B is for … Bargains: Better Buds Bash

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We’re into the second month of the blog and the second letter. For the month of September, B’s theme is going to be “Better” in a  series of posts about simple ways to do things better. Brilliant!

Today’s do-better theme, Entertaining and Dinner Parties:

 

 

Entertaining:

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  • Presentation is key – When setting out food for entertaining, remember the old adage – We eat with our eyes first. I know that a good part of my presentation OCD comes from my event planning days, but those were valuable lessons learned. No-one sees the container the food comes out off, just the plate they take the food from – The lesson here is to go with the store brand or an alternative, cheaper option when possible with the food and serve it up in an eye-appealing way.
    • I love me some Water Crackers but at upwards of $4 a box, they’re a bit more than I want to pay for a snack “accessory”! There are many tasty alternatives like rice-crackers that come in several yummy flavors (Whole Foods 365 are delicious) and usually retail closer to $1 a box. Less expensive, crusty bread sliced in a basket looks rustic and inviting next to a cheese plate & a loaf can go for $1 from the grocery.
    • Wine in a box has come a long way in taste and quality over the last decade, offering award-winning wine at “bulk” prices, which is what you’re looking for when serveral bottles are likely to be poured. Black Box is a personal favorite of mine and several of my girlfriends. Just because the wine comes in a box doesn’t mean it has to be placed out for spigot use. Decanting that box wine makes for a lovely presentation and can enhance the taste through aeration and temperature; red wine will be kept at room temperature and white wine decanters are designed to keep the wine chilled.
  • Sharing is caring – As much as I love a visually appealing spread, having not yet become the recipient of a bridal registry, I’m lacking when it comes to presentation dishware. Buying them would throw my entire budget, however I know friends who do very well with thrifting for them. My suggestion, borrow from relatives, other friends, or even the friends you are hosting. Make the effort to collect from them in advance of the party and return the dishware washed and with a short “Thank You” note soon after. The small effort to collect and return equals huge payoff for a fabulous table setting.
    • Or skip the fancy dishes all together and place plain dishware on a clever table topper! Pinterest in full of “chalkboard table” ideas!
  • A little bit $$$ a lot of $ – When planning entertainment dishes like snacks, apps, small bites,  remember a rule of thirds. For every one pricier item, have two lower priced items, and make your pricier items only up to a third of the entire spread.
    • I love cheese and love, love, love a cheeseboard. Probably because I could sit and eat the whole thing! (Don’t judge) As much as I would like a cheeseboard full of Humboldt Fog and Roquetfort, I’m balling on a budget. Following the thirds-rule, I make sure my board has plenty of less expensive items on the spread: grapes, carrots, olives, nuts (drizzle with oil and cajun spices, toast in oven for a few mins for extra pizzazz), slices of delicious and inexpensive sharp cheddar, and let’s not underestimate the wonders of a block of store-brand cream-cheese with a pepper jelly on top.
    • Whole Foods has a basket of cheeses in the cheese department that’s filled with the odds-and-ends of the cheeses; the “last piece” basket. The pieces are usually no more than $5. Rummage through and pick out a few pieces. Spot these around your cheese board for variety and interest.

 

Dinner Parties:

 

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  • What’s growing = what’s cheapest – Though we live in a magical world of year round produce where you can get strawberries in the dead of winter, the most economical selections are those that traveled the least distance and are in season. Make sure to plan your meal around what’s growing to cut costs and ensure a superior product.
  • Shop with your eyes, then with your wallet – Grab the grocery publications or check online for the sales they are running. Plan a menu around that. This rule also applies for drinks and snacks for a dinner party.
    • If hummus is on sale, for instance, I will usually reduce or forgo the cheese plate for hummus and veggies. Delicious and easy frozen meatballs on special? You bet they’re going in a small bite dish for a party or as an app for a dinner!
    • This is also a great way to get pricier items on the plate. If it’s a rare occasion when crab claws are on sale, just one or two on each plate can really fancy-up the meal of a small gathering. Asparagus can be pricey but I love to scoop it up when it’s on special.
  • Good food is good food, period – Many people assume, because they are having company over, they should serve “only the best” to their guests. While I agree your guests should get the best you have to offer, what you have to offer should fit your budget.
    • Can’t afford to serve everyone steak? Go for a more economical cut of meat, like flank steak and serve it in a creative way (try it atop the Triple Threat Salad) or make beef stroganoff with inexpensive stew meat (Bonus: it can be made in the slow-cooker before the party).
  • No leftovers zone – Be reasonable with yourself about how much to serve your guests. Remember that restaurant sizes are not a good guide for serving sizes and that you will not be providing guests with to-go boxes. While second helpings are nice to offer, how many of your  guests do you anticipate having them? If you have served snacks before a dinner party meal, your portion sizes at dinner can be smaller; same if there is a starter, salad, dessert, etc.

 

In Sum: Plan for the sale and the season. Follow the thirds rule and aim for the inexpensive. Presentation over brand-name and  delicious over expensive.

And the most important thing to remember is the reason you are feeding…to gather everyone together for good food and a good time! It’s about company and memories, so concern yourself more with being a gracious host/hostess than a well-to-do one!

Bidding you Blissful Bashes! 

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Thirsty Thursday – A is for Aperitif

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For SAS‘s first Thirsty Thursday I wanted to stick with the letter of the month, A, and focus on a little known, often misunderstood realm of the alcohol world, the Apéritif.

 Dictionary.com defines an apéritif as:

noun, plural apéritifs

 

[ah-per-i-teefs; Frencha-pey-ree-teef] (Show IPA)

1.

a small drink of alcoholic liquor taken to stimulate the appetite before a meal.
2.
Also called apéritif wine. a wine served as an appetizer or cocktail.

The drink is meant to stimulate your appetite not kill it with booze or get you so drunk that you can’t experience the meal. Like the difference between a true appetizer and the American small-plate, one is meant to precede the meal and one is meant to be a part of the meal. In this way an apéritif should be simplistic in its construction and presentation. While it’s taste can be complex to awaken the palate, an apéritif should be clean not cloying and light not rich.

Apéritifs are not defined by only liquor or only one type of liquor and include some wines. They are, however, designated by  general guidelines that include having a lower alcohol content than some hard liquors and erring on the side of dry rather than sweet. Common choices for an apéritif include vermouth, brut champagnes, bitters & soda, anise flavored liquors, dry sherry, and varieties of dry white wine.

I found a very informative and interesting post from thekitchn entitled All About Aperitifs (shout out to the letter of the month & alliteration *whoop-whoop*). The article breaks down various popular apéritifs and lists other options for pre-dinner drinks, including a personal favorite of mine, Pimm’s! The liquor, Pimms No. 1 Cup, is the  main ingredient of an English and New Orleans classic, the Pimm’s Cup, a crisp and refreshing drink that tastes (in certain variations) like an iced tea that knows a sexy secret.

Celebrate the waning Summer by making one today!

Pimm’s Cuppimms-cup

makes one drink

1 1/2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
lemonade (or ginger ale or lemon-lime soda)
lemon slices
cucumber slices
(optional: orange slice, fresh borage and/or mint leaves, apple slices, strawberry)

Half-fill a Collins glass with ice and a few slices of cucumber, borage leaves, or other garnishes. Add measure of Pimm’s, then top up glass with lemonade or soda. Stir gently and add additional ice if necessary. Garnish with slices of lemon and cucumber. (recipe thekitchn)

Or visit two New Orleans establishments known for their Pimm’s Cups: Down a Pimm’s in the presence of portraits  of the late french monarch, dust from as far back as 1797, and perhaps a ghost or two at Napoleon House . Leisurely sip a Pimm’s Cup shaded from the afternoon sun on the porch of The Columns Hotel surrounded by hundred year old oak trees, crunching on the fat cumber garnish while streetcars roll by.

So whether you venture out to eat in New Orleans during COOLinary month or make a special meal at home, this August,

Appreciate An Apéritif! 

 

A is for…Avocado, Arugula, Asaragus

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Avocado, Arugula, Asparagus – three of my favorite, green veggies begin with my favorite letter, A. Coincidence? Not sure. Good eats? Most assuredly!

Asparagus has always been an enjoyable go-to green thanks in large part to how simple it is to cook but mostly for its crave-able crunch & bright taste. I imagine if Spring had a flavor it would taste like the sweet freshness of asparagus. Apparently my love for asparagus is nothing new for the stalky plant which has been considered a delicacy since ancient times. Asparagus boasts  anit-inflammatory and anti-oxidant benefits along with digestive support and even anti-cancer benefits! (More about these benefits  on World’s Healthiest Foods)

Arugula is a green I’ve been in love with since first bite. We’ve had one of those magical relationships you are promised to have with a prince when you’re a little girl playing princess: reliable, exciting and always evolving. Hot or cold, no matter how I’ve experimented with Arugula, it has always understood what I’m trying to accomplished and lent its peppery complexity to the dish. Nutrition and You lists excellent sources of Vitamins A (yay for the letter of the month), C and K in the green and, since K helps in limiting neurological damage, eating Arugula isn’t only enjoyable, it’s smart!

Avocado and I have had a rocky relationship. I live by the Andrew Zimmern adage to take more than one bite of something, you might like it more the second time. So I would try, try again with avocado, but each time my gag reflex was stronger than my pleasure receptors. I never gave up though and one evening after many New Orleans’ daytime libations I  stumbled walked into El Gato Negro with my sister-in-law and her family. When guacamole (yucky-mole is what I used to call it) was ordered instead of queso, I almost cried. I sadly nibbled on a chip till my hunger overcame me and I dove in. Light bulbs of realization flashed in my head as I finally experienced the rich, fatty unctuousness that drives people to put avocado on every thing! The good fats finally tasted good to me and now I top my lunches with it and mix it in my soups. I will put this heart healthy, cholesterol lowering, Vitamin E powerhouse on almost anything.

One night I found myself with no plan for dinner and all three of these veggies in my fridge. Dinner salad became an excellent idea and the Triple Threat Green Salad was born. I have since made this salad with many variations. Here is my way of putting it all together:

Triple Threat Green Salad:

  • 1 bunch of green asparagus (they come in white and purple varieties too)
  • 1 container of arugula (I prefer organic) large enough for the number and size of salads you want to make
  • 1-4 ripe avocados depending on size of the avocado and number of salads you are making
  • 1 bag of microwave steam-able corn
  • 1 container of miniature Portobello or button mushrooms
  • All purpose or Cajun spice mix
  • Salt & Pepper
  • 1/4 cup non-fat half & half *optional*
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil and light margarine as needed
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  2. Follow instructions on microwave steam-able corn to heat (I prefer to cook it about a minute shy of the recommended cooking time because I will be heating the corn more after).
  3. Prep Asparagus – rinse and chop. *A trick to chopping asparagus:  Choose a stalk of an average size for the bunch and grasp with fingers on each end. Gently bend the stalk till it snaps. The “top” half of the asparagus is the tender part. Use this piece to measure how much to trim off the bottom of the remainder of the bunch. Discard the bottoms and cut the stalks into 1″ pieces.
  4. Prep mushrooms – Since mushrooms grow in dirt, there is typically some left on them and in the packaging. Dampen a paper towel and gently wipe down each mushroom to remove dirt. Slice or quarter mushrooms (I prefer them quartered because I like a meaty bite of ‘shroom). 😉
  5. Place chopped asparagus and mushrooms onto a baking sheet.
  6. Drizzle EVOO liberally onto the vegetables, tossing to coat evenly.
  7. Salt & pepper to taste. (I find fresh, cracked black pepper to be best).
  8. Place tray of veggies in oven to bake for 10 minutes, flipping veggies halfway through for even cooking.
  9. Melt a teaspoon of light margarine in a saute pan on medium high and add corn, sauteing for 3 minutes. Add all-purpose or Cajun seasoning to taste.
  10. If you choose to cream the corn slightly, add the half-and-half and cook for 5 more mins to reduce.
  11. Cube or slice the avocado. Don’t know how? Learn how to slice from Epicurious! For cubed, just cut the slices.
  12. Rinse & dry arugula and place in on serving dish. Top with roasted asparagus, mushrooms, corn and avocado.
  13. Drizzle with EVOO. Salt & pepper to taste.
  14. ENJOY!

The very best part of this salad, besides it’s taste and textures, is its versatility. TTGS makes a great base for leftover meat or seafood. You can easily fancy up the dish by using shiitake mushrooms. If company is coming, make the salad as a starter or stretch your entertaining budget by making it the main dish. Top with inexpensive Flank Steak and fan the avocado slices on top of each salad for a lovely presentation.


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Here’s my “fancy” shiitake and left-over steak variation. I made this for myself, but if I was serving it at a dinner party I would fan the steak and avocado as suggested. Sauteing the mushrooms in truffle oil is another way to up the gourmet factor!

 

 

 

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My recipe calls for roasting the asparagus and mushrooms in the oven for easy cooking.  If you don’t have an oven available or prefer to do your cooking on the stove top, remember you can always saute the asparagus and mushrooms til tender, rather than roasting!

So give this nutritious, versatile and tasty salad a whirl and be sure to comment your thoughts and variations. Or email me a picture of your creation for use in a future post!

Euphorically Enjoy Eating!