Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tips for Hosting a Successful Dinner Party

I was recently planning a dinner party menu and got to thinking about how I approach dinner parties and how much I have learned over the years about hosting them. With the holiday season approaching, I thought now would be a good time to pass along some tips for hosting a successful dinner party.

When you are planning your menu don't overreach your cooking skills or what you are comfortable with in your entertaining space. Serving simple food is OK! Make sure you choose recipes that don't need a lot of last minute work and attention. Risotto for a crowd = not good. Make time to test recipes in advance. If you have to try out a new recipe try a side dish recipe. If it fails, you have the entree to fall back on.

The key to hosting a successful dinner parties is to do as much as possible in advance without compromising the quality of the food.

I start with dessert. Dessert should never be something that you have to fuss with during a party. Make dessert the day before, store it and forget about it.

Next I consider side dishes. If we are having a salad, I make it in advance and store in the fridge (without dressing of course!). Vegetables such as carrots and asparagus can be parboiled in advance and stored in the fridge. I just warm them briefly in a pan with butter or olive oil and serve. If I am doing a potato dish I choose one that can be made in advance and either cooked or reheated prior to serving. If you do need to cook a side dish just prior to serving, all of the prep work should be done in advance.

The main dish is the only thing we are likely to cook while we have guests. Try and select dishes that need minimal time and attention - grilled meat or something that goes in the oven and can stand a bit before serving.

Dinner parties are not just about the food. Your house has to look somewhat presentable. I have a quick checklist that I go through prior to a dinner party to make sure that some basics are covered - the table is set, the porch light is on, the guest bathroom is clean and the garbage is out. I actually have this list written out because I found that when I did not have it I forgot things. The list also keeps me on track so I can get that critical extra 10 minutes before a party to change clothes.

What are some of your tips for successful dinner parties?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Would You Like Some Cheese With Your Wine?

Whenever wine and food pairing comes up, the conversation inevitably turns to cheese and wine pairing. Wine and cheese pair really well together. I hear it all the time so it must be true. Except when it's not.

My favorite cheeses are washed rind cows milk cheeses, the stinkier the better. Cheeses at the top of my list include Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk Cheese and a French cheese called Epoisses. The good news is, these cheeses taste terrific. The bad news is, they don't pair particularly well with wine. My local grocery store actually has a label on the Epoisses that says it pairs with Pinot Noir. I love both Epoisses and Pinot so I was really happy about that. Then I tried it and it just tasted like soap to me. Does that mean I should give up on food and wine pairing when it comes to cheese? No. I just needed to experiment a little.

In general, I have found that Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Champagne/sparkling wines pair well with the stinky cheeses and triple cream cheeses that we like. As a matter of fact, Champagne/sparkling wine is a great thing to serve with hors d'oeuvres. It's festive and sets the mood for a party and pairs really well with a range of food.

My favorite red wine is Pinot Noir, so I have done some experimenting to try and find a cheese that pairs with it. I have found that Carmody and Rouge et Noir Camenbert both pair well with Pinot.

What cheese and wine pairings do you like?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Salt on my Counter

I have six bowls of salt on my kitchen counter. They are organized by color, light to dark. I find that by keeping the bowls out, I use my fancy salts much more often.

My go-to-salt for pretty much everything except baking is Morton Kosher Salt. If you do only one thing as a result of reading this, consider upgrading from your regular, iodized salt to kosher salt. It's got a fresher, cleaner taste and is more chef-like.

Next up on the color wheel - as well as the usage scale - is Maldon Sea Salt. I use it as a finishing salt, meaning it is added once a dish is cooked not while cooking.

The next two salts are pink. Himalania from the Himalayas is a finely ground salt that is pink and white. Then a Hawaiian salt that actually has clay in it! It's a very pretty pink orange color. I like to fling it into sauteed spinach because it looks so pretty against the green.

At the end of the row there is a grey finishing salt that looks pretty on top of a baked potato with sour cream, and then a black salt. The black salt is a bit of a mystery. I think I got it at a store in the Ferry Building in San Francisco and I think it has Herbs de Provence in it. Not sure.

But that's not all! I have a few salts that I keep in my kitchen cabinet as they are too delicate to sit out on the counter. The first is a French fleur de sel which is flaky and can absorb moisture but makes a great finishing salt. The second is a truffle salt which has been called a "secret weapon" by one of our friends for its ability to transform an ordinary grilled steak into something spectacular. It's a great gift for the food lover who has everything.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New Everyday Wine Find!

We found a new everyday wine! It's not only a good wine, but the packaging is downright cute. And, truthfully, that is why I bought it. I figured if the wine was awful I could cook with it.

The wine is Red Truck Mini-Barrel and it's pretty good. It's a smooth, fairly deep red wine with very nice fruit. It's comprised of Syrah, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Mouvedre -- all pretty heavy duty red grapes. It does not have any tannins and no real "finish." Does that matter to me for an everyday wine? Not really.

As I mentioned, the packaging is great. Each mini-barrel holds the equivalent of four bottles of wine so it's eco-friendly. The barrel packaging allegedly keeps the wine fresh up to six weeks after opening. It has not been six weeks yet so I don't know about that - I also don't think the wine will last six weeks given the consumption thus far! I keep mine in the fridge and then just pour a glass and let it warm up a bit to room temperature. Does not take long. You can hurry that process along by cupping your hands around the bowl of the wine glass.

We found it at Costco towards the back of the wine section - paid about $20 for it. Pretty good deal for the equivalent of four bottles of wine.

In terms of wine and food pairing, I have paired it with burgers, pizza and pasta with red sauce. I think it would go well with meatloaf, ribs and other heavier foods now that fall is here.

The Red Truck Mini-Barrel is a great, well-priced everyday wine that is perfect for those times when you don't want to open a whole bottle of wine. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New York Shopping & Fashion

Other than the fact that many of the women were wearing scarves, what I noticed most in NYC was footwear. I saw lots of flip-flops, which you pretty much see everywhere these days. But, in the rain? In line for the 354-step climb up to the crown in the Statue of Liberty? Don't these people own shoes?

The other footwear thing that surprised me was the number of women wearing rubber boots when it was not even raining. They were wearing them with pretty much anything - tucked into skinny jeans, with a skirt and bare legs, etc. Some of the boots were a solid color, some had cute patterns on them. The last day we were in NYC it rained and the boots were out in full force - I lost count after 1o.

I had a day to myself in NYC to shop. I started at 96th Street and gradually made my way down to 34th Street. I really liked Diana & Jeffries (Madison Avenue between 92nd and 93rd Streets). It's small and I got of a lot of individual attention and advice from a woman who I believe was the owner. I will definitely be going back there! I also hit Lord and Taylor - they do inexpensive cashmere really well and I purchased a few sweaters.

I was very, very, very disappointed with Henri Bendel. I have always loved going there because it's such eye candy and it's usually full of unusual things that I don't see anywhere else. Not so this time. The store is cut up into little boutiques, each of which appeared to be staffed by whatever manufacturer rep whose merchandise was in the boutique. It felt very disjointed. Plus, some stations were way over-staffed - one perfume counter had, I swear, three people working it. And the inventory was just so-so. Nothing really unusual or unique. Some things were just odd - there was a person sitting at a table selling custom-made sandals. Yeah, that's a hot ticket post Labor Day. I believe Bendel's is in the process of converting itself to an all-accessories store (they used to sell some clothes). Hopefully my visit was poorly timed and they are able to make the conversion and get back to being a little jewelbox on Fifth Avenue.

Standout Meals from Recent Travels

We had many good meals on our Chicago/New York trip but two were standout meals. What's interesting is that they are at two opposite ends of the cost spectrum.

The one at the low end of the cost spectrum was the Brat House in Milwaukee. We had taken a quick one-night detour to Kohler, Wisconsin so my husband could play golf. We were looking for a quick lunch stop on our way back to O'Hare Airport. Our criterion was good food somewhere in the Milwaukee area that we could order to go. We did some advance research and determined that the Brat House was the place. We both order the Bratwurst ($7). It comes on a pretzel roll with a side of fries. The prezel roll was amazing and made the sandwich. It was soft, flavorful and slightly sweet with a crust featuring a smooth, deep brown pretzel coating. Oh and it was covered in pretzel salt. Of course. The fries were good too - crispy and perfectly cooked. We got the meals to go and ate them in the car. Zero ambience, great food.

Dinner at Eleven Madison Park in New York was definitely at the high-end of the cost spectrum, but worth evey penny. Or should I say dollar as it's not cheap! We started with several amuse bouche - a bowl of outrageous cheese gougeres that were light as air, a tray of a variety of little bits, fried cornucopia filled with sweetbreads and a corn soup with bacon. For my starter - yes, we had not officially even started yet - I chose an heirloom tomato salad with melon, basil and Jamon Iberico (aka ham). The combination of perfectly ripened tomatoes, sweet melon, salty ham and spicy basil was wonderful. My main course was an herb-roasted lamb. The plate also featured a range of vegetables very artfully arranged, some of which featured more lamb stuffed into the vegetables. My husband looked at my plate and said " that looks like an amusement park." And he was right. Dessert was a chocolate caramel tart that was downright yummy. We selected a few macroons after dessert - one tasted like salted caramel corn and was just amazing. How do they do that?

Oh and we had wine too. For our starters we had a half bottle of DeLille Chaleur Estate Blanc - a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon - that paired nicely with the variety of things that we had as starters. For our main course we brought a bottle of 2005 Sine Qua Non Grenache that was a great match for the food.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tastefully Sonoma Hits the Road

As beautiful as Sonoma County is, sometimes I just have to do some traveling. Since we are fairly suburban, maybe even a bit rural, cities have lots of appeal as vacation destinations. So we scheduled a trip to Chicago and New York. In the next few posts I will update on some great meals we had, my day-long shopping expedition in New York and some New York fashion observations.

Let's start with pizza. Yes, pizza. Both Chicago and New York are known for their pizza so we decided that back-to-back visits to those cities was a great opportunity to compare and contrast. First stop was Gino's East in Chicago for some deep dish pizza. They are conveniently located just off Michigan Avenue and we got there just as they were opening so we did not have to wait in line -- by the time we left there was a good sized line. We ordered a half & half pizza -- half spinach & cheese and half "Meaty Legend" which is a combo of pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon and bacon. The pizza arrived nearly an hour later - yes, that's normal! The crust is very crispy and made of cornmeal. It provides a great base to hold up all of the filling without being overly heavy -- and there is a lot of filling! The filling is rich and gooey and delicious. Lots of cheese! The spinach side was for me - I love the combination of spinach and cheese. It reminds me of creamed spinach but in a pizza format.

Next stop was Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn. It's a bit of a hike from Manhattan but very straigthforward to get to - we took two trains and the place was maybe 1/2 block from the train station. It's a hole in the wall. They will not win any awards for their decor, but they have won every popular vote (Zagat's, etc.) for their pizza. Fortunately, we got there before they opened so we were first in line for our pizza - the place filled up fast! That's good for two reasons: 1) less time to wait for our pizza (I believe they only bake a few at a time), and 2) we actually got a table - there are maybe five tables in the whole place. We ordered a pepperoni and sausage pizza. My husband was watching them make our pizza and there was a bowl of pepperoni and sausage that he assumed they would just take a few handfuls from for the pizza. Nope, they dumped the whole bowl on! They also use several types of cheese and lots of it. As the pizza is coming out of the oven the owner uses scissors to cut up a bunch of fresh basil all over the top. I have had fresh basil on pizza before and not tasted it much, but I really tasted this basil. He also adds some freshly grated cheese to the top and finishes by pouring olive oil all over the top which seems to enhance the flavors. In short the pizza is amazing. A bit greasy, but amazing. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge after lunch is a great way to start working off the pizza.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wine Storage When You Don’t Have a Wine Cellar

I don't have a wine cellar. I am betting you don't either. But, that has not stopped me from buying and collecting wine and it should not stop you either.

The first thing to know is that the enemies of wine are heat, cold, light and dramatic temperature changes. So, if you are storing your wine in a cabinet above the stove, STOP READING right now and go move it!

The easiest, cheapest way to store wine is in a box in a closet. But not in any old box and not in any old closet. Ideally, your box will be a Styrofoam shipping box. These boxes are great. The Styrofoam acts as an insulator and helps regulate the temperature of the wine. Gives it some cushion too. You can buy these boxes at wine and liquor stores. If you have ever had wine shipped to you, it likely came in one of these boxes - so save them. Your closet should be located in a place that does not have too many temperature fluctuations. That is probably a closet that does not have any contact with the outside walls of the house.

A bit less easy and cheap would be to look into off-site storage. You can get a relatively small cabinet (maybe 12 cases or so) for not a lot of money. Check around for pricing in your area. The pros are, you know your wine is being kept at the right temperature. The cons are, you need to plan to get your wine out before a dinner party.

You may want to use a combination of the above two methods -- wine in boxes in a closet for drink-now and less special wines, and off-site storage for wines that you want to age or are more special.

A dedicated wine refrigerator would be your next step. You can get them in many sizes and at many price points. We actually have three: a small fridge from Costco in our pantry that holds mainly whites and drink-now wines, and two Vinotheque wine fridges that hold quite a bit of wine. The Vinotheque wine fridges are available in many different configurations and finishes.

Have fun buying, storing and drinking your wine!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wine Temperatures Made Easy

Since it's summer it's time to talk about wine temperatures. I have found (and read) that most times white wines are served too cold and red wines are served too warm. And I can tell you that it really makes a difference to the taste of the wine. But isn't a lot of trouble? How do I know what the right temperature is? What IS cellar temperature anyway? Why should I care? I just want to enjoy my wine.

If I told you that is a really easy thing to fix that does not require any special equipment beyond a fridge and countertop would you agree to try drinking your wines at the right temperature?

OK ... here are some tips on getting whites and reds to the right temperature.

White wines: If you are getting ready for a party you are probably chilling down your white wines in the fridge. So, here is what you do - about 1/2 hour before serving the wine take it out and set it on the countertop. Let it get a bit sweaty and it should be good to go. I would especially do this for Chardonnay or Viognier. For crisper wines such as Sauvignon Blanc I think you should drink them fairly cold. But try it both ways and see what YOU think.

Red wines: Pretty much the opposite of white wines, except I am willing to bet your reds are residing on the countertop (hopefully not too close to any heat sources such as a stove or oven!). About 1/2 hour before serving put the wine in the fridge and let it get a bit chilled. I know, I know, you are not supposed to chill reds. I am not talking about ice cold, just chilled a bit. You can also put the wine into an ice bucket (or any bucket for that matter) filled with ice and water.

If you find that you are often chilling down wines and want an even easier way to do it, consider getting a wine chiller sleeve. They are fairly inexpensive. I always have several in my freezer.

If you want a really fun video that talks about wine temperatures, check out this video from Gary Vaynerchuk. The discussion on wine temperatures is about half way through the video.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Out, Damn Spot, Out I Say!

One of the biggest problems with wine - red wine in particular - is that sometimes it ends up where it's not supposed to be. Your new (really expensive, of course!) white shirt or an upholstered dining room chair are prime targets for wine spills. Here are some ways I have been successful in wine stain removal:
  • Clothes: Wine removal when out and about. I discovered Tide to Go in a tasting room in Paso Robles, CA. I was wearing a light colored top and dribbled some wine down the front of it. The woman behind the tasting counter whipped out a Tide to Go pen and offered it to me. A few swipes later, no more spot! I now take them wherever I go, especially wine tasting.
  • Clothes & Linens: Wine removal at home. I use a one-two punch of Wine Away and OxyClean:
  1. Treat with Wine Away. I spray a good amount on the stain and let it sit for 3-5 minutes, per the directions on the bottle. You may need to repeat this.
  2. Treat with OxyClean. If there are still stains (likely the stain will have turned blue), you may need to treat the stain with OxyClean. I like to spray it first with OxyClean spray and then soak in a sink of cold water and OxyClean powder. How long you soak will depend on the stain. I have gotten stains out with as little as a one-hour soak and as long as a weekend soak (you will need to change the water a few times if you are soaking this long).
  • Upholstery: First, resist the urge to put water, club soda, etc. on the stain. Instead, spray the stain with a good amount of Spot Shot and blot with a clean white towel. I usually do this a few times. At this point, you will still see a stain. Go away and leave it alone. Check again in a few hours or the next day and the stain will be gone.
A word on fabrics: With the exception of upholstery, the treatments I describe above are best for washable fabrics. If you get wine on something that is dry clean-only, don't put anything on it and get it to a dry cleaner as soon as you can. I had someone spill an entire glass of red wine on a light blue jacket once and I stupidly put water all over it trying to get the stain out. The water made water rings and was actually worse than the wine stain. Needless to say, the jacket was ruined.

And ... don't forget ... it's always best to take action on a stain as quickly as you can and never put something in the dryer without first checking to see if the stain is gone as the heat may set the stain.

If you have some great tricks for wine removal please let me know!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bringing Wine to Restaurants ... Good Experiences

Overall, we have had pretty good experiences bringing our own wine to restaurants. Restaurants that are wine-friendly tend to do nice things like waive corkage on certain nights of the week or waive corkage on a bottle if you buy one of their bottles. We do the math and it's usually worth it and we get to bring some wine home.

We recently had dinner at Bistro 29 in Santa Rosa. We were there early and they were advertising $10 off each bottle of wine. They also waive their $15 corkage if you buy a bottle. After checking with our server that we could get BOTH the $10 off and free corkage, we bought a bottle of Truchard Roussanne for $36 (net to us was $11) and opened a bottle of Rhys Alpine Vineyard Pinot Noir that we had brought.

Even if a restaurant does not waive corkage, their attitude can convey wine friendliness. The last time we were at Gary Danko in San Francisco the sommelier complimented our wine saying, "we can't even get this." If a sommelier is interested, we typically offer him/her a taste of our wine.

Next up, some not-so-good experiences in bringing wine to restaurants.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

BYOB ... To A Restaurant

My first date with my husband was at a wine bar. To which he brought his own wine. Yes, it's like bringing coals to Newcastle, but it was a great bottle of wine - a Pride Viognier - that was a lot better than any of the other wines on the menu. That experience introduced me to the concept of bringing my own wine to restaurants. Now I categorize restaurants in one of two ways - those that are open and friendly to patrons who bring their own wine and those that are not. And I pretty much only go to the first type.

Like anything else in life, there are a few rules that you should follow if you bring your own wine to a restaurant:
  • Check out the wine list in advance and make sure your wine is not already on it. If the restaurant has your wine on their list but it's a different vintage you are probably OK, but you might want to bring a back up just in case, or call and ask to see if it's OK. You don't want to end up paying the restaurant's price for your wine.
  • Expect to pay corkage. This can be zero (Yes, it happens! Especially here in wine-friendly Sonoma County), but usually ranges from $10 to $25. The highest I have seen is $85.
  • Bring something nice or unusual. Don't bring a $10 wine and expect to fool anyone. You won't. The point of bringing your own wine to a restaurant is to be able to enjoy a special or unusual wine with a meal that you don't have to prepare yourself.
  • Bring a back up bottle for optimal food pairings. We typically bring two reds - a lighter one such as a Pinot Noir, and a heavier red such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Syrah. This allows some flexibility in pairing our food and wine since we may not know in advance what is on the menu. If we want a white with our starter, we order by the glass or order a second bottle and figure we will be bringing some wine home (that's legal here).
  • Use a nice wine carrier, NOT a paper bag. We have a leather-like bag that holds two bottles of wine. It has a little ice pack in case we need to keep something cold. That bag is well-recognized among our friends, prompting one to comment, "I always get excited when I see that bag because I know there is something good in it." And there usually is!
Stay tuned for some of the good and not-so-good experiences I have had with bringing wine to restaurants.

Well-Priced White Wines for Summer

Recently, one of my friends asked me for "cheap Chardonnay" recommendations for a BBQ she was planning. After first letting her know that friends don't let friends drink cheap Chardonnay, I offered some suggestions.

First, none of the wines on my list are actually Chardonnay. To a lot of people, Chardonnay is sort of synonymous with white wine. Given Chardonnay's widespread availability, that's not hard to understand. I have nothing against Chardonnay. Really. It's just cheap Chardonnay I have a problem with. Cheap Chardonnays tend to rely on some really bad things for flavor - like oak chips instead of aging in an actual oak barrel. Ugh. If you are looking for wine that's between $10 and $20, Chardonnay is not a good way to spend your money.

Here are some wines that are clean, crisp and wonderful for summer BBQs and any other summer events. Or even just every day.

Ballentine Vineyards Napa Valley Old Vines Chenin Blanc (2007)
I have been getting this at Costco for about $11 a bottle. It's a nice, dry, crisp wine.

Bernardus Sauvignon Blanc (2007)
This is also at my Costco - about $11 a bottle. A very nice, dependable wine. If you don't like the juniper berry (aka cat pee) aspect to Sauvignon Blanc this is the wine for you.

Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc (2007)
I get this at Trader Joe's for about $8 a bottle. Really good deal, nice wine, very dependable year after year and widely available. If you are having a party and need a bunch of well-priced wine and you want it to actually taste good, this is your wine!

Kunde Estate, Magnolia Lane, Sonoma Valley (2008)
About $9.50 a bottle. This is a Sauvignon Blanc with a bit of Viognier in it.

Melville Verna's Santa Barbara Viognier (2008, 2007 was good too)
About $19 a bottle. I love Viognier and this is a great, well-priced find.

Paco & Lola Albarino (2007)
About $14.50 a bottle. I am loving this wine this year! It's a Spanish white wine with a really fun black and white polka dot label. It's a clean, crisp wine. I have been bringing it to every dinner party we go to and serving it whenever we entertain to introduce more people to it.

NOTE: Prices are approximate and represent what I pay in Sonoma County. Prices, availability and vintages in your area may vary.