How to Plan Your Holiday Shopping

holiday shopping - black friday - cyber monday

SIX SHOPPING TIPS to help you from being “cyber-crazy” this holiday.

 

It’s that time again – time for the year-end holiday traditions: the Christmas office party, finger foods, holiday decorations, and gifts. OMG, did you forget the Secret Santa Gift – again? You rush headlong into the mall and BAM – you’re smack in the middle of another tradition: the start of holiday shopping season.

Take a breath and remember that it only happens once a year. Retailers have been calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” for more than 60 years. The theory is that the term “Black Friday” originally came from the Philadelphia police department because thousands of people would descend on the city the day after Thanksgiving ahead of the annual Army/Navy football game on Saturday.  The stores took advantage of the crowds with big sales and the police were stuck with long and very busy shifts.  They weren’t happy.  But, the shoppers were!

Why the rush? It’s historically a day when retailers pull out all the stops to get shoppers into their stores. Retailers called it “Black Friday” because the volume of sales could put a retail store back into “the black” with enough profit to cover the entire year.

It’s also, historically, the best day of the year to get a great deal on all those holiday gifts you want to buy for friends – and for yourself. But these days, it doesn’t stop there. If you’re an online shopper like many people are now, you can avoid the crowds, the lines, the hassle of brick and mortar shopping, and get in on some pretty good deals. Retailers got wise pretty quickly and created “Cyber Monday” just for you.

The whole weekend has morphed into the biggest shopping weekend of the year (sales begin to be advertised more than a week before with some retailers posting ads as early as October); enough cyber-crazy to produce more than $3 billion in sales last year. Some retailers will also push out good deals through Tuesday. So, from Thursday (with some starting midnight Wednesday night) to Tuesday, you can literally shop until you drop – or your fingers get too tired!  Big Retailers already have their ads out for Black Friday.  If the retailers are planning that far in advance then it just makes sense then that we should plan ahead too, right?

Here are Six easy tips to help you survive this holiday shopping season and not spend more than you planned:

Tip One – Make your shopping lists for everything including electronics (iPhone, Xbox, etc.) and set the price that you’re willing to pay now. That way you can jump on the deals when you recognize them.

Tip Two – The technology deals are best on Thanksgiving and Black Friday but some may get better the closer to Cyber Monday/Tuesday you get.  But, don’t wait and hope to see a lower price than the one you’re happy with because it’s possible the item will sell out before the end of the day.  Remember – once an item is sold out the store will not honor the sale price – if it’s sold out – it’s sold out.  Cyber Monday has gotten pretty good for “soft goods” like clothing, shoes, even beauty products. There are even great deals on travel – mostly for year-round presales for resort hotels and spas.

Tip Three – Buy from companies you know – Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, eBay, and so on.  The holidays are a very bad time to test out a new online shopping experience.

Tip Four – DOUBLE check the return policies – because you never know. Remember that whatever the store policy was last year, it’s a good bet they’ve changed it this year.

Tip Five – Don’t forget to check shipping terms and conditions. Sometimes you’ll find excellent deals that can save you a bundle on shipping. How about that Secret Santa gift? Remember that the faster you want something, the higher shipping costs. It only makes sense.  All the more reason to plan ahead and shop with plenty of time to spare.  About that sometimes nasty shipping cost – if you’re a late shopper you may have traded one hell for another. Your choice might be to either get swallowed up by the thick crowds at the mall or be hammered by very expensive overnight shipping costs.

A friend told me about her experience last year. She waited until the very last week to do her holiday shopping online and wound up paying hundreds of dollars in rush shipping fees to make sure that the gifts arrived on time. She said that one gift that she bought cost less than the overnight shipping fees. I was astounded.

Tip Six is for the deep divers: I found this great stream on The Verge for the best Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals all in one place. The deals change quite a bit, so go back and check it often.

Keep it fun!

The Perfect Holiday Gift Guide for Women

Fran Berger_gifts-for-girlfriends

All you have to do is think about what you’d want as a present.

We all want to give the perfect holiday gift to our friends – especially our girlfriends.  Last week, I posted a holiday gift guide for our guy friends and the response (mostly from the guys I know) was incredibly positive. They loved all of my suggestions – with some of them saying that I must have read their minds!

Because I’d helped them with “guy” gifts, a few friends (both men and women) wondered about gift ideas for close female friends and family. Here’s my big tip of the day: if you like it, chances are, your girlfriends will love it too.  The trick is to first think about either what they love to do or what their activities are.  Sometimes it’s enough just to hear them say: “I wish I could do more…” to discover the best gift ideas.

Let’s take a look at my list:

When I travel, I like to stay organized. I used to use plastic bags for everything – standard and easy to find but not very cute.  Then I found these cool canvas travel bags from “Bag-All.”  They’re lightweight, easy to clean, and they organize all my travel stuff nicely: dirty laundry, my hair stuff, toiletry, and makeup. They have so many different sizes and shapes.  Some of the bags have French printed on the front.  They even have a “pink collection” where 15% of the sales go to breast cancer research. How cool is that? An ideal gift for the friend who loves, like me, to stay organized while they’re on the road. $28-30 each.

We are all trying to reduce how many plastic water bottles we use in our daily lives so – how about a water bottle? This is not your average plastic water bottle, but a really beautiful and fresh design in a ton of colors and patterns. It’s from “SwellBottle” –  spelled ‘S’Well’ – and it makes a real statement with a small footprint. The 500ml bottle is perfect for spin class and keeps drinks cold all day. $40

How about a friend who’s into the zodiac? Or, maybe they just like to keep their pretty things in a fabulous designer marble box? Michael Aram has a collection of beautiful boxes. I got the “Gemini” Zodiac box because, you know, that’s MY sign. There’s an original design for each of the 12 zodiac signs. I’m going to use this to put my earrings in at night.  It’s just too pretty not to use! $100

Speaking of cool designer containers – L’Objet has this porcelain candle jar that caught my attention. I think this is an especially unique gift for the friend who has a taste for simple elegance. Because I don’t love heavily scented candles this one is perfect with a beautiful clear scent called “Pink Champagne.” Elephants are used to symbolize general good luck and many Feng Shui practitioners believe that elephants should have their trunks facing upwards.  So, the elephant on the lid is going to bring luck, everyone can use a little. You can buy direct or look up a store near you. $135

If your friend loves to get cozy after a nice warm bath or curl up in front of a lit fireplace – this is the gift for them! I absolutely fell for this grey cashmere robe designed by Chris Arlotta. With a great shawl collar and simple tie belt to close – it’s the perfect design.  It’s available from Bloomingdale’s. $398

One more for the serious traveler.  I saw the Oslo 4-wheel Compact Carry-on from Tumi and instantly thought – this was the one for me. For its size and profile, it’s ideal for toting a laptop or pad safely and any files you might need not to mention enough space for at least an overnight trip.  It will easily fit in almost any overhead storage – perfect.  $495

And if you can imagine yourself swooning after you received one of these items as a gift, then that’s the right one to give!

The Perfect Holiday Gift Guide for Men

gifts for your guy friends

Don’t settle for predictable – get an early start and go for the unexpected!

One of the most difficult things to do is to find the perfect holiday gift for the man in your life.  Maybe you’re thinking, “OH, it’s not even Thanksgiving – I’ve got plenty of time to pick holiday gifts!” Sure, there is still time – but time seems to be moving faster and faster these days. And, the best gifts are the ones where thought and preparation has gone into the selection. You can’t get that with a last-minute dive into “mall hell.” Seriously.

My mother taught me that one way to ‘be prepared’ was to get an early start. That way you can take your time, think about who you’re buying for and pick just the right gift. I have a few tried and true tips for finding that perfect present for the men in your life.

First – Men like the unexpected; they enjoy being surprised. And, it doesn’t take a lot of money to do either – just a bit of creativity.  For instance, if you want the gift to be memorable, then avoid the obvious (predictable) choices. Like sports gifts. Don’t assume that just because your male friend watched the World Series means that he’s enough of a fan to want a monogrammed “team” hoodie. And gift cards? Gift cards of any kind are a definite sign that you don’t have time to put even a little thought into the gift. Yeah, I get the “office party gift” angle, but for a personal friend? Seriously?

Second – think about where you and your friend agree on what I like to call “fashion and distraction.” When I think of fashion as a gift, I think about how my friend reacts to fashion big names. Some guys just like something because it’s cool, not because it’s popular. As for distractions, think about something that’s NOT work-related. Seriously, giving your guy friend a set of beautiful ballpoint pens may seem like a great gift if he collects them, but personally, that’s like giving a woman a vacuum cleaner. Don’t get me started on some of the anniversary gifts I’ve received over the years.

Third – and this is probably the most important one. I think it’s great to be generous, but I try to never overwhelm my friends. There’s an old English proverb that says there is no grace in a gift that sticks to the fingers nor the soul. I can go crazy when giving to a special friend and might spare no expense. But not when it’s someone I’m just getting to know – the last thing you want to do is make the friend feel uncomfortable. And to be honest – the very best gifts are the ones that have had a lot of thought put into them – not the ones that necessarily cost the most.

Whatever you do, keep it fun. Here are some suggestions for just about every guy on your list…

I love these colorful socks styled by Ted Baker.  They have so much personality!  Guys in suits look pretty cool with a dash of color.  This is a great gift for the guy who likes to be a bit fashion forward.  $15

How about a “Rabbit” flask from Bloomingdale’s? This is an extraordinarily cool gift for the friend who likes to take along their favorite scotch whiskey on an outing or to the game. Also, check out other barware gifts made by Rabbit , they make my favorite wine opener. $50

If your guy likes to wear hats then check out these knit beanies by The Kooples? I found mine at Bloomingdale’s, but they seem to sell out fast. I got the striped wool beanie because I loved the two tone. Then I went back and got the solid black ribbed one. By the way, they’re a French brand that is sold all over Europe and is going fast in the US. Yes… that trendy. $65

You know a guy who likes to primp a bit? I found this great grooming kit called Saturdays NYC, celebrating GQ’s 60th anniversary (GQ60). GQ did an exclusive partnership with Bloomingdale’s, and this is the ultimate “Chaz” bag with all the essentials. $135

Not every guy is into sports, but I don’t know a single guy friend who doesn’t like his tech. And for music, you got to get him the latest PowerBeats3 wireless earphones. I like these earphones because the ear loop holds the buds in a bit more snuggly for a full sound which is great whether your guy is at the gym or just hanging out.  $199

And finally, for that really special friend, how about a wonderful black leather E/W Messenger Bag? This bag makes a statement, and it’s beautifully made. The leather and craftsmanship are excellent. Large enough to carry a 15” MacBook and light enough to just tour around. Made by Shinola – you remember, the company that used to make boot polish? Who would know, right? $795

Whatever gifts you find for your guy friends, just remember to think about who they are and how they live and you’ll never go wrong!

Setting up a home bar? Keep it simple!

Home bar elegance

10 Simple Tips for setting up your home bar for a holiday party.

Home bars do not have to be and, quite frankly, should not be complicated affairs. I mean, unless you’re a professional bartender, why go out and get all of those gadgets? Why stock bottles of alcohol and mixes that you don’t want or won’t use?

Twenty years in the restaurant business has taught me a thing or two about tending bar, but I keep all of my “tools” low and out of sight for parties. Okay – shot glasses and my wine opener are the exception, but do you know what happens if you put out those bartending gadgets on an “open” bar? They become an open invitation for one your guests to play bartender and start making complicated mixes (from memory). Likely as not, the drinks will be undrinkable and all you’ll have is a huge mess.

Years of experience has taught me that it pays to plan to make any party that much more enjoyable. Here are 10 simple rules for the bar to help you do just that:

  1. You simply do not want to ever run out of ice. There’s nothing that will kill the party mood faster than needing someone to make an “ice run”.   The general rule is one 10-pound bag of ice per every 4 guests. You’re probably thinking, wow – that’s a lot of ice. But, remember ice melts.
  2. Assume 2 drinks per guest per hour for the first 2 hours and 1 drink every hour after that. This rule works exceptionally well for prepared drinks like punch, cider, or mulled wine. Then add bottled wine, beer and sparkling water on top of that. Don’t get too crazy with the variety – remember, keep it simple.
  3. Got wine? Great. Uncork only a few bottles at a time. Put chillable wine (like Longmeadow Ranch Sauvignon-Blanc which lives in my refrigerator), champagne (Gruet Brut Rosé is always welcome at my home), and beer in a tub with ice. Got vodka? At my house there’s always a bottle of Ciroc or Chopin vodka in my freezer – where they belong!
  4. Have a “house cocktail” ready at the door to greet your guests on arrival. It sets the mood for the evening and tells everyone it’s going to be a real party.
  5. A few days before the party, plan what silver pieces you will want to use at the bar, get them out and polish them to a perfect shine. Nobody wants to see tarnished silver – it just looks dirty! And, while you’re at it, make sure all the glasses you have out are sparkling clean too.
  6. Think about different ways to raise some bottles or glasses off the bar top. The different heights create visual interest.  You can even use cake stands to display liquor bottles!  Put out saucers or small bowls to place loose caps and corks. It keeps the “work area” clean and gives you a place for those caps and corks so they don’t get lost.
  7. Consider your friends’ favorite adult beverages. You don’t need each one but there will always a few who’ll love Maker’s Mark whisky, Don Julio tequila, or Bombay Sapphire I always have those favorites on hand – your friends will be so happy you remembered.
  8. Make sure you have plenty of cocktail napkins. I love the cotton ones that I found here on Amazon. Not only do they come in a ton of colors but they’re real 100% cotton and can be washed and reused up to 6 times!
  9. Have some sprigs of fresh herbs in glasses of water – they add quiet elegance to any party. Add the sprigs to your mixed drinks (like the house cocktail). Think mint, thyme, basil – it depends on the mood and flavor you want to set.  It may sound like this isn’t keeping it “simple” but this one small touch will make all the difference.
  10. And, don’t forget non-alcoholic drinks for those who are driving or just don’t want alcohol – like hot cider, cocoa, or coffee. Try my favorites, the classic taste of Williams Sonoma’s Hot Chocolate (made from Guittard Chocolate) or any of the coffees from la Colombe. Have liquors around like Schnapps or Kahlua (et cetera) so that guests can add them to taste. Remember to have plenty of bottles of plain water on hand – at least one 16-oz. bottle per guest. Stay hydrated – one glass of water to one alcoholic beverage.

If you want to get very creative you can infuse a plain vodka with fruits in different clear bottles so that your guests can see the colors. They’re a fun way to add flavor.  Place the bottles in buckets of ice and they become part of your décor!

Never be concerned if you don’t have enough glasses that match or are the “right” size or shape for what you are pouring.  Unless your guests are serious wine snobs and will only drink certain grapes out of certain shaped glasses –all anyone wants at a party is to enjoy themselves and if that means drinking their favorite drink out of a juice glass they’ll be perfectly happy with what you have!

And, seriously, why have a party if having fun with your guests isn’t your goal. Right?

 

Hosting a Stress-Free Holiday Party is easier than you think!

Stress Free Parties!

The best part about a Holiday Party is a Relaxed Host – seriously!

I’ve seen it more times than I care to remember: I attend a party or gathering, and there’s a host who looks like she’s been put through the wringer – she’s harried, hassled and a complete mess. One host – and I’m completely serious – had such a scary look on her face that guests cringed every time she popped out from the kitchen. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, dared ask her a question.

Okay. Everybody who hosts a holiday party won’t make it through without at least a little stress. It goes up a notch when deliveries are late. Up one more notch when guests you thought weren’t coming – suddenly appear at your door. And think about how it cranks up when – just before guests are to arrive – your teenage son decides he’s not going out with his friends but they’re ALL coming to your house to play video games!

I’ve seen it all of course. Twenty years in the restaurant business and I’ve seen, first-hand, how stress can ruin a party – not only for the host but for the guests as well. Maybe you think that you can hide your stress by controlling your body language and the tone of voice? Well, perhaps you can, but most people aren’t that talented. The most important thing to remember about stress is that you’re not the only one feeling it. Everyone around you knows it – especially your friends and family. They can feel the adrenaline seep through your pores. It’s not fun for anyone.

That’s why I created my “Live and Die” list of seven things that I do for every event that I host – even small gatherings.

  1. Plan ahead and delegate, delegate, DELEGATE! Everyone has a special talent or unique thing they do really well. Give up some control and let them do it. Doing this will help you in two ways. First, it lets everyone feel involved in preparing for the party. Second (this is pretty good for some of you out there – including me), you relieve yourself of the feeling of having to keep total control.
  2. Do as much of the cooking well ahead of the event as you can. Plan your menu accordingly. Get out your slow cooker (I love my Cuisinart) and make a soup or stew . I might opt for a fabulous tomato sauce with Italian meat balls, in which case I reach for my Calphalon Elite Soup Pot. For a smaller group I might pull out my Staub Cocotte to roast a simple chicken with root vegetables. Or host a “potluck” and assign dishes to guests. Stop feeling as though you have to make everything! See? Giving up control is good!
  3. Keep drinks, and everything you need to make them, on hand and ready to use. Think about the mixers, juices, sodas, and soda water. Keep some vodka in the freezer (you will always find my favorite Chopin in mine). Put out the whisky (I love Maker’s Mark with the distinctive red wax on top) and gin (my new favorite from London is Ford’s) Pre-make coffee, teas, hot chocolate (like this one from Ghirardelli that you can make with hot water) – and hot apple cider for New Years!
  4. Don’t go nuts with the décor. Remember, anything that goes up must come down. So, keep it simple. Focus on a centerpiece that’s easy to make. Weeks before the party, visit flea markets or a good thrift shop for vintage ornaments and stack them in clear bowls or baskets. Or, get some bare branches, put them in a vase (no water) and hang the ornaments from the limbs. Then wrap it all up with twinkling lights and candles and you instantly create a simple but elegant centerpiece that will set the mood perfectly.
  5. Remember that buffets are the easiest way to feed a group – and they’re especially perfect for “potluck” parties. Arrange for one table to hold as much of the meal as possible. I have a video on how to set a buffet – take a look The best part about buffets is that they allow guests to mingle and talk to more than the person seated next to them so make sure there are plenty of places to sit.
  6. Of course, you will have music. Make sure you have a great playlist that will set the mood for your party. Copy your playlist to any mobile music device – like an iPod Shuffle. Be sure that there’s plenty of it – enough to last the whole evening. Set the device to playback on shuffle and – voilà, you’re a master DJ.  Keep it soft though – conversation is where it’s at. Right?
  7. Consider hiring someone (or more) to help! Even if your party is a potluck, get some help with setting out the buffet. Don’t hire a bartender unless you need one, but have someone around who will make sure that the bar stays well stocked. And, definitely get some help with the clean-up! You can call a local caterer whom you trust for suggestions on where to find help, but you can also reach out to party helper websites for pricing and suggestions.

Finally, and this is not on the list because it’s actually the whole reason for having a gathering in the first place: keep it as easy as you can. Even an elegant New Year’s party can be a laid-back affair. Unless you’re a master host and you envision a grand event like something out of the pages of the Great Gatsby – keep it easy on the host (that’s you) and your guests will appreciate it and then everyone will have a great time!

Healthier drinks for the holidays?

healthy choices for drinks

Two KEYS for healthier choices from your holiday libations.

I’ve been a home entertainer all my adult life. My friends have always thought of me as an expert at entertaining guests and throwing good parties – just ask any of them about my annual New Year’s Eve parties (when they reached over 100 guests I moved them to a restaurant!). It’s why I loved owning my restaurants for 20-plus years. Entertaining is in my DNA.

That’s why many people turn to me with their questions about how to set their home for a really elegant party. They want to know my “secrets,” like what to serve at a party: food, snacks, and drink. And pretty frequently, I get asked about “healthier” choices for alcoholic drinks at a party (whether you’re hosting or not). I have two keys that I think about, whether I’m a guest at a party or hosting my own.

The first KEY is to look at what and how you drink. It’s all about picking the kinds of drink you want and planning around your health goals, which naturally brings us to calories and carbohydrates.

Straight liquor is ‘healthiest’ if served “neat” (alone and meant to be sipped) or “on the rocks” over a little ice.  Clearer types of alcohol can be a bit easier on your body but oddly, the calorie count is very similar no matter if you drink vodka, tequila or bourbon.  Lucky for me they’re all about the same, for instance, one serving (typically about 1.5 ounces – a shot) contains about 97 calories and NO carbohydrates.

Depending on my mood and what I’m serving, I may reach for Chopin Vodka (I like potato) or Ciroc Vodka (made from grapes!). If it’s “taco night” with my girlfriends, I may look to Don Julio 1942 Tequila or Herradura Tequila (I like their Reposado; very smooth). But if I’m in the mood for a whiskey, it’ll be Maker’s Mark.  All no carbs and under 100 calories!   That’s the easy way.

The whole point is to drink as close to neat or on the rocks as possible, and sip and enjoy.  If you add mixers – even just ginger ale or juice – you’re adding not just a bunch of calories but also carbs and, depending on what you mix with it, it could be a significant addition.

If you prefer wine, a five ounce pour (a typical wine glass) will give you about 100-150 calories and about 5 grams of carbs. But maybe you’ve heard that red wine has some proven health benefits. It’s true. Various health studies have shown the healthy properties of antioxidants like flavonoids and resveratrol that are naturally found in reds (my favorites – the Cabernet Franc from Long Meadow Ranch or Zephyr from Davis Estates). Studies have shown that these antioxidants help lower the bad cholesterol and boost the good one.

However, if beer is your adult beverage of choice – you need to know that beer is NOT your friend. One bottle of your favorite IPA may have more than 130 calories and as many as 24 grams of carbs!  I guess you could go with a light beer, but you’re still consuming about 110 calories with a minimum of 5 grams of carbs. Plus, people tend to drink more than one bottle of light beer because they think “Oh, it’s only light so I can have another” so in the end you’ll consume way more calories and carbs than you planned.

The second KEY is pretty simple and it involves not only what you drink with your adult beverage of choice but also what else you put in your stomach during the evening.

Try to drink a glass of water between every alcoholic drink: one for one. It’s a good rule to keep. This can help you gauge how much you’ve had, if you’ve had “enough” and when you should stop!

This key also means never ever drink on an empty stomach. Drinking on an empty stomach will not only will enable you to get drunk faster and you’ll also drink more than you normally would as the night goes on.  Eat something before you go out or snack on something while you’re drinking, but not salty fried things – they will only make you want to drink more. Think about it – bar snacks are ALWAYS salty and fried – the bar will sell you more alcohol!  Stick to nuts, cheese, veggies, or even eat dinner before you go.

Having said all of that, moderation in all things is always the best way to a healthy and balanced lifestyle. And, personally, I think it’s more fun that way because then I can have “some” of everything I want.  So, enjoy those holiday parties – just be aware!

The Making of an Elegant Halloween

Elegant Halloween

The easy way to make your Halloween Party an elegant event.

If you know anything about me, you know that I love this time of year.  It’s the best season for home entertaining.  The absolute best time to have parties – as many as you like!  And, the first party of the season is always Halloween.

Halloween parties come in all sizes and shapes.  A friend of mine is a film art professional.  He, his wife and their grown kids get together and turn the family home into the perfect haunted house complete with strobe lights, sound effects, props of all kinds and huge dry ice fog pumps that lay an entire blanket of “fog” over the back yard.

In Southern California we have a lot of theater and film people, so the costumes can get quite elaborate.  Last year, another friend of mine went to a costume party as the Headless Horseman – complete with a horse!  And, another friend (a professional body builder) came to the same party as a very convincing Captain America.

I always aim for elegant sophistication for my parties – large or small – casual or formal – and this goes for Halloween as well.  After 20 plus years as a restauranteur, I always have a plan – lists and everything on my calendar – but the point of any party to is to have fun so I make sure there’s plenty of that! For instance, a Halloween party is the perfect excuse for adults to dress up like crazy.  If you want a costume party, pick a theme – favorite cartoon characters, TV characters from your favorite TV show, et cetera. Keep the focus on the fun.

Think about the drinks you can serve.  A great Halloween “welcome” cocktail is a Black Widow – mix black vodka (yes there is such a thing) and cranberry juice over a large ice cube in a highball glass and have them at the door so that when guests arrive the party gets started immediately!

Plan the décor and keep it elegant. The best way to do that is to keep it simple and consistent.  Black is a great background for any pop of color – think orange or “old gold”-  and it’s perfect for the holiday!  I use black chargers, black metal candlesticks with black candles, and silky gold napkins.

Don’t forget your centerpiece for your table whether it’s buffet or plated dinner.  Find black twig pumpkins, dark colored vines, maybe even some real pumpkins (small and in different colors) and column candles (these can be black or white) in different sizes.  Add in a skull or two and you have your “set.”  Just remember that some electronic props – you know, like the ones that laugh hysterically if you get close – will get VERY old as the evening progresses.

Keep it simple, keep it black with pops of color, and have fun!

Kitchen Hack: Easier way to peel potatoes and stop them from Discoloring

potato and peeling

Nobody likes black potatoes! Here’s how to stop it.

As if you need a reminder – we’re coming up on the holidays and in my house that means a whole lot of potatoes! I’m not too fond of the yucky colors my potatoes have been known to turn before they’re even cooked so I’ve found a great hack to avoid just that.  You know, hacks are those little kitchen “tricks” that you learned from your parents. Nowadays, we call them “hacks” because everything that makes life easier is a hack? Right?

In my case, I learned most of my best kitchen hacks from chefs, friends, and twenty-plus years owning restaurants. After a while, they start accumulating.

Some hacks are like the one I’m going to share with you in a bit – someone gets inspired after doing a task over and over. Other hacks are like the ones I’ve shared before, the practical idea of turning leftover wine into ice cubes. That’s a favorite. Then again, there’s the one my friend discovered. He never peels his garlic by hand. No, he breaks the cloves apart and tosses them into a plastic covered container and shakes it hard for about 10 – 15 seconds. Apparently, all that banging around in the plastic container does the job for him. I’m trying that one the next time I need peeled fresh garlic.  Sounds a whole lot easier than how I’ve been doing it.

The hack that I’m about to share with you now is on that same level. As we all know, potatoes can be hard to peel – and once peeled can change to an unappetizing color. Your everyday Russets will turn brown or gray; sweet potatoes will turn black. Oxygen in open air triggers the acids in potatoes; as the acid oxidizes, the meat of the potato begins to discolor. The more sugar in the potato, the darker it’ll become.  The trick is to get that potato peeled as quickly as possible and stop the oxidization process before it starts.

If you’re going to mash them, and you have enough time, I suggest you lightly score the skin (be careful not to cut into the flesh of the potato) and boil them whole.  Once they’re cooled the skin will simply slide right off and you’re ready to mash.

But, if you’re going to use them to shred for a potato pancake or slice them and use them in other dishes you will need to work quickly to avoid having your beautiful potatoes turn those horrible colors.

Get two bowls – large enough to hold all your potatoes. Fill the bowls with cold water.

  1. Place washed whole potatoes in one bowl and let the potatoes stand for 10 to 15 minutes. The soaking will help with the actual peeling of the potato.
  2. Peel as usual and immediately put the peeled potato into the second bowl of cold water. Make sure that the bowl is large enough (and there’s enough water) to completely cover the potatoes.

The hard-earned secret to the hack? The water stops the oxygen from coming in contact with the potatoes. This hack will give you extra valuable minutes to finish peeling everything. Now your Russets will be white as snow and your cooked sweet yams will look as pretty as they are delicious.

Have fun!

Tips for Hotel Tipping and Then Some

Fran Berger's tips on tipping

Tips help make your trip more enjoyable – in more ways than one!

Fran Berger's travel tips on tippingI have done quite a bit of traveling in my lifetime and I’ve picked up tips and tricks along the way.

The big one for all international travel these days is to scan your passport, airline tickets, driver’s license, and itinerary and keep the images on iCloud or Dropbox (don’t forget to upload the app to your phone). That’s one of the nifty things about technology these days – full access to just about anything from just about anywhere. Take advantage of that convenience on your next trip.

Here’s another important one for international travel. I always use ATMs to get local currency (e.g., Euros) and always bring at least one credit card that doesn’t charge exchange fees. I don’t use the currency converters in airports and hotels anymore –  I save a small fortune by cutting out their very high exchange rates and fees. And, I always keep different currencies separate: I have separate sections in my travel wallet for my US Dollars and Euros or other foreign money.

There’s a burning question that I’m always asked: “Do I have to tip?” You never HAVE to tip anyone, but it’s a real faux pas if you don’t. Let me explain.

Starting at the airport – if you’re checking in curbside, $2 per bag is a very nice thing to do for those guys who are hefting bag after bag. They make sure your bags get to the plane.  But, they can do so much more than that sometimes.  My girlfriend travels with her small dog.  She makes sure she is at the airport really early for her flights but she always has extra paperwork for the dog that has to be checked.  So, when she gets to the curbside porter she makes sure he knows she will tip him very well if he helps her complete the paperwork for the dog.  It has been extremely helpful more than once.

Bellhops are on the same level as the curbside checkers. All they do is haul bags. I think it’s only fair to tip $1-2 per bag when they deliver your luggage straight to your room. Consider bumping that up if you have a lot of bags or you’re staying at a very nice hotel (like a five* – trust me, it comes back to you in more ways than you know).  Tip them after they’ve delivered your bags and explained your room.

Got a special request from housekeeping – maybe an extra pillow or the toothbrush you forgot to pack? Make sure you have at least $2 each time they deliver something. Another note on housekeeping, I tip $2-3 per every night I stay. If you’ve got extras in your room – kids, more than 1 of you, a mess, et cetera – then the tip is more like $4 to 5 per night.

Room service seems like a no-brainer. Of course, you’re going to tip the delivery steward. If gratuity is included in the bill, you can just add an extra $1-2 for the extra. If gratuity is not included, then don’t forget to tip as you would a restaurant: 15-20% of the check.

It used to be no question about tipping Doormen.  Maybe they’re just opening the door – but maybe they’re also helping you get a cab? Calling bellhops to help you? Giving you local travel tips? Unless they are only opening the door for you – you’ll want to give them $2 each time you pass. If you use Valet-Parking, then give the Attendant $2 to 3 each time they fetch your car.

I use the hotel Concierge all the time for restaurant reservations, theater and concert tickets, and questions about all sort of things. Generally, I tip $5 to $10 or more (for difficult to get reservations or tickets) per each time I come to the desk.

I know those tips add up but service staff live for their tips. Because the staff that serves you is not always the same each day – especially if you’re staying several days, then put all the accumulated tips into one envelope for each department at the end of your stay and mark the envelopes for every service you’re leaving tips: “Housekeeping, Room Service, Valet, Concierge, et cetera.” Drop off the envelopes at the front desk. The managers will make sure that the tips are shared appropriately with the staff that was on duty during your stay.

One last tip – if you are traveling overseas, check an online travel guide for the customs of the countries that you will be visiting.  For instance, in some countries, the gratuity is included in the bill. In other countries – like China and Japan for example – the staff will not take tips. According to my friend who has traveled to Japan many times, tipping is considered an offensive display of wealth and pity. But, on the other hand, in many places around South America, if you don’t tip you’re committing far more than just a mere faux pas!

But, let’s roll this back to the good ol’US of A. Here, in this country, tipping is a courtesy. It’s a mark of appreciation – that you received good service and you recognize the effort. And here’s another thing. Word gets around the “house” who tips and who does not. Need I say more?

How to Prevent a Holiday Party Nightmare

Candle Holders from Pottery Barn

Five things you can do RIGHT NOW to prepare for any holiday gathering – for the rest of the year!

The whole group was coming to my party. I was so happy that I found myself literally grinning from ear to ear every time the doorbell rang. People were in such a great mood and everyone was engaged in conversation. The atmosphere in the room was lively, people were laughing, it couldn’t have been better. But then, to my horror, I realized that I wasn’t ready. Worse than that – nothing was ready!

I had no drinks to serve.

My dining room was a mess.

None of the food was ready.

I was in a complete panic. Then I suddenly realized something else that stopped me cold in my tracks. I was still in my swimsuit and I reeked of sun tan lotion! And, even worse than that, I had an inflatable swim ring around my waist? Whaaaaaat? Seriously? I don’t even sit out in the sun much less use suntan lotion or an inflatable swim ring!

That’s when I woke up and sat bolt upright in bed.  It was all a horribly bad dream. I laughed. Of course. If you’ve ever wondered what a nightmare looks like to a home entertainment expert, this would be it. I’d been so busy this summer. I’d been up north, back east and in between. With that kind of schedule, who has time to think about the holidays?

But now, I am. In fact, part of this blog was written right after that silly dream – well, let’s call it what it was – a nightmare, okay? Now, this is my warning to all my fellow home entertainers – the time to prepare is NOW.  The holidays are literally, right around the corner. As a friend of mine is fond of saying: The trick to preparation is getting prepared now.

There are FIVE simple things you can do – today – to get your home prepared for the holidays.

ONE: Start with easy-to-do accent changes: change out the couch throws for heavy knit ones and add a few accent pillows that say, “here come the holidays” like this pillow and this one from Crate and Barrel. You don’t have to start with the ‘jingle bells’ thing just yet, but nice warm colors will help set the mood just right.

TWO: Think about the “welcome beverage” you will be serving at your parties.  Bring everything into the seasonal spirit with sparkling wines; Gruet and Schramsberg are always favorites in my home! And don’t forget the pomegranate seeds. Then stock up on beautiful reds, like these bottles from Long Meadow Ranch or Davis Estates. Speaking of bottles, don’t forget to put your favorite vodka (Chopin anyone?) in the freezer.

THREE: Remember your candles. My summer setting is always ‘white and bright.’ It’s time now to change up to softer colors to match the couch throws and pillows. Keep those simple candles (for fall white or ivory) but change out the holders to pewter, silver or soft gold.  The softer color of metals create a softer light – like these from World Market or Pottery Barn.

FOUR: If you have a mantel or fireplace, change décor but keep it light and simple. If you have centerpieces or runners for your coffee table and dining table – it’s time for a change. Think “autumn leaves.” Like this basket setting from Pottery Barn.

FIVE: Maybe this is on the top of everyone’s mind, but the music list is always good to figure out long before the guests arrive. Time to put away Elvis and bring back Frank. Well, maybe it’s the opposite for some folks, but you get the idea.

Want to go the distance? I even change out some of my framed pictures – ones of my family and friends on easel backs and some on the walls. Store away the pictures of beach parties and put up the ones of camping trips in autumn and ski trips to the alps. You’d be surprised how this simple switch will change the “feel” in your home.

The point of this exercise – don’t wait until the week or days before the first holiday party. Start now and set the canvas. You can add the finishing touches later. Besides, you’ll have plenty of other things to worry about before your guests arrive. Everything you do now will look like you really took time to plan things out. Taking these steps now will also help you enjoy your party that much more and you won’t be waking up from a nightmare like I did!

Have fun!

The Reset Diet

Fran's Reset Diet

A diet that helps you think about more than just your weight.

Truth be told, I’m not a good “diet” person. I’m no good at constantly saying “no” to something I want to eat.  Who is? What I mean by “diet” is any kind of program that’s designed specifically to help you lose weight.  Most of them are fads that doctors and nutritionists tell me don’t do any good anyway because they usually involve completely removing items from your daily intake and never allowing them back – even on “cheat days”.  And, then when you try to do that you eventually quit the “diet” and regain everything you might have lost by abstinence.  But, there are useful ideas that are not necessarily “dieting” but are just good ideas that can help your overall health.

For instance, drinking plenty of plain water is always a good idea, especially on hot days.  This is a tough one for me (I’m not a good water drinker) but it’s important to put effort into this one. Eating lots of fruits is also a good idea, and they taste good. I work out, I stay active, and I eat reasonably healthy (and balanced) full meals with a few “slips” now and then – it’s moderation for me and it’s always worked reasonably well.

Now and then though, it’s good to reassess what you’re actually putting in your body. For instance, a girlfriend of mine has a “diet” that she calls her “reset.” It’s something that she does once per year for one month – only 30 days – sometimes it’s just before the holidays (like now) and sometimes it’s just after all those holiday parties. It’s not a lot to do, I’ve tried it, and it really works. The best part is that it’s a diet that I think everyone can get into.

The whole concept is based on moderation – so lose the idea of some strict schedule where you live like a monk for a month (remember, this is me we’re talking about). Think of this as an opportunity to ‘detox’ away from some bad habits that have formed over the year. You know how it gets – too much of this or that, and you feel fat and tired! Through the moderation of the “Reset Diet,” I think we regain understanding what moderation actually means. My testimony is the big gain I got in the end: a big difference in my energy levels, clearer skin, and I lost that bloat I always complain about.

Rule One for the Reset Diet is banishing all alcoholic drinks for five days of every week for a full month. If I know that I have something planned that I want to have a glass of wine or drink at then that is one of my two “free” days. And since this diet is all about moderation, your ‘no alcohol’ days do not have to be consecutive. But I recommend that you try to put several days in a row together – it just has a better effect if you can.

Rule Two is to put yourself into a mindset of questioning everything that you eat. Do your best to ask yourself if whatever the meal you are planning is your healthiest choice. For instance, instead of trying to fill myself for every meal, I go for ‘leaner’ meals. Don’t starve, but don’t stuff yourself either. During this diet, I also cut back on snacks – especially stuff that comes out of a bag or a box. Fresh fruits are good, though. Always.

Rule Three may be the easiest of all. Take a short walk after every meal, or one longer walk after lunch or dinner. If you’re already doing the 10,000 steps per day thing, good. Just keep with the program. If not, maybe this is the time to start with 2,000 steps? Just sayin.

We can all do something for one month! The goal is to reset our bodies, not change everything about us. It’s a “diet” that may actually change other parts of your life, but the best part is that you get two “free” days per week.  I can do anything if I know that I only have to do it for 5 days out of 7 and it’s my choice which 5!  It’s an easy “reset” before or after the holidays.  I’m on it!

What about those Meal Kit Delivery Services?

From Plated - a meal kit

Review of the top 5 meal kits – for pleasure, convenience, and flavor!

A friend of mine goes on frequent camping trips with her family. There’s one thing that she does before every trip – no matter if it’s a short weekend trip to the desert or a week-long stay out in the forest – she plans every meal, right down to the last 1-½ cup of flour and ¾ teaspoon of baking soda (pancakes, if anyone is counting). The day before the trip, she bags and boxes all the ingredients that she’ll need and even adds instructions.

“I make it so easy that even my youngest son can cook a meal,” she says. The most important part: it’s quick. She has four kids and a hungry partner – so maybe that’s what you do in that situation. Besides, who wants to bring measuring cups and spoons on a camping trip?

I wonder if that was the inspiration behind the meal kit? Everyone is so busy now, and the first thing that goes out the window when time is short is cooking dinner. But you and the family have to eat so what’s the alternative? Fast food, again? Seriously?

meal kits logo listEnter the various Meal Kit Delivery Services that have popped up. There are so many options in national brands now. Personally, I think it’s a great convenience if you want to cook and haven’t had the experience to feel comfortable in the kitchen. Even if you have expertise in the kitchen, the kits save you lots of time – no more going to the store, buying everything you need for the recipe and then measuring out all the items. It all comes in the kit – pre-measured, ready for you to cook.

My only note of caution – read the subscription rules carefully. Some are longer and more complicated than others. You can’t just call the day before an expected delivery and cancel a meal. That sort of thing.

A few of the top trending meal kits are: Terra’s Kitchen, Peach Dish, HelloFresh, Blue Apron, and Plated. Your real choice is how much you actually want to spend time prepping and cooking the meal – or would you rather have most of the ingredients come pre-made.  I’ve placed them in order of their convenience value. All of these kits produce high-quality meals.

Total Time Convenience: Terra’s Kitchen is very easy for people who are really pressed for time and/or want total convenience. These meals have the least amount of preparation time needed because things come pre-chopped, sauces already made, et cetera.

Cooking Ease: Here’s my ‘middle’ tier for easy meal prep that requires a few more steps than Terra’s Kitchen but not as many as others. If you don’t mind chopping some veggies, Peach Dish and HelloFresh will give you some cooking ease and very nice meal. All the ingredients are carefully measured out. The instructions are very clear.

Adventure and Experience: Blue Apron and Plated are for people who want a little more adventure in their cooking experience. The recipes are a bit more complicated and might require learning some new cooking skills but, the results show it.  You’ll be creating dishes you never thought you’d ever be able to make in your own kitchen.

The great thing about all of the kits: someone else is doing the shopping and the planning. You will learn about dishes you might not otherwise make. And, you might enjoy them so much you may keep some of the recipes and try them later on your own.

But the best thing? You’ll be spending time with your family and friends in the kitchen and at the table, creating memories over a meal that you cooked!  And, really, those memories are what it’s all about.

Enjoy!