A Sparkling ‘Welcome’ Drink for Your Guests

Fran Berger Sparkling Punch

A great recipe for a truly fruity drink: Freixenet, Cointreau, Cranberries, and Oranges!

When entertaining at home planning is everything. If it’s a themed party, you want just the right decorations for your guests to enjoy. If you’re hosting a formal dinner or a casual gathering, you’ll want to make sure that the home décor is as fabulous as it can be. And, naturally, you want the menu to be flawless – everything just so, no matter if you have it catered or cook every dish yourself. Twenty years of running restaurants – I KNOW that pressure. But it’s all for fun – not just for your guests but for you as well.

That’s why I always say that a great home entertaining event is planned – everything from the arrival of the first guest all the way to clean up after the last guest leaves. When you take time to plan your event you won’t as easily forget the small details that can make huge differences in the flow of the evening. One of those small details is a ‘welcome’ drink- a mixed cocktail that you hand each guest as they arrive. A simple drink at the very start of the party that can help jump start a successful entertaining experience for everyone.

Sometimes it can take a bit of effort to find new and exciting party drink ideas that can be made in batches. But, it can absolutely be a whole lot of fun trying out different styles of beverages and new ingredients.  When I start my research, I spend a lot of time reading recipes and talking to friends of mine who are bartenders. Sometimes I think that I might have made a good bartender, well, maybe not. But I do love to experiment with mixing drinks for my parties and get-togethers.

One thing I’ve learned is that the ‘welcome’ drink can’t be just any drink. You should match the right kind of drink for the right type of event just as you do with anything else. Think of it as though it were the opening lines of a conversation – because that’s really what it is!

For instance, if you’re hosting an all girl’s night and the weather’s cold, maybe a bloody Mary ‘soup’ will be just the thing to serve. Here is the recipe and I also made a video of what it’s like to prepare. It’s delicious and easy.  You can definitely serve it with or without the vodka shot on top and still have a great drink!

Here’s a sparkling fruit punch that I found on Chowhound that’s perfect for a fun gathering any time of year. It takes about five minutes to prepare with a little time extra to chill some of the ingredients. The beauty of this cold sparkling wine punch is that you don’t use any ice. It stays cold because all of the ingredients are either frozen or chilled prior to mixing:

  • 2 whole navel oranges, thin sliced into discs (about ¼’ thick) This will yield about 8 slices
  • 2/3 Cup cranberries (frozen is okay, but it’s better if they’re fresh).
  • 3 Cups, Ocean Spray “100% Juice” Cranberry
  • 2 (750 ml) Bottles of Freixenet Cordon Negro brut sparkling wine.
  • ¾ Cup chilled Cointreau Orange Liqueur (add to taste, see below).

Quantities for each ingredient depend on how many guests you are serving. This recipe will give you about 12 drinks.  Here are a few tips I have for preparation:

  • Thoroughly clean the oranges (before slicing) and fresh cranberries. They’re going straight into the punch unpeeled, so this is a definite must.
  • As I mentioned before, you’re not going to add any ice to this punch, so it doesn’t come out diluted. For that reason, it’s always best to prepare it just before your guests arrive.
  • If you want to aim for a genuine fruit flavor, then you want to get the bottle of Ocean Spray that says “100% Juice” on the label and not one of their ‘cranberry and—’ juices. Cranberry juice is nice and tart, so this punch won’t be too sweet.
  • Lay out the fruit (orange slices and cranberries) on sheet trays before you place them into the freezer to keep them from freezing together. You will want to freeze them for about an hour.  If you’re using frozen cranberries – keep them in the freezer until you add them to the punch.
  • Cointreau Orange Liqueur has a very distinctive taste that will really bring out the orange flavor of the punch.
  • Pour all of the ingredients into a chilled punch bowl just before guests arrive and serve. Make sure that each cup of punch has some cranberries at least!

Enjoy!

Upgrade your Coffee Table or Dining Room Table

Fran Berger home decor ideas

Make a statement with cool accents and fabulous conversation starters.

A lesson I learned from my mother: if it has dust on it, it’s been out too long. The lesson from that idea may not be what you immediately think. She tended to toss things out and wasn’t very fond of collecting (even silver I’m sad to say). BUT she did like to change out her home décor from season to season so that the whole house seemed to constantly renew itself. Truly, one of the only things that stayed the same was the amazing Chinese Red silk wallpaper she had put on the ceiling in the living room!

The focal point of your living room is your coffee table. It really is the center of the room, you literally sit at it. For that fact alone, it’s probably one of the first things in your whole house that your guests notice. Imagine what happens when you go to a friend’s home and you see this beautiful Fabergé egg on the coffee table. You know the kind – intricate porcelain design – amazing colors. It’s a fabulous egg. It’s gorgeous. But year after year it’s in the same spot and is never moved. It now becomes a boring egg, doesn’t it? What fun is it once everyone has seen it so often that it becomes ‘old news’?

Because it is the center of attention, the coffee table is potentially your best tool for starting conversations. If you want to be a star in home entertaining, this is your stage. At least, it’s one of them. From the time that guests first arrive until the last one leaves; what’s on your coffee table can trigger icebreaker conversations. Sometimes there’s a lull in the conversation but the décor on your coffee table can help keep the ‘buzz’ going.

True story: a friend of mine collects what she calls “stupid stuff” like toys and bobbleheads. It is kinda silly – I have to admit – and I’m not the biggest fan. But there we were at a recent gathering, laughing and giggling over these silly things. It really started off a great evening on the right foot. She’s a terrific cook and always serves some of the best food and drink but I think it even made everything she served taste that much better.

Let me put one big caveat on what I mean by “changing out” your home décor. I don’t mean to say you shouldn’t be attached to certain items in your home, even if they have to be dusted off, from time to time. But, think about what can easily be refreshed which might mean only adding a couple of items but moving what you do love to different spots so that they look new.

I have some examples that can start wonderful conversations. They’re easy upgrades for your coffee table or dining room table: cool accents that will set off just about any room. Watch my video to see them in my home.

Let’s start with what we can call the center attraction. I’m already getting ready for a spring look (it’s been pretty sunny here in Cali), so I looked around and found glass sculptures from Kosta Boda. I fell in love with a piece called “My Wild Life” by master glass artist, Ludvig Löfgren. The pieces are not mass produced – each piece is a unique work of art.

Then I found a collection by Michael Aram that I think complements the room. I selected a piece called Butterfly Ginkgo Centerpiece that’s made from natural bronze and nickelplate. The Ginkgo Biloba or Butterfly Ginkgo is a tree that has leaves that look like butterflies.

I liked the Kosta Boda piece so much that I went back for more and found these colored glass brick candle holders that are especially lovely for tea lights. Remember, design looks best in odd numbers – in this case three, especially candles and candle holders. And if you don’t like the hassle of real candles, I recommend flameless candles from Crate and Barrel.

Finally. A nice ‘coffee table’ book is always a great way to set off a conversation. If you pick a travel book, make it someplace you’ve been or is on your ‘bucket list’. I have books about Italy, India, and places all over the U.S. Other types of books work – depending on your interests: historic photojournalism (e.g., great moments in history), art books, astronomy, architecture, flowers – or even pets, if you have a penchant for cute and cuddly.

The point is – make the centerpiece the center of conversation. That means it should change with your life and the seasons. Your guests will love it. And to be honest, so will you!

The Perfect Valentine’s Day Adult Beverage

Happy Valentine's Day - from Russia with Love

Celebrate love and friendships with this favorite cocktail recipe.

There’s more to a mixed drink than a chunk of fruit, a swizzle stick, and a little paper umbrella. Most people think of mixed drinks as “cocktails” and some mixes are so popular that they’ve become cultural standards. Practically everyone knows, for instance, that a Martini (either Gin or Vodka) can be shaken or stirred. What would tacos be without Margaritas? And, I can’t think of many adults who haven’t heard the Eagles song “Tequila Sunrise,” and then tried a glass at least once in their lifetime.

Mixed drinks can be so much fun, sweet or savory, and they have a ton of history behind them. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word “cocktail” originated in the U.S., but this may have referred to any mixed drink but it didn’t have to be alcoholic. Then there are a few obscure American publications from the early 1800s that actually define cocktails as a “stimulating liquor” mixed with other spirits. But, the word ‘cocktail’ (unless you’re talking about shrimp or crab) is commonly used to refer to any generic mixed beverage that contains at least two ingredients (could be a whole lot more!) with one of those ingredients containing alcohol.

A friend of mine is a career bartender. He has a huge bookshelf dedicated to what seems like every type of mixed drink known to humankind. Some of his books even date back to the 1920s. I mean, it’s really an impressive collection. That bookshelf would be so easy to get lost in – if you’re like me and you like to read recipes!

But, what most people don’t know is that there’s more to “mixology” (the art of creating and mixing alcoholic beverages) than just preparing mixed drinks. It’s also a study of trends and style. I’ve gone to many parties where professional bartenders in black and white uniforms mixed fabulous drinks with tools like jiggers, shot glasses, stirring rods and strainers. I’ve also been to events where the bartenders dressed in t-shirts and swimsuits and poured ingredients into holes at the top of huge ice sculptures where the drinks dribbled out – already mixed – from spigots near the bottom.

Some of the best drinks I’ve had were mixed by friends – or ones that I mixed for them. The drink is always far more memorable when shared with friends for a celebration like a birthday, an anniversary, or in this case, Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day just happens to be one of those “special days” that people tend to focus on love. And, of course, since we’re talking Valentine’s Day, there are so many special cocktail recipes to choose from.
One comes from a favorite website – thekitchn.com – they always have great ideas. I searched their site and this year they have a really fabulous Valentines Champagne Cocktail recipe that caught my eye.  It was simple to create, had only a couple of ingredients (chocolate!) and was so pretty.

It combines Chambord – a raspberry liquor, Dark Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, with one of my favorite champagnes – Veuve Clicquot. Not sure if it ever gets better than raspberries, dark chocolate, and champagne for Valentine’s.  They garnished theirs with coco nibs but I love how raspberries look floating in champagne so I just changed the garnish!

This recipe makes one drink.

  • 1/2 ounce Dark Godiva Chocolate Liqueur
  • 1/2 ounce Chambord
  • Champagne, to fill
  • Fresh Raspberries, for garnish, optional

Drop a couple of raspberries into a champagne flute and pour in the Godiva and the Chambord. Then top with chilled Champagne. This is so easy you can set up a whole tray to be ready at your front door as your guests arrive if you’re having a party – OR – if it’s just you and your ‘SO’, then this special cocktail is perfect for you. When you want that second drink, it’s so fast to make.

How to host an EASY and fun Super Bowl Party

Fran's Super Bowl Tips

Two big tips and one great recipe idea for #Superbowl #SB52 – Good Food, Good Friends, Great Times.

I have hosted a ton of Super Bowl Parties at my home and, I’ve been a guest at quite a few of them as well. I’ve tried doing it a lot of different ways but a casual affair like this should always be fun – for everyone. And that calls for my “go-to” Super Bowl party plan – a tiny bit of variety along with an easy setup. Everything is set up with what a friend of mine calls a ‘quick snap’: one cup, one napkin, one plate (or bowl), and you’re back to the game.

It goes without saying that we want cold beverages that go best with whatever it is that’s on the menu. I think a good set for the icebox will include sodas, beer, and bottled water. But don’t forget your friends who like mixables. I’ll keep it simple this year – I’m serving Mexican food so we’ll be mixing margaritas with Casa Sauza Tequila Reposado, Jose Cuervo Salt, and a big bottle of 1800 Tequila Margarita mix. But for those of us that like our tequila “neat” (no mixers or even ice!) it will be Don Julio 1942.

And to go with that margarita or sipping tequila, a favorite recipe from bon appétitChili con Queso – basically a layered dip with taco meat, queso (cheese!), with guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo on the side. Watch me cook up this easy recipe on video.

Check out the bon appetit website for the full recipe. This is an easy one, but there’s always room to make a few things better. These are my recommendations:

  • Make sure that you read the recipe through. I often go over a recipe two or three times just to make sure that I didn’t miss anything.
  • Chop and cut everything ahead of time (mise en place – or ‘everything in its place’). You can usually put all the wet ingredients that will be added at the same time in one bowl, all the veggies that are added at the same time in one bowl, and any dry ingredients (spices, etc.) that are added at the same time in another bowl. Fewer bowls equals less clean up!
  • I “seed” my tomatoes – simply pull off the seeds from the middle of the tomatoes before I chop. It adds less water to the finished product. The recipe doesn’t call for it, but I like to do it anyway.
  • Use Kosher Salt as it is less ‘salty’ than table salt and easier to control. It comes in a big box and can be found in any grocery store.
  • I used sharp cheddar cheese instead of mild for more flavor.
  • I used finely shredded cheeses because they melt almost instantly.

Now, if you’re only using your taco chips for something light like a simple salsa dip then any of the thin fresh tortilla chips will work, BUT if you want to dip into this layered Queso, you will need a thicker chip that won’t break.  You can make your own, but why go through the bother and mess when really all you need is a sturdy chip like Mission Tortilla Triangles.

Finally – my tip of tips for entertaining at home – don’t use china for a casual get together like the Super Bowl.  But, you do want to use something much sturdier than regular paper plates so they will hold up well under the weight of the food. If you’re dipping into this Queso, arm yourself with sturdy stuff that will not fold up on people’s laps. I like the disposable bowls, plates, cups, and utensils by EMI Yoshi.  I’m even using platters from them for the chips. They look really great and you can find them on Amazon.

May the best team win!

Time to Clean out the Kitchen Drawers?

Kitchen Updates

Out with the old tools and the odds gadgets – and make sure you get these must-haves.

It’s true that there’s a list of ‘must haves’ that every good home cook should have at their fingertips. But for me, after twenty years in the restaurant business, I’ve become clutter intolerant. Especially in the kitchen. So that list of must-haves has gotten shorter and shorter. Of course, I have a little story.

Several years back, I went to a friend’s home for a dinner party. I volunteered to help out with some of the preparations. Big mistake.  My friend was very proud of her gadgets – she had one thing that automatically chopped veggies, another thing that sliced them, and yet another weird thing that diced. She had drawers and drawers of more things that I seriously doubt she had ever used but maybe once. But here’s the thing: she didn’t have a single peeler that worked. Nada! Worse yet – no sharp knives or any way to sharpen them, which is a little pet peeve of mine. How can anyone cook without sharp knives?  A dull knife is the most dangerous tool in the kitchen.

I’ll admit that the more you cook, the more likely you’ll accumulate a collection of kitchen tools and gadgets that could fill two or three drawers. My mother was like that. She had so much stuff! And some of it was great – but I knew she only used most of it once or twice at a Thanksgiving dinner – while I was still living at home! At some point, you really have to take a cold hard look at some of this clutter and get rid of it.

I’m not talking about tossing out a favorite spoon (I have a short wooden spoon that’s over 20 years old!) or any of the big items like mixing bowls and cookware. I’m talking about the small stuff that fills drawers and clutters the kitchen. Another point – while I’m at it – tools and gadgets don’t last forever. Even favorite peelers eventually get dull and stop working. Worse yet, some tools have been used so much that they’re hard to clean, which is not good.

My solution! Start over. Dump everything that has aged or simply doesn’t work, and replace it with new stuff.

I did that last year. And it was fun. I went to one of my favorite stores – Crate and Barrel – and bought a brand-new set of kitchen tools by OXO. And what did I get? What I call, my ‘Must-Have Five’:

1.        Measuring cups and measuring spoons – yes both. This is one item that I seem to accumulate over the year. Most of the extra cups and spoons I get are from friends who came by to help cook (experienced home cooks often bring their own tools). I like the metal ones – I just feel like I’m getting a better measure from a metal spoon or cup.

2.        I love my wooden mixing spoons. Good ones are keepers. But like all things wood (example: cutting boards), eventually, you’ll have to part with them. You may see me in my videos also cooking with bamboo paddles. At any given time, I may have four or five of each of these extremely handy tools.

3.        Tongs – because who doesn’t need tongs? They’re indispensable for turning meat and veggies in a fryer, broiler, grill or pan. They’re handy for all sorts of reasons. So, I’ll have two or three of these – different lengths. And if you have non-stick cookware, make sure that you get the ones with coated tips so they won’t scratch.

4.        Can Opener – Oh yes. Have you ever tried to open a can without one? I have a funny story I’ll tell you sometime about a friend who went out to the desert with his family without one. But there are so many types! I like the basic hand crank edge opener.  These are the ones that open the can under the ridge so there are no sharp edges on the lid.  They’re easy to clean, and they’re small enough that they fit in a drawer easily.

5.        Peeler – If you cook at home, you must have at least one sharp and functioning peeler. Remember that these gadgets break or dull often. A peeler should be able to peel a raw carrot easily. If it skips or gouges, time to replace. Peelers are also great for making lemon zest that goes with quite a few recipes I know.

Last word – this list does not include what I think of as the essential tools like spatulas, sharp knives, whisk, potato masher, and rubber scrapers. If you bake, you want a good rolling pin. If you grate cheese, a nice box grater is good to have. But please – try to resist buying that electronic chopper on the clearance table. You’ll never use it again. Just sayin.

Tips and Hints for your Outdoor Winter Décor

outdoor decor

Because your home should look as good on the outside as it does on the inside.

Yards look so sad this time of year, especially the backyard.  The grass goes brown and the trees are mostly bare. Add to this, the persistent gloom of cloudy grey skies.

But – that doesn’t mean you can’t fight the gloom with a little strategic outdoor décor. I’m not talking about a massive makeover. I’m just thinking about simple things that can make your front door more inviting. And everything I’m going to suggest would work great whether you live in an apartment, condo, or a single-family home – simply adjust the size and number of items for the space you have!

When thinking about the ‘curb appeal’ of your home, what do you want people to see? If you want the front door to be more inviting, get yourself an evergreen wreath. The Greeks and Romans used wreaths to celebrate just about anything worthwhile. And guests like the welcoming symbol of an evergreen wreath. Take a look at the different wreath designs on Etsy or something simple like this preserved laurel wreath I found on Wayfair.com

Maybe you have a big planter near your front door that you fill with floral annuals in the summertime. But it’s cold out now and it’s empty. Fill it with Birch branches or even wood logs. You don’t have to actually have a fireplace inside for the look to be inviting outside! A friend of mine went to a flea market and picked up an old tin bucket that she placed outside. She used it to place some branches and twigs to give her front door a nice rustic look.

For the backyard patio, friends of mine just added some small potted evergreen trees for color. That gave another friend a great idea. She added a few pine cones to the patio table along with some large hurricane lamps – like an airy large glass lantern or a more contemporary lantern style – both from Pottery Barn.  You can also place these hurricanes by the front door for extra warmth in the evening.

Now, the question – what to put into the lanterns? Real candles or electronic ones? I like the electronic “flameless” candles from Pottery Barn. Yes, nothing beats real candles; real flame is beautiful, but real candles require some maintenance (messy melted wax anyone?) and they’re not always safe. “Flameless” candles are battery powered and – for the most part – just need to be switched on. The technology that produces the random flickering – in my opinion – is very realistic.

Either way, candles in your lamps add a nice cozy feel to any patio or entry. They add nice intimate low light when you have a cluster of them in the corners of your patio, or even inside the house. And the newer ones also last a lot longer – some will go for 100 hours or more. Pick multiple sizes of lanterns and candles and place them in clusters – never an even number. And, look for different styles of hurricanes for visual interest.  Everything doesn’t always need to match!

I just wrote a blog post about outdoor dining during the winter months – you know: firepits, outdoor fireplaces, pillows, baskets of blankets, and s’mores. Read it for more outdoor décor ideas.

All you need now for your outdoor dinner party is to serve your guests a lovely evening aperitif to get the night started. Stay cozy, warm, and most of all, enjoy!

Recipe for a Warm-up: Bloody Mary Soup

Bloody Mary Soup

A new food memory: try my friend’s recipe for this delicious Bloody Mary Soup.

A few years ago, on what in Southern California is considered a “cold” winter day, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted a Bloody Mary.

We were actually standing on her balcony watching the sunset with friends. Despite my thick coat, gloves, and my beanie, I was still freezing! Okay, the wind was also making it pretty cold, and we had just got the fire going, so give me a break.

“In this weather?” I was a little astonished.

“Soup,” she finished.

That was when I noticed she was handing me a stoneware mug with the most delicious-tasting savory soup I’ve had in years. And now that I have the recipe, whenever I cook up a batch of this marvelous soup, I think of my friend and the great time we had with our friends that cold afternoon on her patio.

I believe food is a fabulous way to bring people together. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you also know that I have a real love for delicious recipes. Put them together, and you have what I call “food memories” – it’s one of the more emotional aspects of sophisticated living.

Now, with my friend’s permission, I’d like to share this wonderful soup with you, with the hopes that you’ll make some great food memories of your own. And before we go any further – yes, it is a “Bloody Mary” in the truest sense.

Ingredients

  • 2 TBS chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 6 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3 celery ribs, chopped
  • 1-2 onions, chopped
  • ½ cup of your favorite vodka (Chopin Vodka).
  • 2 cups V-8 juice – your choice, regular or spicy (I use spicy)
  • 2 cups chicken or beef stock (broth) (I use beef for a richer taste)
  • 2 TBS Worcestershire sauce (make sure you shake it up)
  • 1 28oz or 32oz can of Fire Roasted Tomatoes or diced tomatoes (I use Fire Roasted tomatoes)
  • ¼ cup horseradish (prepare to taste – I use way less because I use the Spicy V-8), add a dash of your favorite hot sauce if you like.

Instructions

Bloody Mary Soup recipe Fran Berger

You probably already have what you need to make this recipe.

In advance of cooking, I recommend that you prepare the “liquids” in one large bowl. Combine the V-8 juice, chicken or beef broth, Worcestershire sauce, and your tomatoes (canned or freshly cut). Don’t strain the tomatoes. Mix everything up and set aside.

Coat the bottom of a stock pot with olive oil and heat (medium). Add thyme leaves, garlic, celery ribs, onion (all chopped) and sauté on medium (cook until tender and onions are golden). By the way, make sure that your stock pot is large enough to hold everything – including all of the liquid!

Add the vodka to deglaze the veggies – scrape up all those beautiful browned bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pot. Cook until the alcohol has “cooked off” – shy of a minute at medium heat.

Get your bowl of liquids and pour it in!  This is where a large stock pot is really useful. I recommend Staub’s 4-quart “Cocotte” for this task, because you’re going to heat this up until it boils, then reduce heat and let it simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. I’ve let this go for up to 50 minutes and it seems to cook up the tomatoes very nicely. But as I always say, watch your pots!

Stir occasionally while simmering. Add the horseradish and hot sauce GRADUALLY. Taste often to make sure that you don’t overpower the other flavors. You can always set aside the horseradish and hot sauce for guests to flavor up for themselves.

When time’s up, turn off the heat.  Use an immersion blender to carefully puree the tomatoes, and serve warm in a big mug.  This recipe will make 6-8 servings (depending on the size of your mug) and can be doubled or tripled (or more!) for your party – just be sure your pot is big enough!

Add a pickled bean stalk or pickled artichoke as a garnish to add even more flavor. See my blog post on pickling. And see my video using this recipe.

The last touch: a shot of Chopin Vodka, if you like. Either way, it’ll taste so amazing served hot. Absolutely the best “bloody mary” you’ll ever make for yourself. Watch this video to see how easy it is!

Enjoy!

Outdoor Dining for (almost) anywhere.

s'mores and an outdoor fire pit

Just because it’s a little chilly outside doesn’t mean you can’t have your party outdoors.

I’m not talking about freezing weather. Let’s be sensible! And – yes – I know: “chilly” weather in California isn’t the same kind of “chilly” in Michigan. What I’m talking about is pleasantly calm weather that lets us enjoy winter! Tell your guests that the party is outside and they’ll know to dress accordingly!

No matter where you are and how well people dress, warmth for your outdoor dining party is an absolute must. Depending on where you live, an open campfire on the ground may not be a good idea. In fact, in some places, it might even be illegal. Either way, covered fire pits and outdoor fireplaces (chimenea) may be the safer alternative.

My search turned up a few helpful ideas.

Lowe’s has several styles of covered fire pits that will meet all budgets – like this round one.

Home Depot has this square one with a cooking grill and tile edge – very nice, and it has a bit of style to it.  And, with the cooking grill you can keep your pot of chili warm for the whole party without ever having to leave your guests and go to the kitchen for ‘seconds’.

I like this one from Amazon. It’s a lovely rustic looking cast iron bowl that keeps the fire off the ground, but some places may not like the fact that it is an “open pit” and not covered.

A friend of mine swears by his cast iron chimenea – they come in all different sizes – but his stands about 5 feet tall and looks like something you’d find out in the desert somewhere. If there are local restrictions against outdoor fires (open or covered), don’t give up! Outdoor gas heaters are not as pretty as outdoor fireplaces, but they will give your guests a place to warm up.

The next big item on your list – a big basket of blankets, all different sizes. Make sure that there are at least a few that’ll allow couples or kids to snuggle up under together.

Just an outdoor décor suggestion. If you have bright colored outdoor cushions, maybe replace them with dark-colored cushions (to help set the theme), or cover them up with faux fur or heavy knit throws.

Another must for your outdoor dining party: hot cocktails. Think apple cider with Calvados – an apple brandy. You can also serve these ‘virgin’ without the Calvados.

But, my favorite outdoor dining drink is hot buttered rum. This hot buttered rum mix can be made in bulk. It produces an 8oz jar of mix that’s enough for about 12 drinks, if you just use about 1 tablespoon per ‘drink’ mug.  I use Bacardi (8-year-old) or Myers Dark Rum.

The best thing to serve for dinner is what folks call “one pot meals.” It’s a big pot of chili or a hearty beef stew that can stay warm near the fire pit (or even on the fire pit if there’s a grill) and guests get to wrap their fingers around the warm bowls. Here’s a great recipe from one of my favorite places – Williams-Sonoma. This recipe will feed about 6 guests. You can easily double or even triple the recipe. Take the “variation” on the recipe and replace 1-1/2 cups of the stock with the same amount of a bold red wine to add richness to the stew (the alcohol cooks off, and you’re left with the wonderful flavor of the wine). I also use multi-color carrots, and I add some of the crisped bacon back in with the potatoes and mushrooms. And, as with any “big” stew like this, serve with crusty bread!

The best thing to finish off an outdoor dinner with your guests?  Old fashioned S’mores for dessert. Nobody needs a recipe for that, right? Enjoy!

Is it time to update your cookware?

Fran Berger and her cookware.

Celebrate the New Year or a New Home with new non-stick cookware from All-Clad and Staub.

Maybe you’ve moved. Maybe you’ve remodeled. Maybe it’s the New Year and it’s just time. Whatever the occasion, it’s time to take a look at your pots and pans for a refresh.

These days, there are so many options. Not like in the old days when our parents were limited to the department store offering of brightly colored enameled cookware.  Remember early Teflon? Seriously.

There’s already so much psychology at play when you’re entertaining at home. We want everything to be – just so. We spend time to make sure that the home environment is uncluttered. We want the plates and utensils to be clean and bright. Glasses crystal clear.

Not only do I believe that a good set of pots and pans can really help you achieve better results in the kitchen, I think good cookware helps you feel more confident while you’re trying that new recipe for the first time. But I also think about the appeal of food as I prepare it.

Often, my guests will show up as I’m finishing, so they see me at work over my cookware. You know that means: I’m fussy about my kitchen. I don’t mind that they see the mess I create as I’m cooking, but I don’t want them to see their food prepared in pots and pans that are stained or blackened!

That’s why I’ve always been partial to All-Clad with their down-to-Earth quality. Aside from the fact that the sturdy metal handles are designed to stay cool as you cook, they just look great on the range. The clean stainless-steel pots and pans give you what a friend of mine calls “the real cook look.”

All-Clad also has the dark anodized conductive aluminums which work great on electric ranges. They even have some very nice looking copper-bottom pans and pots.

Whatever “look” you want, I recommend All-Clad’s durable non-stick cookware. First off – non-stick is just a good idea. But in this case, it’s not just any non-stick – this is pro-level hard-anodized non-stick. It resists abrasions and corrosion; it’s chemically stable and totally non-toxic. Not at all like your mom’s Teflon pans!

All-Clad cookware is not only the most durable pan you can buy, the non-stick surface has an extremely long-life span. I’ve had mine for 10 years and they have not chipped or peeled – ever.

As for sizes, let’s say that you want to replace one pan at a time. The first, most important size is the 8-inch skillet followed by either the 10 or 12-inch skillet. This gives you flexibility for a little sautéing or cooking up a healthy-sized omelet.

You’ll need a stock pot – get the 4 quart. You’ll use it do your soups, chili, and for tasks as simple as boiling pasta. Speaking of pasta, you’ll want some sauce pans for making your ‘Sunday Sauce’. Maybe a 1-quart, but if that’s too tiny for you, definitely the 2-quart covered sauce pan, then add a 3-quart later if you need something between the 2-quart and the stock pot.

If you decide to go for a set, you don’t need to go crazy with gratins, grille pans, and roasters. Certainly not to start. Look at smaller 8 pan collection like the one on my video.

One more pan – that’s not in the All-Clad line up – but one that should definitely be on your list is a great cast iron skillet. There’s no school like the “old school” – right? I like the ones from Staub.  Iron skillets are perfect for braising – and the ones from Staub are built to go from stovetop and straight into the oven.

My last tip – especially if you go for the durable non-stick – remember that you should only use wood or silicone spoons and spatulas. I like the ones from OXO – they’re perfect! Modern non-stick surfaces are abrasion and scratch resistant – but they’re not invulnerable. The pans will last longer if you protect the surfaces.

This is the way to really look good if your guests arrive a bit early and you’re working away in your kitchen!

Another Year with Sophisticating Living

Fran Berger 2018 Welcome

What I’ve learned about sophisticated living – and how I’m taking it to the next level in 2018.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, “We only get one ticket to the big dance.  Make it count!”  I get that. I’m all for enjoying life. There are a lot of ways that you can live, why not do it while leading an exciting and flavorful life?

The big question is, “how?”

If you’ve been following my blog or my videos on YouTube, you know that this question is the very heart of what I call sophisticated living. There’s a very fine line between just living and living fabulously. – and I choose fabulously.  It’s certainly more than spending a ton of money – you definitely do not have to and just the spending does NOT make the difference. It’s an attitude – yes – but it’s also a state of mind. Why not live to the fullest? Why not draw out as much joy as you can wherever you can? And, what makes that life even more incredible is how you share it with family and friends.

This is where I come in.  I love to share tips – be they in the kitchen, recipes for easy and delicious dishes, tips on décor, travel, on being a fabulous host, tips for easy entertaining at home, and fun ways that can enhance your lifestyle. Not only am I in search of whatever makes life enjoyable, but I’m also looking for things that bring us together – all under one roof, happy, and thoroughly entertained.

When I share, I hope that people take these ideas and do more with them – put their own ‘spin’ on them.  Incorporate them into their own lives in their own way. Even things that seem insignificant to one person can be a huge deal to another. They’re conversation starters and idea makers. And, bravely incorporating them into your world is all part of what it means to live a sophisticated life.

Back to the question – how? How do we find those “small things” that can really make a difference? Come with me and I’ll share what I know works –  you just need to be open to the suggestion. And here’s another thing that decades of experience in the restaurant business has taught me: you don’t find “secrets of success” by being overly careful.  If you don’t ask or don’t try – the answer will always be ‘no’.

Part of the experience is trying many things in all sorts of situations. You’ll have some flops – things that don’t work no matter how hard you try.  But, part of the success is in the trying and it’s a great feeling when you find the one something that makes a room full of people happy. Go ahead, smile. It feels great, doesn’t it?

Here’s to 2018 and another year of sharing!

How about a New Years’ Day party?

Fran Berger - home decor

An excellent way to balance a great NYE party is an excellent NYD Open House.

New Year’s Eve is a great time to celebrate, don’t you think? What better time to party than to ring in the new year? And I have to say – it’s a lot of fun to host. I should know, I’ve done quite a few. Many of my New Years’ Eve parties have turned into big events with the house packed with 100-plus guests.  Most of the time for these New Years’ Eve parties the last guests are leaving way past 1am!

Sometimes with all the excitement of New Years’ Eve, we forget about New Years’ Day. In some ways, it’s an even better day to celebrate – with family and close friends. Even friends of mine who are not big football fans love to hang out together for a little NYD gathering.

Everyone who comes to my New Year’s Eve party knows that I also love to host an Open House on New Years’ Day. Yeah, I love it that much I have both NYE and NYD! They also know to be prepared for me to show up VERY CASUAL. No makeup, dressed down, and looking for a pleasant way to chill out. It’s the perfect way to have an Open House on New Year’s Day.

I start off the day before the first kickoff of the first Bowl Game with the Rose Parade. And usually, it’ll go on until the last minute of the last game of the day.

Here’s how I plan my Open House.

  • Set the timer on that large pot of coffee to start brewing first thing in the morning so it will be ready for YOU when you open your eyes.
  • People know that the parade starts early so if they’re coming to watch it then your day will start even earlier!
  • Get deli trays: bagels, smoked fish, capers, cheeses, and veggies. Make sure you have a variety of flavors – onion, cheese, pumpernickel, everything – even if your favorite is a plain water bagel. Make sure that you ask the deli to slice them.  That way you don’t have to AND if they aren’t all eaten you can put them in a Ziploc bag in the freezer!
  • Set the trays out with the coffee, cream, sugar, juice etc. to get everyone’s day started.
  • Decide on a great stew or chili for the afternoon. Make it a day ahead – that way you just have to put it on the stove and reheat.
  • Aside from the veggies on the deli tray, bring in a simple mixed green salad and some great crusty bread. This’ll go with the stew or chili, and you’ll have a meal that can stay warm on the stove for whenever your guests arrive and are ready to eat.
  • For plates – think about the cleanup. I recommend very sturdy paper (easy to dispose of) or any of the great plastic plates and bowls you can find from Yoshi. They have wonderfully designed plates, bowls, and strong plastic utensils (spoons, forks, and knives). Check out the really cute accessories they have that add to a light party atmosphere.

By the way, if you opt for paper plates and bowls, the emphasis is on “very sturdy”. Nothing worse than flimsy paper plates and bowls that spill on laps and couches while people are gawking at games! A friend of mine had a party a while back and gave everyone small serving trays. Worked pretty well as a way of catching spills, but also offers guests an easy way to plate appetizers and rest their utensils and such. You can find stylish rectangle plastic trays from Yoshi as well.

Last word. In many Asian cultures, New Year’s Day is actually one of the most important days of the year. Who you talk with and what you do will set the tone for the entire year. Talk about commitment! But it is a nice thought – what better way to ring in 2018 than hanging out with friends and family?

How Much to Tip when I travel?

Fran's tipping guide for the holidays

Tipping guidelines for keeping up with etiquette while traveling.

There are general travel tipping guidelines, but during the holidays it’s even more important to remember to thank those with whom you interact and accept their services. Check out my videos on the subject of tipping: one on general tipping etiquette and another on tipping for travel.

When you’re traveling it all starts right at the airport with the skycap. Think of tipping $1-2 per bag for curbside check-in unless they are doing additional work for you – maybe you need extra assistance from curbside to the desk for a special request. In those cases, then a flat $20 for an “all in” tip is appropriate.

For tipping for hotel maids and housekeeping, typically the tip should be $3 to 5 per night of your stay. It varies due to the hotel I’m staying in or how much mess I’ve made.  If you have several people in one room (think kids, etc) then it would be closer to $5/night.  At the end of your visit, place the tips in an envelope clearly marked ‘housekeeping’ and give it to the front desk. They’ll make sure that it is divided among the members of the staff who actually ‘touched’ your room during your entire visit.

The porter or bellman that delivers your luggage to your room deserves something too. Typically, this is $1 to $2 per bag; but add a bit more if the bags are heavy or awkward. And don’t forget to tip when the porter comes to retrieve your bags at the end of your stay.

Think about the person who delivers that extra pillow, gets you more hangers for your closet, or produces the toothbrush you forgot. The tip should be $1-2 for each time someone brings something to your room.

If you’ve ordered room service – read the check. If there is a tip included it will be a separate line item listed as ‘Gratuity Added.’  If it says, ‘convenience fee’ or ‘service charge,’ these charges do not go to the server. So, if you don’t see ‘gratuity added’ then add a tip of about 15% to 20%.

I tip taxi drivers all the time as well as Uber/Lyft drivers. That tip should be $1 to $5 depending on the distance and service received.

There are many instances where you’ll want to calculate the tip based on a percentage of the bill. This tip percentage varies depending on the service and even the state. For instance, in New York City at higher end restaurants a 25% tip is often expected. In Colorado, the usual tip would be 20%. Many people tip on the ‘pre-tax’ amount of the check but others find it easier just to calculate it on the total. Either method is acceptable. But, if the service has been bad then do not fret about dropping the tip to 10%. A low tip sends a sharp message to the server. If the service is particularly bad, make sure you speak to the manager before you leave.

Remember the bartender whenever you sit at the bar, even if you’ve just ordered a pre-dinner drink while waiting for your table.  A minimum tip of $1 to 2 per drink is appropriate – especially if it’s a fancy mixed cocktail!

In Europe and other non-tipping countries, the ‘tip’ is already built into the price of the food or service. In Asia – like Japan – don’t bother tipping. They won’t accept it.  Check the internet for the tipping guidelines for the countries you will be visiting.

Back in the U.S.A., tips are often the major source of income for wait staff and other service providers.  In some states the minimum wage for ‘tipped employees’ is very low – employers anticipate that the tipped income will make up the difference. However, always check your bill before tipping as some restaurants have started adding an automatic gratuity to the bill.

Be a good traveler and have fun!