Monday, March 29, 2010

Enough Kugel Already

"Yay! Mommy doesn't have to make any more kugel!" Ruby cheered yesterday when we arrived home from our "early bird seder" weekend adventure.

Both of my girls were clearly tired of hearing about my kugel conundrum -- not to mention the sound of the food processor chopping all of those carrots, potatoes, and onions!

I was relieved to finally be done with it myself.

Do you want to know how the kugel turned out? In short, it was a hit -- all my hard work paid off -- and there was more than enough to go around. I ended up making about four batches of the recipe so we had enough for leftovers. Dori will be pleased to hear that the "muffin kugels" were the most popular. She was right -- making the kugel in muffin tins kept it crispy.

The rest of the family pitched in to make it a lovely seder meal.

My cousin Marla made matzoh ball soup that was better than the one they serve at The Second Avenue Deli; Claudia made homemade gefilte fish and mouth-watering brisket; My brother made carrot kugel (he vowed next year, he'd add garlic to spice things up a bit); and cousin Tina baked desserts that were so outrageously delicious, you'd swear they were made with flour (she swears they weren't!)

When I bought the matzoh meal for the kugel, I noticed Streit's slogan is "The Taste of a Memory..." Isn't holiday cooking all about revisiting old memories and creating new ones? Maybe my girls will one day aspire to recreate their mom's kugel.

I can just picture Ruby asking her sister, "Remember when mom nearly went crazy making all that kugel one year?"

How could they forget?

Meanwhile, I promise not to post anymore about kugel...until next year.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Kugel Conundrum

"I'm having a kugel cunundrum," I said to Avo last night.

It was already getting late and it was time to go to sleep.

But first I had to check on the kugel or else I wouldn't be able to rest soundly.

I ended up getting a jump-start on things rather than leaving the cooking 'til the last minute as I had planned. I loaded up a cart with about 30 potatoes and a whole lot of onions and carrots. For good measure, I bought the last two boxes of Streit's matzoh meal (not sure I really need that much, but just in case...)

I doubled up the kugel recipe and found that the potato-carrot-onion mix didn't fit in any of my mixing bowls. Then I went through an entire roll of paper towels and a few dish towels trying to sop up the potato "juice." Now all my dish towels smell like potatoes!

In hindsight, I'm not so sure the muffin tins were the way to go. It seemed like a lot of extra effort pouring the kugel mix into the tins. Then, I packed up the kugel muffins in a plastic bag to store them. I checked on them a bit later and the bag had started to fog up. I guess I put the kugel muffins in while they were still hot and humid.

The bottom of the bag was like a shallow pond and a lot of the muffins were soggy sponges. I sorted through the salvageable ones and left them to dry out on the counter.

"Now I'm not sure I'll have enough for everyone," I griped to Avo.

"Maybe you should make more."

"I can't bear it!"

After a day scrubbing potatoes and "slaving" over the food processor, it was hard to imagine doing it yet again.

"Well, it's better to have too much than not enough."

Which brings me back to the kugel cunundrum: "Do I leave the kugel overnight to dry or do I put it in the fridge?"

Avo suggested I set an alarm for 2 a.m. so I could go and check on them.

I nixed that idea and decided to leave them out.

Luckily, Ruby inadvertently came to the rescue by waking up at 3 a.m.

After bringing her a sippy cup, I tended to the kugel.

And now I'm ready to start another batch.

I'll let you know whether they pass muster at the "early bird" Saturday seder.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Passover Panic

It's official. I'm beginning to freak out. How will I ever have time to make my first ever potato kugel in timer for Saturday's "early bird" seder?

"What were you thinking?" Avo asked last night. "You're doing your food shopping on Friday morning and then Friday night, we're going to see Angelique Kidjo. Then we head upstate to the seder Saturday morning. When do you plan to cook the kugel?"

"Um, guess I hadn't thought it through (as usual)."

To make matters worse, cousin Claudia just informed me that the number of guests at the seder has just jumped to 34!

Luckily, my BFF Dori came up with a good solution: use muffin tins to make individual potato kugels. Rumor has it that this will help the potatoes "crisp up nicely." Thanks, Dori, for reminding me to use non-stick spray in the tins if I go this route (although couldn't I also use paper liners?)

Plus, we won't have to cut the kugel or worry if there's enough for everyone. But forget about making enough for seconds!

One reader requested that I post my mom's treasured recipe, so here it is:

Mom's Potato Kugel

6 Medium white potatoes (2-1/2 lbs)
1 large onion
1 large carrot
1/4 Cup matzo meal
1-1/2 tspn. salt
1/4 tspn white pepper
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup peanut oil

Pare and put vegetables through grinder or food processor (grater disc). Add remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Pour into a well greased 1-1/2 quart baking dish (or deep dish pie plate).

Bake in a moderate oven (375 degrees) about one hour or until top is browned and crisp at edges. Serves 6-8

"Does pare mean to peel the skin off?" I e-mailed my mom.

"Yes, my dear. To pare is to peel. In olden days, before such gadgets as veggie peelers, you would use a small "paring knife" to peel vegetables. Thus, the term paring," mom wrote back.

Meanwhile, I found another recipe at that calls for frying the onions first. I'm sure it would taste better, but since I have to make so much kugel in such a short amount of time, I think I'll skip that step and stick with mom's (hopefully) reliable recipe.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Grown-Up Table

Growing up, when my extended family gathered for holidays, the kids would be relegated to a separate "children's table." Presumably, there wasn't enough room at the grown-up table -- or maybe they just wanted us kids to be seen and not heard.

As you can imagine, it was a big deal when I finally "graduated" to the grown-up table.

Although that was many years ago and I now have two kids of my own, in a way, I feel as if I'm only now worthy of the grown-up table. Why? Because now I know how to cook.

Passover is coming up next week (although my family is having an "early bird" seder on Saturday) and I'm excited. It's the first year that I'm going to be cooking rather than just bringing wine or macaroons.

My cousin Claudia is in charge of delegating cooking responsibilities. She assigned me the task of cooking potato kugel. I should just be thankful I wasn't given the job of making gefilte fish or matzoh ball soup.

The older generation is no longer able to cook, but my cousins and I still rely on their recipes. I plan to use my mom's treasured potato kugel recipe.

(If you strain, you might be able to hear the melody to "Tradition!" from "Fiddler on the Roof.")

I'm not too intimidated by the idea of making potato kugel, but when I think of making it for 28 people (the number who are expected at the seder), I am terrified. What if it turns out rock solid? What if I burn it? Will they send me back to the children's table?

The good thing about kugel is that it can be made in advance. I better start peeling potatoes right away.

Do you have any special holiday recipes?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Oven Fried Panko Chicken

Guess what? We are officially a pro-panko household.

My dad was right. This stuff is great. Tonight I made oven-fried panko chicken and Avo and I were both won over by the light and crispy texture of Japanese bread crumbs.

"I feel like we're eating at a Japanese restaurant," I told Avo, since we also had salad with miso dressing and rice with soy sauce. "I should be wearing my Kimono."

Years ago for one of my birthdays, Avo bought me a beautiful Kimono that I have only worn once or twice on Halloween.

(To set the scene, you should note that while we ate, the girls were eating popcorn and watching "The Brady Bunch" on DVD).

Then, right after our lovely panko-inspired dinner, Avo confronted me with something that's been bothering him.

"I see that you got this (pointing to a brand new container of sea salt) when we already have all of that (pointing to an old container of kosher salt)."

"Well, some recipes call for sea salt," I said, defending my purchase.

"Oh, we've reached that point, have we?"

"Apparently, we have," I said.

"I'm living with Alice Waters!"

And then I headed out to buy a pint of chocolate chip Haagen Dazs.

I am guessing that Alice Waters makes her own ice cream.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Panko Power

"Do you know about Panko?" my dad asked when he called the other day.

"Yes, dad, you've only told me about Panko every time we have spoken in the last few weeks!"

My dad is just a bit obsessed with Panko.

"What's Panko?" you ask.

Panko are Japanese bread crumbs (I'm pretty sure that Panko translates to "bread crumbs" in Japanese. Correct me if I'm wrong). They are supposed to be lighter and crispier than traditional bread crumbs.

Apparently, my dad isn't the only one obsessed with them. You can read about Panko in detail here.

Despite my dad's urging -- or perhaps because of it -- I steadfastly refused to give Panko a try. But today I finally gave in and bought a container of the stuff. This weekend, I plan to experiment with it and report back.

I've already begun to research recipes that call for Panko (pretty much anything you make with bread crumbs, you can make with Panko).

This Panko-Crusted Cod sounds good. So does this oven-fried panko chicken.

Have you ever heard about Panko? What do you use it for?

If I try this stuff, maybe my dad will finally lay off on the Panko pitch. Maybe I will even join the Panko proselytizing bandwagon.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Follow these Blogs

I'm having a very undomesticated week.

Instead of food shopping or cleaning or cooking, I've been busy with other stuff: getting a cavity filled, going to the gym, volunteering at my kids' school, going on a field trip with Ruby's class, taking the girls to Manhattan, teaching memoir-writing, writing and revising, overseeing play dates, and generally doing everything possible to avoid the kitchen (granted, I've been a bit busy).

Not sure why I suddenly don't feel like cooking, but I won't read too much into it. Luckily, Avo has been a sport about it and happily cooked up the pork chops last night.

While I'm taking this hopefully brief hiatus from my domestic education, I thought you might like to check out some foodie blogs that I go to for inspiration. So go visit these other nice blogs, but promise to come back and visit me soon. Maybe by then I'll be in the mood to cook, clean, and entertain.

Dinner: A Love Story
-- makes me want to cook a family dinner

A Dinner Party -- makes me want to throw another dinner party

Not Eating Out in New York -- makes me want to not eat out in New York

Take Back the Kitchen - makes me want to prepare healthy, delicious food for my family

Meanwhile, I may go out for dinner tonight.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Burrito Backslide

After three dark days of rain, life was beginning to feel quite gloomy yesterday.

Because of daylight savings time, it felt early and dark when the alarm rang. We struggled to get up and ready for school and work. And then I hurried off to Manhattan to get a cavity filled. And then I rushed back to Brooklyn to get to Jesse's school in time for "Take Your Parent to Lunch" Day in the school cafeteria. And then I hurried back home to cram in some work before school pick-up.

Sensing my grumpiness, the kids bickered and I barely managed to keep my cool. It was a long, difficult afternoon.

So when Avo got home, I did not have dinner on the table. All I had done to prepare dinner, in fact, was turn on the rice cooker. So we had a lot of rice and not much else.

"I could make some tempeh with broccoli," I said.

He looked disappointed.

"Don't worry. I'll come up with something," he said.

"Why don't you run out and get burritos?" I suggested.

He agreed to pick up Mexican food as long as I promised to steam the Haricots Verts so we could eat when he got back.

"Sure," I said.

Fifteen minutes later, I heard the door open. I was so busy on the computer that I hadn't even begun to steam the veggies. Busted.

I could actually hear him scoff.

"I'm sorry. You asked me to do one little thing and I couldn't do it."

In that moment, I forgot everything I've learned about cooking. I needed Avo to hold my hand and show me how to steam the Haricots Verts.

"I can't believe I'm backsliding," I said.

"You're having a little meltdown."

"I'm just beating myself up for not making dinner and then not steaming the Haricots Verts."

"You're just looking for something to beat yourself up for," said Avo. "It's a rainy Monday. Cut yourself some slack."

I chowed down on a massive grilled chicken and corn burrito and felt much better.

And today the sun is out and I plan to make pork chops for dinner!

Monday, March 15, 2010

My Semi-Private "Top Chef"

Two nights after throwing my first-ever dinner party, I was lucky enough to attend a dinner party at Park Slope’s Melt Restaurant.

Of course, I paid $50 for the privilege of attending this dinner party, but it was well worth the money. Hosted by, an organization that creates innovative events and programs for moms of all ages, the intimate evening began with an informal cooking class.

The event was billed as “How to Prepare a Restaurant-Class Dinner for Four for Under $20!” but the real draw was Melt’s executive chef, New Zealand born and bred celebrity “Top Chef” contender Mark Simmons, who is not only charming and informative (and talented), but also quite easy on the eyes. Simmons wasn't the only New Zealand import of the night. The wine of choice was Savee Sea Pinot Noir Marlborough from New Zealand (2008).

Once we had settled in at the bar with a glass of wine, Simmons wowed the group of eight moms with his recipe for Beer and Honey Braised Lamb Shank with truffled polenta and charred asparagus.

"It’s all about trying to create a meal for your friends and family without breaking the budget," said Simmons, who noted that the lamb shanks cost about $3.50/lb.

Simmons invited the ladies to join him in Melt’s cozy kitchen so he could show us how the pros work.

The secret to Simmons' recipe is the mix of fresh spices, including lavender flower which he grows in his backyard, green cardamon, coriander seed, cumin seed and white pepper corn.

“If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, you should run out and get one,” said Simmons. “People say variety is the spice of life, but I say freshly roasted ground spices are the spice of life.”

His other tip: buy lamb and other meat products at Los Paisanos, a small butchery at 162 Smith Street.

After seasoning the shanks with the spice mix and salt, Simmons dusted them with flour and then braised them (for non-cooks: braising means cooking in liquid with a cover).

“I like braising a lot because it imparts flavor into meat,” said Simmons, who likened the dish to an orchestra. "The spices are the percussion."

Luckily for us, Simmons had prepped the meal in advance so we didn’t have to wait three hours for the lamb to be ready to eat.

We began the meal with a tantalizing "amuse bouche" of marinated baby beets with house made lavender-infused ricotta.

We oohed and ahhed at the delicately flavored grits and the tasty charred asparagus.

The lamb was so tender it fell easily off the bone. The group was collectively skeptical that we could pull off such a culinary masterpiece on our own at home.

“All my kids want to eat are frozen waffles,” said one mom.

“You should challenge yourself in the kitchen regularly,” said Simmons and we all nodded at the notion.

Of course, he's right, but it's easier said than done.

"No offense, Mark, but I will never be trying this at home," said one mom of two young tots.

To be honest, I don't think I'll be cooking up lamb shanks anytime soon either, but it's a nice idea.

“So what do you cook when you get home?” I asked him.

“Sometimes after I’ve been cooking all day, I want a break from the kitchen. My wife understands,” said Simmons.

"Any last questions for me?" he asked the group.

"Can we have your home phone number?" one mom asked and we all broke up laughing.

If you want to try some of Simmons’ cooking, keep in mind that Melt is participating in Brooklyn’s Restaurant Week a.k.a. “Dine in Brooklyn,” which starts today and runs through March 25. In fact, Melt is extending the $25.00 dinner prix fixe promotion til March 31st. The menu will change weekly, so if you want you can try something new each week.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dinner Party Dish

It's nearly a week since my first-ever dinner party and I'm still basking in the glory of my success -- and fretting about things I might have done differently.

Some curious friends have requested more nitty gritty details from Saturday night (and the lead-up to the big event), so here goes:

The morning of the dinner party, I began to fret about the fact that I didn't have soup bowls to match the dishes I had rented.

"Just use our regular bowls. Nobody will notice," said Avo.

"But they don't match."

"Who will notice?"

"They'll notice that our dishes are cream colored and the rental dishes are white," I whined.

"Who cares? It's about the food, right?"

I tried to explain that presentation had really begun to matter to me.

"I remember when my parents had dinner parties when I was a kid. They always had enough matching dishes and silverware," I said. But since Avo didn't grow up in the suburbs, he didn't get what I was fussing about.

Then, just in time to hear me kvetch, Dori called. I vented to her about my bowl dilemma.

"You rented a table and dishes?!" she asked, incredulously.

Yep, and apparently, I forgot to rent bowls.

"I don't think anyone is expecting this to be as fancy as it's going to be," she reassured me. Again, Dori did not grow up in the suburbs.

I decided to be Zen about it and "let go" of the bowls. Later, when the time came to serve the stew, people had drunk enough wine and were so engrossed in conversation that I don't think anyone noticed the non-matching bowls.

By afternoon, I was antsy to get outside and enjoy the spring-like weather, but I was too busy sauteing bacon, peeling carrots, and halving Brussels sprouts to take a break.

Since we had decided to dress for the occasion, Avo broke out one of his dad's "vintage" jackets and promptly ripped a seam. Meanwhile, the girls had fun throwing Avo's ties up in the air and trying to catch them.

Meanwhile, even though I bought a ton of Brussels Sprouts, it wasn't looking like enough to feed 12 people.

"Hopefully, people will fill up on cheese and crackers," I told Avo. "Don't eat too much, okay?"

It turned out that we had just enough food -- which means that probably we could have used some more.

When I asked one guest if he wanted more stew, he replied "Are there any more courses coming?"

When I said "no," he said "then I'll have more stew."

I thought six pounds of beef would be enough for 12 people. At least we had leftovers baguettes, so I could send guests home with a parting gift.

Luckily, the one thing I got completely right was inviting the perfect mix of people. Even though most of the guests had never met each other before, they found amazing connections and had no problem keeping up the lively conversation.

The guests spanned the globe -- we had a Brit, a Romanian, and an Argentinian. We also boasted natives from all five of New York's boroughs, including Staten Island.

Most impressively, two folks actually schlepped to our place all the way from Manhattan. Now that's dedication!

Thursday, March 11, 2010


At school pick-up on Tuesday afternoon, a friend greeted me with a hearty "Congratulations!"

"What for?" I asked.

"Your dinner party, of course."

Quite frankly, I'm flattered that anyone cares about my little dinner party.

Thanks to friends, family and fellow bloggers who have lent their support and cheered me on along on my journey towards domestication.

Yesterday, when someone asked me to describe this blog, I started by saying "it's about my attempt to learn how to cook, clean, and entertain."

But the more I rambled on about it, the more I began to realize that it's not just about my quest to become "domesticated." Undomesticated Me is about re-inventing yourself and tackling new challenges.

For years, I viewed myself as a non-cook -- a general hazard in the kitchen. I'd laugh about how I couldn't cook anything other than pop-tarts. It was a running joke in my family that I couldn't be trusted to turn on the microwave. I was always afraid that if I learned to cook, I'd be stuck in the kitchen rather than out in the world doing things.

I'm surprised to discover that I can do things in the kitchen and have fun. It's empowering to know that I can feed myself and my family and friends. And it's exciting to know that you're never too old to learn a new skill (even though I've heard that before, I never quite believed it). Now that I've sort of learned how to cook, I can tackle anything -- learning to knit, learning to sew, who knows what's next?!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dinner Party Tips

I'm still recovering from the excitement (and the wine!) at Saturday night's first-ever dinner party. I'm proud to announce that I pulled it off -- it was even better than I had anticipated (then again, I had pretty low expectations). The guests all showed up. People seemed to like the food and to enjoy themselves. And I had a lot of fun too.

All in all, I'm very proud. Considering that less than a year ago, I could barely defrost a microwave dinner or follow the directions on the Amy's macaroni and cheese box, I have come a long way. I'm mostly relieved that all of my guests showed up and I didn't burn anything!

Still, there's always room for improvement.

I've learned so much during this adventure. If you're hoping to throw your own dinner party, here are some Undomesticated Me tips:

1. Plan a detailed scheduled for the day of the party, leaving time for last-minute errands. I was so busy cleaning the apartment and buying baguettes on Saturday that I waited until too late to start prepping the food. I had to scramble at the last minute to halve the Brussels Sprouts and scrub and quarter the mushrooms. I barely had time to put on makeup and get dressed (not to mention time for the clothing crisis!)

2. Make sure you have enough serving dishes and cutlery. I ended up renting a table, dishes and silverware and I still didn't have quite enough bowls (luckily, I found some from a different pattern, but at least I didn't have to resort to using the kids' Disney princess bowls).

3. It's nice to entertain without kids. I know it's a hassle to get a babysitter and it's not cheap, but it's worth it to have a night out without the kids, right? It was certainly a treat for me to have adult chat without having to worry about any meltdowns or freak-outs (my kids were perfect angels and went to bed without any struggle).

4. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Realizing I was in over my head, I asked Avo to prepare salad dressing (a wonderful garlic vinaigrette). Then I had Mr. Di Franco plate the salad. What a team!

5. It seems obvious, but don't forget to invite an assortment of interesting guests and not just the usual suspects. I went out of my way to invite people I wanted to know better and who I thought would get along, not necessarily old friends.

6. Keep color in mind when deciding what to serve. Honestly, I never considered it when planning my menu, but in hindsight, I wish I had injected some color -- maybe in the form of glazed carrots?

7. You can never have too much wine or cheese. I bought a wonderful selection of cheese, but it went pretty fast (whereas I bought way too many baguettes). I only bought one bottle of wine and even though guests generously brought wine, we cut it pretty close. A little more wine would have been a good thing and we could always have saved leftovers for another night.

8. Don't be a perfectionist. I had planned to make whipped cream to top the apple spice cake and brownies for dessert. But I didn't want to stress about whipping up whipped cream while I was enjoying dinner. Besides, the vanilla ice cream a la mode was sweet enough.

9. Try to relax and enjoy yourself. At the end of the party, OTBKB's own Louise Crawford said "It was so nice to see you enjoying yourself. So many times you go to a party and the host spends the whole night in the kitchen. Guests don't like that. They want to see the host enjoying the party." So true.

10. Guests will appreciate the fact that you invited them and cooked for them. And you'll get a kick out of cooking for other people (I promise!). It may be a lot of work, but the end result is worth it.

One guest e-mailed the day after the party to say "Great food, guests and conversation. Wonderful success! You have arrived as a hostess!"

I e-mailed back, "I'm not sure I've arrived, but at least I'm in the driveway."

I had so much fun planning the first-ever dinner party that I'm already undertaking another challenge: a Very Belated (6 years late!) Housewarming Cocktail Party. I'll be sure to let you know once I set a date.

Oh yeah, one last final tip: Don't forget to take pictures! I forgot, but luckily there were a couple of photographers at the party. Hopefully, they'll send me some good pics soon (Hugh and Ken, if you're reading this, get on it pronto!)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dinner at Eight

Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock can shine at the Academy Awards tonight. I had my moment in the spotlight last night. There was no red carpet, but the guests got gussied and looked fabulous up for my First Ever Dinner Party.

I’ll give you the full report in due time (although you'll have to be patient because there's too much to include in just one blog post). But, rest assured that nothing burned and nobody was injured in the course of the evening. In other words, it was a roaring success!

After loading up on groceries at both Fairway and The Park Slope Food Coop on Friday, I started to panic.

"Do I have enough food?" I asked no one in particular as I surveyed six pounds of meat, more Brussels Sprouts than I've seen in one place before, and a tub of ice cream that could barely fit in our freezer. I have never cooked for so many people before, so it was hard to judge how much to buy.

I resolved to pick up some last-minute items on Saturday (including baguettes), but I continued to fret.

"Should I serve the cheese at the end of the meal like the French or at the beginning of the meal?" I asked Avo.

Avo, who is an unabashed Euro-phile (he crosses his sevens!) was surprisingly insistent that we should have a cheese table for people to graze on (paired with wine, of course) when they arrive. He even had the brilliant idea of printing out labels for the cheese and sticking them on tooth picks so people know what they’re eating.

Thanks to the "cheese guy" at Fairway, I picked up quite a selection (descriptions courtesy of Fairway):

Le Petit Billy --Unripened, unashed selles-sur-cher. Named after the village of Billy in Berry. Pasteurized goat’s milk),
Brillat Savarin -- The first triple-crème, created in the 1930s by cheesemaker Henry Androuet, named for the 18th century gourmant and politician, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Luscious, sweet, faintly tart. Pasteurized cow’s milk.
Kerry Gold Vintage Irish Cheddar -- The Irish cheese crafters that produce Blarney and Dubliner, limited production. Only the very best are allowed to bear the vintage label. Pasteurized cow’s milk, cheese cultures, salt and enzymes. A connoisseur’s cheddar, rich, firm, smooth body.
Spanish Cabrales. Cabrales cheese is only from cabrales and 3 villages of concejo de panamellera alta, in the southeastern principality of Austurias,
in the northside of the picos de Europa mountains. Pasteurized cow’s milk
Le Chatelain -- Camembert from Normandy, lower temperature pasteurizatioin ensures big, fruity flavor, as close as you’ll get to the A.O.C. original. Pasteurized cow’s milk.

For good measure, I also tossed a container of smoked salmon pate into the shopping basket at Fairway.

"You bought it?" asked Avo. "Why not make it from scratch?"

"Well, The Joy of Cooking says it's very French to mix in some quality store bought things like pate."

"Sounds like a rationalization to me! If the French do it, it must be okay."

Well, it works for me.

Then I proceeded to stress about dessert.

I had planned to make the apple spice cake from The Joy of Cooking and offer it up a la mode (Haagen Dazs vanilla). But the recipe serves eight and I had twelve people coming.

What to do? Of course, I'd bake my reliable brownie recipe. It's a crowd pleaser and I already have the ingredients on hand.

"I thought you wanted to make something gourmet," said Avo.

"But everybody likes the brownies. And I've done them before."

"They're just so pedestrian. I just thought you were going to really challenge yourself."

He's right – this dinner party was supposed to be a challenge, but there's no reason I should make it an insurmountable challenge.

To be continued...Check back soon to find out if the guests showed up on time and... if the cheese was a hit...and if dessert impressed...and if everybody had enough to eat and drink.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Last Minute Scramble

Tomorrow is the big Dinner Party day and I have still have so much left to do. Luckily, my friend Kathryn has offered to give me a ride to Fairway so I can stock up on last-minute items (which pretty much includes everything). I plan to prep as much as possible today, so I can focus on the stew tomorrow.

I also need to clean the house (although the kids will undoubtedly wreck it before tomorrow night). Plus, I still haven't decided what to wear. My folks bought me an apron ("The Dinner Miracle: It Only Happens If You Believe") that I'll don for the occasion, but I still need an outfit suitable for an aspiring domestic goddess. It's too late to shop, so I'll have to scavenge through the closet and see what I can come up with.

I'm wondering if I should assign seats and create place holders. Experts say that the key to a successful dinner party is inviting the right mix of people and sparking a lively conversation. I have a feeling that this group won't have any problem finding something to gab about. Still, since they are mostly new friends of mine (and a couple of people I've never met before) who don't know each other, it might be fun to seat people according to interest.

Should I put the two photographers together and what about the foodies? I have a feeling that Mr. Di Franco, the girls' music teacher, is going to hit it off with Giulia Melucci since they're both Brooklyn-bred Italian-Americans who love to cook. I'm also guessing that the British film critic will get a kick out of Avo's tales of old Hollywood stars he met as a kid. Even I enjoy hearing his story about how Peter Sellers offered to buy him a gold digital watch, but his mom made him refuse the offer -- and I've heard the tale countless times before.

Of course, the girls are excited to greet the guests. "Mr. Di Franco will get to see our room and he'll see our pajamas!" We'll let them stay up past their bedtime so they can say "hello," but then hopefully, they'll say "good night" and leave the adults to wine and dine.

Just writing about my expectations for the night is getting me excited. I hope I'm not disappointed. It is, after all, just a dinner party. Still, it's my first-ever dinner party and a girl can only have one of those.

Anyway, I promise to report back as soon as I recover from the festivities.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect?

Whoever said "practice makes perfect" clearly hasn't tasted my apple spice cake.

On Sunday afternoon, I practiced the recipe before Saturday's dinner party.

I'm usually a chocolate gal, but I was inspired by a dinner menu recommended by The Joy of Cooking, which suggested beef stew with apple spice cake for dessert. It sounded very grown-up (and also homey and comforting in cold weather), so I figured I'd give it a try.

Since I had all of the other ingredients, Avo was a doll and ran out to get me some tart green apples and some buttermilk.

Ruby helped whisk together the flour (I used a combination of all-purpose and whole-wheat), light brown sugar, baking soda, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground nutmeg and salt while we waited for Avo to return with the missing ingredients.

NOTE: I'm too lazy to type in the whole recipe, but if you're interested, it's on page 933 of the 1997 edition of The Joy of Cooking.

Avo sauntered in to deliver the goods just in time. We proceeded to stir in the buttermilk and vanilla (I decided to skip the optional rum or brandy) and then mix in the chopped apples (I omitted the chopped walnuts or pecans).

We poured it in the pan and popped it in the oven (which had been pre-heated to 350 degrees). I set the timer and waited.

Ten minutes passed and I suddenly realized I forgot something...something important.
I double-checked the recipe and, yep, indeed, I did forget something important. In my haste, I neglected to mix in the 1/2 cup vegetable oil with the buttermilk and vanilla.

Since Avo had already taken off for the gym and I was too embarrassed to call my mom to ask her what to do, I made a bold decision on my own. I took the cake out of the oven. Even though it was already getting firm, I mixed in some canola oil.

When it was finished about a half hour later, the cake looked, well, greasy.

"It's very moist!" said Avo. Instead, he could have easily said, "What is this greasy thing pretending to be a cake?"

Nobody minded once we served it with some vanilla ice cream. And now I'll be sure not to repeat the same mistake on Saturday night. Hopefully, practice will indeed make perfect.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Dinner Party Practice

The Joy of Cooking has a section devoted to Entertaining which I referred to recently for advice about dinner party etiquette. They have two simple rules when it comes to planning the menu:

Choose food that can be prepared ahead of time, so that you can spend more time at the table than over the stove, and never, ever, make a dish for company that you haven't made before and mastered.

Along those lines, I thought it was only wise to try out the Slow-Cooker Beef Burgundy (from The Best Slow & Easy Recipes) that I had planned for Saturday's dinner party.

I have barely ever cooked with meat before and I have certainly never made a stew, so the task was a bit daunting. For some reason, I feel like making stew with a slow-cooker is less intimidating than using a big pot on the stove. Avo continues to scoff at the gigantic Crock Pot that is taking up valuable space in our cupboard, but I am determined to put it to good use.

On Friday -- during the snowstorm -- Avo was sent home from work early, so I dispatched him to United Meat Market to buy 5 pounds of boneless beef chuck eye roast, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces. Why cut the meat myself when the butcher is happy to do it for me?

"Bacon!" bellowed Ruby, who is hog wild about the stuff. She begged for a taste when I cooked up the bacon (I couldn't deny her).

"How do you mince carrots?" I asked Avo.

He took one look at me trying to chop carrots with a bread knife and rolled his eyes.

"Why don't you use the Cuisinart?" he asked.

"Um, yeah, of course, good idea. In fact, can you mince the onions, carrot, garlic and thyme for me?"

Sweetheart that he is, of course, he agreed to be my "sous-chef" and prep the veggies and herbs.

After cooking the onions, carrot, tomato paste, garlic and thyme in the bacon fat, I double-checked the recipe. Oops, I forgot an essential ingredient: a bottle of Pinot Noir. I quickly got on the phone to the mom of one of Jesse's friends and made a barter arrangement -- You can drop your kid off at our house for a few hours as long as you bring me a bottle of Pinot Noir. Deal.

When I got to the end of the recipe, I panicked when I realized I didn't have any frozen pearl onions. Avo said he couldn't find them at the co-op. I decided to boldly ignore the recipe and do without them. What other option did I have?

Once I dumped the mixture to the slow cooker and stirred in the chicken broth, soy sauce, tapioca, and bay leaves, I "nestled" the beef into the crock pot.

"How do you nestle beef anyhow?" I asked Avo rhetorically.

"Beats me. I think it just means be gentle with it."

I put the lid on and set the thing on high.

"You sure it's plugged in?" asked Avo, who almost seemed as if he was hoping to catch me in a glaring mistake (he really does hate the crock pot).

Luckily, it was, in fact, plugged in.

Nearly seven hours and a roasted Brussels Sprouts tossed with bacon later and dinner was served.

The girls got a kick out of setting the table "fancy" with a table cloth and cloth napkins. It was a lot of effort for just one guest, my grown-up nephew. But it was worth the effort since now I can confidently re-create this dish on Saturday.

Even Avo had to grudgingly admit the meat was flavorful, tender and delicious. We didn't even miss the frozen pearl onions.

So I guess the crock pot has gotten a reprieve...for now.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Dinner Party Countdown

The countdown has begun for my first-ever dinner party which is less than a week away. Of course, I’ve had friends over before, but usually, they were impromptu affairs – beer and Thai take-out with old friends.

This time, I’m going all out. I already sprung for the fancy letterpress invitations and now I’m sparing no expense in planning the big event. I’ve inquired about renting a table and chairs and am thinking I might spring for the table cloth, linen napkins, place settings and silverware. I’m not sure if I’ve got any other options unless I want to serve dinner on paper plates with plastic cutlery and paper napkins (I don’t).

After taking requests and mulling over the suggestions, I have finally decided what I’m going to serve. I’m tempted to be sheepish about it and hold off until I report back afterward. But I know that I can’t keep a secret and I don’t want to keep you waiting.

So here is the (tentative) menu:

1. Green salad
2. Slow-Cooker Beef Burgundy from The Best Slow & Easy Recipes
3. Roasted Brussels Sprouts Tossed with Balsamic Vinegar and Bacon
4. Baguette (but of course!)
5. Apple Spice Cake from The Joy of Cooking accompanied with Vanilla ice cream (not homemade, I’m afraid) and coffee/tea
6. Cheese Course

I may serve some pate and grapes to start things off. As you can tell, I'm trying to keep things relatively simple and stick to dishes a few quality dishes I can prepare in advance.

I don't want to be stressing when the guests arrive. I'd rather be spending time enjoying my guests than scrambling in the kitchen.

As the wonderful writer Laura Shaine Cunningham wrote:

The best dinner parties are those where the hostess appears not taxed, but relaxed. What do guests truly want? To be welcomed, and to talk. If the dinner is too studied, it can become a funeral for food — guests taking choreographed sips and nibbles, conversation as strained as the purée.

A little imperfection makes everyone feel at home. The slapdash but happy hostess has happy guests.

Along those lines, I am guessing that my guests will feel at home because this slapdash hostess is destined to be imperfect and hopefully, happy.


Monday, March 1, 2010

First-Ever Lasagna

When Avo was freelancing, he had more time to prepare dinner. In particular, he liked to make a big pot of soup or a pan of lasagna and then freeze it so we'd have leftovers handy whenever we didn't have any dinner plans.

Now that he's got a full-time gig, I've decided it's up to me to keep up his good work. So the other night, I made my first-ever lasagna using a recipe for Beef and Sausage Lasagna from the late, great Gourmet Magazine.

"How does this recipe look to you?" I asked Avo.

"I use the recipe on the box of lasagna noodles and it works just fine," said Avo. "Don't get too fancy. And whatever you do, just double the garlic."

I ignored Avo and went with the Gourmet recipe, although I left out the veal and doubled up on the beef chuck.

I used the no-boil lasagna noodles, which ended up being too crunchy. Not sure what I did wrong, but it couldn't have helped that I removed the tinfoil twenty minutes -- not the ten minutes the recipe recommended -- before removing the lasagna from the oven.

The result was a wee dry.

"We'll still eat it, right?" I asked Avo.

"Yes," said Avo. "And don't worry. I think you have many more lasagnas in you," said Avo. "It's a good thing to experiment with."

Actually, despite the a little extra crunch in the noodles, the lasagna was quite tasty.

"It's good and I made it!" I exclaimed.

"So you cut off the casings on the turkey sausage?" Avo asked.

I nodded. It gave me the heebie jeebies at first, but I quickly got over it by pretending the meat was wet, slimy Play Doh.

"The Paula I married never would have done that."

I'll take that as a compliment.

I wonder if there will come a day when Avo takes it for granted that I do such things. I still can't believe it myself.