Sorbet Mimosas

The holiday season is in full swing and it’s always a good idea to have a go-to drink on hand that can be served when guests drop by. Nothing could be easier than sorbet mimosas! This drink requires only two ingredients which can be kept stocked in your kitchen and served up at a moment’s notice.

A small spring loaded ice cream scoop is a very helpful tool in making this drink. It releases the sorbet in perfectly portioned rounded balls.

The two ingredients are:

  1.  A bottle of your favorite bubbly
  2.  Sorbet
Put a scoop of sorbet in the glass first and then slowly pour the bubbly on top of it.

For the bubbly, you can use champagne, sparkling wine, or even non-alcoholic sparking cider or ginger ale. Tailor the flavor and color of the sorbet to the holiday you wish to celebrate. In this example, I am using mango sorbet because the orange color is a nice compliment to my current fall palette. For Christmas, a pretty red raspberry sorbet or lime green sorbet would be fitting. Gourmet shops often stock more exotic flavors so feel free to experiment, coordinating the color and flavor to your occasion.

Served in fluted glasses, and garnished with a sprig of mint and a fun polka dotted straw, this is a pretty cocktail that takes mere minutes to whip up.

I can’t think of a better way to welcome visitors during the holidays!

 

 

An Enchanting Fall Gathering

Fall is my favorite season. I love to take advantage of the ideal combination of warm days and cool nights by hosting an annual outdoor dinner party. It is the perfect excuse to gather friends around a beautifully decorated table and serve up some delicious comfort food. In this post, I share my thought process for creating the decor and table setting for this dinner party.

Several years ago, I purchased a set of antique English transferware at an estate sale. It provided just the sort of rustic elegance I desired for this dinner party. Its cream colored background and floral pattern consisting of brown, gold, and orange colors perfectly reflected the fall theme and became the starting point for the entire table setting.

Because nothing is more elegant than a white linen tablecloth, this was the table’s first layer. Another vintage tablecloth with a yellow-orange damask border was positioned diagonally across the center. Overlays such as this create an opportunity to introduce additional color and texture while giving the table a luxe feel. Matching napkins were gathered up in the wine glasses to add height and dimension to the setting.

Because my tables are somewhat narrow, I needed a centerpiece that would not interfere with the flow of food or conversation. I placed a rustic lantern in the center as an anchor and created a “runner” of greenery consisting of eucalyptus and other leafy clippings from my yard. I topped this base with branches of ornamental eggplant, also known as “pumpkin on a stick.” These cute mini-pumpkins added color and texture while giving the table a whimsical touch. Tiny white fairy lights and votive candles were dispersed throughout the plant material for extra sparkle.

I recently started collecting mismatched vintage silverplate flatware and I set the table with it. Though tarnished, worn, and imperfect, it was a nice compliment to the antique china which was also crazed and imperfect. Incorporating older pieces, even when in less than pristine condition, can add loads of character and personality to a table.

As a party favor, each guest was given a loaf of homemade cranberry-apple bread in a ceramic baking dish. Wrapped in cellophane paper and banded with dotted orange craft paper, a name tag that doubled as a placecard was attached with jute string. After guests were seated, the breads were removed and placed off to the side so that the table would not get too crowded. The favor was returned to each guest at the end of the evening to take home as a memento and perhaps to be enjoyed for breakfast the next morning.

Menu cards stood in little slices of tree branches to announce the coming meal. I designed the menus and name tags using clip art I found on line.

The meal was designed to be hearty, seasonal and comforting. Each course was paired with a wine that had been recommended by a nearby wine shop to help bring out the best in both the food and wine.

In anticipation that the weather might turn chilly by nightfall, cozy polar fleece blankets were folded over the backs of the chairs. A patio heater was positioned at one end of the space and the fireplace was lit at the other end so that warmth would be evenly distributed. I purchased a few white plastic tablecloths from the local dollar store, gathered them up, and stapled them to the top of the beams at the entrance of the patio. These easy, inexpensive makeshift curtains created a sense of intimacy, as well as helped hold in the heat.

Once the meal was over, we lingered around the table enjoying one another’s company. While the glow of the candles, the crackle and warmth of the wood fire, and the jazz playing on the stereo created lovely ambiance, it was the company of good friends gathered around the table that made it a truly enchanting fall evening.

The fireplace mantel was decorated symmetrically with candlesticks and pumpkins flanking each end.  Leafy plant material, fairy lights, and votive candles added fullness. For additional reflectivity and sparkle, a metallic bronze garland was threaded throughout the display.

 

 

Watercolor Menu Cards

For my end of summer dinner party a few weeks ago, I decided to go with a beach theme. I love the anticipation a menu provides and enjoy preparing menu cards for my guests. Because the beach theme lent itself to a watery, free-flowing design, I thought a little watercolor art would be well-suited. This project requires little to no artistic talent and it was fun to do. Here’s how.

  1. I used 4″ X 6″ heavy card stock for my menus but you could also use watercolor paper which is more textural and durable. You want your paper thick enough to be absorbent and hold up to the water, but not so thick it won’t go through your printer.
  2. I used an inexpensive palette of watercolor paints from the craft store and a paint brush I had in my art supplies. Fill a small container with water. Dip your brush into the water and then into the paint.
  3. Experiment a bit on inexpensive paper before working on your card stock to get a feel for how the paint will look. I used mostly blue, light green, purple and tan colors for this project. If the color is too dark, just add more water to your brush and it will become more translucent. If you want more saturated color, use less water and load up more paint on the brush.
  4. Once you are confident with your technique, start applying the paint to the cards.
  5. Swirl, blend and mix the paint colors together until you are pleased with the results.
  6. After I was finished with the background art, I loaded up my brush with paint and tapped it across my finger spraying each card with paint to mimic the look of splashes and bubbles.
  7. The paper will likely be damp after you are finished. To keep it from curling, press it flat under a few books for a few hours or until dry. This will also help it to go through your printer. (Note: be sure to change your printer setting to thick or photo paper before printing.) 
  8. Design your menu layout. I used a sea shell motif from a free clip art website and the “Fortunates December” font which has a breezy casual feel. Click here for the free download.
  9. Once your design is ready and your cards are dry,  print out your menus.

This technique is really easy and the results are surprisingly professional. Plus, I like that each guest can take home an original piece of “art” as a memento of the evening.

The same watercolor art was used to make tags for the parting gift I gave my guests. I placed small containers of sea salt in cellophane bags and added nautical wooden medallions from the craft store. Blue and turquoise markers were used to paint the wood medallions. Tied up with a piece of raffia, these favors complimented the theme of the party and let our guests know we appreciated them coming.

This is a fun and easy project that can be used for many things, e.g., place cards, gift tags, craft projects. It can also be adapted to the seasons or holidays. Can you picture it in golds, oranges, greens and browns for fall? Or how about vibrant floral colors for spring? I can.

End of Summer Table Setting

It’s September already and I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to usher in fall. But as a last hurrah for summer, I invited a few friends over for an end of summer dinner party.  Today’s post will focus on the table setting for that dinner.

A relaxed beachy vibe seemed an appropriate way to bid summer adieu. After searching around my house, I realized I had most of the items I needed on hand. Here’s how I put it together.

Layers are key to setting an interesting table. I initially decided to forego a formal tablecloth because I wanted to allow the wood dining table to be exposed. The table has a rustic rough-hewn quality that I thought was fitting for a beach theme. But after a trial run, it looked a little too stark, so I added a striped cotton Turkish towel diagonally across the table. The diagonal placement allowed some of the wood to show and kept the table casual, while the additional fabric warmed up the table and added subtle pattern.

I used a gauzy piece of wide sisal ribbon as a runner and placed it down the length of the table. Its color and texture reminded me of sand. Instead of flowers, I placed a few conch shells and a piece of driftwood in the center of the table as my centerpiece. Tea lights in wavy glass votive holders were placed around the centerpiece and a few sprigs of gray-green foliage from my yard were tucked in here and there to add additional color and life.

A round woven sea grass placemat gave each place setting its foundation. I decided to use a set of handmade white plates for the main course. Their organic, uneven texture reflected the relaxed vibe. Set on top of the sea grass placemats, they became the base upon which the other dishes were placed.

Vintage majolica plates were placed on top of the white plates for the second course. Their leafy veining resembles the look of seaweed and the blue-gray color reminds me of the sea on a cloudy day. The undulating edge is reminiscent of the waves of the ocean and further reinforces the theme.

I needed small bowls for my first course, a chilled cantaloupe gazpacho. I found a boxed set in various shades of watery blues and greens at a discount store and thought they were perfect. At only $12.99 for a set of eight, how could I resist?

The linen napkins were a lucky find at a thrift store. I thought the sand color and metallic stitching on the border recalled sea shells on a sandy beach. I gathered them up simply with turquoise sea glass napkin rings.

Hand painted menu cards announcing the coming meal were placed to the sides of the soup bowls. I used watercolor paints to create streaks, swirls, and splashes on each card. These unique hand painted menus became mementos each guest could take home. Stay tuned next week for a tutorial on how to make these menu cards.

 

Once the cutlery and glassware were added and the candles were lit, the table really began to sparkle and glow.

That sparkle and glow only intensified when our guests were seated around the table enjoying the meal. I can’t think of a better way to say goodbye to summer.

 

 

Blind Wine Tasting Party

One of my favorite things to do is visit wineries and participate in their tasting programs. At winery tastings, one usually samples a flight of five or six of the winery’s current offerings. But a winery-style tasting certainly is not the only way to taste wine. There are vertical tastings, horizontal tastings, wine-food pairings, Old World vs. New World comparisons, etc. Tastings can be designed according to your budget and can be tailored to the skill level and interests of your guests.
While we were waiting for our guests to arrive, we started off the evening with a little sparkling Spanish Cava, rosemary-parmesan popcorn and watermelon, mint and feta kabobs.
Regardless of the type of wine tasting, the primary goal is to have fun and enjoy the wine! Secondarily, tastings are an opportunity to train your nose and palate to appreciate the subtle and not-so-subtle characteristics of each wine.
I decided to host a blind tasting, which is a tasting where guests are kept unaware of the wines’ identities. I disguised the labels of five wines of different varietals. Guests were asked to identify the varietals from a list of options.
I believe that wine is best when accompanied by food so I added a “grazing table” so that there was always something good to eat alongside the wines. A wide variety of cheeses, olives, condiments, nuts, and other “small bites” were provided to allow guests to create their own pairings.
 
  
Step by step, here’s how this event was put together.

1.  Select your wines. I selected five wines, consisting of two whites and three reds. I chose single varietal wines because I knew blends would likely be difficult for my friends to decipher. The only information I gave my guests was that all of the wines were from California, with one exception.

2. Cover the labels on each bottle. I made bags out of burlap fabric, tied them up with jute strings, and added tags with numbers indicating their order in the tasting. Start with the lightest wine and work your way to the boldest or heaviest. If you don’t know how to order the wines, the internet is there to help you.
For whites:  http://winefolly.com/review/beginners-white-wines-list/
For reds:  http://winefolly.com/tutorial/the-spectrum-of-boldness-in-red-wines-chart/)

3.  Give clues.  A card with a brief description of every varietal included in the tasting was provided to each guest. This helped narrow down the options, but to make things a bit more interesting, I added one additional white and one additional red to the list that were not included in the tasting. (Yep, this threw off even the best tasters in the group!)4. Provide cards for scoring, rating, and guessing the varietal. This gives your guests an opportunity to reflect upon the flavors and characteristics of each wine, to indicate how much they liked it, and to make their best guess at the varietal. I added a few additional questions for bonus points in case there was a tie. Here’s a free editable download of the card I designed: eclecticgirldesigns.com/winetastingscorecard.docx

This tasting consisted of all California wines with the exception of one–a 2012 Cabernet Franc from my native Virginia. I gave my guests a hint that the exception was not a well-known wine region, but no one was able to identify that it was from Virginia.

 

5. Decant each wine before pouring. Although this step is not essential, virtually every wine benefits from decanting. It oxygenates the wine and allows it to “breathe.”  Decanting enhances and softens the flavors in the wine, particularly young wines and is a trick than can make an inexpensive wine drink much better. It also helps remove any sediments that have accumulated in the bottle. Even a brief decanting of 5 or 10 minutes can make a big difference.

6.  Provide a spittoon. This is a container for pouring out wine that isn’t wanted. Tasting wine is a very individual experience and you shouldn’t be offended if not everyone likes everything you serve. I used an ironstone pitcher but any opaque container will work.

7.  Reveal and tally. After all the wines have been tasted, reveal the labels. Tally up the scores and determine the winner.

And the winner is…Tamar! She has a superior palate, correctly identifying all but one wine, and she got almost every bonus question correct.
The prize was a gift basket filled with cheese tasting goodies–because a bottle of wine would have been just too cliché!

This is the first wine tasting party I’ve hosted but it certainly won’t be the last. It was fun, interactive, and provided an atmosphere of good-natured competition that allowed us to get to know one another better.

Putting a wine tasting party together isn’t difficult. It takes a little time to select the wines and assemble the foods, but because I chose to serve mostly prepared foods, it didn’t require a lot of time in the kitchen. I was able to spend most of the evening enjoying the company of my guests. It also provided an opportunity to share some the special wines from my cellar.
If you decide to try a wine tasting at your next gathering, remember it isn’t rocket science and shouldn’t be an intimidating experience. The most important thing to remember is to have fun!

The Creative Presentation of Food

It has often been said that we first eat with our eyes.  I would argue that eating involves all of our senses and perhaps that is why is so pleasurable.

I recently had the pleasure of taking a workshop on creative food presentation at Pasadena’s Shakespeare Club, the oldest women’s club in Southern California. Our speaker was Dr. Ann David, educator, author, and Vice President of the Shakespeare Club. She began with a slide show of elegantly displayed hors d’oeuvres and noted the importance of having different flavors, textures, and colors in the presentation of food. While it’s fine to place a wedge of cheese on a plate with a basket of crackers, it takes very little additional effort to add flourish with a few pieces of fruit, a bowl of nuts, a drizzle of honey or other garnish.

The vessels on which the appetizers are displayed should be of varying heights, and of different materials. It makes the table much more interesting to use a variety of shapes, levels and textures. A glass pedestal stand combined with a basket or rustic wood tray adds dimension and interest to the overall presentation, whereas several flat plates of similar size and height would not give the same effect.

We also were reminded that it’s important that the appetizers not only look good but they should taste great as well. Because guests will usually be eating just a single bite of whatever you are serving, your goal is to make that one bite an incredible one!

This lovely room was our makeshift “kitchen.” While it was challenging to work with limited resources, we were still able to make a surprisingly attractive display of hors d’oeuvres.

After Anne’s brief presentation, the organizers of the event set up a practice exercise where participants were given the opportunity to put their newly acquired knowledge into practice. We were divided into small groups and given a “mystery bag” of groceries with which to prepare an appetizer.  Some bags had numerous food items such as cheese, crackers, vegetables, fruit, and other goodies. My group got a single bowl of hard boiled eggs! Fortunately we were allowed to trade with other folks for ingredients and there was a table with various condiments available to everyone.

This picture from Pinterest was our inspiration for our dish.

My teammates and I decided to recreate a Pinterest picture we found of deviled eggs that looked like chicks hatching. We traded an egg for some orange peppers  and a few cherry tomatoes, and picked up some mayonnaise, mustard, pickles and capers from the condiment table. We cut a zigzag pattern into the eggs to separate the halves and remove the yolk. We mixed up our filling, filled the eggs, and made eyes from capers and beaks from orange peppers.

Though our deviled eggs were not as aesthetically pleasing as the Pinterest picture, everyone seemed to grasp what we were trying to achieve. We added some dill springs around the edge of our platter to create a nest and a few cherry tomatoes for garnish.

Here is the final table the class presented at the end of the workshop.  It’s a cornucopia of color! (Though it did not live up to our expectations, our nest of deviled egg chicks is shown on the left.)

When everyone was finished, our creations were displayed and everyone was invited to eat and enjoy the appetizers with a libation. In spite of limited resources, the groups created some very attractive platters and delicious combinations of flavors.

In my opinion, this platter was the winner. It was immensely creative and incorporated all the elements of good presentation. Note the caprese kabobs using parsley as skewers. Also check out the “flower” made from thin crackers broken into petals with dried cranberries in the center. The lavender sprigs in the center give height and fragrance to the display.

What will you do to elevate your appetizer presentation at your next event?

Italian Dinner Party – Pasta and Polenta


This is the final post in a series on the Italian themed dinner party we hosted a few weeks ago. If you’d like to catch up, you can read about the appetizers and cocktails here:  http://eclecticgirldesigns.com/index.php/2017/06/05/italian-dinner-party-appetizers-and-cocktails/

Part two on the table setting is available here:  http://eclecticgirldesigns.com/index.php/2017/06/12/italian-dinner-party-the-table-setting/

This post will cover the menu and recipes for the meal, as well as a small parting gift we gave our guests at the end of the evening. 

Primo: Homemade Spaghetti with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Basil

After our guests were seated, the first course was served, homemade pasta with roasted cherry tomatoes and basil. While you can certainly use boxed pasta, homemade pasta is not difficult to make and the flavor is substantially better than boxed. I find it is worth the extra effort to make it when entertaining. I promise a post on how to make it soon!

The cherry tomatoes were oven roasted with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. They were added to the cooked pasta along with toasted panko breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese and fresh basil. I served a small portion as a first course for this dinner, but it’s a hearty dish that would also make a wonderful main course. Here is a link with the recipe:  http://www.abeautifulplate.com/spaghettini-with-roasted-tomatoes-fresh-basil-and-toasted-garlic-breadcrumbs/

Segondo: Polenta Board with Shredded Beef in Wine Sauce and Kale Mushroom Saute

Years ago I saw a television chef serve up a dramatic polenta board and vowed that I would do it one day. This was my moment! I headed to my local hardware store and purchased an eight foot long 12″ wide pine plank and had the hardware store cut it in half for me. I covered both boards with parchment paper and wrapped them like gifts by taping the edges of the paper down on the underside. This provided a sanitary surface upon which to spread the polenta.

The polenta was spread out in a thin layer on each board and served with shredded beef in wine sauce and sauteed kale and mushrooms alternating down the board on top of the polenta. I learned that it’s important to form a lip around the edge of the polenta to keep the sauce from dripping out.

I kicked everyone out of the kitchen for the night’s biggest surprise–bringing out the polenta boards. It required two people to carry each four foot long polenta board to the table! According to our guests, this was the highlight of the evening. Each table had its own board, and every guest was provided a large spoon and invited to serve themselves by scooping up the polenta directly from the board. There were lots of oohs and ahhs when the boards came out, but it became oddly quiet once the polenta board began to be consumed.

Here’s the recipe for the shredded beef sauce:  http://www.thekitchn.com/dinner-party-recipe-braised-beef-in-tomatoes-red-wine-recipes-from-the-kitchn-186550

The recipe for both the polenta and kale mushroom saute can be found here: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/562809284673365728/

A crisp citrus fennel salad was served as an accompaniment. It added just the right contrast in temperature and the licorice-like flavor of the fennel cut through the heavier flavors of the polenta board. I used toasted pine nuts instead of walnuts and added a little arugula to this recipe: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/562809284673391976/

Dolce: Tiramisu

One of the most well-known and beloved Italian desserts is tiramisu. Importantly it does not require any last minute prep, other than a shaving of chocolate on top for garnish. It can be made a day or two ahead and kept refrigerated.

I found a recipe called “The Best Tiramisu You Will Ever Make” and couldn’t resist trying it. It was creamy and delectable. I didn’t tinker with the recipe one bit (other than topping it with shaved chocolate rather than cocoa powder). Given that I’d only made tiramisu once before, I can honestly say it is the best tiramisu I’ve ever made!  Here’s the link:  https://www.askchefdennis.com/the-best-tiramisu-you-will-ever-make/

We concluded the meal with a digestif of limoncello, a cold, sweet, lemon flavored Italian liqueur. While the actual medicinal benefits of digestifs are yet unproven, it is thought that such drinks help to digest the prior meal. I don’t know whether it assisted anyone’s digestion at our party but it did give us an excuse to remain around the dinner table a little longer.

Parting Gift

To make the memory of our evening linger, I prepared two types of biscotti for our guests and packaged them up as a parting gift. Each guest was given a pair of cookies upon their departure. While there are many variations on this twice-baked cookie, I made chocolate walnut and lemon anise almond flavors. I placed the cookies in separate bags so that the flavors wouldn’t mingle. The two cookies were tied together with a tag that said, “Ciao Bella.”

Ciao means both hello and goodbye in Italian. Hopefully our guests will come back soon so that we may greet them again with ciao.

Italian Dinner Party – The Table Setting

Last week’s blog focused on cocktails and appetizers for our Italian themed dinner party.   In case you missed it, you can check it out here: http://eclecticgirldesigns.com/index.php/2017/06/05/italian-dinner-party-appetizers-and-cocktails/  This post will describe the table setting. Next week, the last post in the series will cover the menu and recipes.

The Table, Place Cards, and Menu

What could be more classic for an Italian themed dinner than a red and white checked tablecloth? I put two folding tables together to form one long banquet style table and placed a red checked tablecloth over both.  To this foundation, a white table cloth overlay was added to the center and the table was set with white dinner plates. I designed my menus and place cards using free online clip art and repeated the logo throughout the event, keeping the font and colors consistent. A printed menu was placed on each plate and place cards were mounted in little wooden place card holders next to each plate. (These were purchased but it would be easy to make them from fallen branches.)

The Napkin Fold

I used a napkin folding technique called the “twin candle roll” for my white cloth napkins and placed them in the stemware. They added height and whimsy to the table and couldn’t be easier to do. I recommend starching your napkins first as they will stand up better. Here is a video which shows how to make them:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRjvOuzHPlU

 

 

A Conversation Piece

Around the holidays last winter I came across a gigantic bottle of Italian wine and immediately knew it would be perfect for an Italian themed dinner party. I purchased it and held onto it for this moment! It was placed front and center on the table and quickly became a conversation piece. It is not terribly common to see a magnum of wine and my guests spent a little time trying to figure out how many regular sized bottles of wine it contained. (The correct answer is three.)

The Centerpiece

The pièce de résistance for the table setting was a large floral arrangement of red gladiolas in the center of the table. I used a classically-styled urn to raise the arrangement up off the table. Floral foam was used to hold the long stems in place and the flowers were arranged in a spray design. I added a few stalks of spiky palm leaves and some lemon leaves from my backyard to fill out the base of the arrangement and provide additional texture. A floral arrangement of this scale certainly makes a statement and can really give your table a “wow factor!”

My sweet husband lit the fire and directed guests to their places at the table.

Creating Ambiance

A few weeks prior to the party, I began saving empty wine bottles to use as candle holders. The bottles were soaked in warm soapy water to remove the labels and candles were inserted into the openings. They were placed on the mantle above the outdoor fireplace. Our weather turned chilly that evening and we ended up lighting the fireplace for warmth.  The flickering glow of the candles and crackling fireplace made for a cozy and convivial setting.

Next week’s blog will provide the menu and recipes for the meal and will feature a dramatic polenta board. Stay tuned!

This picture was taken the morning after the party. The dripping candle wax covering the wine bottles is evidence that the party lasted late into the night.

Italian Dinner Party: Appetizers and Cocktails

Who doesn’t love Italian food? It has become a mainstay of American cuisine and seems to be the epitome of “comfort food.”  Many classic Italian dishes can be made ahead of time which makes it perfectly suited to a dinner party for a crowd. We invited twelve friends, some old, some new, for an Italian themed dinner party al fresco.

This is the first of a three-part series. Today’s blog will cover the appetizers and drinks. Next week’s blog will address the table setting, and the following week will cover the dinner menu and recipes.

The Signature Cocktail:  Sparkling Negroni

The Negroni is a classic Italian cocktail developed by a bartender in Florence in 1919 as an adaptation of an Americano.  When the bartender replaced the soda water with gin and added an orange peel zest instead of lemon, the Negroni was born.

A signature cocktail is a festive way to set the tone for the evening. Preparing the cocktail in a punch bowl or large pitcher also allows the host to make drinks ahead and not have to deal with last minute mixing.

I decided to add prosecco to the classic cocktail to cut some of the bitterness of the Campari.  Here is the recipe for a crowd.

Sparkling Negroni (Serves 12-16)

  • 1 cup Campari
  • 1 cup Gin
  • 1 cup Sweet Vermouth
  • 2 bottles prosecco
  • Orange peel zest for garnish

Mix the Campari, gin and vermouth in a punch bowl with ice. Add prosecco and gently stir until blended. Pour into glasses and garnish with sliver of orange peel zest.

I also set up a self-serve water dispenser with lemon slices and made Italian grapefruit soda and Pellegrino Italian sparkling water available as non-alcoholic drink options.

The Antipasto Board

In Italian, antipasto means “before the meal” and is typically a selection of cured meats, cheeses, olives, marinated vegetables, and other finger foods intended to stimulate the appetite. Antipasto is a great choice for a crowd because it is simple to put together and can be endlessly varied, made more or less complicated depending on your preferences, time and budget.

My antipasto platter included a selection of cured meats, a hard cheese, a soft cheese, olives, pickled peppers, marinated artichoke hearts and grapes.

I used shipping tags to identify containers of avocado honey, white bean rosemary spread, and garlic mustard aioli. Guests are more likely to try foods if they know what is in them.

Condiments are a nice addition to any antipasto board to provide variety and additional flavors.  Along with a garlic aioli mustard, I added a dish of avocado honey which is particularly delicious drizzled over cheese. To complete the antipasto board, I made a white bean spread flavored with lemon, garlic, and fresh rosemary and served it with baguette toasts and crackers.  Here’s the recipe:  http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2013/01/rosemary-lemon-white-bean-dip-recipe.html

Note the interplay of colors, textures and flavors. The round, smooth, colorful grapes contrast with the crunchy linear bread sticks, while the chewy saltiness of the cured meats plays off the creaminess of the cheese.

For my table setup, I used a wine crate from Italy as a platform and tucked in fresh greenery from my yard around the perimeter for additional color and texture. Two cans of San Marzano tomatoes were used in the meat sauce I made for our dinner, and I thought the cans were so colorful and authentic looking, I decided to recycle them for table decor. A bouquet of flowers was arranged in one can and bread sticks were placed in the other.

I was delighted to find a set of rather ingenious appetizer stem holder plates online and couldn’t wait to see how my guests liked them. They have an opening for the stem of the wine glass to be inserted so that both the glass and food can be easily handled with only one hand. Guests commented on how nice it was to have a free hand and not to have to awkwardly juggle their glasses and food plates! I have a feeling these plates will make regular appearances at future parties. In case you’d like to get some for yourself, here’s a link:  https://www.amazon.com/Oenophilia-Bamboo-Hors-Oeuvres-Plate/dp/B003ZIV12K/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1496155036&sr=8-1&keywords=bamboo+wine+plates+appetizer  

After our guests, some of whom didn’t previously know each other, spent a little time together sharing Negronis and antipasto, they were in a good mood and ready for the meal.  Stay tuned next week for part two in this series which will feature the table setting.

While most of our guests congregated around the appetizer table, a separate seating area was available with plenty of space to comfortably relax.

Ladies’ Spring Brunch

To kick off spring, I thought it would be fun to gather some of my girlfriends together for a spring brunch. Given our dependably beautiful weather here in southern California, it seemed appropriate to move the celebration out of the house and into the backyard.

The first thing I did was develop a color palette. Inspired by a set of vintage chartreuse placemats from my collection, I decided to use this color as my foundation. For contrast, I used bright fuschia cloth napkins and sprinkled in other happy spring colors. For example, I couldn’t resist a pair of whimsical carrot candles in bright orange!

A bowl of cucumber lime tequila punch got the party started.

I set up an appetizer table topped with baskets of petunias, roses and primroses. To add more texture, I added some fun white paper flowers. My punch bowl was filled with a refreshing cucumber lime tequila cocktail that carried the green color theme to the appetizer table. (Of course, I made a non-alcoholic version for my friends who abstain.)

To get the party started,  I offered colorful Vietnamese spring rolls with peanut ginger dipping sauce, goat cheese and walnut encrusted grape truffles, and individual granola fruit yogurt parfaits.

Guests were invited to take their egg placecard holders home with them.

About two weeks ahead of the party, I made placecard holders by using real egg shells as tiny planters. The egg carton was cut into individual holders and each egg was planted with assorted lettuce and herb seeds.  I printed each person’s name on card stock and made little “flags” by gluing them to a toothpick which was inserted in each plant. A menu was placed on each plate and the egg placecard holder was set on top.

Generous doses of white were added to keep the table from getting too busy. I used a white damask tablecloth as a base and placed the chartreuse placemats on top. The table was set with white plates and the fuschia colored napkins were folded into a cute bunny shape. I spray painted an old urn with more white and fashioned a few fallen branches into an “egg tree” for my centerpiece. A nest of pink Easter grass and more eggs were added to the base of the urn, along with a wicker rabbit sporting a pink and green plaid bow. I wanted the brunch to be a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach! I found a beautiful floral watercolor printable download that I used to create menus for each place setting. The dishes on the menu were inspired by the colors and bounty of spring. 

The Peruvian Eggs Benedict is a creation I came up with years ago based on my love of the Peruvian yellow pepper called aji amarillo.  It is a take on the Peruvian appetizer Papas a la Huancaina.  I’ll share the recipe on a separate blog at another time but here’s a picture to give you an idea of what it looks like.

Peruvian Eggs Benedict has a slice of crispy prosciutto, an over easy egg, and a slice of avocado on toast topped with Huancaina sauce and an olive.

The grand finale was a Robin’s Egg Coconut Cake decorated to look like a speckled robin’s egg, complete with a phyllo dough “nest” and malted eggs. It wasn’t difficult to make and I thought it would be a memorable way to end the event. Here’s the recipe. http://www.countryliving.com/food-drinks/recipes/a37729/speckled-malted-coconut-cake-recipe/

I changed up the recipe slightly by substituting half of the shortening with coconut oil and adding a teaspoon coconut extract to the icing. I also brushed each layer with simple syrup to add moisture.

Each guest took home a small parting gift as a reminder of our time together.  I love EOS lip balm and recently discovered that there are interesting ways to use them as party favors. I printed out this free download onto card stock and cut out a circle into which I inserted the EOS lip balm. To make it a bit more festive, I put some paper shreds in the bottom of a clear cellophane bag, placed the card with lip balm inside, and tied it up with a raffia ribbon. A basket filled with the favors was passed around at the end of the brunch and each guest could take their pick of assorted flavors.  Here’s the link for the printable with instructions.  http://tatertotsandjello.com/2015/04/eos-lip-balm-spring-printable-gift-idea.html

It was so much fun to put this brunch together for this special group of ladies.  I knew I had invited a sophisticated group who would appreciate all the details and special touches. I’m already looking forward to next year!

Not only did we have delightful weather, but our neighbor’s tree just happened to be in full bloom providing a beautiful backdrop!
My thanks to everyone who helped out with serving and the refilling of coffee cups.