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Creating a Spooky Halloween Dinner

Local culinary experts offer ideas for turning an ordinary meal into a ghoulish adventure.

Halloween dinner in Christine Wisnewski’s Vienna home is often a balancing act between healthy and sugary. On the sweetest holiday of the year, for example, the mother and culinary instructor at Culinaria Cooking School, also in Vienna, prepares a wholesome dinner for her eager trick-or-treaters, managing candy-induced sugar highs and inevitable post-confection lows.

“It is a treat-themed holiday. … No parent wants to be a killjoy, so if you are going to sanction having the candy around, there has to be a strategy for managing it,” she said.

Whether it’s ghoulish or cutesy, Halloween dinner can set the tone for the rest of the evening, as well as help manage those sugar highs and lows. Not an easy feat. “Dinner on Halloween can be a particular challenge with kids eager to get out the door,” said Wisnewski.

Preparing dinner in advance of the holiday and rolling it out before trick-or-treaters set out on their candy-collecting treks is often effective. “This way they leave the house with the fuel they need to get to every last house in the neighborhood and are less likely to dig into the stash they are collecting,” said Wisnewski.

Wisnewski and other local chefs suggest slipping in a family meal without a rebellion by setting a spooky tone for dinner and preparing eerily bewitching recipes.

Traditional shepherd’s pie — hearty ground beef or lamb and vegetables buried under a mountain of fluffy mashed potatoes — becomes a graveyard on Halloween in the hands of Chef Kristen Robinson, an Arlington resident and an instructor at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Washington, also in Arlington. “[Print] cardboard cut-outs in the shape of tombstones for your children to decorate while dinner is being prepared,” she said. “Serve with the decorated tombstone propped up behind your casserole and enjoy your graveyard pie.”

Halloween cookie cutters can also put a spine-chilling spin on everyday fare, says Wisnewski. “Turkey and avocado or hummus sandwiches are more fun when they take the shape of ghosts and bats,” she said. “Cheese and crackers can be embellished with green or black olive ‘eyes.’ Black bean dip, white bean dip or guacamole look creepy dished up with some carved jicama fingers poking out, or some bat shaped whole wheat tortillas or blue corn tortilla chips for dipping.”

For a frightful appetizer or snack, Robinson puts a spooky twist on breadsticks. “You serve a pile of bones, which are really crunchy breadsticks that you make using dough that you shape like bones and then bake,” she said. “After the bones cool, you can serve them with roasted red pepper hummus or sun-dried tomato hummus and tell your children their snack is a pile of bones with mashed monster brains.”

FOR A LESS SPOOKY, but still festive dish, Arlington culinary instructor Andrea Nelson of Creative Kids Kitchen recommends a quick and easy pumpkin seed bread. “It’s a great bread because it’s got the texture of a cake bread, like banana bread, but is not as sweet and has extra nutrients from the wheat germ, buttermilk and of course the pumpkin seeds,” she said, suggesting that parents roast the seeds from pumpkins their families carved rather than use store-bought seeds for some extra festive spirit.

Don’t be afraid to try healthy Halloween treats, either. Anna Reeves, culinary instructor and owner of Tiny Chefs, which has locations in Arlington, Alexandria, McLean and Fairfax, Va., and Potomac, Md., said, “There are definitely lots of healthy alternatives to sugary sweets like fresh or dried fruits and granola or energy mixes.”

Even fruit can become scream-worthy. Both Robinson and Wisnewski turn ordinary bananas into ghosts and ghouls. “Make some banana ghosts by putting half a banana on a popsicle stick, dip the banana in orange juice and roll it in shredded coconut. You can add two mini-chocolate chips for eyes and freeze the ghosts until they are firm,” said Wisnewski.

In Robinson’s kitchen, the curvy, yellow fruit becomes a monster with a few strokes of a makeshift paintbrush. “Cut the bananas lengthwise and dip them into different colored chocolates and let your children decorate them with more colored chocolate, or sprinkles, pretzels and raisins,” she said. “Your children can use the back end of the skewer as a paintbrush to paint faces on their Frankenstein, ghost or vampire bananas.” Colored chocolate can be found at many craft stores.

It’s OK if you don’t have a lot of time, Wisnewski said. “At the very least, label that bowl of grapes on the kitchen counter ‘zombie eyes.’”

Pumpkin Seed Bread

Courtesy of Creative Kids Kitchen

Ingredients:

2 cups whole wheat flour

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup wheat germ

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup roasted pumpkin seeds

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

2 large eggs

4 tablespoons salted butter

Directions:

In a large bowl, stir together both flours, wheat germ, both sugars, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Stir in 1 cup pumpkin seeds.

In a small bowl, combine the buttermilk, eggs and the butter, whisk just until combined. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the flour mixture and stir until combined. Mixture will be thick and sticky (similar to the consistency of cooked oatmeal that needs some milk added to it).

Spoon batter into prepared loaf pan and sprinkle the top with pumpkin seeds. Place baking sheet with greased 9x5 loaf pan into the oven and bake for 50-60 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit or until the loaf is browned and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely on a wire rack.

Pile of Bones (Crunchy Breadsticks)

Courtesy of Chef Kristen Robinson, an instructor at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Washington

Ingredients:

2 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast

1 cup lukewarm water

2 1/2 cups flour

2 teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine yeast and water and let sit for 5-10 minutes, until bubbly.

Add in 2 cups of flour and stir with a wooden spoon until well combined. Turn the dough out on to your counter and begin to knead in the remaining _ cup of flour. Once a smooth dough has formed, place it in a bowl, cover and allow the dough to rise for 15 minutes. Knead the dough again for 5 minutes, then allow it to rest for 20-30 minutes.

You are now ready to begin cutting and rolling your dough into bones. Using two fingers, roll the dough into a strip, keeping the ends thick and bulbous. You want to have a thin middle and a ball on each end. Using a pair of scissors, cut the ball on each end in half to resemble a bone. Arrange on a baking sheet, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit until golden brown and crispy. Depending on the size of your bones, baking time will vary. Allow your bones to cool and serve with roasted red pepper hummus or sun-dried tomato hummus and tell you children their snack is a pile of bones with mashed monster brains!

Graveyard Pie (Shepherd’s Pie)

Courtesy of Chef Kristen Robinson, an instructor at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Washington

Ingredients:

6 ounces bacon, diced

3 pounds lean ground beef

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 cups onion, diced

1 cup carrots, diced

1/2 cup celery, diced

1 cup peas, fresh or frozen

12 fluid ounces Guinness

8 fluid ounces beef broth

3 tablespoons of each of the following: dried oregano, dried sage and dried marjoram

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

Mashed potatoes for topping (can be made ahead of time)

Cardboard cut-out in the shape of a tombstone for your children to decorate

Directions:

In a large sauce pan, begin to cook the bacon over medium heat. Strain the fat out and add in the ground beef. Cook through. Remove meat from pan and allow it to drain in a colander over a bowl.

Place pan back on the stove and add the garlic and onions and sauté until translucent. Add in the carrots and sauté until almost tender. Add the peas and drained meat back into the pan. Add Guinness and beef broth into the pan and bring to a simmer. Add the dried herbs.

In a separate bowl, combine the cold 2 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of flour and use a fork to knead into a paste. Once you have a smooth paste, stir it into the pan. This will thicken your liquid slightly, making it feel more like a sauce. Once thickened, you can transfer it into a casserole dish or deep baking pan and top with mashed potatoes. You want to create a mound with the potatoes so that they will represent a grave.

Place the casserole dish in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and bake until potatoes are golden and a thermometer inserted into the center reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure the mashed potatoes are hot if you made them ahead of time.

Serve with the decorated tombstone propped up behind your casserole and enjoy your graveyard pie.

Dessert: Bananas decorated as monsters

Courtesy of Chef Kristen Robinson, an instructor at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Washington

Directions:

Cut bananas into 2-inch long pieces. Insert a skewer into the bananas lengthwise and dip them into different colored chocolates and let your children decorate them with more colored chocolate, or sprinkles, pretzels and raisins.

Your children can use the back end of the skewer as a paint brush to paint faces on their Frankenstein, ghost, or vampire bananas.

Chef’s Note: You can buy colored chocolate at most craft stores.