Tag Archives: gift ideas

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.

Recipe for a Quick Pickle

A quick pickle VERT

An easy “pickle” recipe that’s great for home or as a gift.

I had a great Bloody Mary at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, and they served a simply wonderful vinegary/garlicky green bean as one of the vegetable garnishes – no celery stalk!   I was so impressed with the taste and simplicity, I brought the idea home and decided to try it for myself.

What I found out was that quick pickling is very easy. It requires no specialized equipment or skills, and it’s not at all like canning food. The recipe itself takes VERY little time, and it can be done with just about any firm vegetable – green beans, carrots, cucumbers, onions, asparagus, etc.

The main ingredients for the pickling “sauce” (brining liquid) are vinegar, water, Kosher salt (or pickling salt), and maybe sugar. You can use apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, rice wine vinegar, and so on depending on the flavor you are going for. Do not use balsamic or malt vinegar (no aged vinegar). Know that table salt is just way too salty and too hard to control so you want to stay away from that. I use Kosher salt because it is so easy to manage the taste.

Also, the veggies do not have to be cooked, but I recommend that you blanch them to bring out their natural color. Check out my video on the simple way to blanch veggies.

Before you start, think about the flavors you want for your pickled vegetables. There’s no science to it – it’s all to taste. For instance, I used lots of mustard seed and sliced garlic because I love garlic and I think the pickling tastes great when there’s a nice little kick at the end. I may also use more salt and vinegar than you want. If you want sweeter vegetables, add more sugar to the brine mixture.

Finally, for presentation (critical!) I settled on these 8oz (240ml) tall jars that have 2” mouths, about 6” tall, and gold colored lids. They’re not too big, just right for pickling, and you can get them from Amazon. They make a lovely presentation – especially if you’re planning on giving them out as gifts. And you’ll want to add gift tags to your jars. I found some cute rustic looking gift tags from Amazon as well that I think adds a nice touch.

Here’s my video for quick pickling veggies. You can see that everything is mix and taste. My recipe is loosely based on Michael Symon’s recipe for pickled onions. And you can find some helpful instructions for pickling from one of my favorite websites thekitchn.com.

Instructions:

  1. Wash the jars and dry thoroughly.
  2. Prep your veggies to the shape you want to fit into your jars. Tall stuff should be a tad below the “shoulder” of the jar (below the rim). And don’t forget to blanch the veggies for great color!
  3. Pack your blanched veggies into the jars and set aside on a tray so that when you add the liquid the excess stays in the tray and you don’t make a mess.
  4. Mix your pickling brine. Start by pouring equal parts of vinegar and water into a large pan. Add kosher salt. Add sugar (if you want it). Add more vinegar (if you need it). Add spices. I used mustard seed, black peppercorns, bay leaves, coriander seed, fresh dill, and sliced garlic. Remember, this is to taste, so start easy and work your way up to the flavor you want.
  5. Bring the mixture to a boil. Stir to dissolve the salt and sugar (if used). Taste the brine as you reach boiling and adjust seasoning (e.g., add salt, vinegar, spices).
  6. Ladle the brine mixture into the veggie filled jars. Make sure that you scoop up some of the spices. Be sure to add enough brine to cover the veggies, but leave some room at the top of the jars. If you decide to use the jars I suggested, then you’ll want to fill the liquid to the “shoulder.”
  7. Tap the jars to remove air bubbles that may have formed.
  8. Screw the lids on loosely and let them cool to room temp.
  9. Tighten lids and then refrigerate.

Your pickled veggies will get some flavor in as little as 6 hours, but I think you should leave them for at least 24 hours so that the vegetables absorb the full flavor of the brine. Remember that this is not like canning so they won’t last very long. Keep them in the refrigerator.  Recommended shelf life is about 2-3 weeks.

The whole experience made me think about how simple it is to make something that tastes great. And how cool is it to give a gift that you’ve made yourself.

Tips for Wrapping Presents for the Holidays

Fran Berger and Gift Wrapping tips

Isn’t it time to change up your Christmas wrapping skills?

I was always the gift wrapper at my house while growing up. The rest of my family thought it was a big chore, but I loved it. I turned every gift into a work of art. Some of my neighbors even turned to me for help with a “really special” gift.

Even when I was pretty young – like ten years old – my wrapped gifts were real stand-outs. I created themes for every gift I wrapped. Sometimes the theme was based on the individual, sometimes the relationship. Lots of times the theme was set for whatever occasion we were celebrating: birthdays, anniversaries, congratulations – and, oh yes, the holidays.

Back then, when I had nothing else to do but homework and chores, gift wrapping was a great distraction. I dreamed of different ways I could wrap presents. One year, I used aluminum foil and sparkly ribbons. Another year, it was newspaper – the sports page, the daily comics, or the Sunday funnies. One time, my dad had a friend who was a very successful entrepreneur. I used the stock pages from the newspaper with black ribbon (you know, because he was in the “black”?) – and wrapped a birthday present for him. I got a very nice compliment from them both.

I still wrap presents for friends and family. But these days, putting a theme together for gift wrapping is a lot easier. There are so many options now – stores have whole departments dedicated to people like me. Take a look at the options they have at The Container Store. I can browse a catalog like this for hours.

Here are my tips for making your holiday gift wrapping fun, and not such a chore.

First, you need a large clear, flat, hard surface to wrap presents. The floor will work, but be kind to your knees and back. Most important, make sure that whatever surface you have is flat enough and hard enough to make nice sharp creases.

Second, get all your tools and wrapping supplies together. That means having tape, sharp scissors, whatever you decide to use for paper and ribbon all in one place and ready to use. Your “next-level” tools could be double-sided tape (so you can hide the tape edges) and an old but reasonably sharp paring knife. Line up the edges of the paper, fold it where you want to cut, press a hard crease on that fold and slide the knife along the crease – presto – very precise and straight cuts!

Third, snacks for the gift wrapper and an excellent soundtrack. Of course, right?  Just be careful to keep your hands clean.  Fingerprints aren’t part of the plan!

I keep different papers on hand – for whatever season or occasion. I even hold onto the little scraps that are larger than my hand for the small gifts and keep those wrapped around the paper rolls. But maybe you’re worried about crunching the edges of the paper rolls when you shove them into a closet.

Here’s an easy solution for keeping wrapping paper safe. Buy several shipping tubes that are large enough to store two or three rolls of paper. Make sure that you get the types that have the plastic caps that insert into the tube. Label the tubes and pull them out when you need them (little scraps and all).

But if you want to make the gift even more special, you’ll want to go out and purchase paper that matches a theme you set for the receiver. Buy ribbons to match the theme and color of the wrapping paper. I love satin ribbons for the holidays; in particular, the ribbons with wire edges that make them so much more fun. But who says ribbon only? Try raffia or yarn (or raffia and yarn together).

Some items may need a gift box as well. Here comes The Container Store to the rescue with really easy to use pre-made gift boxes.

Don’t forget tissue (again, in colors to match the theme). And, remember gift labels or cards – you want to be sure that the person receiving your gift knows who to thank. But, sometimes gift bags are just the thing for that weird shaped gift.

My last and best tip – make it fun and make sure you put some joy into each gift you wrap.

How to Plan Your Holiday Shopping

holiday shopping - black friday - cyber monday

SIX SHOPPING TIPS to help you from being “cyber-crazy” this holiday.

 

It’s that time again – time for the year-end holiday traditions: the Christmas office party, finger foods, holiday decorations, and gifts. OMG, did you forget the Secret Santa Gift – again? You rush headlong into the mall and BAM – you’re smack in the middle of another tradition: the start of holiday shopping season.

Take a breath and remember that it only happens once a year. Retailers have been calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” for more than 60 years. The theory is that the term “Black Friday” originally came from the Philadelphia police department because thousands of people would descend on the city the day after Thanksgiving ahead of the annual Army/Navy football game on Saturday.  The stores took advantage of the crowds with big sales and the police were stuck with long and very busy shifts.  They weren’t happy.  But, the shoppers were!

Why the rush? It’s historically a day when retailers pull out all the stops to get shoppers into their stores. Retailers called it “Black Friday” because the volume of sales could put a retail store back into “the black” with enough profit to cover the entire year.

It’s also, historically, the best day of the year to get a great deal on all those holiday gifts you want to buy for friends – and for yourself. But these days, it doesn’t stop there. If you’re an online shopper like many people are now, you can avoid the crowds, the lines, the hassle of brick and mortar shopping, and get in on some pretty good deals. Retailers got wise pretty quickly and created “Cyber Monday” just for you.

The whole weekend has morphed into the biggest shopping weekend of the year (sales begin to be advertised more than a week before with some retailers posting ads as early as October); enough cyber-crazy to produce more than $3 billion in sales last year. Some retailers will also push out good deals through Tuesday. So, from Thursday (with some starting midnight Wednesday night) to Tuesday, you can literally shop until you drop – or your fingers get too tired!  Big Retailers already have their ads out for Black Friday.  If the retailers are planning that far in advance then it just makes sense then that we should plan ahead too, right?

Here are Six easy tips to help you survive this holiday shopping season and not spend more than you planned:

Tip One – Make your shopping lists for everything including electronics (iPhone, Xbox, etc.) and set the price that you’re willing to pay now. That way you can jump on the deals when you recognize them.

Tip Two – The technology deals are best on Thanksgiving and Black Friday but some may get better the closer to Cyber Monday/Tuesday you get.  But, don’t wait and hope to see a lower price than the one you’re happy with because it’s possible the item will sell out before the end of the day.  Remember – once an item is sold out the store will not honor the sale price – if it’s sold out – it’s sold out.  Cyber Monday has gotten pretty good for “soft goods” like clothing, shoes, even beauty products. There are even great deals on travel – mostly for year-round presales for resort hotels and spas.

Tip Three – Buy from companies you know – Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, eBay, and so on.  The holidays are a very bad time to test out a new online shopping experience.

Tip Four – DOUBLE check the return policies – because you never know. Remember that whatever the store policy was last year, it’s a good bet they’ve changed it this year.

Tip Five – Don’t forget to check shipping terms and conditions. Sometimes you’ll find excellent deals that can save you a bundle on shipping. How about that Secret Santa gift? Remember that the faster you want something, the higher shipping costs. It only makes sense.  All the more reason to plan ahead and shop with plenty of time to spare.  About that sometimes nasty shipping cost – if you’re a late shopper you may have traded one hell for another. Your choice might be to either get swallowed up by the thick crowds at the mall or be hammered by very expensive overnight shipping costs.

A friend told me about her experience last year. She waited until the very last week to do her holiday shopping online and wound up paying hundreds of dollars in rush shipping fees to make sure that the gifts arrived on time. She said that one gift that she bought cost less than the overnight shipping fees. I was astounded.

Tip Six is for the deep divers: I found this great stream on The Verge for the best Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals all in one place. The deals change quite a bit, so go back and check it often.

Keep it fun!

The Perfect Holiday Gift Guide for Women

Fran Berger_gifts-for-girlfriends

All you have to do is think about what you’d want as a present.

We all want to give the perfect holiday gift to our friends – especially our girlfriends.  Last week, I posted a holiday gift guide for our guy friends and the response (mostly from the guys I know) was incredibly positive. They loved all of my suggestions – with some of them saying that I must have read their minds!

Because I’d helped them with “guy” gifts, a few friends (both men and women) wondered about gift ideas for close female friends and family. Here’s my big tip of the day: if you like it, chances are, your girlfriends will love it too.  The trick is to first think about either what they love to do or what their activities are.  Sometimes it’s enough just to hear them say: “I wish I could do more…” to discover the best gift ideas.

Let’s take a look at my list:

When I travel, I like to stay organized. I used to use plastic bags for everything – standard and easy to find but not very cute.  Then I found these cool canvas travel bags from “Bag-All.”  They’re lightweight, easy to clean, and they organize all my travel stuff nicely: dirty laundry, my hair stuff, toiletry, and makeup. They have so many different sizes and shapes.  Some of the bags have French printed on the front.  They even have a “pink collection” where 15% of the sales go to breast cancer research. How cool is that? An ideal gift for the friend who loves, like me, to stay organized while they’re on the road. $28-30 each.

We are all trying to reduce how many plastic water bottles we use in our daily lives so – how about a water bottle? This is not your average plastic water bottle, but a really beautiful and fresh design in a ton of colors and patterns. It’s from “SwellBottle” –  spelled ‘S’Well’ – and it makes a real statement with a small footprint. The 500ml bottle is perfect for spin class and keeps drinks cold all day. $40

How about a friend who’s into the zodiac? Or, maybe they just like to keep their pretty things in a fabulous designer marble box? Michael Aram has a collection of beautiful boxes. I got the “Gemini” Zodiac box because, you know, that’s MY sign. There’s an original design for each of the 12 zodiac signs. I’m going to use this to put my earrings in at night.  It’s just too pretty not to use! $100

Speaking of cool designer containers – L’Objet has this porcelain candle jar that caught my attention. I think this is an especially unique gift for the friend who has a taste for simple elegance. Because I don’t love heavily scented candles this one is perfect with a beautiful clear scent called “Pink Champagne.” Elephants are used to symbolize general good luck and many Feng Shui practitioners believe that elephants should have their trunks facing upwards.  So, the elephant on the lid is going to bring luck, everyone can use a little. You can buy direct or look up a store near you. $135

If your friend loves to get cozy after a nice warm bath or curl up in front of a lit fireplace – this is the gift for them! I absolutely fell for this grey cashmere robe designed by Chris Arlotta. With a great shawl collar and simple tie belt to close – it’s the perfect design.  It’s available from Bloomingdale’s. $398

One more for the serious traveler.  I saw the Oslo 4-wheel Compact Carry-on from Tumi and instantly thought – this was the one for me. For its size and profile, it’s ideal for toting a laptop or pad safely and any files you might need not to mention enough space for at least an overnight trip.  It will easily fit in almost any overhead storage – perfect.  $495

And if you can imagine yourself swooning after you received one of these items as a gift, then that’s the right one to give!

The Perfect Holiday Gift Guide for Men

gifts for your guy friends

Don’t settle for predictable – get an early start and go for the unexpected!

One of the most difficult things to do is to find the perfect holiday gift for the man in your life.  Maybe you’re thinking, “OH, it’s not even Thanksgiving – I’ve got plenty of time to pick holiday gifts!” Sure, there is still time – but time seems to be moving faster and faster these days. And, the best gifts are the ones where thought and preparation has gone into the selection. You can’t get that with a last-minute dive into “mall hell.” Seriously.

My mother taught me that one way to ‘be prepared’ was to get an early start. That way you can take your time, think about who you’re buying for and pick just the right gift. I have a few tried and true tips for finding that perfect present for the men in your life.

First – Men like the unexpected; they enjoy being surprised. And, it doesn’t take a lot of money to do either – just a bit of creativity.  For instance, if you want the gift to be memorable, then avoid the obvious (predictable) choices. Like sports gifts. Don’t assume that just because your male friend watched the World Series means that he’s enough of a fan to want a monogrammed “team” hoodie. And gift cards? Gift cards of any kind are a definite sign that you don’t have time to put even a little thought into the gift. Yeah, I get the “office party gift” angle, but for a personal friend? Seriously?

Second – think about where you and your friend agree on what I like to call “fashion and distraction.” When I think of fashion as a gift, I think about how my friend reacts to fashion big names. Some guys just like something because it’s cool, not because it’s popular. As for distractions, think about something that’s NOT work-related. Seriously, giving your guy friend a set of beautiful ballpoint pens may seem like a great gift if he collects them, but personally, that’s like giving a woman a vacuum cleaner. Don’t get me started on some of the anniversary gifts I’ve received over the years.

Third – and this is probably the most important one. I think it’s great to be generous, but I try to never overwhelm my friends. There’s an old English proverb that says there is no grace in a gift that sticks to the fingers nor the soul. I can go crazy when giving to a special friend and might spare no expense. But not when it’s someone I’m just getting to know – the last thing you want to do is make the friend feel uncomfortable. And to be honest – the very best gifts are the ones that have had a lot of thought put into them – not the ones that necessarily cost the most.

Whatever you do, keep it fun. Here are some suggestions for just about every guy on your list…

I love these colorful socks styled by Ted Baker.  They have so much personality!  Guys in suits look pretty cool with a dash of color.  This is a great gift for the guy who likes to be a bit fashion forward.  $15

How about a “Rabbit” flask from Bloomingdale’s? This is an extraordinarily cool gift for the friend who likes to take along their favorite scotch whiskey on an outing or to the game. Also, check out other barware gifts made by Rabbit , they make my favorite wine opener. $50

If your guy likes to wear hats then check out these knit beanies by The Kooples? I found mine at Bloomingdale’s, but they seem to sell out fast. I got the striped wool beanie because I loved the two tone. Then I went back and got the solid black ribbed one. By the way, they’re a French brand that is sold all over Europe and is going fast in the US. Yes… that trendy. $65

You know a guy who likes to primp a bit? I found this great grooming kit called Saturdays NYC, celebrating GQ’s 60th anniversary (GQ60). GQ did an exclusive partnership with Bloomingdale’s, and this is the ultimate “Chaz” bag with all the essentials. $135

Not every guy is into sports, but I don’t know a single guy friend who doesn’t like his tech. And for music, you got to get him the latest PowerBeats3 wireless earphones. I like these earphones because the ear loop holds the buds in a bit more snuggly for a full sound which is great whether your guy is at the gym or just hanging out.  $199

And finally, for that really special friend, how about a wonderful black leather E/W Messenger Bag? This bag makes a statement, and it’s beautifully made. The leather and craftsmanship are excellent. Large enough to carry a 15” MacBook and light enough to just tour around. Made by Shinola – you remember, the company that used to make boot polish? Who would know, right? $795

Whatever gifts you find for your guy friends, just remember to think about who they are and how they live and you’ll never go wrong!