Category Archives: dinner parties

Dinner Parties – with Baby!

My reason for food blogging hiatus

A few days after my last post I had a baby.  And that kind of slowed down the whole dinner party, going out to eat lifestyle that is fodder for my blog. Instead of grass-fed, farm-raised beef and farmer’s market, fresh veggies, my husband and I were eating lots of macaroni and cheese and chicken casseroles. Anything that we did not have to cook. But then slowly but surely we have emerged from our baby-induced, bad-eating funk! Last weekend Chris and I had our friends Jennifer and Mike over for a Southern-inspired dinner party.

Bacon-Wrapped Dates and a Lovely Rose

Bacon-Wrapped Dates and a Lovely Rose

We started off the evening by grilling dates stuffed with thyme and feta cheese and wrapped in bacon. It’s this great recipe out of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. The feta was a twist we added. And I think it actually made the dish. Also, the recipe called for baking and we went with grilling. Which I think was also awesome. This is a simple stunner that everyone will rave about. We also paired it with a yummy Sunstone Rose, that we purchased on our trip to LA a few years ago. It was great together, but honestly we made them a couple of weeks ago and drank it with a juicy red and that was superb as well.

Grilled Carrot Salad with Almond Brown Butter Viniaigrette

Grilled Carrot Salad with Almond Brown Butter Vinaigrette

The second course was a salad recipe I got from a recent edition of Food and Wine magazine. I loved the recipe and it turns out the chef behind this masterpiece is local Austin restaurant owner Bryce Gilmore. Gilmore is the force behind Barley Swine. This dish is not only easy-to-understand, it is beautiful. Admittedly it is a salad with a dressing that includes butter, so it’s not the healthiest option. But I got the carrots fresh from the farmer’s market, does that count for anything?

You might be asking yourself right now, so how is this a Southern-inspired dinner and where is this baby you have? Well to answer the first question, the meal has grits in it. That’s how it’s Southern. As for the baby, there is a pivotal point in the night when my husband takes Owen upstairs and puts him to bed. And, unfortunately for our guests, it’s about the same time as when he would man the grill. Kind of a problem in the summertime, when all of our food is grilled. So usually we get some help. It really does take a village – to raise children and have a dinner party. At this particular dinner party, Owen went down without a fight and we were able to eat with adults only. But there have been a couple of dinner parties with our little Monkey sitting on one of our laps. He’s social like his parents.

Cornish Game Hen and Creamy Grits
Cornish Game Hen and Creamy Grits
For the main course we chose to do Cornish Game Hens with creamy grits and a creamy shiitake mushroom sauce and a side of grilled asparagus. I wanted to bathe myself in the creamy shiitake mushroom sauce. Chris made it and he added some herbs to the recipe, it was divine.The sauce combined farmer’s market shiitake mushrooms with regular white mushrooms, heavy cream, sherry and our backyard herbs. I am not much of a fan of grits, but for some reason they seemed perfect for this dish and it was a great side dish for the game hens. In all fairness they were cooked with heavy cream and cheese. 
Fig Recipe Gone Bad

Fig Recipe Gone Bad

So I found this, what I thought, was a great fig recipe. Mind you, I have never eaten or cooked with figs. So I am not sure what I was thinking. It sounded fantastic – figs with pistachio brittle and topped with a honey, orange zest mascarpone. Well the pistachio brittle that I made was excellent. That was so cool. I had never made brittle before and it was easy and tasty. The mascarpone was sinfully delicious. Unfortunately, the figs were just so bland. I do not want to give up on figs, I think I just need a fig guru. So if anyone out there thinks they can help me understand and love the fig, please let me know.

All in all, it’s getting easier to throw the dinner parties. The hard part is finding the time to blog about it! But I will try and persevere and continue writing about our food and travel (well maybe just food for now) adventures.

The Gnocchi Experiment

Homemade Gnocchi

A staple meal a lot of my great cook friends make is homemade gnocchi with pesto and a grilled steak. I believe the tradition was started by Sarah and Chris Swanson at one of their incredible New Year Dinner parties. I have never made homemade pasta before, but I heard gnocchi was a good place to start. Our guinea pigs were close friends Jessica Lee and Gary Marburger.

Besides a desire to stretch my boundaries as a cook, I was also inspired by our grill and the promise of fresh rosemary. Spring is starting to show up in Austin and there are green things growing all over – including a lot of weeds.

Yogurt-Based Cesar Salad

Yogurt-Based Cesar Salad

We started the meal off with a very light Cesar Salad. It’s actually a yogurt-based dressing with garlic, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. I toasted some old crusty baguette and made croutons and then threw on some black olives and Parmesan cheese. It’s so light and tasty.

Filet and Pesto with Gnocchi and Marinara

Filet and Pesto with Gnocchi and Marinara

After the salad, the main course was ready! Because of our new grill ( a present from Chris’s parents!) we have started to throw almost all our vegetables on the grill. This evening was no exception. Chris made a stuffed artichoke and then grilled it along side the filets. I will admit this was the one disappointment of the night. I adore artichokes and add stuffing to them, well forget about it. But for some reason they were a little hard to chew and not very tasty. So I will not share this recipe. And I will be on the lookout for better ideas. Because I cannot believe that grilled, stuffed artichokes are all bad.

The steaks on the other hand were cooked perfectly! Chris sometimes overcooks on the grill. But not this night. It was perfect. the center was a little bloody, but not too rare and there was such a nice flavor from the olive oil, sea salt and rosemary marinade.

I also whipped up a homemade pesto sauce. Pesto sauces are pretty easy to make and are always a winner. So if you are looking to impress.  Below is a standard recipe. But feel free to mix it up and parsley or even cilantro. Have fun with it.

  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts
  • 3 medium-sized garlic cloves, minced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Combine the basil in with the pine nuts, pulse a few times in a food processor. Add the garlic, pulse a few times more.

2. Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Makes 1 cup.

For the gnocchi I used a Eating Well recipe, which I liked a lot. They turned out fantastic. But I will admit half way through I freaked out and had to hand over the dough to Chris. I kind of fault the recipe, here’s a snippet of the instructions “Be careful not to overwork the dough: overworked dough will yield tougher gnocchi.” So I kept softly trying to deal with the dough. The last thing I wanted was tough gnocchi. At least according to this recipe anyway. After checking the clock and realizing our guests were going to arrive shortly I just handed the dough over to Chris, who promptly pushed and pulled that dough into submission. And it was just fine. So I learned a lesson. Do not let the dough scare you!

The marinara sauce was actually a last-minute, fortuitous decision. We had a friend make us this sauce the weekend before and we loved it. So I really thought it would be a great addition.  This should be a staple in all Italian chef’s repertoire. It is simple and divine.

  • 28 ounces  whole peeled tomatoes from a can (San Marzano, if you can find them)
  • 5 tablespoons  unsalted butter
  • 1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and halved
  • Salt to taste

1. Put the tomatoes, onion and butter in a heavy saucepan (it fit just right in a 3-quart) over medium heat.

2. Bring the sauce to a simmer then lower the heat to keep the sauce at a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat float free of the tomatoes. Stir occasionally, crushing the tomatoes against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon.

3.Remove from heat, discard the onion, add salt to taste (you might find, as I did, that your tomatoes came salted and that you didn’t need to add more) and keep warm while you prepare your pasta.

I cannot tell you how awesome this sauce was. But how can you go wrong with all that butter???

Panna Cotta with a Berry and Red Wine Syrup

Panna Cotta with a Berry and Red Wine Syrup

The final masterpiece was a panna cotta with a red wine syrup. I had never make a Panna Cotta before and it is a delight to make. My only real problem is that the recipe calls for gelatin. If you read the comments under the recipe in the blog link I hyperlinked I believe there are some vegetarian options for gelatin. I am not a vegetarian, I just really hate the idea of gelatin.  The panna cotta was easy to make, a crowd pleaser and just a pretty dessert. So if you are looking for something striking and simple this is perfect.

A Change of Plans Leads to An Excellent Dinner

Oca Potatoes, Pork Tenderloin and Watermelon and Cucumber Salad

Oca Potatoes, Pork Tenderloin and Watermelon and Cucumber Salad

 

A few weeks ago Chris and I planned a nice trip to the Hill Country. We were planning on staying at his parent’s house while they are summering in Maine. We asked a couple of our friends Mat and Christina Thompson to go with us. We had an excellent weekend planned – breakfast at Bluebonnet Cafe (a Texas, breakfast legend), wine tasting at a few of the Hill Country wineries and then a nice grill-out on Saturday evening. Well, when Chris and I arrived on Friday night we noticed it was a bit hot at his parent’s place. We decided it was nothing and we would wait for the air conditioner to kick in while we sipped on some wine. Well, after the bottle was done we went inside. Somehow it felt hotter. So at midnight we gave up and drove the hour back to Austin.

I was really looking forward to the weekend, mainly because I really enjoy the company of the Thompsons. So while the trip was out of question we still finagled a dinner invitation out of them. We figured since we had already gone shopping why not turn lemons into lemonade. And I must tell you Chris and I were both blown away by Mat’s chef skills. I had heard he was pretty good in the kitchen. But I was not prepared for his presentation. As I have stated many times in my blog lots of our friends are great cooks. Mat might be one of the first that made his food look as good as it tasted.

My salad and Mat's Lovely Meal

My salad and Mat's Lovely Meal

We did not have appetizers so I will jump right into the meal. Mat cooked a yummy pork tenderloin in a Big Green Egg. For those of you who do not know this is a smoker/griller contraption. It produced super tender meat with a nice, smokey flavor that was not overpowering. He topped the tenderloin with sauce made from fresh peaches, organic apple juice, ginger, cumin, chipolte and brown sugar.  He simmered the ingredients reducing it a bit and then he pureed the sauce. After pureeing he  strained the sauce again and reduced it a bit further into a thick sauce.  Mat then finished it off with a little red pepper/chipotle sauce for color and a little heat. For sides he roasted Oca potatoes with a little salt and pepper and olive oil.  Oca potatoes are Peruvian and are a little chewier than normal potatoes. I found them to be awesome. They were not as heavy as normal potatoes and they were spiced perfectly. Mat also whipped up a perfect, light watermelon and cucumber salad. It was kind of a gamble since the meat and potatoes had a bit of a theme going and then the salad had some ginger and sesame oil, giving it a more Asian feel. While it was different, I thought it went together wonderfully!

Summer Berry Pie

Summer Berry Pie

My only contribution to this gorgeous meal was the salad, which was fine, but hey it’s just a salad. And I also made dessert. I few weeks ago at The Gypsy Kitchen class, master pastry chef Sandi Reinlie gave me some extra short dough.  In honor of the season I made a Summer Berry pie. I love, love, love making fruit desserts – peach cobbler, apple spice cake, pumpkin bread, whatever! If it’s a dessert with fruit in it, I am all over it. And not to toot my own horn but this pie was awesome. Mainly because of Sandi’s great crust.

Below is Mat’s recipe for the absolutely fabulous Melon and Cucumber Salad. It’s in photo form – Enjoy!

Cucumber and Melon salad!

Cucumber and Melon salad!

Gypsy Kitchen Cooking Class

Summer in Capri Cooking Class

Summer in Capri Cooking Class

In a previous post I discussed my friend Danika’s new endeavor into the world of culinary classes including a traveling cooking class to Paris. Since the last post Danika has officially entitled her cooking classes “The Gypsy Kitchen.”

Recently, I took part in Danika’s inaugural Austin class entitled “Summers In Capri,” a class based on my favorite cuisine – Mediterranean. I must admit at the time of this class I was on one of my cleanses. For those of you who do not know me well, from time to time I cut back on my gluttony and attempt to be healthy – no alcohol, bread, pasta, etc. Instead I eat a lot of brown rice, salmon and vegetables. So going to a cooking class with wine, limoncella, bruschetta, pasta and more was a lot like putting a sugar-starved ADD child in a candy store. But  I think I did ok. I only took bites of the food ( I have to write about the flavors, don’t I??). And I did take a sip of the limoncella. That was probably unnecessary, but ever since that whole Danny DeVito incident I am so intrigued.

Danika mastering the grill

Danika mastering the grill

Ok, enough about me and onto the food experience. We started off with Danika showing us how to cook grilled octopus. I found this super interesting. While I love food and cooking, I have to be honest, I am not the most exotic eater. And I have never eaten octopus. It was utterly fascinating to watch her prep the baby octopus and then just throw those suckers on the grill. Danika also did a great job of explaining what she was doing while smoke from the grill was blowing in her face. So kudos for incorporating some different foods and keeping calm under pressure. And by the way, they were fantastic with the lemon basil aioli she whipped up.

 

Fantastic Octopus from the Grill!

Fantastic Octopus from the Grill!

 

Marinating Tomatoes Before the Bread

Marinating Tomatoes Before the Bread

The second course was a lovely marinated tomato bruschetta. Something Danika discussed during the preparation of this course resonated with me. She spoke about how summer was a great time to eat light and that this dish was a perfect example.  And essentially, minus the bread I could eat this (as well as the octopus) and not even break my cleanse. It was a lovely melange of tomatoes, tons of olive oil, basil, salt, pepper all mixed and then placed atop ciabbata bread. Danika said that ciabatta bread or foccacia are perfect for this recipe, as they easily soak up the juices from the tomatoes, olive oil, etc. I loved this dish, but then again I do not believe you can go wrong with tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and basil. It’s just a general rule I have.

Spaghetti alle Vongole

Spaghetti alle Vongole

The last savory course consisted of Spaghetti alla Vongole – basically spaghetti with clams. This was another spectacularly simple dish. Simplicity was another topic Danika hammered home during the class. So for any of you who are interested in learning to cook, but who think cooking is too complicated this would be a perfect class. Danika spends a lot of time discussing substitutions, simplifying recipes and much more that can make a novice cook feel at ease.

Since I was on the cleanse I only got to take a small bite. But the pasta was indeed very simple and tasty.

Pine nut, vanilla bean mascarpone and balsamic glazed strawberry tart

Pine nut, vanilla bean mascarpone and balsamic glazed strawberry tart

Lastly, we sampled a delightful creation by Ms. Sandi Reinlie, pastry chef extraordinaire. The little tarts consisted of a short dough crust filled with mascarpone and topped with strawberries and balsamic vinegar.  She whipped this baby up in 20 minutes. And it was heavenly.

What was interesting about Sandi’s portion was the clarity that baking and cooking are very different. I have some friends who bake and others who cook. And they rarely cross the line into the other territory. Which has always been weird to me as I do love both. But I know I am not afraid to follow a recipe. Some cooks really pride themselves on not following recipes and I think when you venture into baking you have to.  I will give you a very embarrassing example. Once, I got into a cake-off with my mom. She insists that there is no need to bake cakes. According to her you just need to get a mix and doctor it up. I DISAGREE strongly (as you can tell by my all caps.) I firmly believe in fresh ingredients and not using off the shelf processed box cake mixes. So we proceeded to bake. I had a sure fire winner, some type of spice cake made from scratch. Well, I unfortunately relied on my father to serve as my sous-chef. Big mistake. He knows where his bread is buttered. Instead of handing me baking powder he handed me baking soda. So basically my cake fell flat – literally.  My mom won – by default. I still need to re-challenge her and defend homemade cake bakers all over the globe.

All in all, I found this experience to be fun and yummy, despite my inability to actually eat a lot of food. You can experience this as well. Danika has a number of classes coming up in Austin as well as her Paris classes.  Please check out Danika’s class schedule on her website http://www.danikaboyle.com or simply email her at danika.boyle@gmail.com. She has a number of intersting classes coming up including a Spanish cooking class, a class focused on cocktails and appetizers and much more.

Here are a couple of the recipes from the class.

Grilled Baby Octopus w Lemon and Basil Aioli

1 pound of fresh baby octopus, heads removed

6 tbsp of evoo

2 tsp of salt and a pinch of pepper

1 tsp of chopped garlic

2 egg yolks

5 basil leaves, rolled together and chopped

Begin by preheating your grill on high for 5 minutes, top down. Take your thawed octopus, 3 tbsp of olive oil, 1 tsp of salt, pepper and 1/2 the garlic and toss together in a large metal bowl or ziploc. Set aside.  Can be left in marinade overnight or for a few hours, although it is also unnecessary if time doesn’t allow.

Once your grill is smoking hot, take tongs and gently lift the octopus out one by one and lay them flattened on the grill. ( If you dump them out all together, the oil will catch fire and they will not cook evenly )

Leave to grill for 4 minutes on high, top open,  then turn and repeat on the other side. After 8 mintues, remove from heat to a platter.

For the Aioli, take your egg yolks, remaining salt and garlic and whisk gently in a large metal bowl. Slowly stir in remaining olive oil, whisking well to incorporate. The mixture should have the consistency of mayonnaise. Throw in the basil, stir and serve immediately . If you don’t have eggs or want to make a different version, 1 c of store bought mayo with the juice of half a lemon and the basil makes an easy and elegant sub.

* when consuming raw eggs, the remaining mixture should be kept cold. Throw out any aioli that was served, but not eaten.

Spaghetti alle Vongole

2 pounds of clams, mixed or all one type – I find the smaller ones easier to manage.

1-2 pounds of spaghetti, linguine or angel hair

2 c of white wine ( that you would actually drink )

2 tsp of minced garlic

Juice of half a lemon

3 tbsp of EVOO

salt and pepper to taste

2-3 tbsp of cold butter, diced

Start by bringing a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. ( should taste like the sea ) Throw in your pasta with a touch of olive oil.

In a large sided pan, add olive oil and garlic and cook until slightly opaque.

Toss in your rinsed clams and saute for a minute or less.

Throw in the white wine, carefully lifting the pot off the fire if you are worried it might be too hot. ( if the garlic begins to burn, add more olive oil or wine to drop the temperature in the pan )

Once the mussels begin to open, drain your cooked -al dente -pasta, which should be soft but snap a touch when pulling apart, reserving a few tbsp of pasta water. Remove your clams and begin to reduce your sauce by a third by adding in the reserved pasta water and lemon juice. Once the sauce thickens a bit, remove from heat and stir in cold butter. Toss in your pasta and clams and stir to coat. Remove to a large serving bowl and serve with herb croutons slightly crushed on the top~

Ooh la la!

A table setting for 36

A table setting for 36

So, I think I have mentioned in past posts that not only do I love food and travel, but I have some friends that also share my passions. One of these friends, Danika Boyle, recently threw a small, intimate dinner party for her closest 36 acquaintances. And we were delighted to be a part of it.

Caprese Salad and Carmelized Onion Bruschetta

Caprese Salad and Caramelized Onion Bruschetta

The six-course meal kicked off with a delightful marinated tomato salad and bruschetta with caramelized onions. I have a theory that anything with caramelized onions is good. So needless to say I was a big fan. At this point the table started to get filled up with vats of wine. And the mingling began.

After a half hour of eating appetizers and drinking wine it was time to sit down for the rest of the meal. Danika also had a cute idea of not sitting couples next to each other. I believe this is the correct way of holding a dinner party. While it was a bit awkward at first, it quickly became fun. I even found out that the girl next to me was friends with someone I had recently met. Small world.

Spaghetti with a Brown Butter Sage Sauce

Spaghetti with a Brown Butter Sage Sauce

Next up was the pasta course. Danika created a perfect summer dish. For those of you not in Texas it has been hovering over 100 degrees for the past couple of months. So this light sage butter sauce was so fantastic. I am a sucker for carbs and this packed so much flavor. It was one of my favorites that night.

Braised Short Ribs and Sauteed Mushrooms

Braised Short Ribs and Sauteed Mushrooms

After the pasta came the piece de resistance – the braised short ribs. I know this picture does not do the course justice.  So I apologize. I gave the camera to Chris and I think he was more interested in the vino and talking to his new dinner partners. But I digress. The ribs were fantastically fall-off the bone good. I believe there was a bit of chocolate in them. I am not 100 percent sure, so do not quote me on that. Needless to say they were fantastic. And similarly to caramelized onions, I can never say no to a sauteed mushroom. The combo was perfect!

Unfortunately, too much vino was had by all so there are no pictures of the dessert. Danika outsourced the dessert (yes, everyone is doing it!) to her close friend Sandi Reinlie. Sandi delighted us all with petit fours covered in dark chocolate ganache and  topped with a whipped ganache rosette and sliced strawberries. I should mention that  Sandi is a pastry chef at Walton’s Fancy and Staple. Walton’s is a brand new delicatessen, bakery and cafe as well as a floral shop. I have not been yet, but it sounds divine. Find out more here.  So please visit Sandi at Walton’s to try some of her fantastic creations.

The meal while delightful, also served as the perfect venue for Danika to announce a new venture. Ms. Boyle is offering cooking classes in Paris. Interested in learning about Bordelaise sauce? Or perhaps you have dreamed of making the perfect Pot de Creme? Well, why not do it in Paris. Danika’s culinary tour of Paris includes classes as well as tours of famous Parisian markets and bistros. To find out more visit her website. There you can also find out more about Danika’s Austin cooking class schedule as well.

Summer Grill Out Celebration

Eating on the patio

Eating on the patio

So I have a had a few requests for less content and more pictures.  While this post will follow this mantra, not all of them will – so enjoy.

This past Saturday Chris and I had some close friends over – the Nite’s and Gary Marburger and his lovely wife Jessica Lee to celebrate my new employment and do some grilling. I originally intended to do a traditional Italian meal as inspired by our recent honeymoon. But I realized I wanted something more summer-oriented ( and I ate pasta three times last week). Frantically, I searched for a replacement.  After reading a few Food & Wine magazines I found my centerpiece – grilled chicken thighs with a roasted garlic and ancho chile sauce. After that decision the other dishes fell into place quickly.

Yummy Grilled Scallops with Honeydew Melon and Avocado Salsa Salad

Yummy Grilled Scallops with Honeydew Melon and Avocado Salsa Salad

The first dish was a grilled scallop salad with honeydew melon and avocado salsa. It was originally supposed to be just the scallops with the salsa, but I saw it as a great salad. So as Chris was grilling the scallops I plated six separate servings of  spinach, diced cucumbers, feta cheese and then I topped them with the salsa. After the scallops were grilled we plopped them on top and then we served the salad up with a nice Vino Verde. It was superb. A nice, light summer starter. I highly recommend this recipe. The salsa was incredible – not too sweet and a little creamy.

Jessie and Gary Digging into the Main Course

Jessie and Gary Digging into the Main Course

For the main course I stayed with the theme of a nice, light summer meal based on the grill. The roasted garlic-ancho chile chicken was accompanied by grilled corn with a mango-jalapeno butter and saffron rice topped with red pepper, asparagus, peas, celery and artichokes. It was a beautiful meal if I do say so myself.

Grilled Chicken and Vegetable Paella

Grilled Chicken and Vegetable Paella

Unfortunately (or fortunately for myself), we drank a lot of wine that night. Hence there are no picture of our absolutely perfect dessert. There is a family recipe the Nugent’s passed down called a “Magic Pancake.” It is essentially a dutch pancake with lemon zest and powdered sugar. It was one of the first things Chris ever made me and I loved it. The dessert Chris made was similar except he added raspberries, blackberries and topped it with nutmeg and cinnamon-flavored whipped cream. A perfect ending to a perfect evening!

Here is the recipe for the scallops and salsa, minus the salad part. This recipes is taken from Food & Wine Magazine.

Ingredients

  1. Finely grated lime zest, plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  2. 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  3. 1 1/2 pounds honeydew melon, rind removed and melon cut into 1/4-inch dice (2 1/2 cups)
  4. 1 Hass avocado, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  5. Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  6. 2 pounds large sea scallops

Directions

  1. Light a grill. In a large bowl, combine the lime zest and juice with the 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the diced honeydew melon and avocado. Season the salsa with salt and black pepper.
  2. Drizzle the scallops with olive oil and season with salt and black pepper. Grill over moderately high heat, turning once, until nicely charred and just cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer the scallops to plates, spoon the salsa alongside and serve.