Author: Fran B

Conversation Starters: The wonder of Salt Cellars

blog photo of salt cellars on Fran's table

“Above the Salt” Idea: Entertain guests like a pro with great salt cellars for your table.

Do you know someone who can really throw a fabulous gathering no matter how large or small? I have to say I’ve been lucky enough to know some party planning geniuses and, to be honest, I spend a lot of time paying attention to them – what they do and how they get it done.

What I’m describing here is the subtle art of home entertaining. Creating an intimate setting where the drinks are flowing, the food is excellent, and the music sounds fabulous, but at the very heart of the party is the conversation: electric, happy, and memorable.

THAT’s the key, right there: the trigger for a great conversation. Without it, you could host a party with a five-star magician as the main entertainment, and still watch it flop. I know. I’ve seen it happen. So, what IS the secret? What’s the trick to triggering conversation and keeping everyone talking?

Consider these examples:

  • When friends come to visit a friend of mine’s home for drinks, he pulls out old AOL sign-up CDs from the 90s and uses them as coasters. Boomers laugh. Millennials gape at them as though they’re museum collectibles.
  • Another friend uses “vintage” Melmac cups, saucers, and plates from the 1960s – a very nice retro look that goes with her retro décor. Along with her movie posters (also from the 60s), her home really is like a museum, but you should hear all the conversation!
  • An author I know collects photos from pre-World War II Europe and has framed reprints all around his home. For people who have traveled to Europe – especially Italy and Germany – these are very precious images that never fail to trigger a conversation.

The truly cool thing about this “trick” is that, for it to work, you don’t have to go all out and redecorate your home. Add things that complement your existing décor and personal tastes. But, do your research and be THAT person who knows a bit about whatever you’ve add to make things just a bit more interesting. In my case and for my taste, I like curios that I pick up from estate sales, often for the tabletop or kitchen.

Recently, I rediscovered Salt Cellars, also called ‘salt pigs,’ which were used to hold and dispense salt. They can be either lidded or open and vary significantly in size, shape, and materials – from very simple to incredibly elaborate made out of precious metals and stones.

Salt cellars of various shapes and sizes have been found dating from the time of the Greeks and Romans. During the Middle Ages very elaborate salt cellars were placed at the head of the table as a sign of status and prosperity, so they were often crafted in silver and decorated with sea motifs (remember – it was sea salt that was being put into the salt cellars). 

In addition to the large bowl placed at the head of the table, smaller ones would be set around the table for the guests. Social status was measured by where guests were seated relative to the master’s large salt cellar. So, high ranking guests sat ‘above the salt’ and closer to the host while lower ranking ones sat ‘below the salt.’

Some of these master salt cellars were so large and ornate that they were called ‘standing salt’ because they weren’t passed around the table.  The tiny spoons first appeared in the 17th century as the use of these larger salt cellars increased. Common salt shakers didn’t appear until the Victorian era in England but remained unpopular because salt tended to clump up due to moisture in the air.  After anti-caking agents were introduced in 1911, salt shakers became more popular and cellars were eventually demoted off most dinner tables.

Salt cellars are now a collector’s item, but I like to use them around the table with different salts in them.  Sea salts come in many shades and flavors that can really add excitement to your food. Using different salt cellars with different salts is another way to kick-off conversations, and keep the memories flowing no matter how you’ve been “salted.”

Check out my video for more ideas on home entertaining.

In Search of the Perfect Coffee Mug

Fran Berger's coffee mugs

What are the qualities that sets one coffee mug apart from all the others?

Ever notice how we collect coffee mugs? And we all have different reasons not just for accumulating them but also for keeping them.

I have a friend who has an embarrassingly large collection of Disney mugs. A few of them are rare and pricey (for coffee mugs) on the collector market. Her favorite is a mug she got when she was a kid in the 1960s. It has a 3D raised image of the castle and the handle looks like a tree limb. She said she stopped using it when she found out that it is considered “extremely rare” and sells for $200 in auctions.

One friend collects mugs as she and her husband travel around the country and Europe. Another friend collects mugs with clever slogans and movie quotes. Her favorite is a black mug she’s been using for years that she says is an ‘original’ “Make my day” mug. You must believe her – I mean who keeps track of something like that? One coffee mug collector I know is a mathematics professor, and she has mugs that have math jokes on them. Seriously, do math jokes exist?

I admit that I have my own embarrassing collection of mugs. Well, I don’t REALLY collect them. They just seem to collect themselves as gifts and party favors, events I’ve attended, and so on. We all have them.  And, every so often, I realize I’m running out of room and I have to go through and get rid of the ones I don’t care for. So, when I noticed that I was keeping only ones that I thought were functional it got me started thinking about what makes a perfect coffee mug.

Everyone has different tastes in coffee mugs. But when you’re entertaining guests, you want to think about form and function rather than the clever design or the artwork imprinted on them. It’s important to think of the guests you’ll be entertaining – you want the mugs to be comfortable for use.

Hand size is so important. Different cups and mugs fit differently for everyone. We’ve all been to events where they serve coffee in a little cup. Some have handles that are so small that it’s hard to hold. If you can manage to slip a finger into the dainty little ‘ring’, there’s no good place to balance the weight of the cup with your thumb once it’s filled with hot coffee.  They have terrible balance!

I think that a perfect coffee mug is one that holds 8 to 16 ounces of liquid and is comfortable for the drinker. You shouldn’t have to hold the rim of the cup with your other hand just so the hot liquid won’t spill. You shouldn’t have to place your hand under it to stabilize it as you sip. It ought to comfortable holding in one hand.

If you’re looking for a set, pick one up and think about how it feels in ‘resting balance’: is it too heavy without anything in it? Is it so out of balance, even when empty, that there’s no place to put your thumb for counter-balance.  Does it feel natural enough so that when it’s full of hot liquid you won’t struggle keeping the cup upright and straight? If you want a taller mug, look for ones that fit more than one finger in the handle. Generally, a mug should also have enough balance so that it when full it won’t accidentally tip over.

Take a look at my video and you’ll see a wide variety of mugs and cups. Some with big handles, some with small ones. I have a few that don’t have any handles at all. Unless you’re a collector of novelties, you’ll want to think about function and how that mug will look and feel in your and your guests’ hands.

Recipe for Slow Roasted Onion Dip

recipe for roasted onion dip

This is the onion dip taste you’ve been looking for – seriously. You’re going to want to keep this one.

You go to a party and – there it is – your favorite onion dip that we all learned to make with sour cream and dried onion soup packets from the market. It worked for us in the beginning, savory, salty, with all that delicious onion flavoring (and with all those ‘lovely’ preservatives). But, what if you can say that yours was homemade and much more delicious? Made one from scratch? Now, wouldn’t that turn some heads?

The exciting thing is that roasted onion dip is actually very easy to make. I found a straightforward recipe from Bon Appetit that will have you and your guests craving this over and over. And, I guarantee that you will never look at the soup packets the same way again.

  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees
  2. Peel and trim the ends of about 1.5 pounds of mixed (red, white, brown) onions and thinly slice – you can use a mandolin if you have one.
  3. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper, toss the onions and 4 unpeeled (you want them to basically steam in their skin) cloves of garlic with a ¼ cup of olive oil and 2 TBS water. Season with salt and toss again to make sure everything is coated evenly. Then pile them up into a nice tidy pile in the middle of the tray.  The goal here is to actually steam them into submission.
  4. In this recipe, as you might expect, you have to caramelize the onions. But this is the part that really got my attention. Instead of shepherding your onions over a hot pan on a stove top, we’ll let the power of convection (and steam) do the job for us. And they won’t be soggy, and they’ll reach a beautiful color, aroma, and flavor!
  5. The “convection” action happens within the tidy pile of thinly sliced onions and garlic. The steam from all that cooking radiates heat in all direction. When you think about it a bit, it all makes total sense.
  6. As you bake, toss and stir your pile of onions and garlic about every 10 minutes. Make sure you push it all back into a big pile before putting it back in the oven. Do this until everything is golden brown and soft. When I use this recipe—see my video here—it took about 40 to 50 minutes. Some of the onions will brown quicker than others, but that’s fine.
  7. If you find after 40-50 minutes that your onions are nice and soft but not quite as golden as you’d like – spread them out on the sheet tray and put back in the oven for a few minutes to add color.
  8. When it’s time, remove the onions from the oven and allow them to cool. They will cool quicker if you spread them around.
  9. Transfer the onions and garlic to a cutting board. Separate out the garlic and squeeze the cloves: basically, the garlic will squish out from the peelings. Smash the garlic with the side of a knife until it turns into a paste. Transfer the squished garlic to a medium bowl.
  10. Finely chop the browned onions and add them to the same bowl.
  11. Then, add 1 ½ cup plain whole-milk Greek yogurt that you’ve mixed with 2 tsp of lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. I always recommend Kosher salt because it’s less salty and easier to control. Stir everything together until well combined. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
  12. Place in a serving bowl and sprinkle some cayenne pepper on the top for color.

Serve with fresh radishes, baby carrots, or potato chips. Note on the chips: use the unsalted ones because the dip will be salty enough. Now, look what you’ve done: an excellent game-day dip. Wait for the head-turning when your guests ask why this onion dip is SO much better than the one they usually get and you tell them it’s because you made it yourself!

How to Roast a Head of Garlic

home roasted garlic

A fabulous “quick” preparation for a favorite… wait a minute… what IS garlic anyhow?

Here’s a fun fact about garlic. While it’s probably easy to call it a vegetable it’s actually an allium like onions, shallots and leeks and is rarely, if ever, eaten on its own LIKE a vegetable. But, as a friend of mine likes to say, the discussion is merely academic.

Botanically speaking, garlic is actually part of the lily family and has been spicing up human food for thousands of years. Archeologists have found garlic among a list of favorite food flavorings and traditional medicine for Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Babylonians, and Greeks. These days, 80% of the world supply of garlic comes from China. I buy mine at my local Farmer’s Market.  It can grow almost anywhere it is dry and warm.

There used to be a little restaurant – I forget the name – on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, right across the street from the famous “Hollyvine” office building where John Wayne once had his office. The restaurant served one of the best bowls of creamy roasted garlic soups I’ve ever had. And if that sounds delicious to you, you’ll want to know how to roast a head of garlic.

There’s nothing sweeter than roasted garlic – especially for spreading on crostini or if you’re making garlic bread, or as an ingredient in a creamy soup. You can serve it on your charcuterie board or on a separate board with some tasty sourdough. And the thing is, it’s so simple to do if you follow the recipe I found by TheKitchn.com. To emphasize the point (how easy it is), you can watch me make this on my own video.

  1. The first step, preheat your oven to 400°F and place a rack in the middle of the oven.
  2. Peel off the loose papery layers of the head of garlic. Don’t worry about the skin – keep that part intact so that it holds the “head” together.
  3. Cut straight through, about one-quarter of an inch off from the top of the head – not the root end.
  4. Place the head on a piece of aluminum foil–cut side up. Include the small tops of the heads that you cut off.
  5. Drizzle about 2 tsp of olive oil on the cut ends. Don’t skimp on the olive oil. Flavor is important, see “How to pick olive oil.”
  6. Roll up the foil into a closed packet. Make sure that the foil will hold the oil and not let it drip out. Place the packets directly on the oven rack and roast until soft–about 40 minutes.
  7. If you’re worried about oil dripping in your oven, place a baking sheet UNDER the packets.

Serve warm and savor the taste of this most ancient of delicacies.

How will you make your football party stand out?

color coordinate your drinks

It IS great time to entertain your friends and family—make those memories stand out with a themed cocktail drink!

As you plan your football party, there are some quick and easy ways for you to enjoy the day too.  Keeping it casual and having plenty of food around is one way (see my previous post). But, one exception to the “casual” rule—I always have a ‘welcome drink’ ready for my guests as they arrive. I love thinking about focal points for my gatherings. One way to do this is by making drinks that are color coordinated with the teams playing.

Mixed Drink Recipe: Polaroid

Blue Cuarcao for your partySo, how about something BLUE if one of the teams playing is the New England Patriots or the Denver Broncos? Blue Curaçao is made from the dried peelings of the Laraha bitter orange native to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. The color comes from a natural food coloring used after the distillation process. It’s also the base mix of a drink called the Polaroid.

I guess they gave it that name because it’s so vivid and striking when you set it out on the table. The mix is all around Blue Curaçao, a liquor made from the dried peelings of the Laraha bitter orange native to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. The color comes from a natural food coloring used after the distillation process. Mix this drink when you really want to make a statement.

Ingredients

  • 1 oz of your favorite Vodka, chilled
  • 1 oz of Blue Curacao
  • 1 oz of a clear soda (e.g., Sprite or 7UP) to fill

Instructions            

Fill a suitable glass with ice, add the above ingredients, and stir gently. Add a sprig of mint or a wheel of lime or orange.

Mixed Drink Recipe: The Bijou

bijou cocktailOr, how about something GREEN if either the NY Jets or Green Bay Packers are playing? The key mix is Chartreuse, an herbal spirit made by Carthusian monks in the mountains of South East France for the past 200 years that’s a distillation of 130 herbs and flowers. The rough French pronunciation is ‘shart-ruz,’ the name of the Grande Chartreuse monastery where the monks live.

This is a classic cocktail that features this well-loved liquor with a splash of gin and sweet vermouth. The mix originates from the 1800s, and I’ll give you one guess why they call it the “Bijou.”

Ingredients

  • 1½ oz. gin
  • ¾ oz. green Chartreuse
  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes orange bitters (Regan’s)

Instructions

Stir ingredients into a mixing glass with ice and strain into a chilled goblet or martini glass. Enjoy!

Mixed Drink Recipe: The Signature Bloody Mary Mix

bloody maryHere’s something RED, if the Kansas City Chiefs or NY Giants are playing? It’s an easy set up for chilled glasses of Bloody Mary’s—as if you need a reason to mix up a batch of Bloody Mary, right? This classic mix originates from the St. Regis of New York where it was invented!

Get a pitcher and mix up your favorite Bloody Mary mix (see below) and stash it away in the refrigerator until guests arrive. Make sure that your bar is complete with great vodkas (freezer chilled) with all the fun garnishes you can think of – including bacon, pickled beans (see my video), baby corn, olives—and don’t forget the celery!

Ingredients

  • Juice of 3 lemons
  • 2.5 liters tomato juice
  • 5 oz. Worcestershire sauce
  • 10 dashes Tabasco® sauce
  • 2 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp. ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 tbsp. ground celery salt
  • 2 tbsp. whole black peppercorns

Instructions

Pour ingredients into a pitcher and stir well. Use immediately or seal and refrigerate. Strain peppercorns from mix before adding alcohol.

Having team color coordinated cocktails as a welcome drink is a great way to great your guests and set the tone for the party.  It’s a fabulous way to start a conversation and excite some team spirit as well!

Football Season is HERE!

Ready for football season?

What a great time to entertain your friends and family—but don’t forget the most important ingredient!

It’s football season – a great time to entertain friends and family!

Football Sunday is an instant hit for most people. Even friends who don’t watch football, love to come to my gatherings just because it’s a great time to hang out and party a bit. And the great part?  Sundays are typically lazy days which make them perfect for casual get-togethers, right?

Keep it flexible.  These rules can work as easily on Saturdays if you’re a College ball fan as they do on Sundays if you like watching pro.  Keeping it flexible and casual means that entertaining areas don’t have to be limited to the kitchen or dining room. Your TV area/room is perfect for a football Saturday/Sunday you just have to spend a little time thinking and planning for a good place to set up the food and beverages. Keep everything in a space that is either in the same room where all the action is going on or a convenient location nearby. Make it easy for your guests to stay connected even when they’re hungry or thirsty.

Food on these lazy casual days should be easy to make and easy to handle on your lap. Here’s an opportunity to pull out all your mismatched small bowls, utensils and cups for a fun look. Have plenty of finger snacks already set out – chips, spiced nuts, pretzels, and so on.

One idea that’s always fun is a make-it-yourself taco bar. Or, maybe you have a famous chili recipe that cooks for hours and makes your house smell amazing. Place it in a colorful cast iron stock pot on a portable hot plate to keep it warm and surround it with all of the fixings (shredded cheddar, chopped onion, sour cream) in small bowls (they don’t need to match)

Another great idea for ‘serve yourself’ is a baked potato bar.  Get medium size potatoes. The classic is the Russet potato (of course), but you can use any. Wash and dry the potatoes, rub all over with olive oil, then rub all over with salt (make it Kosher) and bake in a 425°F oven for about 45 minutes or until they’re soft when pierced.  Keep them warm on a hot plate for service.  Set out the typical preparations like butter, chives (fresh), shredded cheddar, crumbled bacon, sour cream, or anything else that strikes your fancy!

Welcome your guests, keep them fed, hydrated, and engaged in conversation.  Use items in your entertaining spaces that you’ve picked up either during your travels or at the local flea market.  Your guests will remember your creativity and want to come back to see what you’re going to use at your next party. Most of all—have a blast and may the best team win.

The Essential 5: Must-Haves Knives for your Kitchen

Essential 5 kitchen knives

Make your kitchen functional and safe with sharp knives that can get the job done!

Maybe you’re thinking it’s time to get a nice block of knives for the kitchen. I couldn’t agree more. MOST kitchens need an upgrade. But let me put a stop on snagging those knife sets you see on special at the department store (usually on sale). You know the ones I’m talking about: the nice wood block set with eight or more knives, kitchen scissors, and steak knives to boot. Save your money. Those sets are a complete waste.

It’ll be better to purchase what a chef would get: what I call “the essential 5”—everything you need to get just about any job done in the kitchen. Watch my video so you can see what these look like and how they handle.

Most important is what we call a “chef’s knife.” They come in different lengths. I recommend a size between 8” and 10”; mine has an 8” blade. However, the more blade you have, the more knife there is to work with. This knife can deal with about 90% of what you do in the kitchen, including slicing and dicing. I wouldn’t use a chef’s knife for butchering or cutting up poultry or even to remove the skin of large hard vegetables like butternut squash. You’d never use a knife like this to punch a hole in a can, either. A good chef’s knife will probably be the most expensive one in your set–maybe close to $100 for good quality. Things to look for: full-tang (one piece of metal with the two handle pieces); pins that hold the handle to the tang (not glued into the handle). Why is “full-tang” important? It gives you a more balanced, longer lasting knife, and it’s heavier than cheaper partial tang knives. The weight gives you a little more chopping strength when you have to cut through firm veggies like carrots and squash.

A decent paring knife with a blade about 3” to 3 ½“ long.  Paring knives are used for those tasks that need more attention to detail like mincing garlic cloves or peeling fruit. They won’t do you much good for cutting carrots or parsnips, that’s what your heavier knives (e.g., chef’s knife) are for. You don’t need to spend a lot on this knife – maybe $20. By the way, remember this all-important safety rule: the right blade does the job efficiently. If you have to use a lot of force, it’s a signal that you’ve got the wrong knife. Be very careful because your knife may slip out of your hand.

Serrated “trimming” knife with a blade length of about 6”. This knife is great for smaller loaves of bread, and they’re great for things with slick surfaces like tomatoes, watermelon, citrus, and peppers. You can even use them on layer cakes! Use your 6” serrated trimmer when you need to slice with a sawing motion. Do not use it for chopping and definitely not smaller items like fresh herbs, garlic or berries. A good quality one will cost around $30-40. If it goes dull, just replace it; they’re challenging to resharpen without losing the serrated edge. Look for teeth that aren’t too big (it’ll tear up soft interiors) or too small (not so efficient).

The last actual knife is a boning knife. Boning knives are not used to cut THROUGH bones, we use them to cut AROUND them. It’s the best blade for cutting up or boning fish, meat or poultry of any size.  This is the one knife not designed to cut a straight line but one to cut “around” things like joints or a ribcage. Good ones have a bit of flex to the blade which will allow you to separate the meat from the bone and it will cut through joints and cartilage. A decent boning knife will cost about $30, but if you plan to give it some heavy use in your kitchen, you may want to spend a bit more.

The last of the Essential 5: honing steel. It’s not a knife, but it’s essential to keep your blades sharp. A dull knife is the most dangerous tool in your kitchen.  Knives should be honed every time you use them. It doesn’t actually sharpen the blade, it realigns the fibers in the metal, so they keep a sharpened profile. But don’t forget to get your knives professionally sharpened once a year. Honing steel can be used on any straight blade but never on a serrated knife.  They’re very often included in a set, but if you’re buying it separately, they will cost about $25 – ceramic or steel.

Now you have “the essential 5”—go make something marvelous!

Home Entertaining Tip: Create a Great Cheese Board

Make it colorful and fun: alternatives for cheese boards, knives, serving bowls.

I have a friend who grew up in England. One afternoon last spring, we sat out on her patio overlooking the valley with a light breeze blowing over our shoulders. We were having tea served in exquisitely painted china that her father collected decades ago, some light crackers, and slices of cheese served on matching silver plates. So elegant and light – so her.

Later this summer, I visited another friend. We sat in her living room as her kids chased each other around in the backyard with a water hose. As they squealed, we chatted over tumblers of wine coolers, crackers and cheese served on dinner plates.

We all have different ways to entertain, all different styles. Even for the friend who’s coming by for just a moment, we offer a little liquid refreshment and/or something to nibble.  And, if you come to my place, there will be cheese.  The unexpected visit can be just as much fun as the party you’ve planned. All it takes is a little imagination.

First, cheese boards come in all sizes, shapes, and materials – you can really use almost anything flat including a china platter.  If you took a survey, most people don’t even bring out a cheese board either because they cut the cheese before guests arrive or they think they don’t have something that will be ‘right’ to use. But let’s say you want to use a board – you can find them truly almost anywhere. Sometimes I use a beautiful flat, squarish piece of black slate as a “board” of sorts: the cheese and fruit look so beautiful against the dark color of the tile. My point is, your “board” can be made of almost any material.

Cheese knives also come in all shapes, sizes, and materials as well. Maybe you want to slice the cheese ahead of time, but it’s not a rule. Many times, I will cut a few slices or pieces and leave the rest of the piece of cheese ‘whole’ for my guests to cut.  My video shows some of the knives I’ve collected on my travels. I even have one with a handle that is shaped like a mouse that I picked up a few years ago in a small shop in Paris.  It’s a great story to tell my guests, and it looks fun on the plate.

Along with the cheese and crackers, you may want to add olives, gherkins (small pickles), nuts, or perhaps truffle honey, and so on. Place these ‘extras’ in individual small bowls or containers – the more colorful and fun the better – place them either directly on the board if there’s room or next to it on the table for easy access. Pick ones that add visual interest to your cheese board.  You’ll need small spoons or small spreaders as well for the honey or preserves – remember sweet, whether it’s dried fruit or something else, pairs perfectly with cheese.

The trick is to pick up the boards, small bowls, containers, cheese knives and spoons/spreaders as you see them and not to wait until you actually NEED them. I’ve always found that if I’m searching madly for something the day before a party, I rarely see what I’m looking for. Take your time and have fun planning.  If you’ve found things you love to use you will already have the right tools for that unexpected guest!

Entertain like an Italian and Enjoy the Spirt of the Aperitivo

Open up your home and celebrate

Enjoy the relaxed pace and informality of a timeless continental style.

One of the reasons I became a restaurateur is that I love to entertain. And, one of my favorite ways to entertain guests follows the Italian Aperitivo style: informal and wholly intimate.

It’s a time to invite everyone – it can be a group of only friends after work or add family and have everyone all at once. This style is not about impressing people with your silverware and fine china. It’s all about the spirit of the gathering; making everyone feel welcomed and together as one happy group. It’s really a very simple way to socialize over light cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

Aperitivo is also not about impressing anyone with your kitchen prowess. Very often, Italians serve prepared foods that they’ve picked up at the local market to make it easier. Aperitivo itself is more of a prelude to dinner. In fact, the prefix ‘apero’ in Latin means to ‘to open’ – as in to open your stomach to get it ready for a lovely meal.  So, the food is just that – small things.  It is not meant to be dinner. 

In Italy everything for the table revolves around what’s in season and it’s the same for the food for Aperitivo. That just means getting the ingredients that are in season and building a menu around those items.  So even if you do decide to cook make sure that you keep your menu focused on what’s fresh in the farmer’s market right then.  But for any aperitivo there is one snack item that is always included no matter the season – potato chips!  Italians LOVE potato chips! They are prime aperitivo food even in the most fabulous hotels in Milan.

They also don’t worry about making sure that everything matches on the tabletop. In the Italian culture, like everywhere else in the world, they pass down their treasures through their families – linens, silver, glassware, china, et cetera. If you don’t have all of that, try visiting estate sales – I just wrote a blog about it. But – even if all you have is plastic and Melmac – go for it anyway. It’s the gathering that matters most.

A part of embracing the aperitivo style is getting familiar with the Italian habit of after work cocktails. It’s different from our Happy Hour where the focus is more on having drinks together with your friends. Italians like to sip, and they tend to talk more than they drink so the focus is more on the gathering than the drinking.

Because “friends and family” often means kids, welcome them at your aperitivo. Let them join in the snacking with virgin cocktails or smoothies. And, because we want it as intimate as possible, tell everyone to turn off their phones. A friend of mine collects all phones at the door (to be returned at the end). It’s a great idea—I think I’ll try that myself.

So, have an aperitivo!  Mix up a batch of Negronis, add some small snacks and prepared foods from your market and enjoy!

Check out my video for more ideas on entertaining Italian-style.

Recipe for the Perfect Poached Egg

the Perfect Poached Egg

The mystery of poaching eggs is lifted.

I love poached eggs. My mom and dad used to have them with toast just about every Sunday morning. It’s a fond food memory for me.

I think more people would eat them at home were it not for all the mystery of how to actually make a perfect poached egg (and that most people think it’s almost impossible!). Ask a dozen people and you will get a dozen answers. The problem is a lot of people are just guessing and the reality is, there’s no real “recipe” for the perfect poached egg. It’s like boiling potatoes – you either do it this way or that.

I found this idea from Epicurious.com. They call it their “foolproof” method, and I have to agree. It’s so simple and works every time. Check my video to see how easy this is.

  1. First step, pour water into a large wide pan. Add salt to the water. I use Kosher salt because it’s not as salty tasting as table salt and it helps the white of the egg set a bit firmer.
  2. Heat up the pan of water—bring it to the point where there are small bubbles on the bottom of the pan. You want it not quite simmering – definitely not with any water movement. If the water is moving, the turbulence in the pan will throw wispy whites everywhere and, I don’t know about you but, I don’t want that.
  3. Hold a fine mesh spider (sieve) over a bowl and crack an egg into the spider. Tip- the fresher the egg the better it will hold together.  Let the looser part of the whites drain off. This will remove most of those unwanted wispy whites that you can get when you poach the other way (e.g., drop the egg into a pan of near boiling water). Scrape the bottom of the spider on the edge of the bowl to remove as much of the loose whites as possible.
  4. Gently lower the spider into the pan of water until the entire egg is submerged, but keep the egg on the spider.
  5. Set your timer to 3 ½ minutes. This will give you a perfectly runny yolk with whites that are tender soft, but firmly set. A little tip: as the whites start to set, gently scrape the white toward the yolk with a spoon to keep the egg loose so that it doesn’t stick to the spider.
  6. At about the 1 minute mark when you can really see that the white is setting up, GENTLY slide the egg off the spider so that it is fully immersed into your hot but not bubbling water. Gently move the egg around a couple of times with a slotted spoon as it cooks so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. If the water is hot enough, it shouldn’t stick, but sometimes it does.
  7. When the timer goes off, lift your poached egg out of the pan with your slotted spoon and let the water drain away. If you want your egg to be free of water, carefully and briefly place it on a paper towel before serving. You’ll want it fairly dry it if you plan to serve your poached egg over toast.

A few serving tips. For one or two servings, take your dried/drained egg and place it on a SLIGHTLY oiled plate and hold it there to wait for another egg before moving it to a serving plate or toast.  Cooking for a crowd? Take your cooked egg straight from the pan and place immediately into a bowl with iced water (an ice bath) to hold until you’ve cooked all the eggs you need. You can keep cooked poached eggs in the ice water in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

To reheat your refrigerated eggs later, simply put hot tap water (as hot as your tap gets) into a bowl, transfer the eggs from the ice water into the hot tap water and let them sit for about 2 minutes.  They won’t cook more and will be warm for serving.

And now, you can enjoy perfectly poached eggs any time!

Home Entertaining in Style: The best way to build a collection of fine silver and crystal

The secret: estate sales, flea markets, thrift stores. And they’re fun!

For some folks, having the perfect set of home entertaining “ware” is a matter of inheritance. If you are one of the lucky ones to have inherited crystal, china, and silver–family heirlooms–then you have my envy.

Not me, not my mother. She didn’t want anything that my grandmother had. To be honest, I have no idea what my mother passed up and certainly don’t know what happened to those pieces. My parents preferred a very casual form of home entertaining, so the thought of polishing silver and washing crystal and fine china was just too much of a hassle.

I get it.  I have great friends who love to entertain like that – no silver, crystal, etc. and they throw some of the best parties around! One couple not far from me—celebrity film writers—own the biggest collection of mismatched vintage Melmac ware I’ve ever seen. It’s really something to behold. They even have some pieces that date back to the 1940’s.  It’s very cool and is completely their style.

I love to mix and match items on a dining table or buffet as well—but my style is more along the lines of silver, crystal, and fine china – sometimes mixed in with more casual items when the mood strikes! They don’t all match and they’re not all from the same time period. But, that mix of different styles, patterns, and materials creates lots of interest for my guests, so they’re great conversation starters. You never know when someone will point out an item that they love and want to know all about it. Even if I don’t know the exact story of that particular piece I do know where I got it and that starts the fun.

So, if you like finery or really any particular entertaining style, and if you’re like me with no family heirlooms, there’s the joy in finding different pieces while building a collection, adding to what you have, and replacing what gets broken (it happens). And, there’s no better way to do that than going to estate sales, flea markets and second-hand resale shops.

Estate sales can be found by simply googling – you will come up with a great website like Estatesales.net.

This site is convenient. You can search by state and then zip code for estate sales that are happening in your area.

There’s also Hughes Estate Sales here in Southern California where you get into whole collections of great pieces provided in a controlled environment.

They start on Fridays but I really like to go there on Sundays when the discounts are the biggest! This is where I found my Lalique juice glasses that you can see on my recent video.

Flea Markets can also be fun. I recommend checking Google for the best ones in your area. In Southern California, the one I like best is the Rose Bowl Flea Market, which happens on the 2nd Sunday of every month. Flea markets are hit and miss— so, don’t be sad if you go and you don’t find anything that day – there’s always next time. Bring along a friend and plan to spend some time looking around and having some fun while you’re at it.

Here are some basic collector tips that I’ve picked up along the way.

For either estate sales, flea markets or second-hand shops, be willing to take your time going through what’s there. Understand that just because on one day you find nothing doesn’t mean that the next week there won’t be a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Don’t go out looking for a perfect set of 8 or 12. In these venues, items are very often odd numbers in a set. For instance, I found a really nice set of nine etched crystal goblets at a Denver second-hand shop. That’s okay with me—my table only seats 6!

It helps to set goals. Think about what you need to build your collections. Maybe look at patterns, designs, and styles ahead of your outing: so easy to do with the Internet. Get familiar with types of things that you like and price ranges that you’re willing to pay so that you don’t spend a lot of time with dead ends.

And, always remember, silver turns black if not kept polished–so don’t be afraid even if the item is blackened. Pay closer attention to the overall quality of the article in terms of damage (dents, missing parts, and so on). If you find a tray you love, but the silver plate is worn out in some areas–don’t worry- you can always have silverware re-plated at a fraction of the cost of new.

Most of all, make it fun and bring your found treasures home with great stories to tell your guests.

Two Drink Recipes, for a Nice Summer Afternoon Spritz

Enjoy an afternoon wine spriz

Bringing you 2 fabulous spritz drinks to help you keep cool during California’s dog days of summer-early fall.

It’s not the end of summer in California until we endure those final “dog days” through early fall. It’ll be boiling here until Halloween! Sad for most kids because they’ve started school by now. Nice for us adults because we can sneak a dip into the pool with a nice spritzer before the kids get home from school!

When entertaining at home, we look for smooth, refreshing adult beverages for our guests. The easiest and most refreshing are the spritzes; a simple combination of wine (sparkling or not) and soda.  You can add liquors or bitters to alter the flavors. They’re really the easiest of cocktails to mix. You can watch me mix the Aperol Spritz here on my video.

Fun fact: Why are the last of the hottest days of the year called “dog days”?

Answer: Because at that time of the year, the constellation Canis Major (the big dog) starts appearing in the sky. The brightest star in that constellation is Sirius, which in Latin means dog – thus, the star is known as the dog star.

And I thought that it was just because dogs tend to lay about and snooze during the day when it’s hottest. I’ll figure out how to work this bit of trivia into my next cocktail patio party when I serve these simple and refreshing drinks. As always, use the largest ice cubes you can to avoid diluting the drinks.

I’ll start with the Aperol spritz I found on Epicurious.com.

If you love the taste of grapefruit and are excited about a drink that blends the taste of orange and some bubbly, then you’ll really enjoy this drink. It’s become one of my most favorite—especially during those hot “dog days.”

Pour into a large wine glass filled with large rocks of ice, and stir:

  • 2 ounces of Aperol (an Italian apéritif with a complex orange flavor).
  • 2 ounces of sparkling white wine (I use Valdo Prosecco, extra dry in my video)
  • 1 ounce of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (prefer “ruby red” variety).
  • A “splash” of soda water to taste.
  • ½ Grapefruit wheel as garnish (also “ruby red”).

Maybe citrus isn’t your flavor. That’s okay. Here’s another recipe from Epicurious that’s a bit sweeter. The base is the French liqueur St. Germain, made from elderflower. So, prepare for some floral brightness from this spritz.

Pour into a large wine glass filled with large rocks of ice, stir gently:

  • 4 ounces of sparkling white wine (again, I suggest Valdo Prosecco, extra dry)
  • 1½ ounces St. Germain liqueur
  • Splash of club soda to taste
  • A sprig of fresh cut lavender to garnish

Serving tip: I prefer serving these drinks in large stemless wine glasses. There’s a lot of liquid and ice here, and the drink might be a little top heavy if you try to mix and serve these spritzes in stemware. Either drink goes well with cold cut fruit to fight off the heat of the afternoon. Makes me think of sitting back on a balcony, enjoying a sunset overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice with friends.

Enjoy!