Melanie Constance finds joy in offering hospitality

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Photo by Ann Cipperly

By Ann Cipperly

Although Melanie Constance is a busy working mother, she finds time  to welcome company for Sunday lunches, dinners and games nights with her husband, Shawn, and their two young sons. Melanie will adapt recipes and assemble her own to serve family and friends.

While faith and family are the most important things to Melanie, she feels having guests in their home is a vital part of life. “I think so many people have left that out of their life,” she says. “They don’t know their neighbors or have friends over.”

When Melanie first started inviting guests over, she would get in a frenzy trying to get the house clean, and it was stressful to get everything perfect.  “I don’t worry about perfect anymore,” she says. “I make sure the half bath is ready, and the kids pick up toys on the living room floor. Their rooms are probably going to be a wreck, and there will be things on the counter.”

Melanie learned how to cook from her mother when she was growing up in Florence, Miss. “I have a picture of me in the kitchen,” she says, “standing in a chair since I couldn’t reach the counter. I am covered with flour, helping my mother make biscuits.”

Melanie and her two sisters helped their mother cook and cleanup, while their father would have them help with projects outdoors.

She graduated from Mississippi College, a small Baptist college in Clinton, Miss., and then attended Mississippi Medical Center, receiving a degree in physical therapy.

Melanie met Shawn the first day at college, and they were married after graduating. When Shawn decided to get his master’s degree, they moved here for him to attend Auburn University where he received an assistant teaching position.

“While Shawn was attending Auburn,” says Melanie, “we fell in love with the area and decided to live in Opelika.”

Shawn is a software engineer at Aflac, while Melanie is a physical therapist at Rehab Works of Opelika. She works until it is time to pick up their two young sons, Jason and Michael, at school.

They moved into their home on north side Opelika about 12 years ago. Two years ago, they remodeled the house and converted the garage into a living room and added an office, closets, a half bath and additional kitchen cabinets. Melanie wanted a spacious dining room since they enjoy having people over.  They also enjoy entertaining on their large deck.

If Melanie and Shawn are having guests on Sunday after church, she will have dishes prepared ahead. If serving a soup, she will either put it in a slow cooker before going to bed or early Sunday morning. It will be ready to serve when they return home from First Presbyterian Church of Opelika.

She feels having guest in their home is good for their sons’ social skills. “We have people over a lot,” says Melanie. “You can tell the boys really like people.”

The Constances also invite college students over after church for lunch or for a game night. They have become close to students over the years, and some still send them Christmas cards.

Melanie will create recipes and adapt others. A favorite is Chicken Mama, one of her creations. The chicken dish is good served over rice and can be served with pasta.

When they go to a restaurant and find a dish everyone likes, she will pick it apart and try to figure how to make it.  One of these is the Pasta Milano, a copy of the dish once served at Macaroni Grill.

Melanie worked for a Macaroni Grill when she was in college. “It changed my cooking style a lot because I grew up with very southern cooking. When I worked there, I watched the chefs cook.”

Skillet Fiesta is one of her mother’s recipes. It is great for serving a crowd since it can be doubled or tripled. Melanie can have this dish prepared start to finish under 20 minutes. She serves it on flour tortillas with assorted toppings.

The boys are learning to cook and will sometimes have their “M J Cafe.”  During summer, the boys decided to treat their father, who works from home one day a week, to a special lunch. They made a menu and slipped it under his office door where he could check his order.

They made him lunch with one serving as a waiter. The boys have also surprised their parents with French toast in bed. Melanie works with them to teach cooking and feels it is good Mom time.

While she enjoys preparing meals for guests, Melanie realizes everyone doesn’t like to cook. She thinks having a game night is a great way to have friends over too.

For mothers with young children who would like to offer hospitality, she adds, “The kids will love it, but they will probably embarrass you, asking guests so many questions. That is ok, as they can be good teaching moments.”

Ann Cipperly can be contacted at recipes@cipperly.com.

RECIPES:

Chicken Mama
2 boneless, skinless, chicken breasts
Salt, pepper, garlic powder
1/4 cup flour mixed lightly with paprika, salt and pepper
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup sherry cooking wine
3/4 cup diced tomatoes
2 Tbsp. fresh basil, chopped
Slice chicken and pound to make even thickness, if needed. Lightly season with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Spread flour mixture evenly on a plate and dredge both sides of chicken in flour; shake off excess.
Heat oil in a large saucepan, over medium-high heat, then cook chicken until lightly browned 3-5 minutes on each side. Remove chicken from pan and cover to “rest”.
Add extra oil to pan if needed; sauté onion over medium heat until tender, about 3-5 minutes. Turn heat to low. Add garlic and cook another minute, being careful not to overcook garlic.
Add wine to deglaze pan; increase heat back to medium-high. Bring to a boil and reduce by half. Add tomatoes. Heat over medium another 5 minutes. Add basil and chicken, heat through. Serve with rice. Serves 4.

Pasta Milano
Copy of dish at Macaroni Grill
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 cups heavy cream
1 beef bouillon cube
1 Tbsp. butter
4 oz. sun dried tomatoes, chopped
1 lb. bowtie (or other wide noodle) cooked according to package directions, drained
6 Tbsp. Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 chicken breasts, grilled, sliced into thin strips (I slice the chicken in half and then flatten it with the flat side of a meat mallet until it is the same thickness throughout. Then brush it with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Cover chicken with plastic wrap to keep chicken juices from spraying everywhere.)
Heat oil in a saucepan and sauté garlic over low heat about 1 minute. Add heavy cream and bouillon cube, salt and pepper; bring to simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add sun dried tomatoes and simmer another minute.
Remove from heat; add butter, pasta and Parmesan, mixing well. Serve with grilled chicken.
Note: Half and half may be substituted for heavy cream, but add 1/2 Tbsp. flour to help thicken. Serves 4-6.

Mom’s Skillet Fiesta with Tortillas and Toppings
1 cup uncooked rice
1 beef bouillon cube
1 lb. ground beef
1/4 cup onion, minced
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. cumin
1 (16 oz.) can petite diced tomatoes
1 1/2 cups frozen corn
1 can black beans, rinsed
Salt and pepper to taste
Flour tortillas
Toppings: salsa, sour cream, guacamole, cheese
Cook rice according to package instructions, adding beef bouillon.
Brown beef in a large skillet on medium heat, add onion and cook on low until onion is tender, about 3 minutes. Add seasonings, tomatoes, corn, beans and salt and pepper to beef mixture.  Once rice is cooked, add to mixture, stirring well.
Serve on flour tortillas with salsa, sour cream, guacamole and cheese.

Double Tomato Bruschetta
3 Roma tomatoes, chopped
¼ cup sun dried tomatoes, packed in oil, chopped
1/8 Tbsp. salt
1/8 Tbsp. black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. fresh basil, chopped
1/4 cup shaved Parmesan
French baguette, sliced and warmed
Combine all ingredients except basil, Parmesan and bread.  Refrigerate 3 hours or overnight. Add basil an hour before serving and mix.
When ready to serve add Parmesan shavings and serve over baguette slices or can be served with crackers.

Hot Spinach and Artichoke Dip
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup onion, chopped
1 block chopped spinach, defrosted, drained
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 can artichoke hearts, drained, chopped
3/4 cup Parmesan, shredded
8 oz. sour cream
8 oz. cream cheese
8 oz. Monterey jack, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste
Tortilla chips or crackers
In large saucepan, sauté onion on low in butter until tender. Add spinach, garlic, artichoke hearts, Parmesan, sour cream, cream cheese and a handful of Monterey jack cheese, salt and pepper. Stir until cheese is melted.
Pour into 8×8 baking dish and top with remaining cheese. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve hot with tortilla chips or your favorite crackers.

Chocolate Cobbler
1 1/4 cups sugar, divided
1 cup all-purpose flour
7 Tbsp. cocoa, divided
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 cups hot water
Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream
Preheat oven to 350.
In a medium bowl mix 3/4 cup sugar, flour, 3 Tbsp. cocoa powder, baking powder and salt together. Stir in milk, butter and vanilla until smooth. Pour into an ungreased 8-inch glass pan.
In a small bowl, mix 1/2 cup sugar, brown sugar and 4 Tbsp. cocoa powder. Sprinkle mixture evenly over batter. Pour hot water over top but do not stir. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, let stand 15 minutes before serving. I like it best served over ice cream!

Tilapia
2 lbs. frozen tilapia fillets or frozen, breaded tilapia
1/4 cup Parmesan, shredded
2 Tbsp. butter, softened
1 1/2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Cook fillets according to package directions, removing from oven 3 minutes before fully cooked. Mix Parmesan, butter, mayonnaise and lemon juice together. Spread mixture over fillets and finish baking.

Carrabba’s Sausage and Lentil Soup
A copycat version
1 lb. Italian sausage, removed from casing
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1 small zucchini, chopped
1/2 tsp. basil
48 oz. carton chicken broth
2 (14 1/2 oz. cans diced tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups dry lentils
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. parsley
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
Break up meat and brown in large stockpot over medium high heat. Don’t drain fat from meat. Combine all other ingredients in pot and bring to a boil on high heat, then reduce heat and cover. Simmer for about 1 hour or until lentils are tender. It’s okay to add more broth or water for desired consistency.  Can place in slow cooker. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and serve.  Serves 8.

Shepherd’s Pie
For the filling:
2 Tbsp. canola oil
1 cup onion, chopped
2 carrots, diced small
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 lb. ground lamb (substitute ground beef for a cottage pie)
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper
2 Tbsp. all purpose flour
2 tsp. tomato paste
1 cup beef broth
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. chopped rosemary
1 tsp. chopped thyme leave
1/2 cup corn
1/2 cup English peas
In a large saucepan, sauté onions and carrots in oil over medium 3-5 minutes, until onions are tender. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add lamb, salt and pepper and brown meat over medium high.  Sprinkle meat with flour and stir to coat, cook another minute.
Add tomato paste, broth, Worcestershire and herbs; stir to combine. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Add corn and peas. Spread into an 11×13 dish.
For the potatoes:
1 1/2 lb. russet potatoes
1/4 cup half and half
2 oz. unsalted butter
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 egg yolk
8 oz. mozzarella cheese, shredded
Peel potatoes and dice into  1/2-inch cubes. Place in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Cook over high heat, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, uncover, and decrease heat to maintain a simmer, cooking until tender, about 10-15 minutes.
Drain potatoes and return to saucepan, cooking briefly while stirring to get rid of excess water.
Warm half and half and butter. Mash potatoes and add remaining ingredients, except egg yolk, until smooth.  Mix in egg yolk.
Top meat mixture with potatoes, being careful to seal edges, and bake for 25 minutes. Top with cheese and broil until lightly browned. Cool 10 minutes before serving.

Tiramisu
6 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1 cup mascarpone cheese
1/4 cup cream cheese, softened
1 3/4 cups heavy cream
1 cup cold espresso
1/2 cup coffee liqueur
7 oz. pkg. ladyfingers
1 Tbsp. cacao for dusting
Combine egg yolks and sugar in the top of a double boiler over boiling water. Reduce heat to low and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. This is your sabayon. Remove from heat and whip yolks until thick and lemon-colored.
Add mascarpone and cream cheese to sabayon; beat until combined. In a separate bowl, whip cream to stiff peaks. Gently fold whipped cream into mascarpone mixture; set aside.
Mix cold espresso and coffee liqueur and dip ladyfingers in mixture for 1-2 seconds (depending on your ladyfingers timing may vary slightly, so start with 1 second and let it rest a few minutes before assuming it is good- do not over soak).
Then layer ladyfingers on the bottom of a 9×9-inch baking dish and spoon half of cream cheese on top, smoothing over and repeat procedure. Refrigerate 4 hours or overnight. Dust with cocoa before serving.

Chicken Pot Pie- Grandma Veazey’s
3 cups shredded chicken breast (boiled or rotisserie)
1 can cream of celery soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 1/4 cup chicken broth
Preferred vegetables (corn, peas, carrots, and/or green beans)
1/2 stick butter, melted
1 cup milk
1 cup self-rising flour
1/2 tsp. black pepper and pinch of salt
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
Preheat oven to 425.
Mix chicken, soups, chicken broth and vegetables together and spread evenly into the bottom of a 9×13-inch casserole dish.
Mix butter, milk, flour, pepper, salt and garlic powder together and pour evenly over chicken mixture.
Bake for 30 minutes or until crust is lightly browned. Serves 6-8.

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