Wednesday, September 29, 2010

how to throw a dinner party and live to tell about it

I recently had a conversation with my friend Sarah about entertaining large groups of people. Last weekend she threw a brunch party for a large group of friends including Dan and me. There were mimosas and bloody Marys, homemade waffles and a really rich and eggy breakfast casserole. When we'd all gotten a little tipsy we played bingo with a box of old buttons until well into the afternoon. While I thought everything had that just-so Sarahness about it, she said she felt a little deflated after everyone had left.

I know that feeling. You spend a week menu planning, rush around shopping and cooking, then everyone arrives and you rush around some more, filling glasses, putting out more nuts, checking in on the people sitting in the corner, catching up with everyone just barely. And then it's all over as soon as it began and you're left with a sink of dirty dishes, wishing you had more time to enjoy yourself. (Anyone who's ever planned a wedding can relate to this as well.) It's hard to relax and be in the moment when you're trying to make sure everyone else is having a good time. But entertaining should be fun for you too, otherwise why bother? 

This conversation got me thinking about my own dinner party-throwing style, and how I've made things easier for myself over the years. Here's what works for me:

-Keep it small
Dan and I have a tiny apartment, so I couldn't have a big get-together at home even if I wanted to. But even though I could find a few extra chairs and squeeze in more people here and there, I almost always limit my guest list to six people. To me, six is the perfect number because everyone can actually spend time together, but there are enough people to keep the party lively. Added bonus: most recipes serve six to eight people.

-If you can't keep it small, keep it close
Some people like bringing strangers together. I am not one of those people. I almost always invite people who already know each other, and even better, really like each other. You'll never have a lull in conversation and there's instant camaraderie. Which is one less thing to worry about.

-Make at least one familiar recipe
I use dinner parties as an excuse to try new recipes and play around in the kitchen. But when you're making a four-course menu of dishes you've never tried before, it can be a little crazy-making. Instead, why not dress up your tried-and-true roast chicken with some new side dishes? Or start the party with that nut mix that everyone always asks for. (I do this with deviled eggss all the time.) Maybe it's not the most exciting thing to you, but it's sure to be good since you've made it many times before, and frees up your attention for that complicated dessert recipe you're trying out.)

-Recruit friends to help
Appoint someone to be the bartender to mix drinks or keep peoples' wine glasses full. Put a trusted friend in charge of the iPod. Grab a few people to help you plate or serve food. Dining in someone's home is not the same as dining in a restaurant. People like to help and feel useful.

-Let people bring a dish to share
I struggle with this point, but it's a good one. When someone offers to bring dessert, or a salad, or something else to share, let them! People who offer to do this kind of thing usually enjoy doing it. And it's one less thing for you to think about.

(These are the big, general things I try to keep in mind, but there's more specific party tips here, here, and here.)

How do you throw dinner parties and still manage to have a good time? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, September 27, 2010

what's for dinner, matt and ted lee?

I could not be more excited about today's Q&A subjects: the Lee brothers. Food writers, cookbook authors, food purveyors, pimento cheese advocates, and all-around Southern gentleman, Matt and Ted Lee reside in Charleston, South Carolina. Their latest cookbook, Simple Fresh Southern features "100 easy, healthy dishes for every day" plus techniques like pickling and cheese making. Here, they share their thoughts on dinner parties, including soundtrack favorites and the one entertaining tool that's worth a little extra cash. Thanks, guys!

1. Name, occupation, and city
Matt Lee and Ted Lee, cookbook authors and boiled-peanut proselytizers, Charleston, SC

2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?

We just cooked a 70th birthday dinner for one of our closest friends and mentors, with 26 of his best friends.

3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?
Matt: Turkey Mole for Thanksgiving
Ted: Whole roast pig.

4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?

Matt: That would depend on the time of day: beer if 3pm, cocktails if it's 6 and wine at 9.

5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?

Matt: Ted's wife makes these kickass soundtracks that trip from AC/DC to Peaches to Iggy Pop to Arcade Fire. They're motivational and appetizing (and played at a volume that encourages conversation).

6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner. What do you make?

Matt: Boxed pasta with a kickass homemade sauce.
Ted: Skirt steak with parsley sauce and our updated take on ambrosia salad: orange segments, julienned endive, toasted coconut.

7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?

Matt: We find help if it's 10+. This is key, the best money you'll ever spend.

8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?

Matt: It's all from scratch including the ice cream but excepting the crackers and the cheese.

9. What do you like to serve for dessert?

Matt: Homemade ice cream flavored with whatever fruit, liquor or seasoning we're grooving on now.

10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?

Matt: Withnail
Ted: My in-laws. They always lick their plates clean, and tell me what a genius I am.

[Photo:] Ben Fink

Friday, September 24, 2010


Sticking to this week's theme of weeknight dinners, here's some more ideas for fast and tasty things you can cook post-work.

Soba noodles with salmon and watercress [via Pink of Perfection]
Very tasty (we had this last week) skirt steak salad with blue cheese [via Smitten Kitchen]

Grilled eggplant parmesan [via Pithy & Cleaver]

Everyday Food offers tons of weekly menus with shopping lists, including this one with recipes for honey-glazed chicken, salmon nicoise, and zucchini frittata [via Everyday Food]

Bon Appetit
's "quick recipes for October" (or right now) including swordfish with olive, pine nut, and parsley relish and beef, shiitake, and snow pea stir fry [via Bon Appetit]

Food & Wine offers "healthy, fast weeknight dinners" such as bacon quinoa with almonds and herbs and green goddess chicken salad [via Food & Wine]

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

everyday dinners: pizza with mushrooms, parsley, and pecorino

Pizza is a divisive topic. Everyone has their own idea of what makes a good slice. While I love the typical tomato sauce-mozzarella-basil incarnation, I usually forgo all three of these things when making pizza at home. Well, usually not the basil. 

During the cooler months of the year when I can stand turning on the oven, Dan and I eat pizza about once a week. It's cheap to make, relatively healthy, and gives us enough leftovers for a really nice lunch the next day. The weather finally turned here, so thankfully, we're back to pizza season.

Dan's not a huge fan of tomato sauce on pizza (crazy, I know), which led me to figure out some recipes that can hold up without. Sometimes we spread a thin layer of ricotta over the crust, sometimes we caramelize onions, or sometimes, I just scatter the toppings over an olive oil-slicked crust, flatbread-style.

This is one of those types of pizzas: thin crust, sauteed mushrooms, a layer of cheese, and a hefty dose of chopped parsley. To keep it from being bland, I cook the mushrooms in red pepper flakes, garlic, and thyme, and add a squeeze of lemon at the end. Trust me, you won't miss the sauce.
I made this recipe with pecorino but any cheese will do: dollops of soft goat's cheese, flakes of parmesan, or some grated ricotta salata. Even regular old mozzarella will work for you pizza purists.
Pizza with mushrooms, parsley, and pecorino
Dough recipe adapted from Louise Pickford's book Grilling.
(Serves 2 to 4 people)

For the pizza dough:
1 1/2 cups flour, plus extra for dusting
1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup hot water
2 Tbsp. olive oil

For the topping:
Olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups baby portobello mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 cup oyster mushrooms, cleaned and torn into bite-sized pieces
Leaves from 3 sprigs of fresh thyme (or 1 tsp. dried thyme)
Red pepper flakes, to taste (I like 1/2 tsp.)
1/2 lemon, juiced
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup pecorino cheese, grated
1/2 cup parsley, roughly chopped

To make the pizza dough: sift the flour into a large bowl and stir in the yeast and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour, then add the hot water and olive oil. Stir with a spoon until it has formed a soft dough. Knead the dough with floured hands, pressing it against the bowl until it is smooth and elastic. Shape it into a ball and cover the bowl with a dish towel. Let it rise in a warm place for 45 minutes to an hour, or until it has doubled in size. (You can also make it the night before and store it in the fridge, wrapped in plastic or stored in a large plastic Ziploc bag.)

To assemble the pizza: preheat your oven to 500 degrees. In a large saute pan over medium heat, add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the pan, along with the garlic. Cook the garlic for a minute, then add the mushrooms, red pepper flakes, and thyme. Saute the mushrooms until they are tender. Add the lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste, I like a generous pinch of each. Remove the mushrooms from the heat and set them aside. 

Use your hands or a rolling pin to roll out the pizza on a floured surface so that it's about 1/2 inch thin. Place the rolled-out dough on a pizza stone or cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or foil. Drizzle a few teaspoons of olive oil over the pizza dough and use your hands to coat the dough evenly. Top with the mushrooms and evenly spread the grated cheese on top. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the pizza is golden brown and bubbling. Sprinkle with parsley and serve hot.

Monday, September 20, 2010

everyday dinners: tomato sauce with onion and butter

A friend wrote me last week looking for weeknight-friendly vegetarian meal ideas. She wanted dishes that were simple, relatively healthy, and easy to make after a long day at work.

Don't we all? Although the recipes posted on this site might not reflect this, Dan and I tend to eat very simply when it's just the two of us. (And you've got to give your arteries a break from all that fried chicken and pimento cheese, right?) So for the next two weeks, I'll be sharing my favorite everyday dinners with you. These dishes might not be your typical idea of company-worthy fare, but I think they're good enough for a casual dinner with friends--the kind of meal where everyone grabs a plate and a fork and gathers around the table. Or those nights when you're feeling drained from work but want to eat something more soul-soothing than take out. 

And if you do want to turn these dishes into a proper three or four-course dinner party menu, there are menu suggestions beneath the recipes.

First up: tomato sauce with onion and butter. Or "miracle sauce," as I think of it. There are only three ingredients in this sauce; four, if you count salt. You just simmer an onion in a pot of good-quality canned tomatoes, add a few pats of butter, and voila. The onion infuses the sauce with its savory goodness, the butter adds richness. It's dead simple yet has such robust flavor you'd swear there was something sneaky and expensive in there. Spoon it over a tangle of spaghetti or a bowl of tortolini and shave some parmesan on top. Heaven. 

There is one extra teeny tiny step I highly recommend. The recipe, by Marcella Hazan, instructs you to throw away the onion once it is done simmering in the sauce. But I like to puree the onion in a food processor, then add it back in. It gives the sauce a little extra flavor and body. And why waste a perfectly good onion?
Tomato sauce with onion and butter
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (via Orangette) I find that Italian plum tomatoes, such as San Marzano, are best for this recipe. If you are worried about BPA in metal cans, Pomi makes boxed tomatoes that are decent. I've also made this sauce with a little basil, which is especially nice in the summertime.
(Makes about 4 servings, or enough for one pound of pasta)

1 28 oz. can whole, peeled, canned plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juices
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in half
Salt, to taste
A few leaves of basil (optional)

Combine the tomatoes, their juices, the butter, and the onion halves in a medium saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, at a very slow but steady simmer, adjusting the heat as necessary, for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free from the tomato. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with the back of a wooden spoon. Taste and salt as needed. Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with hot, cooked pasta, or puree the onion in a food processor (with a few spoonfuls of sauce), then add it back into the sauce, along with the basil leaves, if using. Stir until combined.

Menu suggestion:
Hors d'oeuvres: stuffed mushrooms or lamb meatballs

First course: butter lettuce with oranges, fennel, and olives or arugula with endive, pears, fennel, and hazelnuts
Main course: pasta with tomato sauce with onion and butter
Dessert: Chocolate pear cake or cappuccino-chocolate bites

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

world peace cookies

We were sitting around the kitchen table at my in-laws' house when somehow the conversation turned from corrupt local politicians to cookies. This is not an unusual thing. My mother-in-law, Judy, is a fantastic baker and my father-in-law, Larry, has a major sweet tooth. And conversation tends to veer wildly around those parts.

Judy's new favorite recipe is for a chocolate slice-and-bake cookie called the World Peace Cookie. Created by master baker Dorie Greenspan, the cookies got their name after Greenspan's neighbor tried them and said that if everyone ate one every day, there would be "planetary peace and happiness." That's a lot of responsibility for one little cookie.

Judy got up from the table and pulled a plastic bag of the cookies out of the freezer. They looked like little brown hockey pucks. This didn't seem like a good idea. "Oh, they're so delicious, even when they're still a little frozen," she said. "You're going to serve them frozen cookies?" asked Larry. "It'll take five minutes to defrost," she said. About two minutes later, she put a few on a plate for us to try.

I took a bite, and while they were still cold in the middle, a little moan of pleasure escaped from my lips. These cookies! They have a pleasantly sandy texture and brownie-like flavor from cocoa and chocolate chips. A hint of salt in the background puts them right over the edge. They are homespun but decadent, as the best cookies tend to be. "Aren't they good?" Judy said. "Mrughmumm," I agreed. I thought, if a cookie can taste this great out of the freezer, imagine how incredible it would be straight out of the oven?

So of course I had to make them when I went home. My intention was to take half the batch to work to share with co-workers (and spread some much-needed world peace), but they didn't last that long. Consider yourself warned. 

World Peace Cookies
Via Bon Appetit (there is a very cute article about Dorie and her son in this month's issue). Judy says that while the cookies may not look completely done, heed the directions and remove them from the oven when specified.
(Makes about 36 cookies)

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/3 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
11 Tbsp. (1 stick plus 3 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt (like fleur du sel)
5 oz. extra-bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 85% cacao), chopped (no pieces bigger than 1/3 inch) 

Sift flour, cocoa, and baking soda into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until smooth but not fluffy. Add both sugars, vanilla, and sea salt; beat until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add flour mixture; beat just until blended (mixture may be crumbly). Add chopped chocolate; mix just to distribute (if dough doesn't come together, knead lightly in bowl to form ball). Divide dough in half. Place each half on sheet of plastic wrap. Form each into 1 1/2-inch-diameter log. Wrap each in plastic; chill until firm, about 3 hours. Can be made 3 days ahead. Keep chilled. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Using thin sharp knife, cut logs crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick rounds. Space 1 inch apart on prepared sheets. Bake 1 sheet at a time until cookies appear dry (cookies will not be firm or golden at edges), 11 to 12 minutes. Transfer to rack; cool. Can be made 1 day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

Monday, September 13, 2010

a backyard barbeque

Air travel never ceases to amaze me. Although it's something that we all take for granted and complain endlessly about, there's something incredible about being in two completely different places within hours.

One day, I was eating pimento cheese and drinking champagne in my friends' backyard, walking along the beach and pointing at sea sponges and tiny crabs with my dad, wandering the wide, uncrowded aisles of a suburban Target like a bargain-hunting zombie. The next day, I was back at my desk, discovering sand in the bottom of my purse.
But back to that champagne and that backyard. I've written about Juliette and Nathan's backyard before. It is an idyllic little spot sheltered by a big shade tree and lush tropical foliage. At the center is a pretty patio with comfy furniture and twinkling lights and paper lanterns if Juliette is feeling festive. I love it there and think about it all the time, usually when the city gets that special hot garbage smell, or our rent goes up, or a homeless person yells at me, and I question my life choices. Anyway, it is a lovely space.

Dan and I and a few friends from high school met there for a Labor Day barbecue. There was sangria and burgers (filled with butter! and cheese!), homemade cole slaw, and lots and lots of snacks. And also, being that this is South Florida in the summer, some pesky rain clouds. Poor Juliette had to quickly re-do the set-up after an earlier passing shower messed up her decorations.
Not long after everyone settled in with drinks and conversation, we felt more rain drops coming in from the slats in the ceiling. Instead of taking the party indoors, our industrious hosts grabbed a giant tarp and with some help, unfurled it across the top of the patio. Everyone clapped, glasses were raised, all was saved. We sat outside well past 11:00, ending the meal with little cups of Jell-O fancied up with prosecco and raspberries.

I'm glad Juliette and Nathan were prepared for the rain, but it was such a fun night that I wouldn't have cared if we all got soaked. Which is pretty much the definition of a good party. 
Butter burgers
Tender and well, buttery, these are a Milwaukee specialty, where Nathan is from. This version, via Road Food, is not the exact recipe he used, but I think it's pretty close. He also added cheese inside the patties.

(Makes 6 burgers) 

1 lb. lean ground hamburger meat
6 buns
Condiments to taste
6-8 Tbsp. butter, soft enough to spread
1/2 to 1 cup chopped onions (optional)

Fashion hamburger meat into six round patties 1/4 to 1-/2-inch thick. Dust with salt. Prepare the insides of the tops of the buns with whatever condiments you want on the burgers. Spread the bottoms of buns with butter, using up about half of the total amount of butter. On a grill or in a heavy skillet, melt the remaining butter over medium-high heat. If you want grilled onions on your burgers, toss in the onions and cook them until just barely soft; then scoot them to the side of the pan. Fry hamburgers on both sides until cooked to desired degree of doneness, about 3 minutes total for quite rare up to 6 or 7 minutes for well-done. Move the hot burgers onto the prepared bun bottoms, so heat from burger melts the butter on the bun. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

summer break

I'm taking some time off to recharge a bit and spend some time with family and friends down home in Florida. See you soon!

Friday, September 3, 2010

peach-blueberry cobbler

No Southern feast is complete without a bowl of cobbler. Sure, you could make other things like pecan pie, or banana pudding, or any other number of sweet things, but warm fruit topped with a flaky biscuit is my preference. It doesn't seem as heavy after a meal of cheesy and fried things. (I said seem, okay?)
Peaches and blueberries are a natural late-summer combo but if you prefer all berries, or another type of stone fruit such as plums or nectarines, any combination will do. And if you can't find any good fresh fruit at your market, frozen will work just as well. That's the thing about cobblers, they are infinitely flexible, non-judgmental.  

When planning my fried chicken dinner, I found a Lee Brothers recipe on Smitten Kitchen for peach-blueberry cobbler with cornmeal biscuits that sounded perfect. Unfortunately the cornmeal I had on hand was coarse-ground and the recipe called for fine-ground. I didn't think crunchy grit bits would make for a nice topping, so I ended up omitting the cornmeal. The end result, jammy and bubbling, was just fine without, but I'm sure the cornmeal adds a nice rusticity. If you have tried making this with cornmeal, do tell in the comments.
Peach-blueberry cobbler
Via Smitten Kitchen

(Serves 6 to 8 people)

For the fruit:
1 1/2 (about 4 cups) pounds peaches, pitted and cut into slices
1 pint (about 2 cups) blueberries, rinsed and dried
2/3 cup packed dark-brown sugar
2 Tbsp. flour
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt

For the biscuit topping:
3/4 cup  all-purpose flour
1/4 cup fine stone-ground cornmeal (yellow or white, if using)
3 Tbsp. dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss peaches with blueberries, sugar, flour, lemon juice, cinnamon and salt in the bottom of a 2-quart ovenproof dish.

Make the biscuit dough: Stir together the flour, cornmeal (if using), brown sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into the dry mixture with your fingertips, a fork or a pastry blender. Stir in buttermilk with a rubber spatula until a wet, tacky dough comes together.

Plop spoonfuls of the biscuit dough over the filling; don’t worry about covering entire surface. Bake until the cobbler’s syrup is bubbly and the biscuit tops are browned, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool slightly and scoop it into bowls. Top with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

pimento cheese

Pimento cheese seems innocent enough. Two types of cheddar, some mayo, a little seasoning, chopped up pimentos. Whirr these things together in a blender, spread on a cracker. 

And then...suddenly you're trying to think of other ways to incorporate this miracle spread in your diet. Stuffed into celery sticks? Spread on a bagel? As a filling for a deviled egg? In a burgerA tiny bit mixed in with your daily smoothie? I'm kidding. (Sort of.) 

This stuff is addictive, is my point. It might not sound like much, but when made with good-quality cheddar and spread over warm baguette slices, pimento cheese is a true Southern delicacy. Make this recipe the next time you've got a group of hungry people who will polish off the jar and not leave you with any leftovers to eat with a spoon, or um, your fingers.
Mother's everyday pimento cheese
This is not my mother's recipe, it's someone else's mother, via Gourmet. Many Southern cooks swear by stirring the mixture into a paste by hand, but my arm got tired so I used a food processor, which worked fine. I leave that decision up to you.
(Makes about 3 cups)

1/2 lb. extra-sharp Vermont white cheddar
1/2 lb. extra-sharp aged New York (orange) cheddar
1 7 oz. jar pimentos, drained and finely chopped
1/2 tsp. black pepper
cayenne to taste
2/3 cup mayonnaise

Finely grate cheeses into a large bowl. Stir in pimentos, black pepper, cayenne, and salt to taste with a fork. Then stir in mayonnaise, mashing mixture with fork until relatively smooth. (It should be flecked with small pieces of pimento.)
Scrape spread into a crock or jar and chill, covered, at least 2 hours to allow flavors to develop. Serve pimento cheese with crackers or use as a filling for finger sandwiches.


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