Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How to Execute a Dinner Party

(image via The Kitchn)

Yesterday I posted about the first step in entertaining: how to plan a dinner party. Today I wanted to offer up some tips for step 2: how to execute a dinner party.

The first things you guests will see when they arrive is your home, not the food. So do your best to tidy up. Your house doesn't need to be immaculate, but your probably don't want dirty laundry and empty mugs of coffee laying around. It sends the message that this dinner party wasn't important enough for you to take the time to clean your home.

After you've cleaned up, light a few candles, set out some fresh flowers (Trader Joe's has some incredibly cheap options), and play some soft music in the background. Your home is already feeling cozy and welcoming.

If you're using the oven - especially in an apartment - your house is probably warm and smells of dinner. Open a few windows to get fresh air circulating through and turn on the air conditioning or a fan.

I also like to have cocktails pre-made and appetizers set out before the guests arrive. That way you don't have to run around mixing and cooking when you should be greeting your guests. Also, having the cocktails ready to go always relaxes everyone and sets the tone for a fun evening.

The success of a dinner party has nothing to do how amazing your food is. The most important thing about the food is that you shouldn't be cooking it all night. Your guests want you out of the kitchen! Make sure your food is prepped in advance and only requires simple cooking the night of.

Remember to have fun. The host sets the tone. If your comfortable and having a good time, so will your guests.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How to Plan a Dinner Party

(image via She Knows Food and Wine)

We're having friends over for dinner this Saturday night, so I'm ramping up for dinner party planning mode.

First Step: Plan a Menu

While I love to go to Trader Joe’s and Farmers’ Markets without a shopping list and walk around for dinner inspiration, I find that it’s much easier (and cheaper) to plan out a dinner party menu ahead of time. I come up with menus by reading through cookbooks, looking on food blogs, and getting inspiration from prior meals. If you want to develop a dinner party menu quickly, simply go to the Food Network website, look up a favorite chef, and then click on a recent TV episode. Most likely that chef will have cooked a main dish and 1-2 sides – perfect for your menu.

When planning a menu, keep in mind three things: 1) price, 2) seasonality, and 3) time.

Please, please, please don’t make an astronomically expensive meal. Some people think that a dinner party requires truffles and foie gras and $200 bottles of wine. Ugh. All this does is make you poorer and your guests seriously uncomfortable. Cook affordably and, this way, you can entertain more often. I like to budget $15-$20 a head for all courses (appetizer, main, sides, and dessert). I have been able to cook delicious and impressive meals within this budget, I promise!

Cook within the season. Don’t make a rich beef stew in the summer when it’s 90 degrees out. And please don’t serve your guests peach cobbler in the winter when the peaches are tasteless. Plus, if you buy seasonal food it tends to be cheaper, and it’s already fresh, ripe, and delicious, so your dinner is bound to be successful.

Design a menu that can either be prepped ahead of time, simply has to be thrown in the oven when your guests arrive, or is a “make your own” bar. This way you can actually spend time with your guests, which is the real purpose of the dinner party – spending time with your friends!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cookie Cups with Nutella Ganache and Guinness Ice Cream

We had friends over for late night drinks on Friday evening, and I wanted to whip up a dessert to go along with our cocktails. I follow the This is Glamorous blog and was drooling over theircupcake post. Since I'm a nutella freak, the cupcake's nutella ganache was a standout in my mind. I brainstormed what I could pair with this ganache and thought of a container of homemade Guinness ice cream in my freezer from a few weeks back.

Ice cream with chocolate sauce sounded a bit too basic, and I was in the mood to bake, so I came up with the idea of cookie cups filled with ganache and Guinness ice cream.

This cookie recipe is wonderful. I highly recommend making it simply as cookies. I also challenge you to eat less than a few fingerfuls of cookie dough. Why is it that cookie dough is so addictive?!

With the dough I managed to save for actual baking, I followed the recipe below. Once the cups were cool, I filled the centers with 1 tablespoon of nutella ganache, 1 scoop of Guinness ice cream, and another drizzle of ganache. Enjoy!

Brown Sugar Chocolate Chip Cookie Cups
adapted from My Recipes
makes 8 cookie cups

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat butter, brown sugar, egg, and vanilla at medium speed in electric mixer until smooth. In another bowl, mix flour, baking soda, and salt. Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Stir in chocolate chips.

Spray cupcake pan with cooking spray. Using a cookie scoop, place 2 scoops of cookie dough in cupcake holders. Mold dough into cups with indented centers. Place cupcake pan in freezer for 15 minutes.

Bake cookies for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and using a knife or small metal spatula, press down indentations in the center of cookies. Bake for an additional 3-5 minutes. Let cookies cool in pan for 5 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool for remaining time.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Weekend Plan

(weekend cappuccinos via cappuccino xpert)

I'm looking forward to some downtime this weekend. We're dog-sitting our friends' Boston Terrier, so I'll be spending plenty of time at the loft.

We recently "borrowed" Josh's parents' milk frother. I can't wait to make cappuccinos on Saturday morning with lots and lots of foam. Rather, I can't wait to enjoy the cappuccinos that Josh puts together - he's the coffee expert in our house.

My mom is taking the train up to LA on Sunday. We're heading over to the Brentwood Farmers' Market to pick up some produce and then we'll be cooking a leisurely lunch together. I usually head to the Farmers' Market without a menu or ingredient list. I prefer to buy whatever looks fresh and fun to cook and then develop a menu based on my purchased ingredients. This weekend, I'm particularly interested in cooking Barefoot Contessa's Roasted Salmon with Green Herbs. I might have to make an exception to my market approach and actually draft up a grocery list.

Cheers to a tasty weekend!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dinner at Fundamental LA

(complimentary chips to munch on)

Just returned from a fun and delicious dinner at the new eatery Fundamental LA in Westwood. The restaurant is minimalist in decor and maintains a concise menu of sandwiches, salads, sides, and sweets with an international wine and beer list.

The owners are two guys who used to work corporate jobs but left their desks to fulfill their passion for food. With their business background, both have great people skills. They're wonderful to talk to, truly appreciate of your business, and great at recommending a good wine.

The food highlights...

(bruleed white figs with tallegio, balsamic, fennel arugula salad)

The combination of the sweet, luscious figs with the funky tallegio cheese was perfectly balanced. The salad adds a crunch and bitterness. This is a side dish, but maybe with just one more fig and I could have seriously eaten this as my dinner.

(hush puppies with parmesan, scallions, lemon juice, roasted garlic aioli)

Tasty fried goodness. The aioli is wonderfully rich and was multipurposed as a dipping sauce for other sandwiches.

(porchetta sandwich, brioche bread, whole grain mustard, sauerkraut)

The sandwich came with a thick piece of buttery porchetta. The meat was spiced just right and slightly crispy around the edges. Combined with the pungent with mustard and soft bread, this was the winner of the evening.

(roast chicken sandwich, potato bread, pickled asparagus and onion, heirloom tomato, tallegio, roasted garlic aioli)

I usually avoid ordering chicken out, just because it seems so ordinary. This was anything but. The strong cheese, pickled vegetables, and garlicky aioli all melded together for a rich and satisfying flavor, which, when combined with the moist chicken and potato bread, made for a pretty awesome sandwich.

(churros with butterscotch)

Even though we were already stuffed, the owner was kind enough to bring us out these churros to try. Oh my goodness. The cinnamon sugar coating is just right and the butterscotch is to die for. In my mind, the doughy consistency was closer to a beignet. But, call it whatever you want, the dessert was fantastic.

Throughout dinner we sipped on Domaine de Ruilly (clean, springy white) and Michel Tete (fruit forward red), which complimented all of dishes.

M-Sa, Lunch and Dinner
1303 Westwood Blvd.
Dishes range $2 - $13, Beer and wine range $4 - $15

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cooking Seasonally

(csa delivery)

My first CSA box arrived, and I could not be more excited! It's economical and convenient - I pay $30 for a week's worth of fruit and vegetables for Josh and me. And, it's delivered to my door. I opted for an every-other-week delivery, just since Josh and I are frequently at evening events and dinner.

I couldn't wait to make dinner with some of the fresh ingredients -- I literally raced home from a wine date to pick through my delivery. I put together a quick and delicious dinner and bolded all the CSA ingredients, below, so you can see how easy it was to incorporate them.

(lettuce and tomato salad with sauteed veggies, polenta, and cheese)

I plated a simple salad with hand-ripped green lettuce and sliced heirloom tomatoes. I dressed the salad with olive oil, aged balsamic, flaked salt, and pepper.

I sauteed up 1 zucchini squash, 1 rib of celery, and 1/2 cup of chopped green onion. I heated 3 thin slices polenta (from my premade Trader Joe's package) and placed it on top of the cooked veggies. I sprinkled some grated asiago cheese (about 1/4 cup) and we were good to go.

(strawberries with nutella and graham crackers)

Oh and let's not forget about dessert. I melted a 1/2 tablespoon of nutella in the microwave (30 seconds-ish), topped with 6 sliced strawberries, and sprinkled with a crushed graham cracker. Seriously delicious.

I'll be sure to keep posting about cooking seasonally through my CSA deliveries.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Trader Joe's simple dinner (eggplant polenta bake)

(flowers from TJs)

Trader Joe's is sort of a safe haven for me. I love wandering around the aisles with my miniature cup of coffee (decaf) and the sample of the day. I often go after work, when I'm tired and slightly cranky, and have no desire to cook dinner. But after a few rounds of the store, I'm usually inspired with a list of recipe ideas - most of which are quick, healthy, and super cheap.

I'm especially proud of the "semi-homemade" dinners I put together from TJs. These require no actual cooking effort, just some brief prep work and then you pop the dish in the oven to heat up. Dinner is read in 20 minutes or less and there's no giant mess to clean up.

This past weekend I bought a container of premade polenta, a jar of eggplant caponata, and a wedge of rosemary olive oil asiago cheese. (I already had green onions at home, but you'll need those too for this recipe). I cut about a 2-3 inch piece of polenta and "smushed" it in the bottom of a personal sized baking dish, poured 1/2 cup of eggplant caponata on top, and sprinkled it with 1/4 cup of shredded cheese and 2 tablespoons of chopped green onion. I baked it in the oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, and it was delicious and heartwarming and everything nice.

(polenta - smushed)

(polenta adorned with eggplant caponata)

Now, because this dish was so good and easy, I decided to make it once more this weekend. This time I poached an egg and placed it on top of the cheesy-goodness right when it came out of the oven. This was true comfort food. I do realize that the poaching of an egg equates to real cooking and not just semi-homemade preparation. But, it's so easy to poach an egg - I swear it! (Watch a great demonstration here). And, this way you can get that protein that mom's always yelling at you about...

(the finished product with a poached egg)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

a beer-themed weekend

Yesterday was Josh's 26th birthday. He's not big on birthday celebrations, so every year I'm forced with the challenge of finding something celebratory to do without it seeming too "birthday theme-ish." Lately, his focus has been on beer (trading, tasting, researching, purchasing) - so, in honor of this hobby, we celebrated his day of birth with a weekend full of beer.

We attended The Bruery Clusterfork on Saturday. The Bruery is a fantastic family-run brewery down in Orange County that produces microbrews. We've been members ever since they opened a couple years back and can't get enough of their barrel-aged beers and sours. They host a Clusterfork every few months in which they pour special beers and invite their members to bring special bottles from home to share with everyone. I got to try two Cantillons - arguably the best sour beers in the world.

(the Bruery draft beers)

(communal table of shared beers)

(beer trading)

Last night, we headed over to a homebrew class in Eagle Rock. For $10 we got to sample about 5 different beers and learn about the homebrew process from start to finish. The initial investment is pretty high (brewing kits range from $80-$180 and exclude the actual brewing ingredients) so we left empty handed. But our group appreciated seeing all the work that goes into our favorite brews. To know before you go: the class is extremely informal - we boiled the beer in their empty parking lot out back - and is more of a lecture-style with hardly any hands on activity.

(adding extract to the homebrew)

(the beer right before it started boiling over)

As a birthday gift from me, Josh is now a member of the Beer of the Month Club - specifically the Rare Beer Club. We're looking forward to tasting new beers and reporting about them here.

I hope you enjoyed a good beer this weekend!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sick Day

Yesterday I woke up with a pretty horrific sore throat and stayed home for a sick day. A cup (or 5) of Cold Remedy tea with honey and almond milk and a slice of Trader Joe's Cinnamon Swirl toast with peanut butter put me in a much better mood.

(cold remedy tea + honey + almond milk)

(cinnamon swirl toast with peanut butter)

Blog Inspiration: Heart of Light

(a cake i baked for josh a few birthdays back)

I am an avid reader of Cupcakes and Cashmere and yesterday she linked over to one of her friend’s blogs – Heart of Light. I am obsessed. Her stories and pictures are wonderful, but what resonated with me was our similar taste in food. She loves egg-y breakfasts, has a passion for baking, and enjoys wandering around Farmers’ Markets. And – she gave up caffeine too! (Did I mention I did that? About 2 months ago. It’s helped immensely with my sleep/insomnia problems).

Anyways, her blog posts on cake baking have got me thinking about baking a cake for a certain mister’s 26th birthday this week. He loves peanut butter and chocolate. Maybe a marble cake with peanut butter filling and chocolate cake frosting? Or perhaps a peanut butter cake with a chocolate Guinness frosting? That sounds better. It will go with all the beer-themed gifts and festivities. Oooh! And I can use our beautiful new cake stand.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Homemade Oreos

Josh and I both share a love for Oreos so I was delighted to find Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for making them homemade. I recommend following her “Sugar Note” and reducing the sugar in the recipe to 1 cup. The cream filling is pretty sweet, so the wafers don’t need that extra ½ cup of sugar. The recipe is easy to follow and the cookies cool quickly. We had homemade Oreos – start to finish – in about 30 minutes.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

My New Favorite LA Eatery

I've eaten at some incredible restaurants in Los Angeles, but nothing comes close to my experience at A-Frame in Culver City. The restaurant is owned and run by the creators of the Kogi BBQ truck and Chego, and it features a picnic theme (family style food served in plastic speckled dishes) with an asian-flavor undertone. If you've ever waited an hour for a Kogi short-rib and spicy pork tacos, and loved the intermix of Asian and Mexican flavors, A-Frame is your newest favorite restaurant.

We went in a group of 8 and were able to try a majority of the menu. Our favorites were:

Big Hat Punch - rye whiskey, apple brandy, rum, tea, lemon juice, and prosecco. The punch was served in an old-fashioned punch bowl with mismatching glass cups and a ladle. The menu says it serves 4-6 people, but all 8 of us got at least 2 full cups out of it.

King Antilles Cocktail - Rhum Agricole (aged rum), pineapple, lime, fresh chiles. This drink was light and fruity with a nice spicy kick at the back of your throat. I frequently order spicy drinks and this one is at the top of the lists for ones I've had in LA.

Jaywalker Cocktail - Irish whiskey, cassis, absinthe, mint, strawberries. Cool and refreshing. Paired well with the appetizers.

Furikake Kettle Corn - buttery popcorn and Corn Pop goodness + some seaweed for that "whoa, what is that?!" flavor

Heirloom Pickles with Dip - pickled fennel, cucumbers, carrots, and beets served alongside a garlicky, blue cheese dressing. Fantastic.

Baby Back Ribs - Asian lacquered ribs served in an addicting hoisin, chili, and green onion sauce. When the ribs were gone, I was still eating the sauce simply with my fork.

Beer Can Chicken - crispy skin, juicy meat. This is how chicken should always be cooked, but I just don't think anyone else has mastered it quite like this.

Dyn-o-mite - the world's greatest twice baked potato. Butter, sour cream, parmesan, chives. We had to order additional. Order one potato for every 2-3 people. This was the favorite dish of the whole night for most of our party.

Chu-Don't-Know-Mang - pound cake churros with chocolate milk sauce and vanilla ice cream. The churros were decadent, light (even made out of pound cake), and covered with cinnamon sugar.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Weekend Feasting Plans

Happy Friday! I am so excited for this weekend. I have loads of food and cocktail plans and will report back with pictures next week.

I’ll be attempting a Deconstructed Eggplant Parmesan. I’ve never been able to cook eggplant well – it always turns out bitter and mushy – but this LA Times articles sounds fool proof.

I'm meeting my friends for a girls’ brunch at Shade Hotel to celebrate Amanda's birthday. I’m looking forward to a cappuccino, possibly some eggs benedict, and lots of catching up.

We'll be celebrating Josh’s birthday at A-Frame in Culver City. We’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about this place – specifically about the Furikake Kettle Corn, Baby Back Ribs, and Banana Bacon Cream Pie. We’ll be going in a group of 8, so I hopefully I can get everyone on-board with ordering the Big Hat Punch (rye, brandy, rum, tea, lemon, and prosecco) – a giant punch prepared for large groups.

We’re also getting together for a family BBQ. Josh’s parents are making burgers and his aunt is bringing potato salad. We’re in charge of the salad – the current plan is mixed greens, fresh figs, shaved Manchego, pistachios, and a roasted shallot vinaigrette. I’m also surprising Josh’s grandfather with Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for Homemade Oreos.

Enjoy your weekend!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Thoughts on Tomatoes

I absolutely love Summer. I mean, who doesn’t? (I actually have a few mid-West friends who prefer other seasons, which I can never wrap my head around.) Southern California is a perfect 80 degrees, the days are long with gorgeous sunsets, everyone has a healthy glow to them, and the tomatoes are ridiculous. I’ve been lucky in the past few weeks and keep receiving homegrown tomatoes from family and coworkers. I thought I’d share what I’ve been concocting with them.

Caprese Salad – sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, and basil over a bed of arugula. Dress with some olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. A trick: sprinkle tomatoes with a hefty helping of sea salt and let them sit for 30 minutes before you eat. They’ll be oh-so-tasty!

Homemade Spinach Ricotta Ravioli with Tomato Sauce Рsaut̩ 2 diced tomatoes in 1 tablespoon of oil for about 3 minutes, add 2-3 tablespoons of red wine and stir, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Tomato Bruschetta

In Italy, I learned that every family has their own unique bruschetta recipes – and some are definitely better than others. I can’t stop thinking about the Bruschetta at this little Enoteca in Radda in Chianti. I begged for the recipe, but they wouldn’t share. After ordering their bruschetta multiple times (c’mon, I had to do my research…), I think I came close to figuring out the recipe. My version didn’t taste identical, but it was still really, really good!

2 tomatoes, diced finely
4 garlic cloves, smashed
2 T chopped flat leaf parsley
2 T chopped oregano
2 T chopped basil
1 T salt
2 t pepper
Olive oil
Ciabatta bread

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and salt and pepper in a bowl. Cover ingredients with olive oil and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour. Cut ciabatta into slices and then halves. Place on baking sheet and toast for approximately 5 minutes, until bread is crisp on the edges but slightly soft in the middle. Spoon the bruschetta mixture onto the toast – try to leave most of the oil and all of the garlic in the bowl.

Bruschetta-Infused Olive Oil - Once you’ve enjoyed your bruschetta from above, pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve. Funnel the infused oil into an airtight glass container and store in the refrigerator up to a week. I used this oil to cook tomato sauce, dress salads, or dip bread into. The olive oil may solidify in the fridge. If so, just let it sit at room temperature for about 5 minutes.