Mar 29, 2009

A Bouquet of Thanks

Hello Friends-

I've been a bit out of touch and I'm quite sorry. It's been a really horrible week since we last chatted and I haven't felt particularly entertaining... but I did want to stop by and thank all of you for your incredibly kind words, lovely gifts and sweet thoughts - each one found a place in my heart and lifted my spirits. I'm so lucky to have such wonderful friends.

I'll be back later this week with a new recipe, but for now I wanted to share this beautiful spring bouquet with you. We're on the cusp of spring here and the colors are just starting to bloom. Eager to hurry the process along, I brought these bright tulips to a friend's dinner party last week. 

I found them for $5 a bunch at the grocery store, discarded the plastic they came in and used a length of plain burlap from the fabric store to wrap them. At $2-3 dollars a yard I buy a few yards at a time and use it to wrap small food gifts or cover the table for an inexpensive tablecloth. For my bouquet, I cut a 12" square, folded it into a triangle, wrapped it around the flower stems like you would swaddle a baby and tied it with a piece of raffia. Voila... an elegant, inexpensive and colorful hostess gift that looks like it came from a fancy florist!

Mar 20, 2009

Stir the Day Away

Raise your hand if you find the idea of making risotto a little intimidating… Yeah, I did too. Until I tried it.

Dinner For One: Risotto

I came home last night after a long day – a VERY long day. The kind of day that tests your patience, wears out your last nerve and follows you out the door, into your car and all the way home. So I was still pretty worked up when I got home. I needed to shake it off, let go of my day and enjoy my evening – but how?

I had read a post last week about eating down your pantry. The idea is that you forage in your pantry and create a meal from what you already have instead of heading to the store. Since I was in no mood to go back out to the grocery store, I decided to see what I could find.

A container of Arborio rice had a recipe for risotto on the back that seemed deceptively simple and I had everything on hand, so I decided to give it a try. Turns out it was the perfect antidote to my bad day. Forty-five minutes later I had chopped and stirred my anxiety away, restored my patience waiting for the broth to be absorbed bit by bit, and was rewarded with a delicious, comforting & sophisticated supper.

The Recipe:
1 cup uncooked rice
2 TB olive oil
2 TB butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper (optional)

1. Saute onion in oil and butter for 3 mins.
2. Add rice, stirring for about 2 mins.
3. Stir in 1 cup of broth. Continue cooking and stirring until liquid is absorbed.
4. Gradually stir in remaining broth, 1 cup at a time, cooking and stirring until liquid is absorbed before adding the next cup.

A couple of things that surprised me:
1. The recipe didn’t call for any cheese. I thought risotto always had cheese in it to add to its creaminess – but it turns out that’s completely unnecessary. I did add a handful of parmesan to my pot before I took it off the heat, but really I just wanted to add some complexity of flavor since I didn’t have any great add-ins on hand like mushrooms, peas or asparagus.

2. It didn’t say when to add the salt & pepper. I added them about 2/3 of the way through – I had started tasting at that point and knew it could handle a pinch of both.

3. The stock didn’t have to be hot before it was added to the rice. I’ve always seen risotto being made with two pots on the stove – one for the rice and one to heat the stock so it’s hot when it’s added to the rice and gets absorbed faster. I tried it that way but I can’t say if it made a bit of difference.

4. There was no mention of saffron. Again, I thought traditional risotto always called for saffron so I was surprised it wasn’t listed. I actually had some, so I added a pinch because, really, what else am I going to use it for?

5. I only had to stir frequently – not constantly. This isn’t the kind of thing I would make for a dinner party because you’re definitely working right up until you pull it off the stove and I prefer recipes that let me spend time with my guests before we eat. But with the heat on low, I did find that I only had to stir the pot every minute or so instead of continuously like I’ve seen others do.

The Verdict:
I’ll absolutely be making risotto again – soon. It was delicious and easier than I ever imagined. The ingredient list is short and I always have what I need on hand. Plus it’s great stovetop therapy. Next time I’m going to try it with some sautéed mushrooms and a little thyme. What will you put in yours?

3/25/09 UPDATE: Loved this article that appeared on the NY Times Bitten blog the same day as this one!

Mar 18, 2009

Join the Club

The soon-to-be-bestselling cookbook

For many years after college I was part of a dinner club with a group of young women in the city. Currently, I’m on sabbatical (don’t ya just hate when your day job runs into your nights!?) but it remains one of my favorite activities and I can’t wait to get back to our weekly get-togethers. Joining, or starting, a dinner club is also a great way for a Single Gal to hone her entertaining skills!

Who Are The Dinner Belles?

Dinner: An entertainment; a feast, the main meal of the day served in the evening or at midday

Belle: A popular, attractive girl or woman, from Latin bella, a young lady of superior beauty and attractions; young woman who is the most charming and beautiful of several rivals

We’re chicks who cook.

We’re also friends, coworkers, roommates, city dwellers, professionals and young, modern women. We’re teachers, sales reps, graphic designers, account managers and so much more. Some of us met in college, some of us met at work… heck, some us met in grade school! We come from all over the country but we’ve all settled in Atlanta, GA where we lead exciting, fabulous, challenging and sometimes stressful lives. And where we take a night every week to cook for each other, sit around a table together, share stories and relax.

We’ve seen each other through bad dates, bad days at work, breakups, boyfriends (some of whom later became husbands), babies, new jobs, new houses and new members… the club has been meeting for eight years and just like The Temptations, all the original members may not be around, but the soul remains!

When you get six women together after a long day of work of course there’s going to be food! But what will it be? And who decides? The Dinner Belles was our solution…

We’d take turns being in charge of dinner. It’s easy. Once a week we all get together for a gabfest, drink a little wine and eat a home-cooked meal. One person cooks and takes all the guesswork away from the group, which means most weeks you can stop worrying about dinner and just enjoy it.

Getting Started:

How It Works: There are many ways to set up a dinner club, our method is different than most. Usually everyone participates in every meal…each person is assigned a portion (salad, dessert, vegetable side dish, etc.). Alternately, The Dinner Belles take turns providing the entire meal, so only one person is working while the others can relax and enjoy a night off. We go alphabetically so we can remember who’s turn it is and we’ve picked a night of the week (Mondays or Thursdays depending on the season) to meet. We all try to leave our schedules clear on that night every week. But things come up…if one person can’t make it then dinner must go on but if two or more members have good excuses and are unable to attend then dinner is postponed until the next week. It’s important to stay consistent with the dinner nights. It can be impossible to plan around the schedules of six fabulous young women like ourselves…so we make getting together a priority and plan around dinner club instead.

Who To Include: Some of the original Dinner Belles had never met before our first gathering. We’re a collection of college roommates, childhood friends who re-connected after college when they discovered they were both living in Atlanta, sorority sisters and coworkers.

So how did we all get together? No one remembers. But we stuck, and many dinners later the group is still going strong. And we’ve all made new friends. So don’t invite the group you spend every waking moment with, take this as an opportunity to meet some new people and expand your social circle. A neighbor, a coworker, your boyfriend’s sister…anyone can be a valuable member. And don’t worry about lapses in conversation because you don’t know each other well-- there’s always something to talk about…the food!

But what if not everyone is an excellent chef? Don’t worry about it! The point of the evening is to be together, good food is just the icing on the cake. There are many different levels of culinary ability in The Dinner Belles from ‘can’t use the can opener’ to five-star gourmand. But we’ve each had our triumphs and disasters, meals both good & bad. And we’ve all become better cooks because of our efforts. Hesitant at first and relying on our mothers’ hand-me-down recipes, we now approach our kitchen duty as a challenge to try something new or improve on something old. Wanna test out a new recipe before you make it for a crowd or a romantic dinner a’ deux with your fella? What better audience than your girlfriends?

So invite some other fun Single Gals over for dinner & tell them each to bring a fun friend or neighbor. If the group clicks, make plans to do it again at someone else’s house and pretty soon you’ll be thinking up a cute name for your new group of Gal pals and scouting menu ideas for the next time it’s your turn to host!

Mar 16, 2009

Garlic and Ginger and Onions - Oh My!

Indian Spiced Cauliflower and Potatoes
Originally from Gourmet Magazine

I first read this recipe on another blog and my first thought was – “what could be bad?” The answer? Absolutely nothing, it’s delicious. Sweet roasted cauliflower and crispy potatoes get tossed with a spiced ginger, garlic, onion & jalapeno relish – great Indian flavors that would go really well with just about anything. Try it alongside grilled chicken or flank steak, or as a great vegetarian option with a dollop of yogurt.

What I did differently (and would do again):
-I used ground cumin instead of cumin seeds
-I swapped out the turmeric for mild curry powder
-I omitted the water & just tossed the onion/garlic/ginger/jalapeno oil with the roasted veggies
-I added a handful of chopped cilantro at the very end (don’t I always?)

The Recipe:
1 (1 3/4-lb) head cauliflower, cut into 3/4-inch-wide florets
1 1/4 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
5 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
3/4 tsp. salt
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp. minced fresh jalapeño, including seeds
2 tsp. minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1/2 cup water

Put oven rack in upper third of oven and place a shallow baking pan on rack. Preheat oven to 475°F.

Toss cauliflower and potatoes together in a bowl with 3 tablespoons oil, cumin seeds, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Spread in hot baking pan and roast, stirring occasionally, until cauliflower is tender and browned in spots and potatoes are just tender, about 20 minutes.

While vegetables are roasting, cook onion, garlic, jalapeño, and ginger in remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until very soft and beginning to turn golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring constantly, 2 minutes. Stir in water, scraping up any brown bits from bottom of skillet, then stir in roasted vegetables. Cook, covered, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes.

Mar 12, 2009

The Book: Party Planning 101

The easiest way to throw a party? Break it down into steps and prepare a little bit at a time...

Party Planning 101: The Timeline

3-4 weeks before the party:
Send out invitations (call, email, snail mail).

1 week before:
Finalize your menu & make a list of everything you’ll need to buy or make for the party.

Two days before:
Load your CD player or MP3 player with a great party playlist
-Stick with the party theme if you want, Zydeco bands for Fat Tuesday, Mariachi on Cindo de Mayo… or collect a few of your favorite albums – anything you think would make nice background music.

Clean up your house. Clear off counters, make space in the fridge, hide anything you wouldn’t want your guests to see (dirty laundry, piles of mail, stacks of magazines, etc.).

Go to the grocery store, liquor store, farmer’s market, etc and get all your supplies.

The night before:
Set the table, put out your centerpiece or decorations, set out glasses & cocktail napkins and gather the serving dishes & utensils you’ll need.

Prep anything you can – chop ingredients, make sauces or dressings, cook anything that can be done early so all you have to do is assemble & finish it all off tomorrow.

Two hours before:
Shower & get dressed. Wear something comfortable that you can move around in and don’t mind getting a little dirty. It’s hard to be a good hostess if you’re secretly freaking because you spilled something on your great-grandmother’s lace shift.

Set up after dinner coffee so you can just turn it on when it’s time for dessert.

One hour before:
Put out appetizers that can be served at room temperature.

Remove ingredients from the fridge & start finishing your dishes.

As first guests arrive:
Greet them, take their coats & pour them a drink. Then put them to work! The early birds will appreciate having a task to do so ask them to start the music, open the wine, finish setting the table…something easy that will keep them busy and out of your way while you finish up in the kitchen.

Relax & have fun! Mingle with your guests and enjoy their company – that’s why you invited them over in the first place, right? Once everyone has arrived & had a chance to enjoy a cocktail (no more than 45 mins-1 hour) slip into the kitchen & do any last minute touches on the meal, then call everyone to the table or buffet.

Mar 10, 2009

My Favorite Pasta

Anyone who’s ever ordered Pasta Carbonara in a restaurant – listen up. You’ve been duped. They tricked you. It’s not your fault, and it’s not too late to set it right.

Dinner for One: Spaghetti alla Carbonara

What is REAL Pasta Carbonara? Well, for starters it doesn’t involve any cream sauce. The ingredient list is short: pasta (usually spaghetti), eggs, cured ham, olive oil, black pepper…and not much else. Some folks add grated parmesan cheese, but that seems like gilding the lily to me…

Essentially, you make the sauce in the serving bowl - the egg is cooked by the heat of the pasta & transforms into a rich, creamy sauce. Tossed with salty ham and lots of black pepper, it’s neither low-cal nor nutritionally sound - which makes it the ultimate comfort food.

How I made it:
Put a large pot of water over high heat to cook the pasta. Heat a quarter cup of olive oil in a small sauce pan over medium flame. Saute a handful of finely chopped country ham in the olive oil until it becomes crispy and add 1-2 tablespoons of ground black pepper. It’s a lot of pepper but I think it’s impossible to add too much here. If you’re nervous, just include a little now and add more once it’s finished.

Pick a wide, flat-bottomed dish to serve the pasta & crack one egg into it. Use a fork to gently whisk the egg until the yellow & white parts are combined.

When the pasta water comes to a boil, add a palmful of salt and an 8oz. box of regular spaghetti. When spaghetti is fully cooked, turn off heat under the pot & get ready to move fast.

Scoop spaghetti from the cooking water, drain very briefly & add it to the serving dish. Toss quickly until all the pasta is coated & the egg mixture has been absorbed. Add country ham & the oil it cooked in, toss to distribute and serve immediately.

NOTE: Don’t salt the finished dish until you’ve tried it. The pasta gets cooked in salted water, and the country ham is incredibly salty, so chances are you won’t need to add any more salt.

Mar 5, 2009

Oh la la

These make me smile...

I love everything about them. Their pretty colors, inherent French-ness + most of all, their lovely texture and delicious flavors. 

What is a French macaron? Essentially it's two almond meringue cookies sandwiched with a flavored creme filling. Usually they come in chocolate, pistachio, orange, strawberry or raspberry flavors - but the possibilities are endless.

In Atlanta they can be found at Maison Robert - a superb French chocolatier on the north side of town, but there are lots of places on-line to order them.  

And to give credit where it's due... Thanks Mom!

Mar 2, 2009

Say Hello to My Little Friend

…the chickpea

So many of you have made the curried chickpeas I posted a few weeks ago (and so many times… yes, I’m talking to you, Jennifer!). I thought it might be nice to have an alternative up your sleeve. This one is just as fast + easy.

Dinner For One: Chana Masala with Spinach

Chana Masala, or spicy chickpeas, is a fairly common Indian dish and the addition of spinach is also pretty popular. The yogurt sauce really makes the dish, so be sure to include it – even if you have to use regular plain yogurt or sour cream.

How I made it:
Finely chop half an onion and two cloves of garlic, add them to a large sauté pan with 3TB of olive oil and cook until onions are translucent. Add salt, pepper and one teaspoon each of cumin, ground coriander and garam masala to the pan and stir to coat the onions. Let cook one minute. Add 2TB lemon juice and a quarter cup of water and stir to combine. Add one can of drained chickpeas and let cook 5 minutes until chickpeas are hot and water has almost completely evaporated. Toss in two large handfuls of spinach and cook, stirring, until spinach has wilted. Serve over rice with a large dollop of Greek yogurt mixed with a handful of chopped cilantro.