Author: Fran B

Home Entertaining Tip: Create a Great Cheese Board

Make it colorful and fun: alternatives for cheese boards, knives, serving bowls.

I have a friend who grew up in England. One afternoon last spring, we sat out on her patio overlooking the valley with a light breeze blowing over our shoulders. We were having tea served in exquisitely painted china that her father collected decades ago, some light crackers, and slices of cheese served on matching silver plates. So elegant and light – so her.

Later this summer, I visited another friend. We sat in her living room as her kids chased each other around in the backyard with a water hose. As they squealed, we chatted over tumblers of wine coolers, crackers and cheese served on dinner plates.

We all have different ways to entertain, all different styles. Even for the friend who’s coming by for just a moment, we offer a little liquid refreshment and/or something to nibble.  And, if you come to my place, there will be cheese.  The unexpected visit can be just as much fun as the party you’ve planned. All it takes is a little imagination.

First, cheese boards come in all sizes, shapes, and materials – you can really use almost anything flat including a china platter.  If you took a survey, most people don’t even bring out a cheese board either because they cut the cheese before guests arrive or they think they don’t have something that will be ‘right’ to use. But let’s say you want to use a board – you can find them truly almost anywhere. Sometimes I use a beautiful flat, squarish piece of black slate as a “board” of sorts: the cheese and fruit look so beautiful against the dark color of the tile. My point is, your “board” can be made of almost any material.

Cheese knives also come in all shapes, sizes, and materials as well. Maybe you want to slice the cheese ahead of time, but it’s not a rule. Many times, I will cut a few slices or pieces and leave the rest of the piece of cheese ‘whole’ for my guests to cut.  My video shows some of the knives I’ve collected on my travels. I even have one with a handle that is shaped like a mouse that I picked up a few years ago in a small shop in Paris.  It’s a great story to tell my guests, and it looks fun on the plate.

Along with the cheese and crackers, you may want to add olives, gherkins (small pickles), nuts, or perhaps truffle honey, and so on. Place these ‘extras’ in individual small bowls or containers – the more colorful and fun the better – place them either directly on the board if there’s room or next to it on the table for easy access. Pick ones that add visual interest to your cheese board.  You’ll need small spoons or small spreaders as well for the honey or preserves – remember sweet, whether it’s dried fruit or something else, pairs perfectly with cheese.

The trick is to pick up the boards, small bowls, containers, cheese knives and spoons/spreaders as you see them and not to wait until you actually NEED them. I’ve always found that if I’m searching madly for something the day before a party, I rarely see what I’m looking for. Take your time and have fun planning.  If you’ve found things you love to use you will already have the right tools for that unexpected guest!

Entertain like an Italian and Enjoy the Spirt of the Aperitivo

Open up your home and celebrate

Enjoy the relaxed pace and informality of a timeless continental style.

One of the reasons I became a restaurateur is that I love to entertain. And, one of my favorite ways to entertain guests follows the Italian Aperitivo style: informal and wholly intimate.

It’s a time to invite everyone – it can be a group of only friends after work or add family and have everyone all at once. This style is not about impressing people with your silverware and fine china. It’s all about the spirit of the gathering; making everyone feel welcomed and together as one happy group. It’s really a very simple way to socialize over light cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

Aperitivo is also not about impressing anyone with your kitchen prowess. Very often, Italians serve prepared foods that they’ve picked up at the local market to make it easier. Aperitivo itself is more of a prelude to dinner. In fact, the prefix ‘apero’ in Latin means to ‘to open’ – as in to open your stomach to get it ready for a lovely meal.  So, the food is just that – small things.  It is not meant to be dinner. 

In Italy everything for the table revolves around what’s in season and it’s the same for the food for Aperitivo. That just means getting the ingredients that are in season and building a menu around those items.  So even if you do decide to cook make sure that you keep your menu focused on what’s fresh in the farmer’s market right then.  But for any aperitivo there is one snack item that is always included no matter the season – potato chips!  Italians LOVE potato chips! They are prime aperitivo food even in the most fabulous hotels in Milan.

They also don’t worry about making sure that everything matches on the tabletop. In the Italian culture, like everywhere else in the world, they pass down their treasures through their families – linens, silver, glassware, china, et cetera. If you don’t have all of that, try visiting estate sales – I just wrote a blog about it. But – even if all you have is plastic and Melmac – go for it anyway. It’s the gathering that matters most.

A part of embracing the aperitivo style is getting familiar with the Italian habit of after work cocktails. It’s different from our Happy Hour where the focus is more on having drinks together with your friends. Italians like to sip, and they tend to talk more than they drink so the focus is more on the gathering than the drinking.

Because “friends and family” often means kids, welcome them at your aperitivo. Let them join in the snacking with virgin cocktails or smoothies. And, because we want it as intimate as possible, tell everyone to turn off their phones. A friend of mine collects all phones at the door (to be returned at the end). It’s a great idea—I think I’ll try that myself.

So, have an aperitivo!  Mix up a batch of Negronis, add some small snacks and prepared foods from your market and enjoy!

Check out my video for more ideas on entertaining Italian-style.

Recipe for the Perfect Poached Egg

the Perfect Poached Egg

The mystery of poaching eggs is lifted.

I love poached eggs. My mom and dad used to have them with toast just about every Sunday morning. It’s a fond food memory for me.

I think more people would eat them at home were it not for all the mystery of how to actually make a perfect poached egg (and that most people think it’s almost impossible!). Ask a dozen people and you will get a dozen answers. The problem is a lot of people are just guessing and the reality is, there’s no real “recipe” for the perfect poached egg. It’s like boiling potatoes – you either do it this way or that.

I found this idea from Epicurious.com. They call it their “foolproof” method, and I have to agree. It’s so simple and works every time. Check my video to see how easy this is.

  1. First step, pour water into a large wide pan. Add salt to the water. I use Kosher salt because it’s not as salty tasting as table salt and it helps the white of the egg set a bit firmer.
  2. Heat up the pan of water—bring it to the point where there are small bubbles on the bottom of the pan. You want it not quite simmering – definitely not with any water movement. If the water is moving, the turbulence in the pan will throw wispy whites everywhere and, I don’t know about you but, I don’t want that.
  3. Hold a fine mesh spider (sieve) over a bowl and crack an egg into the spider. Tip- the fresher the egg the better it will hold together.  Let the looser part of the whites drain off. This will remove most of those unwanted wispy whites that you can get when you poach the other way (e.g., drop the egg into a pan of near boiling water). Scrape the bottom of the spider on the edge of the bowl to remove as much of the loose whites as possible.
  4. Gently lower the spider into the pan of water until the entire egg is submerged, but keep the egg on the spider.
  5. Set your timer to 3 ½ minutes. This will give you a perfectly runny yolk with whites that are tender soft, but firmly set. A little tip: as the whites start to set, gently scrape the white toward the yolk with a spoon to keep the egg loose so that it doesn’t stick to the spider.
  6. At about the 1 minute mark when you can really see that the white is setting up, GENTLY slide the egg off the spider so that it is fully immersed into your hot but not bubbling water. Gently move the egg around a couple of times with a slotted spoon as it cooks so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. If the water is hot enough, it shouldn’t stick, but sometimes it does.
  7. When the timer goes off, lift your poached egg out of the pan with your slotted spoon and let the water drain away. If you want your egg to be free of water, carefully and briefly place it on a paper towel before serving. You’ll want it fairly dry it if you plan to serve your poached egg over toast.

A few serving tips. For one or two servings, take your dried/drained egg and place it on a SLIGHTLY oiled plate and hold it there to wait for another egg before moving it to a serving plate or toast.  Cooking for a crowd? Take your cooked egg straight from the pan and place immediately into a bowl with iced water (an ice bath) to hold until you’ve cooked all the eggs you need. You can keep cooked poached eggs in the ice water in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

To reheat your refrigerated eggs later, simply put hot tap water (as hot as your tap gets) into a bowl, transfer the eggs from the ice water into the hot tap water and let them sit for about 2 minutes.  They won’t cook more and will be warm for serving.

And now, you can enjoy perfectly poached eggs any time!

Home Entertaining in Style: The best way to build a collection of fine silver and crystal

The secret: estate sales, flea markets, thrift stores. And they’re fun!

For some folks, having the perfect set of home entertaining “ware” is a matter of inheritance. If you are one of the lucky ones to have inherited crystal, china, and silver–family heirlooms–then you have my envy.

Not me, not my mother. She didn’t want anything that my grandmother had. To be honest, I have no idea what my mother passed up and certainly don’t know what happened to those pieces. My parents preferred a very casual form of home entertaining, so the thought of polishing silver and washing crystal and fine china was just too much of a hassle.

I get it.  I have great friends who love to entertain like that – no silver, crystal, etc. and they throw some of the best parties around! One couple not far from me—celebrity film writers—own the biggest collection of mismatched vintage Melmac ware I’ve ever seen. It’s really something to behold. They even have some pieces that date back to the 1940’s.  It’s very cool and is completely their style.

I love to mix and match items on a dining table or buffet as well—but my style is more along the lines of silver, crystal, and fine china – sometimes mixed in with more casual items when the mood strikes! They don’t all match and they’re not all from the same time period. But, that mix of different styles, patterns, and materials creates lots of interest for my guests, so they’re great conversation starters. You never know when someone will point out an item that they love and want to know all about it. Even if I don’t know the exact story of that particular piece I do know where I got it and that starts the fun.

So, if you like finery or really any particular entertaining style, and if you’re like me with no family heirlooms, there’s the joy in finding different pieces while building a collection, adding to what you have, and replacing what gets broken (it happens). And, there’s no better way to do that than going to estate sales, flea markets and second-hand resale shops.

Estate sales can be found by simply googling – you will come up with a great website like Estatesales.net.

This site is convenient. You can search by state and then zip code for estate sales that are happening in your area.

There’s also Hughes Estate Sales here in Southern California where you get into whole collections of great pieces provided in a controlled environment.

They start on Fridays but I really like to go there on Sundays when the discounts are the biggest! This is where I found my Lalique juice glasses that you can see on my recent video.

Flea Markets can also be fun. I recommend checking Google for the best ones in your area. In Southern California, the one I like best is the Rose Bowl Flea Market, which happens on the 2nd Sunday of every month. Flea markets are hit and miss— so, don’t be sad if you go and you don’t find anything that day – there’s always next time. Bring along a friend and plan to spend some time looking around and having some fun while you’re at it.

Here are some basic collector tips that I’ve picked up along the way.

For either estate sales, flea markets or second-hand shops, be willing to take your time going through what’s there. Understand that just because on one day you find nothing doesn’t mean that the next week there won’t be a treasure waiting to be discovered.

Don’t go out looking for a perfect set of 8 or 12. In these venues, items are very often odd numbers in a set. For instance, I found a really nice set of nine etched crystal goblets at a Denver second-hand shop. That’s okay with me—my table only seats 6!

It helps to set goals. Think about what you need to build your collections. Maybe look at patterns, designs, and styles ahead of your outing: so easy to do with the Internet. Get familiar with types of things that you like and price ranges that you’re willing to pay so that you don’t spend a lot of time with dead ends.

And, always remember, silver turns black if not kept polished–so don’t be afraid even if the item is blackened. Pay closer attention to the overall quality of the article in terms of damage (dents, missing parts, and so on). If you find a tray you love, but the silver plate is worn out in some areas–don’t worry- you can always have silverware re-plated at a fraction of the cost of new.

Most of all, make it fun and bring your found treasures home with great stories to tell your guests.

Two Drink Recipes, for a Nice Summer Afternoon Spritz

Enjoy an afternoon wine spriz

Bringing you 2 fabulous spritz drinks to help you keep cool during California’s dog days of summer-early fall.

It’s not the end of summer in California until we endure those final “dog days” through early fall. It’ll be boiling here until Halloween! Sad for most kids because they’ve started school by now. Nice for us adults because we can sneak a dip into the pool with a nice spritzer before the kids get home from school!

When entertaining at home, we look for smooth, refreshing adult beverages for our guests. The easiest and most refreshing are the spritzes; a simple combination of wine (sparkling or not) and soda.  You can add liquors or bitters to alter the flavors. They’re really the easiest of cocktails to mix. You can watch me mix the Aperol Spritz here on my video.

Fun fact: Why are the last of the hottest days of the year called “dog days”?

Answer: Because at that time of the year, the constellation Canis Major (the big dog) starts appearing in the sky. The brightest star in that constellation is Sirius, which in Latin means dog – thus, the star is known as the dog star.

And I thought that it was just because dogs tend to lay about and snooze during the day when it’s hottest. I’ll figure out how to work this bit of trivia into my next cocktail patio party when I serve these simple and refreshing drinks. As always, use the largest ice cubes you can to avoid diluting the drinks.

I’ll start with the Aperol spritz I found on Epicurious.com.

If you love the taste of grapefruit and are excited about a drink that blends the taste of orange and some bubbly, then you’ll really enjoy this drink. It’s become one of my most favorite—especially during those hot “dog days.”

Pour into a large wine glass filled with large rocks of ice, and stir:

  • 2 ounces of Aperol (an Italian apéritif with a complex orange flavor).
  • 2 ounces of sparkling white wine (I use Valdo Prosecco, extra dry in my video)
  • 1 ounce of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (prefer “ruby red” variety).
  • A “splash” of soda water to taste.
  • ½ Grapefruit wheel as garnish (also “ruby red”).

Maybe citrus isn’t your flavor. That’s okay. Here’s another recipe from Epicurious that’s a bit sweeter. The base is the French liqueur St. Germain, made from elderflower. So, prepare for some floral brightness from this spritz.

Pour into a large wine glass filled with large rocks of ice, stir gently:

  • 4 ounces of sparkling white wine (again, I suggest Valdo Prosecco, extra dry)
  • 1½ ounces St. Germain liqueur
  • Splash of club soda to taste
  • A sprig of fresh cut lavender to garnish

Serving tip: I prefer serving these drinks in large stemless wine glasses. There’s a lot of liquid and ice here, and the drink might be a little top heavy if you try to mix and serve these spritzes in stemware. Either drink goes well with cold cut fruit to fight off the heat of the afternoon. Makes me think of sitting back on a balcony, enjoying a sunset overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice with friends.

Enjoy!

A Quick and Easy Weeknight Dinner Recipe for Tomato Feta Galette

Recipe for Tomato Feta Galette

Nothing fancy and so very easy; you can even serve this recipe at room temperature!

A long time ago I learned that the tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable. So, for years now I have been enjoying the expressions I get when someone asks me to name my favorite fruit and I say “tomato.”

Okay, so I’m siding with the botanists here because nutritionists still categorize it as a vegetable. Maybe it’s both! Uh oh, now I’ve just triggered a new conversation that’ll take at least an hour or so for people to Google on their phones. You know me and how much I love triggering conversations! It’s an art!

Seriously, though – fruit or veggie – the tomato is lovely to behold and sweet to eat no matter the variety – especially when it’s in season like it is now. I love them on anything – pasta, salads, and savory dishes. I’ll even eat one like an apple with a pinch of sea salt!

No surprise, I will try just about any recipe where tomatoes are the attore principale or ‘main actor’ in a dish like this quick and easy Tomato Feta Galette I found on one of my favorite recipe sources: The Kitchn (www.thekitchn.com).

The recipe involves just a bit of quick and easy preparation.  Check out my video where I show you how it’s done. Don’t be intimidated – everything you need is found at the store. The pie crust is even found in the refrigerated section of your grocery store (you can make it from scratch but it’s definitely NOT necessary).

The wonderful thing about this recipe is that it comes during the last weeks of summer where tomatoes are still in season (through September) and the patio beckons us to dine al fresco. Make this, add a simple salad and a glass of pinot grigio (if you like) and I guarantee a lovely informal evening with friends and a few more wonderful food memories.

You’ll need:

  • 1 pie crust; make one yourself if you really feel adventurous, but I used a store-bought pie crust and it tasted great.
  • 6 ounces of feta cheese.
  • 1 medium-sized shallot, sliced and separated into ‘rings’
  • 1 TBS fresh thyme leaves (just slide your fingers down the stalk – and pull the leaves off) plus a couple of sprigs of thyme for decoration
  • 1 TBS basil leaves, chopped
  • ½ tsp kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp fresh ground pepper
  • 3 medium-sized tomatoes (about 1 pound), sliced about ¼” thick.
  • A large baking sheet (at least 12” wide).
  • Parchment paper, or a Silpat nonstick baking mat if you have one for the baking sheet

Preparation:

  1. Be sure to preheat your oven to 400°F and position the rack in about the middle of the oven.
  2. Lightly flour a flat surface and use a floured rolling pin to roll out the pie crust dough to about 12” diameter. It doesn’t have to be perfectly round. The pie crust will end up about 1/8” thick.
  3. When you’re done, gently roll up the pie crust dough around the rolling pin and lay it out onto the prepared baking sheet. You’ll want that parchment paper or silpat to make sure the galette won’t stick to the pan.
  4. Sprinkle the feta evenly onto the dough. Leave about a 2” margin from the edge, then add the shallots, thyme leaves, basil, salt, and pepper. Lay the tomatoes over the cheese and herbs.
  5. Fold the edges of the dough over the top of the tomatoes. Pleat the dough every so often by pinching it. My video will show you how that’s done. Don’t sweat perfection – the more ‘lumpy’ it looks, the better.
  6. Top it off with the sprigs of thyme.
  7. Bake for about 40 to 45 minutes or until the crust is golden-brown and the tomatoes are soft. Remove from the oven and let it sit for about 5 minutes, then transfer it to a wire baker’s rack to chill out for another 10-15 minutes.
  8. Serve warm or at room temperature for a party of six with good-sized portions.

A tip about the tomatoes in this recipe: tomatoes are super juicy and full of water. Avoid ending up with a soggy crust bottom by making sure that you use enough feta to cover the pie crust dough entirely. This will keep tomato juices from soaking into the crust while baking.

That’s about it. Enjoy the last days of summer!

How will you pick the perfect wine glasses for your home?

Wine glasses with Fran

With so many options, designs, and ideas sometimes it’s hard to settle on a choice – unless you have some professional help.

They say that if you really know what you want in life, making decisions is easy.  But, that theory doesn’t always apply evenly to all things.

Picture this: you move to a new home, and you want everything fresh. So, you start with wine glasses. Seems simple enough, right? You go to a store where you know the selection will be excellent, and suddenly you realize – oh my gosh, there are so many! How do I choose?

The problem for all of us is that we can’t always picture in our mind what kind of dishes we want for daily use, what style of silverware, table service, or even shape of wine glasses! How about those wine glasses? Go to your favorite store and you will find dozens of different styles and designs – all for the same purpose – drinking wine. Some are based on different types of wines you can serve, but most are focused on functionality and the style you want to add to your home entertaining experiences. That’s where it gets even more complicated.

I know, it may seem sometimes like I have all the time in the world, traveling, going to really great restaurants, writing blogs and producing videos. The fact is I’m a home entertaining consultant. What that means is that I work with my clients to help them make those difficult choices so that they can entertain with ease and grace. I interview them about their tastes, habits, preferences, and dreams. I bring together every detail about what they envision for their home and how they want to feel when they sit down with friends and family around a table. I use my years of experience in the restaurant business and home entertaining to guide them through all of the dozens and dozens of options.

Which is exactly what I did for a client recently.

She was a little overwhelmed, but she easily articulated to me her goals. For instance, she told me how she and her family like to eat at home and how she likes to entertain casually. We talked some more, and she shared that they also love to drink wine with their dinner every night. So wine glasses were essential, however, she wasn’t so picky about separate glasses for red and white wines. I narrowed it down for her – simplified her choices to a ‘universal’ wine glass in a style that she loved that could work for both types of wine for everyday use.

Based on what I learned from my client, I had a sense of what she wanted for everything else – from the kitchen to the dining room. Then I discovered that she and her family also like to dine al fresco, weather permitting, but didn’t like the idea of “ugly plastic stuff” in her home. Who says outdoor plastic glasses and plates have to be ugly? I found a selection of beautiful plates, serving pieces and fabulous durable glasses that will hold up well, look great on her patio and that she could love.

Yes, life is all about making choices. Some are worth spending hours to make.  But some choices are a lot easier than you think and should be more fun. Maybe all you need is a little help.

5 Minute Recipe for Parmesan Crisps – for salad or snacking

parmesan crisps

A quick recipe for Parmesan Crisps that will also introduce you to the Silpat non-stick baking mat.

Here’s a recipe that you can literally use for anything – add to a salad, as a topping for a dish, or just for snacking. One very nice benefit of this recipe, if you haven’t been already introduced to the “Silpat,” here’s your opportunity because they will make your cooking/baking life so much easier.

Silpats are made from fiberglass and food-grade silicone. Use them with a high-quality baking sheet, and NOTHING will stick to them. They can be washed and reused thousands of times. They’re approved by every international agency that watches out for food safety, and they’re Kosher certified. Every professional kitchen has been using these products for years. In fact, they’re so commonplace among chefs and bakers that saying the name ‘Silpat’ is like saying “Kleenex” or “Xerox”. There’s nothing else like it.

One more thing about Silpats – they do save lots of time, but they can also make a whole world of difference on the final taste of your dish. Just think: no more after-taste from whatever greasy non-stick oil or spray you usually use on your baking sheet. You can learn more about them from the Silpat company website. And, the best thing is you can buy them just about anywhere. I got mine from Sur La Table – you can see it in my recent video.

Aside from the Silpat, you’ll need finely grated Parmesan cheese. For the best flavor, I highly recommend cheese from Parmigiano-Reggiano. This cheese comes directly from the Parma region of Emilia Romagna in Tuscany, Italy. It’s the original, it’s the best, and you’ll love the nutty taste.  Unfortunately, if you try this with a standard parmesan cheese you may end up with a ‘bitter’ tasting crisp!

  1. Before you do anything, preheat your oven to 400F degrees. I can’t stress this enough.  You want to put your baking sheet into a hot oven or the cheese won’t melt well.
  2. Place a Silpat baking pan liner directly on your cookie sheet.
  3. Spoon out piles of the grated cheese directly on the Silpat. Your piles can be as big or small as you like. Then gently press the cheese piles into a round shape – they don’t have to be perfectly flat. When the grated cheese melts, the rounds will end up whatever size you flatten them to. They won’t spread, but don’t crowd them on the Silpat – leave a bit of space in between.
  4. Bake for about 4-5 minutes until they are golden and crisp.  Be sure to watch them because they can turn too crispy quickly.
  5. Allow the rounds to cool for a couple of minutes and then gently transfer to parchment paper to hold for your party.  Serve them at room temperature.

They can be stored in an airtight container for no more than 3 days.  Be sure to place parchment paper between the layers of the crisps, so they don’t stick to each other.

You could ‘float’ small crisps in tomato soup or sprinkle them on top of a Caesar salad or even break up larger ones as a quick appetizer with wine.  Serve them with just about any light crisp white wine or even a light red like a Syrah.

Have fun and enjoy!

Party Etiquette: Which bread plate is mine?

Don't be confused by etiquette

This tip will save you from the embarrassment of grabbing the wrong bread plate (or wine glass) at a formal party.

A friend of mine told me this story about one of the first formal parties he attended. It was one of those kinds of affairs where someone pulled out all the stops. And despite all the preparation and reading, he had no idea what to do.

“Suddenly, I had performance anxiety,” he laughs.

“There was every imaginable utensil, plate, glass and other things I’ve never seen set on the table,” he said. “I was confused, but then I discovered that my neighbor was confused – in fact, I think the whole table was completely at a loss.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“We shared. We made it work,” he laughed. “Even the host thought it was amusing.”

The funny part is, my friend is the maître d’ of a five-star restaurant in Laguna Beach, CA where table rules are the standard for every meal. Beyond plates and utensils, there are practical rules like no elbows on the table, no reaching in front of the person next to you, always say “please” and “thank you,” and so on.

My historian friend tells me that table manners evolved over time since the early Renaissance as a part of the cultural revolution. But how about this as a surprise – table rules probably began in Italy (yay!) and not France. Cultural anthropologists (there’s a title for you) attribute the move toward universal social manners with a book written in 1558 by the poet Giovanni della Casa titled “Galateo.” In it, he describes all kinds of manners, including washing hands before sitting down, the use of hands while eating, and the way of putting food into your mouth.

Today, rules cover a myriad of things, right up to how and when one sits at a formal dinner table if royalty is present. But for your table, it’s the bread plate.

The first tip, from my friend the career Maître d’, is that at a party where nobody is sure whose bread plate is whose (much less, which plate is the bread plate), don’t feel bad. Nobody else is sure either. The person on the other side is just as confused and bewildered as you are.

The second tip, from me – keep your cool and ask questions. Dinner is to be an enjoyable, friendly experience. Nothing good happens if you feel like you’re taking a test.

The third tip is a little trick I picked up a long time ago. Touch your thumb and forefinger together to form a small “d” with your right hand and a little “b” with your left. Now, think of the little “d” on your right hand. It stands for “drink.” Those glasses on your right are yours. The little “b” on left-hand stands for “bread.” That’s YOUR bread plate!

Now you’ll never be confused again.

8 Must-Have Items for your Home Bar

8 must-have home bar

Spare yourself the last-minute run-around – get these 8 handy home bar tools now.   

Next to food, drinks are a main hospitality ‘go-to’ especially if you plan to get serious with home entertaining. Of course, I’m talking specifically about adult mixed drinks. Whether you plan to mix something as complex as a Commonwealth (with 71 different ingredients!) or as simple as a Negroni (equal parts, 3 ingredients), you need some essential bar tools.

Before you wave me off and say, “Fran – I’ll improvise,” think about all the tools you have for preparing and serving food. As my dad always said, “You’ve got to have the right tools for the right job.” You wouldn’t forget spoons or forks, would you? Serving plates and bowls? How about cookware and a set of wooden cooking spoons?  We all have our ‘must haves’ in our kitchens.

So, why is it any different for the home bar? If all you have today is a bottle opener, one rusty cork puller, and a single shot glass, it’s time. Intimidated? Don’t be. Just about every mix recipe you find online and in books comes with careful step-by-step instructions on what to use, how, and when. You’ll be mixing like a pro in absolutely no time at all. The best part, your mixed drinks will actually taste better, they’ll look more appetizing, and you’ll have more fun mixing them!

Here’s your list of the 8 ‘must-have’ bartending tools for your home bar:

  1. A high-quality stainless steel jigger is basically two measuring cups stuck together to form a kind of hour-glass shape. Typically, the bigger end measures 1½ ounce (or “one jigger”), and the other measures ¾ ounces (or a “half jigger”) – the most common measurements for drink ingredients. Pay attention to the jigger that you buy as some of them are 1 ounce and ½ ounce. The OXO has measurements inside each cup so you can use it for ANY drink recipe.  This is an indispensable tool for mixing up perfect drinks every time. No conversion with cups or measuring spoons, and no clumsy messing around with shot glasses.
  2. Good ice cube molds are much better than the regular ice trays you have for daily use. First, you want larger cubes for your drink as they melt slower than normal or smaller cubes and keep drinks colder longer without diluting it. Secondly, there are all sorts of fun shapes and sizes – ones that will fill a standard highball glass with a big cube or a single sphere. You can find very nice “ice molds” from Tovolo, Rabbit Wine, and W&P Design.
  3. Muddlers are extremely handy for extracting the oils and flavor from mint leaves or other herbs – even fruit. With fruit, you can ‘muddle’ with gusto, but with herbs and citrus peels, I suggest a gentler touch because over-muddling can produce a bitter taste. Use muddlers for mixing mojitos, mint juleps, and caipiroska (a tasty vodka drink with lime wedges and sugar muddled together).
  4. There’s nothing more indispensable than a two-piece cocktail shaker. When you shake a drink, it not only chills it properly but also creates the proper dilution and aeration (adding air) for the beverage. Get a separate strainer if yours doesn’t come with one – you don’t want the errant bits of ice poured into your glass.
  5. You’ll need a bar spoon – for stirred cocktails – Manhattan or Martini (if you’re not James Bond) or mixes with floating layers. They’re long handled and narrow (teaspoons are too short and too wide). This one from OXO can spin while you stir, which is kinda fun!
  6. A fresh fruit juicer is important for many, many cocktails – lemons, limes, oranges or even pomegranates. Buy one large enough that can handle most citrus.
  7. Good garnishes are important for great mixed drinks, so don’t skimp. Use fresh fruit, herbs, and high-quality cherries and onions. Absolutely avoid neon colored cherries – they look bad and taste terrible. I recommend Luxardo maraschino cherries and Reese sour cocktail onions.
  8. Cocktail books are also important to have around, even if you have some experience. Don’t go crazy and get a “masters” level ‘mixology’ book unless you have master-level skills. Start easy and simple, like “The Bartender’s Black Book” – 150 easy-to-read, simple to mix recipes, along with useful mixing tips.

There are lots of places to go for bar tools. I like the selection and quality of OXO. You can also find some great tools from Crate&Barrel and Sur la Table. Happy mixing!

How to deseed and chop a jalapeño

Fran Berger chopping jalapenos

If you love cooking, then technique matters: the right way to prepare jalapeños for your recipe.

One of the things I’ve learned about home cooking: you don’t have to actually be a chef to cook excellent meals. But, I have so many chef friends that I have cooked with that I’ve been able pick up a trick or two. One of the most important culinary techniques I have learned from them is that the little things really count.  “Details detail details!” as a chef-friend often says in her kitchen. And some details are easy to miss, but once you see it, you’ll never forget.

For instance, deseeding and chopping jalapeño peppers. Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe you just thought that if a recipe calls for jalapeño peppers that it was going to be spicy. So, you washed them and cut them like anyone else. Perhaps that’s okay for a Super Bowl party dip, but let’s say you found a recipe that calls for jalapeños and you want to include the dish in a nice dinner for a special friend, or a special occasion?

Here’s the deal. Most of the time, when a recipe calls for jalapeño, the taste you want is from the pepper itself, not the heat that you often think of. The flavor of a jalapeño is surprisingly subtle, maybe a bit tart, not at all hot. The famed spiciness or heat actually comes from the ‘capsaicin’ that’s contained in jalapeño seeds and the white material that surrounds them.

For that reason, deseeding and chopping a jalapeño pepper the right way can be very important. All we want to do is keep those little seeds and the white stuff around them from joining our mix and changing the flavor of our meal.

My video gives you a very detailed demonstration of how this works:

  1. First things first, pick your peppers the way you choose fruit (freshness, firmness, aroma). Then select for size and color depending on your recipe.
  2. Bring your peppers home and then wash them (common sense step), and damp dry.
  3. Use a sharp knife (essential). In my video, I use my santoku. Cut and turn just the sides off. Cut each side, one at a time.
  4. You’ll have the stem core, with the seeds intact. They’re okay to eat, but they’re spicy. Some recipes may call for adding them.
  5. Remove the ‘ribs’ or any white parts left over from the core. Just lay your knife sideways on top of the pepper and slide across to trim off.
  6. It’s easier to cut into strips if the skin side is facing the cutting board instead of facing up.
  7. Then cut each section into ‘julienne’ or thin strips (skin side down).
  8. Gather the julienne strips together and then cut across to create cubes if you want.

As I said, it’s so easy. Now even your jalapeño game day dip will taste that much better. Happy cooking!

7 “Must-Have” items for a well-stocked pantry

The Well-stocked Pantry

You’ll be ready for just about anything if you keep these items in stock at home at all times.

I keep my pantry well-stocked at all times. I owe that habit to years in the restaurant business. One of the chef’s assistants always ran a thorough checklist of the pantry at the opening and closing of the restaurant. It would be unthinkable to open the doors with a ‘short’ pantry.

The reasons for keeping a well-stocked pantry at home are not so different than for a restaurant. At a restaurant, it’s a matter of efficiency. If you run out of ingredients, you’ll have disappointed customers. At home, let’s say you have guests coming over for lunch or dinner. Do you want to run out of groceries just as you start cooking?

If you keep these 7 items in your pantry you’ll be able to create all kinds of meals at the drop of a hat. Think about the times when the phone rings and – boom – a friend is on the way. You’ll be ready!

The first thing to remember is it should always be quality over quantity.  What I mean by that is, with these basics, you want the best you can find to ensure that your effort to be prepared is never in vain. I’m of the mind that if you’re going to go through the effort of cooking, why not start with the best possible ingredients.

So, here’s my inventory for your well-stocked pantry. Watch my video as I run through the items:

  1. I set this out separately from ‘seasonings’ because salt is used for so many things in the kitchen. But don’t rely on just any salt – it really should be sea salt. Sea salt is not as salty as production table salt and is a lot easier to control while cooking.
  2. Whole peppercorns are far better than regular ground pepper. Freshly crushed peppercorns bring complexity to any dish: texture, aroma, taste. Jars of whole peppercorns can be found in any grocery or kitchen store. You may be tempted to keep fresh herbs around. They’re always a great add to a recipe but it’s not always practical to keep them ‘just in case’.  That’s why I keep small jars of high quality dried herbs in my pantry. To be honest, in many cases, they’re just as good for adding a concentrated flavor to any dish. My go-to dried spices: rosemary, thyme, and basil from either Spice Islands or Spice Hunter (both are very good).
  3. It’s important to always buy produce in season to get the max flavor and that’s especially important with tomatoes whose growing season is really only from June 1 through mid-September. So, when it’s January and the fresh ones are not great I use the next best thing, a great can of tomatoes. Good canned tomatoes can make a huge flavor difference. I recommend Tuttorosso Tomatoes, Muir Glen, or Simpson Brands – you can make just about anything with these canned tomatoes, and they taste great even when a recipe calls for fresh tomatoes.
  4. Good wine. Resist the bottom shelves at the grocery store. It is definitely tempting to use a cheap wine to cook with. My rule is that you only cook with wine that you would drink. That doesn’t mean it’s the most expensive bottle you have – but an affordable one that pleases anyone’s palate. It will make all the difference in the world for your finished dish.
  5. Fresh Citrus. Among the citrus, you especially want to keep lemons. They add a brightness to any dish. But you can’t go wrong with keeping some limes and oranges as well.
  6. Dried beans are a great addition to so many dishes. Dried beans are also much better texture than their canned counterparts. Just remember to soak them overnight!
  7. Great olive oil (Extra Virgin if it’s in my pantry). If you want the full-bodied flavor that can make or break a dish, make sure your oil comes in a dark glass or metal container. You can’t go wrong with extra virgin olive oil from Mandranova, Long Meadow Ranch, or Davis Estates. Use “the good stuff” for cooking and to finish a dish – your taste buds will thank you.

That’s my 7. You may think of others to keep in your pantry that work with your favorite recipes. The goal is to keep yourself well-stocked with enough basics that you can cook up just about any dish at any time and you’ll always be ready for that last-minute party!