Tag Archives: cooking for friends

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!

My Favorite Secret Italian Sauce

italian tomato sauce

You’ll flip when you see how easy it is.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love all types of cuisine. But Italian cooking – that’s my absolute go-to favorite. Many of my favorite restaurants are Italian – in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Sfixo in Beverly Hills is still – hands down – my favorite local Italian. It’s really fabulous if you’re a fan of dishes that come from northern Italy.

Many people think that all Italian food is basically the same – pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, etc.  But, there are real variations all along the entire country – traditional Italian cooking is strongly region-based. In northern Italy, you’ll find an emphasis on rich cream sauces, polenta and stuffed meats, Southern Italians embrace the Mediterranean diet with tomato sauces and lots of sea food with everything in between.

I travel to Italy as often as possible – at least once a year – and during each visit I make sure that I take at least one cooking class to learn “secrets” from great Italian cooks.  I follow several of them on social media – two have even become friends – Judy Witts Francini (@divinacucina) and Helena Kyriakides (@yummyyummyitaly).  It’s the only real way to understand a cuisine – take a class, tour an area of the country and eat the food!

The truth is, you don’t have to be a great cook to make a great dish – just understand some basic rules of the cuisine. All you really need is a sense of adventure. My recommendation, start small, and work your way up!

For instance, I was watching a post by Judy on how to prepare a simple Tuscan tomato dish (they’re in season right now) that you can use as a sauce, a side dish, or even as part of the main course.  And, in that post I learned a secret about olive oil and fresh garlic (by the way – true Italian cooks uses very little garlic – they prefer to let the fresh ingredients shine).

Ingredients

  • 1 Clove Garlic, sliced (add more if you’re cooking a lot of tomatoes).
  • Whole Cherry Tomatoes (I recommend organic). Use multi colored ones for fun or slightly larger ones that you can cut into fourths.
  • Enough EVOO – that’s “extra-virgin olive oil” to lightly cover the bottom of your frying pan or saucepan. I recommend Long Meadow Ranch Winery Prato Lungo Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It has just the right flavor for Italy.
  • Sea Salt (to flavor).
  • Fresh Basil (to flavor).

Preparation

  • Add sliced garlic to the COLD oil. Here’s the “secret” I learned from my friend: never put fresh garlic in hot oil – it will burn almost immediately and become very bitter. You’ll just have to throw the whole thing away and start over. By adding garlic to the cold oil, the garlic has more cook time in the olive oil adding flavor to the oil and will turn golden very slowly so you can remove any bits that start to get too dark.
  • Medium heat.
  • Sauté garlic till golden.
  • Add the tomatoes to the pan.
  • Add sea salt (to flavor).
  • Slowly cook down the tomatoes until tender and they begin to burst.
  • Add the fresh basil (cut into thin ribbons – chiffonade) at the end if you’re using the tomatoes on pasta.

As I mentioned before, this preparation is very flexible. You can use this as aside for a grilled steak or on top of pounded and sautéed (Paillard) chicken breast with some baby arugula. You can use it to dress up grilled fish, or as a simple sauce for pasta or over small noodles for a simple pasta salad. And personally speaking, the basil leaves are a must – for the aroma and the flavor.

See? It’s so simple. Doesn’t this make you want to jump up and cook?

My best recipe for Beer Steamed Clams

Fran Berger - beer steamed clams

Want to try cooking Clams? Try my “beer steamers” – so easy to do.

A bowl of bear steamed clamsI know a lot of my friends are intimidated by the thought of cooking clams. It’s true that you have to be a little careful with them, but in all honesty, they’re actually one of the easiest things to cook and the reward is high. Clams are really fabulous as appetizers or as part of the main course.

Clams are harvested from all sorts of locales – each type has its own distinctive characteristic and flavor. They grow in both fresh and salt water, and range in all types of shapes and sizes.  Clams are a terrific source of lean protein with just a 3-ounce serving providing 22 grams of protein and only 126 calories with less than 2 grams of total fat. Served fresh, clams are also nutritious – tons of Vitamin A, B and C not to mention iron and magnesium.

Nothing surpasses (for simplicity and ease) steaming clams with a good bottle of beer. I love to serve up a whole pot of “beer steamers” for my guests- serve it with grilled corn on the cob and of course a great salad.

Buy your clams fresh at your local market. In California, we usually get a type called Manila clams – they’re smaller and very sweet. They are also the ones that won’t have any sand in them so you don’t have to worry about the grit.  If you buy a different type of clam ask your fish monger how to clean out the sand before cooking.  Buy clams the day you need them if at all possible.  But, you can also buy clams online. Keep live clams on ice in your refrigerator for one but never more than two days. When you’re ready to cook your clams, sort them for freshness and wash the shells thoroughly in cool water. You don’t have to scrub hard, you just want to get rid of the bits of sand and sea life that you don’t want in the cooking pot!

Now, how about that recipe?

  • Sort the clams for freshness. Throw away any that are even partially open or are cracked or missing pieces of shell.
  • Pour enough beer (a full-flavored beer like a stout) to cover the bottom of a large fry pan or kettle that has a tight-fitting lid. Preferably a glass lid.
  • Turn on the heat and bring beer to a boil.
  • Add the cleaned clams to the pan/kettle. Remember that you’re steaming clams, so make sure that none of them are fully submerged in the beer.
  • Close the lid and bring back up to a boil. If you have Manila clams, cook for 3 minutes or just until they begin to open; 5 minutes if your clams are a larger variety. Be careful not to overcook as they will become very chewy.
  • Watch your pan/kettle closely during the cooking – a glass lid helps with this part – because you want to take them off the heat as soon as they start to open. Also, note that during the steaming process, clams will release their own water as they cook so be sure that your pan is large enough to accommodate any extra liquid. You don’t want that water to overflow and create a big mess.
  • Remove the pan/kettle and place the steamed (and opened) clams in a bowl. They’re ready to serve!

While it is true that clams are easy enough to cook, there are some very important rules that that you need to know:

Rule 1: Cook only clams that have shells that are tightly closed. Don’t cook clams that have broken or cracked shells – and never, never, ever cook ones that look or smell dead. You want your clams as fresh as the market can deliver.

Rule 2: Watch your clams closely during the steaming. The smaller Manila clams will cook within about 3 minutes of cooking: they open up and that’s when they’re done! Larger clams may need more time, up to 5 minutes of steaming.  Once they start to open be sure to remove the pan from the heat.

Rule 3: Discard any clams that do not open up with the rest of them. Cooking longer will not “make” them open – you don’t want to eat them if they don’t open with the group….Trust me.

Once you get over your hesitation and steam your own clams, here’s Rule 4: Have plenty of lemons and melted butter on hand for eating!  Enjoy!!!

Salt and Pepper for Refined Palates

raw salt and peppercorns

Time to refresh two cooking ingredients that we often take for granted.

“Salt is what makes things taste bad when it isn’t in them” – Anon.

Salt and pepper are two of the most important ingredients in cooking – and oh how we take them for granted! Some people lump them together as if they were one ingredient although they have nothing in common. Salt is categorized as seasoning and pepper is a spice.

In ancient times, salt was highly valued and its production legally restricted so that people used it as a method of currency and trade. In fact, the word “salary” comes from the Latin word “salarium” which literally translated means “salt money.” And, the word “salad” also comes from “salt” and began with the early Romans salting leafy greens and vegetables!

Most people think of salt as just plain table salt – highly refined, heavily ground with most of the impurities and trace minerals removed. Table salt is about 97% pure sodium chloride with a dash of iodine added (that was started in 1924).

But restaurant chefs and experienced home cooks know that not all salt is the same. There are many types – and the little differences affect taste, flavor, color, and texture.  Salt comes in many forms: large grain, small grain, flake, and more.

For example, simple sea salt comes from evaporating seawater and is the second most common found and produced. Usually, it’s presented as a larger crystal – less ground – and often has a slightly darker color due to “impurities” and trace nutrients that are left in the salt.  Depending on where it is harvested, the taste will vary.

Himalayan pink salt – which is mined in Pakistan – used to be so rare. It stood out because of its pink color which is due to trace amounts of naturally occurring iron oxide. Nowadays, you can find Himalayan pink on most grocery store shelves.

There’s also Kosher Salt – a larger coarser grain than regular commercial table salt and has a less salty flavor than regular table salt. It’s used in restaurant kitchens everywhere as it’s the easiest to control for flavor – you rarely over salt if you use it in your cooking.  It’s easy to over salt when using table salt.

Salts come from all over the world – France, Italy, Hawaii (there’s a black Hawaiian salt that contains activated charcoal), India, and the Pacific Northwest where a favorite of mine comes from Jacobsen Salt Co in Oregon.

Salt can be infused with different spices like black garlic, ghost chili, rosemary, lemon, truffle, etc.  On one of my trips I discovered smoked salt – it was naturally smoked to give an added flavor to whatever was cooking. But if you find a smoked salt that you want to buy make sure that it is naturally smoked and not infused with liquid smoke (that’s a whole other flavor and not one I prefer).

Pepper has been accompanying humanity for a very long time. Long enough for the ancient Greeks to use it as a form of currency to pay taxes. Naturally, the Romans used it and so did the ancient Egyptians.

Pepper comes from peppercorn – one of the most highly traded spices around the world from ancient times to present day. And there are many different types, all with different flavor profiles that will add a distinct effect wherever it is used.

The best tasting pepper comes from freshly ground peppercorn. But pepper starts to lose flavor almost as soon as it is ground. My tip: grind pepper as you need it, at the very end of cooking or just before serving.

What kind of peppercorn you want depends on the flavor you are trying to achieve. The most popular ones are: black, green, white, red, and pink.
Black peppercorns are the most common variety and are peppercorns that have been left on the vine to ripen and then dried. These produce the strongest flavor and aroma.  There are many varieties of black peppercorns. Tellicherry is from South India and has a sweet, well- rounded taste, Brazilian has a stronger flavor, and Lampong, from Indonesia comes with a citrusy slow burn.

There are green peppercorns, which are under-ripe (picked before the black variety) peppercorn berries that have a fresh and tart taste.  You see them dried, but they’re more common in brine or vinegar. They are slightly aromatic and are great for adding flavor to sauces and meats.
White peppercorns are black peppercorns that have been soaked and the skins removed. These pack a little more punch flavor-wise, but they’re a tad less aromatic. Use them for light-colored sauces and foods when you DON’T want to see black specks!

Red peppercorns have been left to ripen on the vine, so they turn red.  Reds are not usually found because they’re usually dried and turn black, or the skins are stripped, and then they are white.

Pink peppercorns are not really peppercorns!  They’re berries from a South American shrub that still have a peppery bite with some fruity and floral notes.  Use these as a garnish by crushing them with a knife and not in a pepper mill. They’re delicate.

Now that you know a little about salt and pepper – have fun – experiment!

 

What bread plate is mine?

Tabletop place setting

Easy tips for setting your table, for every day!

When my kids were at home, we always ate our meals at the kitchen table, and if I was having a party, the meal would move to the dining room.  Somehow all that changed when the kids left for college.  There were times that it seemed like it was just too much effort to set the table – after all, it was “just us” –  and on occasion, we would find ourselves eating in front of the TV.

Not too long after the kids left for college, I decided that we would no longer be eating in front of the “boob tube.” We would return to the table where we could have a real conversation together, find out what went on during each of our days and get re-connected after a long day of work.

To be honest, my preference has always been to enjoy a nice meal and conversation around a table with my friends and family. That means setting the table! When you do it right, even your garden variety basic meal can be turned into something everyone enjoys. All you need to do is take the time to put everything in order on your tabletop.

Don’t be embarrassed though if you can’t remember where to put the bread plate and whether (or if) you should put out a soup spoon.  It can get very confusing and so many people get it wrong.  After twenty years of owning restaurants, the right place setting is practically tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. I still fight the urge to fold napkins when I’m at a friend’s home for dinner.

Always remember this one basic rule: set your table for the meal you’re having, not for a fancy party (unless of course, that’s precisely what you’ve planned). If you’re not having soup, don’t put out a soup spoon. If you’re not serving bread, don’t put out a bread plate. To be honest, unless you’re setting a formal table you don’t really need that bread plate anyway.

According to Emily Post, a place setting is an array of dishes and utensils and the dinner plate is the “hub of the wheel.” But, if your goal is to entertain friends and encourage conversation, don’t get too fancy.

I usually set an informal table. I like to “stack” my plates: dinner plate on the bottom, with salad plate on top (if I’m serving salad). Where I put the napkin depends on my mood – sometimes I put it under the forks (like my mother did), sometimes it’s folded on top of the dinner/salad plate, sometimes I use a napkin ring, and sometimes I put it in the water glass!  It just all depends on how I want the table to look that day.

Forks always go on the left of the dinner plate with the largest fork closest to the plate and then smaller ones next to that. Knives are placed to the right of the plate and spoons to the right of the knife. The sharp edge of all knives should be turned to face the plate.  Placing the sharp edge of the knife facing inwards dates back several hundred years when it was considered aggressive to place the sharp edge of the knife facing outwards.   The bread plate goes on the left, above the forks.

Place water, champagne, and wine glasses in a line on the right, just above the knife and spoons. And remember, the water glass is the first glass placed with champagne and wine glasses to the right of the water glass.

Remember, simplicity! Only set the pieces that you will use during the meal, but if you’re serving dessert, you can place the dessert fork above the plate (I like the way that looks). That means that if you’re not serving champagne, don’t put a champagne glass on the table.  I like to set coffee cups and dessert plates out only when it’s time – otherwise, the table gets way too cluttered, and on my table, all that extra stuff won’t leave any room for the actual food!

Just because you might be having a very casual BBQ outside, or serving hamburgers and hot dogs for dinner, and you’ve chosen to use heavy paper plates and plastic forks and knives to simplify clean up, doesn’t mean that setting all the pieces in their proper place on the table won’t make it feel special.  You might want to use string or ribbon as a napkin ring to dress it up just a little bit.  You can even make a “roll up” out of the napkin, plastic ware and a piece of string (it’s what restaurants give you when you order “to go”) to make your very casual table more fun!

By the way, there is nothing better than a little candlelight to add a little ambiance to the meal. Even if your tabletop is completely disposable, dim the lights, light some candles, and – voila – you’ve just added something fun to the experience. Never use scented candles at a table. Seriously. Who wants “country cinnamon” competing with the Pasta Bolognese that you labored over in the kitchen?

What you want is a comfortable setting that eases everyone into an enjoyable dinner experience.

 

Drinks and Snacks for Your Super Bowl Party!

Cool Drinks and Great Snacks for Your #Superbowl – #SB51

I’ve tried all kinds of ways of hosting a Super Bowl party. You can go the route of a big meal – one or two big dishes. Another way is to line up some cool drinks and have lots of savory snacks on hand.

Mix up a batch of “Minty Moscow Mule Punch” for your Super Bow party. From Real Simple.

This approach gives everyone some variety and easy choices. They’re also good for the ‘quick snap’ as a friend of mine likes to describe it – one cup, one napkin, and you’re off and running back to the big screen.

It’s important to serve beverages that will go best with whatever menu you’ve planned.  If your crowd likes sodas and beer then set up a couple of ice filled coolers with bottled sodas (more fun than cans) and some interesting beers (perhaps a Belgian ale, a local craft beer and a lager).

If your crowd is more into a full bar, then set up / mix some batch cocktails that you can serve in a pitcher so you aren’t playing bartender all day.  Here’s a great drink recipe for a Minty Moscow Mule Punch that is very popular. Or what about White Negroni Punch (see featured photo above). Remember – make these well before your guests show up.

Don’t forget to have enough ice on hand.  Start making ice the day before and fill up gallon ziplock bags with ice cubes so you’ll have a head start. I use this party guideline: 2 pounds of ice per person for a party.

Even if I decide to bring in platters of sandwiches and salads I will always make some snacks to put my personal touch on the party.  Important rule for Super Bowl snacks – make more than enough. Nothing is worse than running out in the middle of halftime. I love these four recipes – they really hit the spot:

A plate of “Cacio e Pepe Chips” from Bon Appetit. Make a lot. They’re addicting!

Cacio e Pepe Chips – featuring kettle-cooked chips and grated percorino! Great with just about any beer.

Sweet and Spicy Mixed Nuts – this is an absolute winner. You can prepare this recipe 2 days ahead of your party.

Spiced Popcorn with Pecans and Raisins – a real head-turner at my parties. And, habit-forming. Plan on your guests eating two or three servings a piece so if you’re doing this one make sure you make a lot!

Buffalo Wing Popcorn – no kidding, what a combo. Another addicting dish.

I always recommend that you not use your regular dinnerware for these kinds of gatherings. But try (really try) to resist the urge to use paper plates. Not only are your average grocery store disposables kinda flimsy, they’re really ugly. I mean, seriously!  I get my disposables (plates, cutlery, and cups) from EMI Yoshi. They’re plastic, recyclable, AND they’re really cool looking.  Find them on Amazon.

Have a great time!

Perfect Chili or Stew, for your Super Bowl Party

Football and food

Hot Recipe Ideas for your Super Bowl Party

I can’t tell you how many Super Bowl Parties I have thrown (too many to count!) but I can tell you my secrets to making sure your guests have the best time all while you’re able to enjoy the party too.  Because, really, what’s the point of throwing a great party if you can’t have fun too?  Even if you’re not the biggest football fan, there will be plenty of others with the same outlook on the game that you have for you to catch up with while everyone else is cheering for their favorite team.  If you plan this right, you will be doing exactly that – enjoying your own party!

My first rule, no matter what kind of party I’m throwing, is to pick out my menu while remembering what activities will be going on. For a Super Bowl party, everyone is going to want to be in front of the TV while they’re eating and not at a table. So, make sure that whatever you plan to serve does NOT require any cutting. People will be eating on their laps, the easier it is to eat, the less mess will end up on your sofa and rug. You also want to serve something that guests can serve themselves when the commercials come on.

Make a big pot of chili and keep it on the stove will all the fixings on the counter. Here’s a great recipe I found from Paula Deen for a Hearty Chili.

OnceUponAChef - Beef Stew with Carrots and PotatoesOr how about a beef stew to shake things up? I found this recipe a few years ago from Once Upon a Chef. Serve this one with a sliced crusty baguette to dip.

And remember, chili and stew always taste better the second day. So, you’ll want to make these the day before your party. Another secret? A taco bar set up on your kitchen table will work too!

One last tip, you don’t need to use China. In fact, don’t use China. You’ll be sorry if you do because you will need to do those dishes right when your guest are getting ready to leave! But, don’t use paper plates either. You need to make sure your plate/bowl will hold the weight of your food and not collapse.

For these kinds of events, I always use disposable bowls, plates, cups and cutlery by EMI Yoshi. You can find them on Amazon.

Go Team!

End of Another Year, Start of New Possibilities

Enjoy around the table

Time to bring your Friends and Family together around your table!

Wow!  How did it get to be January already?  I’m always surprised by how quickly the year flies by and yet they are moving quicker and quicker and here it is – the start of another year.  And, each year I’m also surprised by how much happens. This past one was absolutely no exception.  Right?  I’m not just thinking about stuff that happened in the news or around the world – although there was a lot of that.  I’m thinking about all of the new friends that I’ve made and relationships that I started last year.  I’m thinking about all of the people who have discovered the importance of being “around the table” with people who are closest to us, or maybe people we wish to bring closer.

We can all give lip service about how dear some people are to us, but the strongest way to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” is to gather together for a meal, a snack or even just a cup of coffee.  It doesn’t have to be a big meal or even a big deal at all – what it is, is the time spent together sharing around the table (or even a park bench at lunch).  It’s how we draw together at meals.  When it becomes a regular thing so much changes.  Maybe someone will start making new recipes and others will want to be in the kitchen helping create for the shared experience.  The main point is getting people together to share what is, for many of us, something we do well and too often alone.

Eating should be about more than just getting nourishment – you know – getting the calories in so that we can move through our day.  It should be about feeding the soul with the very thing that makes us human and feel alive: connection to one another – love.

So… let’s toast to the new year, filled with health, happiness and blessings.  Whatever last year has meant to you, make this new year the one where you draw your friends and family close together around your table!

Fran’s Party Etiquette Rules – For Hosts (Part III)

toasting with champagne

Fran’s 7 Golden Rules for Hosting a Party

How about a few rules for hosts? Okay, so the word “rules” might be a little heavy-handed. More like guidelines. This is a part of a series – I started with guest rules, then worked my way through a list of ideas of host gifts (very important). Now I’m on to my list of “rules” for hosting a party.

The whole goal is to avoid those things that can absolutely affect your party in a big way.  Something will always happen, it can’t be avoided completely, but if you do try it will turn out better than if you didn’t.  If you remember the big “rules,” then you can party on fearlessly!

  1. Always make sure your house is set BEFORE your guests are due to arrive. Nothing makes people more uncomfortable than watching the host scrambling to finish those last few items.
  2. Set a tray with glasses of sparkling/champagne/signature cocktail at the door so that when your guests arrive you can greet them with a welcoming glass of something. Nothing sets the mood for the party like this.
  3. Just because a guest brings a bottle of something – you are not obligated to open it. This goes for food items too.  Simply tell the guest that you’ve carefully planned the menu so you will save their special “——” for another time, or that you would love to share it with them on another occasion so it will be a special event for you and them.
  4. I live in Southern California and you’d be amazed what some people do when they go to parties. This has happened to me and it even happened to a friend at their wedding.  Your invited guest decides it perfectly fine to bring an “extra.”  Be gracious to that “extra.” I am positive your friend told them it would be completely OK to come.  It’s not the “extra’s” fault they’re there.  Be welcoming to the “extra” and then take it up with your friend at a later time.
  5. Make sure you have fully stocked the powder room/bathroom that the guests will use – you know toilet paper, Kleenex, soap, hand towels, and do NOT forget the plunger. There may be that moment that something has happened in there that needs immediate attention – you don’t want your guest to have to come looking for you!
  6. I’m a big advocate of using candles for atmosphere – the more the merrier – but never use scented candles. You don’t know who’s got allergies (like me!) and believe me your guests will come “scented” enough.
  7. Make sure your playlist matches your invitation. Your invitation tells everyone what your party will be like.  If you send a formal invitation don’t be playing head banging music when your guests arrive.  And, if you find that your guests are having to talk over the music – turn it down a notch.

Of course, the most important rule of all (maybe #8, which kinda goes back to #1) is to chill out, smile, and have a blast. Nothing sets the mood of the party better than a happy host.

 

A Different Friendsgiving

How about a Friendsgiving?

Take your Thanksgiving Dinner to a New Level – In 5 Easy Steps!

When I was growing up Thanksgiving was always at our house.  We had a very small family, just 5 of us and no cousins anywhere close by, but my parents did have several close friends and their families would come.

My Dad always made the turkey (he was the good cook in our house!) and I loved the smell of it cooking for hours in the oven.  One of my very favorite food memories is my Dad making what he lovingly referred to as Turkey Carcass Soup the next day with, you guessed it, the carcass of the turkey.  It was always delicious!

Today my siblings live far away, my parents have passed and my close friends are my family.  I know I’m not alone in this situation as my friends and I talk about the looming holidays every year.  Some of them travel to their families to celebrate and some are lucky enough to have family close by but there’s always a group of us that are adrift this time of year.

Now we have what has been dubbed a “Friendsgiving” and I have to tell you it’s the BEST.  It only takes a few friends, 3-4, to pull this off so you don’t need a crowd at all just a little pre-planning and being firm that it’s a POT LUCK – everyone contributes!

Here are the 5 easy steps to pull off your own Friendsgiving!

  1. Plan the menu a few weeks ahead (3 to be safe) and put it up on a Google Doc so that everyone can sign up. Make sure that the menu includes how many servings are needed.  The host ALWAYS makes the turkey (or if you don’t cook- you can buy it already cooked at your local market).
  2. If you don’t have enough chairs and tables, rent them or your friends might have a few extra. You can get very inexpensive table cloths and napkins at Target or IKEA or a local thrift store.  The same thing goes for plates, flatware and glasses.  Target, IKEA or your local thrift store.  They do NOT have to match.  Part of the fun is the eclectic setting!
  3. Set the table the night before. I actually do this every time I have a party.  It saves not only time but also me from going crazy on the day of the party.
  4. Instead of a formal bar – you can use a cooler filled with ice and put bottles in it to keep cold. These are your friends, after all.
  5. Serve dinner buffet style with little cards with the description of the dish and who made it.

Remember, the whole point of this is to gather your friends and share a wonderful meal that everyone has helped create.  Then sit back and watch football!

5 Rules for Throwing a Dinner Party That Never Ends

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Have a party that they’ll be talking about for years.

One of the best dinner parties I ever went to started at a normal hour, 7:30pm, but no one left until well after 1am!  Nobody wanted to leave.  The best part?  The host didn’t want anyone to leave either!  If you follow these very simple rules you can have a never ending dinner party that your friends will remember with love for years.  If you get really good at it, you will be known as the dinner party queen/king and the envy of everyone you know.

  1. Be careful of your guest list. That doesn’t mean to keep it to a specific number of guests but to pay attention to the mix of guests.  Be aware of any tension between any of your friends and make sure you don’t stir that hornet’s nest-it won’t bode well for a convivial evening.
  1. Serve dinner “family style.” When you try to create individual plates everything becomes more formal and that’s the exact opposite of your goal.  You want everyone to be comfortable.  When people need to “please pass the potatoes” it gets people talking to each other – a great way to encourage conversation.  When you serve “family style” on large serving platters your guests are encouraged to have seconds or even just another bite of something.
  1. Plan your menu with food that doesn’t need to be a certain temperature – food that is perfectly fine served at room temp. If you’ve ever had a large group over for a meal and you’ve tried to make sure that the last person served gets food that’s as hot as the first person served you will know exactly what I’m talking about.  This way the food can stay on the table as long as you and your guests are at the table (which you want to be a long time!) and still taste great.
  1. Make sure there is plenty of wine on the table for your guests to serve themselves. Don’t be precious with it – you don’t want to have rules about what is being poured when during the meal.  Stick with bottles that are similar in flavor and body whether they are red or white – but make sure to have both opened.  Leave those bottles on the table for easy refills by your guests.  Be careful to not run out!
  1. Candles are key. Atmosphere is the quickest way to turn your dinner with friends into a real party and candles do that effortlessly.  Use candles of different heights on your table and light them ALL.  The lighting changes as your night progresses from fresh candles that are newly lit to a soft glow from those that burn the longest.  Be sure to have a lot of them as they will burn at different rates – only some will last all night but that just contributes to the wonderful atmosphere you want to have.

I promise that if you follow these 5 simple rules your next dinner party will be a greater success than you could have ever wished for.  Enjoy!

Tomato and Cabbage Tabbouleh

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In Tomato Heaven with Cabbage Tabbouleh

I love tomatoes – served any way that is possible.  I’ve been known to simply salt them and eat them like apples – one bite at a time (I always remember my Father eating them like that) or if they’re tiny then I just pop them in my mouth and enjoy their natural sweetness.  Delicious!  This recipe stopped me because of the beautiful colors from the tomatoes and mint AND it’s so easy.  It would be great for a BBQ.  It was created by Anissa Helou and published in bon appétit July 2014. Serves 8, all you need is a room full of friends and family to enjoy!

Ingredients

  • 1 cup bulgur (not quick-cooking)
  • ½ medium head green cabbage, cut into 1”-thick wedges, then very thinly sliced crosswise (about 4 cups)
  • 1 small sweet onion (such as Vidalia), finely chopped
  • 4 cups assorted small tomatoes, halved, quartered if large
  • 3 cups coarsely chopped fresh mint
  • ¾ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or ½ crushed red pepper flakes
  • Kosher salt

Directions

Place bulgur in a large bowl and add 1½ cups boiling water. Let soak until softened and water is absorbed, 40–45 minutes.

Toss bulgur, cabbage, onion, tomatoes, mint, oil, lemon juice, and Aleppo pepper in a large bowl to combine; season with salt.

DO AHEAD:Tabbouleh (without oil and lemon juice) can be made 4 hours ahead. Toss with oil and lemon juice just before serving.