believe, but in less than four weeks it will be Thanksgiving and in less than eight weeks, it will be Christmas. With Thanksgiving so late in November, there are only four weekends, instead of five, in between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

It's already time to think about planning for the holidays. One of the easiest meals to plan for a crowd is soup and sandwiches. Soup and sandwiches work well for the day before or after the big holiday. Family members can help themselves to what they want, and you aren't tied down to a lunch or dinner schedule.

During the holidays my family typically has a few different soups in crock pots, and I like to make a variety of panini sandwiches. My mom has a panini press, and it's a super easy way to make warm, gooey sandwiches. If you don't have a panini press, spread butter on the sandwich just like a grilled cheese and place in a large skillet. Place a heavy cast iron skillet on top (or any pan and a heavy soup can) to press down on the bread to make the sandwich flat.

Last year, I made paninis filled with different combinations including turkey, ham, smoked gouda, havarti and caramelized onion. In the past I've also combined ham, thinly sliced apple and white cheddar cheese to make a sweet and savory sandwich.

Taco Soup

The bilingual community outreach worker at my school is originally from the Dominican Republic and loves to cook with Latin flavors. She brought this soup to school, and it was a big hit. Her spin on it is to add shredded cabbage to the steaming hot soup right before serving.

2 lbs browned hamburger or ground turkey

2 cans tomato soup

2 cans black beans

2 cans corn

1 can hominy

1 small can diced green chilies

1 can Rotel tomatoes and green chilies

1 pkg Hidden Valley dressing mix

1 pkg taco seasoning

Mix all ingredients together. Add water to make it the consistency you like.

Serve with shredded cabbage (or coleslaw mix), shredded cheese and Fritos corn chips.

Cheesy Ham and Potato Soup

Potato soup is always a crowd-pleaser. This one also includes cheddar cheese and diced ham.

3 1/2 cups potatoes, peeled or unpeeled and diced

1/3 cup celery, diced

1/3 cup onion, finely chopped

1 -2 cup(s) ham, diced

3 1/4 cups water or 3 1/4 cups chicken broth

2 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules (omit if using chicken broth)

salt (to taste)

1 teaspoon pepper

5 tablespoons butter

5 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

2 cups Cheddar cheese, shredded

Combine potatoes, celery, onion, ham, and water/broth in stockpot and bring to boil. Then cook over medium heat until potatoes are tender. Stir in the chicken bouillon, salt (if using), and pepper.

In separate saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in flour and cook stirring constantly until thick. Slowly stir in milk as not to allow lumps to form and all milk is added. Continue to stir until thick (4-5 minutes). Add in cheese and stir until melted. Stir the cheese mixture into the stockpot and cook until heated through.

Note: To add thickness to the soup, break up some of the potatoes with a potato masher. The soup gets thicker as it cools the next day.

30-Minute Chicken Noodle Soup

When I looked back at this recipe, it came from Rachael Ray's "30-Minute Meals" show in 2002. I remember making it for my family at my mom's house in Carroll. It's especially easy as there's no need to precook the chicken. It cooks right in the soup.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (2 turns around the pan)

2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped

1 parsnip, peeled and chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

2 celery ribs, chopped

2 fresh bay leaves or 2 dried bay leaves

salt and pepper

6 cups good quality chicken stock

1 lb chicken breast tenders, diced (the average weight of 1 package)

1/2 lb wide egg noodles

1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

1/4 cup fresh dill, chopped

Place a large pot over moderate heat and add extra-virgin olive oil. Work close to the stove and add vegetables to the pot as you chop, in the order they are listed. Add bay leaves and season vegetables with salt and pepper, to taste. Add stock to the pot and raise flame to bring liquid to a boil. Add diced chicken tenderloins, return soup to a boil, and reduce heat back to moderate. Cook chicken 2 minutes and add noodles. Cook soup an additional 6 minutes or until noodles are tender and remove soup from the heat. Stir in parsley and dill, remove bay leaves and serve. This is a thick soup. Add up to 2 cups of water if you like chicken soup with lots of broth.

On paninihappy.com there are several simple and tasty panini ideas. Paninis are a great way to use up leftovers in your fridge or a fun way to experiment with new flavors. Make them as simple or as fancy as you'd like. Try a variety of different breads including thinly sliced French and Italian. I cut the bread at an angle to create larger slices of bread. I always brush the outsides with butter or olive oil before grilling.

Pulled Barbecue Chicken Panini

Simmer shredded leftover (or rotisserie) chicken in barbecue sauce, layer with fresh mozzarella or smoked gouda and caramelized onions on Italian bread. Brush chili oil on the outside of the bread for extra flavor.

Reuben Panini

Try a classic Reuben with corned beef (or even leftover turkey), Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island or Russian dressing and grill on rye bread.

Grape Salad and Gruyère Panini

Combine shredded leftover (or rotisserie) chicken in a bowl with halved grapes, chopped walnuts and mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper. Grill with shaved Gruyère cheese on dark rye bread.

Buffalo Chicken Panini

Simmer 1 1/2 lbs of sliced boneless-skinless chicken thighs in a bottle of Buffalo wing sauce (the wing sauce, not the hot sauce) for about 15 minutes until cooked through. Combine with caramelized onions and crumbled blue cheese on pita bread or flatbread (microwave the pitas or flatbread for a few seconds to make them more malleable), fold over the pita or flatbread and grill till toasty.

Onion Dip

Seasonalfamily.com has a homemade onion dip to go alongside soup and sandwiches. It's the perfect pair with fresh cut veggies or chips.

1 cup sour cream or Greek yogurt

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

pinch of fresh ground pepper

sprinkle of dried chives

Combine all of the above ingredients in your choice of sour cream or Greek yogurt. Enjoy it as a dip or thin it out with a bit of organic extra virgin olive oil and make a dressing for your salad.

To make onion and garlic powders at home, simply preheat your oven to 150 degrees (or lowest temperature) and place small pieces of chopped onion and garlic on parchment paper on a baking tray. Place in the middle rack in the oven overnight or for at least 6 hours or until they can easily be crumbled by hand. Remove from oven and cool. Then in a grinder or food processor, blend for desired texture, either a fine powder or the onion/garlic can be left a little chunky for an extra punch. Store in an airtight container in the freezer to keep fresh.

Homemade onion dip can also be made with fresh onions and garlic that are sauteed in a cast iron or frying pan for 15 minutes. The taste will be delicious, allow the onions and garlic to cool, add the salt and pepper to your sour cream or yogurt and place in the refrigerator to firm for a few hours before eating.