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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!

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!

Recipe for a Quick Pickle

A quick pickle VERT

An easy “pickle” recipe that’s great for home or as a gift.

I had a great Bloody Mary at Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, and they served a simply wonderful vinegary/garlicky green bean as one of the vegetable garnishes – no celery stalk!   I was so impressed with the taste and simplicity, I brought the idea home and decided to try it for myself.

What I found out was that quick pickling is very easy. It requires no specialized equipment or skills, and it’s not at all like canning food. The recipe itself takes VERY little time, and it can be done with just about any firm vegetable – green beans, carrots, cucumbers, onions, asparagus, etc.

The main ingredients for the pickling “sauce” (brining liquid) are vinegar, water, Kosher salt (or pickling salt), and maybe sugar. You can use apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, rice wine vinegar, and so on depending on the flavor you are going for. Do not use balsamic or malt vinegar (no aged vinegar). Know that table salt is just way too salty and too hard to control so you want to stay away from that. I use Kosher salt because it is so easy to manage the taste.

Also, the veggies do not have to be cooked, but I recommend that you blanch them to bring out their natural color. Check out my video on the simple way to blanch veggies.

Before you start, think about the flavors you want for your pickled vegetables. There’s no science to it – it’s all to taste. For instance, I used lots of mustard seed and sliced garlic because I love garlic and I think the pickling tastes great when there’s a nice little kick at the end. I may also use more salt and vinegar than you want. If you want sweeter vegetables, add more sugar to the brine mixture.

Finally, for presentation (critical!) I settled on these 8oz (240ml) tall jars that have 2” mouths, about 6” tall, and gold colored lids. They’re not too big, just right for pickling, and you can get them from Amazon. They make a lovely presentation – especially if you’re planning on giving them out as gifts. And you’ll want to add gift tags to your jars. I found some cute rustic looking gift tags from Amazon as well that I think adds a nice touch.

Here’s my video for quick pickling veggies. You can see that everything is mix and taste. My recipe is loosely based on Michael Symon’s recipe for pickled onions. And you can find some helpful instructions for pickling from one of my favorite websites thekitchn.com.

Instructions:

  1. Wash the jars and dry thoroughly.
  2. Prep your veggies to the shape you want to fit into your jars. Tall stuff should be a tad below the “shoulder” of the jar (below the rim). And don’t forget to blanch the veggies for great color!
  3. Pack your blanched veggies into the jars and set aside on a tray so that when you add the liquid the excess stays in the tray and you don’t make a mess.
  4. Mix your pickling brine. Start by pouring equal parts of vinegar and water into a large pan. Add kosher salt. Add sugar (if you want it). Add more vinegar (if you need it). Add spices. I used mustard seed, black peppercorns, bay leaves, coriander seed, fresh dill, and sliced garlic. Remember, this is to taste, so start easy and work your way up to the flavor you want.
  5. Bring the mixture to a boil. Stir to dissolve the salt and sugar (if used). Taste the brine as you reach boiling and adjust seasoning (e.g., add salt, vinegar, spices).
  6. Ladle the brine mixture into the veggie filled jars. Make sure that you scoop up some of the spices. Be sure to add enough brine to cover the veggies, but leave some room at the top of the jars. If you decide to use the jars I suggested, then you’ll want to fill the liquid to the “shoulder.”
  7. Tap the jars to remove air bubbles that may have formed.
  8. Screw the lids on loosely and let them cool to room temp.
  9. Tighten lids and then refrigerate.

Your pickled veggies will get some flavor in as little as 6 hours, but I think you should leave them for at least 24 hours so that the vegetables absorb the full flavor of the brine. Remember that this is not like canning so they won’t last very long. Keep them in the refrigerator.  Recommended shelf life is about 2-3 weeks.

The whole experience made me think about how simple it is to make something that tastes great. And how cool is it to give a gift that you’ve made yourself.

Setting up a home bar? Keep it simple!

Home bar elegance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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