Friday, August 27, 2010

The Culinary High Dive

With the Hawaiian sun blazing, I stood on this thirty foot cliff and prepared to jump.  All I could think about was how much lower this cliff had looked from the beach.   For a full five minutes, I tiptoed towards the edge, only to shuffle back to safety.  And, finally, I jumped.  About a year ago, I decided to host fifty-two parties in fifty-two weeks. As I dawn the completion of this project I’m reminded of those minutes on the cliff.  
Even in my pre-cooking days I always made a good spaghetti.  Eight years ago when I hosted my first dinner party with my then-boyfriend and now-husband, I served spaghetti and garlic bread.  So, as I cook the final chapter of this project, there is only one main course option. This week, my dear friends prove undying love by not only bringing wine, but wearing all white and preparing for an afternoon of bocce ball and Italian comforts.  Our menu:
Antipasto Platter
Onion Focaccia Bread
Salad with herb infused Dressing
Spaghetti Bolognese 
Nigella’s Italian Cheesecake
Chocolate and Citrus Biscotti.
After 51 weeks, 120 justified purchases, 213 bottles of wine and 234 recipes I’m faced with party #52. I’m not sure what I expect from this event, but with wine in one hand and a heavy object in the other it’s bound to be a good day. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

was it all about the cookin'?

Prep for Party #51 began in the early morning hours as my three year old, filled with the back to school spirit, was up and at 'em at 6:45 AM.  Having promised a dear friend a batch of homemade muffins and a special breakfast for the impromptu sleepover guests, this early rising was not without its benefits. As blueberry muffins baked and french toast hissed on the griddle, I sipped some coffee and reflected on the previous ninety days.  As I moved on to prep for our late lunch, I chopped and sauteed all things needed for our comforting entree.  I first came across this chicken recipe on an episode of Emeril's Kitchen.  As he described serving the roux bathed chicken alongside a pile of fresh pasta I knew that it was the perfect cure for a mood laced with melancholy.

Around 3:00 our guests arrived and shared three bottles of wonderful wine before taking a seat at the bar to enjoy my summer projects: herb infused bread and spicy pickled green beans.  These proved to be time well spent as one guest insisted that she could make a meal from this alone.  As we caught up on the  summer months I mistakenly thought I was 100% organized, however I had neglected the inventory of one key meal component: the drink box.   At three years old, you can't enjoy a Saturday meal with your friends without some Mott's Reduced Sugar.

After the necessary juice run,  the meal was enjoyed by both kids and adults.  When the older guests discussed meeting family members in unmentionable establishments and comments from friends made at a costume party, the younger members stripped down to their unmentionables and began chasing each other in a game we were never meant to understand.

Once the request for s'mores turned into a demand, I moved back to the kitchen for dessert construction.  Can I say, thank god for kid friendly desserts?  Not only was this popular, but it was the easiest dessert to date:

  1. spread fresh peanut butter on a graham cracker
  2. place sliced bananas atop peanut butter
  3. place roasted marshmallow atop banana
  4. Top with graham cracker.
Seriously?  You spend more time deciding which cake to buy from the bakery.  

A few hours later, our friends gathered their offspring and headed towards home. However it was not before leaving me with a comment that I have pondered more than a few times in last three days.  

"I bet these parties taught you more about people than cooking."

Cooking Notes:
Michael Ruhlman's Ratio:  This was my second attempt at his weight-based approach to baking, and once again it was an amazing loaf of bread.  This book is worth $27 for the bread explanations alone, however considering its repeated success, I'm tempted to dabble with the other recipes.  Stay tuned!
Home Canning: I was left to my own devices one weeknight this summer and decided to turn leftover green beans into a sort of homemade pickle.  The result was a fantastic snack and an easy appetizer.  Next time you have fresh vegetables and some extra time,  I recommend a Google canning search.

The Party In Numbers:
Parties Completed: 51
Weeks Before Deadline: 2
Bottles Consumed: 3.5
Justified Purchases: zero! 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Give them comfort, then send them off...

The backpacks are stuffed, the outfits selected and the lunch kits poised and ready to carry everything in handy Martha Stewart tupperware.  The first day of school is upon us.  
Even in my thirties, I meet the first day of school with a myriad of emotions.  There is excitement for the new opportunities; it’s amazing how inspiring a blank notebook can be.  Then, there is melancholy as I accept the end of the relaxed summer months.  The best cure for melancholy, I have learned, is some stick-to-the-ribs comfort food.  So, this week as we prepare for car pools and homework assignments, the dear friends who helped kick off summer at party #39 will bring over wine and children for down home cooking meets kid friendly cuisine.  Our menu:
Spicy Pickled Green Beans served with Fresh Bread
Braised Chicken Thighs with Pasta
Summer Salad
Elvis-Inspired S’mores
Time to toast the fun of summer and encourage our little ones to take on the world.  I’m glad there is wine involved. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

arsenic and old ketchup...

Bright and early Monday morning, the house was all giggles after the arrival of our out of town guests.    After taking in the shock and reality that the girls discussing college applications and learners permits were the same six and seven year old that we pushed on the swings years ago,  I was more than happy to fill the air with the sweet smell of pancakes.  Prep for this meal is ridiculously easy; in fact it is a bit of an embarrassment that pancake mix exists. However, the cinnamon polenta cakes were devoured by the beautiful young ladies as they politely thanked the husband and I for each helping.  After meticulously rinsing their dishes, they were off and running to host their own version of American Idol.  Some things never change.

After allowing a few hours for digestion, I was back in the kitchen preparing our lunch.  How much prep is required for hot dogs? Well, should you pick up any food magazine this summer you will see that hot dogs are not what they used to be.   I prepped a traditional bruschetta complete with fresh tomatoes, basil, good olive oil, and aged balsamic vinegar... then I placed it atop the trashiest food product available.... and it was damn good!

With the parmesan fries browning beautifully in the oven, I had a horrible realization... I was out of ketchup.  Still unsure as to how my gourmet hot dog would appease moody teenagers, I sent the husband on operation condiment. Luckily, my trusty neighbor was home and all too eager to lend us his organic ketchup.  With plates piled high with hot dogs and french fries, we gathered round the table for a fantastic lunch.  The hot dog was wonderfully received, and the fries devoured.  The only thing off was the taste of our ketchup which had a slight BBQ flavor.  When we finished our meal I asked my guests if they had noticed the strange taste, and, leave it to my moody pre-teen to discover our issue:

"Mom, this ketchup expired in October of 2009!" 

At this point, I poured myself a glass of wine, and quickly assembled the strawberry milkshakes as I waited for signs of botulism to take over their bodies.

About an hour later, with our health in tact, we took to the pool to complete our summer day.  As the older guests engaged in an intense game of keep away, and the young ones stayed confined to the kiddie pool I called the party and the day a success.  How nice when the obligations of family aren't obligations at all.  

The Party In Numbers:
Parties Completed: 50
Weeks before deadline: 2
Bottles consumed: half a bottle
Justified Purchases: zero!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Feeding the angry, moody and depressed

My favorite part of this project is bringing people together over a meal.  After giving me their afternoon or evening, people who may not have met otherwise have shared conversations, wine and hopefully a few laughs.  However,  my favorite task as a cook is to encourage younger people to try something new.  Bring me your moody, your finicky, and your immature; I will serve them up something fresh and flavorful that even they will love.  

This week, as we savor the last week of summer, relatives from all over the state have dropped in for a visit.  With the summer sun blazing, I decided to lure over the moody teenagers for a day of swimming, relaxation, and some great food.  What do you serve the guest who only likes junk food?  Junk that they will not soon forget.  Our menu:   

Polenta Pancakes with Warm Syrup
and for lunch
Bruschetta Hot Dogs
Parmesan French Fries
Strawberry Milkshakes

I'm embracing my Italian grandmother alter ego today; they will eat or suffer the consequences!  

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Return of Saturday Lunch

With Saturday afternoons usually reserved for children's birthday parties, how nice to meet with some girlfriends for some light foods, laughter, and an excuse to drink before 1:00.

Friday morning, I braved the summer heat to shop for the luncheon groceries.  I ran into two issues; dried cannelini beans were not only unavailable at the grocery store, but at my local Italian specialty store.  Once I decided to use Great Northern beans, I ran into snag number two which was an unavailability of fresh rosemary.  Determined to either find a fresh herb substitute at home, or dare I say used dried, I completed my shopping.  Later that day, the table was dressed, the vegetables prepped, and the muffins were baked before I finally called it a night; I love luncheons, but advanced prep is essential.

Bright and  early Saturday morning I decided to venture out one last time in search of fresh rosemary.  Dressed in pajama pants and a tank top, without a bra, brushed teeth or combed hair I braved the corner Kroger.  I don't recommend this.  Not only are far more people grocery shopping at 8:00 on a Saturday, they are all appropriately dressed.  Luckily, I did manage to grab the last packet of fresh rosemary so the trip was not a total loss. Back at home, I brought the large pot of soup to a simmer, blended the salad dressing and placed the last cup of morning coffee into the fridge, I cleaned the kitchen and prepared for my guests arrival.

The guest of honor arrived with the nostalgic bottle of Sterling Vineyards Organic Sauvignon Blanc, followed shortly by our remaining guests who offered both champagne and additional bottles of wine.
With drinks poured, and a pitcher of iced tea brewed, we retreated to the dining room to enjoy our meal.
Bean soup... how much can you say about this?  I must admit, this dish was a pot of fresh and well developed goodness. I attribute its success to both the homemade chicken broth, and the fresh rosemary.  (Thank god for party #47 and my willingness to leave the house looking like a mad housewife.)  The salad was very popular, and  though I usually prefer a vinaigrette, the green goddess dressing added a substantial element to this light meal component. With empty plates and glasses filled with champagne, it was time for dessert.  After placing fresh vanilla ice cream into ramekins, and drizzling a bit of cold coffee atop, I placed a candle in a gluten free muffin and presented it to the birthday girl.  As we giggled over stories of foiled-couches, tragic middle school years, and tequila mixed with strawberry juice, I was so happy to have celebrated with my friend in a conventionally unconventional manner.  Around 2:30 that afternoon, with the house empty and the dishwasher humming I secretly wondered why I wait for a birthday to enjoy a Saturday lunch?

Cooking Notes:
Homemade Chicken Broth:  There is something loving in a homemade soup, and when you start with homemade broth that love grows!  Easy, and 'green' I recommend boiling up a batch.
Green Goddess Dressing: Leave to my girl Ina to develop a creamy dressing that satisfies even my moody preteen's palate.  Delicious on lettuce, I also use this to make tuna salad for an extra punch of fresh flavor.

The Party In Numbers:
Parties Completed: 49
Weeks Before Deadline: 3
Bottles Consumed: 2
Justified Purchases: zero! 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Misty water colored memories....

A lifetime ago, I hosted my third dinner party for Just Bring Wine.  My friend Food Intolerance and her beau joined my husband and I for what was my first gluten-free cooking experience.  Over many bottles of white wine, Food Intolerance and I talked about all things possible and ultimately, a close friendship was born.  Throughout the next few months she and I endured a lifetime of scenarios made easier by support, a large helping of laughter, a few bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and over two dozen parties.  This week, as my dear friend celebrates her birthday, I thought it only fitting to host a blog party in her honor; one that pays homage to the afternoons spent baking muffins with breaks made only for a bowl of homemade soup (ours or her mother's) and perhaps a glass or two.  Our menu:

White Bean Soup with Fresh Rosemary
Garden Salad with Green Goddess Dressing
Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Muffins
Coffee Spiked Vanilla Ice Cream 

An afternoon to celebrate the year for all that it was; once partners in business but forever partners in crime. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Grills and Meltdowns

I planned Party #48 to be an easy prep day; the grilling was delegated to my husband and the crisp and bread were completed in the early morning. This should have left several hours dedicated to exercise or perhaps a dip in the pool.  After completing the gorgeous crisp, and the new bread recipe spiked with both thyme (not rosemary) and freshly roasted garlic, I began wiping down the counters.  Enter downward spiral.  
Five more parties.
Ever make a statement and instantly you’re hit with both joy and anxiety?  In less than one month this project will be complete.  And, dare I say, what then?  This question danced through my mind like a court jester.  Soon the came the anxiety, then the tears, and the inevitable decision to skip the gym.  Around 4:00 with the table dressed, the meal prepared, and the house looking presentable, I declared an early cocktail hour and enjoyed a drink with my husband as he talked me out of my hysteria.  
About an hour before my scheduled guest’s arrival, the prepped potatoes were placed into the oven, and the freshly baked bread (nothing short of fantastic) presented on a board with a variety of dipping oils.  When the Level Headed One and the Hungry Man arrived with both champagne and a cab, we began the ritual of toasts and catch up.  It seems that I have finally learned the art to pacing a party, within about 30 minutes the meal was completed, and we were digging into our rib eyes or sirloins with a side of potatoes.  Though I was a bit concerned of the flavor profile of mustard roasted potatoes, being made with whole grain mustard gave this side dish amazing seasonings, without an overwhelming flavor.  Perfect with a steak!  If you have ever attempted ratatouille and had my experience; an unappetizing glop of vegetable stew, I recommend moving it to the grill.  It is amazing what olive oil and salt and pepper can do for grilled vegetables sprinkled with fresh basil.  This dish had enough beauty for a dinner party, and the right amount of ease to add along side your midweek chicken breasts.  

With my Guests happy and thankfully well-fed, we moved onto dessert.    Courtesy of the Food Network magazine which offered a plethora of summer crisp recipes, this was both light and homey made even better with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.  I’m telling you, summer fruit desserts; there is nothing like them. 
The only disappointment of the night was having to cut it short; with all four of us tending to the real life commitments of kids returning from summer camp, a trip to Dallas, or a derivatives exam it seemed best to act like the responsible adults we all hope to have become.  Was my anxiety cured at the close of the night?  Did somehow steak and potatoes smoother all doubts and fears?  No, but how nice to put all of that aside for a few hours and enjoy a good meal, good friends, and a glass of wine.  
Cooking Notes: 
Thyme and Garlic Bread: This was bakery quality bread, and oh so easy.  The secret?  Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.  Breaking down the ratio of water, fat and flour for everything from bread to pasta, this book makes baking wonderfully easy.  I made the recipe for basic bread, and added fresh thyme and roasted garlic cloves to the dough.  The result was a masterpiece, and might I add a very easy appetizer! 
Ratatouille: I may never try a traditional ratatouille again considering, however if you insist on trying this dish, I recommend referencing Melissa D’Arabia on the Food Network.  

The Party In Numbers:
Parties Completed: 48
Weeks Before Deadline: 3.5
Bottles Consumed: 2
Justified Purchases: zero!

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Hungry Man Dinner

Several years ago, the Level Headed One and her Hungry Man husband invited Michael and I to dinner at a small BYOB restaurant.  With wine tucked into my handbag, we trucked through a crowded patio and met our newer friends for what would be an evening of great food and easy conversation. On that evening, we forged a tradition that has endured the pressures of life, the schedules of parenthood, and most importantly the peaks and valleys of friendships.  Over seafood or Italian cuisine, red wine or margaritas, the four of us have said it all and eaten it all.    This week, they will grace our dinner table once more for a fresh take on the Hungry Man's Dinner.  Our menu: 

Fresh Bread with Roasted Garlic
Grilled Ratatouille Salad
Mustard Roasted Potatoes
Grilled Steaks
Apple and Raspberry Crumble

After a nice break to enjoy the summer sun, I'm excited to fill the house once more.  I may even celebrate with a glass of wine!