TORONTO - Having fun with food, family and friends is the focus of a new cookbook by two sisters.
Julie Albert and Lisa Gnat have collaborated on "Bite Me Too," a cookbook peppered with humour, trivia, pop culture references and user-friendly recipes that feature ingredients you have in your pantry or that can be picked up during your regular grocery store run.
"This book is really an extension of our first book, which was 'Bite Me,'" said Albert. "It brought our philosophy of making eating, feeding and entertaining accessible into book form.
"We grew up with a mom who was an incredible cook so every night we had a feast and Lisa was the one following her around in the kitchen saying, 'What can I help with?' and I was the one upstairs calling, 'What time is dinner?'" Albert recalled during an interview at her Toronto home.
"When I had kids of my own I quickly discovered that noodles and butter weren't going to cut it for life. I really had to learn how to cook and Lisa taught me everything I know, and now I throw dinners every week for at least 20 people at a time," she added.
Gnat, 39, says she has always enjoyed recipe development, but it was not until she took a one-year pastry chef course at George Brown College that she really understood the science behind putting ingredients together.
"Lisa and I are the perfect team. In our books, Lisa does all the recipe development and I do the writing and the look of the books, so together we bring our skills and we make a fun, family-time meal," says Albert.
As well as easy-to-follow recipes, the book includes a chapter on how to throw easy and original parties for family and guests. There are photos showing how to create a themed atmosphere using items picked up at dollar and craft stores, along with suggested menus, cocktails and music.
For Mother's Day, the two moms suggest a "staycation" theme and brunch.
To create the decor, Albert, 42, says you can get tropical-themed paper from a craft store for the table covering and fill inexpensive glass vases with squishy blue balls intended for flower arranging. Other decorations include plastic goldfish, shells and fine sand from the craft store. She applies each diner's name to cheap goggles and uses them for place cards.
"Whether it's winter, spring, summer or fall, all of us sometimes need that little getaway and to us this is a very easy fix. You don't have to pack your suitcase, you don't need your passports and you don't need to arrange for babysitters," she says.
The sisters, who both have three children, say one of their favourite meals is brunch and they have devoted a chapter in each book to this meal.
"On Mother's Day I want to see my kids involved. I want to see them cooking and helping out," says Gnat. "I love a great brunch."
Little frittatas you can make ahead can be the main course. "The kids can help with them and they're easy to prepare. Serve that with salad with fresh fruit. It's springtime; you want it to be fresh," she said.
"They also stay well in the fridge so you can take them as little portable snacks the next day," said Albert.
Gnat advises letting the kids help with preparation, like chopping vegetables. "When they've touched it, they want to eat it," she says.
"Getting kids to eat at the best of times can be a tricky one," adds Albert. "If you can make mealtime more fun, which is what we really love to do, and infuse that lightness into it and it's not all about 'Eat your brussels sprouts,' then kids tend to get into it. We find adding some humour to the table and the home cooking to the meal is the best way."
Chapter headings in "Bite Me Too," which is published this month, include "Amuse Me" (appetizers), "Fowl Me" (poultry), "Hook Me" (fish and seafood) and "Toss Me" (salads). There are 176 recipes.
Another addition is QR codes with links to videos on how to make dishes that some home cooks may be nervous about tackling.
"We tried to pick a few things that we knew people are intimidated by, like risotto. Making risotto was something that scared Julie, so she was a good target audience for me in making a recipe," says Gnat.
Because of her more recent forays into cooking, Albert notes she was a good candidate to test the recipes developed by her sibling.
"If I didn't understand a recipe or the way it was written or it didn't work out for me, I'm Joe Public. Lisa has the strong culinary background. I don't. So I was able to give her that sort of feedback and say, 'This doesn't make sense' or 'That's too complicated,'" explains Albert.
The result is that "you get it from both points of view, from the culinary wizard and you get it from the real home cook."
The sisters also aim to take the intimidation factor out of entertaining.
"With the tips that we give people on entertaining they're going to see that it's as simple as going to the dollar store, the craft store. Home Depot, I'm a regular. Going to the candy store is big for me. You can bring a lot of fun to the table," says Albert. Many of the kitschy props used in the book's photos come from her home.
The most important thing is to be prepared when entertaining, Gnat says. "Make a list of what you have to do, make your menu, make a shopping list so you don't have to go out a dozen times for different things."