Tag Archives: party ideas

Pre-party Check: Favorite soap in the powder room?

Often overlooked by you, but not by your guests.

As my mom used to say, “A little soap goes a long way.” I’m not sure this was what she was thinking of but the sentiment is good.  Checking for that little bar in the powder room isn’t usually the first thing you think of when you’re hosting a group but it definitely needs to be on the last-minute checklist.

I prefer small bar soaps for the powder room because they can be changed frequently and will always look fresh. They don’t drip like liquid soap dispensers often do – making a complete mess, and they’re not as clumsy as large soap bars. That’s why I don’t like to use them no matter how pretty they are. I’ve even seen a clever dispenser that dropped little flakes of soap on your hand.  The soap flake idea is novel, but the flakes get everywhere.

The big secret to those little bars of soap, and the one thing that makes them so ideal for home entertaining, is that they can add a lovely scent to the ‘room of necessity.’ They’re compact and can be intensely saturated with whatever types of perfume, oils, or minerals that you like. For that reason, they’re the one exception to my “no scented _______” rule.

The exception, of course, is the powder room.

This is the one room that I break the rule for when it comes to scented candles as well.  A candle casts some beautiful light.  But stay away from the scented sprays – they can be very ‘heavy handed’.  Wetting a small favorite soap bar releases just enough scent.

“Guest” soap bars can be found almost anywhere and everything from unscented to herbal to floral of all types, in every imaginable shape. You can even look up novelty companies that will make ones monogrammed with your name or a personal message. A friend of mine, who was a writer for the Star Trek television franchise, had ones that featured the shape of a ‘communicator’ with the message, “Clean me up, Scotty!” It was perfect for his home.

Here’s a tip for having just the right little dish for those small bars of soaps. On your travels, look for small ornamental dishes or shallow bowls to hold the soap. Sometimes the same place that sells the soap will have soap dishes. But you never know what clever little dish you will find in the most unusual places.  So, keep an eye out!

One more tip, make sure that you check it after a party or after your guests leave.  If the bar has lost its shape, become very small, or become nicked or broken be sure to replace it with a fresh one.

And don’t forget to check out my video where you can see more guest soap 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.

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!

Recipe for Slow Roasted Onion Dip

recipe for roasted onion dip

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

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

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

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

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

How to Roast a Head of Garlic

home roasted garlic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will you make your football party stand out?

color coordinate your drinks

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

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

Mixed Drink Recipe: Polaroid

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

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

Ingredients

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

Instructions            

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

Mixed Drink Recipe: The Bijou

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

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

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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

Mixed Drink Recipe: The Signature Bloody Mary Mix

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

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

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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

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

Football Season is HERE!

Ready for football season?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4th of July Party? How about a tasty recipe for marinated olives and feta?

Marinated Olives and Feta

Sophisticated but incredibly easy: smash some olives, crush a bit of garlic, shred some bread, and you’re good to go!

Want to bring something different to your 4th of July party that DOESN’T need refrigeration or special care? A while back, I found something genuinely fabulous in my favorite place to find fabulous things – Bon Appétit Magazine. It’s a perfect recipe for things like 4th of July parties where light, savory snacks with friends really hit the spot.

There’s only one part of this recipe that needs a bit more explanation – smashing olives and crushing the garlic. I know that there are all sorts of ways to do this, but my video gives you some easy ways that work for me. The rest is that simple.

Ingredients:

  • 4-5 ounces of drained green (I prefer Castelvetranos for their flavor) unpitted olives
  • 3 medium-sized cloves of garlic
  • 1 lemon
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil – essential to get the “good stuff” for this recipe.
  • ½ tsp red pepper flakes
  • 3-4 ounces of crumbly feta cheese. I use President Cheese.
  • 1 loaf of crusty bread

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400-degrees F
  2. Rip up your bread into bite-sized pieces and place them on a baking sheet. When the oven is ready, bake the pieces of bread for 5-8 minutes, or just long enough to make the them a bit crispy and golden.
  3. Lightly smash (by pressing the side of the knife blade directly on top) the olives to just break apart the skin and flatten slightly.
  4. Smash (using the same technique as for the olives – you don’t want them completely flat!) and peel 3 cloves of garlic.
  5. Use a vegetable peeler (this will give you nice wide strips) to peel the zest from the lemon. Remember – only the yellow, not the white which will be bitter.
  6. Place lemon peel, smashed olives, crushed garlic, ½ cup of good Extra Virgin olive oil, and ½ tsp of red pepper flakes into a small saucepan over med-low heat. Swirl every so often and cook for about 5-7 minutes, or until the garlic is golden around the edges.
  7. Crumble feta cheese into a shallow serving bowl.
  8. Pour the olive oil mixture over the feta and let it sit at least 10 minutes. Longer if possible, perhaps an hour or more, before serving.
  9. Serve together with your crisped bread pieces.

You can always double or treble this recipe for a larger crowd.

Some last DO’s and DON’Ts – DO remind your guests that the olives are unpitted, but DON’T worry about letting this sit out for as long as your guests are nibbling. It will go fast!  A Negroni is the perfect adult beverage to accompany this appetizer.

Happy 4th of July, America!

A Sparkling ‘Welcome’ Drink for Your Guests

Fran Berger Sparkling Punch

A great recipe for a truly fruity drink: Freixenet, Cointreau, Cranberries, and Oranges!

When entertaining at home planning is everything. If it’s a themed party, you want just the right decorations for your guests to enjoy. If you’re hosting a formal dinner or a casual gathering, you’ll want to make sure that the home décor is as fabulous as it can be. And, naturally, you want the menu to be flawless – everything just so, no matter if you have it catered or cook every dish yourself. Twenty years of running restaurants – I KNOW that pressure. But it’s all for fun – not just for your guests but for you as well.

That’s why I always say that a great home entertaining event is planned – everything from the arrival of the first guest all the way to clean up after the last guest leaves. When you take time to plan your event you won’t as easily forget the small details that can make huge differences in the flow of the evening. One of those small details is a ‘welcome’ drink- a mixed cocktail that you hand each guest as they arrive. A simple drink at the very start of the party that can help jump start a successful entertaining experience for everyone.

Sometimes it can take a bit of effort to find new and exciting party drink ideas that can be made in batches. But, it can absolutely be a whole lot of fun trying out different styles of beverages and new ingredients.  When I start my research, I spend a lot of time reading recipes and talking to friends of mine who are bartenders. Sometimes I think that I might have made a good bartender, well, maybe not. But I do love to experiment with mixing drinks for my parties and get-togethers.

One thing I’ve learned is that the ‘welcome’ drink can’t be just any drink. You should match the right kind of drink for the right type of event just as you do with anything else. Think of it as though it were the opening lines of a conversation – because that’s really what it is!

For instance, if you’re hosting an all girl’s night and the weather’s cold, maybe a bloody Mary ‘soup’ will be just the thing to serve. Here is the recipe and I also made a video of what it’s like to prepare. It’s delicious and easy.  You can definitely serve it with or without the vodka shot on top and still have a great drink!

Here’s a sparkling fruit punch that I found on Chowhound that’s perfect for a fun gathering any time of year. It takes about five minutes to prepare with a little time extra to chill some of the ingredients. The beauty of this cold sparkling wine punch is that you don’t use any ice. It stays cold because all of the ingredients are either frozen or chilled prior to mixing:

  • 2 whole navel oranges, thin sliced into discs (about ¼’ thick) This will yield about 8 slices
  • 2/3 Cup cranberries (frozen is okay, but it’s better if they’re fresh).
  • 3 Cups, Ocean Spray “100% Juice” Cranberry
  • 2 (750 ml) Bottles of Freixenet Cordon Negro brut sparkling wine.
  • ¾ Cup chilled Cointreau Orange Liqueur (add to taste, see below).

Quantities for each ingredient depend on how many guests you are serving. This recipe will give you about 12 drinks.  Here are a few tips I have for preparation:

  • Thoroughly clean the oranges (before slicing) and fresh cranberries. They’re going straight into the punch unpeeled, so this is a definite must.
  • As I mentioned before, you’re not going to add any ice to this punch, so it doesn’t come out diluted. For that reason, it’s always best to prepare it just before your guests arrive.
  • If you want to aim for a genuine fruit flavor, then you want to get the bottle of Ocean Spray that says “100% Juice” on the label and not one of their ‘cranberry and—’ juices. Cranberry juice is nice and tart, so this punch won’t be too sweet.
  • Lay out the fruit (orange slices and cranberries) on sheet trays before you place them into the freezer to keep them from freezing together. You will want to freeze them for about an hour.  If you’re using frozen cranberries – keep them in the freezer until you add them to the punch.
  • Cointreau Orange Liqueur has a very distinctive taste that will really bring out the orange flavor of the punch.
  • Pour all of the ingredients into a chilled punch bowl just before guests arrive and serve. Make sure that each cup of punch has some cranberries at least!

Enjoy!

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.

A New Holiday Party Idea for your New Year’s Celebration

New Years Day Open House

Start a new tradition for ringing in the New Year with an Open House!

One of the best times of the year to have a party is New Year’s Day. I’m not talking about New Year’s Eve – the one that goes on until well past the stroke of midnight. Although THOSE parties can be lots of fun.  I should know, I’ve hosted them for years, but they’re also a lot of work for the host.

There are so many ways to enjoy New Years. I know a lot of people who like to stay off the roads on New Year’s Eve – and for good reason: traffic, parking, drunks – just to name a few of the typical hassles. And, because of those reasons, many people have started some very lovely family traditions of ringing in the New Year from home.

One friend is a “Tubist.” Yep, he plays tuba for a living. He used to play at Disneyland, and once played for the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. His New Year’s tradition is to serenade his neighborhood with Auld Lang Syne right at midnight. I’ve heard that his neighbors come outside to applaud and cheer when he’s done.

But, what I’m talking about is a party ON New Year’s Day.  Picture a new tradition, an Open House on New Year’s Day. Invite people to come and go when they want. They can get there early for the Rose Parade, or crawl in at the second half of the Rose Bowl game.

The key to the idea is “keep it easy.”  If you’ve ever been out late New Year’s Eve, you know what I mean. You don’t want to have to “seriously entertain” bright and early the next day. But maybe, you’d love to drop by a friend’s home for a quiet(ish) morning(ish) get together.

Serve food that can be out all day so that people can come at different times. For the early arrivals have trays out with your favorite selections from your local deli: bagels, lox, cream cheese, capers, thinly sliced onion, and so on. Make sure that there’s a fresh pot of coffee and juice for those early birds.

And how about some easy finger food and snacks? I keep these near the entertainment center for my guests to munch on during the games.

One of my favorites is this Sweet and Spicy Pretzel and Nut Mix from one of my favorite food websites, Food52. A bowl of these will be on my coffee table this year.

I’ll also have a big pot of hearty Turkey Chili. This is another great recipe from Food52. You can easily cook it up the day before so that all you have to do is put it on the stove (or in your cooker set to the lowest temp).

Set the chili out with all of the toppings – sour cream, chopped red onion, shredded cheddar cheese, and salsa (of course). My favorite salsa is Salsa Casera from Herdez, which is great with anything. And don’t forget some cornbread from the market and a simple green salad.

This could be the start of a new tradition at your home: entertaining friends and family on New Year’s Day. All you have to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy the parade and then all the football games!