Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eat Real Food and Share It with Those You Love...Fearlessly

We’ve been on vacation for the past few weeks, doing a little relaxing and reflecting on our year.  It’s been a big year, and we’ve learned a lot.  More on that later this week.

In the meantime, New Year’s Eve is coming up in a few days, which means parties and potentially opening your home to your family and friends to celebrate the coming year.  And to many, it means stress and anxiety.

We want to put an end to that.  Stress over entertaining, that is.  Not parties. 

As with everything in life, our message is be nice to yourself.  Don’t think that every little detail has to be perfect.  You’ll drive yourself crazy.  Just dim the lights, light some candles, put on great music and meet your guests at the door with a drink and a big smile.  Your joy will put everyone at ease, and you’re guaranteed a great party.

If you need a little more help than that, here are a few of our tips for easy and fearless entertaining.

1.    Determine a budget, and plan your menu accordingly.  You don’t have to spend a fortune to carry off an elegant, delicious party everyone raves about.  Low-budget and big-punch items include things like grilled vegetables, antipasti platters and bruschetta with simple homemade toppings.  We have a few recipes for you, below.  And don’t be too ambitious!  Make three or four items and then take a little help from the deli section of the grocery store, with a selection of a few artisan cheeses and bowls of good-for-you olives and nuts. 

2.    Consider allergies or dietary restrictions, but don’t stress about it.  We ask guests to let us know if they have specific dietary restrictions, and we always serve at least one vegetarian and gluten-free option, just in case.  But if you’re feeling overwhelmed and you have guests with specific allergies or aversions, ask them to bring a dish to contribute!  Friends will be more than happy to help. 

3.    Create a drink station Create a pretty drink station away from the food, so that everyone is not all bunched in the same area.  And when it comes to drinks, there are several ways to keep costs down.  One, ask each guest to bring a bottle of wine or nonalcoholic beverage in lieu of a hostess gift.  Set a price limit if you want, so guests do not feel obligated to bring an expensive bottle.  Two, decide on only one signature cocktail.  This has two advantages—it limits the number of spirits you need to buy for the party, thus reducing your cost.  It also allows you to make large batches of the cocktail ahead of time, making serving easier.  Please don’t plan on mixing cocktails one-by-one!  You’ll be at the bar all night long.  Make sure you provide interesting and delicious nonalcoholic options as well, including lots of pitchers of water to keep guests hydrated! 

4.    Use white serving platters.  It’s the secret all great restaurants know—food looks best on a white background.  And arranging food on big platters—even if it’s just cheese and crackers—makes it look fancy and festive.  You can buy very inexpensive plain white platters at discount stores like Target and TJMaxx.  And if you really want to get fancy, put little place cards next to each with a description of the food.  That also helps to identify foods for anyone who may have allergies or dietary restrictions.

5.   Be organized!  You know how much we love lists.  Make a complete grocery list of all of the items you will need for the party.  Check them off as you purchase them.  Try not to leave all of your shopping for the last minute.  Pantry goods can be purchased days and weeks ahead of time.  If you have children (or spouses!) who might be tempted to snack on things like nuts, chocolate or crackers, you might want to hide them until the party.  Just don’t forget the hiding place!

6.   Don’t forget the bathrooms Make sure your guest bathrooms are stocked with toilet paper, fresh soap and clean towels.  A discretely placed plunger is not a bad idea either, just in case.

7.   Candles, flowers and good music can cover a lot of flaws!  It’s really true.  If the vibe is great, people will remember a great party.  Use white, unscented votive candles.  They are inexpensive and easy to replenish—and they won’t tip over if accidently bumped.  Keep flower arrangements simple—all one color is usually best, arranged in a short glass vase.  Short, square glass vases can be purchased very cheaply at floral supply shops.  And don’t forget the music.  Ask a friend with great taste in music to create a playlist for the party, and then ask them to make sure it keeps playing!    

8.   Create a timeline While this may seem like a silly step, we find it’s essential for making sure everything gets done on time, before the first doorbell ring.  It’s easiest to start from the time of the party and work backwards, beginning with what needs to be prepared or finished at the last minute to what can be prepared hours or days ahead of time.

9.   Prep as much of the menu ahead of time as you can.  Cut up the vegetables, make the dressings, bake the desserts…  Look at your recipes and think about what can be made days (or even weeks) before the party.  

10.  Relax!  If you’re not having a good time, your guests won’t have a good time.  And if anything goes wrong, just laugh.  It will make a great story.

Here are a few recipes for easy, make-ahead small bites for your next party.

Bruschetta Bar with Ceci Beans & Tuscan Greens
A bruschetta bar is a great way to serve easy, inexpensive and yet delicious appetizers for your holiday 
party.  Bruschetta is basically just grilled bread and is a base for an endless number of delicious 
toppings, from the traditional tomato and basil to the ceci beans (garbanzo beans) and Tuscan greens 
(cavolo nero kale) featured here.  Be sure and choose great-quality bread with a good crust and chewy 
center.  These can be served hot-off-the-stove, but are also great at room temperature—perfect for a 
make-ahead party.

Serves 8

4 -  1 inch-thick slices great-quality crusty bread
1/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove

Preheat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat.

Brush each side of the bread with the olive oil.  Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground black 
pepper to taste.  Grill bread, about 1 minute per side, until grill marks appear and bread is 
toasted.  Rub one side of the bread with the garlic clove.  Cut each slice of bread in half on the 
diagonal.  Set aside until ready to top and serve.

Ceci Beans (Garbanzo Beans) Topping

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons black olive tapenade
1 cup cooked ceci beans, still warm*
2 tablespoons cooking liquid from beans
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh basil, torn or sliced
Zest of one lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium-low heat.  Add garlic and cook about 30 seconds, until 
garlic starts to soften.  Add red pepper flakes, rosemary and black olive tapenade.  Fry until 

Pour olive oil mixture over cooked ceci beans.  Add balsamic vinegar, cooking liquid, fresh basil 
and lemon zest.  Toss together, mashing some of the beans slightly with the back of your 
fork.  Taste for seasoning, and adjust as necessary.

Spread topping over grilled bread, drizzling with extra olive oil if desired.  Serve warm, or at 
room temperature.

Tuscan Greens (Cavolo Nero, or Dinosaur Kale) Topping

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 bunch Tuscan kale, ribs removed and thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
Zest of one lemon
¼ pound parmesan or ricotta salata

Heat olive oil in small skillet over medium-low heat.  Add pancetta or bacon and cook until fat is 
rendered and pork is beginning to brown.  Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook about 30 
seconds, until garlic starts to soften.

Add kale, salt and pepper and cook, adding a little water if necessary, until kale is wilted and 
tender, about 5 – 10 minutes.  Season with nutmeg and lemon zest.  Top grilled toast with greens 
and shavings of parmesan or ricotta salata.

Polenta Coins with Mushroom Sauté
Polenta coins—or cups--make a great vehicle for any sort of filling, from mushrooms to braised 
meats.  Make the polenta up to two days ahead of time and then reheat in the oven right before the 
party starts. This recipe is a great option for your guests following a gluten-free eating plan. 

Makes about 16 - 24 polenta

2 cups polenta
8 cups water* or low-sodium chicken stock
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
1 ½ pounds mushrooms, sliced (any varieties you like)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup shallots, minced
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup dry white wine, or dry sherry
1 tablespoon butter

Add chicken stock to a large sauce pan and bring to a simmer. Whisk in polenta, being careful to 
avoid splattering corn meal.  Cook for 30 minutes or until tender, whisking frequently. Add
butter and parmesan cheese.

Line a deep-rimmed baking sheet with wax paper. Pour polenta onto tray and spread evenly to 1 
inch thick. Allow to cool at room temperature; transfer to refrigerator and chill until set, at least 
two hours.

When chilled and set, cut circles into the polenta using a 2’ cookie cutter, or cut into 
squares.  Scoop out the centers of each polenta circle with a teaspoon, being careful not to make a 
hole in the bottom of the circle.  When ready to serve, reheat coins in a 250 degree oven until 

In the meantime, make the mushroom sauté.  Add the mushrooms to a large, dry skillet set over 
medium-high heat.  Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms begin to caramelize.  Remove 
mushrooms from pan.   

Reduce heat to medium and add the shallots and red pepper flakes.  Cook until the shallots are 
translucent.  Add the mushrooms back to the pan, with the fresh thyme, salt and pepper.  Add 
wine and cook until liquid is reduced to about a tablespoon.  Remove from heat and stir in 
butter.  This can be make a day ahead and reheated before serving.

Fill warmed polenta cups with mushroom sauté and serve warm or at room temperature. 

*If you want to make this recipe vegetarian, use water and season well with sea salt.

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