Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Travel Writing...

If this blog has taught me anything it’s that I will never be a travel writer.  For me, travel is all about eating, drinking, and enjoying company.  Upon my return home, I seem to  suffer mild depression from the absence of good food, wine, and fun company. So, more than one week past my New Jersey soiree, I am finally posting my experiences.  I’m a bad bad blogger.   
I arrived in New Jersey amidst spring-like weather with a two year old, a menu, and a plan to serve some great comfort food to wonderful friends.  Armed with my mother, a GPS, and a typed grocery list I hit the Jersey neighborhoods to find my supplies. 
Rosita Jelmini Missoni insists that the most important man in your life is your husband, the second most important is your butcher; one trip to New Jersey’s Chester Meat Market and I concur...(not just because there is a dreamy man who works behind the counter.)  After a mere three sentence explanation of my menu, these masters of butchery steered me away from chicken towards a free range capon.  They went on to explain the cooking method, timing, marinading and basting techniques; basically, everything I needed to cook a great piece of meat.  While they wrapped and prepared my order, I perused the local Shop Rite for the rest of our menu.  When a second appetizer was deemed a must have, my own green olive tapenade was developed between the condiment and cracker aisles.  
Bright and early the next morning with my coffee in hand, I marinaded three capons and began work in the dream kitchen.  Where were mum and dad?  Right along with me either cleaning silver, setting the table, or entertaining the two year old.  Eight hours later, the air was filled with slow roasting capon, the table was beautifully set, and guests arrived at the door toting not only wine but beautiful presents for yours truly and child.  
After a cocktail hour complete with shuffle board and ping pong, I released my death grip on the kitchen timer and called the group to the table.  The arugula salad and bacon muffins were well-received, however the star of the evening was without a doubt the main course.  With my mother working expertly to display the poultry in a manner that only she could, people filled plate after plate of capon and corn giving me the best compliment possible; an empty serving dish.  Though I accepted every bit of praise on my own, I must give a nod to my beloved butchers... I wish they moved to Texas. After dinner, red velvet cupcakes made the rounds amidst stories from years ago; the kind of stories that encourage both laughter and sighs of relief.  As the clock struck 12:00 and left over cupcakes were packaged for the kids at home, I called the evening and overall trip a success.  Taking Just Bring Wine on the road taught me two absolutes: 1) with the right people by your side, all you need is a meal to have a great time. 2) a green bustier is always a good purchase. 
Cooking Notes:
Buttermilk: Don’t want to buy buttermilk for one recipe?  A tried and true substitute is one cup of milk mixed with one tablespoon white vinegar.  This relieved me from a last minute rush to the grocery store. 
Cupcakes: I think cupcakes make a great dessert for buffets however passing them out at a small dinner party felt like a first grade birthday celebration.  I think I’ll stick to pies and cakes going forward.  
Green Olive Tapenade: puree green olives, a touch of olive oil, lemon zest, cumin, and salt and pepper.  Spread on toast and you're done!  It made a non olive eater an olive lover. 
The Party In Numbers:
Parties Completed: 28
Weeks Before Deadline: 23
Bottles Consumed: 4ish 
Justified Purchases: plane tickets (thanks mom and dad!)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mirror, mirror on the wall....

...I am my mother after all. 
God certainly has a sense of humor.  After years of professing a non-commitment to all things domestic, I want nothing more than the title domestic goddess.  Who gets the largest thrill from this turn of events? Not my husband who I told ‘if you want someone who cooks look elsewhere’ but my mother who listened to it all as she served a homemade gourmet meal each day.  Her efforts went unappreciated and unnoticed until I left for college and realized that the fresh balsamic vinaigrette was nothing like gluey Italian dressing from a bottle, and that her pasta with halibut tasted nothing like a Lean Cuisine.  Fast forward many years, I have cooked up and eaten my share of crow.  At this stage, I love to watch my mother sit at my breakfast bar and nurse a gin martini as I prepare a dinner for her to enjoy.  After a nice break, I have taken Just Bring Wine on the road to prepare a great meal for my parents and dear friends up north. New Jersey north.  Our menu:
Spicy Deviled Eggs
Green Olive Tapenade with Goat Cheese and Baguette
Arugula and Fennel Salad
Gruyere Cheese and Bacon Muffins
Roasted Chicken with Sautéed Corn
Red Velvet Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting
My nerves exist on several levels; these are my parents so it feels a bit like report card day.  Also, this is the first party that I will prepare without my sous chef husband or Food Intolerance by my side. However, my parents do have a dream kitchen and they did love me in high school when I dyed my hair platinum.  They should make it through anything. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Feeding the famished one party at a time....

With the chili cook off a mere 48 hours in my rearview, family traditions, and the annoying yet necessary sleep, Party #27 was a true race to the finish.  With Food Intolerance otherwise occupied with construction issues, I stood amidst minimal prep four hours prior to the arrival of 20 guests.  Luckily, not long into my slicing, dicing, and prayer a family friend arrived to offer a much needed hand.  Once we had Food Intolerance back in the game, the three of us came together to form the modern day Spice Girls; all the girl power, none of the horrid fashions. 

Back to the prep; with the dip completed, cakes baking, and eggs being peeled I attempted the Bagna Cauda.  Ouch.  Had I actually stirred it continually like the procedure dictated I may have had more success.  However, my final product was a runny dip with the faint taste of burned garlic.  (surprisingly, people ate it up on zucchini sticks).  The true success of the evening was in my Ace of Cakes moment.  I have an immensely talented aunt who forms birthday cakes into everything from Chanel handbags to slumbering teens.  Hence, I have never ventured into birthday cake making.  In fact, my few efforts have been labeled 'ugly but full of love.'  Nonetheless, I set in to make two of Nigella's heavenly chocolate fudge cakes.  Food Intolerance suggested that I deviate from the recipe and stack all four eight inch cake rounds on top of each other rather than serve them side by side.  The result?  A tall orgasm of chocolate cake that inspired decoration efforts with halved strawberries, fresh mint, and whipped cream.  Alas, my first cake that was both beautiful and full of love. With this source of pride as our centerpiece, guests arrived and merely nibbled as we awaited our guest of honor.  Fifteen minutes later when she walked through the door there was celebration, laughter, and a few tears.  What a great backdrop to a dinner party.

With our birthday girl among us, guests finished the artichoke dip and made short life of the deviled eggs.  Moving on to entrees, our seemingly famished guests devoured both the chicken and the Greek salads.  Later in the evening the cake was ablaze with sixty candles and well wishes were sent by all.  Being a Sunday evening, the party ended earlier than normal however nobody missed the chance to say happy birthday and offer a hug.  In short, here is to many more years of love, laughter, and great food.

Cooking Notes:
Hummus Deviled Eggs:  These needed a little something; fresh dill brought me through once more.  Make sure you have some in your fridge/spice cabinet.  You would be surprised how many things it can save. 

The Party in Numbers:
Parties Completed: 27
Weeks before Deadline: 25
Bottles Consumed 7ish
Justified Purchases: balloons, and many candles 

Sunday, March 7, 2010


The sun is shining, the evenings are beautiful, and it seems high time to celebrate spring.  What better time to honor a milestone birthday for a dear friend?  This week as friends and family tote wine and stories, we will prepare for our first Just Bring Wine surprise party. The menu:
Bagna Cauda with Endive
Brie and Artichoke Dip
Hummus Stuffed Deviled Eggs
Greek Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette 
Muffins Florentine
Chicken Satay
Chocolate Fudge Cake

Hopefully, among the twenty some guests celebrating with their friend, someone can teach me how to pronounce the appetizer. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

If you don't nail the midterm... there's always the final!

Mix a new group of people with recipe development on the fly and it may seem nerve wrecking. Not when the party is just bring wine! 
Secretly hoping to steal the gold medal at my own party, prep began the night before giving my chili almost an entire day to simmer into goodness.  The following morning I completed the peanut butter swirl brownies, and moved on to an unintended low-fat version of Jalapeno Cheddar Muffins.  Yes, after baking these gorgeous muffins, preparing the appetizers, and picking up my youngest from nursery school I discovered that the two sticks of melted butter were still sitting in the microwave.  After sampling the muffins several times, it seemed the chili gods were with me and the butter was not required. How often can you say that? 
Hours later, guests arrived with wine and chili pots and the house was filled even more with the wonderful aroma of bell peppers and onions.  With three pots simmering away, it was time to start our judging.  I served the chili samples in two ounce white ramekins that were labeled with a Sharpie.  (There were doubts, but these markings came off easily with soap and water.) Using the same ramekin for each sample meant that in between tastings we were a mere rinse and quick dry from a clean slate. How often can you say that? Our chili varieties included a Black Bean and Corn, an Italian White Bean with Poultry, and a traditional Texas version complete with Frito chips, sour cream and chives. Though engaged in healthy competition, people were at no loss for conversation with common backgrounds, experiences, and the freedom to speak frankly: “I’m 25% Italian and 75% white trash,” said a Guest who wishes to remain nameless.  Once the sampling was complete, and guests helped themselves to additional servings of their favorite, the votes were gathered. The winner by a near unanimous vote (one person voted for option 4, but there were only 3 to choose from) was the Italian White Bean.  With cannellini beans, chicken, and a cream sauce all garnished with fresh cilantro, this chili was impossible to beat. I may not have won the competition, but I do have the leftover white bean chili safely tucked into my fridge for today’s lunch. 
With the winner decided, the incredibly rich chocolate and peanut butter brownies made the rounds.  These were unbelievably popular, and as one guest commented “a diabetic nightmare.”  Luckily, we had guests with celiac, and guests who smoked, but no diabetics on board.  The party continued for a few more hours and I soon noticed that all ten guests had hovered around the breakfast bar and its three stools throughout the night.  I have to either find a way to herd people to the family room or give up wearing heels. 
All in all this party was an amazing amount of fun. When the wine and cheese party gets a bit dull I hope you add a chili cook off to your social calendar.  Trust me, every cook has a pride and joy chili recipe. 
Cooking Notes:
Avocado Blue Cheese Dip: this had the look of guacamole and the taste of stilton cheese which is a very dangerous combination. While this dip was fantastic on celery, it should be no where near tortilla chips.
Black Bean Dip: this was wonderful, easy, and a welcome change to the expected chips and salsa. My only warning is to taste, taste, taste!  Black beans have to be heavily seasoned and you may need to add dabs and dashes of your favorite spices before it fits your flavor profile.  
Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread: have you made your cornbread yet?  This is another fantastic recipe.  Next time you sit down to chili, forgo the crackers and whip up a batch of this fantastic bread.  I promise you, saltine’s will never cut it again!  One of my favorites is the following: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/jalapeno-cheddar-cornbread-recipe/index.html
The Party In Numbers:
Parties Completed: 26
Weeks before Deadline: 26
Bottles Consumed: 5
Justified Purchases: White Chili Bowls

Thursday, March 4, 2010

It's Midterms!

Many moons ago I graduated with an Economics degree from the University of San Diego. Midterms and finals were a time of pizza, all nighters and a few visits from my beloved tutor Lauren.  QBA, Management Science, and Survey of Calculus: classes I hated, found no use for, and had to pass... And I certainly wouldn’t have without the countless hours and pages of formulas that Lauren drilled into my hard head. So, as I come upon the midterm of this project, call it nostalgia or mere exhaustion but I’m calling in a tutor... It’s time for good old chili cook off! This week some friends will tote wine while others will offer a pot of chili for a night of tasting, judging, and some great wine drinking!  Our menu:
Crudites with Black Bean and Avocado Blue Cheese Dips 
Chili in Three Varieties 
Jalapeno-Cheddar Cornbread Muffins
Chocolate and Peanut Butter Brownies
Drinking and judgement... dear God, I’ve formed an adult sorority. 

Monday, March 1, 2010

Having kids changes everything... especially a party!

Looking to branch out from our weekly dinner party, Food Intolerance and I decided to make this week’s brunch family friendly. After spending Saturday afternoon in the kitchen we felt poised and ready for a calm afternoon with friends and their family.  Enter Reality. 
As most guests toted buckaroos in place of wine bottles, the stove sizzled through multiple requests for eggs and kid friendly options that included everything but what was in their farmhouse hash.  Food Intolerance and I became a refined version of the Mel’s Diner girls Flo and Alice and though tempted on more than one occasion, refrained from offering a ‘kiss my grits.’ All was not lost, as the adults were incredibly complimentary of their meal, generous with their offers to help in the kitchen, and ultimately added the laughter and joy that reminds us why we threw the party in the first place. 
I seem to have two culinary hurdles; egg sauces and caramel.  With a failed mayonnaise and aioli on my record, I set out to make fresh lemon curd all the while toting a jar of store bought in my purse. When this sauce failed to set, I simply filled the serving bowl with the store bought curd and called it a day.  With a table filled with homemade scones and a surprise addition of my homemade banana bread, a little store bought curd was a mere detail.  Judging by the empty platers at the end of the party I would still call the table an overall success. 
Around 3:00 after everyone was fed, and a five year old had given me illustrated directions on how to boil an egg, I sat with the girls and enjoyed a glass of red wine.  Through the blur of events, I took pride in the success of a new party dynamic and complete joy that the event ended without injury.  Will I be hosting many more kid events?  Not if I can help it. 
Cooking Notes:
Chocolate Peanut Butter Topping? With a completely chilled dessert, Food Intolerance and I went to slice the goodness into perfect bars.  The result was a crumbled mess.  Our quick solution: a gallon of vanilla ice cream, and chopping the intended bars into a lovely topping.  Not only did this go over well with the adults, but the children loved these make shift sundaes. Once we witnessed this success, all Girl Scout Cookies were placed back into the cabinet to await the next disaster. 
The Party in Numbers:
Parties completed: 25
Weeks before deadline: 27
Bottles Consumed: 3 (this includes the bottle of white that was put in the freezer and ultimately exploded).
Justified Purchases: zero!