Thursday, March 25, 2010

Entertaining At Home

I'm very fortunate.  I love to cook and bake and I married a man who loves to entertain.  We don't have a big, fancy home.  We don't even have a dining room, but we love inviting our good friends over for a good meal. 

We've squeezed 50 people into our modest townhome for a Christmas party.  We've had 35 people spill out onto the deck for a summer barbecue.  Considering that we have only 1300 square feet of living space and two off-street parking spaces, we've really been able to pull off some fun events.

Most of our friends live out-of-state.  Now, that's really not saying much, since we reside in the second smallest state in the nation and we can drive into three other states within 15 minutes.  Nonetheless, when people visit us, they are usually coming from a distance.  There was a (pre-recession) time when we'd meet our friends at a restaurant in Philadelphia and spend a small fortune on a gourmet meal, parking, drinks, and entertainment.  Recently we've decided that sometimes it's better to entertain at home. 

I'm realizing there are many advantages of making reservations at home instead of a restaurant:
  1. It's cheaper.  I can buy two week's worth of groceries for the cost of a fancy restaurant meal with drinks.  I can entertain my friends and look like a high roller for less than it would cost us to pay our share of dinner at a decent restaurant.
  2. It's more relaxed.  There's no feeling obligated to order several drinks and appetizers while you wait for your always-late dining companions.  There's no one pushing you to order dessert quickly or giving you the evil eye when you don't vacate your table immediately after paying the tab.
  3. You can stay out longer.  I'm a morning person.  When I'm out, I always worry about the drive home, what time I need to get up in the morning, or running home to walk the dogs.  When I invite people to my home, I can take off my shoes and enjoy the night.
I suggest finding some low-maintenance, crowd-pleasing recipes and relying on those for dinner parties.  I've recently discovered that it's much easier to cope with small groups (6 or less) than huge groups (25+).  It's super easy to prepare dinner for 6, because I always cook too much for two.  All the dishes fit in the dishwasher, all the coats fit in the closet, and you can afford to purchase the good stuff for a small group.

Here's the menu from our last party:

Mixed Greens with Roasted Red Pepper Viniagrette
Turkey Sausage Lasagna
French Bread
Tres Leches Cake

I assembled the lasagna in the morning and slid it into the oven two hours before dinnertime.  I was able to relax and enjoy crackers and wine with my guests while the lasagna cooled.  I assembled the salad, heated the bread, and we all enjoyed dinner together.  We popped a few bottles of wine (one sweet, two dry) and enjoyed the evening.  Having a hands-off meal is especially important when you are serving a meal in your eat-in kitchen in your small home.  I didn't want my friends to feel like I was sweating it out over dinner.  I filled a pretty pitcher with filtered water, lemon slices and ice and I kept the drinks flowing. 

I think everyone had a great time.  The best part is that the next gathering will be at the home of one of the attendees of our last dinner party.  It's like visiting a new restaurant every month!  If you don't feel comfortable taking on the entire menu, try a potluck.  I prefer to have control of the entire menu, but a potluck could work for a casual gathering.

Dinner parties are a fun way to indulge without breaking the bank in these tough economic times.  I'm looking forward to the warmer months and serving dinner hot off the grill.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Comfort Food

I love to cook, so I read cookbooks like they are novels.  This book literally lived on my nightstand this past weekend.  I picked up a copy at Costco and I couldn't put it down, so I had to purchase it.  It's well worth the price and highly recommended.

Williams-Sonoma produces great cookbooks and this one is exceptional.  It's oversized with beautiful photographs.  The topic is comfort food, so all of the recipes feature traditional American (okay, some Italian-American, some Tex-Mex) recipes with easy to find ingredients.  Basically, this is a book full of recipes that you'll actually use.

My mouth was watering over the Chicken Enchiladas, Buttermilk Biscuits, New York Style Pizza, French Toast with Bruleed Bananas, Chocolate Layer Cake, Sloppy Joes... I could go on and on.  I'll definitely be trying some of these recipes and featuring the results on the blog.  Just look at the cover!  I was drooling over the pictures. 

I know this book would make a fantastic gift, even for someone who isn't a gourmet cook.  Think about birthdays, graduations, bridal showers...  Anyone who likes to eat would enjoy this book.  I know you can purchase it at Williams-Sonoma, but you can probably save a few bucks by buying it from Amazon, or if you're a Costco member, it may be in stock in your local store. 

Monday, March 15, 2010

Potato Ricer

As much as I love to cook, it took me until this year to master mashed potatoes.  In the past, I've always convinced my mom to make the mashed potatoes and I'd just make the rest of the meal.  My mom's mashed potatoes are still great, but I've discovered a method for making my own perfect potatoes.

(Image from Williams-Sonoma)

A potato ricer!  Who knew?  (Okay, maybe I knew, but I didn't realize it made that much of a difference.)  I've discovered the secret:  Yukon gold potatoes and a potato ricer.  I picked up a lovely, imported stainless steel potato ricer at an outlet store for around $10 back in November.  I used it once, then my (very helpful) husband (who always washes the dishes when I make a mess) misplaced the pin that holds it together, so it was months before I could use it again.  Well, I had a long, cold, rainy day today and we needed a real dinner, so I whipped up some chicken breasts with a white wine and sage sauce (inspired by a dish I had at Iron Hill) and some Yukon gold mashed potatoes.  

I used the potato ricer and the potatoes were fluffy, light, and creamy.  I highly recommend using a potato ricer over a conventional masher or an electric mixer.  Oh, and go for the Yukon gold potatoes.  Yes, they cost a bit more than plain white potatoes, but the taste is amazing.  I love their slightly golden color and their smooth texture.  When you consider that you can feed at least 10 people with a 5 pound bag of potatoes, it doesn't seem unreasonable to spend a few extra cents.  

Get yourself a potato ricer.  Yes, it's a one-task item, but you can likely find one for a great price and it makes everyone's favorite all-American side dish.  You can't lose with that, right?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Essential Herbs and Spices

Megara at Fresh Brownies asked for a list of my "essential spices".  She mentioned that she's a newlywed and the idea of filling a pantry with spices is a bit complicated.  I agree!

Eight years ago I moved into my first apartment.  I knew how to bake, but I didn't know a thing about cooking.  Dinners were limited to grilled cheese, spaghetti, or cold cereal.  On top of my limited culinary skills, I also had a limited budget.  I was living on my own in a high rent area on a graduate student stipend.  I was pretty broke.

I remember my first trip to the grocery store.  I was new to town, so I headed to Giant (which I later found out is a pretty overpriced store) to get the "basics".  I got home and realized that I couldn't cook a thing because I didn't have seasonings.  I slowly built up a pantry of basic spices, but I dreaded buying random seasonings (tumeric, thyme, cumin, etc.) because they were so expensive and had a relatively short shelf life.

I now realize that having the proper seasonings, fresh herbs, and measuring tools makes a tremendous difference in the quality of my meals.   The first time I used fresh basil was a revelation.  "Oh, THIS is that fresh taste that makes restaurant marinara so good!"  I remember the first time I used fresh rosemary on pork loin.  "Did I even roast this in my own oven?  It tastes like it's straight off a restaurant menu."  Bottom line, don't skimp on your herbs and spices.  Quality and freshness matter.

My Rules:

1.  Fresh is best.  Most ground spices should only be kept in your pantry for a year.  Keep them in a cool, dark spot.  Shop at stores that sell lots of spices.  You don't want to purchase seasonings that have been sitting under flourescent lighting for 6 months.
2.  Take your time.  Start off with a few essentials, then build up your spice rack each time you cook.  Otherwise, you'll be making a $75 trip to the grocery store and end up tossing half the spices next year when they go bad.
3.  Write the date on your spices when you open them.  I use small white labels.
4.  Consider purchasing whole spices.  Whole peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, whole nutmeg, and other spices stay fresh longer than the ground versions.  Just grind or grate the desired amount onto your food. 
5.  Make your own spice mixes.  I purchase some pre-mixed seasonings (taco seasoning, Italian seasoning, Lowry's seasoned salt), but overall I prefer to make my own rubs and spice mixes.  I can control the salt and the heat and I generally save money.

The Spice Rack:

I purchase some spices in bulk and store small quantities in my kitchen in small glass jars (from IKEA).  The rest are stored on a shelf in my basement.  I have many more spices than your average person would need, but here are some (relatively inexpensive) essentials if you're just starting to cook:

Salt - There are so many varieties.  I don't use the plain old table salt, I prefer coarse Kosher salt because it's irregular shape allows it to penetrate meats prior to cooking and it's not as salty as table salt, so if you make a mistake, it's not as obvious.  Kosher salt is inexpensive (you can purchase a 1 pound box for under $2).  I keep mine in a salt pig next to the stove for easy access.  I use freshly ground sea salt as a finishing salt (on cooked foods like veggies and potatoes) before serving.  You can purchase coarse sea salt in a grinder at any grocery store or warehouse club.

Pepper - I buy whole peppercorns for my pepper grinder (for use in small quantities).  I also purchase coarse ground pepper (at Costco) in bulk, because it's easier to measure for recipes that require huge amounts of pepper.  Fresh cracked pepper is fantastic in flavor.  Invest in a pepper grinder.

Garlic Powder/Granulated Garlic - I buy it in bulk at Costco because it seems to turn up in many recipes.  It's great in mashed potatoes, spaghetti sauce, mixed with butter and garlic and spread on bread, in cheese grits... the list goes on.  It's inexpensive and when you don't need (or feel like chopping) fresh garlic, it provides a strong flavor.

Cinnamon - I have whole sticks and pre-ground.  French toast, banana bread, cinnamon honey butter... pretty much every sweet treat benefits from a hit of cinnamon.

Red Pepper Flakes - Make sure they are brightly colored and really fresh.  I use this in anything from spaghetti sauce to Asian stir fries to chopped barbecue.

I'd start with these basic spices, then expand as recipes call for additional ingredients.  There's no point in breaking the bank on spices that you won't use for six months, especially since most ground spices only have a one year shelf life.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

5th Anniversary Celebration

My husband and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary on Saturday, March 6th.  We had a fantastic dinner at Harry's Savoy Grill, which is adjacent to Harry's Savoy Ballroom, where our wedding and reception were held back in 2005.

The fun weekend started when my father sent white tulips to my office as an anniversary gift.  I also gave my  husband a bottle of his favorite vino.

Of course, the best part of the weekend was dinner at Harry's.  They never disappoint.  My husband planned a fantastic evening.  We were seated in a cozy corner of the dining room.  He even had roses delivered to our dinner table. 

I started off with herb and ricotta gnocchi with Brussels sprout leaves and a flight of international Sauvignon Blanc.  My entree was Seared Sea Scallops with Prosciutto, Snap Peas, and Figs with a Balsamic Reduction.  Oh yes, it was very, very good.  The scallops were soft, but not too raw.  I don't like overcooked seafood, but I also don't care for a translucent look and rubbery texture.  These were perfect.  The snap peas were cut into bite-sized pieces and they were barely cooked, just the way I like them.  They were crunch and were a nice contrast with the soft, sweet figs, and the thinly sliced salty prosciutto.  I used to think I didn't like figs, but I realized that I don't like Fig Newtons (yuck!), but that fresh figs are excellent with cheese and other savory dishes. 

Even dessert was full of surprises.  I had a Chocolate Cake with Hazelnut Gelato and Warm Banana Pastry.  Check out the details:

I was (and still am) very, very happy.

My mom surprised us with an anniversary cake from the bakery that created our wedding cake.  It was my favorite flavor (and the same flavor as the top layer at our wedding):  fresh strawberries and cream with whipped icing.  We had such a rich dinner that we're going to wait until dessert tonight to enjoy the cake.

As a bonus, we even had good weather.  After all our blizzards and snowstorms, the temperature is over 50 degrees this weekend.  For the first time in months, I was able to dress up and go out without wearing thermals, tights, or boots.

It's nice to take time out to have great celebrations, especially when your day to day life is so hectic and stressful.  Great dinner, great husband, and a great family.  I'm a happy woman.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Carolina Chopped Barbecue

When I was growing up, my grandparents (who are from North Carolina) ran a family barbecue joint (more like a shack) right near their home in South Jersey.  It was only open in the summer and only open Thursday-Saturday.  I could tell you so many stories about that place and I have so many fond memories of "the pit".  We always served ribs, chicken, corn, potato salad, and green beans, but on certain days my pop pop (my dad's father, not the pop pop who made the delicious homemade rolls) would make "Carolina Chop" (chopped barbecue).  At the time, I didn't appreciate the deliciousness of this North Carolina delicacy, I just knew that the customers asked for it all the time, even after my grandfather passed away in 2003.

Now I get it.  My husband and I spent a weekend in Durham, NC in January.  We visited family, ate good food, shopped, slept late, and watched reality television.  One of the highlights of the trip was visiting The Pit in Raleigh.  I'm not saying it's the best barbecue joint ever (although it was pretty great and I loved the semi-upscale casual atmosphere), but I did get to meet the "pitmaster" (who was on Throwdown with Bobby Flay) and I had some really good chopped barbecue.  It reminded me of pop pop.  It made me happy and sad.  So I looked all over for a recipe with moist meat and that vinegary, sweet, spicy sauce. 

Hangin' with the Pitmaster

Hangin' with pop pop (back in the day)

Anyway, barbecue always makes me think of pop pop.  Good times.  So I came across this recipe on use real butter and it looked very similar to our way of making chopped barbecue.  It's a cold day in March, so I wasn't trying to crank up the smoker, although cooking outdoors gives it that authentic flavor.  I also had a work/school/physical therapy schedule that kept me out 14 hours today, so the Crock Pot would just have to do.  Guess what?  It worked!  I can't wait to try this recipe the authentic way (on a smoker).

So if you've never tasted chopped barbecue, you may think this just looks like a sloppy heap of shredded meat.  Believe me, it's not.  It's made with pork shoulder or pork butt (yes, the cheap, fatty cut that I used in Spicy Pork and Red Bean Chili).  It's kinda spicy, but not enough to distract you from the full, slow-cooked flavor of that moist pork.  The sauce has a vinegar kick, but it's offset by the sweetness of the brown sugar and the smokiness of the paprika and cumin.  Best part?  This was so easy and better than the versions we've ordered at local restaurants.

You can find the recipe here, but I made some changes:

You really only need half of the amount of dry rub.  I made the full amount and saved half for a future recipe.

I cooked mine in a Crock Pot with 1/2 cup water for 10 hours.

I served my chopped barbecue on fresh, soft potato rolls.  

If you're not into spicy food, cut some of the cayenne or crushed red pepper out of the sauce.

I loved the simplicity of this recipe.  I made enough rub for two batches, so next time I make this, I can skip the step of mixing the spices (which causes a lot of sneezing).  I cooked the sauce the night before and let it sit in the fridge overnight.  I let the meat marinate overnight, then spent 10 minutes the next morning searing the meat before dropping it in the Crock Pot for 10 hours.  When I came home, I pulled the fat and bones away from the meat, and shredded the soft, moist pork.  I poured on the sauce and dinner was ready.

Of course, I don't need to tell you that pork shoulder and pork butt aren't necessarily health food.  I've tried making this recipe with pork loin, but it's much too lean to do this justice.  The texture turns out dry.  You can't beat the fact that pork shoulder is cheap (.99/lb.) and it tastes better.  I'll just enjoy it in small quantities. 

Shout out to Jen at use real butter for sharing this fantastic recipe.  It made my day.
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