2018: Fran’s list of Gifts for Women

Challenged by originality? Remember to be thoughtful.

It’s probably a huge generalization, but I think it’s a lot easier to get a gift for a guy-friend than it is for a girl-friend. Not saying that guys are less sophisticated or that women are overly complex – not at all.I think it has more to do with being a woman, coming up with an original gift idea for another woman.

Originality is the challenge – many men don’t care that much about originality but for us women it’s in the DNA. How about this example: men don’t seem to mind much about showing up to a party with the same Tommy Bahama shirt as another guy. But – if two women show up to the same event wearing the same dress? Disaster!  I went to a black tie party once where THREE women showed up wearing the exact same designer dress. Talk about a problem…

And then, just when you think you’ve come up with the perfect gift idea, she tells you how much she loves your gift from last year –exactly what you thought was so original for this year! That’s why I have a notebook and why I keep track. I don’t do it to impress people that I’m original. I do it to keep myself organized. I love it when I give a gift and the eyes open wide from the sheer joy of receiving something unexpected. I delight in the art of giving in the very same way that I love to entertain guests who come to my gatherings. It’s no fun unless everyone is excited. And itjust so happens that “originality” is a key ingredient for that kind of success.

I’m constantly jotting ideas down all year long as I think of them. It took me nearly the whole year to build my gift lists: one for men, the other for women.  Here’s my 2018 list of Gift Ideas for Women, all thanks to Bloomingdales and Geary’s of Beverly Hills. And watch my video for a close look at all of these lovely gift ideas:

Scarfs from Zadiq & Voltaire. This label is one of my favorite fashion brands.I love all of their designs – especially the grey skulls!

Bedside Crystal Carafe and Glass fromMajestic Gifts and a gorgeous tray from Juliska. Now, this is truly special and unique: a bedside crystal carafe on a special tray to keep your friend hydrated through the night. It’s always a good idea to have water by your bedside. If you wake up at night, like I do, it’ll be right there.

TinyTress Press from Dry Bar. Have a friend who has curly hair but wishes it was straight and loves to travel? This is perfect for them. It’s a detailing iron that nice and compact. Great for touch-ups while on the go. And–added bonus—it has a dual voltage feature that’s perfect for global nomads.

Lucky Butterfly from Baccarat. The butterfly is offered in twelve beautiful colors and absolute perfect quality, this is a jewel-like touch for your friend’s table top décor. The butterfly isa symbol of freedom and grace and giving the Papillon Lucky Butterfly is a way for you to express these qualities for your friend.  

Picture Frames from Match1995.I love pewter. And pewter picture frames are an excellent gift:  no polishing, no worries. Match1995 has other perfect gifts, handmade in pewter. This is a favorite brand of mine.

Collectible Animal Figurines from HerendStart your friend’s collection, or help them take their existing one up a notch.These are truly exquisite collectible animal figurines, such lovely design and craftsmanship. And Herend has so many different little animals in multiple colors and most have a funny side to them (when pigs fly, bunny chef, frog in a meditation pose, just to name a few).

Scented CandlesDecorative Candles from the Baobab Collection. Candles are such a lovely thing to add to a home. I love the flickering warmth of a tiny flame, especially when it’s framed inside one of these beautiful glass jars. The great thing is they burn completely down so the empty glass can be used for flowers!

If you love entertaining friends and family at home, then you’re already there for giving fabulous gifts for your friends. All they want is a little sign of your thoughtfulness. Originality comes along for the ride with the joy shared by all.

2018: Fran’s list of Gifts for Men

Putting thought into gifts for men takes a little effort, but it’s so very rewarding.

I admit it. I can get pretty particular sometimes. I still hand-write letters and thank you notes to friends and family. Yep. On paper! I admit my handwriting has gotten a bit sloppy over the years (I spend a lot of time on a keyboard) but I make the effort.  And, I still read a paper newspaper and real books. Oh, I’m not a tech hermit by any means.  After all, I write this blog, right? And I’m pretty engaged on social media (check out Instagram and the latest video about this post). I also love streaming video – so nice not to look at commercials. And I email, text, watch Vines.  You know, the usual.

What I love about newspapers and books is the tactile experience of reading – touching the paper. I can pause, make notes, reflect about the story. Sure, the same can be said about digital copies but, you can’t hold the pages in your hands. And that’s the important part of the experience for me. Real-world paper gives me a real-world connection with the author. So, when I read a newspaper or book, it feels more personal.

I’m just as particular about giving gift cards. As hard as it can be to buy gifts for some friends, a gift card just doesn’t feel like a “real” present.  Where’s the effort? Where’s the feeling of thinking about someone and being inspired to get a gift that fits the friendship and the person?

We all need a little help now and then for ideas. I can understand that. That’s why I take notes when a friend mentions something they love – on my phone – see? – tech can be very helpful! I spend the whole year thinking about my guy friends; about the things that would really make their eyes pop or at least make them smile. And, you can’t get that with a gift card. Not really.

Here’s my 2018 list – Gifts for Men:

Clase Azul Tequila. Maybe you’re thinking, what? Seriously, great tequila is a delicacy that a lot of my male friends really enjoy. And each bottle is a unique work of art. This year, I picked Clase Azul. To be perfectly honest, it’s become one of my favorite sipping tequilas so I make sure I always have a bottle in my bar at home too.

Wine Opener from L’Atelier Du Vin. Everyone needs a good one. And, for those who love wine, invariably you’ll have one or two that are either broken or not great. Get a good one from L’Atelier Du Vin for your friend so he’ll always be able to properly open the bottle of wine you brought to his party.

The Art of Shaving. My dad used to shave with a straight razor. Then everyone went to electric shavers because they were easier. And for a while, hand razors (with 3 or 5 blades) became the thing. Now, some guys are going back to ‘old school’ shaving. The Art of Shaving has them all. But if you really want to open some eyes, get him a straight razor kit, complete with shaving cream and a badger hair brush all in a cool travel kit!

Beanie & Scarf from Bloomingdale’s. If you live in cold weather, then what could be better than a cool beanie and scarf set from “Bloomies”? Even if you live in sunny Cali, there are enough cool days where a gift like this will warm the heart. Seriously – they’re so soft and warm – touch them to make sure they’re as soft as you want! The beanies and scarves, I mean.

Bang & Olufsen Wireless Headphones. This is one of those, “oh yeah,” gifts for the special guy. Of course, who doesn’t appreciate audio gear from B&O? But how about the Beoplay E8 – a truly great set of wireless Bluetooth headphones! Perfect for a power workout or a stroll around the neighborhood.

S’Well Water Bottle. Help him bring his own water to the gym and stay hydrated wherever he goes. And, look fashionable to boot! They have so many styles and treatments to choose from. I personally love the wood look – very masculine!

Sandro Travel Toiletry Bag. All men can use a new one. What’s not to like about one from Sandro of Paris? This one is so very stylish and roomy – it will fit everything he needs for a trip and it’s made from a durable “pique” nylon with leather details.

Okay, maybe I make this look a bit easy. But, the point is to put thought into your gifts – always think about what your friends would use and love to receive. Trust me, it will put a smile on your face when you see the look on theirs when they open your present.

Tips for great holiday party lighting.

I have a lot of friends who work in stage, film, and video entertainment. One has been a “lighting designer” for going on 40 years. What that means is that he works with the set designers and comes up with just the right type of lighting to set the mood of the story.

“Lighting is everything, and it’s nothing,” he says. “When I’ve done my job right, nobody notices that I’ve done it. It’s all about the mood, the actors, and the set. The lighting makes it all come together, without anyone thinking about it.”

So, imagine you’re the director of your own stage production of “The Holidays at My Home.” What are you going to do to set the mood for a great party? Nothing better than perfect lighting that nobody notices.

I love to use candles. Of course, everyone notices candles. The trick is making it all about your guests and the environment, not the actual candles themselves. The warm flickering light will look and feel glamorous. People seem softer, food tastes better, and wine in glasses – so much more delicious.

I went to a huge gathering in Italy in a castle near Trieste. They had tables lined up, and each one had tall tapers glittering amid the glasses and flatware. I close my eyes and imagine what a breathtaking scene that was and how much fun we had that night.

Tapered candles not your style? Try white votive candles in groupings to define party spaces. The elegance will be just as breathtaking, but maybe not so much in everyone’s faces. And when using candles, make sure you use the unscented ones! That way nothing interferes with the wonderful aromas coming from your carefully planned food.

Turn down overhead lighting; turn them all off as much as possible. Anyone who’s ever taken a selfie under ‘down light’ knows that overhead lighting creates terrible shadows. Downlight ages everyone, just ask anyone who works onstage.

Replace lamp bulbs with low wattage (25 watts), soft white (warm) if you can. This is the most flattering light, and they cast the most natural shadows. Use opaque lamp shades. These will throw light either up or down while not allowing bright light to pass straight through (direct light is never a great way to set a mood). Gold lined shades create the most glamorous glow.

If you have a fireplace and the weather is cold enough – light a fire! Your guests will want to gather around the fireplace and watch the fire.  Evening conversations around a fire tend to involve telling stories which is a great way to connect and make some fun memories.

Pre-light your powder room with the light set to a dim level. The one exception to my “no scented candle” rule is here. Place a small scented candle in the room. Your guests will thank you.

Use reflective pieces in your party décor.  Maybe bring in a mirrored bar cart or serving trays.  Candlelight does some beautiful things when you let it bounce off mirrors. It always adds instant glamour.

Now, for the holiday touch, how about an alternative to blinking decorative lights? Remember, the best lighting is the one we don’t notice. Instead of the strings of gaudy blinkers, add groupings of colorful glass objects to your tables. Bring in colored glass candle holders and tuck them in groups in the corners of the room. The glitter and sparkle of all those colorful gems will make a holiday statement in itself.

And now, the stage is ready. Make some lovely memories.

Check out my video and see examples of lighting ideas for this post.

How to dress your salad AND make sure it doesn’t wilt

A little “insider” trick that keeps your salad from wilting.

The fact is, a slightly wilted salad isn’t bad for you. But, it looks terrible on the table and it certainly isn’t very appealing either. There’s nothing worse than a soggy salad to ruin a beautiful meal.  When you have guests over, not only do you want your food to be appetizing and tasty, but you also want your guests to be eager and happy to try every dish you serve – including the salad.

It should be no surprise that as a restauranteur for more than twenty years, I had the same goals. I was always on the lookout for tricks and ideas that made our food taste great and look the very best. Some of the “tricks” I picked up from my chefs (they always had the best ideas). Others were simply things that are passed along from one kitchen to another. In business terminology you’d call it “best practices.”

Well, here’s a “best practice” for serving salad to your guests. You’ll dress your salad before your party, and it won’t wilt before they’re ready to eat.

First, plan your meal well. When having guests over for dinner, I very often serve my favorite simple salad. The only exception is if the salad IS the center of the meal. Otherwise, keep it simple so that it doesn’t upstage the main course. Simplicity also helps solve the issue of wilting, which we’ll get to in a bit.

Second, think strategically. The biggest problem is timing: having the salad ready to serve but keeping the greens crisp and not EVER letting them wilt.  There’s nothing worse than making a fresh salad too early so the greens are soggy and wilted by the time your guests are reaching for the salad bowl.

Once you take care of those steps, you’ll want to follow this guideline to make sure your salad tastes as good as it looks. Here’s how to do it in five easy steps.

  1. Remember your “plan.” Keep the salad simple so it won’t fight with the rest of the beautiful meal you’ve prepared. The best simple salad I’ve found is just fresh Butter Lettuce and my champagne vinaigrette. Here’s the recipe and here’s a video that shows how easy it is to make.
  2. I recommend ‘living’ Butter Lettuce. Butter Lettuce has a very delicate flavor and is the perfect vehicle for a great vinaigrette. Living Butter Lettuce is the freshest I’ve ever found, and most people love it. Remove the leaves from the stem (it’s attached to a root ball – which is very interesting and why it stays fresh for an incredibly long time in your refrigerator).
  3. Rinse the leaves gently (Butter Lettuce is delicate) and shake them lightly to get most of the moisture off the leaves. Then lay them in a single layer on paper towels to dry. Once they’re reasonably dry, tear the leaves into the size of pieces that you like.
  4. Pour your champagne vinaigrette in the BOTTOM of your salad bowl and gently lay the lettuce on top of the dressing BUT DO NOT TOSS.
  5. Now comes the strategy. When you’re ready to serve dinner, and your guests are seated, that’s when you toss the salad. Tossing the salad bruises the leaves a bit and makes them wilt faster. This goes for just about any large green, not just Butter Lettuce. So, toss it when you’re ready to serve, but definitely not earlier. That way it won’t be soggy from the dressing either!

Your salad will never be wilted again, it’ll taste good and look great. Need more? Take a look at this week’s video on salads.

Simple Recipe for Champagne Vinaigrette

And so easy to make: Dijon Mustard, sea salt, champagne vinegar, and olive oil.

You know me. I love to turn even the simplest things into a conversation. One easy topic that has a great and colorful history: anything and everything about the culinary arts. In fact, each major culture from all over the planet has their own story about how a certain dish came to be or how a particular recipe started.

Interestingly, there is actually a long and lovely history of salad dressings. Seriously! Approximately 4,000 years ago, Babylonians may have been the first in Western Civilization to mix oil and vinegar for salads. Egyptians picked up the idea and added spices to the mix.

After that, salad dressing became a standard for nobility with chefs from different houses competing for the most extravagant and delicious ones. The kitchens of every royal court from Italy to the English Isles to the Norwegian fjords did everything they could to exceed the previous delight. The competition between the courts was so fierce that in some cases, the very lives of the chefs depended on their ability to do better than the chefs of the other royal houses! They mixed exotic greens with flower petals, fish, herbs of all kinds, nuts, fruits and of course the standards like potatoes, celery, carrots, radishes, tomatoes and anything else that was palatable. In the hundreds of years of competition, I imagine that there were some pretty spectacular failures. But there also must have been some very memorable successes because I think those are the ones or modern versions of those that we enjoy today.

One survivor is this perfect recipe for Champagne Vinaigrette. The recipe was handed down from one chef to another. Nobody really knows who created it, but it is a favorite, and because it’s so simple, it is also portable and quick to whip up at a moment’s notice. All you need is some Dijon mustard, sea salt, champagne vinegar, and olive oil. When mixed together it becomes a perfect champagne vinaigrette that turns a simple salad into a perfect side for any meal. I recommend using just simple butter lettuce (my favorite) but it’s really perfect on any green.  This dressing is so delicious that you need nothing else but a simple green as a vehicle.

Everything is done to taste but it will end up close to the basis for all vinaigrettes –  1 part vinegar to 3 parts olive oil. There aren’t any real measurements more than this guideline.  Again, mix to suit your palette.

  1. First, drop a dollop of Dijon into a medium mixing bowl. Then add sea salt. Trust me, you will need much more than you think – so start with a couple of really big pinches.
  2. Next, add the champagne vinegar. The vinegar will dissolve the salt.
  3. Whisk to blend, and keep whisking as you slowly drizzle in the olive oil (remember 1 part vinegar, 3 parts olive oil). Just a note on the olive oil, this is one of those times that the flavor of the oil really matters. See my tips on picking a great bottle of olive oil. The Dijon mustard will act as an emulsifier and keep the oil and vinegar blended together.
  4. Very important: taste as you go. Salt is an essential part of the seasoning. You really don’t need anything else, but make sure you taste as you go so that you can add enough salt.
  5. If you have leftovers, it will keep for about 3-4 days in your refrigerator.

Watch my video. You’ll see that this preparation will only take a few minutes from start to finish. Now, go serve a meal suited for a baroness’s table.

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!