Tag Archives: appetizers

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.

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!

Home Entertaining Tip: Create a Great Cheese Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entertain like an Italian and Enjoy the Spirt of the Aperitivo

Open up your home and celebrate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday Appetizers: hors d’oeuvres and finger foods, yum!

roasted grapes

Tips for making your holiday appetizers truly appealing.

Planning a holiday party? Start with all the ones you’ve seen – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Why remember the bad and the ugly? Because, we don’t want to do that!

The best ones, I’m sure you’ll agree, are actually the most memorable. These are the ones where everything came together – from start to finish.

The ideal way to start ANY party (holiday, birthday, anniversary, anything!) is for guests to be greeted at the door with a cocktail and a tray of hors-d’oeuvres and finger foods.

It’s also important to have additional finger food out for your holiday parties so guests can snack at their leisure.  Do easy appetizers that don’t need to stay hot and taste great either warm or cold. That way it won’t matter when your guests arrive or how long the food is out (but definitely do not leave it out overnight).

Remember – you don’t always have to serve a seated dinner for your events. Some of the best holiday parties are appetizers only! No surprise, but a finger-food party is easy on guests as well as the host. Appetizers are prepared before guests arrive, they’re easier to eat, you don’t need forks and knives, and you definitely don’t need tables! In fact, when parties are all about the appetizers and finger foods, everybody is portable! That means you and your guests can walk around talking to each other.

Let me give you a couple of finger food ideas:

People love my fresh ricotta with roasted grapes on crostini. I’ve been serving these at my parties forever. They’re so easy and quick to prepare it’s crazy – the best appetizer recipes always are.  Use this recipe from one of my favorite websites – Alexandra’s Kitchen. To make the roasted grapes really sing, it’s important to have fresh ricotta. I follow the incredibly easy recipe from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa.  You can use store bought fresh ricotta but when it’s this easy to make – why?

My other “can’t miss” party finger food is prosciutto wrapped asparagus. This is so easy that just about anyone with minimal kitchen skills can manage. Make sure you blanch the asparagus tips first – here’s a video I did for the easy way to blanch your veggies. Then you wrap the asparagus tips in prosciutto and quickly grill. This is one dish that definitely does not need to stay hot. The crispy prosciutto tastes great and is much easier to eat than when the prosciutto is not grilled.  They are so popular with my friends that I always make a lot – I don’t want to run out!

And, that’s the way to have a fun party!

Time Management for the Holidays

time management - vertical

My Top 5 Tips for sane and safe planning during the holidays.

This is one of my favorite times of the year, I can plan all the holiday parties I want and not go crazy. It’s the one time of the year that I can turn on all the great holiday party ideas that I’ve been storing up for the year. And you know me, holiday decorations, party themes, finger food, appetizers – you name it – I’ve got something I want to try.

But, this is also the time of year that we can lose ourselves in all the demands on our time. Considering that the usual demands don’t stop – work, the meetings, classes, a visit to the dentist, coffee with a friend, a drive downtown – we’re adding a lot of extra stuff. This is where all those years owning my restaurants comes in handy.

Owning a restaurant is all about planning. A well-managed restaurant is a little like a ballet. The key to making it easy? We never let up. We always plan ahead. And, we’ve always got a plan “B” – you know, just in case.

My Top 5 Tips for Holiday Planning:

  1. Start early – like NOW. If you’re like me and sometimes think it’s a circus up there – write it down! Don’t rely on your memory to hold in all the ideas and schedules in your head. Use that smartphone that you’re carrying around. It’s got a calendar function in there that works pretty well.
  2. Big time saver: make a list of everything that you need to do and update it on a regular basis. Include everything: shopping for gifts, shopping for food – your grocery list, Holiday decorations – whatever. Then consolidate the lists into shopping trips.
  3. Match your calendar with your list. Set blocks of time for everything from your list. Pick a start time and how long you think it will take, but pad the time block a bit and expect delays. They are inevitable. Do as much early as you can i.e. – anything that doesn’t spoil try to buy way ahead of when you will need it.
  4. Multitasking isn’t always the best idea any time of the year. But, it’s particularly true this time of year. In fact, multitasking too many different things often produces a disaster. Speaking for myself, I focus on one task at a time. Make it right. Then move on to the next.
  5. Follow your plan and schedule as closely as possible. If, for some reason, something is delayed or postponed, reschedule it immediately or delete it entirely. Resist the temptation to “save” tasks that – for whatever reason – cannot be completed as planned. Reschedule or move on.

Along with my “TOP 5” holiday planning tips, make sure that that you always think about doing something nice for yourself each day. Whatever it is – some quiet time, a hot bath, watching your guilty pleasure – just take time in the day (or evening) to do something you like to do for only you!

And, most important of all, don’t forget to breathe. The bustle of the holidays may encroach on your space a bit. Some of the tasks may pile up – especially if you have kids (or friends and relatives with kids). The stress level may climb a bit. Remind yourself (if you can every day) that you’re in control. Your schedule is your key to getting everything you need accomplished for the holiday season.

Remember there are only 24 hours in a day. If you schedule too much for one day, prioritize and start taking things off your list – if you can – try to delegate what you can’t get to. You’re only human! It’s OK to say no.