Category Archives: Beverages

Playing Catch-up Part 2: From the Beginning to the End

The beginning of December brought about preparations for my (gasp!) thirtieth birthday (yes, I am officially that old).  After much thought and deliberation about what we would do to mark the occasion, we decided that we would host a small gathering at our house, in lieu of trying to all go out somewhere.  Just me and twenty or so of my closest friends, which sounded perfect.

Since it was my birthday, I wanted to do as little work on the food as possible, while still having a bit of wow factor. For the menu I settled on a cheese board (with blue cheese, brie, a creamy goat cheese, grapes and crackers), roasted red pepper hummus (which is my classic hummus recipe with the addition of a drained jar of roasted red peppers and several tablespoons of pimentón) with crudités and pita, roasted shrimp with a spicy chimichurri dipping sauce (for the sauce, in the blender I combine a big bunch of both cilantro and Italian flat leaf parsley, two scallions, four or five garlic cloves, a generous third of a cup or so of extra virgin olive oil, a teaspoon of freshly grated lime zest, the juice of five or six limes, several teaspoons of ground cumin, a dash of salt, freshly ground black pepper, and as many chipotle peppers as I dare. Blend until smooth, adding a little additional olive oil or a splash of water if it is too thick to blend.),  some toasted cashews, pistachios, marinated olives, and for something sweet, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and pecan bars. Along with the food, we had an assortment of beer, mulled wine, and my “pumpkin pie martinis” (which are embarrassingly simple but always a crowd favorite: equal parts of pumpkin spice liqueur and your favorite eggnog, served with a dash of pumpkin pie spice in glasses rimmed in cinnamon sugar and graham cracker crumbs.)

Instead of a cake this year, I decided to go with some childlike fun and have a decorate your own cookie bar instead. I had homemade shortbread cookies (cut out in the shape of Christmas trees and ornaments), and an assortment of  colorful candies, sprinkles and dragées, along with six different store bought icing colors (hey, there is no shame in that!), all served on this adorable lazy Susan with inset white dishes. It was almost too charming.

I have to confess to being semi horribly devastated that none of the food table photos survived for you all to see them now (after my new SD card debacle). It was really, really beautiful (if I do say so myself). The centerpiece was comprised of antiqued, blood red roses and evergreen bows, votive holders filled with fresh cranberries and unscented candles, and about a thousand little (intricately hand placed) rhinestones atop one of my favorite “special occasion”  (read: dry clean only!) table clothes, which added sparkle. It was just the right amount of over the top for my taste. That along with the big white platters of food, each more lovingly garnished than the last… sigh… I can’t go on…(*wipes imaginary tear from cheek*)… it was some of my best work. But for now, we can all pretend that a description of it all is just as satisfying.

The evening started off with a big surprise as one of my dearest friends (who lives in California – you may know her from her comments here on Jacob’s Kitchen under the name Woman&Warrior… an apt description of a fantastic human being) showed up on our doorstep just as guests were arriving. It was really great seeing her, and being able to spend a leisurely weekend together, and also to finally introduce her to all of my friends here in Oregon who have heard far too many wonderful things about her that I’m sure they all thought that I was making her up. Spending my birthday with all of my friends was exactly what I needed, and her presence made the evening extra special.

The other big news, of course, was the purchase of my new Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR camera! Hooray!  (Cue confetti!) I hope to soon actually learn how to use all of its many functions and take my food photography to the next level. I still stand behind all of my point and shoot pictures, and am a firm believer that one does not require a DSLR to create beautiful food images.  Having a DSLR, however, as I am coming to realize, does much more easily capture beautiful food images.  So for all of my fellow point and shoot foodies out there, keep up the great work! It’s not easy, but it can still be fabulous.

Unfortunately, my birthday weekend turned somber when my grandfather (whom you may recall suffered from Alzheimer’s and lived with us here in Oregon for quite some time after I spent a year caring for him and his wife in New Mexico, until we finally had him placed into an assisted living facility less than a mile away from our house) fell and broke his arm. At first the doctors seemed to underplay his injury as though it were not a very big deal.  Less than 48 hours later, however, we were forced to make the difficult decision to begin hospice. For five days my sister and I camped out at his bedside. Though he was unconscious nearly the entire time, we played his favorite music, held his hand, read him the stories and poems that he had read to us as children, and did everything in our power to ensure that he was comfortable. He died very early in the morning, just one week after my party. I was holding his hand and stroking his brow the whole time, and my sister was right beside him talking into his ear. While he certainly suffered through  a lot of pain throughout the week, in the end it was very peaceful.

I cannot even begin to express to you how amazing the entire staff at Brookstone (his care facility) was with him. The loving care, kindness and support that they showed to him, to me, and to my entire family over the last year has been nothing short of heroic.  As someone who has seen a lot of care facilities in my day, I can say with absolute certainty that better care simply does not exist.  Period. They have twenty nine locations across the United States. If you have a loved one suffering with Alzheimer’s or dementia and are near one such location, I encourage you to seek out their services.  You don’t have to do it alone. They are there as much for you, as for your loved one. Seriously. You won’t regret it.

My grandfather, Earl Rolla Bates, (who we called “Grumpa,” because he always had a sour expression on his face) would have been 89 in March. Long after he could no longer remember my name, what he always remembered was that I bake. “How’s the baking coming?” he’d ask when we would visit “Well, keep it up. You’ve got a real knack for it!”

He was the perfect taste tester, since he loved everything, but some of his particular favorites included Ina Garten’s croissant bread pudding (with a simple brandy butter sauce), New Mexico style green chili stew, a perfectly grilled steak (which he always liked to marinate in a little bit of teriyaki sauce, salt, black pepper, and garlic, and top with a fire roasted green chili and melted pepper jack cheese), my buttermilk biscuits, apricot jam, my signature salad, potatoes in any form, and his grandmother’s rolls. (Leave it to a foodie like me to sum up someone’s life by the foods that they enjoyed!)

He was a ship’s cook in the navy, and ran a small restaurant with my grandmother for several years in his early twenties. He appreciated good food, but even more he appreciated the effort that you invested into making good food. It never went unnoticed. He was always very grateful for everything that he was given, and openly expressed that gratitude to those around him. That is perhaps the greatest lesson that he has left behind: to live a life of endless gratitude.

As an example, while in New Mexico, after dinner while I would be doing the dishes, he would often pull me aside and say something like “You know, that meal was perhaps the finest I have ever had. That salad…that salad was just so delicate, and those biscuits were just fabulous. You have become quite a young man. And I want you to know that I am really proud to have you as a member of my family.” Then, with a simple pat on my shoulder, he would turn, pick up his poodle, and retire to bed. And that would be for just any rushed, nothing special, weeknight meal. He was a hard working, funny, sarcastic, generous, ornery, little sprite of a man, and he will be missed.

Fwew! That should just about catch us up! Later this week we shall finally return to business as usual here at Jacob’s Kitchen. Between the holiday baking, my birthday, and his passing, you can imagine that this has been a particularly busy, very contemplative time for me.  But with the new year comes new hope for an even more fabulous tomorrow.

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Filed under Beverages, Jams/Spreads/Sauces, Other, Snacks

Playing Catch-up Part 1: Thanksgiving (Better late than never?!)

Disclaimer: After recently loosing literally thousands of my most recent food and holiday photos off of my new SD card due to a “card error,” I was discouraged to say the least.  But we  must march on nonetheless, so we will all just have to use our foodie imaginations as I describe these foods to you, since all visual record of them has been lost in time (at least for now).

This year we had a small thanksgiving gathering at home. Ten guests, delicious food, and Mother Nature even provided a little bit of snow, just for charm. Our menu was as it typically always is: various seasonal appetizers served with Pilgrim’s Punch (a cocktail that we invented several years ago which is comprised of sweetened, mulled cranberry juice, a splash of freshly squeezed orange juice, vodka, and triple sec), and a litany of holiday favorites including herb roasted turkey breasts, dressing (I adore a mixture of sourdough and cornbread, with celery, onions, mushrooms, dried cranberries, slivered almonds, fresh herbs, and homemade turkey stock), mashed potatoes and gravy (I use Ina Garten’s trick of making the gravy two days in advance using drippings that I have frozen from a previously roasted turkey), candied sweet potatoes (which I always flavor with amaretto and orange zest), parmesan roasted asparagus, a big green salad (so we can justifiably pretend that we are eating healthfully), fruit salad (which is a classic in our family that has been at every holiday gathering in my entire life… which is funny because no one really eats it at the meal itself, save for a tiny requisite spoonful. But it is classic morning-after-thanksgiving leftover fair, and tradition dictates that it must be there) and last but not least, no family meal would ever be complete without my great great grandmother Browning’s dinner rolls.

For the table I decided to go with matching chocolate brown table clothes and napkins, copper chargers, my everyday white dishes and flatware, and my absolute favorite “old lady” napkin rings (of the twenty or so sets that we own). To add a little sparkle and whimsy I scattered some colorful autumn leaves and decorative acorns, and lined the center of the table with small arrangements of flowers and glass votive holders filled with fresh cranberries and unscented candles: easy, festive, and elegant.

The one dish that is always a stand out at my holiday feasts is the turkey itself. My guests often comment that it is the moistest turkey they have ever had (no, seriously!). For Thanksgiving, I don’t mind taking a little extra time and care to make sure that the turkey comes out deliciously moist and flavorful. This process is multi-stepped, but each step is really easy. And, for the record, I make no apologies for the preposterous amount of butter used. I mean hey, give me a break, it’s Thanksgiving! I always make two large whole turkey breasts rather than one large turkey, since the demand for white meat in our house far surpasses that of the dark, but this process would work equally well with a whole bird (though I would still, personally, stick to turkeys weighing  twelve pounds or less.)

I start by brining my two breasts (approximately seven pounds each) in vegetable stock (you will want to be sure to buy breasts that do not say that they have been “enhanced with a solution of…” which means  they have essentially already been brined. Brining one such bird will result in mealy/rubbery meat, which is not what we are after on Thanksgiving, or anytime of year for that matter.).To a gallon of stock, I add a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary, thyme, and sage, a tablespoon or so each of whole black peppercorns and allspice berries, eight or nine bay leaves, one cup of kosher salt (or one half cup of table salt), one half cup of dark brown sugar (salt toughens the meat, while sugar softens it, so it is important to have a balance of both in a good brine, not only for flavor but also for texture), one head of garlic cut in half, one large yellow onion quartered, two stalks of celery, and one large carrot. Bring that mixture to a boil, then turn off the heat and allow it to come to room temperature. Divide the mixture between your two largest pots, add one turkey breast to each, and fill with ice water to cover the birds. Brine in the refrigerator for 24-48 hours.

Remove from the brine and thoroughly rinse the breasts under cold water, and pat them dry with paper towels. Using a kitchen syringe, inject each breast with a healthy dose of garlic and herb infused melted butter (which bastes the breast meat from the inside out). Next, make a garlic and herb butter paste by combining three sticks of softened butter in a food processor along with a small handful of garlic cloves, a sprig or two each of fresh rosemary, sage, and thyme, about a tablespoon of ground mustard, a dash of chipotle powder, salt and freshly ground black pepper). Divide this mixture between the two breasts, spreading it under and over the skin. Stuff the cavities with fresh rosemary, thyme, and quartered onions, and place in the refrigerator uncovered for at least 24 hours (but up to 48). Before baking I add an entire bottle of dry white wine to the roasting pan (along with a few bay leaves and any extra celery, carrots, onions, and garlic cloves that I might have on hand) and bake the breasts at 325 degrees for one and a half to two and a half hours, basting periodically, until the internal temperature registers 160-165 degrees at the thickest part.  Tent the breasts with aluminum foil and allow them to rest for twenty minutes.

When I remove the entire breast from the bone for carving, if I happen to see that the meat is still slightly pink near the bone, I return the cut breast meat to the pan juices and poach in the oven for an addition ten minutes (especially on Thanksgiving, I would personally always much rather risk under-cooking the turkey and then correcting it, rather than overcooking it and being forced to serve a dry bird!).

And there you have it, my perfectly moist, flavorful, fool proof, herb roasted turkey breasts, guaranteed to be a hit at your next holiday gathering (or any day of the year!). Enjoy!

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Filed under Beverages, Meat

Jacob’s Kitchen: Pumpkin Patch Picnic (Project Food Blog – Challenge 6)

This post is my sixth entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. (Click here to see my contestant profile.) In this round we were challenged to create a portable meal on the go. Voting begins Monday, October 25, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first five rounds, I appreciate all of your support more than I can ever express!

Every year a good friend and I make our annual pilgrimage to our favorite pumpkin patch. The farm itself is about a thirty minute drive, and over the years it’s become something of an agrarian amusement park. Her children  join in on the fun, and we end the day by each carefully selecting our own pumpkins from the field for carving. For me, the pumpkin patch is one of those rare experiences in life that really live up to the charm of the perfect Norman Rockwell paintings. Fall is my absolute favorite time of year, and there is something about that familiar chill in the air, all of those bails of hay, and the mounds of colorful leaves, winter squash and decorative gourds, that fill me with joy. Moreover, this time of year begins the long holiday season where we all, as a community, seem to collectively retain some sense of sentimentality; and people just seem kinder to one another. And on these days, traipsing through the corn mazes and produce stands, feeding the farm animals, and spending time together in the country I somehow feel most like myself.

The children always have their requisite hot dogs and apple cider from the farm stand, but this year I thought I would surprise my friend with something a little bit more special. So I decided to pack up a little picnic to share while the children played in their autumn wonderland. Nothing terribly fancy mind you, just simple, casual, delicious food among friends.

When planning the menu I wanted something light, something best eaten cold or at room temperature, and something that would ultimately travel well. I  decided I would stick to the fall theme and make individual pumpkin and blue cheese crostatas, an autumn inspired green salad, and finish it off with a little bit of seasonal whimsy with my favorite white chocolate dipped caramel apples. To go with our meal, I chose to make a sparkling pomegranate pear punch, and for something extra cozy with dessert I thought my coconut chai would pair beautifully with the apples.  All of the wonderful flavors of fall wrapped up together in one little picnic.

Packing – A few ice packs along the bottom of the cooler is all that I need to keep our food nice and fresh for the ride. I like packing the food in cylindrical deli containers which I purchase at my favorite restaurant supply store. They are inexpensive, sturdy, reusable, and I really appreciate the fact that all of the sizes use the same lid. Hand sanitizer and plenty of moist towelettes are a must for picnics. Not only are they great for keeping your hands clean, but they are also nice to use to wipe down your dishes before repacking them. I always like to use real plates, mugs, and reusable bottles whenever possible. It really isn’t that much trouble and it always feels a little bit more special; besides, it’s just the green thing to do.

Sparkling Pomegranate Pear Punch – This punch is refreshingly tart and sweet; the lemon and pomegranate add a delicious pucker, and the subtle hint of cinnamon, vanilla, and ginger really make the pear flavor come alive. In a blender, combine five ripe pears (peeled and cored), two cups of water, a third of a cup of vanilla sugar (or to taste), the juice of one lemon, a pinch of salt, and the tiniest dash of ground cinnamon. Blend until the mixture is very smooth, then pass it through a fine mesh strainer to remove the fruit pulp. Add one cup of pomegranate juice, and two cups of your favorite ginger ale.

Autumn Salad – This salad is the perfect mix of flavors and textures. The rich creamy goat cheese, sweet juicy pears, smoky bacon, crunchy pumpkin seeds, and the tart chewy cranberries all come together perfectly. The spiced apple flavored dressing rounds everything out, driving home the fabulous flavors of fall. To make the salad, toss baby greens with sliced pears (which have been tossed in freshly squeezed lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown), crumbled goat cheese, lardons of crispy bacon, dried cranberries, and toasted pumpkin seeds. To make the dressing, reduce one cup of spiced apple cider over medium heat until only one fourth of a cup remains. Add one finely minced shallot, three tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a third of a cup of extra virgin olive oil, and a dash of salt and freshly ground black pepper. (To take the salad on the road pack the lettuce in one large storage container, submerge the sliced pears into the dressing and place into another smaller storage container, pack the crumbled goat cheese into a separate re-sealable storage bag, and combine the remaining salad topping into one small container.)

Pumpkin and Blue Cheese Crostatas –  Pumpkin and blue cheese are a match made in heaven, and together they make an elegant filling for these crostatas. The buttery crust, sweet earthy pumpkin, subtle sweetness from the maple syrup, and delicious piquant creaminess of the blue cheese all harmonize together beautifully. The toasted pine nuts add a great texture and nutty flavor, and the sage leaves are the perfect savory compliment that bring it all together.

To make the pastry dough, combine one and a half cups of all purpose flour, one teaspoon of salt, and three tablespoons of sugar. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, pulse this mixture along with twelve tablespoons of cold diced butter and one half of a cup of cold vegetable shortening until the flour is evenly coated with the fat (about twenty seconds).  Add another cup of flour and pulse to combine. Empty this mixture into a large mixing bowl and sprinkle the dough with one fourth of a cup of very cold vodka, one fourth of a cup of ice cold water, and gently fold to combine.  Flatten the dough (which should still be pretty tacky) into a disk, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for one hour (or up to a week in advance).

Meanwhile, in a large skillet set over medium heat, sauté three cups of peeled diced fresh pumpkin in two tablespoons each of butter and extra virgin olive oil until it is soft and beginning to brown around the edges. Add two tablespoons of finely chopped fresh sage leaves, three tablespoons of pure maple syrup, a third of a cup of toasted pine nuts, one large garlic clove (grated on a microplane zester), three fourths of a teaspoon of salt, a fourth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, a fourth of a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg, and a half a teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Continue sautéing for two to three minutes, then remove from the heat and allow the pumpkin mixture to come to room temperature.

Roll out the pastry dough on a floured board to one fourth of an inch of thickness and cut out four rough seven to eight inch rounds. In the center of each round add one fourth of the cooled pumpkin mixture and top each with two tablespoons of crumbled blue cheese. Bring the dough up around the sides of the pumpkin filling, forming a rustic pie. Brush the dough with a beaten egg and bake at 400° for twenty to twenty five minutes, or until golden brown. Garnish with fried sage leaves. (To take these crostatas on the road carefully stack them on a small plate, separating each with a piece of parchment paper, and wrap the stack tightly with plastic wrap. In a separate sandwich sized storage bag, separately pack the fried sage leaves for garnishing.)

Jacob’s Favorite Caramel Apples – These decadent apples are really just our childhood favorite dressed up for company. The tart apple, rich caramel, creamy white chocolate, and sweet cinnamon sugar all meld together in your mouth to create a flavor that really is very reminiscent of apple pie. Perfect for this time of year, I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be happy to be surprised with one of these beauties.

To make them, begin by thoroughly washing and chilling your apples (if you suspect that your apples have been waxed, scrub them with baking soda as the wax can prevent the caramel from properly adhering). Insert a stick into the core of each apple (you can typically find these at bakery and craft supply stores).While I will often go to the trouble of making my own caramel for dipping, since I was in a bit of a hurry, I decided to take a fool proof short cut and use melted caramel candies instead. I start by melting one and a half pounds of soft caramel candies over a double boiler along with two tablespoons of whole milk, one tablespoon of pure vanilla extract, and a half a teaspoon of salt. Dip each of your apples to coat, and allow the excess caramel to drip off. Hold the coated apples upside down for forty five seconds or so to allow the caramel a chance to set up slightly before placing them on a baking sheet lined with lightly buttered parchment paper.

Once all of your apples have been dipped, place the baking sheet into the refrigerator for thirty minutes, or until thoroughly chilled (if your caramel covered apples are not cold enough, the melted white chocolate will not adhere to the caramel). Next, melt one and a half pounds of white chocolate chips over a double boiler with one tablespoon of canola oil, and allow it to cool slightly. Dip each of your caramel apples three fourths of the way into the melted chocolate, allowing the excess to drip off (holding each apple upside down just as in the caramel dipping step). Before returning the now chocolate covered apples to the baking sheet, carefully sprinkle each with a generous amount of cinnamon sugar (two cups of sugar mixed with one and a half tablespoons of ground cinnamon).  Once the apples have dried and hardened, transfer each to a small cellophane bag and tie with raffia. (While these apples are perfectly fine on their own, to aid in the ease of picnic eating I think it’s nice to pack an apple slicer.)

Coconut Chai – This chai is rich and flavorful. It has just the right amount of spice, and the honey and coconut milk take it far beyond just your ordinary cup of tea. To make it, in a sauce pan, combine six whole cloves, six allspice berries, six green cardamom pods, one half of a nutmeg nut, four star anise, and three cinnamon sticks. (Here I had the luxury of instead using one four inch length of real cinnamon which a fabulous friend sent to me from her recent trip to the spice markets of Dubai. In the United States you can often find it labeled “ceylon.”) Over a medium low flame, slowly toast the spices for two minutes or until fragrant.  Add six cups of water, one fifteen ounce can of coconut milk (whole or light), one vanilla bean split down the center, and two half inch slices of peeled fresh ginger. Bring this mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for seven to ten minutes. Add five and a half tablespoons of loose leaf black tea, and continue simmering for another five minutes. Add one fourth of a cup of honey (or to taste), and strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Ladle it into a thermos to keep it piping hot and ready to serve whenever you are.

These days it seems like most of the food that we eat is on the go.  But just because we are on the move doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy the food that we love to eat with the people that we care about most. This pumpkin patch picnic is a perfect example of how investing a little bit of extra time can turn any ordinary meal into something really special. In this economy, where money is tight for all of us, a little thoughtfulness can really go a long way. Luckily, preparing someone’s favorite meal, surprising a friend with a beautifully wrapped jar of homemade jam, or baking something extra special is often even more appreciated than the most extravagant gifts.  This season brings out the best in all of us, and it makes me want  to spend as much quality time as possible with the people that I care about. Food sets the stage for our time together. And with a picnic like this, what a beautifully charming production it is.

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Filed under Beverages, Desserts, Project Food Blog, Salads, Side Dishes

Jacob’s Kitchen: Entertaining with Ease (Project Food Blog – Challenge 3)

This post is my third entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. Click here to see my contestant profile. Voting begins Monday, October 4, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first and second rounds, I appreciate all of your support!

Round three of Project Food Blog challenges us to host a luxury dinner party. And, while some people may think of entertaining as burdensome or stressful, it is one of my absolute favorite things to do. Entertaining is my passion. It’s in my blood. There is something so special, so personal about inviting people into your home to share a meal. Dinner parties can be as simple or as elaborate as you choose. Your friends won’t have a better time if you spend a week, and half of your pay check on extremely complicated cuisine. The truth of the matter is your guests are there to spend time with you; the food is just the excuse to get together, not the focus. A big bowl of spaghetti and meat balls, a perfectly cooked meatloaf, or your grandmother’s famous enchiladas served with a cake or tart purchased from your favorite bakery can be even more enjoyable than lobster and filet mignon. For me, it is a luxury whenever I invite my friends into my home. And I want to spend our time together enjoying their company, not slaving in the kitchen.

In my early adulthood I hosted dinner parties where I made every single thing from scratch, and worked tirelessly to ensure every last detail was beyond perfection. But when the time came to actually sit down with my friends and enjoy the spoils of my hard work, I found myself exhausted and just waiting for the evening to be over with. And while the food was delicious, I can’t imagine that I was much fun to be around. Now I take a more lighthearted approach to entertaining, allowing myself to be a guest at my own party.

No matter what they say, your guests want to believe that you threw all of this together in the twenty minutes before they arrived. And luckily, because of the make-ahead strategies I now use, that isn’t far from the truth. As a caterer I have cooked for groups of various sizes, and I can tell you that entertaining doesn’t have to be scary. Whether it’s this luxury dinner party for six, or you’re cooking for six hundred, the exact same rules apply. This is dinner parties 101: my entertaining manifesto.

Step 1 – Get Organized:

Have an action plan. Break down what you need to do day by day on the days leading up to the event, and hour by hour on the day of. Mark down when you will set the table, which dishes will be used for serving, when you will shop for your ingredients, when you will prepare different components of the meal, which recipes you will be assembling on the day of the party, all the way down to the exact times that your food needs to come into and out of the oven for final service. A little bit of advanced thought and planning will make your parties infinitely less stressful.

Step 2 – Set the Stage:

Candles- Candles always make any meal feel special, and the more the better. I prefer small votive candles in glass holders over their taller, tapered cousins. And while scented candles around your home can serve to set the mood for the party, one should never use scented candles on the table itself. All they do is steal the spot light from the aroma and flavors of your carefully prepared food, and no one likes to be upstaged.

Flowers/Centerpieces- Flowers are certainly not essential for any table. A bowl of fruit, vases filled with fresh herbs from your garden, some artfully arranged autumn leaves and decorative gourds can all be equally dramatic. Let your imagination run wild. There are probably items around your house right now that, when repurposed on your table, can create a visually interesting centerpiece. With that said, however, flowers are classic, easy, and always beautiful. I personally enjoy arranging my own flowers, first buying larger bouquets like these pink roses for this evening at my local warehouse store (for a fraction of the price!), and then separately purchasing a few filler flowers from the florist to pull everything together. If you, on the other hand, find yourself unsure about which flowers to purchase or how to arrange them, keep in mind a couple of steadfast rules. When in doubt, buy one flower in quantity and it will always look great. You can never go wrong with roses, peonies, hydrangea, or tulips: they are simple, beautiful, and elegant. Keep your arrangements small (which is to say short). I prefer to keep them under ten inches, allowing your guests to look into each other’s faces rather than catching a passing glimpse of one another through a dense, albeit beautiful, floral jungle. I like using small vases grouped together on the table. They are easier to arrange, cheaper to fill, and you can always play around with spacing to create a variety of looks.

Table Setting- I like to mix and match traditional items with newer modern pieces, and set the table in whichever way I feel looks best, and not how any text book tells me that I should. This can change dramatically from day to day, and therein lies the fun of it. Here I mixed together my everyday white dishes and flatware, silver chargers, and silver rimmed crystal wine glasses that I inherited from my grandmother. Simple white napkins with festive napkin rings, and a neutral, corresponding table cloth all come together beautifully, none overpowering the other. In setting the table what you are really doing is setting the stage for quality time with your friends and family. Do it carefully. People really appreciate every little detail. I choose to be more elaborate with my table setting because I enjoy doing so. If you do not, don’t fret. Simple, everyday dishes, silverware, and a few wine glasses are all  that you really need for a fabulous presentation. In your house you get to make the rules, so if having to wash and iron cloth napkins will prevent you from ever having friends over, by all means use paper. Some of the most enjoyable parties that I have ever been to have also been the most casual.

Music- For dinner parties, what I want is background music, and for this I find music without lyrics to be the most appropriate. A quick search online will yield a variety of instrumental versions of most of your favorite music. In this way, the songs are familiar, but not distracting. The music should serve to enhance the mood, not be the evening’s entertainment.

Step 3 – The Food:

When planning a dinner party, select food that you know how to make well. Never test out a new recipe on the day of an important event, or you might find yourself ordering pizza while the fire department airs out your house. Make things in advance whenever possible. And choose menu items that can be made at least one day prior and only assembled on the day of the party. This will keep you from going crazy, and allow you the time to really enjoy your friends and family.

Here, for example, I selected pomegranate cosmopolitans that can be mixed the night before, and a delicious appetizer that requires no cooking whatsoever (halved fresh figs, salty prosciutto, and shards of Parmesan cheese). I follow that with my signature salad (baby greens tossed with sliced fuji apples, dried cranberries, glazed walnuts, crumbled blue cheese, and a tangy balsamic blue cheese dressing) which can be assembled the night before and dressed right before serving. For the entrée I selected my pumpkin ricotta ravioli with sage brown butter (made with my homemade ricotta cheese) which can be made and frozen up to six months in advance, and boiled for two minutes right before serving along side my simply sautéed spinach. And what could be more decadent or more luxurious than an individual chocolate soufflé? With my make ahead version, you can assemble them two days in advance, freeze them, and toss them into the oven as you are sitting down to dinner for an inexpensive, yet show stopping end to any meal. (In the interest of space saving I have not included the recipes, but you can click on the links to see my full description of each.)

Two of my guests are vegetarian, and instead of driving myself mad making two separate entrées, I simply designed a menu that we all can enjoy, which makes life a lot easier for me. I have also selected two wines from my favorite local winery to pair with the meal, one red and one white, both of which pair nicely with the entire meal from start to finish (the pinot noir being especially great with chocolate). If you are unsure about wine pairings, simply select wines that you and your guests enjoy drinking, and you can never go wrong.

Part of the luxury of dinner parties is your ability to linger over the food, and really take your time from course to course. After the salad is served and enjoyed, I excuse myself for a couple of minutes (my dining room is attached to my kitchen, so I needn’t actually “leave” the fun of the party), drop the ravioli into the already boiling salted water (which I remembered to put on before my guests arrived, leaving it over medium low heat), and set the dishes out for plating. I take this opportunity to refill wine and water glasses, to collect the salad plates and forks, and to segue into my hilarious story (pantomime included) of how I once accidentally set myself on fire. The ravioli take very little time, and when they are done, I slide them into the warmed, pre-made sage brown butter sauce, plate them, place the soufflés into the preheated oven, and I’m back at the table with my guests in no time.

Dinner parties shouldn’t have to be cost prohibitive, stressful, or intimidating. A few simple preparations and some careful planning is all that you really need to be an entertaining superstar. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or exceptionally fancy, it’s the little touches that can make every meal feel like a vacation. This challenge was just another excuse for me to invite the people that I care about most for a delicious homemade meal, and to spend a leisurely evening enjoying each other’s company. Luxury doesn’t have to mean trying to impress people. It means thoughtfully preparing your food, and investing your time and energy into really pampering your friends and family. If they were impressed I hope it was not by the difficulty of the menu, or the cost of the ingredients, but by the fact that it all seemed to come together so effortlessly. More than anything, my goal is always for each of my guests to leave my parties thinking, “Wasn’t that fun!” I know I always do.

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Pomegranate Cosmopolitans

In honor of my making it through to the next round of Project Food Blog (thanks to all of your fabulous support!),the fact that it is Friday, and almost happy hour I thought I would share with you my new favorite cocktail recipe.

The generous people at POM Wonderful sent me a free case of pure pomegranate juice, and the moment it arrived in the mail I knew that I wanted to make Ina Garten’s pomegranate cosmopolitans.  I have always been a fan of martinis and other fruity, trendy drinks, and I love her update of this old classic.

To make a pitcher, I doubled her recipe mixing together four cups of vodka, two cups of Cointreau (or other orange flavored liqueur), two cups of cranberry juice cocktail, one cup of POM wonderful 100% pure pomegranate juice, and one cup of freshly squeezed lime juice.   Shake it up with ice, and serve with a garnish of sliced lime, a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds, or even a sugar rimmed glass. The tart pucker of the pomagranate, lime, and cranberry juices add a refreshing quality to this cocktail, which balances out the orange and vodka beautifully. Perfect for a party, these drinks can be mixed a day in advance, refrigerated, and shaken just before serving.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to cast their vote for me in challenge two! I am very touched by the outpouring of support that I have received in going forward with this competition. I really appreciate it. Here is to you., my friends. Cheers!

If you haven;t already done so, don’t forget to enter for your chance to win a $45 CSN gift card from Jacob’s Kitchen!!!

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Blueberry Ice Cream

It had been a while since I busted out my ice cream making attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer, and having all of these fresh blueberries on hand, and looking at the scorching weather report for this weekend I decided what better time than now. In a sauce pan, I start by combining about one cup or so of sugar, one fourth of a cup of water, the juice and zest of a lemon, a couple of slices of fresh ginger, a generous dollop of homemade blueberry jam, and heat the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Meanwhile, I puree two pints of fresh, washed blueberries in the food processor. Once the sugar has dissolved I add the blueberry puree to the syrup and cook for about five to seven minutes. In another sauce pan I scald one quart of heavy cream, and slowly whisk it into two large egg yolks. Add a splash of vanilla extract and the blueberry mixture (removing the slices of ginger), cover, and chill in the refrigerator until very cold. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker, following the manufacturer’s instructions, and voila! Easy, delicious blueberry ice cream. Creamy, rich, silky, and fully of fresh blueberry flavor this cool summer treat is sure to satisfy. If you, on the other hand, prefer to drink your ice cream, add several scoops to a blender with a splash of milk, and blend until smooth. In either case, serve it up with a few extra berries, and a sprig of fresh mint. Enjoy!

This post made the Foodbuzz.com Top 9!!!

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Blackberry Lemonade

In a desperate attempt to use up the remaining blackberries from our CSA which have not yet been made into jam, I decided that I would use some of the seedless blackberry puree (which I got from passing the blackberries through the fine blade of a food mill) to make a pitcher of this amazing blackberry lemonade. I mix one part freshly squeezed lemon juice, one part sugar (or to taste), one part blackberry puree, and five parts water (but you can add more or less depending on how strongly flavored you like yours to be). Very easy, but deliciously tart and refreshing. (This recipe would also work well with other fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches, etc.) Enjoy!

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Cantaloupe Aguas Frescas

Cantaloupe is perhaps my favorite fruit for aguas frescas. It is so flavorful, and just screams summertime. And, as luck would have it, I found myself this morning with a bunch of leftover cantaloupe from the event last night. And what better way could there be to use it than in this refreshing drink. I filled my blender with diced fresh cantaloupe, I then added the juice of one lime, about a fourth of a cup of sugar (you may want to use more or less depending on how sweet your melon is), a big pinch of salt, and enough water to bring the blender to capacity (about 2-3 cups). I blended it up for a minute, then strained it, to remove all of the melon pulp. Serve it up over ice, with a wedge of cantaloupe and you have a deliciously thirst quenching treat perfect for any hot summer afternoon. Cheers!

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Watermelon Aguas Frescas

When I was in college, I used to visit this little hole in the wall restaurant almost everyday. It was on my way to class, and they served big glasses of the most amazing, intensely flavored aguas frescas for only a dollar. They always had a variety of flavors on hand: strawberry, cantaloupe,  watermelon, mango, tamarind, etc. And each gulp was like biting into a piece of perfectly ripe fruit. Now, on days like this, when the summer heat becomes almost unbearable, I long to return to that restaurant (now some six hundred miles away) for a tall, thirst quenching glass. Luckily for me, it is much easier to simply make some myself here at home. I start by filling my blender with diced fresh watermelon, and then adding enough cold water to bring the blender to capacity (about 2-3 cups). I then add anywhere from two tablespoons to a third of a cup of sugar, depending on how sweet the watermelon is (this one was pretty sweet). Run the blender until the mixture is smooth, then strain the beautiful pink liquid through a fine mesh strainer, to remove all of the fruit pulp. Add the juice of one lime and a large pinch of salt, and chill it in the refrigerator. You will want to repeat this process several times if you are making a pitcher (as I typically am). (You can dilute this drink as much as you would like with more cold water to stretch it further, but I like mine to be pretty strongly flavored.)Serve it over ice, with a garnish of watermelon and fresh mint, and you have a perfect beat the heat summer drink which is sure to satisfy. Cheers!

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Sparkling Ginger Mint Lemonade

With the long holiday weekend drawing near, what better way to kick back and relax than with this refreshing take on lemonade. I begin by making a sugar syrup (two cups of sugar and one cup of water brought to a simmer), to which I added several sprigs of fresh mint, and about two inches of peeled fresh ginger. I let the syrup steep for ten minutes and then strained it. Start by filling each glass with ice (I also rimmed mine by dipping each into lemon juice, and then into granulated sugar, which adds a festive touch), a few lemon slices, and several torn mint leaves. Add one part freshly squeezed lemon juice, one part sugar syrup (or to taste), and four parts club soda. This lemonade is sweet, tart, and refreshing. For an added kick, add a splash of your favorite vodka, and you have a delicious cocktail, perfect for any fourth of July barbecue. Enjoy!

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