Tag Archives: Williams Sonoma

Enjoy Al Fresco Dining – Even in Winter!

Fran Berger, Home Decor

What a great opportunity – to cozy up with warm drinks, hot food, and close friends.

The Italians love dining outside so much that there’s a term for it in Italian – Al Fresco; dining in the fresh air. Dining ‘al fresco’ with friends can even be more fun than dining inside. But maybe your first reaction is, “Fran? It’s winter.” And my response will be, “Yes!”

There’s something about serving meals and hanging out with friends and family outdoors that sometimes makes it feel so much more intimate than indoors. Maybe it reminds us of camping (or our idea of camping if you’ve never been) and being closer to nature. Cold weather can open up a great home entertaining opportunity that you can’t overlook.

Even if you don’t have a home with a backyard – you can entertain outside on your deck or patio. Yes, even in the winter when it’s cold! In fact, I think that a bit of cold weather makes the experience that much more intimate. And just so we’re very clear – I’m talking about “cold” weather that encourages people to huddle under blankets around a fire pit; not a freezing chill that turns lips blue! It’s only fun if no one is shivering!

If you don’t have a backyard where you can have a covered fire pit or outdoor fireplace, you can always get some outdoor gas heaters for warmth and hurricane candle holders for atmosphere. Spread groups of the holders around your deck using real candles. Make sure that the hurricane candle holders are a couple of inches taller than the actual candle – that way they won’t blow out. Vary your sizes and make your groupings odd numbers. Varying sizes of odd numbers of candles always looks more pleasing to the eye.

You’ll also want patio furniture with cushions and blankets for warmth. Find colorful and soft blankets that are washing machine safe. Get blanket sizes that encourage couples to wrap up together. All types of outdoor blankets are available – even fun faux fur!

After you warm up your guests on the outside, time to warm them up from the inside with hot beverages like your favorite hot chocolate. Or…

You can try this recipe from Bon Appetit for a hot apple cider with Calvados apple brandy – which is really tasty.

Another “cuddle to be warm” drink is hot buttered rum with 8-Year Old Bacardi or Myers Dark Rum. The recipe includes a way prepare a mix that you can use later.

If your plan is to serve dinner, then warm their hearts with big stoneware mugs filled with a hearty vegetable soup or steaming beef stew. Williams-Sonoma posted this fabulous (and taste tested) recipe for a beef stew that takes about 2 hours to cook – about 1 hour and 30 minutes in an oven. Their recipe serves 6, but it’s easily doubled or tripled for larger gatherings. I also suggest that you take the “variation” on the recipe and replace the 1-1/2 cups of beef stock with the same amount of a bold red wine. But, you always want to cook with wine that you’d be happy to drink so make sure it’s one you enjoy. Wine adds so much rich flavoring to the stew, and since the alcohol cooks off, everyone can enjoy it.

I also suggest that you use multi-colored carrots (they add color and fun) and add some crunched up bacon along with the potatoes and mushrooms. Serve it with thick slices of warm crusty bread and you’ve got the start to a wonderful evening!

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!

Holiday Home Entertaining Tip – Stocking Stuffers!

Holiday Stocking Stuffer vert

A fun update for an ancient holiday tradition.

I think one of the most fun and endearing holiday traditions is Christmas stockings. When I was a kid, it was a way to get a lot of candy. By the time I was a teen, the presents I had found in my stocking got a little more sophisticated. One year, I got my first really nice watch. That was a really happy memory.

As far as the history of the stocking stuffer goes, apparently that’s how everyone got their gifts, from the earliest time when the holidays started until about the 1940s. One of the stories I read goes all the way back to the 4th Century when the European legend of the guy we know as Santa Claus first emerged. St. Nicholas, as he is also known, heard about a poor man who didn’t have enough money to take care of his children. St. Nick, being a rather clever man, tossed bags of gold directly into stockings that were hung by the fireplace to dry. BAM. There’s where legend and a centuries-old tradition merge.

While the stocking stuffer became more a thing you did with kids, I think the tradition has gotten a bit more trendy among adults. A friend of mine owns an agency in Santa Monica. He and his wife sew up small stockings for each employee. Then he stuffs the stocking with some candy and the annual Christmas bonus. Nice stuffer! A dance group in New York uses the stocking stuffer as a rather unorthodox way to announce the next year’s list of principal dancers.  Now, that could be either a stocking you want or maybe not!

You can use the stocking stuffer for just about anything – as part of your regular holiday celebration or your annual Christmas office party. Whatever you do, think about the people who will receive the stocking.

Don’t just automatically add candy and snacks – especially among adults. Unless that’s what the receiver would normally eat. Maybe a theme for the stuffers would be a nice twist to the tradition.

For instance, what if you stick with individual hobbies and interests?  If someone you know loves to cook – then think about small and handy gadgets that they would like. Or maybe one of those gourmet cooking sauces. I find plenty of ideas at Crate and Barrel and Williams-Sonoma.

If you’re giving to someone who loves to travel, how about small travel conveniences like personalized luggage tags, organizer bags for cosmetics, little travel bottles that can go through security. I go to the Container Store for those ideas.

Maybe you’re a do-it-yourselfer. In that case, perhaps a gift that comes from you – like something you’ve made. Back to the friend who sews stockings for his employees. He got the idea from his wife when she used to dance in the Nutcracker for a regional ballet troupe. She sewed elves for each of her fellow dancers. About 100 of them. Now that’s commitment.

Unless you have a knack for sewing (or knitting), you’ll probably have to buy the stockings. I’ll make it easy. Try these from Amazon. They have all kinds of styles, colors to choose from – some are funny, some are traditional, and some are knitted socks!

I think stocking stuffers can be a fun alternative to the typical wrapped present. It keeps the whole activity of gift-giving simple and fun for everyone.

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?

 

The Right Way to Enjoy Al Fresco Dining

al fresco dinner ware

Dining outdoors – perfect for longer, warmer nights.

Days are getting longer and the nights are warming up – a perfect combination to dine al fresco with friends or a significant other.  It’s more than simply eating outside or just two Italian words that mean “in the cool air” – it’s a whole experience when done properly.  It’s creating the perfect table setting, candle-lit ambiance, just the right amount of casual and, of course, the perfect menu.

Many people think of white paper plates and red solo cups when they think of having a picnic, but for me, it’s always more than that.  Whether it’s dinner in the backyard by the pool or in the park with a big group of friends or perhaps a concert at The Hollywood Bowl, it’s important to make every dining occasion special but also worry-free!

There are so many fantastic unbreakable options now.  Crate and Barrel has an entire selection of beautiful rustic melamine (plastic!) in several colors that all coordinate well with bowls, plates and service pieces in different patterns (also melamine).  Add their “glassware” made from different polymer materials unbreakable glasses in all shapes including stemmed wine glasses and margarita glasses. You’ll have the basics for a colorful, fun and worry-free table setting. Yesterday, on my video, I showcased other options from Williams Sonoma. Use woven placemats in a coordinating color with a white linen napkin and colorful napkin ring to complete the look.  All you need now is simple flatware (really only a fork and knife), and you’re set.

Candlelight is important to set the mood.  Hurricane lamps with candles (include some citronella candles – to keep away the flying insects) to set around.  Make sure that the top of the candle is lower than the top of the hurricane lamp otherwise even a small breeze will blow out the flame.

Create simple centerpieces for height and color. Keep it casual.  You can use flowers, but then you need to worry about vases with water that can tip over.  Some of my favorite centerpieces are just twigs with small flowers (cherry blossom branches, birch branches, manzanita branches, etc.).  And sometimes it’s even simpler than that – just a large bunch of green – even Magnolia leaves in a big enough bunch are casual and beautiful.  You don’t need water – just a fun container.

Plan the menu appropriately for wherever you will be dining and how far you will be traveling to get there.  If you’re in the backyard, your menu can include hot food straight from the kitchen or BBQ. If you’re traveling (even around the corner to the park with friends) plan a menu that only includes food that can be served room temperature – salads, grilled in season vegetables (asparagus, artichokes, broccolini, et cetera – look at the farmer’s market for ideas). Veggies can easily be added to a plate of cold pasta salad to add color and flavor, along with cold sliced roast and cold fried chicken – you get the idea.  Don’t forget an easy batch cocktail – margaritas, negronis or keep it simple and bring wine.  And don’t forget the wine-opener.

One last safety note – warm evenings and nights also bring bugs. I hate bugs, but I especially hate mosquitos that can be a real pain (literally). Some of your guests may be uncomfortable about dining outside without some protection. Remind your guests to wear their preferred insect repellent lotions (et cetera) or ask them what they prefer and bring some just in case they forget. I also burn Tiki torch fuel that’s spiked with citronella – it seems to do the trick. Start them up about an hour before your guests arrive and you’ll be bug-free for hours.

You may enjoy this so much, you’ll make it a regular event all summer!