Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Taking the stress out of entertaining at home

I've always enjoyed entertaining people at home. Perhaps it comes easy for me because I spent 16 years in the catering and hospitality business. But for many people, it is intimidating and stressful. I'm here to tell you that it needn't be.

First of all, why entertain? Isn't it easier to just meet friends at a local restaurant or bar? Sure. But here are 2 reasons not to:

1. It's loud. When was the last time you can remember eating in total peace and quiet at a restaurant, let alone a bar? Plates clanging, waiters rushing about, people talking too loudly, kids crying (my favorite). What could possibly be relaxing about that? How can we have truly enjoyable conversation with people when we are vying for their attention and screaming over the din? I realize this is a foreign concept to many Americans, used to "grabbing a bite", but dining should be a time to sit and relax, unwind, savor the pleasures of eating, and enjoy the social interaction that takes place over a meal shared together.

2. It's healthier, and less expensive, to eat at home. You control the quality of the ingredients. You have not cut corners, as many dining establishments do, to cut costs and increase the bottom line. It's not about that at home. In the confines of your kitchen, you are in charge. Completely.

And there's really a #3 here as well: cooking for others is my way of showing friends and family that I love them, that I care enough about them to take the time to plan a menu, shop for the ingredients, cook and set a nice table. If you are invited to someone's house for dinner, make sure to return that love by reciprocating. Once you do it yourself, you'll understand that it's also nice to be cooked for.

Now, let's talk about the stress of doing this. First of all, never compare yourself to anyone else. What someone else does may be right for them but not so for you. That said, if you've ever been invited to someone's house for dinner and liked some aspect of what they did, there is no harm in borrowing good ideas and implementing them at your own dinner party. Copying is the greatest form of flattery, they say. If you're the creative sort, it's a little easier. If you're not, then countless magazines out there are full of ideas for what to cook, how to set a nice table, and how to create ambiance. The main thing is to not stress out over any aspect of it. Relax and enjoy the process, finding joy in every aspect of the preparation.

Ok, so that may seem easier said than done. So, let's break it down.

First, choose a date. Saturdays are probably the best day. You have all day to set the stage, and this helps reduce stress because time is on your side. As you do this more and more frequently, you might be inclined to plan dinners during the week. If you're smart, you'll make these potluck.

Next, choose your guests and then the menu. Depending on the former, you will then choose the latter. If you don't already know your intended guests' food preferences/dietary restrictions, then make sure to ask at this stage of the game. Are they vegetarian, on a low-sodium diet, don't drink alcohol, trying to lose weight, diabetic, allergic to anything? These factors should play a major role in determining the menu. Taking these preferences and needs into account will go a long way in showing your guests that you care about them and make them feel special. Which they are - they will be your guests of honor.

Another influence in determining the menu is the time of year. Choose ingredients that are representative of the season and are "in" season so that these ingredients are at their peak.

Choose beverages according to the menu and / or the taste of your guests. Offer non-alcoholic choices as well as the customary beer and wine or mixed drink. Make sure plain or bubbly water is always available.

Setting the table nicely is another way to add a special touch to your evening. For a table centerpiece, choose items that are appropriate for the season. It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive. A beautiful glass bowl filled with fresh fruit in season or vegetables that you will be using in the menu is a lovely, thoughtful touch. When it comes to the dishes, if you have a set of china you got for your wedding and never use it, I say get it out. What are you waiting for? Dining with those you care about should be enough of a "special event" that warrants breaking out the good stuff. So too for glassware and flatware. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow. On your deathbed, you'll ask yourself why you didn't just use the "good stuff". And while you're at it get out the nice linens and cloth napkins. There are few occasions where paper napkins look good. And light candles - everyone looks better in candlelight.

So now that we know who's coming, what they like and don't like to eat, what season we're in, and have a vague idea of what we want to make, how do we decide what works together? Well, for starters, check out my post about composition. I touch on that. The most important thing you should keep in mind is choosing things that will not create you stress or at least not too much of it. Read the recipes through completely before cooking, make your shopping lists, and then read and perhaps even re-read them again so that you can organize your prep time wisely. Cooking is not a linear experience. You jump around. For instance, even though pasta is one of the last things you cook, it's one of the first things to start. The water, since you need so much of it to cook pasta properly, will take quite a while to come to a boil. So, plan accordingly. The longest things need to be started first. That might mean you start with making dessert first, then the entree and sides, and then the salad last, even though you'll be eating it all in reverse order.

Do not attempt to make too many courses or complicated dishes unless you are comfortable cooking. Remember our ultimate goal: to bring people together and ENJOY one another. If you are so stressed out from trying to make everything perfect, you will not accomplish the goal and the experience will not be fun for you.

People around the world use the dining experience to create and solidify the social bonds that connect them to other people. Enjoying the company of those we care about while savoring a lovingly-prepared meal at someone's dining table, makes life that much sweeter. Perhaps this could be a new year's resolution for you. So, this is my last post for 2010. I wish you and yours a happy New Year and happy cooking in 2011!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Budget meals

It's the last week of holiday shopping, and you're likely pretty busy right about now, so there's not a lot of time, or money, left over for fancy dinners. Or so you think...................

You're not really THAT busy to skip cooking, are you? Think about it: in the time it takes to choose a place to eat, wait to be seated, get menus and make a selection, wait for the food, eat the food and pay the check, you've long since put your dishes in the dishwasher at home. And not to mention the cost of eating out: wow! Wouldn't you rather spend that money on a gift for yourself?!

Here are a few ideas for dinner that take very little of both time and money. They are also a lot healthier than what you'd eat out and we all could use a little more healthy food during the holiday season!

Both recipes feature eggs as the main focus. Not just for breakfast, they also make great, inexpensive dinners. The first recipe combines the techniques of a souffle and an omelet for a lovely puffed up wrap for spinach and cheese.

Souffled Spinach Omelet

1 pound spinach, washed and stemmed
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch nutmeg
4 eggs, separated
2 tablespoons finely grated fresh Parmesan cheese or Gruyere

Wash the spinach and cut off the stems. Spin the excess water out. Drop the spinach into a large pot on the stove to wilt, about 3 minutes. (There will be enough water still clinging to the leaves to steam it.) When the spinach is cooked, drain, and plunge it into an ice-bath to seize the color. Remove the spinach and squeeze dry in a tea towel. Chop the spinach.

Heat half the butter in a frying pan, and gently saute the shallot. Add the spinach, and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. When hot, turn off the heat, and set aside.

Put the yolks in a metal bowl and set over a pot of gently simmering water (make sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl.) Season the eggs with salt, and pepper, and whisk until thick and frothy. Remove the bowl from the heat. In a separate bowl, beat the whites to stiff peaks, and fold into the yolk mixture.

Heat the remaining butter in a large non-stick frying pan for the omelet.

Pour the egg into the pan and cook until the bottom is set, and golden, and the top is still fluffy and soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Scatter the spinach mixture all over the omelet, then the cheese. Cover the pan for a few minutes to soften the cheese. Uncover, and fold the omelet in half, and slide it onto a plate. Serve immediately. Serves 2-3.

Recipe courtesy of Laura Calder's cooking show on the Cooking Channel, French Food at Home.

Next up, crepes. Another very inexpensive way to dress up savory fillings like vegetables and lean protein. Crepes can also be filled with sweet fillings, such as fruit, and served as dessert.

French Pancakes (Crepes)

3 eggs
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
2 Tbsp. butter or margarine

In a blender or food processor, blend eggs and flour. Gradually add milk, mixing until smooth. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour. This helps create a more tender crepe. In a flat-bottomed fry pan over medium heat, melt 1/4 tsp. butter and swirl to coat. Pour in about 1 1/2 Tbsp. of the batter, tilting pan so that batter flows quickly over the entire flat surface. If heat is correct and pan hot enough, the crepe sets at once and forms tiny bubbles. Cook until edge of crepe is lightly browned and surface feels dry. To turn, run a side spatula around the edge to loosen. Lay spatula on top of crepe and very quickly invert pan, flipping crepe out onto spatula. Then lay the crepe, uncooked side down, back into the pan and cook until lightly browned. Turn crepe out of pan onto a plate. Repeat with each crepe, stirring batter occasionally and stacking crepes. Use within a few hours or let cool and package tightly, and refrigerate up to one week. Freeze for longer storage. Bring crepes to room temperature before separating else they tear if cold. To reheat, stack crepes and seal in foil. Place in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 min. Makes about 16 crepes.

Spinach and Onion Crepes

3 Tbsp. butter or margarine
1 large onion, thinly sliced and separated into rings
2 pounds spinach (bagged and washed would be easiest)
2/3 cup whipping cream
1/2 tsp. each salt and lemon juice
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded swiss cheese
12-16 crepes at room temperature

In a 5-6 qt. sauce pan over medium high heat, melt butter. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally until soft (about 20 minutes).

Add spinach to the onions, cover and cook until limp. Stir in cream, salt and lemon juice. Cook over high heat, stirring until most of the liquid has evaporated. Spoon filling and cheese equally down center of each crepe, roll to enclose. Place desired number of crepes in a single layer in a shallow casserole dish. Cover and bake in a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes.  Remove cover from crepes and bake 5 minutes more or until ends are crisp. Serve with sauteed mushrooms, accompany with sour cream.

Sauteed Mushrooms: in a wide frying pan over medium heat, melt 2 Tbsp. butter, then add 1/4 lb. sliced mushrooms and cook, stirring, until liquid has evaporated and mushrooms are slightly brown. Sprinkle with some finely chopped parsley. Spoon over crepes.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It isn't Christmas without Fondue

Making cheese fondue on Christmas Eve has been a tradition in my family for as long as I can remember. It just isn't Christmas without it, and it's what I'll be making again this year on December 24th.

If you're not familiar with it, the Swiss Fondue is a communal dish which consists of melted cheese traditionally served in an earthenware pot over a small burner. The word Fondue is taken from the French fondu, which means melted. Long-stemmed forks are used to spear whatever is going to get dipped, usually cubed bread, apple slices, cubes of potato or other dipping items. Garlic, wine and Kirsch are also part of the heavenly molten mixture, and all sorts of condiments can be served on the side.

Chinese Hot Pot
But fondue does not only have to be cheesy. There are also meat and seafood fondues, where meats and vegetables are cooked in a pot of either oil or broth. The Chinese Hot Pot is very similar. And then there's the dessert fondue, where chunks of cake, fruit, marshmallows or other sweets are dunked into warm, molten chocolate.

My favorite is the cheese fondue. Depending on where you eat it in Europe, the cheeses will vary. Swiss cheese fondues likely consist of Gruyere, Emmenthal, Vacherin, or Appenzeller cheese.  If you're in France, Comte, Beaufort or Emmenthal; and in Italy, Fontina. Sometimes vegetables are added such as tomatoes, bell peppers, chilis, or mushrooms. I like a blend of 2 cheeses, usually Gruyere and Emmenthal, as they are readily accessible in my local market at a reasonable price.

Special equipment is not required although there are fondue pots made just for the occasion. I used to have an enameled pot, but switched to an electric one after setting my dining room table on fire. No joke, I really did this. I overfilled the container underneath with too much liquid alcohol. Don't ask (table was fine, by the way. Refinished). Anyway, I go electric now. I find I can control the temperature better, as well as avoid setting the house on fire. The set pictured on the left above is the traditional serving pot; the one on the right is the electric one I have. Pots range in price but the more reasonably priced models start at about $30 (here's a link to comparison shop). If you're just 2 people, like we are, you could get a smaller one for a good price, but the larger ones you'll need for groups of 4 or more and that's when fondue is really fun!

Fondue is a great way to bring family and friends together. It engages everyone and keeps their attention, mainly because there's always the fear of losing your cube of bread in the cheese. If you do, there are penalties (you just have to sit out a turn or kiss the person to your left, or whatever rules you want to inflict on your guests). Since it's a unique dining experience, you can create fond,  lasting memories.

This is the recipe I use. We usually start with a mixed green salad with a housemade vinaigrette, and end with Christmas cookies.

Cheese Fondue

1 garlic clove, cut in half
Fondue with "the works"
1 lb. Emmenthal, or 1/2 lb. Emmenthal + 1/2 lb. Gruyere cheese (if you're serving 6 people, increase to 1 1/2 lbs. of cheese), grated
1 shot Kirsch (this is NOT a sweet cordial - this is a spirit or eau de vie), or substitute brandy or vodka
2 cups white wine, such as a Chablis
2 tsp. cornstarch
white pepper
a pinch of nutmeg

Take the 2 halves of garlic and rub them cut side down all over the inside of the fondue pot. Leave in the pot when done. Over moderate heat, add the wine. In a separate bowl, combine the Kirsch with the cornstarch (but don't add yet). You're ready for the next step when fine bubbles appear in the wine. Add the cheese gradually, stirring constantly (add a handful first, let that melt, then add another handful, let that melt, etc. When all the cheese is incorporated, turn the heat a bit higher, but don't allow the cheese to come to a boil. Continue stirring until you feel a slight resistance, then add the cornstarch/Kirsch mixture, allowing it to thicken your fondue. Stir in just a pinch of white pepper and nutmeg. Transfer to the table.

Dippables: French or sourdough bread cut in small pieces; cubes of cooked potato or cauliflower, apples, or grapes; cornichons, pearl onions or other marinated vegetables.
NOTE: It's important to use cheeses that are not pasteurized, because they don't melt properly.


Here's a recipe that I am also quite fond of. I actually make this one in a small enameled pot on the stove and my husband and I end up eating it in the kitchen - it never makes it to the table! It's great as an appetizer dip with crackers, cubes of French or sourdough bread, or apple slices. Do buy a really good white cheddar for this such as English Coastal Cheddar*. It makes all the difference.

Tomato and Cheddar Fondue

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
6 cloves roasted garlic
2 tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 1/2 Tbsp. flour
3 cups (12 oz.) shredded white cheddar cheese
1/2 cup dry white wine

In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the garlic and tomatoes and saute, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes just begin to soften, about 2 minutes.
While the tomatoes are cooking, combine the flour and cheese in a bowl and toss to coat the cheese.
Add the wine to the tomato mixture, stir once, and then add the cheese, a handful at a time. Heat and stir until the cheese is completely melted. Transfer to a fondue pot set over an alcohol burner or sterno flame to keep it warm. Serve immediately.
If you want to know more about fondue, please click here.

* I purchase mine at either Costco or Trader Joe's.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Buy Nothing for Christmas

What a headline! It captured my attention this morning as I scanned for today's news. Apparently there's a sentiment that seems to be finally growing among Americans this holiday season and that is to cut way back on gift shopping. Several online movements are encouraging people to save their money, make their own presents, or provide personal services like baby-sitting or massages as gifts. "The holiday season is about sharing time with loved ones, not going into debt", one woman was quoted. "It is entirely unnecessary to spend money in order to show others that you care."

With so many families struggling to make ends meet, it seems like a no-brainer to cut back on spending, yet it's predicted that people will spend more this year than last. I find that hard to believe given the current state of affairs most of us are in. Isn't this mass consumerism partly to blame for the struggles the Western world faces today? Haven't we found ourselves having to face the fact that for too long now we have not lived within our means?

One woman's husband the article described had lost his job 2 years ago and is still struggling finding part-time work. But despite the struggle, or perhaps because of it, they have gotten stronger as a a family and learned valuable lessons in being thrifty. She can give her kids an even more important gift than the latest toys and gadgets, and that is "a family that is financially stable even in a falling economy".

From a related article I read about Kenneth Wingard, a home furnishings designer, who this year is planning on giving away organic peach jam and preserves from his California ranch for the holidays. "It's definitely a cost savings," Wingard said. "It probably ends up costing us about $2 a jar and we are handing out 60 this year." But he doesn't just do it for the cost, he enjoys the warm feeling it brings him.

"They are the kind of fuzzy peaches I remember growing up with in Georgia -- where you buy them off the side of the road and they make the whole car smell like summery goodness," Wingard said. "The jam is the same way -- the color of the peaches stays vibrant and when it hits warm bread it smells like I'm back on the side of the road with peach juice dripping down my chin."

Isn't that lovely? Doesn't that description just take you to Georgia? I can imagine the intensity of the fruit that he remembers from his childhood and the juices running all over. Yum.

If you are one of those people who wrestle with finding the "right gift" or you're looking to save some of your hard earned cash, look to your talents or hobbies, such as cooking, and ask yourself if you can't tap into that and use it as a way to give to others this holiday season.

A personal, homemade food gift would be appreciated by anyone. How thoughtful would it be to bake tantalizing treats, "put up" preserves or jam, make your favorite spice blend, assemble all the dry ingredients of your favorite cookie recipe in a jar, or offer to cook one night for a busy family, all of which are ways to give without breaking the bank.

Now, who wouldn't want a gift made with love?

To read the article on, click here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why composition is important

It's easy to overlook how important it is to compose dinner. You may be thinking, "ok, listen, my spouse and kids could care less what's on the plate - as long as it's food". Perhaps, but it's important to think about composition not just for aesthetic reasons, but also because meals should be about balancing flavors and taking in nutrients. What do I mean by composing the plate? It means thinking about what components your plate is going to consist of. Let me explain by giving you an example of what NOT to do:

I once made the following for dinner: chicken, cauliflower, and rice. See a problem here? Everything was WHITE! Clearly a lack of planning. Had I visualized what everything would look like once it was on the plate, I might have realized that this would end up a monochromatic dinner. The best composed meals consist of a variety of colors, textures and flavors. My chicken would have been better alongside something green or red to perk it up.

"Eat the rainbow", the saying goes. Not only is a plate more visually appealing when it consists of a variety of colors, but by doing so we take in the diverse nutrients our bodies need from foods that are red, purple, orange or green. Each of these colors represents a family of nutrients that are vital to health.

Consider making small changes to your usual fare. For instance, potatoes don't have to be white: if you leave the skins on the little rose variety, they can be red (and also provide additional fiber that you would lose if you removed the skin). Roasting them with herbs can provide some interest. For something unique that even kids might find fun to eat are purple Peruvian potatoes that add a lot of interest to a plate, and taste just like regular potatoes. Rice also doesn't have to be just white; brown rice is FAR tastier and much more nutritious because the fiber hasn't been stripped off. You can try mixing rices. I just bought a 3-rice blend at Sprouts Market that contains grains of brown, red and black rice. Wild rice is also very visually interesting, either alone or when blended with brown or white rice. Spices can be added to rice while you're cooking it that give off some color. For instance, chili powder, saffron, and turmeric all have distinctive colors and flavors that can add some excitement to otherwise boring dishes.

A nice array of
colors and textures
 Meats can be changed color by blackening them, adding spice rubs to them, giving them grill marks on the BBQ and slathering them with sauce (of any variety of color).

Vegetables are going to naturally provide loads of color and texture. But the one thing you do not want to destroy is the vibrant green of many vegetables that get steamed or cooked. When done cooking, it's a good idea to immediately toss them into an ice bath to shock them, thereby preserving their green color. This is especially true of green beans and broccoli, which can turn a yucky brownish color when allowed to sit at room temperature. You'll just want to gently reheat them before serving.

Another thing to consider is not only color, but texture. For instance, you wouldn't want everything on your plate to be creamy. Vary the textures by offering something creamy, for example, alongside something with some crunch.

And lastly, another consideration is ingredients. Don't have the same thing in more than one side. For instance garlic. As much as I love it, you wouldn't want garlic mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach with garlic, and garlic roasted chicken all on the same plate. Garlic is healthy, but goodness, you'll have to seriously air out the house and give everyone Altoids! Something to strive for is to prepare sides that either compliment or contrast one another, such as something acidic alongside something sweet for some good balance, or something spicy alongside something creamy (like dairy) to fan the flames.

Composing your plates does require some advance planning. It means visualizing the end result before beginning to cook. With some experimentation you can put together a well-composed plate sure to please everyone you are feeding.

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