How to make a perfect “starter” with a great Shrimp Cocktail!

An easy recipe for shrimp cocktail that’s tasty and lovely to look at.

I have never met a “starter” I didn’t love. There are so many great ways kick-off an evening of fun with your friends or family but, for me, there’s just something about a great shrimp cocktail before dinner that sounds perfect. It’s one of the reasons that you’ll find it on every appetizer menu for the big steak houses around the neighborhood. Some restaurants serve them simply prepared and some serve them fancier (like when they serve the shrimp on top of dry ice so that it comes to the table ‘smoking’) but in the end it’s all about the perfectly poached shrimp and the flavors of the sauces the shrimp are served with.

It’s actually much easier than you think to create the absolutely perfect shrimp cocktail every time.  One of the significant advantages of poached shrimp is that a typical serving isn’t over-filling. That makes them fabulous to have solo as a light lunch or snack on a late weekend afternoon just before you go out for dinner and a show.

Read: Two drink recipes that go well with shrimp!

After trying so many recipes in search of the perfect shrimp cocktail, I found this recipe on Bon Appetit last year and tried it out immediately. It’s so easy. It requires NO special equipment other than measuring cups and spoons. The most challenging part is preparing the shrimp for poaching. And, the cocktail sauce is a quick mix-up of six easy ingredients.

Ask at the fish counter or your fish market if the shrimp is fresh.  Very often what you will find at the fish counter is shrimp that was once frozen but that the market has already thawed.  But, if you can find fresh it’s the best option.  Some fish mongers will de-vein them for you but, even if your fish monger will de-vein your shrimp – check them again to make sure that all of the intestine (that dark line along the back of the shrimp) is gone before you cook them.  If you can’t find them fresh then IQF (individually quick frozen) can work.  Just be sure that you thaw them only ONCE and cook them immediately.  Do not refreeze thawed shrimp.

Ingredients for Shrimp

  • 8 cups of ice (keep it ready just before you start)
  • 1⁄4 cup Diamond Crystal kosher salt or 2 Tbsp plus 2 tsp Morton’s kosher salt (Morton’s Kosher Salt is much ‘saltier’ than Diamond Crystal)
  • 1⁄4 cup sugar (I know it sounds strange – trust me)
  • 2 large lemons
  • 1 lb. jumbo shell-on shrimp, deveined

Ingredients for Cocktail Sauce

  • 1 cup chili sauce (preferably Heinz – saves you from having to add a whole bunch of additional spices)
  • 3⁄4 tsp finely grated lemon zest (just the yellow part, avoid the white as it will be bitter)
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice (this is about the juice of one medium lemon)
  • 2 Tbsp prepared horseradish
  • 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 3⁄4 tsp hot sauce (preferably Tabasco)

Prepare Shrimp

  1. Place the 8 cups of ice into a large bowl and set aside.
  2. Combine salt, sugar, and 6 cups water in a large saucepan. Make sure the pan is large enough to hold the water, shrimp, plus the ice.
  3. Cut two lemons in half, squeeze the juice into the saucepan, then toss the lemon halves into the saucepan.
  4. Bring liquid to a boil – stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar fully. When everything is completely dissolved, remove saucepan from heat.
  5. Add shrimp and poach, uncovered, for 3-1/2 minutes. Set your timer so you don’t overcook!
  6. Immediately add the ice into the saucepan to rapidly chill the poaching liquid and stop the cooking. Let shrimp sit in the ice bath for about 10 minutes. Drain, pat dry, and peel, but leave the tails on. The tails are pretty and are perfect to pick up the shrimp with.  Pat them lightly dry again.  Place the shrimp in a dry bowl, cover, then let them chill in your refrigerator until you’re ready to serve.
  7. You can poach and peel the shrimp a day ahead but be sure them keep it chilled.

Prepare Cocktail Sauce

  1. Mix the chili sauce, lemon zest, lemon juice, horseradish, pepper, and hot sauce in a small bowl.
  2. Cover and chill until ready to serve.

Serving Tips

You can also make the cocktail sauce a day ahead. Personally, I think it tastes better to let all the ingredients settle together in the refrigerator overnight. If you do it all a day ahead you will have the benefit of leaving yourself more time for your main course prep (if you’re having one) or time to just relax before your guests arrive.

Another tip: serve your poached shrimp ON ice. Don’t submerge cooked shrimp in ice water—that just makes them soggy, and soggy shrimp are definitely not appetizing. But, you absolutely want to keep the shrimp cool – therefore serve them on ice. And as a finishing service touch, cut a jumbo lemon into 1/8th wedges or 1/4” half rings and serve with your shrimp.

Watch my video to see the whole process in action.

Enjoy.

Valentine’s Day with Frozen Sweet Wine Strawberries

It’s the small things that count: frozen strawberries that will make your guests gush!

A friend of mine admitted the other day that she’s sometimes uncomfortable visiting a mutual friend. And you know the one thing that makes her so nervous? Our mutual friend is like a clock, calendar, and seasonal directory—all rolled into one. Her home is always decorated with just the right colors and the perfect seasonal and holiday tone. I have to admit, she is a bit intimidating.

“How does she do that?” says my friend.

So many of us find that the holidays are upon us before we’ve had time to plan anything much less decorate and figure out special meals or even gifts.  Not everyone is as well organized and ‘ready’ like my “mutual friend”.  She’s planning year-round to get it all done.  I don’t plan year-round but I do collect ideas that can help anyone look just as good as my friend.

Read Frozen Grapes Marinated in Wine

Frozen sweet wine strawberries are one of those ideas. It takes very little planning and can work into just about any busy schedule. And, it’s a great treat whether you’re staying in with your SO or going out with a group of friends. Start your Valentine’s Day evening at home with a glass of wine and these strawberries. Everyone will love you for it.

To prepare this treat, you only need three things: large, lovely strawberries (washed and hulled), a bottle of dry rosé wine (not too sweet – the strawberries will bring the sweetness), and white sugar.

Place the berries into a bowl, cover the strawberries with the rosé and refrigerate for up to 1 hour. After the hour is up, drain the wine off and gently pat dry the strawberries. Roll the berries in sugar and place them on a sheet tray. Put the sheet tray into the freezer and remove them when your guests arrive.

Read The Perfect Valentine’s Day Adult Beverage

One last tip: you can try this idea out on just about any variety of fruit—practically any berry, but some stone fruits as well (do pit them first). Some freeze better than others and they might get a bit mushy as they thaw, so remember to keep the fruit in the freezer until the last minute. They’re easy to prepare, easy to eat and so stunning to look at.

Check out my video so you can watch how it’s done.

Kitchen Tool Upgrades to Take You to The Next Level

My list of handy ‘next level’ kitchen tools so you’re not caught without “the right tool for the right job.”

There’s an old saying about using “the right tool for the right job.” It isn’t just about odd jobs around the house – it’s about EVERY job – the right tool makes whatever the job is so much easier and that includes the tools in your kitchen.  When it comes to making sure you have the right tools, there’s no difference between fixing a leaky faucet and cooking up a lovely dinner for guests.

This is my list of handy ‘next level’ kitchen tools. None of these ideas are expensive – almost all are under $35. But having these tools around the kitchen could make all the difference between a fun cooking adventure or enduring what could become an unnecessarily difficult kitchen experience.

Read: The 10 Essential Tools for Beginner Cooks

My goal is to help you avoid the situation where you’ve already started a recipe and suddenly you realize that the simple task of grating Parmesan cheese is not going as planned. Or, you need the wine opened for your pot roast and that old handy wine opener (the one you’ve had since college) suddenly jams. Some of these items you know you’ve talked about replacing the last time you reached for them. A few of them you don’t think about until the day you need them.

This is why I urge all cooks, whether you’re a new or inexperienced cook or are very comfortable in the kitchen, to be proactive about all your tools. You don’t know the pain until the simple tool you need is either missing or broken!

Here’s the easy part about all of this—it doesn’t take much to upgrade the standard tools in your kitchen—you just have to remember to do it. And, I’m here to help:

A good citrus squeezer. Seriously, this is the one everyone forgets. Remember, you just can’t get as much juice out of the lemon or lime using only your hands.

A two-step Waiter’s Corkscrew. This is a pro tool, used by waiters everywhere and will make getting the bottle of wine open that much easier.

A good quality microplane. You’ll never have to mince garlic or ginger with a knife ever again.  And, this tool is perfect for Parmesan cheese!

A sturdy dough or bench scraper. Bakers use it to scrape the dough off the counter, but here’s the thing—it’s actually perfect for transferring chopped anything (meat or veggie) into pots and pans without picking up the cutting board.

An insert rack for your pan. If you ever plan to fry anything and want to keep it crispy, get a cooling rack that fits your sheet pan.  Air can flow underneath your fried items and keep them crispy – they don’t sit in the oil from the fryer.

A set of nesting mixing bowls. Stainless or glass, because everyone needs mixing bowls, right?

A cast iron skillet – 10-12”.  This will become your favorite skillet in the kitchen.  Nothing sears meats better and it can go from stovetop into the oven with no worries.

REAL kitchen shears. Not scissors you also use for cutting paper. You want shears that can cut through chicken bones AND that sheet pan pizza you just made. Important feature—make sure you get the ones you can easily take apart for thorough cleaning.

A serrated bread knife. The thing is, this is not just for bread but also any hard-skinned vegetables like Squash – AND tomatoes (perfect for any thin-skinned soft fruit because it won’t tear the skin!)

A paring knife. Small and sharp, for the little cutting jobs that require precision.

Read: The Essential 5 Must Have Knives for your Kitchen

A fish spatula. Characterized by the extra-long part that does the scraping or picking up. Usually made of thin stainless steel.  This one is not only for fish but for just about anything that needs a little extra flexibility to pick up the food in one piece.

A stainless ladle. This is for that pot of chili you’re going to make on Sunday or the favorite soup for dinner.

Watch my video to see these tools and get the feel of the way they work. And remember—maybe you already have some of these tools. But, check them out and make sure they’re ready for your next cooking adventure.

How to Slow Roast Any Veggie for the Perfect Side Dish

Delicious ‘basic recipe’ for vegetables that NEEDS to be in your bag of tricks.

Nobody has all the ‘basic recipes’ down. We all have our favorites that we return to again and again but I’ve found that there’s always room for ‘just one more’ to add to my repertoire.  And, when that ‘one more’ can be the basis for any number of variations – it’s a good one to add.

This is the easiest way to put just about any vegetable on the table – and it’s soo delicious. I’ve tried a number of twists on this one for years, but to be honest, the best idea is to keep it very simple.  It’s also such an essential preparation that it can (and is often) adjusted or grouped together with just about any main.

Read: How to pick olive oil. 

This is perfect if you love beautifully caramelized veggies. It brings in the kind of flavor and texture that only comes from tossing your favorite vegetables with a lot of extra-virgin olive oil, kosher salt, herbs and spices, and aromatics like garlic or onions and then slow roasting in your oven. When you leave them in the oven for an hour or so, they will cook down into something wonderfully soft and nicely caramelized with some crispy edges.  Always finish with an acid, like rice wine vinegar, to brighten the dish.  You can adjust this idea for any vegetable – a friend just roasted carrots, broccoli and onions and loved it.  Check out my video where I tossed trimmed scallions, garlic, ginger, and dried chilies together for a perfect side to serve with seasoned skirt steak for dinner.  Here’s how I did it:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350F. This is a long and slow cook, so the low temp will deepen the flavor thorough caramelizing. This is the right temperature for a slow roast for all vegetables.
  2. Place the rack in the middle of the oven for even heating.
  3. In a shallow 2qt baking dish pour in extra-virgin olive oil, add kosher salt, your favorite vegetables, spices and aromatics and combine.
  4. One note about garlic: place the cut side down so that the oils from the garlic infuse into the olive oil for really impactful flavor. Seriously, you’ll love it this way.
  5. Roast for about an hour. Toss them two- or three-times during cooking until they’re evenly golden brown, very tender and crispy around the edges. It’s about an hour, but it could be more depending on your oven.
  6. Remove from the oven, and let cool slightly.
  7. Add rice wine vinegar, toss some more, and serve!

This preparation is perfect for steak dinners, grilled seafood or roast chicken or you may even consider it as an add-in for other dishes like a soup (Asian style) or with beans and rice (Mexican style).

Have fun!

Defining the 10 Essential Tools for Beginner Cooks

What you need to know about the top 10 essential tools for your kitchen.

A client of mine just bought a second home near a lake. She faced the same problem all cooks face when stocking a new kitchen – what are the basics necessary to prepare meals for her and her family?  What are the absolute essential kitchen tools?

One of my favorite websites, Bon Appetit, posted an article titled 10 Essential Tools for Beginner Cooks. Here are my notes on the ‘Essential 10’.

The first item is a 10” stainless steel skillet. “Stainless steel” because you don’t want anything that will chip, stain, or break. Personally speaking, ‘non-stick’ surfaces are a ‘non-starter’ for the “essential” list because this will be your workhorse tool. Nothing against ‘non-stick’ (I have a small one for my morning eggs) but they do need a bit of extra care to protect them from scratches. Cast iron is another favorite, but these also require some careful cleaning and regular seasoning. As with many of these “essentials,” it’s all about personal preference.

Next is a good chef’s knife. You can do most of your kitchen chores with this one knife–so make it the first one you buy before you add other knives. Your biggest consideration is the length of the blade. For me, the 8-inch blade is a nice size but, you may prefer the 10-inch. There’s really no formula for which one is better. It’s personal preference—how it feels in your hand, balance and how long of a blade you’re comfortable working with. You should also consider getting a honing steel to sharpen your knife each time you use it—a dull knife is one of the most dangerous things to have around the kitchen.

Read: The Essential 5 Must Have Knives for your Kitchen

There’s always a lot of chatter about cutting boards, myself included. There are two things to think about: food safety and utility. I know people who swear that their glass cutting boards help them permanently solve the food safety issue (you can sanitize them). They also last longer than wood, bamboo, or plastic. But a glass cutting board will dull your knives faster than you can read this sentence. Actually, glass can ruin your chef’s knife.

So, what’s the perfect cutting board in my kitchen? A good hardwood (walnut, hickory, oak). If you want to preserve your knife and don’t care that you’ll have to replace your board often, softer woods like cypress are great. Good wood boards are perhaps 2” thick, so they don’t warp when they get wet. A Bamboo board—which is a nice compromise between hardwood and softwoods—will be about ¾” thick. As for the food safety issue, you should have a separate board for vegetables and another for animal proteins—you don’t want to cross contaminate. That’s where plastic cutting boards come in. You can stick them in the dishwasher and they’re cheap to replace when they warp, start to chip or get heavily scratched.  By the way, never stick your wood or bamboo board in a dishwasher.

Read: Don’t Take Your Cutting Board for Granted!

You need a 5 to 8-quart heavy stockpot. You will use this for boiling pasta, blanching veggies, and cooking up batches of your favorite chili or soup recipes. You want a heavy-bottomed one so that the heat is distributed evenly. Make sure that the lid is tight fitting.

It may seem obvious, but you’ll want a large cooking spoon—wood or stainless steel. I have several. Stainless is durable but can scratch some surfaces. Replace wood spoons as often as you replace wood cutting boards.

People sometimes forget how important it is to have a good set of measuring spoons and measuring cups. I like metal ones—they’re sturdy, and they retain their shape after years of use. You’ll find sets with eight or more different spoons and cups. Go for the simplicity of the basic four. In spoons, that’s one-tablespoon, one-teaspoon, half-teaspoon, and quarter-teaspoon. In cups, you’ll want one-cup, half-cup, one-third cup, and quarter-cup. Any more than that is just clutter.

That leads me to your basic liquid measuring cup. Glass is fabulous—but get one that’s tempered glass, so it doesn’t shatter the moment you put boiling liquid into it. Forget the one cup size because you already have that in your set of measuring tools. Go straight for the 2-cup and then add a 4-cup later.

You’ll want a rimmed sheet tray. Emphasis on “rimmed”—I like the ones with taller rims that are about half-inch tall. You’ll use this for roasting and baking.

A veggie peeler is definitely an essential. There are all kinds of designs but, I love my Y-peeler. It’s faster than a swivel peeler, easier to handle, and so cheap that when it finally gets dull, you can just replace it.

Lastly, a set of fine-mesh sieves. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that you can do all with big mesh colanders. Big mesh is suitable for draining big veggies, but not very useful otherwise. No plastic, it can become warped if you put hot liquid in it. You want a thin-rimmed metal sieve. Some come with plastic handles—but the simplicity of all metal is better. I say “set” because you’ll want perhaps three sizes. One should be about 6” in diameter that will double as a spider in the kitchen for scooping out blanched veggies, pasta, rinsing beans or grains, draining stock and sauces. I also use that one for poaching eggs.

That’s my “essential 10”—check out my video so you can see them for yourself.

You may think of other tools like saucepans, spatulas, whisks, and a slotted spoon. But if you’re a beginner, don’t clutter up your kitchen with all the accessories. Take it one step at a time. Learn your tools, and you’ll have more fun. I promise!

What your dinner party guests really care about!

At your next dinner party, try these ideas to keep a fun night really rolling.

I can’t tell you how many different dinner parties I’ve attended. Maybe almost as many as I hosted? I’ve been invited to some that were absolutely fabulous events, many were really enjoyable and memorable, and everyone had a good time. Thankfully, I’ve only been to a handful that stood out for the wrong reasons. But as it turns out, those are the ones that taught me the most about what dinner party guests really care about most.

First off, dinner parties are all about the gathering—who you invited, be they friends, family, or colleagues, and why. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing. Perhaps it’s a birthday, anniversary, or another type of celebration. But whatever it is, and whoever comes, don’t forget that it’s all about the sharing: food, beverages, and conversation.

If you put on a perfect night, your guests will come away with an excellent food memory. And, if you’re fortunate, they’ll remember that one night for years. This leads me to my second point: don’t stress about making the evening a complete standout. More on this later.

The fact is, you may be surprised by what your guests remember most about your dinner party. The usual “playbook” for parties causes us to focus on details, like the food. You want to be concerned with how you present the beautiful dishes that you’ve so lovingly prepared. But, what you may not realize is that, although guests may be awed by fancy and elaborate food you cook yourself, you really don’t need to cook to have a great party.

Let’s say you know this really great take-out place. Make it fabulous, make it fun, but don’t leave the food in the ‘to go’ containers they came in – replate everything! Seriously. Why struggle with a recipe that you’re not comfortable with? If you really want to cook, make something you can prepare in your sleep, like that delicious soup or casserole you’ve been perfecting for years.

When I can, I prepare all or most of the food the day before the party. Soups, stews and casseroles are always better the second day. Go to your favorite bakery and pick up a few fresh crusty baguettes. Add your favorite wine to go with the meal, and there you are—the start of a great dinner party! One you can really enjoy with your guests because you’re not stuck in the kitchen.

Just a little aside about food: remember all of your guests. Be aware if there are dietary restrictions. But, if a guest is really particular about what they will and won’t eat it’s OK to suggest they bring something they’ll be comfortable eating.

I repeat: the whole point of having friends and family over is the sharing. We love the food and drink, but—speaking for myself in particular—I live for the conversation. I love great stories, the little factoids, and snippets from people’s lives. Sometimes it’s quite a surprise what someone will share, but everyone is talking—and that’s the life of the party.

There’s nothing more uncomfortable than going to a dinner party where no one wants to talk. I have learned a few tricks to get things going. I always know a bit about everyone I’ve invited so that knowledge gives me the opportunity to add something in common each time I introduce guests that don’t know each other.  For instance, I may put two or three people together and mention that they all love dogs. I may pair two up because they work in similar industries, or maybe they’ve traveled somewhere recently.

My best conversation starter strategy is my collection of cool little items I’ve picked up on my travels or at the local flea market. I learn a story or two about everything I collect so I can share it at a gathering. You never know the great conversations you may trigger with that approach.

Here are some other strategies I use for my dinner parties:

Of course, I never forget to line up music to complement the feel I want for the evening. Parties sometimes change as the evening progresses. I have different “playlists” that matches the mood of the party—or to improve a mood.

I always avoid especially strong smells so I stay away from perfumed candles except for a small one in the powder room. This way, the first smell to welcome my guests is the delicious aromas that float in from my kitchen.

Guests definitely notice the table settings but, that doesn’t mean everything has to match. Show some creativity. I often talk about mixing patterns and pieces at the table – things I’ve picked up at flea markets and second-hand shops. A mismatched place setting of silver, china, and glassware can really be a lot of fun.

Finally, the big centerpiece for your gathering: is you. Your guests will see the effort you’ve put into the evening—even if you’ve picked most of it up from the market already made. The biggest trigger for fun is how you present yourself.  Guests notice if you’re stressed. Stuff happens—there will be hiccups. Let it go and so will your guests. Kick back and relax. Enjoy the evening, and your guests will follow.

One last big tip for your evening: don’t clean the whole time guests are there. If you need help, ask them. People are always happy to help, and with the right approach, clean-up can be part of the fun.

Check out my video for even more home entertaining tips. Enjoy!

Make a resolution, pay attention to your olives!

Don't take olives for granted!

It’s a shame to take the olive for granted when there’s so much variety!

I love olives. Green, black, stuffed, unstuffed, in salads, or plain. I only thought about the history of this fabulous fruit after a small gathering at a friend’s home not long ago. My friend, the historian, told us that the reason we use olive branches as a sign of peace is that it takes so long to grow olive trees that can bear edible fruit.  For a couple of varieties (Arbequina and Koroneiki) it takes 3 years but for most varieties it takes 5-12 years!  The tree itself has been around for millions of years. Ancient written records left in tombs and on stone tablets suggest that we’ve been harvesting olives for about 7,000 years – that’s before the Bronze Age!

Today, there are enough varieties of olives to match just about any palate—even those that are hard to satisfy. Which brings to mind an article I read in Epicurious where the writer, contemplating the joy of olives, asks us to “think outside the jar.” Or “can,” as it may be.

By my own count, there are about 15 truly top of the line varieties of the delicious fruit. And very much like wine, some olive flavors are robust to the taste—it all depends on how adventurous you want to be. Among olive varieties I’ve heard of or experienced: Alfonso, Amfissa, Beldi, Castelvetrano (one of my favorites), Cerignola, Frantoio, Gaeta, Gordal, Kalamatas, Leccino, Manzanilla, Mission, Niçoise, Nyon, and Picual. But there are literally dozens more which, depending on the cuisine and location, can be extremely popular to no one else but the locals.

No matter the variety, you can’t eat raw olives–they’re way too bitter.  Technically, I suppose you COULD, but the vast majority of people (myself included) prefer olives that are cured. I’ve never met anyone that actually tried an uncured olive and ever wanted to repeat the experience! Most commercial olives are picked by machine–which leads people to believe that all olives ripen on the tree at the same rate. Not true!

This is one food that can range from very simple and elegant (like the noble Mission) to the truly exotic (like Nyon). And the most significant difference among the varieties is not the plant itself, but the ripeness at the time they are picked and cured. Highest quality olives are picked, sorted and even stuffed by hand. That’s why some jars of olives can be quite pricey.

There are all kinds of ways to cure olives: by oil, water, or just laid out to dry. The most common method of curing is using a lye solution and then a saltwater brine. The process is intended to draw out the bitterness and start fermentation, which leaves many varieties with a briny (or salty) flavoring.  Ripe olives that are lye-cured and then exposed to oxygen produces a black, smooth, mild tasting olive.  Ones that aren’t oxidized stay green.

Some specialty varieties are cured only lightly in lye and then washed in water. Since these are unfermented, they tend to be the sweetest tasting olives; slightly buttery. Dry-curing with salt only is unique to Morocco. The salt pulls out the bitterness and leaves a wrinkly olive super packed with flavor. These are called Beldi olives, and they are absolutely fabulous in salads.

True olive enthusiasts look for olives that are unpitted.  Flavors stay more intact when the skin isn’t broken so you’ll find gourmet varieties and preparations unpitted. There’s a reason for this. Pitted olives, though more convenient, soften and take on more of the brine flavor that they’re sitting in.

Unopened jarred and canned olives can keep for months.  But, if you want to truly enjoy a variety without having to purchase a lot of any one type, try buying them from the fresh olive bar at the market. If you do, remember that olives should be stored mostly submerged in brine. If there’s not a lot of brine in the bin they will dry out so watch for the bin to have enough brine.  Spoon some extra brine into your container and store them that way until you’re ready to eat them. Keep them refrigerated, and they can stay for 2-3 weeks.

Check out my video for another perspective on bringing olives into your next gathering.

Enjoy!

What to do with all those gift wines?

Turn them all into wine spritzers and keep your party going!

Gift wines. There. I said it. A bottle quickly picked up at the market, thoughtfully bought, but random nevertheless.

Guests can’t help it. Buying a random bottle of wine for a house party is like bringing a bouquet of flowers not knowing the home décor or gifting a box of candy to someone who can’t eat sweets (I grieve for them, wherever they may be).

A random bottle of wine is just that—it’s random. It isn’t necessarily bad, and you’re not being elitist for liking only certain kinds of wine. But there it sits. Those bottles of Merlot and over-oaked Chardonnay, all sitting there in the back of your collection, gathering dust.

Now, if you’re a real elitist, you toss the bottles out unopened. And that’s a shame unless of course, the bottle is spoiled. But there is such a thing as letting such collections grow too big.

I have a friend who believed that when people said that wines grow better with age, he literally thought they meant any wine from any vineyard. We took a look at his “collection” one day before a party he was hosting.

Nearly all were gift wines from various dates. He did well to lay them down and store them on their side in a rack (to keep the wine in contact with the cork). A few were expired (yes, ordinary, everyday wine will expire) and had to be tossed out. Many were okay. A few years ago, his brother dropped off several bottles of Le Fade Vigna del Doge, a decent kind of everyday red wine from Dele Venezie, Italy. I recognized it as the type that sidewalk cafes serve for midday meals. The corks were okay, and the contents were still clear.

Most of this collection were not the types of wine I’d want to serve straight from the bottle at a party as I would with ones from a favorite vineyard.

But, there are things you can do with these random wines, even those over-sweet and barely drinkable cheap bottles, that can keep the conversations going at a party that’s already in full swing. It’s a little trick that makes them useful at just about any gathering, and it makes almost any wine reasonably tasty in a glass (despite themselves). What I’m talking about are wine spritzers.

No recipe needed.

We poured the wine into tumblers over ice (something you would NEVER do with a good bottle). We filled each glass to about ¾ full. Use a LOT of ice or one big rock of ice. Then we topped the glasses with a splash of sparkling water, but make sure you use an unflavored variety otherwise it will completely change the flavor and you might be really unhappy with the result. You can use seltzer or your favorite club soda depending on your preferences. By the way, do you know the difference between a seltzer, sparkling water, and a club soda? There are subtle distinctions that aficionados of bubbly water recognize. But, that’s for another post.

Finally, give each glass a big squeeze of fresh citrus. For a fancy touch, garnish with a slice, wedge, something of peeled citrus. And keep some Angostura bitters on hand for guests who want to kill any cloying sweetness.

Doesn’t that sound delicious? It is. Check out my Gift Wine video to see how easy it is up close.

Now for the strategy to this idea. Hold your wine spritzers for the second-half of your party. By this time, you’ve already served the special wines you planned for the party but you’re just not ready for everyone to leave. No worries! Your guests have warmed up to each other and are more focused on the conversation. The spritzer gives them something that’s light and easy to sip between fists of nuts and laughing.

And you can thank those random gift bottles of wine for the extra fun.

Bake, Don’t Fry Your Bacon!

There is a better way to cook bacon that doesn't involve a frying pan.

You’ll be blown away how much easier it is to BAKE your bacon.

I may be stating the obvious but frying bacon is a real hassle. Everyone loves the taste, hardly anyone complains about the smell of bacon cooking BUT, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know a single home cook (myself included) or chef who actually likes to watch bacon fry.

Here’s the scenario: you’ve invited everyone for brunch and decided that your menu will include bacon – which, to be fair, is an integral part of most brunches.  You need to make bacon for a group of 8-10 people but the last thing you want to do is stand over a spitting frying pan cooking enough bacon for the crowd all while watching your stovetop go from shiny and clean to a total greasy mess.  And, the bacon curls – won’t stay nice and flat and some parts cook quicker than others leaving you with some pieces crispier than others.

So, that’s your dilemma – you need crispy bacon for your guests, you don’t want to have to watch the frying pan and create a serious mess that will take a bit of time to clean up.  What can you do?

Here’s a fun trick that has been passed down through my family since—hold your breath—World War II!

My grandfather was an Army field cook who apparently had no problem standing over a hot griddle for hours on end. He was both the proverbial and literal Army cook. The normal “GI” bacon was to drop as much of the meat into a hot pan as you could manage and keep flipping. But my grandfather couldn’t waste time with frying.

Who knows who actually came up with this idea—there are hints that the GI field cooks picked this technique up from a French cook. Anyway, the big revelation was that baking bacon was not only more efficient, but cleaner, easier, and you can cook up a whole lot of bacon all at one time with virtually no mess, no watching and perfectly flat strips every time.

It’s so easy to do:

  1. First, place your oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of your oven, then preheat your oven to 400 degrees. My grandfather used 375, which makes the bacon a little softer but also greasier. I use 400 which makes it a bit crispier.
  2. Place baking racks inside rimmed baking sheets (very important for catching the grease). Line the baking sheets with tin foil—makes cleanup that much easier.
  3. Lay bacon on the racks. One pound of bacon usually has between 16 to 20 slices (depending on how thinly cut). Half-size baking sheets (13×18) ought to hold about 8-10 slices. Space the slices out. They can touch, but don’t overlap the slices, unless you want to end up with one big slab of baked bacon.
  4. Bake for about 15-20 minutes depending on the thickness of the slices. It’s very important to move the baking sheets from front to back and top to bottom racks ½ way through until they are brown and crisp. Start checking it for the crispness you want at about 18 minutes.
  5. Be very careful about the grease that pools up in the baking sheet (that’s why I recommend 1” rimmed baking sheets). It doesn’t take much to make that grease slosh around, so move the sheets slowly.
  6. When your bacon gets to the crispness you desire, remove it from the oven and transfer the slices to paper towels to drain the rest of the grease. Just about any spatula will remove the bacon from the baking rack

Now, you DON’T have to watch your bacon frying! Watch my video to really see how easy this is. No more bacon grease splatter on you and your utensils, no stove top to clean up, evenly crisp perfectly flat strips and the best bacon you will ever eat!

Enjoy!

Fran shows us a different way to cook bacon.

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 from Majestic 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 Herend. Start 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 Candles Decorative 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.