Pizza is a bit of an obsession at our house. Calling for delivery stopped being an option several years ago when I discovered a super easy, ultra-forgiving way to make pizza dough at home that tastes far better than any delivery service pizza I’ve had.
Before I discovered this method, I thought yeast-raised dough was temperamental and time-consuming, requiring lots of watching and kneading. Nothing could be further from the truth! With this recipe, I simply mix up my ingredients the night before and refrigerate the dough overnight. By the next day, the dough has risen and is ready to be used. It just requires a few hours on the counter to reach room temperature and it’s ready to be rolled out.
I love the flexibility of this recipe. Something comes up and can’t use your dough the next day? No problem, it will wait for you. Can’t use it for a few days? Just add in a tablespoon of flour (so the yeast has something to eat and can continue growing) and it will keep a few more days. You can actually prolong your dough for quite a long time this way. You can even freeze this dough. When you’re ready to use it, leave it out for at least 12 hours so that it has had time to thaw and reach room temperature.
Here’s my recipe. I am giving approximate measurements as I have learned that being exact is not required for this dough. In fact, I don’t measure any more and just kind of “eyeball” the proportions. If you don’t use salt, leave it out. If you are cutting out sugar, leave out the honey or use another type of sweetener instead. I like to use an Italian XX flour as I find it gives a crispy bite and a nice chew, but it is certainly not necessary.
Overnight Pizza Dough (makes one 16″ pizza)
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup warm water
1 teaspoon yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon salt
Add honey to warm water and sprinkle yeast on top. Let sit for a few minutes and then gradually add flour and salt. Stir until ingredients are incorporated. Once all the flour is incorporated you should be able to form a sticky ball. If it’s too wet, add more flour; too dry, add a bit more water. Drizzle a little olive oil on top of dough to keep the surface moist and place in a covered glass container. Refrigerate overnight. Remove at least 2 hours before you plan to roll it out. Roll out on a floured surface, then transfer to baking sheet. Top with your favorite sauce and toppings. Preheat your oven to its hottest setting (up to 500 degrees) and bake for about 10 minutes. Enjoy!!
Did you ever eat something at a restaurant and wish you could duplicate it at home? Did you know that there are websites dedicated to developing recipes that closely mimic restaurant recipes? Lucky for us, there are some very creative cooks out there with superior palates who have been able decipher the ingredients and cooking techniques for many popular restaurant dishes. Their websites “hack” some of the most popular restaurant dishes around so that you can make them at home!
If you don’t find the recipe for your favorite restaurant dish on any of these websites, try typing in the name of the restaurant and the dish you’d like to duplicate. Then add the words “hack” or “copy cat” to the search. As long as it’s a well-known restaurant, you should get several results.
For example, I adore the chicken lettuce wraps at P. F. Chang’s and wanted to see if I could recreate them at home. I did a search for the recipe for P. F. Chang’s chicken lettuce wraps. Lots of results came up, but the one I decided to make can be found here.
The verdict? My chicken lettuce wraps were salty, crunchy, fresh and sweet with the same hint of smokiness that the restaurant version has. The special sauce had the same taste and texture as the restaurant version. In fact, if tasted side by side with P. F. Chang’s version, I’m not sure I would be able to tell the difference!
I will say that I don’t think P. F. Chang’s has anything to worry about. This was not a simple dish to make. The amount of time, specialized ingredients, number of steps, and the overall mess involved in making this particular dish prevents me from making it often. I will continue to visit the restaurant for it most of the time, but it is nice to know that if I want to make it at home, I can reproduce the restaurant version pretty well.
What’s your favorite restaurant dish? Can you hack it?
On a recent trip to the lovely city of Montreal, I felt I was almost in France–but without the long plane ride! Because my vacation would not have been complete without a thorough sampling of the local cuisine, I signed up for a tour called “Flavours and Aromas of Old Montreal.”
Our tour was led by the very enthusiastic and knowledgeable Lorna Schectman-Greenberg of VDM Global Tours. We headed to Old Montreal on foot to explore some of the best hidden food purveyors in town. Not only was Lorna extremely well-versed in the cuisine of Montreal, she also had extensive knowledge of the history, culture and architecture of the city. We were lucky to have such a well-informed guide to lead us through the charming cobblestone streets of Old Montreal.
Our first stop was at “Marche de La Villette,” a French restaurant and butcher shop with a marvelous selection of gourmet meats, cheeses, and condiments. We sampled two types of pâté, both served on perfect slices of baguette. One was a blend of veal and duck, and the other, a duck foie gras. This tasting required me to make two exceptions to my usual dietary restrictions–veal and foie gras. I don’t normally consume either because of the inhumane treatment the animals typically endure in the production of these foods, but because it was part of the tour and as only two small bites were provided, I made an exception. I found these pâtés to be a little coarser in texture than most pâtés I’ve had before. They were hearty and substantial, perfectly seasoned, and full of flavor. Despite leaving the restaurant with a bit of a guilty conscience for the sake of the animals, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed both decadent bites.
Our second destination was a Portuguese bakery called “Cantinho de Lisboa,” famous for their pastéis de nata. These bite-sized egg custards in flaky crusts were luxuriously rich, but also quite delicate. The light crunch of the phyllo-style crust combined with the cool creamy custard filling was the perfect juxtaposition of textures. While the Portuguese population of Montreal is quite small, this bakery has made an indelible mark on the culture and cuisine of Old Montreal and is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.
Our next stop was “Masion Christian Faure,” a patisserie owned and operated by award-winning French pastry chef, Christian Faure. In addition to the restaurant and patisserie, Chef Faure opened a cooking school at this location in 2013 to teach authentic French pastry making techniques in Canada. We sampled their macaroons. Given the variety of offerings, it was a difficult decision but I opted for the coconut flavor. It was delicate and light, with just the right combination of crunch and chew. Taking a cooking class here is definitely on my bucket list!
We then trekked to a restaurant-bar along the St. Lawrence River waterfront called “Faste Fou.” Here we sampled smoked meat sandwiches, a signature dish of Montreal. While no one knows for sure who “officially” introduced smoked meat to Montreal, experts seem to agree that the dish is likely Romanian and Jewish in origin. Beef brisket is salted and brined in spices before being smoked and cooked. Sliced thinly, it is typically served on rye bread with plain mustard. It is often likened to pastrami, but it comes from a different part of the animal and I found the flavor to be a bit more subtle.
Our final stop was “Delices Erable & Cie,” a boutique that specializes in maple products. Quebec leads the world in maple syrup production and maple products are considered emblematic of Canada, so no food tour would be complete without a maple sampling. In addition to multiple types of maple syrup, this shop offered maple coffee and tea, maple candy, maple butter, maple mustard, maple gelato…you get the idea! I enjoyed tasting the wide array of samples that were available in the store. I purchased some of their maple pork rub and a cranberry-maple-nut topping for baked brie. I look forward to sharing these goodies, along with memories of my trip, with friends back home.
While not included in our tour, Lorna also educated us about two other important foods of Montreal: poutine and the Montreal bagel. Of course I would have been remiss not to give them both a try while there!
There are gourmet versions of poutine involving things like foie gras, duck breast, and steak, but the classic version is comprised of french fries topped with cold cheese curds and hot gravy. Poutine cannot be considered a diet food by any stretch of the imagination but it is a filling comfort food apropos for fueling young hockey players and long Canadian winters.
The Montreal bagel differs from most bagels in that it is dipped in honey-water before cooking and is baked in a wood-fired oven which gives it a somewhat smokey flavor. It is served with cream cheese or butter and is typically eaten for breakfast.
The tour provided an excellent overview of the multi-cultural food legacy of Montreal. It was a delight to experience these foods and discover hidden purveyors I would never have found on my own. If you have the opportunity to visit Montreal, I encourage you to explore the unique cuisine of this lovely city. You’ll be glad you did.
Note: All opinions expressed are my own. I have not received compensation of any kind from any of the establishments mentioned in this post.
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.
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
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.
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!
Last week I told you about an Indian cooking class I took at our local community college. That post on legumes and Indian bread is available here: http://eclecticgirldesigns.com/index.php/2017/07/24/indian-cooking-class-part-1/ Today’s post will cover the last two classes in the series on yogurt, cheese making and eggplant dishes.
Yogurt and Cheese
I remember my mother making yogurt and cheese when I was a child, but I wasn’t directly involved in the making of either so the process remained a mystery to me. I was surprised to see how easy both were to make. The flavor of these homemade dairy products was so much better than commercial versions. You can also be assured that there are no artificial ingredients or additives involved when you make it yourself.
Not only is our instructor, Raka Mehra, a great home cook, she is also extremely knowledgeable about nutrition. Throughout the course she enlightened us regarding the nutritional benefits of the dishes we were preparing, yogurt being no exception. It is a fermented food that is nutrient-dense and rich in high-quality protein, important probiotics and linoleic acid. Raka reminded us that yogurt is alive with beneficial cultures and bacteria that are crucial to the health of our gut.
There are only two ingredients in homemade yogurt: milk and a starter culture. We used fresh plain yogurt as the starter culture, which is easily obtainable at any grocery store.
Slowly heat a quart of milk to almost boiling. Then allow to cool to approximately 110 – 115 degrees. Add 1 teaspoon of plain fresh yogurt and stir until incorporated. Incubate in a warm place for 5 – 7 hours. Raka recommended an Instant Pot ( http://instantpot.com/ ) for this process because it has a yogurt setting which simplifies the entire process. However this device is not necessary. The most important thing is to keep the yogurt consistently warm, so putting it inside a warm oven or even wrapping it in a blanket will work just fine. Once yogurt is ready, a layer of water will form on top. It can then be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
Paneer (Indian Cheese)
Paneer is a yogurt cheese with a very clean light texture and taste. It is used extensively in Indian cuisine and also makes a healthy snack.
Paneer Recipe (Indian Yogurt Cheese)
2 quarts whole milk
1 quart buttermilk or 3 cups homemade yogurt
Heat milk to near boiling. Add warmed buttermilk or yogurt to avoid a dramatic temperature change. Reduce heat to low and stir to avoid burning on the bottom. Large clumps called “curds” will begin to form. Turn off heat when whey and curds separate. (The whey is the yellowish liquid that will form.) Let sit for 5 – 10 minutes. Strain liquid from cheese using a cheesecloth, pressing out as much whey as possible. Then shape the cheese into a flat disc. Place a weight on top to press out more liquid. After about 15 minutes, most of the water will have released and your cheese is ready. Cheese should be stored in the refrigerator in cold water.
The final class focused on eggplant dishes from northern India. Emphasizing the importance of freshness, Raka said she chose to present eggplant dishes to us because that was what looked best at the market that day. We made three different eggplant dishes, but in this post I will discuss only one, bharva baingan or stuffed eggplants. This is a dish I had never seen before but I found it to be the most delicious of all the eggplant dishes we made.
Bharva Baingan (Stuffed Eggplants)
6 small round eggplants
2 tsp. coriander seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. turmeric powder
1/2 tsp. red chili powder
3 T. grated coconut
1 tsp. finely chopped garlic
1 tsp. tamarind paste in 2 T. water
salt to taste
2 T. oil
1 tsp. black mustard seeds
6 -8 curry leaves (found in Indian market)
2 dry red whole chilies
Cilantro and grated coconut to garnish
Make two perpendicular slits in eggplants without cutting all the way through. This opening will hold the filling.
Dry roast coriander and cumin seeds and grind in coffee grinder. Mix together coriander, cumin, turmeric, red chili powder, coconut, garlic, and salt. Fill the slits in the eggplants with the filling.
Heat oil in heavy pan. Add mustard seeds, dry red chilies and curry leaves and cover until popping stops. Add filled eggplants to pan and cover with lid. Cook until browned on all sides, gently turning them so that the filling stays inside the eggplants. Eggplants will soften and release their juices as they cook.
Add tamarind and water mixture and cook for another 2- 3 minutes. Garnish with cilantro and a little grated coconut.
After my four Indian cooking classes, I know I still have a lot to learn. However, I can say that I no longer find this cuisine quite as mysterious or intimidating as I once did. I now have the confidence to continue experimenting and look forward to challenging myself by making even more complex Indian dishes. Are you ready to give Indian cooking a try?
Note: Many thanks to Raka and my classmates who were so gracious in allowing me to share their images in my blog.
As much as I enjoy Indian cuisine, I’ve hesitated to attempt making it at home. The exotic spices, complex flavor combinations, and mysterious ingredients have always intimidated me! So when our local community college offered an Indian cooking class, I jumped at the opportunity to have this extraordinary cuisine demystified.
This is the first of a two-part series. Today’s post will cover the classes on legumes and bread. Next week’s blog will cover the classes on yogurt making, cheese, and eggplant dishes.
Our instructor was Raka Mehra, a home cook from northern India with many years of experience preparing her native dishes. Having garnered much acclaim by those lucky enough to be invited to her home for a meal, she decided to develop this class to teach others the secrets of her delicious north Indian dishes.
Raka emphasized that everyday dishes in India are generally much lighter and healthier than those served at most Indian restaurants. Importantly, she assured us that with basic cooking skills, one can prepare a truly authentic Indian meal.
In our first class, Raka gave us a brief overview of the numerous legumes used in Indian cooking. Economical and high in protein, legumes are extremely nutritious and contain a range of essential nutrients including vitamin B (especially folate), iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. They are also abundant in dietary fiber.
Of all the legume options available, we focused on lentils which are among the quickest to prepare. We made two lentil dishes but my favorite was coconut daal made from red (or washed) lentils. The dish contains coconut milk which makes it rich and creamy with a somewhat delicate flavor.
Raka’s Coconut Daal
1 cup washed red lentils (masoor) 1 can coconut milk (full fat) 1 ¼ cup water 1 small yellow onion, chopped 2 medium tomatoes, chopped 1 -2 green chilies, sliced 1 tsp. salt ¼ tsp. turmeric 2 T. oil 2 tsp. black mustard seeds (or cumin seeds) 1 small red onion, sliced thinly Handful of cilantro leaves, chopped
Place lentils, coconut milk, water, chopped onion, tomatoes, chilies, salt and turmeric in a pan. Simmer 20 minutes or until lentils are tender.
While lentils are cooking, heat oil in frying pan. When oil is hot, add mustard seeds and cover until popping stops. Add sliced onions and fry until crisp.
Mix sautéed onions and mustard seeds with cooked lentils and garnish with cilantro. Serve with rice.
Bread Making: Roti and Paratha
In our second session we learned about the classic Indian bread commonly known as roti or chapati. This is an unleavened whole wheat tortilla-like bread that is hearty and versatile. While most of us think of naan as the quintessential Indian bread, we learned that roti is more typically consumed on a daily basis in India, while naan is usually reserved for special occasions.
Basic Recipe for Roti
1 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour 3/4 cup water 1/2 tsp salt (optional)
Mix all ingredients until stiff dough forms. Knead until dough no longer sticks to your hands. Let rest for about 20 minutes.
Divide dough into 8 equal parts and roll into balls. Roll balls into 6 – 8″ discs. Lightly grease pan and heat to medium high. Cook until brown blisters begin to appear and flip. Roti will puff up when done.
While roti is delicious simply spread with a little butter, we also made paratha which is roti filled with vegetables, or cheese and spices. My favorite was paneer paratha, which is roti filled with cheese (paneer).
2 cups shredded paneer (Indian yogurt cheese) 1 T. finely chopped ginger 2 T. chopped cilantro 1/2 t. cumin powder 1/4 t. red chili flakes Salt to taste 2 T. yogurt
Mix all ingredients except yogurt together. Then add yogurt until crumbly paste forms.
Place filling in the middle of the rolled out roti and then gently gather edges together, forming a purse-like packet. Roll flat again and fry in lightly oiled pan until brown on both sides.
With a little spiced yogurt, paratha make a delicious accompaniment to a meal or a filling snack. Both roti and paratha are well-suited to freezing, so a batch can be made ahead of time and taken out as needed.
Perhaps the most important tip I gleaned from this class was how important it is to purchase whole spices and dry roast them in a frying pan before grinding. Dry roasting changes the chemistry of proteins, releases the oils in spices, changes their flavor, and enhances the scent and taste of spices. If you want maximum flavor in your Indian dishes, don’t skip this step!
I did not find any of these dishes to be difficult to make and was delighted to learn how nutritious they are. I am excited about adding these dishes to my repertoire and hope you will give them a try as well.
Stay tuned next week for part two of my foray into Indian cooking!
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!
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.
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.
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.
What will you do to elevate your appetizer presentation at your next event?
Many Fourth of July gatherings include a pitcher of ice cold lemonade. While it’s easy to make lemonade from powdered mixes or frozen concentrates, I don’t think there is any substitute for the real thing. It doesn’t require a tremendous amount of additional work to make lemonade from scratch. If you’re planning to serve up this summertime thirst quencher, here’s an easy way to dress up the standard recipe.
For this recipe, I’ve switched out the sugar for honey and replaced regular water with sparkling water. The honey pairs beautifully with lemon (think hot tea with lemon and honey) and adds a depth of flavor sugar doesn’t have. The fizz of sparkling water is refreshing and gives the lemonade a little extra pizzazz!
Fizzy Honey Lemonade (serves 4)
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup honey (light or dark)
1 liter bottle of sparkling water
ice and lemon slices
Mix lemon juice and honey together. Pour in sparkling water, add ice, lemon slices and serve.
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/
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.