September 14, 2012
The summer days are wasting away and there are roughly 15 weeks left until Christmas. It feels a little strange to already turn one’s attention to the winter months; however, as some of you may recall, I made a few food-themed New Year’s resolutions, and with my colleagues beginning to celebrate Rosh Hashanah this weekend (that’s Jewish New Year to my fellow goyim), it’s a perfect time to take stock of how I’ve done so far. Here’s the original post with all the self-imposed benchmarks. Now, let’s review.
Resolution 1: Add new meals to the repertoire. By and large I still stick to the same core meals that I’ve happily lived on for the past couple years. Tried a few that I need to make up again—a fab vegetarian artichoke and potato soup—and have put the Crock Pot through its paces with a couple new recipes. I’m also trying to be a little more resourceful, occasionally scrap the cookbook and try on the fly to figure out what foods will work together. Most recently, a few sauteed summer squash with tomatoes, fresh herbs, a little onion and garlic made a fine meal when paired with a bag of tortellini hiding in my freezer. All in all, I think I can do better on this resolution—and I’ve still time to do that.
Resolution 2: Bake more. 2012 was the year where I finally got a handle on making a solid pie. Crafting crust was always my Achilles heel, but America’s Test Kitchen’s foolproof recipe involving vodka allowed me to up my game. Four cherry pies later, I’m feeling very zen with the baking. I’ve also dived into bread making. Dad used to make beautiful, round loaves of pagnota—white, crusty Italian bread—and when you grow up around that, it’s difficult to subsist on the squishy store-bought loaves. While two loaves of homemade wheat bread require a fair investment of time—I have to make the starter and soaker the night before and the next day it’s two hour-long risings and about an hour to bake off—the results are worth it. Flavorful bread that doesn’t back any of the fillers or preservatives that I find on the store shelves. As god is my witness, I’ll never buy Wonder again. At least that might be my goal for 2013.
Resolution 3: Entertain more. Have I done a ton of entertaining in my home? No, but I started off with a fondue party with just a couple buds (see Resolution 4), which went off pretty darn well. Everyone seemed to enjoy the Swiss/avocado appetizer, the red wine-based braise for the meats course and a dessert of macerated oranges with zabione. (Why be predictable and do three courses of fondue?) I also recently hosted a board gaming night where the fare was simple—hummus for appetizer, rolled out a few pizzas, key lime pie (see Resolution 2), DIY orange sherbet for dessert, bourbon-laced sangria to wash it all down—but all in all it went off well. It was also the gathering that let me know that, at most, I can comfortably accommodate 5 people in a 530 square foot apartment with one air conditioning unit in the window. But the other plus of entertaining? I found that I plan for gatherings like the rest of my family: convince yourself you’ve nearly enough food, overdo it at the grocery store and then find yourself with gobs of leftovers. While it may have been a slog to do all the prep work, there are a few post-party days where I can coast and graze off what’s left in the fridge. I can totally make a meal off a veggie platter.
Resolution 4: Use the fondue pots. One of my pots was a family hand-me-down, the other was a Goodwill find. It’s a shame people seem so willing to part with their fondue sets—it’s a wonderfully social way to enjoy food. While waiting for one person to dunk a bite of food or waiting for said food to cook, the conversation flows freely. I’m not knocking the standard dinner plate, but with that presentation, people might be more inclined to sit down and shovel their meal. If you still have yours kicking around in the closet, I encourage you to crack it out. Of course, now that I’ve used them once, the trick is to make sure they remain in use.
All that said, how are you all doing on any resolutions you made this past January? Let’s celebrate (or commiserate) in the comments section below.
January 10, 2012
A while back I wrote a post about what the diners in Pierre Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party were eating during their alfresco midday meal—only to find out that, aside from some fruit and bottles of wine, we really don’t know what was on the menu. Nevertheless, the image struck one of our readers as being a fine inspiration for a full-fledged party—with themed décor, entertainment party favors and, yes, the food—and she commented on the original post asking if I had any ideas on how to go about planning such an event. I’ll preface this by saying that I’m no expert on art or historic French gastronomy by any stretch of the imagination, but just the same I’m putting on my event planner hat to offer up the following ideas on how to throw a party inspired by an Impressionist painting.
Let’s start off with creating a little atmosphere. Looking at Luncheon of the Boating Party, this is a party meant to be thrown outdoors, be in on a deck, a lawn, park, whatever have you. But if all you have is a closed-in space to work with, throw open the windows and get as much natural sunlight into your space as you can. Impressionist painters were fascinated by light and how its qualities changed throughout the day, so hold the romance of candlelit noshing for another occasion.
The dining decor itself is pretty simple with a plain, white tablecloth covering the table, but it beautifully sets off the vibrant bowls of fruit and bottles of wine. When contemplating your spread, consider similarly colorful foods that will “pop” off the table. There are also brilliant red flowers in the scene, seen on the ladies’ straw hates. (Maybe they’re Gerber daisies? I’m not enough of a green thumb to know.) Other Renoir paintings, such as A Girl with a Watering Can and Two Sisters (On the Terrace) feature flowers in reds, pinks and whites. You might draw inspiration there for table displays. And add in some greenery—all that lush, verdant foliage makes the warmer colors stand out. The only other prominent piece of decoration is the red-and-white striped awning covering the dining area. If you could find similar colors and patterning in an umbrella or a tent, you’d have some beautiful shaded area should you be entertaining on a lawn. You could also bring in the motif via tablecloth, and dress some tables with the white linen and others with the more colorful material.
Furthermore, just as one would readily crib entertaining ideas presented in books and magazines, look to Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum for ideas on how to throw an Impressionist-themed party. This event coincided with their exhibition Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism and featured outdoor games and music by composers of the era such as Ravel and Debussy.
I’d be remiss in not addressing the issue of favors to give to your guests. For this theme, I might spring for simple art supplies and encourage guests to get creative, maybe even get them to sketch scenes from the party in lieu of taking a photograph. You can find small sketchpads and pair them with a basic set of pencils or watercolor paints. (There is also a product on the market called watercolor pencils. It has been several years since I have done studio art so I’ve no idea how well they work; however, traditional watercolors can be very aggravating to work with and might discourage someone who is apprehensive about taking up a paintbrush. Offhand, the watercolor pencils look like they would give someone more control and work well as regular colored pencils.) Throw in a few post cards of Impressionist paintings to serve as a muse to your guests.
Another gift idea would be a book on Renoir himself. Taschen publishes art books with beautiful color reproductions and they have one that details the life and work of Renoir. The Philips Collection, which is home to Luncheon of the Boating Party, has a selection of products based on the painting that are available for purchase online. You could pair any of these things with small foodstuffs. I have seen chocolate bars with masterworks painstakingly recreated thereon; however, these treats can be cost-prohibitive, depending on one’s budget. On the other end of the economic and gastronomic spectrum, candy buttons are somewhat evocative of the painting style used by post-Impressionists like Georges Seurat, who used tiny dots of color to create an image. You would need to include a post card of a painting done in the pointillist style so that people can get the joke, and this would work best for a good-humored crowd with an appreciation for kitsch. You could even make a game out of seeing what images you and your guests can make out of the candy buttons—an edible riff on Pictionary.
And, oh yeah, what to do about the food? We already know that we don’t know what the diners ate for lunch, aside from some fruit—grapes and pears, perhaps peaches—and red wine. The Philips Collection, which is home to the painting, held their own Luncheon of the Boating Party-themed dinner last August, and their menu included Vichyssoise soup and escargot for appetizers, coq au vin and oven-roasted sea bass for main courses and French toast with pear and caramel sorbet. For more ideas, thumb through Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire (yes, it’s available in an English translation). A celebrity chef of his time, Escoffier is credited with modernizing how a kitchen is run and in 1903 he came out with his Le Guide Culinaire, a book that standardized French cuisine. With some 5,000 recipes therein, surely you can find something to suit your palate and skill level—and you’ll be making food that’s roughly of the same era as the painting. If all you want is a taste of France geared to a modern audience (and modern kitchen), refer to an old standby like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or an even more recent compendium like Essential Pépin.
I think all the basics are covered. And if you have any ideas to add—or have actually mounted a party to this effect—include your thoughts in the comments section below. And to Donna, thank you for the blog post idea and hope the above is helpful as you start planning your Mother’s Day luncheon.
December 29, 2011
When it comes time to think about how to make a new year better than the last, “lose weight” is one of the most commonly made—and broken—resolutions. This resolution tends to vilify fun food in favor of working out more. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but isn’t it possible to make a few New Year’s resolutions that embrace food? I think so. Here are a few I’m putting on my list as I dive into 2012.
Resolution 1: Out with the old standbys, in with the new. I like to cook for myself and take some pride in the fact that I pack a lunch (almost) every day. I’ve come to rely on a limited number of dishes to make because they’re filling and familiar enough that I can whip them up with ease—pasta with chick peas and spinach will always be a great, quick weeknight meal. The thing is, I feel like I’m in a rut. There’s a lot of uncharted culinary territory to explore. Time to take an afternoon, sift through the cookbooks on my shelf and get out of my cooking comfort zone and tackle new things.
Resolution 2: Bake more. I personally prefer baking to cooking and love thumbing through books like The Perfect Finish for sugary ideas. My recent acquisition of a cookie press comes with tantalizing attachments for eclairs, and a Q&A I did with a heritage grain-grower has me wanting to attempt baking bread again. (The last two tries, while edible, weren’t too pretty.) I want the practice and the satisfaction of being able to make a perfect pie crust and that elusive loaf of bread, or use balloons to make decorative chocolate bowls that could hold whatever small-scale edibles I could manage to turn out. (Yes, it’s a thing and I want to do it.) Since I’m single, ridding myself of the sugary supply would be an issue if not for…
Resolution 3: Entertain more. I look at my apartment and keep telling myself it’s too small to really hold a crowd. But after polling a few friends who can offer more detached opinions, I may have been over-thinking my space limitations. Rearrange some furniture to clear the floor and make room for people, fill the table with finger food and have a relaxed time nibbling and visiting. And be realistic. My space is geared to casual dining and I can make those kinds of meals work well.
Resolution 4: Those fondue pots living in the closet? Use them. Yes, both of them. Should I be strapped for reasons why these need to be cracked out, refer back to items 1 and 3. A trip to the Melting Pot inspired their purchase, now it’s time to follow through.
December 28, 2010
Entertaining friends and family is a big part of the holiday season. In my family, after we have nibbled on appetizers and enjoyed a meal and the dessert plates have been cleared from the table, it’s game time. Literally.*
If you are a game lover (or are just looking for some excitement), consider playing these games—some bought, some improvised—at your next dinner party.
*Warning: Wait 30 minutes after eating before charading.
Whether the group you’re hosting consists of lifelong friends, new acquaintances or a combination of both, Table Topics is a game with, according to its tag line, “Questions to Start Great Conversations.” It is a simple concept. The game consists merely of a deck of cards with questions on each, and the maker has come out with decks of different themes—Dinner Party, Not Your Mom’s Dinner Party and Gourmet, among others. From the original deck: “If you could do something dangerous just once with no risk what would you do?” And from the gourmet deck: “Which celebrity chef would you most like to fix you a meal?” Find out things about your friends that you might never have known.
Another game, called the Game of Things, takes this idea to the next level. A card might say: “Things people do when no one is looking” or “Things dogs are actually saying when they bark.” Each player writes down an answer, and the object of the game is to guess who wrote what. The board game can be improvised if your group comes up with a pile of “Things” prompts. But, I have to say, the topics that come with the game generate hilarious answers.
There are so many trivia board games out there that you can pretty much play to a common interest of your group. If you are all fans of TV shows like The Office or Seinfeld, there are games that will challenge you to recall famous quotes and scenes. I recently saw a game called Name Chase, perfect for history buffs, that provides facts and clues about historical figures. The fewer clues you need in order to guess the person correctly, the higher your score. And if you are serious foodies, Foodie Fight, with over 1,000 food-related trivia questions, might be a good choice.
Catch Phrase has always been a party favorite among my friends. The hand-held electric game provides a word, and, in typical Taboo fashion, you have to describe the person, place or thing (without using the word in question) in a way that will enable your team to guess it. Then you quickly pass it around the room. Whichever team has it when the time runs out loses the round.
What’s great about the game “Celebrity” is that it requires only some paper and pens. Every player submits three or so names of famous people or fictional characters to a hat. The group is divided into two teams and the names into two cups. Each team has an allotted time, say two minutes, to pass their cup around and get through as many names as they can. In the first round, when you draw a name, you can give any clues to help your teammates guess. Then, the names are returned to the cup, and in the second round, you can only say one word and then you have to act out clues. The final round (and the hope is that you get through many names in the first round so that you are familiar with the celebrities in the cup) is purely charades.
In my opinion, this “Celebrity” is more entertaining than the version in which each person at the table writes a famous person’s name on a post-it note, sticks it to a neighbor’s forehead and then asks and answers yes-or-no questions until everyone discovers their post-it identities.
For the game “Psychiatrist,” one member of the group volunteers to be the psychiatrist and leaves the room while the remaining revelers decide on an ailment. The ailment isn’t an illness in the traditional sense. For instance, you may decide that you will all act as if you are the person to your right. Then the psychiatrist returns and asks questions until he or she successfully diagnoses the group.
This last one risks creating some contrived conversation, but it can be fun. The host of the party pens some outlandish phrases (i.e. “I am loose as a goose” or “It tastes like pickled peppers”) on strips of paper and hides one (or perhaps three, ranging from easy to medium to hard) under each dinner plate. Guests read the phrases to themselves when they sit down to dinner, and then the object is to work them into the conversation as naturally as possible. Try to call out when you think others are using their assigned phrases, and the person able to slip in the most, unnoticed, wins.