Party people

Last night marked my ahem-cough-snort-nd birthday, which called for celebration! I know some people would rather let their day come and go unnoticed, but I love me some birthday action. I’m not big on presents or a lot of elaborate stuff; for me, it’s just nice to be acknowledged. Plus, the IU vs. Kentucky NCAA playoff game provided an added excuse to gather some of my nearest and dearest besties at the house to hang out.

If you know me, you know how much I love to entertain. Here’s what I put together by way of sustenance:

bourbon-baked ham from Ralph’s Great Divide

Mini ham sandwiches. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to order some bourbon-baked ham from Ralph’s Great Divide for awhile now. All they need is 24 hours to whip it up and slice it however you want. Highly recommend; this stuff was delish. As a non-Catholic, though, I totally spaced that this was a Friday during lent. (My bad!) We heathens who did eat the ham really enjoyed it.

my deviled egg “bar.” Genius, no?

Deviled egg bar. Libertine here in Indy has been garnering rave reviews for its deviled egg sampler with various gourmet toppings. I was all set to recreate the same type of thing until I hit on the idea of a “bar” that allowed guests to dude up their own eggs with a variety of do-it-yourself adornments. Since I needed things that would be ok to sit out during the party, I went with bacon “dust” (super crispy strips crushed very finely), chopped green onions, fresh dill and capers. I thought it was pretty ingenious, and who doesn’t like deviled eggs? Well, besides my hubby, of course.

pimento cheese (thanks Evan!)

Pimento cheese. One of the new food trends for this year as declared by leading foodie magazines, I cribbed this recipe from an editor friend after sampling his contribution at a holiday party several months ago. It was easier to make than I thought, and sooooo tasty. I spread a big scoop of it onto some bread for lunch yesterday, and plan on doing the same thing again today.

classic crudite

Crudite. The classic party standby — veggies and dip. Always a crowd-pleaser, and always looks fresh and pretty if you assemble it yourself. Ditto for a nice selection of cheeses.

It was a great gathering of friends, and a great night. Here’s hoping my ahem-cough-snort year will be the best yet!

A pleasant surprise

It’s been awhile since I’ve done any catering, but last night ended the drought. My friend Angie asked me to help with a surprise 40th birthday party she was planning for a girlfriend. Eager to get my catering skills back up to snuff, I readily accepted.

The plan was hors d’oeuvres for 25-30 people. Cool, easy enough. Then Angie threw me the curveball. The birthday girl doesn’t eat red meat, chicken, pork, nuts or cheese. Omitting the meat wasn’t too much of a problem, but I don’t think I’ve ever put out a party spread that didn’t contain cheese and nuts. I turned on my brain and got down to recipe browsing.

Once I got my head wrapped around the menu constraints, coming up with ideas wasn’t as challenging as I feared it might be. Vegetables and fruit were fair game, of course, and the possibilities there were endless. So were crackers, dips and spreads, as long as they didn’t contain dairy. And seafood was allowable. Birthday cake for dessert was already taken care of.

So here’s what I came up with:

the spread

First, instead of a standard run-of-the-mill veggie platter, I decided to take a note from Black Market and assemble a variety of fresh pickles. I picked five items  to pickle and used different recipes for each to provide plenty of flavor variety. I’d made the pickled grapes and the lemon pickled zucchini before, but the dill green beans, Asian carrots and icebox pickles were all new experiments, and ones that worked out great. I prepared the green beans, carrots and grapes the night before so they’d have plenty of time to marinate, and then banged out the cucumbers the morning of and the zucchini at the last minute (I knew from experience that these don’t take long to soak up the juice).

a fine pickle

Hubby and I pulled all the pickles out of the fridge for a mid-afternoon taste test to make sure things were on track. And boy, were they! The carrots took on an awesome soy ginger tang and the cucumbers were spicy sweet thanks to the pickling spice I used. The green beans were my favorite – crunchy crisp and packed with bracing fresh dill and puckery vinegar. Yay! I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my attention to the rest of the menu.

wine-baked olives

Wine-baked olives were something that I immediately pulled out of my recipe box for consideration. Easy peasy and elegant. The only tricky part is boiling the olives briefly at first to soften slightly and leech out some of the excess oil. Then you simply drain them, throw them into a casserole dish and pour in a little red wine. Sprinkle in some fresh thyme and grate over a little orange zest, then bake for 30 minutes and there ya go. One gentleman at the party said they were the best olives he’d ever eaten. Thank you, kind sir!

California shrimp cocktail with orange and avocado

Shrimp cocktail was one of the first things that leapt to mind, and I have a great recipe from my catering mentor Jen that I’ve made a couple times before. A California spin adds in sliced avocado and orange sections over mixed greens. Served individually in little cups, they look attractive and taste great. And as Angie’s husband Ben so aptly noted, avocado is like bacon for vegetarians.

spicy roasted chickpeas

Figuring we needed a little something crunchy to go with the drinks, I toasted up a big batch of spicy chickpeas instead of setting out a bowl of hummus like I’d originally intended. Drain the garbanzos, then toss with olive oil and a spice blend of your choosing (I used cumin, thyme, garlic salt, pepper and cayenne), then bake on a cookie sheet until crunchy. These little babies are great to have on hand in lieu of nuts or chips, and totally threw some of the party guests for a pleasant loop when they bit in.

I rounded out the mix with crackers, toasted pita wedges and a yummy roasted eggplant dip recipe from Ina Garten. Ina never steers you wrong.

All in all, the birthday girl was surprised, the party was a success and I got lots of great feedback. Nice to know I’ve still got it.

Book swap sweets

Last night, I hosted a small group of friends for a book swap, hoping it would serve as a foundation to launch a book club. To sweeten the deal, I plied my guests with wine and desserts.

After perusing recipes for days, I finally decided to make a sour cream banana cake with peanut butter buttercream frosting, and chocolate fudge macarons with marshmallow filling.

the spread

The cake was easy to make and turned out to be moist and fantastic. The peanut butter frosting was delicious, too, a sinful concoction of butter, cream cheese, powdered sugar and creamy Jif that I couldn’t stop eating by the spoonful. It was almost too sweet, but a good complement to the banana flavor. (I ate another big slice for breakfast this morning when no one was looking.)

Sour cream banana cake with peanut butter buttercream frosting

I seriously toyed with the idea of topping the whole thing with some crumbled brown sugar bacon and calling it an “Elvis Cake,” but time got away from me. Mainly because, for whatever reason, I lost my macaron mojo.

After four or five great first efforts, I could not make a decent macaron yesterday to save my life. I don’t know if the batter was too stiff, the house was too dry or what, but the first batch of cookies cracked and completely dried out. Figuring it must have been a fluke, I whipped up another batch. Same story, different cookie sheet. Edible and appropriately chocolaty, mind you, but not the right texture or appearance at all. They were way too crunchy, more like a little meringue button than a crusty-chewy macaron. By this point, I was getting the process down to a science. Figuring the third time had to be the charm, I made one last-ditch attempt. My last effort turned out the closest to correct macarons, but still not perfect. Sigh. I gave up, schmeared them with marshmallow fluff and served them anyway. No one seemed to mind.

a semi-successful macaron

By the way, I had totally forgotten what a wonderful thing marshmallow fluff is. O.M.G. I predict several fluffer-nutter sandwiches showing up in this week’s lunch menus…

If at first you don’t succeed, keep on baking.

A labor of love

My good friend Michelle is expecting not one but TWO babies (both girls) in January. Clearly, this occasion could not go uncelebrated! Since Michelle already has a five-year-old daughter, she’s pretty set with girly pink schwack and supplies, but I figured she could never have enough diapers. Therefore, I swiped an idea from another baby shower I attended last summer and decided to throw her a “Pamper Michelle” party, asking everyone to bring a pack of diapers in lieu of gifts.

I wanted the food to be reflective of babies and twins, so opted for mini versions of standard party fare. Several recipes were previously untested dishes I’d been wanting to try, and this seemed a perfect excuse. Two of them – sweet potato biscuit sandwiches with ham and honey mustard, and pickled shrimp — came courtesy of last month’s Bon Appetit. Thanks, BA editors!

My first batch of biscuits turned out a little too flat and a little too brown. Fortunately, I had enough ingredients to bang out a second batch lickety split. This time, I didn’t roll them out quite as thin and I didn’t bake them quite as long. The result – yummy, although next time, I’ll use a saltier ham and a spicier Dijon to really up the flavor punch.

Sweet potato biscuit sandwiches with ham and honey mustard

The shrimp, too, turned out to be an interesting experiment. I had quite a prep list going, so to simplify things, I bought frozen cooked cocktail shrimp instead of boiling my own. The thing was, they didn’t thaw as quickly as I’d hoped in the fridge, so when the time came to throw them into the pickling liquid, they were still slightly frozen.

The pickling liquid itself was tricky. The recipe called for equal parts vinegar and olive oil, but when I tasted it, it was ALL oil. You couldn’t make out any of the other flavors – lemon, garlic, bay leaves, etc. I siphoned off a bunch of the oil and added more vinegar, salt and sugar. As the shrimp finished thawing in the pickling juice and released water, I worried that the flavors would end up being even more diluted.

In a happy stroke of luck, by the time I drained off the pickling liquid and plated up the shrimp, I found they’d taken on a ton of flavor after all! In fact, they were quite addictive, if I say so myself. The crowd seemed to agree – there wasn’t much left at the end of the night!

Pickled shrimp

Elsewhere on the menu – I took a basic cheeseball recipe, used a mini-ice cream scooper to form one-inch balls and rolled them in parsley, paprika and chopped almonds. The intention was to make them look like little truffles. See what you think…

Individual cheeseballs and crackers

Instead of the boring old sectioned veggies-and-dip platter, I decided it would be pretty and Christmasy to do all red and green vegetables and mix them together. I thought it looked lovely, and would definitely use this idea again with color-coordinated noshes.

"Christmas" crudite

For dessert, I made mini-cupcakes and frosted them to look like little roses. Also, in honor of the twins, I made two kinds of fudge – chocolate marshmallow and cookies ‘n creme.

Fudge two ways - on top, cookies 'n creme; on bottom, chocolate marshmallow

To wash it all down, I bought wine and beer, but also wanted to have something fancy and non-alcoholic for the mom-to-be. I made a quick punch of cranberry juice and ginger ale, coated the rims of the glasses with crystallized ginger sugar, and made a gorgeous ice mold to float in the punch bowl.

Cranberry ginger punch

All in all, a good time was had by all, and I think Michelle appreciated the chance to enjoy some quality time with the gals, which was the main goal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my catering biz lately, and in 2010, I would like to focus on baby and bridal showers. I feel they’re what I do best, and what I enjoy most. I like the food, I like the theme. So if you know of anyone who’s tying the knot or getting pregnant in 2010, please pass along my name and direct them to my blog for pics and details!

An apple(sauce) a day…

My fabulous friend Laura has recently hired me to cater some continental business breakfasts. For this morning’s event, I wanted to give her something a little more special and seasonal than boring old fruit cups and bagels. After some recipe surfing, I came up with the idea to do pumpkin chocolate chip mini-muffins (told you I was on a pumpkin kick!), and cups of chunky spiced ginger applesauce.

The muffins weren’t any problem, but the applesauce caused a little drama in my kitchen last night. I bought the wrong kind of apples, because once they simmered. they completely dissolved into an unattractive brown mush.

Off to the store to buy more apples, and some beer for hubby. I must have looked a little odd in the 15-items-or-less lane with my bag of green apples and a six-pack of Shinerbock. The guy in line behind me wondered what the heck I was doing with these unlikely ingredients. When I pondered the idea of combining the two into some sort of dessert — baked apples with a reduced sweet beer syrup, he said “Geez, if it were me, I’d just eat the apples and drink the beer!” Pfft. Neanderthal.

Granny Smiths proved the correct choice second time around. I cooked them just until softened along with some dried cranberries, fresh ginger, brown sugar and spices. It was like a chewable mulled cider; if I could only have added a little rum and flamed it, I would have!

I stirred the new apples into the previous mush and it all came together to create just the right degree of chunk. To serve, I put a big scoop of apples in the bottom of clear plastic cups, spread a thin layer of creamy vanilla yogurt over and scattered some toasted chopped pecans on top for crunch. I must say, they looked lovely in the end – like a healthy breakfast sundae, although if you replaced the yogurt with frozen custard or ice cream, it would make a great fall dessert now that I think about it…

See for yourself!

Spicy Applesauce Yogurt Parfaits

Spicy Applesauce Yogurt Parfaits

the single-serving size

the single-serving size

Healthy organics

My latest catered event – a buffet dinner for 35 last Saturday night. The event was part of a healthy living retreat, so the focus was heavy on organic and natural ingredients. The menu: chicken marsala; butternut squash risotto; grilled vegetables; baby greens salad with dried cranberries, toasted pecans and apple cider vinaigrette; and multi-grain dinner rolls. For dessert: oven-roasted peaches with a mixed-berry coulis and toasted almonds. (I could kick myself for not getting a photo, it was beautiful!) And I whipped up a batch of cinnamon-ginger meringue kisses for a little bonus dessert nibble.

All in all, everything went swimmingly, and the client seemed to really enjoy it. Gillian, my sous-chef, was a fabulous help, and even bought along two small champagnes in a can for us to celebrate after serving! What a gal!

the buffet table

the buffet table

mixed grilled summer veggies

mixed grilled summer veggies

chicken marsala with mushrooms

chicken marsala with mushrooms

a festive 4th party

I was excited to cater a 4th of July party for my friends Brent and Angie… (ok, it was actually on July 3, but no one is splitting hairs…)

The menu included Caprese slider mini-cheeseburgers with tomato, pesto and fresh mozzarella; California shrimp cocktails with avocado and orange-jalapeno cocktail sauce; cheese and fruit platters, bruschetta three ways with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and blue cheese/honey; a veggie platter with creamy garlic herb dip; and chocolate and vanilla bean mini-cupcakes with raspberries and blueberries.

Here are a few pics to whet your appetite:

fruit and cheese

fruit and cheese

shrimp cocktails on ice

shrimp cocktails on ice

three-way bruschetta

three-way bruschetta

veggies and dip platter

veggies and dip platter

patriotic mini-cupcakes

patriotic mini-cupcakes