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.