Category Archives: Pasta

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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Filed under Beverages, Desserts, Pasta, Project Food Blog, Salads, Snacks

Pumpkin Ricotta Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter

Since I happened to have this bounty of homemade ricotta cheese (pats self on back), I was anxious to put it to work in a fabulous recipe. And what better way to showcase it than in these delicious, fall inspired ravioli. For me, making ravioli is like making lasagna. When I make them, I spend an afternoon assembling as many as I possibly can (within my budget and time constraints) and freeze them to be used as a quick, delicious, homemade meal later on down the road. It takes a little bit more time now, but I save myself a great deal of time and energy in the future, which I am always extremely grateful for, when life becomes a little too hectic to spend much time in the kitchen.

If you are the kind of person who enjoys making your own homemade pasta, well, God bless you. I, myself, am not that person. I certainly have made my own pasta in the past, and likely will again in the future, but for the most part, for me, I find the process to be tedious. Luckily, I needn’t sacrifice flavor, as the grocery store can do all of the work for me, in the form of fresh won ton wrappers. (You can also often find sheets of pasta in the frozen section of your grocery store, which also work equally well.)

I begin by making the filling by combing one cup of homemade ricotta cheese, one cup of canned pureed pumpkin, a half a cup of grated Parmesan cheese, one large garlic clove (grated on my microplane zester), a third of a cup of toasted pine nuts, one egg yolk, a small dash of salt, a pinch of cayenne pepper, some freshly ground black pepper, and a dash of freshly grated nutmeg. I then taste the filling and make any necessary adjustments.

Next, I make an assembly line on my cutting board. I line square won ton wrappers up six at a time, brush the entire surface with water, place a a small dollop of the pumpkin filling (about a rounded teaspoon’s worth) in the center of each, then place another won ton wrapper over the tops. I gently work out any air bubbles, and press around the filling, to ensure a good seal. I then cut each ravioli out using a medium, fluted biscuit cutter, and crimp each  along its outside edge with tines of a fork. I repeat this process until I run out of filling.Once you get into the rhythm of it, it really doesn’t take that long to assemble all of them.

To freeze the ravioli, I place them in a single layer on a parchment lined baking sheet  and freeze, uncovered, until they are frozen solid, and then transfer them to a zip lock freezer bag. For those that I wish to serve right away, I gently place them in a pot of boiling, salted water, and boil for about two minutes or until they float (you will want to add a minute or two to your cooking time when you are preparing them from frozen).

Meanwhile, in a small sauce pan I melt one stick of butter over medium low heat, and allow the butter to brown. When it is fragrant and nicely golden brown I toss in a small handful of fresh sage leaves (either whole or coarsely chopped depending on your presentation preference), and allow the sage to sizzle away in the butter for a minute or so before adding the cooked ravioli.

Serve them up on their own (with an extra sprinkling of Parmesan cheese) or with a simple green vegetable. Here I decided to serve them with sauteed spinach. (To make the spinach, in a large skillet placed over medium heat, I heat several tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, and a large pinch of red pepper flakes. Once the garlic has browned, I remove the cloves from the pan and discard them. I add two thinly sliced shallots and cook until they are soft. I then add a big bag of pre-washed baby spinach, and toss to coat it in the oil. Once it is wilted, I season it with salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.)

The ravioli are rich and unbelievably creamy with the homemade ricotta cheese. The toasted pine nuts, and salty Parmesan really round out the subtle pumpkin flavor, and it all beautifully harmonizes with the nutty brown butter and sage. All of the fabulous flavors of fall on a plate. This is elegant comfort food at its best. Simple to prepare in advance, and extremely quick to bring together before serving it is also perfect for entertaining. Enjoy!

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Filed under Pasta, Side Dishes, Vegetables

Ricotta Gnocchi with Thyme Brown Butter

I heard about this idea of making gnocchi with ricotta cheese instead of potatoes or rice some time ago, and have been eager to try it ever since. I found myself this morning with extra ricotta cheese, and thought that the time had finally come to do so. I combined one stick of melted butter with sixteen ounces of ricotta cheese (homemade ricotta cheese really is better… and it’s easy to make…seriously, it will ruin you for life), a half a cup of Parmesan, one egg, a little salt, a dash of freshly grated nutmeg, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. I then added just enough flour (read: as little flour as possible) to make a soft dough that is no longer sticky, working it as little as possible. I cut the dough into fourths, which I then gently rolled into long ropes, cut them into half inch segments, and rolled each down the back of the tines of a fork, creating those classic gnocchi ridges. I boiled them in gently simmering, salted water for about three minutes. Meanwhile, I melted a stick of butter in a sauce pan and cooked it over medium heat. When it was nutty, fragrant, and a nice chestnut brown, I added a tablespoon or so of fresh thyme leaves (I love the sound as the leaves pop and crackle in the hot butter). I then combined the sauce with the cooked gnocchi, and finished it off with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. These gnocchi are rich and cheesy. Not quite as feather light as some others I have made, but a great pairing with the nutty browned butter and thyme. Pour yourself a glass of Chianti, close your eyes, and you would swear that you were in Italy. Enjoy!

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Filed under Pasta

Baked Penne and Cheese

I think we all have our own macaroni and cheese recipes that we come back to time and time again. I, myself, always start by making a  béchamel sauce, and melting in my favorite cheeses. I always add nutmeg, salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a pinch of cayenne. Depending on my mood, however, I might also add a teaspoon or so of Dijon mustard (which adds a nice background acidic note that is really lovely), a tablespoon or so of pimentón (since I apparently cannot cook anything without it), any number of different fresh herbs, and really, whatever else sounds good to me at the time. Here I took slightly undercooked penne pasta and tossed it in the thick and creamy cheese sauce (made with extra sharp cheddar, Gruyère, and a little bit of Gorgonzola, for that amazingly delicious, complex, picante flavor). I then added a handful of chopped fresh basil, some cooked bacon (the fat from which I used to make the base of the béchamel), I portioned the pasta into individual gratin dishes, and topped them off with some fresh bread crumbs and a few dots of butter (to ensure browning). This is really macaroni and cheese dressed up for company. Serve it with a simple green salad, and you have the makings of a perfect dinner party. Enjoy!

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Filed under Pasta