Monday, June 29, 2009

Q and A: 30th birthday celebration

Hi Dinah,

As the queen of all things party I could really use your expertise. I am starting the adventure that is planning my 30th birthday celebration and I am trying to figure out menus/drinks. It is looking like I might be doing more of a cocktail hour than BBQ, but it all depends on how I fit the budget. Do you have any secrets for where you shop or how you come up with your ideas?

Right now it looks like we are going for a “Glamorous 30's,” black/white/red cocktail party theme. Everyone in swimsuits, but glammed up with great hair, accessories, etc. Should be a blast!!

What do you think?


Honey, I think that party sounds fabulous!

I think the key to any successful shindig is to keep it as simple as possible. I even shortened the menu for this year's Oscar fete, and did anyone notice? Nope.

First of all, I think you need a signature cocktail that you can make in big batches and either serve over ice or shake up to chill before serving. “The Christini,” if you will. What's YOUR favorite cocktail? Start there, find a couple recipes, put your own twist on it, and voila! Signature drink! This is a fun research process, what with all the tasting in advance. In fact, I think we should get together with some options—black vodka, raspberry vodka maybe, cranberry juice, pomegranate juice, maybe some creme de cassis, and something sparkling like 7-up or champagne—and see what we come up with. In fact, I want a Christini RIGHT NOW. Is it too early to start drinking?

As for the rest of the menu, there's a couple ways to play off the 30's or black/white/red theme. With the 30's you've got the Depression (depressing) or maybe a super old-school Hollywood thing you could do, which means you could just serve whatever you want and give it cute names like Greta Gumbo. Hell, you could serve Shirley Temples--no cleverness required!

Personally, I would lean more towards the black/white/red theme because it’s easier (and probably cheaper). What about a pasta salad made with pasta shells, black olives, tomatoes and roasted red peppers, and a little Parmesan cheese? Dress it with Italian dressing and some salt & pepper--yummy! You've got Oreos that are black & white, all manner of red fruits & veggies...lots of possibilities.

I recommend brainstorming like crazy until you have a whole bunch of ideas, then group them all up and see what will go well together and what will be the EASIEST and CHEAPEST. Also, keep your menu as short as you can: entree, salad or side, snacky/chip & dippy item, something sweet, and that's it. Maybe make sure there's something for the vegetarians, if you're so inclined. If you're expecting a big turnout, just make stuff in big batches.

Beyond the menu & drinks (which, by the way, I have officially just now decided should be the Christini, Shirley Temples, champagne and nothing else--people can bring their own beer or whatever), I'd recommend just a handful of key decor items to bring out the theme. Costume parties are genius, because then your attendees decorate the place themselves with their costumes. But for something like this, I think I'd hunt down some cheap-o feather boas (at costume or party supply stores) to place around strategically--red, black & white. Do your plates, napkins & tablecloth in the theme colors (cheap versions from the grocery store or party supply store are what I use). Anything else really depends on your space & budget. Do a quick walk-through of the party space, close your eyes and visualize what your ideal party would look like, and boil it down to its key elements.

So now that I know you're having the coolest party ever, when is this shindig? I gotta get it on our calendar! :)

good friends and a good time

Last night, Mac and I had some friends over for dinner because I got it into my head to try some new recipes, and when I described my menu idea to Mac we decided it was too much food for just two people, so we got on the horn and invited some friends over. Also: inviting people over is a great incentive to clean your house, just in case you’re not one of those people who keeps the house spotless all the time. And we’re not.

The Party:
Me, Mac, Anna, Ted, Dre

The Menu:
Crostini with caramelized shallots and a garlic-white bean spread
Bibb salad
Linguine with heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese
Lemon Parmesan Chicken
Raspberries & Chocolate on vanilla bean ice cream
White wine and sparkling water (I think serving a non-alcoholic option that’s a little fancier, like sparkling water or Italian soda, is a nice, thoughtful touch for your friends who don’t or can’t drink alcohol.)

The Inspiration:
The menu was inspired by the June/July issue of Every Day with Rachael Ray, a recent episode of Giada at Home, a recent meal at Pizzeria Mozza, and my friend Alison who is a phenomenal cook. I picked up the magazine because it boasted 422 recipes & tips, including recipes for burgers and ice cream—great for someone who hosts a lot of barbecues and just discovered the joys of her fabulous homemade ice cream maker. As I was reading it, I kept coming back to this gorgeous picture of this linguine pasta dish, and it reminded me that I have TONS of whole wheat pasta in the cupboard that I can cook up. I enjoy all things Giada de Laurentiis anyway, and her Bibb Salad recipe looked super easy, refreshing and delicious, and I thought the fresh herbs in the salad and the fresh herbs in the pasta would pair together really well.

The chicken dish falls under the heading of “recipes I’ve had FOREVER and just wanted to try.” Probably the meal could have been fine with just the pasta and salad, but when I initially designed the menu I thought our friend Allistair would be joining us as well, in which case I knew that the three man-sized men at my table would need some protein on their plates. I thought chicken would go well with the pasta and salad, and I wanted something EASY, as in “chuck it in the oven and forget about it til the buzzer rings.” As soon as I remembered “Alison’s Chicken!!” I knew my menu was done.

As for dessert, I have learned the hard way that sometimes over-achievers like me have a tendency to bite off way more than we can chew (so to speak), and looking at the rest of the menu I already suspected it was all maybe a bit much. But like most humans I like sweet bite at the end of the meal. So I needed something I could just put in a bowl and serve, and couldn’t think of anything more delicious or simple than fresh, in-season raspberries accompanied with some dark chocolate. I added the ice cream at the last minute while at the store, because I didn’t want to risk having a pregnant friend at my house who needed ice cream and no ice cream in the freezer. Quelle horreur.

The results:
The crostini turned out delicious! I’m so pleased at my success at caramelizing the shallots (and onions I threw in the pan when I decided the shallots weren’t enough). My chef friend Glen had given me excellent advice on how to caramelize, and then I found a video on YouTube to remind me how it’s done. I decided to add a little bit of balsamic vinegar to my pan when they were done softening up & browning because I wanted a darker color, and the resulting flavor was AWESOME. The number one thing to know about caramelizing onions or shallots, is Low and Slow. You get the best results on medium-low heat over about 30 – 40 minutes—it’s not a quicky endeavor.

As for the rest of the crostini, here’s what I did: I sliced half of one of those long, skinny baguettes, arranged the ½ inch slices on a baking sheet and drizzled with olive oil before popping into a 375 degree oven for about 12 minutes to toast up. I then followed the directions for the white bean dip/spread in this recipe, which takes about 10 minutes from start to finish, then set the finished spread aside while I worked on my chicken, salad & pasta. About 15 minutes before people were expected to show up, I stopped what I was doing with my other dishes to assemble the crostini, which went: toast, a small pile of caramelized shallots, and a healthy shmear of white bean spread. I gave the first one to Mac to make sure it tasted okay, and after an enthusiastic thumbs up, went on to assemble the rest of them and put them out. That way, if my friends showed up and I was still cooking (which always happens) they’d have something to snack on while waiting for the main course. (Lesson learned for next time: use all shallots instead of shallots & onions, and a better bread for the toast.)

The salad was refreshing and amazing! I wasn’t sure what bits of fennel bulb to use or how big/small to slice it, so I think I need to see it done a few more times. I also only used HALF of Giada’s dressing. It turns out, a head of butter/bibb lettuce is not actually that much lettuce, so if I were doing this salad again for 4 – 6 people, I would use twice as much lettuce, same amount of fennel & herbs, and maybe still just half the dressing, or just enough to coat everything lightly. You just don’t need that much with all that basil, mint & fennel in your salad. Overall, this is a fantastic summer salad.

The chicken was PERFECT. ALISON. You are a culinary genius! We will be eating this again and again and again in this house. I wouldn't change a thing.

The pasta was also yummy, although I ended up making all kinds of changes as I went along. I used a 13 oz box of whole wheat linguine instead of a whole pound of pasta. I also couldn’t find heirloom tomatoes, but I did find smaller orange & yellow tomatoes to go with the red ones I found, so I still had all the fun colors I wanted. I also only used half the amount of goat cheese because I discovered at the last minute that’s all I had on hand, and you know what? Totally enough! Any more would be overpowering, I think. And all the herbs in the butter/white wine sauce were amazingly delicious, but you should know that they were kind of a pain to wash, prep, chop, etc. I ended up chopping herbs and tomatoes with my friends in the kitchen, which wasn’t the worst thing ever, but now that I know how time-consuming it is, I’ll do a bit more prep work in advance next time.

Dessert was divine, of course—fresh raspberries on vanilla bean ice cream with a little chocolate sauce—there’s no bad there. We ended up splitting a pint between five people, so it was just enough sweetness for everyone.

I think the timing of this evening worked out pretty well. I started caramelizing shallots around 5:45, our friends arrived around 7:20, and we sat down to eat around 7:45ish? I think? Once they showed up I lost track of time, which is the sign of good friends and a good time, I think. So we’ll say it was about two hours of prepping and cooking for a long, relaxed evening of good food and fun. Totally worth it. Also, I did not do all the preparations alone: Mac tidied up the kitchen, living room and dining room, and he also set the table, which was lovely.

For tunes I used my iTunes Genius to make a playlist for me, which is a super fast, easy way to create some ambiance without having to sweat over a playlist or selecting CDs, if you have the option. We’re fairly hi-tech in this joint, so we have the laptops connected to the stereo via airport, which means I can play my iTunes through the living room speakers. Last night I selected The Puppini Sisters’ cover of “Walk Like an Egyptian” as a starting point to generate a fun, jazzy and ultimately totally random playlist. At one point the iTunes Genius decided to go with Herbie Hancock, another it came up with Harry Belafonte—it was all over the map and totally fun.

I wouldn’t classify the whole evening as “easy entertaining,” though. More like “mostly easy” entertaining. A few changes and you’d have a much easier evening. Like, skip the chicken dish, and shred some lump crab from the deli or some pre-cooked (rotisserie?) chicken into the pasta to create a heartier entrée, serve the white bean dip with crackers & veggies, and do the salad with a bag of the lettuce of your choice as well—voila, you’ve just shaved an hour off your prep time. For a different menu, I would also serve the lemon parmesan chicken with my sister Matti’s Caesar Salad recipe, which is super easy and amazing, serve some bread with a little olive oil & vinegar as an appetizer, and again, you’re looking at about an hour of total prep/cooking time, and a totally delicious meal.

So.... my first dinner party recap. Feedback, questions?

fun host = fun party

(Introductory entry copied over from my Puffpiece blog.)

As you may or may not know, Mac and I entertain A LOT. Big parties for the Oscars, Cinco de Mayo and Halloween, small BBQs and "Tiki Theater" nights all summer long, and the occasional small dinner party. As such, we've kind of become the “Party Experts” within our circle of friends.

Dinah chopping limes for beer & cocktails
Chopping limes at the 2009 Oscar Party

In fact, just in the last couple months I've had a lot of people come to me for my advice on entertaining, specifically: two themed birthday parties, one backyard barbecue baby shower bash, and even a couple weddings. So, with the encouragement of my friends, I've decided to start blogging my advice and tips, and tagging it with "easy entertaining" so it's all very easy to find.

Disclaimer 1: As a busy girl, I have no idea how long this idea will last, but I already have a long list of ideas to write about. So cross your fingers. This could be really fun if I stay at it.

Disclaimer 2: Despite my experience with entertaining in my home, and my enjoyment of it, I honestly don't think of myself as particularly original or awesome at throwing parties. Like, I’m an okay cook, but two of my friends are professional chefs--one runs a restaurant and the other a catering company--and a third just got her pastry chef degree. I also watch a LOT of Food Network and read a lot of magazines (including Martha Stewart) all of which adds up to a lot of information and inspiration. The crazy multi-tab spreadsheet I developed for wedding planning evolved from one my friend Gretchen designed for her wedding—I just turned it up about 12 notches. I guess what I am offering with these blog entries is simply a map through the maze of all this information. Complete with shortcuts, of course.

The Spread
The shortcut-galore spread at Amanda's Valley Girl-themed bridal shower.

Disclaimer 3: When it comes to entertaining, the best successes come when the host and/or hostess approach any endeavor with their own style. By that I don’t just mean décor or menu. I also mean planning and organizational style. For example, I’ve shared my crazy planning spreadsheet with some people who have FREAKED OUT over it and thought it was the MOST USEFUL TOOL EVER. I have also sent it to people who just do not use Excel for anything, took one look at it and decided “not for me,” and went on to throw a fantastic wedding/party without it. Which is a long way of saying: if you read some advice and it seems like it’s not for you, then don’t follow it. I can hear you all saying “DUH!” from here, but believe me when I say that throwing parties can be stressful enough without trying to be something you’re not. A relaxed, comfortable host is a happy and FUN host, and fun host = fun party.

That’s all the disclaimers I can think of for now (could I BE any more nervous about giving out advice?). We’ll see how this goes…

A lattice-top apple pie from scratch, Thanksgiving 2008