Food · Uncategorized

3 Tips for Menu Planning Your Party

Derby Day is just around the corner and I obviously don’t care about horse races, but I do care about booze and accessorizing, which means I am throwing a Derby party.  I’ve got a hat picked out and my bar is stocked with bourbon, so I’m halfway there to planning the perfect party.  The only thing I have left to do is plan a menu.  Menu planning is one of my favorite parts of throwing a party.  Keeping a few of my menu planning tips in mind, you are sure to plan a seamless soiree, where you might actually be able to (gasp!) enjoy yourself!  

nat and tess
My sis and me on Derby Day Last year…expect to see this hat on repeat!
  • Factor In The Clock

What type of party are you trying to throw?  If you’re planning on an evening event and want your friends to come over at 7:00, then you better plan for them to be hungry for dinner.  Not sure you want to serve them a full meal?  Plan an 8:30 start time instead.  My upcoming party starts at 2:00, so I’m past the lunch hour and can plan for smaller snacks rather than hearty, filling treats.  The fact of the matter is, if there is food laid out, people will eat.  However, you can control the time you spend prepping, and the amount of money that you spend on food by booking your party outside of regular meal time hours.  At the risk of sounding cheap, I often plan parties outside of typical hours.  If you’re buying some pre-cut cheese and sandwiches, then by all means, throw a noon-time party.  But if you’re like me, and you’re cooking and prepping every single item,  starting outside the lunchtime box means you can cut yourself some cooking slack.

  • Variety is the Spice of…well, your party

Make sure you make a broad range of snacks to suit all tastes and dietary restrictions.  My guest list consists of more than a few vegetarians, so I want to make sure I have snacks that are enjoyable and satisfying.  You can’t go wrong with a cheese board, but also, how many parties have you been to with a cheese board?  How about a smoked salmon board or a roasted veggie platter instead?  I like to switch it up once in awhile, keeping seasonality in mind.  Asparagus is popping up all over, so how about a chilled orzo pasta salad with grape tomatoes, asparagus and ricotta salata?  Your favorite fruit is in season?  Toast some baguette, spread mascarpone cheese across it, throw on those berries, a wisp of honey and a slice of prosciutto.  Get your assembly line going, it’s easy and different…and different is good for you.

  • End On a Sweet Note

No matter what time of the day you host your party, you should have something sweet to end the meal.  As Julia Child once said “A party without cake is just a meeting.”  I’m not suggesting you HAVE to make a cake (although, I’ve been working on mastering one, recipe to come later!)  but it’s nice to have something sweet for your guests.  If you’re not a baker, don’t stress about it.  You could honestly throw some peanut M&M’s in a bowl and call it a day.  Just make sure you keep that bowl filled!  In my opinion there are two ways to celebrate, with chocolate or with champagne, so don’t let your party go without either.  This is another great way to work with the seasons.  In winter think peppermint, in fall deep dark chocolatey flavors, but in spring and summer, I like to go with citrus.  I rarely come across a person in life who doesn’t like lemon bars, and my favorite recipe is from the New York Times made with olive oil and sea salt.  It has the delightful bite of lemon curd, and doesn’t cover it up with confectioners sugar.  Instead, the salt enhances and balances the tart lemon.  It’s a sophisticated twist on a classic, and the perfect last bite at a party.  lemon bars
Obviously, there is more that comes with planning a menu, but these are a few simple tips to get you started.  Then you get to make your shopping and prep lists (which the ODC part of my lives for!)  The more you plan, the easier each party gets and the more time you get to enjoy the company of your friends.  Cheers and Ciao!

Derby Day list
My list game is strong
Food

Easter Pies

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Easter.  I’m not religious, so it’s not like I’ve been succumbing to the pressures of Lent or anything.  I just love Easter.  Spring is springing up around me, the sun is shining, the temperature is ideal, and Easter Sunday is the perfect excuse to eat and drink some of my favorite things.  Easter is the day when I drink a bottle of champagne with no shame.  It is also the day that I consume my weight in carrot cake, deviled eggs and lamb.  Yes, we are a lamb family.  I recently read in the NY Times that the average American consumes less that one pound of lamb per year.  Well, I probably consume that in one day.  

The days leading up to Easter are some of my favorite as well, as my dad always takes the day off work on Friday to make his family recipe of Easter Pies.  If you haven’t eaten a Vella Family Easter Pie, you haven’t lived…ok just kidding, but I would rather not live than go one Easter Holiday without the goodness of our pies.  

Chuck EP

So here’s the thing, they aren’t really pie – they are sort of like calzones, except they have a dense buttery crust, not fluffy in the least.  We make two different pies, one is filled with spinach, sultanas (golden raisins), a little salt, a little olive oil and lots and lots of red pepper.  They are spicy and sweet and so, so good.  We also make a sausage pie with loads of spicy sausage, eggs, ricotta, grated parmesan, and all the chopped parsley in the world.  Each pie is baked until it’s nice and golden, sliced into thin strips and served cold.  They.Are.Perfection.  But what’s even better is baking them with my dad.  A memory I’ll hold on to forever, we brown sausage, laugh a lot, mix our hands into ooey gooey ricotta, and roll out dough for days, it seems.  

fangool
Our Italian “hello”

This is another recipe from my Vella Sbarra Family cookbook and my dad has been perfecting the recipe for years and years.  He has tweaked the recipe each year to increase the flavor, improve the dough, and bake them to the perfect temp.  So really, that one blog I posted a few weeks back about perfecting my family cookbook is old news — my dad has been doing it for ages.  Only now I’m old enough and care enough to help.  It’s just my favorite time of year, good food, good drinks and perfect family memories, all baked into a pie.

 

cocktails · drinks · Uncategorized

Boozy Baking – Dark & Stormy

The saying goes: April Showers Bring May Flowers…well, May is going to be blooming because it is definitely showering around here.  When the weather is like this, I think there is only one drink that feels appropriate:  A Dark and Stormy.

The Dark and Stormy is a simple cocktail made up of only three ingredients, but it packs a big punch!  The drink consists of lime juice, ginger beer, and dark rum.  You float each layer on top of the next, ending with the rum to create a stormy atmosphere in a glass.  The lime is tart, the ginger beer is spicy and the rum serves up sweet molasses notes for the perfect spring cocktail. dark and stormy

Dark and Stormy: 

In a highball glass (that’s the long skinny one) add the lime juice, add ice, then begin to layer ginger beer and finally, the rum.  Garnish with a lime twist or wedge.  Cheers!

In my constant quest to combine the two things I love the most: booze and baked goods, the Dark and Stormy seemed like the perfect marriage.  Ginger has a natural place in the dessert world, and rum has the right balance of sweetness to glaze a cake perfectly.  I went back to my favorite bundt cake for this month’s Boozy Baking installment.  I made a ginger and lime bundt cake with a rum glaze.  I candied lime on the top for a delicious and bright bit of decoration.  Here’s the recipe below!

Ingredients for cake:

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 ½ cups sugar
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for pan)
  • 2 tablespoons grated lime zest
  • ⅓ cup minced candied ginger (it’s really important that the ginger is minced very well, otherwise it will sink to the bottom of the cake)
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda DS Ingredients
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 cup greek yogurt (fat is your friend, in this case)

Ingredients for the glaze:

  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • ⅓ cup Gosling’s Black Seal Rum
  • ⅓ cup lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Cake Preparations:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, grease and flour bundt pan
  • In an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until white and fluffy
  • Whisk together flour, lime zest, ginger, salt and baking soda
  • To creamed butter mixture, add eggs one at a time, beat well after each addition
  • Alternately add flour mixture in 3, and greek yogurt in 2.  Beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.
  • Spoon mixture into prepared pan, create a level surface
  • Bake for 55-60 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
  • Wait at least 15 minutes before turning out cake onto cooling rack.  Once cake has cooled completely, pour over glaze.  

Glaze Preparations:

  • Melt butter in small sauce pan
  • Add rum, lime juice and sugar
  • Stirring constantly bring glaze to a simmer to thicken slightly

DS bundt

Candied lime is optional, and sort of a pain in the ass to do, but it definitely makes for a pretty topping.  Here’s instructions on how to do it, because nobody does it better than Martha.  Cheers and Ciao!

 

cocktails · drinks · Uncategorized · wine

Wishful Spring Drinking

The calendar tells me that it’s spring.  However, here in Ohio, “spring” could mean a myriad of things.  It could mean rain, it could mean 80 degrees, it could even mean snow.  When I was younger I used to spend spring break in Florida, we’d get home, pull into the driveway and see that our tulips had bloomed… and then died of frost.  Unfortunately adulthood ensures that I never get to celebrate spring break, so I have to endure the seasons’ “awkward phase” where it doesn’t know what the hell it wants to do.  But, I know what I want to do…I want to sit on a god damn patio and drink a god damn cocktail.  So, until the weather makes up its mind and decides to be sunny and 70 degrees, I will just be over here wishing for spring and the delightful drinks that come with it.  Here are my favorite things to sip on:

Rosé

Rosé season is my favorite time of year.  Seriously, I don’t care a single bit about Christmas or my birthday…all I care about is the newest batches of rosé are being bottled and I get to drink them.   But also, because I’m basic, I like a good wine spritzer.  Spritzers are great drinks for warm weather (and compliment a hangover perfectly!)  So combine these two delightful things and you’ve got yourself a rosé spritzer.  True to form, I’ve gussied it up a bit:

6 oz. Dry Rosé (not white zinfandel, I’m serious…throw that away immediately)

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This little penguin is used to cold weather…much like Ohioans

 

2 oz.  Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic

Squeeze of fresh lime

Serve over ice

The elderflower tonic adds nice bubbles, a little touch of sweetness and lovely floral note to your wine.  Once rosé season really kicks off, I’ll be listing off my favorites for the year, but in the meantime I poured myself a glass of Italian rosé, known as Chiaretto.

Beer

I’m not a huge beer drinker, more often than not I’ll opt for a cocktail or a glass of wine, but if I’m out at a very casual restaurant enjoying “bar food,” beer is my drink of choice.  I recently tried Rhinegeist’s Bubbles Cider and I have become obsessed.  Highlighted with flavors of peach and cranberry, this cider drinks sweet, almost like a sangria.  But it’s got a crisp tartness that I love.  One sip of this and you’ll be feeling that Spring in your step, guaranteed.

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Cocktail

Something about those first few warm days of spring makes me want to sit out on a patio, and sip on something fancy.  My sister Natalie created this cocktail that sings of spring and is definitely worthy of a long night on a patio, and a basket of chips and salsa.  We call it a “Cosmopolita” because it’s all the cosmo fixings, but with tequila in place of vodka.  Because tequila is delicious and vodka is boring.

2 oz. silver tequila

½ oz. Triple Sec or other orange liqueur

½ oz. Lime juice

¼ oz. simple syrup

1 oz. cranberry

More than an ounce of cranberry and your drink turns red instead of pink, and I’m not sure if you’ve sensed a theme here…but apparently in spring I only drink pink.
So, now I hope you’re all very thirsty and ready to sit outside with a glass of wine…and possibly a parka.  Ciao!

 

Uncategorized

My Grandma’s Cookbook: a collection of vague recipes

I’m a bad blogger.  I didn’t post anything last week.  It’s a lame excuse, but the truth is, I just got busy.  I didn’t find the time to write, which sucks.   The thing I did manage to do, however, was make dinner for my sister, my brother-in-law, and my husband to celebrate Tim’s birthday.

It’s a tradition in our family to make the birthday boy or girl’s favorite meal to celebrate their day.   The problem is, that excluding my sister (Natalie) and her husband (Jack), everyone else in my family hates, and I mean HATES Tim’s favorite meal: Chicken Tika Masala.  My dad lived in England for a little while as a young adult and got burnt out on curry, fair enough.  And the rest of my family doesn’t like “spicy food,” which is a damn shame, because it’s divine.   image_6483441

We celebrated Tim’s birthday with the rest of the family separately.  The four of us, however, broke naan and ate delicious curry.  We drank a big ass bottle of Schramsberg (my favorite, as you know), ate cake and ice cream, played cards and laughed a whole lot.  It was the kind of cozy night in, with a big bowl of food and good people, that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside; and it got me thinking about why I love food so much.

How cool is it that food can not only nourish your body, but your soul?  How amazing that food is a part of a person’s history, and a person’s future.  How lucky are we that food is something that we can create memories around?  Food brings people together, it becomes a conversation starter, and at least for me, I associate times of happiness around meals that I eat.

Several years back one of my uncles put together a cookbook full of Vella and Sbarra (my paternal grandmother’s maiden name) recipes.  When it comes time to do some real Italian, soul cooking, I turn to this book.  This book includes our family meatball recipe, stuffed squid, anchovy sauce…all the really good shit.  Some recipes haven’t been made since my grandma passed away, and that just can’t be.  I want my family food recipes to live on through the generations, so I’ve decided to cook my way through my family cookbook.  Food and family are one in the same to me, and I think that will make my grandma Jo very proud.  IMG_6826

Also, some of these recipes need some serious work.  Me thinks a few of my relatives were sipping too much vermouth when they wrote “Put in Oven and Bake.”  Ok, Uncle Nick, I get it…but for how long, and at what temp?  Or my favorite recipe for our the Christmas Eel:  “Peel Skin, put on pan, broil.”

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So in the process of letting my grandmother’s cooking legacy live on, and making delicious food, I’ll also be giving the cookbook a much needed edit.  I hope you’ll join me on my family food journey, and we’ll share some seriously good eats and some serious fun working out the Vella-vagueness of the recipes.  Ciao!

Uncategorized

Three Tips to Give Good Host

My parents used to throw lots of parties.  I remember watching my mom float around the kitchen cooking and setting up,  delicious smells filling the air.  I’d peek through the banister as guests entered the house, smiling and laughing.  I’d trot downstairs in my pj’s and sneak a few snacks with my sisters.  My parents made it look so effortless and adulty, I couldn’t wait to grow up and throw parties like my mom and dad.  Flash forward 20 years, and it’s now something I take great pleasure in.  

I love having my friends gathered around the table, drinking wine, and having fun.  What I’ve learned though, is while my parents made it look easy, there’s quite a bit of work involved.  Hosting a party requires organization, lots of planning, and even more attention to detail.  Back when I used to plan events for a living, inevitably something would slip through the cracks and I would learn quickly never to make that mistake again next time.  The same goes for hosting in your home.  There’s a million ways to make sure your party goes right, and here’s just a few tips to ensure your friends have a blast, and there are no party fouls.

1) Make your guests feel comfortable by taking out the guess work

Make your guests feel comfortable…duh.  This seems obvious, right?  But this is more than welcoming your guests in with a smile, and offering them a drink right away.  This requires the attention to detail I’m talking about.  This means having a predetermined spot for your guests’ coats to collect.  This means having enough seats for every butt.  This means having glassware sitting out and drinks readily accessible.  You never want your guest to ask “Where should I put my coat” or “Can I get a glass of water.”  Have all of this stuff accessible for them ahead of time.  If you want your guests to use a coaster, make sure there are coasters out already.  If you want them to help themselves to food, have the buffet ready to go.  If you’re having a sit down dinner, have place cards set up so there’s no awkward moment of telling people where to sit.  Your guests come over to your house to relax and enjoy, so let them do just that and take out all of the possible guess work.

2) Stage everything out strategically

When I was an event planner I would walk around the event space and pretend to fill my plate up at the buffet and then walk to my table, or pretend to stand in line at the bar so I could map out where everything fits and what will work.  I recommend doing the same at home.  Of course, you know your own home like the back of your hand, and chances are you’ve carried a plate of food from the kitchen to in front of the couch, but I find it beneficial to map out where everything will go and how your guests will get around.  If you’re staging a buffet, it’s good to anticipate where the buffet will start and end.  You may think it makes sense initially going left to right, but find that one area will get really congested and block space to the bar.  Again, you want to make your guests feel at ease, and the smoother your service goes, the better.  

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I always put my salad at the end of the buffet so that it doesn’t get crushed by the rest of the food.

3) Make it feel fancyIMG_6838

You don’t have to serve caviar from the Caspian Sea to show your friends a luxurious time, but if you’ve already taken the steps to work through every detail, why not go the extra mile and add a little flourish here and there.  For example, flowers brighten up party and add a little or a lot of drama depending on the arrangement.  But my favorite way to spruce up a party for your guests is in the bathroom.  When we have guests over, we keep our guest bathroom stocked with some comfort items that friends can put to good use.  We have hairspray, hand lotion, dental floss and the best and most important item of the bunch:  Poo-Pouri.  I’m sure you’ve seen the commercial, you spray Poo-Pouri over the toilet before you go numbero dos, and it completely masks the smell of your business.   It’s a miracle product, and when a guest goes into our bathroom it either makes them laugh, puts them at ease, or both.  There’s nothing more uncomfortable than having to go at a party, and being worried that someone else is going to get a whiff.  So maybe you don’t want your friends feeling SO comfortable at your house that they are ready to do that in your bathroom, but as my mother would say “When you’re window is open, there is no stopping it.”  So at least you’ve made your friends’ party poopy experience stress free.    

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When it comes to party planning, the devil is in the details.  Keep in mind these three steps to give good host, and your friends will be able to focus solely on how good of a time they are having…no stinky bathrooms, awkward moments, or long buffet lines will stand in their way!  Cheers and Ciao!

Uncategorized

Boozy Baking – Old Fashioned Scones

I am not a big whiskey gal.  Believe me, I would feel a lot cooler if I was.  In college I was super basic and drank vodka tonics all night long (Or double vods tons as my more obnoxious self would call them.)  Then when both my taste buds and my taste level grew up, I moved on to gin.  When I drink liquor, I drink gin.  I personally like a good old martini, but I have one and I’m done for the night.  When going out with friends, it’s best not to get sloshed after one cocktail.  I’m learning, and trying to turn on to the flavors of whiskey so I have something to sip on.

Here in Dayton we are lucky enough to have one of the top bourbon bars in the country, and when you visit The Century Bar it’s your Daytonian duty to drink one of the hundreds of different bourbons they offer.  This is how I got turned onto Old Fashioneds.   The Old Fashioned is the perfect cocktail for a whiskey newbie because it still has a touch of sweetness to override the whiskey burn.  Plus, you look almost as cool as Don Draper when you drink it…almost.

Now, picture me inching my spectacles up the bridge of my nose when I tell you that over the course of cocktail history, Old Fashioneds have evolved with different preparations and garnishes.  While today’s version is not technically the original cocktail preparation, the recipe I’m about to give you has become the norm and widely enjoyed:

Old Fashioned:

  • 2 oz. whiskey (I like rye whiskeys, but the choice is up to you!)
  • ¼ oz. simple syrup
  • 2-3 dashes angostura bitters
  • Orange peel
  • 2 Luxardo Cherries

 

In rocks glass, muddle together orange slice, cherries, simple syrup and bitters.  Pour whiskey on top, add ice and enjoy like the ladies and gentleman that you are.  It’s that simple.

Now, because drinking in the morning is not acceptable in our society, but breakfast pastries are, I decided to see if I could combine the two.  So, without further adieu, this month’s boozy baking:  Old Fashioned Scones.

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I start with orange and cherry scones, which are slightly sweet, bright and citrusy.  The glaze on the scones is where it gets boozy, plenty of whiskey, a few dashes of bitters and more orange juice.  The glaze offers up the nice whiskey bite, with some sweetness from the orange.  The bitters are optional (in the baking, not the drink), but I think it provides the glaze with a nice round flavor.  Recipe below!  Happy Baking and even Happier Boozing!

Old Fashioned Scones:

(Makes 12 scones)

Ingredients:

  • 2 ½ cups flour
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • Zest from 1 orange (about 1 Tbsp, but feel free to add more for a brighter flavor)
  • 1 stick butter, cold, diced
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup heavy whipping cream (plus extra for brushing)
  • 1 cup dried cherries

For Glaze:

  • 4 Tbsp melted butter
  • 1 ½ cups confectioners sugar
  • Juice from 1 orange
  • ¼ cup whiskey
  • 8-10 dashes angostura bitters (optional)

Preparation:

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  
  • In a bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and orange zest.
  • Add butter pieces and cut butter into the mixture until you have small coarse crumbs.  (I’ve found that a pair of kitchen scissors is the easiest way to go, otherwise two knives will work.)
  • Toss in dried cherries and stir to coat.
  • Whisk together the eggs and heavy cream.  Pour into dry mixture and stir until just combined.
  • Flour a dry surface, turn out dough and form into a round disk, about ¾” thick.  Cut into 12 equally sized wedges.  Brush with more heavy whipping cream.
  • Bake for about 15 minutes, or until golden.
  • While scones are baking, over medium heat, melt butter.  
  • Add confectioners sugar, whiskey, bitters and orange juice.
  • Whisk until combined.  Let it come to a simmer, but not a boil.
  • With another large baking sheet, put cooling racks on top.  Cool scones slightly, then pour glaze on top.  Once glaze has stopped dripping off a bit, gather the glaze that has collected on the baking sheet, and continue process until scones are glazed to your liking.