Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Hosting is the Simplest!

People who have lived with me before know that I tend to get a little bit…frazzled when it comes to throwing parties. I’m far from a perfectionist in my everyday life, but something in me always just wants to dazzle when it comes to entertaining. EVERYTHING. MUST. BE. PERFECT. There must be more than enough food, pretty-yet-quirky flowers peeking out of every corner, and the note-perfect playlist streaming from the speakers. I may or may not have woken up at 7am the morning before a Sunday potluck party at a house I shared with 5 (!) other women in Boston and made three huge pans of cole slaw and potato salad. Each single pan fed about 20, and we were expecting about 25 or so people total. You see, I might laze out when it comes to picking up my clothes from the floor and, say, writing my Thanksgiving post for my blog, but when it comes to feeding my loved ones I want to go above and beyond and do it 187% right. I guess it's the easy way of showing I care.

At this year's Thanksgiving, by far the largest dinner party I have ever helped host, I wasn't snappish and I wasn't bossy. I was just happy. For the first time ever, Jeff and I welcomed both sets of our parents (along with some dear friends) into our home for a holiday together around our table. It felt like a rehearsal dinner for our marriage, without the room filled with tons of bridesmaids and groomsmen and the stress of the Big Day to come. It felt like a snapshot of what our life will be together. It felt great.

We started cooking the evening before, after another stellar meal at Le Petit Crevette, with ANTM and Project Runway in the background. Jeff made a pot roast, substituting cran-apple juice for his usual apple juice. Seasonal! The end result the next day was a roast perfectly fit for a Thanksgiving table...sweet with that hint of cranberry tartness.

And speaking of cranberries, I made my very first cranberry sauce on Wednesday night. Alison's mom (a fab cook) sent me her recipe, which included a mix of cranberries, sugar, cloves, ginger, and cinnamon. I knew the palates of my Thursday-evening crowd, and I had a feeling that the clove/ginger combo might be a little too spicy and exotic for the majority of people. So, I kept her proportions and made a few tweaks. It turns out cranberry sauce is simple to make, and also very fun. Mix two cups of water with two cups of sugar and set in a pot to boil, mixing until the sugar dissolves. Next, add two 12 ounce bags of cranberries. Marvel at their gorgeous color and their shiny prettiness. So round! So festive! Then, the fun begins. Stir in the berries and listen to the soft "pop pop pop" as each berry bursts in the heat. Stir occasionally until about 15 minutes later, when this berry/water mixture has somehow magically become a sauce. At this point I added the ginger Alison's mom suggested, and then added two tablespoons of grated orange peel at the suggestion of a few other recipes I scrounged up on Epicurious.

The result wasn't groundbreaking...just simple, orangy cranberry sauce that went particularly well with...

We finally stopped eating these cornbread muffins yesterday. I didn't think making 24 muffins for 9 people was excessive, but I guess it might have been a tad overboard. I thought these were just okay, not fabulous. They were not sweet at all, which was good. It's not like I'm some Southern cornbread purist, ranting at the heathens who like their sweet cakey cornbread, but I tend to agree -- save it for the breakfast corn muffins. They were very dense. I don't know if this is how they were supposed to turn out or if this was a tiny baking snafu, but there was just no airiness or softness to each muffin. Jeff says he liked them, and I think he'd tell me otherwise, so I'm going to say that maybe this particular recipe wasn't to my exact taste. Next time I'll make cornbread in a pan (or on the skillet, as I did once), which could help with the texture issue.

My final Wednesday step was to make the cupcake bottoms for my chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, compliments of the Magnolia cookbook. These had different ingredients I'd ever used in a cupcake; buttermilk, brown sugar and regular sugar, and baking soda. I kept sneaking spoonfuls of the batter (again, I made enough for 24 cupcakes...which, ridiculous), which made for many, many more dirty spoons than necessary. The batter was SO creamy and delicious, which made me confident about the end result.

It's not like a chocolate cupcake is going to be all that bad, but the cake part of this recipe was sweet without being overbearing and had a texture that held up to big dollops of cream cheese frosting without being too dry. I frosted them right before dessert (cups and cups of confectioner's sugar, cream cheese, and butter -- yum). I now regret tossing the bowlful of extra frosting (the recipe made way more than enough). Well, maybe not. I could see that being a 9pm Thanksgiving night snack, which wouldn't have been the best idea.

My final contribution to the meal was a ginormous pan of apple crumble, served with vanilla ice cream. Yes, the recipe says it feeds 10 to 12, and yes, I did pretty much double this recipe for the 9 people present, but who wants to be at a party where there's not enough crumble to go around? I certainly wasn't going to be the one to go without, my hostess status be damned!

I decided to throw caution to the wind and keep the peels on my apples, because I like peels and that's where a ton of the apple experience comes from. I also substituted a few Gala apples in the place of Granny Smiths, but you couldn't really taste the difference once the apple slices were rubbed with cinnamon, brown sugar, and lemon juice. I poured oddles of oaty topping over the whole mess of apples (oats, butter, more brown sugar, flour) and then baked for 55 minutes until the apples were soft with melted butter and softened, sugary oats. Spooned over vanilla ice cream, this made for a good meal ender.

Jeff's contributions to the meal (or, as Noodle in last post's comment might put it, "the meal itself") were gobbled up right quick, as always.

Here's his "healthy option" of bean salad (and not pictured is his other "healthy option" of Brussels sprouts).

Here's what's left of the main star turkey, which we actually barely got a chance to taste at all.

My favorite, as it involves bread products as its main ingredient, the stuffing. Keep in mind as you view this picture that this stuffing contains a super secret ingredient.

Some people use cornbread for their stuffing, which is very delicious. Some people throw in all sorts of tasty ingredients -- sausage, sage, squash, apples. Stuffing can be whatever you want it to be. This particular stuffing had the best of every single world. You see, we live very near the neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, which once and (and still does have) a very large Italian population. This means a dotting of authentic and very good Italian bakeries all up and down Court Street, only a few blocks away from us. One of those bakeries serves loaves of something that will change your life. Lard bread is bread with lard and chunks of sausage baked right in. Every greasy tear of the bread is rich and hunked with deep red pieces of spicy meat. It. Is. Amazing. We try to save it for special occasions, mostly because we're usually too lazy to walk that far down to get it. Lard bread stuffing was as good as it sounds.

Finally, the staple of the Gordon Thanksgiving table, my mom's sweet potatoes with marshmallows.

Purists would wrinkle their noses at this mixture of mashed canned yams, pineapple, and cinnamon, topped with a bag of baby marshmallows (that's the entire recipe). But I say eff the purists, because this always tastes so deliciously sweet and perfect. It's the perfect homey dish, and I always get my hand smacked for trying to steal sheets of burnt marshmallow from the top without taking the potato part underneath.

We finally threw out the last of the leftovers on Monday night and plan on not eating ever, ever again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Calm Before the Storm

Jeff and I are cooking our very first Thanksgiving dinner together on Thursday. Above are the 627 pounds of groceries we bought yesterday and a 13-pound turkey from Staubitz, our butcher down the street.

The menu:

turkey (J)
pot roast (J)
cornbread (S)
cranberry sauce (S)
brussels sprouts (J)
bean salad (J)
sweet potatoes w/marshmallows (My mom -- I loooove her sweet potatoes, mostly for the blanket of slightly burnt marshmallows blanketing the top. She used to let me help her mash together the yams and the pineapple when I was little.)
stuffing (J)

apple crumble (S)
chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting (S)

Back tomorrow and Thursday with recipes, pictures, and results!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Will Run for Food

I know this is a food blog, but forgive me for not concocting anything photo-worthy lately. I know in my earlier mission statement I swore off takeout and committed to a life of home-cooked goodness...but damnit, I am LAZY. I know it's totally against everything women's magazines and general Girl Power, but I don't really like to make a big fuss when it's just me in the apartment for dinner. I've been intending for the past week or so to buy a steak, brussels sprouts, and shallots and make myself a nice meal. I was excited to take lots of photos for you ("Sheryl's First Steak!").

Alas, all i can offer are photos of my fridge, filled with several boxes of leftover Chinese food. There's been a lot of chicken/veggie/Srichacha combos going on. I'm not proud.

While avoiding my stove, what I have been doing (now that my 2-month injury recovery hiatus has ended) is running. Below, I've created for you a foodie iTunes playlist for your exercise enjoyment. Look to song #3 as my inspiration for creating this list tonight.

When You Finish You Can Eat

1. Neutral Milk Hotel, "The King of Carrot Flowers, Part 1"
A nice, gentle start -- perfect for a warm-up.

2. R.E.M., "Orange Crush"
When I was a little kid and there was a teacher workday, I used to go to my dad's high school (where he was a math teacher) and read at his desk while he went to meetings or graded papers. He always gave me some change to get myself a treat, and I always chose peanut M&Ms (still probably my #1 cheapo candy pick) and a can of Orange Crush.

3. Salt and Pepa, "Push It"
This counts because no meal is complete with a touch of salt and, hmm, pepa. And because I want it to count. I let out a little shriek today when this came on Shuffle during my run -- I don't think I've heard it in at least 5 years. I might or might not have really wanted to scream, "Push it REAL GOOD!" while on the Promenade. And I might have hit the back button just to hear that line again. Twice.

4. Cake, "Let Me Go"
Choosing just ONE lovable, feel-good Cake song is difficult. I settled on this one because it makes you wiggle your hips sassily while running.

5. Counting Crows, "Hard Candy"
An admittedly cringe-worthy song from their weakest album (sorry, Gerry, I do have a place for it in my heart but it's true), this one used to make me pine for a boy who would understand me like Adam Duritz. Oh my, I just typed that.

6. The Cranberries, "Zombie"
Middle school. Watching gold-faced Dolores O'Reardon scream and yodel about conflicts in Northern Ireland while I munched on Costco chocolate muffins the size of my head.

7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Coffee Shop"
In high school my friends and I used to drive from Coral Springs all the way to Davie (about a 25-minute trip) to sit and sip snickerdoodle lattes at a tiny nook called The Coffee Table. We felt cool because we had a place of our own. I had a gigantic crush on the guy who worked there and always thought he was looking at me out of the corner of his eye. He wasn't looking at me out of the corner of his eye.

8. Reel Big Fish, "Beer"
Beer is the only food or drink I actively dislike and will not eat. That's it, for real. I can't even comprehend why people find it palatable, to be honest. But content aside, this song (and band) is so much FUN.

9. U2, "Lemon"
When it comes to dessert, I'll rarely choose to order or bake something chocolate (unless we're talking about the budino at Chestnut). Chocolate just feels obvious. Played out. You basically know what it's going to taste like before you bite in -- yes, it's most likely a good taste, but what about something that wows? I'm a huge fan of citrusy desserts, and lemon bars are my go-to for company. Thick lemon paste rests on a super-buttery crust. Sprinkle it with powdered sugar and you have an entire pan that disappears in about 2 days.

10. Warrant, "Cherry Pie"
I like running to this one and pretending I'm onstage with Warrant doing backup vocals. No, I do not picture myself wearing cutoffs and a red bustier, and no Jani Lane does not spray me with a hose.

11. The Rolling Stones, "Brown Sugar"
My favorite stones song. Also, my favorite sweetner. I'm not going to lie -- whenever I'm baking with brown sugar I always sneak little chunks of it for snacks.

12. Tori Amos, "Cornflake Girl"
I'm more of a Kashi Girl.

13. Smashing Pumpkins, "Mayonnaise"
Andrea and I bought scalped tickets to see the Smashing Pumpkins our senior year of high school. We were in a rush, but if we'd had more time we would have bought jar of Hellman's and held them up so they would have played Mayonnaise. Although Billy Corgan is an asshole, so he probably wouldn't have, anyway. The show was incredible, and D'arcy totally smiled and waved at us.

14. Snoop Dogg, "Gin and Juice"
How many times did this video play back in 1993? "Snoop Doggy Dog? You need to get a jobby job!!"

15. Def Leopard, "Pour Some Sugar On Me"
See above comments on "Cherry Pie" and apply here, as well. Yes, my ideal job is hair band backup singer. What of it?

16. Green Day, "Poprocks and Coke"
Whenever I make a running playlist there is always at least one Green Day song on it. They're all short, peppy, and give a good boost when you feel like you want to give up and walk.

17. Mariah Carey, "Honey"
My favorite weekend breakfast is a steaming bowl of steel-cut Irish oatmeal, drizzled with honey and dotted with clumps of peanut butter.

18. Duran Duran, "Hungry Like the Wolf"
There was a point in high school where, when hungry, my friends and I would say, "Let's get something to eat. I'm hungry like the wolf!" We were awfully clever.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I have been craving the following for the past three days--a hot stack of extra-fluffy pancakes or one hot, crispy Belgian waffle, topped with a scoop of maple ice cream. The ice cream starts to melt after it's scooped out, and oozes maple-y, creamy goodness over the top of the pancakes or in the crevices of the waffle. Like syrup, but creamy and cold.

Does this combination exist? I might have to make it happen soon.

I had a stack of pumpkin pancakes from Lobo for brunch this morning, which kind of helped satisfy my craving. I would eat my keyboard if baked with pumpkin spices, probably.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I am a Nut(ella)...ella...ella...

When I'm alone in the apartment, it taunts me.

Let's call it my "Nut Butter Problem." It's the reason I prefer not to keep peanut butter or Nutella in the house, and it's the reason why when I lived with Andrea I had to replace her jar of Skippy about, oh, 27 times? And if we're honest, I probably had to replace it 28 or 29, but just forgot.

I should have just bought my own (And while I was at it, bought Jif--for real, Andrea? Skippy? Do you not like smooth, slow-roasted nuts? Do you prefer blandess?)

For better or worse, I've never had the opportunity to live alone. College roommates, then suitemates, then housemates, then apartmentmates, and now a fiance have kept home with me, which I really don't mind. As much of a homebody as I am, it has always given me comfort to know that someone is in the next room on the computer or watching TV while I'm in my own room doing whatever it is I do (watching Law and Order: SVU or reading my RSS Feed. That's about all the goes on.)

But even with roommates, there are always those nights when I'm the only one home. I always feel slightly free, like mom and dad are gone and I have the place to myself, man. And what does a free woman do when there's no one around to judge her actions? A bottle of wine, maybe? An entire Lucali's pizza? A tube of raw cookie dough? (Ooh! THAT'S a fun idea!)

All tempting, but no. She eats half a jar of nutella or peanut butter, that's what! God help me, I can't help but refer to Sex and the City; do forgive me. This is SO my Secret Single Behavior.

It always happens. I'll have eaten my dinner (in tonight's case, a chicken, avocado, tomato, and chickpea salad with toast) and usually some dessert (a s'more made with s'more fixins left here by Alison--a favor bag she got at a wedding a few weekends ago. Cute, no?), and then I sprawl on the couch to watch some Olivia Benson and Stabler action and then I feel that pull. Cabinet, cabinet, it's in the cabinet. And then I sternly tell myself that I am not hungry and do not want any peanut butter or Nutella.

Well...just a spoonful would be fine, right? I'll just sneak a wee little spoonful.

The next thing I know I'm in the fetal position on the couch in a ball of nut butter shame and stomach pain, half a bottle of something or other is gone, and I'm wailing, "Why can I not stay away?"

Smoothy, rich, nutty butter is my crack, snuck in spoonfuls when I'm positive no one can come home to catch me. And tonight, I have had my fix. 12 days and, oh, 3 jars until Jeff comes back to town?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Wining and Dining

I am told that many emails went into the planning of my bachelorette party last weekend, and by “many,” I mean something like, “good lord, you have NO IDEA how hard it is to coordinate the schedules and opinions of up to 10 people, shoot me now.” Well, as someone who remained somewhat blissfully unaware of the backstory of the weekend, I am pleased to let me dearest friends and faithful readers (redundant?) know that I couldn’t have planned one better myself.

We started the festivities at the only place on Earth I actively enjoy going out, Paladar. Heaven. Happiness. Oh, how my body starts to tingle in anticipation of a glorious minty mojito with sugar cane or a super-spicy Vampiro (a hibiscus flower “martini” with cayenne pepper around the rim).….of the endless baskets of chips with black bean sauce and hummus for dipping. Paladar is a place where all just seems right and rose-tinged. And this is coming from a gal who pretty much actively dislikes the process of “going out”—yes, at some point in my mid-20s I became a curmudgeonly old woman, shaking my fist at “kids” and “noise” and “drunken fools.” This place reminds me of my first apartment with Andrea on the Lower East Side, finding my way in New York for the first time, going out almost every night and becoming a person who wasn’t me to see how it felt, and laughing ‘til it hurt the entire way.

After a few cocktails, a mountain of French fries, and a simple, tasty dinner of grilled fish tacos with huge hunks of avocado, we loaded up a rented minivan and were on the road to our mystery destination. Of course, we first had to stop off for road snacks, including a box of bad-to-decent pizza slices, and gas station rations of Pepperidge Farm cookies (Bleh—chemically. I’ve grown to hate packaged baked goods.), licorice bits, Chex mix, plaintain chips (Oddness – not sure who bought those?), honey-roasted peanuts, and pretzels. Heaven forbid we go more than an hour without food! Unthinkable!

Our three-hour drive ended allll the way out on Long Island in a town called Southold. I had a pretty good idea of what was in store for the day ahead when I saw sign after sign displaying bunches of grapes. I’ve never been to a vineyard and it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for, oh, forever. And of course, they all knew! My friends are the bestest.

Also, I remember when thinking about what my ideal bahelorette party would entail (even when I was very much single), I used to say just my best friends, a few bottles of wine, and a weekend locked in a cabin in the woods. Or something. And food, lots of food. And so after driving down a dark, empty road for about 30 minutes, we pulled up to where we would be staying for the weekend. Oh, my – they rented a SECLUDED HOUSE! Just for us! (The below picture was taken the next day...we arrived around 11:30 or so).

Haley entered the passcode and the 7 of us ran around the downstairs, looking at all the beds, and scampered upstairs to marvel at the wraparound porch, huge living room and kitchen area, and two upstairs bathrooms. We were like the Real World kids upon being introduced to their new phat pad—“Omigod, this is really ours?? This is so cool! I’m SO not sleeping in the downstairs room!!” A house! All for ourselves! A mere block away from the ocean, to boot, although we didn’t take advantage of that amenity. Summer 2008 is begging for a revisit.

The next morning, Jenn woke us up at some insane hour telling us she was going to go for a drive, and asking if we wanted coffee. Wow, why yes, we do thanks! We all got up one by one, trudged around the living room, and Andrea decided to make us all scrambled eggs. I might be incorrect, but I think this was her first time attempting the art of the scrambled egg. She’s a natural.

From around the house the question was raised, “Um, where’s Jenn?” At this point, she had been gone for about an hour and a half in search of coffee and a toothbrush. She walked through the door triumphantly about 15 minutes later, bearing coffee for all and bags filled with local pastries. Seven women, coffee, various fruity muffins, scones, a chocolate croissant, eggs…we were grabbing and munching and then regrabbing and munching some more for a good 30 minutes.

We had another super-secret appointment at noon. At 11:45 I was led outside to…whoo! A waiting limo! A limo, too? For real? We had the limo for 5 hours and were off to a tour that included 4 wineries and a lunch.

I won’t get into all the wineries because I’m not well-versed enough in any way to properly talk about the nuances of the wines we were served. I’ve had a lot of wine—aside from Paladar cocktails, it’s the only form of alcohol I truly enjoy—and I still can’t get beyond the, “I like this!” and the “I don’t like this!” stage. I mostly just always look at a wine menu until I see the offered Riesling and then call it a night. Yes, I like my wine to taste like fruit, what’s it to you?

I’ll just say that the first winery we went to was by far the most beautiful. The tasting area was set up outside on a porch overlooking the expanse of grapes. The grayish white sky and mild temperature made everything have a sharper edge, from the leaves, to the wine glasses, to the people milling around. Everything felt classy and crisp.

One of the wines we were poured was a dessert wine hated by all but I think 2 of us. It tasted like raspberry syrup—in fact, the pourer dude, who was all kinds of nice, told us that it’s divine poured over cheesecake or vanilla ice cream. That, I can get behind.

The next winery gave us the most bang for the buck—4 full glasses of any wines we chose to check on the paper placemat before us. I had a cloying ice wine that gave off the most odd perfumey smell. It might have been fine in lieu of dessert, but was mostly thick and tasted of concentrated apple juice. A bit too sweet, even for me. The two reds I chose were fine—not fabulous, I’d order them again, but nothing to get crazy over. My favorite wine of the whole day, however, was a lovely glass of pinky-peach rose that tasted of slightly alcoholic grapefruit juice. I was a little tipsy at this point—that lovely wine tipsyness!—and kept exclaiming how great this wine would be with brunch. “No, seriously guys, isn’t this such an awesome brunch wine! It’s so light and fruity! Isn’t it interesting? Yum, this rose is so fruity!” And so they bought me a bottle to take home, because they’re awesome.

We made our way into the limo for winery #3, a bit soused and a bit hungry. Before lunch came our first tour, given by the winemaker himself. Maybe he was captivated by our charm, or maybe he was amused by my tiara and veil, I just don’t know, but he pulled just us aside to go even further downstairs to see the barrels. Down there, we got a taste of the reserve cabarnet sauvignon, which was very smooth. I loved hearing the man who actually makes the wine talk about how much he loves what he does, and how much he loves his product. Winemaking is his family business, and you could tell it’s just something he performs with a natural grace. The girls bought me two bottles from this place, too.

After picnic lunches on the porch (I was told that there was much email debate over which lunch selection I would prefer. They ended up with a duck salad. I mean, once they saw that a duck salad was on the menu, I really don’t understand why there was any debate. What, I’m going to have a grilled veggie sandwich? Please.), we loaded up the limo once again for #4, slowly, bit-by-bit, going from tipsy to sleeeeeepy. Winery #4 might have been nice and all had it been our first stop, but we were pretty much done and ready for a good, winey nap. The only thing that perked us up a little bit was the purchase of a cheese plate with spiced nuts, some of those most delicious roasted (and pickled?) red pepper we’d ever encountered, olives, a manchego, a cheddar, and then two others. Yes, I was too tired to even pay attention to or finish all the cheese. I am a sad food blogger after a glass or 2 or 7 of wine...

Back to the house, under blankets, a viewing of Clueless, a ravaging of the leftover muffins, and an episode and a half of ANTM later, we were off to dinner. I’m going to speak for the group and say that not one of us was very hungry, but hell if this group was going to miss a meal. A meandering drive (civilization was far) and two failed attempts at finding affordable restaurants near the water later, we ended up at a perfectly serviceable pub with food that really isn’t worth mentioning. We broke open the champagne that was part of the wine package deal and babbled on and on until our waitress brought over dessert that she was kind enough to decorate after hearing about my upcoming nuptials.

That’s me and Jeff’y! And our happy home!

Then it was to bed for us, because we’re old and tired. The next morning we were on our way home, but had to stop off first at one of the many roadside stands that you think only exist in movies when you live in New York City, but then realize actually do exist and hey, wouldn’t it be awesome to live in a place where driving up to one of these is a reality? But then you realize that means driving a car, and for me, that means it’s a no-go. I picked up a jar of rhubarb jam to bring home as a souvenir (this week we’ve found it helps make an interesting PBJ sandwich) and Haley snapped this gorgeous apple picture. This makes me want to bake something with apples and buttery crumbs, which you can expect me to write about very soon.

The weekend was everything I could have wanted. I love my friends so much. I love them not only because, just like me, they’re always willing to eat until busting point while talking about what we’re going to have for our next meal, but mostly because they know me so well (sometimes too well, they cannot be fooled, ever), that when we’re together there’s nothing to do but let go and laugh and laugh. I can’t wait for them to walk down the aisle with me in January.

(Boo, Jenn is missing in the above pic.)