Yearly Archives: 2007

Holiday Party Season Top Foods and Drinks

As another holiday season is rolling swiftly to its close, it dawned on me that there was a wide gulf in the variety of foods served at each of the parties to which I went. This year, during the past month or so, I’ve been averaging about one social gathering a week of different shapes and sizes. Many of these were catered affairs, again by firms large and small, with only one being a restaurant-type gathering, cobbled together with a few drinks nights in between.

I’ve worked on many kinds of events and receptions in my professional life and have hosted quite a few dinner parties in my personal one. The basic rule of thumb is always the same: Have plenty of drinks and make sure you have some great nibbles for everyone. Beyond that, it doesn’t seem as though coming up with the catering menu could be all that difficult, right? Well, I had some very good and clever tidbits this year and also encountered one party that might deserve to put into culinary rehab for next year (a shared opinion, by the way).

Here’s my tastebud’s list of top 5 edibles I sampled during this year’s holiday party season:

1. Mini lobster rolls on brioche buns – What can I say? Lobster salad, not too mayonnaisey with a hint of tarragon (it might have been in the mayo). A mini-bite of sweet seafood loveliness. We’d had this appetizer the previous year at the same party, but it had had a little crunch of bacon added which pushed it over that amazing taste edge. I did miss the bacon this year but maybe I can lobby for its comeback before next one.

2. Tiny tacos filled with pico de gallo and topped with an ancho mayonnaise – These little treats were a perfect kick to go with Drink Favorite #2. All I have to say is that this caterer is brilliant. Two canap├ęs were served on trays with mini shots of a matching alcoholic beverage – genius! I hope that I might have a chance to hire her at some point for something I’m hosting.

3. Potato crackers with bits of lobster and caviar – I’m not sure how much more there is to say about this. I love lobster and caviar (I’m guessing it was domestic.) dressed with a little sour cream and garnished with fennel frond.

4. Tuna tartare on fried wonton cracker – Delicately smoky tuna with that fried, Chinese-style-noodle crisp to follow. This was a great little nosh and the perfect size for a standing-room-only party where I was trying to network and eat at the same time. It also was the right portion so that I didn’t have to try to catch food in my hand while holding a drink.

5. Fried pumpkin-sage stuffing balls with cranberry jam – Sounds weird, but the fried, earthy, doughy treats, dipped into the jam for a hint of sweet, were warm, a bit luscious and wonderful. Sort of like a savory donut hole, kind of.

And what would any party be without libations? They don’t have to be alcoholic, but as I do drink, mine were. Here were my top 3 cocktails that helped me make it through the party season:

1. Pomegranate Martini – My first introduction to these was at that Thanksgiving do to which I was invited by a friend. It was love at first site. Then, this drink also appeared at one of my office parties which was a great treat. I’m trying to convince myself that all the anti-oxidants in the juice counteract anything else I’ve eaten and drunk on that particular day. Yeah, no one else seemed to buy it, either.

2. Mini Margaritas – This is a trend that should take hold for cocktail season. I loved this pairing idea with Edible #2. The catering tray itself had a placeholder for the shot of margarita and it was the perfect amount of liquid with which to wash down the spicy little taco. The tequila and sweetness of the drink and the kick of the ancho mayo were a perfect marriage for my tastebuds. They keep begging me to have it again.

3. Vodka Tonic – Although this might sound boring, a good VT, like a nice glass of champagne, is the little black dress of libations in my humble opinion. It’s easy to throw back or to nurse and tends to go with almost any food that is available at just about every party to which I’ve ever been. It also tends to be the drink most likely to be on hand at any bar, even the very small one that was at one of the best parties I went to all season. A little twist of lime, and you are ready to go back onto the dance floor, which is exactly what I did do that night – several times.

Along with all the great things I ate and drank during these past view weeks, there were some less thrilling items as well. Mac and Cheese is not a cocktail nibble, not even if you put it into a phyllo cup. (This turned up at two parties – please stop it now!) Mini hamburgers (sliders) are dull and better eaten during a night out with friends at a bar. (It was also at multiple events – again, can we please bury this? ) Ditto with fries served in any form at these gatherings.

The main thing I gleaned from all of this, is that the recipe for a more enjoyable gathering is bigger than just the specific food served at each of them, much as that does set the tone. Many and varied passed appetizers and fewer hot items served in chafing dishes make a better party – and make people happier because then they can move around to schmooze with everyone while getting to nibble at the same time, especially important for work-related parties. We are way behind the days of cheese cubes on a toothpick so heavy hors d’oeuvres can make the meal and can also be very interesting and creative without being cumbersome.

Oh, and if you have a specialty drink at the beginning of the evening, like a pre-mixed Bellini, please, please make sure that you have enough of it on hand to serve throughout the entire event. It is really annoying to attendees to find their cocktail du soir only to find out later after going back for a refill that it is no longer available. It also kind of puts a damper on the festivities and violates a cardinal entertaining rule of having enough food and drink on hand to make it a party.

Buon Appetito e Buona Festa Tutti!

Happy Anniversary Cooking

I’ve mentioned the group blog Slashfood in past posts and am an avid reader of their articles. Their Cookie-A-Day a-thon for December came to the rescue today with a recipe for Cranberry White Chocolate Chunk cookies. Conveniently enough, it is also the second anniversary of this blog, so it makes it a great day to test out (and tweak) a new try on an old favorite, the drop cookie, in the spirit of many of my previous posts.

This recipe provided a great excuse for workday-at-home baking (just trying to use the rest of my 2007 vacation days) plus something for me to bring to work tomorrow for a co-worker’s birthday. As our team has a big sweet tooth, I’m guessing that these will be a great snack to tame the mid-afternoon lull. The creamy white chocolate is offset by the tartness of the dried cranberries along with my own addition of buttery macadamia nuts. Let’s hope the guys like them!

Buon appetito!

Butternut Squash Soup

After taking a break to digest Thanksgiving dinner, it’s time to launch into the last few posts for 2007 and look forward to this blog’s second anniversary. I would lie and say that I was doing something wildly impressive last weekend, which is why I didn’t post, but the truth is far simpler and less interesting.

In disconnecting the cable/internet service from a neighboring apartment, the cable folks accidentally tripped mine either instead of or in addition to. Needless to say, I was really unhappy to find out on my day off that I had neither cable (which meant that I couldn’t really watch any tv at all) or computer connections. It’s amazing as to how isolated that made me feel. Fortunately, the tech who was sent out on my service call knew before he even came to my apartment what the problem was and resolved it right away. I felt like I could breath again.

One of the things that I did do on my blog break was to attempt another recipe from the Cook’s Illustrated issue that I’d highlighted a couple of posts back when I made the Goat’s Cheese Salad. This time, on the recommendation of the friend who’d pointed me this way to begin with, I made the Butternut Squash Soup. This is such a classic and comforting winter warmer and I’m always on the lookout for the version of this recipe that will live in my files forever.

I definitely think that this recipe might be THE ONE to keep in my files. I always find it interesting to read about the process that the Cook’s folks go through in addition to trying their end result. For me, it sort of helps to define the rationale for some of the quirkier steps that might be in the recipe. It also makes me realize that many of us have the same issues in trying to replicate those flavors that we love and have eaten previously, usually in nicer restaurants.

So, I highly recommend that you give this recipe a whirl, as my friend did to me. She did warn me, however, that it is really “squashy” for lack of a better adjective. It tastes like eating perfectly creamy smooth squash. If you don’t like that, don’t try this. What she didn’t say is that it is very orange. It is really, really orange, as you can see from the photos below.

Kitchen Witch Tips

For those of you who haven’t yet acquired a hand-held blender, I’ll plead with you once again to consider putting it on your holiday gift list or to treat yourself while you are shopping for other people. This is definitely the utensil that keeps on giving. With this, you can skip over that whole messy part of the recipe that calls for transferring hot or warm liquid to a blender, pureeing it and then return it to the pan to reheat.

Simply puree the cooled-down liquid in the same pot as the squash was cooked, using the hand-held blender and then reheat the same, never having to transport the soup from one vessel to another with all that slopping about. The blender is a snap to clean and far less messy to deal with than having to take apart a standard blender or processor with all the blades and other bits. You need this utensil in your kitchen.

Sweet Thanksgiving – Chocolate-Pecan-Bourbon Pie

Just look at this beauty. It is my contribution to a Thanksgiving feast to which I’ve been invited. A chocolate-pecan pie with a healthy dose of bourbon. The original recipe was given to me by a former roommate from college. Over the years, I’ve tweaked it and adapted the ingredients until I think it is fool-proof and a little bit more like me. It is a great dessert to bring to share for any dinner.

This pie is a bit rich, and made even more so by the optional addition of whipped cream at the end. It is always completely devoured at any dinner to which I’ve brought it, no matter in what city or country I’ve lived. I’m bringing it to what another former roommate had years ago termed an “Orphans’ Thanksgiving.” This is just a roundup of friends, co-workers and associates who would not have anywhere else to go to share a meal with which to celebrate the holiday.

When talking on pre-Turkey Day catch-up calls with a few friends, we all agreed that these get-togethers of assorted folks that we’ve all been at in past years were some of the most enjoyable meals that we have shared. It somehow really captures the essence and spirit of the holiday, not to be sappy about it or anything, to bring people around a table to share a dinner to which everyone contributed something.

Having it as a potluck, with each person chipping in to feed the others, is somewhat similar to what we are told happened between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. I’m sure that they didn’t bring this particular dessert, pecans and bourbon being a bit more Southern, but I like to think that they served something sweet that day. Pie just seems integrally linked to this holiday.

Chocolate-Pecan-Bourbon Pie
Serves: Depends on how much you like pie (at least 8)
Total prep time: 15-20 minutes with an additional 45 for baking

1 prepared pie shell (use your favorite recipe)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
3-4 Tablespoons bourbon
1/4 cup cornstarch
pinch of salt
3/4 cup chopped pecans
3.5 ounce bar of semi-sweet (70% cocoa) chocolate, broken into small pieces

Melt butter and set aside to cool. Beat eggs, gradually add sugar and beat until pale. Pour in bourbon and incorporate fully. Add melted butter a little at a time and whisk completely.

Add cornstarch. Whisk again. Sprinkle in salt. Fold in chopped pecans and chocolate pieces. Blend thoroughly. Pour into prepared pie crust and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 Centigrade / Gas Mark 4) for 45 to 50 minutes, until top is golden brown.

Allow to cool and serve room temperature or just slightly warm. This pie can be transported cold and then warmed up (not reheated). It can also be made a day or a morning ahead of time and refrigerated until warmed up for serving.

Buon appetito e buona festa!

Kitchen Witch Tip:

That serrated knife that you have in your drawer? Guess what. Its jagged edge is the perfect tool for cutting up nuts and hacking up a bar of chocolate into small enough pieces for baking into this pie. Don’t overlook it just because it is normally kept safe for slicing up bread.

I just thought that another view of this was necessary!

Goat’s Cheese Salad

As a friend pointed out to me recently, on a topic having nothing to do with food, it is rare to get a hit right out of the park on the first shot. Recipes are much the same way. Even the best-written, best-tested ones might not work the same way in every kitchen or in every cook’s hands.

America’s Test Kitchen’s recipes are thoroughly tested and vetted. I really enjoy watching the methodology behind their process as they demonstrate it on their PBS show. Their magazine also makes a good read, but I confess that I haven’t really used many of their recipes. This same friend had, however, strongly recommended their Fall 2007 issue very highly so I decided to buy it.

Among the recipes included in the magazine was one that has been my nemesis in the past: Goat’s Cheese Salad. While I think I followed the instructions to the letter, I’m not sure that my results came out as well as those of the testers. Still, I think that it was a good first try.

When the goat’s cheese rounds came out of the oven and were gently laid upon a nest of fresh Greenmarket lettuces, they didn’t look so bad. The melba toast crust and baking them in an oven made a huge difference from my previous attempts at a similar recipe in which I coated them in breadcrumbs and pan fried them. These held their shape and, upon the first bite, they were delicately creamy and not at all chalky. This recipe is going to go in my “keeper” file.

Buon appetito!

Fall into Apples – Apple Crumble with Custard

Fall has been a bit late in coming to New York this year. The humidity and higher temperatures of late summer seem to have stuck around for at least a month longer that usual. This is one of my favorite seasons. The biggest impact has been that my internal food clock has also been thrown off and the foods that I normally would indulge in haven’t been very appealing to me.That has all started to change in the past couple of weeks which means that I’ve started to tackle my seasonal recipe repertoire. One of the dishes that brings back great, warm memories of my time living in England (where winter-like weather can linger for months and months without ever really snowing), is Apple Crumble with Custard. Tart apples baked until soft and sweet covered with a cookie-cakey topping, drenched in creamy, rich custard. This is what got me through many a rainy weekend day in London.

From time to time, I also get a craving for it on this side of the Atlantic, but I’ve never replicated it. For one thing, Bramleys, THE British baking apple aren’t available here. For another, I always feel as though I can’t get the topping just right. When I made the fig tarts a few weeks ago, I had a little more than a cup of filling left over.

As I’d enjoyed its flavor, I decided to use the extra filling, with a few adjustments, as the crumble topping. It came out perfectly. With a recommendation on some great baking apples from a vendor at the Greenmarket, I was soon in business and on my way to making a nice, new memory for those cold, dreary days in my current home city.


Apple Crumble

Serves: 6-8
Prep time:
15 minutes plus 30 for baking

5 Jonagold apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
Juice of 1/2 orange
1 teaspoon sugar
Leftover filling from fig tart recipe (see previous post)
3/4 cup whole wheat flour

Mix together filling and flour, using fork or pastry cutter to combine until mixture resembles thick paste or clay. Toss sliced apples with with orange juice and sugar and layer in baking dish. Top with filling mixture to cover apples entirely.

Put baking tray under dish to catch any run-off juices and place in 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove when crust is golden brown. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.


Serves: 3-4
Prep Time: 20 minutes

2 egg yolks (if using organic, the custard will be more yellow-colored)
2 teaspoons superfine sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat together egg yolks and sugar until the sugar looks like it has dissolved a bit. Place bowl over a pan of simmering water and whisk together for 1-2 minutes more but do not let it turn into scrambled eggs. Begin to add cream a tablespoon at a time. Continue to whisk to combine.

Mixture will look as though it is still the consistency of the cream but will, after a few minutes, start to thicken. Do not allow water in pan underneath to get to a raging boil. It should continue to simmer to gently heat the custard and to thicken it gradually. Remove bowl with custard mixture from the top of the pan when it becomes very thick but it still liquidy.

Add vanilla extra and stir in thoroughly. Pour over apple crumble.

Yum, Apple Crumble with Custard

Buon appetito!