Always Order Dessert. (Isn't it nice when that happens?) What I didn't realize is how much of an overachiever she is when it comes to food. She told me about attending a food swap in Brooklyn where people exchanged homemade treats. Unlike other slackers who came bearing pans of Rice Krispie treats, Alejandra made batches of hibiscus flower syrup, vanilla bean pudding mix, Italian rainbow cookies, and smoky deviled egg salad with caramelized shallots. If that wasn't impressive enough, she packaged everything beautifully with professional-looking branded labels. Just thinking about that makes me tired, but that's how passionate she is. In addition to wowing people with homemade products, she also maintains a fantastic blog, offers a range of food writing and consulting services, and teaches cooking classes. It goes without saying that she can throw a serious dinner party too. (Check out her answer to question #3!) Here, she shares her thoughts on entertaining. Thanks, Alejandra!
1. Name, occupation, and city
Alejandra Ramos, I am a full-time food writer, food blogger, and real food coach. I also recently launched a series of dinner party-style cooking classes. I live in New York City.
2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?
This is kind of embarrassing as I always think of myself as a consummate entertainer, but I just realized that, apart from my classes, I haven't hosted a dinner party at all this year! But I just launched my business and we just got married a few months ago so I think I've just been recovering from all that planning. Actually, can I count the wedding? I planned every single aspect of the menu (even giving the caterer my own recipes), and I baked the wedding cake and several of the treats on the dessert table myself. If so, then the guests were 120 of our closest friends and relatives.
3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?
I hosted a Mad Men buffet dinner party a couple years ago that I'm still very proud of. It was a Christmas party and I had it take place in December 1963, which was just after the season had left off that year. I got obsessive about the menu planning and spent weeks going through retro cookbooks (so far as to actually source the exact cookbooks I'd seen on Betty Draper's kitchen counter throughout the season). I finally came up with an over-the-top and totally kitschy retro menu. To start, I made deviled eggs, rumaki, deviled ham paste sandwiches, and a smokey cheese ball in the shape of a porcupine (complete with almond quills, olive eyes, and a cornichon tail). I then served a molded cucumber, lime, and cilantro Jell-O salad and a molded salmon mousse (in the shape of a salmon, of course). I also baked a pineapple ham, made swedish meatballs, and simmered tiny cocktail sausages in grape jelly. I went crazy with the garnishes and decorations--lots of olives and pimentos and maraschino cherries on toothpicks stuck into everything. For dessert, there was ambrosia salad, Rice Krispie treats, and pink and green sugar cookies. Oh and cocktails. Lots and lots of cocktails. (Ed: Oh. My. God. Amazing.)
4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?
For dinner parties, I generally prefer wine. I love the feeling of popping open another bottle as the conversation continues deep into the night. Unless I'm throwing a retro-themed party (which I've done on more than one occasion), at which point I definitely prefer cocktails.
5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?
I love smooth, lounge-y Latin-tinged music that give the room a sexy vibe without interfering with the conversation and mingling. If I have time, I'll usually coordinate the music with the food and overall theme, but Gotan Project, Thievery Corporation, Jehro, and Pink Martini are my usual fallbacks if I'm running late and haven't been able to create a new playlist. For the retro parties, I'm all about that 60s bossanova, Dean Martin, early Tito Puente, and Henry Mancini.
6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner. What do you make?
I'm currently obsessed with fish and shrimp tacos (Ed: me too!), so that's what they're getting. I always have shrimp in the freezer and since it's summer, I usually have fresh fish in the fridge. It's just so light and easy during these really hot days. I don't like a battered fried fish--just a dusting with seasoned flour and into a very hot pan until crisp. I'll serve on fresh corn tortillas with smokey cumin yogurt sauce, fresh salsa, and some kind of quick cabbage slaw. I usually have cured chorizo in the pantry so I'll dice it and saute briefly before tossing on top for a little added heat and flavor. My husband makes excellent guacamole and I'll fry up some of the tortillas for fresh tortilla chips. For dessert, it'll be my take on Ina Garten's "Outrageous Brownies" made with whole wheat pastry flour and added spices (in keeping with the quasi-Mexican theme). Several bottles of very cold and crisp white wine, something lively on the iPod, and hopefully nobody will notice that I didn't have time to clean.
7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?
I always do 100 percent of the cooking myself, though my husband is wonderful about helping with the details--running to the store for lemons or fresh flowers, lighting the candles, rearranging the furniture. That last hour or so before the party is always insane, and he helps me get through it.
8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?
I make everything from scratch, though I do rely on a few easy things like a couple great cheeses and artisan crackers for the guests to nibble on as they arrive. For brunch parties I'll sometimes buy a ham, which doesn't call for much more than heating it through with a simple glaze, but I'll make multiple dishes from scratch to go along with it.
9. What do you like to serve for dessert?
I have a very rich, flowerless dark chocolate cake that is a pretty consistent hit. People really just love chocolate, and it's a lovely and decadent way to end the night. Sometimes I'll make homemade ice cream or sorbet, and I was recently gifted one of those Nespresso machines, which means that I can now offer guests tiny cups of freshly brewed espresso.
10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?
This might sound silly given the incredible opportunity, but I would really just want to invite my best friends. They are the most amazing people, but they all live in far-flung corners of the world (Scotland, Australia, California, Venezuela, etc.) so it's rare that we are able to get together in the same place. I'd love to bring everyone together around a big, long farm table and serve them delicious things. That would probably bet the best thing ever. I wouldn't be upset if Conan O'Brien, Don Draper (the character, not Jon Hamm), Tina Fay, and/or Ina Garten joined us. I'd be totally cool with that.
[Photo:] Colleen Katana