Seasonal Rosemary Cocktails

Seasonal Rosemary Cocktails

I don’t know about you, but a nice stiff drink always helps me get through the holidays! Sarah W. (already known for her holiday-appropriate drink pairings) is kind enough to share with us a fabulous recipe for a simple ingredient that will jazz up your seasonal cocktail game. I sure am glad it’s almost 5 o’clock, because these gorgeous cocktails are calling my name. Pour us all a drink, Sarah!

Oh man, guys. It’s officially holiday season. I love gift-giving, I love decorating, I love putting up my Christmas tree well after Thanksgiving… and I love seasonal flavors. I am a sucker for anything cranberry-flavored or festively-named when I go out in the winter. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that when it comes to craft cocktails, this year everyone’s talking rosemary. Which is such a good idea; it pairs with almost any fruit flavor you can think of for winter – apples, cranberry, citrus – and is also a great seasoning for poultry, so your drink goes with your turkey dinner.

But let’s go further than simply garnishing a drink with a cute little Christmas tree-like sprig, and get that amazing (and strong) flavor into our seasonal cocktails. I’m talking simple syrup.

Simple syrup, like bitters, is one of those things that seems like a fancy bar ingredient that would be impossible to make or use properly at home. But, because I’m nothing if not an over-reacher, I wanted to try my hand at crafting some seasonal cocktails with it. I’ve seen bottles of simple syrup go for eight bucks at the grocery or liquor store. Not my style. I did the tiniest bit of research, and wouldn’t you know it, simple syrup is made by boiling equal parts sugar and water. Eight bucks for sugar water! Armed with that knowledge, I decided to steep mine with rosemary for a unique flavor that would hopefully elevate my homemade attempt at seasonal craft cocktails.

Simple syrup only keeps for a few weeks, which can be a concern if you don’t drink very often. So in one of my brightest moments of clarity to date, I’ve devised three seasonalcocktails – whiskey, gin, and vodka – that will almost guarantee you use a whole batch of simple syrup at one party. Rosemary has strong flavor. Each cocktail uses ¼ ounce, and a batch of simple syrup yields about a cup. Eight ounces in a cup, do the math – this syrup should make you 32 drinks, so plan your holiday shindig guest list accordingly! So let’s get to the crafting of these actually pretty easy holiday cocktails.

Rosemary Simple Syrup

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 sprigs rosemary

Every recipe using rosemary I saw online told me to smack the sprigs of rosemary against my palm to release the flavor. I felt a little silly, but I did this.

Throw your ingredients into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.

Let boil 5-8 minutes, then remove from heat.

Fish out your rosemary sprigs. If they’ve fallen apart at all, you can run the syrup through a sieve, but I didn’t have any problems just removing the rosemary and pouring my syrup into a mason jar. You can use a clever little glass bottle, or any number of syrup storage devices. Anything that seals and fits in your fridge. Let cool. Simple syrup can be made ahead of time and stored so it’s not piping hot from the pan while you’re trying to mix cocktails.

Seasonal Cocktails

Thorny Winter Sun

  • 1 ½ oz. Vodka
  • Juice of 2 clementines (about 2 oz.)
  • ½ oz. Lemon juice
  • ¼ oz. Rosemary simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Pour into a new glass, add 2 large ice cubes, and garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Seasonal Cocktails

Cranberry Patch

  • 2 oz. Whiskey  (use good whiskey/bourbon – you can really taste it in this drink)
  • ½ oz. Sweet vermouth (the red bottle)
  • ½ oz. Cranberry juice
  • ¼ oz. Rosemary simple syrup

Combine all ingredients in a lowball glass. Stir for about twenty seconds. Add ice if you like it. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.

Seasonal Cocktails

Rosemary Twinkle

  • 1 ½ oz. Gin
  • ½ oz. Sweetened lime juice
  • ¼ oz. Rosemary simple syrup
  • Club soda to top
  • Brûléed apple slice to garnish*

Combine gin, simple syrup, and lime juice in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Pour into a highball glass and add ice. Top with club soda and give a gentle stir. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary and a slice of brûléed apple.

*Brûlée your apple! I used a honeycrisp apple,Seasonal Cocktails the very best of autumn harvest (in my opinion). Slice your apple and remove seeds and core. I cut a tiny notch into mine to help it grip the lip of the glass. Press cut edges into sugar, then fire with a brûlée torch (or broil for about five minutes). Let cool a few moments so the sugar sets and doesn’t drip, then stick on the edge of your glass. This looks really impressive, tastes really good, and isn’t difficult. If your sugar gets a little bit burned, the sweet and tartness of the apple does a really good job covering it up. This is a garnish you can serve with confidence!

Seasonal Cocktails

I hope these cocktails make your next holiday gathering as legendary as the party I’m throwing in my mind right now. Happy holidays to all, and if you devise any rosemary cocktails of your own, let me know about them!

Printer friendly recipes: Seasonal Rosemary Cocktails

 

You Fon-don’t Want to Miss This Apple Cider Fondue

You Fon-don’t Want to Miss This Apple Cider Fondue

Fondue is one of my favorite things in the world because it involves melted cheese, and Claire is one of my favorite people in the world because she always has cheese and is always willing to share (I mean, there are plenty more reasons I love Claire, but let’s cut to the chase here).  So it should come as no surprise to you that the following post has me crying at my desk. This combination of cheese plus Claire plus Fall flavors could not possibly equal anything less than spectacular. This is the kind of dish that makes it worth cleaning your house so you can invite people over. You don’t have to invite people over, but maybe cut the recipe down if you plan on keeping this to yourself (two pounds of cheese is a little much, even for me). Also, go ahead and clean your house anyway. I’ll pass this onto Claire now, so she can fill the cheese-shaped void in your heart.

I love cheese. I mean, I really, really love cheese. I know loving cheese is sort of obvious, like loving bacon, but I still feel the need to openly state my affection for cheese. Before I moved to California, I used to be a cheesemonger. My cheese shop was attached to the deli in a local grocery store, and they brought me in to imbue the department with my passion and excitement for cheese and international cuisine. I was always sampling something out, engaging with my loyal customers, and bringing new people into my cheese fandom by virtue of my sincere love for cheese in all its many forms. After the first 6 months or so, I started searching for new ways to sample cheeses to my customers, and it was at that moment that my department started stocking fondue pots. It was autumn. It was miserable outside. It was meant to be.

But there was a problem! Traditional fondues are made with alcohol, and my grocery store most definitely did not grant me permission to open bottles of booze behind the deli counter. I had to craft a new recipe for a fondue that would strip out the alcohol, but still be good enough to boost cheese fandom and sales. After just a couple of tries, I managed to put together a recipe that kept the traditional Swiss cheeses, but eliminated the wine and kirsch, and it was an instant hit. I handed out recipe cards, and sold through entire wheels of Gruyère and Emmentaler cheese in the span of two hours.

Fast forward several years to my kitchen in California. It’s raining outside. The temperature has dropped a full 20° in the last three days, and it is finally starting to feel legitimately autumnal here. It’s making me flash back to those days in the cheese shop, and I am just craving hot, melted cheese.  Luckily, my cheese shop recipe is so etched on my brain, I just throw a couple extra items on my grocery list, and I know I’ll be eating gooey, melty, soul-warming cheese in no time, and you can too.

My Apple Cider Fondue is kid-friendly since it contains no alcohol, but maintains that smooth and creamy texture required to be a great fondue!

Apple Cider FondueFondue

  • 1 lb. Emmentaler cheese
  • 1 lb. Gruyère
  • 2 TBS cornstarch
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 cup apple cider
  • juice of 1 lemon

Our base here is going to be Emmentaler cheese. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Emmentaler is what I refer to as the granddaddy of Swiss cheese. It is what all deli cheeses known simply as “Swiss” are trying to be, but they will never be as sweet and buttery as true Emmentaler. On top of that, we need something slightly nuttier to enrich our flavor, so we turn to our best friend Gruyère. I use approximately one pound of each cheese. Start by cutting off the thin rind and coarsely shredding all of the cheese into a big bowl. Next, gently mix 2 tablespoons of cornstarch into the cheese until it is evenly distributed. Press a clove of garlic and smear the inside of a pot with it so that the pot is completely covered in garlic juices. Pour 1 cup of apple cider and the juice from one lemon into the pot and bring it to a boil. Add in a handful of the cheese mixture and stir until it is melted. Gradually add in the rest of the cheese, stirring until it is a uniform texture.

Fondue

And that’s it! If you have a fondue pot, warm it before putting the cheese into it. If you don’t have one, a crock pot or electric skillet set on low will work. Serve your fondue with whatever you want covered in hot cheese. I like cubes of bread, veggies, pretzels, apples, or sliced kielbasa, but get creative! Half-way through our pot, we decided that we would like to coat our apple slices in fondue, and then wrap them in a slice of salami, and that was a good choice! Honestly you can’t go wrong here. Fondue does not keep well, so I recommend inviting friends to share it because you have to eat it all in one go, and nothing goes better with cheese than company!

Fondue

Gruyère a little rich for your blood? You don’t have to miss out on the melty, cheesy fun! I made an adorable and delicious riff on Charles Phoenix’s cheeseball recipe for my office potluck, and he was a total hit. Simply cover a block of Velveeta in cream cheese and set it in an electric skillet with a can of Ro*Tel. I shaped my Velveeta into a ghost for Halloween and named him Ghosty, but with Thanksgiving coming up, a turkey with a carrot and celery stick tail fan might be in order! Velveeta is surprisingly pliable, so again, get creative! This recipe is a great showpiece for a party, because watching the ball melt is half the fun.

Fondue

Printer friendly recipe: Apple Cider Fondue

Halloween Roundup – Spooky Foods and Superstitions

Halloween Roundup – Spooky Foods and Superstitions

Halloween is more than just costumes and candy – there are tons of spooky foods and stories to share, too! We love trying new recipes and hearing new scary stories, so if you’ve got some to share, send them our way! And, check out our roundup of past Halloween posts, plus a few extra superstitions we’ve come across since last Halloween.

Last Halloween we compiled this fun list of food-related superstitions, and they were so interesting, we decided to dig up some more!

  • Salt sure seems to carry some bad luck. Besides the well-known superstition about spilling salt, in many cultures it is also considered bad luck to pass salt hand-to-hand. So if your dinner guest asks you to pass the salt, make sure you set it on the table in front of them instead of putting it directly in their hand!
  • Chinese legend has it that for every grain of rice left in your bowl, you will get a freckle or mole on your face! I wonder if you can leave one piece strategically behind to get that Marilyn Monroe look.
  • Refrain from eating peanuts at any type of performance – supposedly it gives the performers bad luck. This one has to be completely debunked by now because of circuses, right?
  • Don’t sit at the corner of the dinner table or you will be single FOREVER! Oh, the horror! Too bad the corner seat is the most convenient for sneaking scraps to my cats… (P.S. Today is National Cat Day!)
  • In Italy, if you spill alcohol, you are supposed to dab a bit of the spilled sauce behind your ears to bring good luck. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to keep the booze gods on my side, so I will be adopting this one for sure. Plus, smelling like champagne is never a bad thing.

Speaking of wine, grab a glass of spooky Halloween-themed vino and get ready to carve your pumpkins. We’ve got some handy tips and tricks for making a fabulous jack-o-lantern! Finish off the night with these to-die-for (ooh spooky!) Deep Fried Pumpkin Pie Bites if you’re not too full of candy!

Happy Halloween from all of us at Butcher Block Co.! We hope you have a frightfully good time with many treats and minimal tricks!

Halloween Wines Are Spooky Good!

Halloween Wines Are Spooky Good!

I feel like Halloween is really sneaking up on us this year. Can you believe we’re halfway through October already?! I haven’t given a single thought to decorating, costumes, or candy (yeah right…I love candy!). I’m not going to be prepared, but Sarah W. is here with something that will at least get me into the right frame of mind: Halloween wines! Themed booze just has a way of setting the mood! Sarah, spook us into the Halloween spirit!

Greetings from the crypt. It’s getting close to Halloween, which means candy, costumes, and limited edition wines, if you are anything like me. The perfect glass of wine helps me plan my costumes, resist that candy, and hopefully tastes good, too!

Halloween has been a lot of fun my whole life. Growing up, my family lived six houses down from the town square, so there were a lot of houses packed closely together, which made for excellent trick-or-treating. My mom used to go through 20+ bags of candy, turn her light out, wait for my brother and me to get home, and then make us go through our buckets for candy we didn’t want so she could keep handing treats out to kids at our doorstep. The first year in my house, I bought 15 bags of candy and hoped it would be enough – I thought Halloween was always the way it was growing up. I barely got through seven bags, and ended up bringing the rest in for my coworkers the following Monday. Lesson learned! Having some grown-up treats helps pass the time during the lulls. That’s where the wine comes in!

I rounded up three Halloween-themed wines and put them to the test.

Some were more trick than treat, but I’d say these three are a fairly well-rounded bunch, with something for every red wine drinker. I’ve found that Halloween wines tend to most often be available as a red, since that’s, you know, blood and guts and Haloween-ish. If you’re hosting the neighborhood parents, whip up a cheese board so you have something to snack on while you’re waiting for the kids to return with your candy (that’s how that works, right?).

Apothic Dark

Apothic has been coming out with limited editionsHalloween Wine regularly now – this is a great thing. Apothic is great at blending wines – the original Apothic Red is the go-to wine for my closest friends and me when we get together for a wine night. It’s guaranteed at least half of us will bring the same bottle. Apothic Dark has a heavy, rich taste that is somehow more muted than the original. There’s a smoky undertone at the finish that is almost bitter. There’s a sweetness that is hard to pinpoint, but some kind of dark fruit flavor is involved. I was strongly reminded of a merlot when drinking this, which isn’t my favorite varietal. But it’s certainly smooth and drinkable, with any dryness coming at the end, almost after you swallow. This one won’t give you heartburn. You want to drink Dark with the middle and back of your palate – bringing this forward in your mouth makes it taste more acrid.

Rating: 3 spooky ghosts

Halloween Candy Pairing: 3 Musketeers Strawberry or Raspberry M&Ms – a fruit/chocolate combo balances this out

Rest in Peace

Halloween WineThis wine is a new one to me, and I was possibly most excited for it since red blends are my favorite. This is the most sour of the three, and although the tasting notes on the bottle mention boysenberry and raspberry jam, I didn’t find this very fruity or jammy. Maybe for a moment as this first hits your palate – there’s definitely a brightness to it that sharpens to a spice as you drink. Leather, cedar, tobacco, pepper, and black tea are also mentioned, and these are the flavors I can definitely taste. The taste of pepper and black tea is more noticeable to me in this wine; it lingers on the back of your palate. The consistency is thin, while the flavor is robust, somehow. I understand the notes on leather and cedar, even if they’re hard to explain. There are definite earthy notes, which is surprising for such an acidic wine. This one grows on you the more you drink it.

Rating: 2-1/2 black cats

Halloween Candy Pairing: Dark chocolate – a midnight Milky Way would mellow this one out

Vampire

This is a Cabernet Sauvignon, not a red blend, Halloween Winea fact that I noticed when I got home. Vampire has a juiciness to it that is a) extremely appropriate given its name and b) very hard to describe in terms of drinking wine. Maybe it’s best to characterize the juiciness by the absence of smoke, bitterness, or sourness. Tasting notes on the bottle suggest blackberry, dark cherry, and oak. I am not hit over the head with the fruit level, but it’s tangibly there, while the oak doesn’t dry this up to an undrinkable level. This is a wine for storytelling and deep conversations. It’s mellow enough to drink a lot of without noticing how much you’re drinking, with dryness coming right as the wine hits the middle of your mouth. This is another one to taste with the middle and back of your palate. This also finishes with some slight bitterness, but not enough to be off-putting if you’re a regular red wine drinker.

Rating: 5 werewolves

Halloween Candy Pairing: Red Vines licorice

 

Is your house busy with trick-or-treaters on Halloween? What’s your favorite limited edition anything? Should they make more Halloween-themed white wines? I could only find one, and it didn’t look good to me, so I passed.

Labor Day BBQ Recipes and Tips

Labor Day BBQ Recipes and Tips

Labor Day is just around the corner, bringing with it backyard barbecues and time with friends and family. Are you preparing to host this year’s BBQ? If you want your Labor Day BBQ to be a smashing success, check out this round-up of some of our best BBQ posts!

Before you get your grill going, read up on our tips for making delicious BBQ plus the coolest new grill tool, the Scrapesation.

Labor Day BBQ

While watermelon is still in season, try these unique Watermelon Ricotta Starters as an appetizer.

Let your guests create their own masterpieces by setting up a Build-Your-Own Kabob station. It’s a great way to keep your Labor Day guests entertained and satisfied while they’re waiting for your perfectly smoked ribs to finish up!

Don’t forget to pick up a good selection of local brews to go with all your BBQ delights. You’ll need something frosty if you’re going to be standing over a hot grill all day, after all!

To finish off your feast, surprise your Labor Day crowd with a tart dessert that will help cut through all that smoky, meaty goodness. Key Lime Pie is the perfect way to end your Labor Day party and say farewell to the summer.

Key Lime Pie

Fun Food: Build-Your-Own Kabobs!

Fun Food: Build-Your-Own Kabobs!

We love to have fun with our food, and letting your family or guests get creative with their own kabobs is the perfect way to bring fun to your summer cookout! We’ve shared lots of grilling tips already, but today Sarah W. is here to tell us about making the perfect kabobs. Whether you’re just grilling up a meal for yourself, or having a Build-Your-Own Kabob party, Sarah’s got you covered. Skewer us with wisdom, Sarah!

Growing up, my family loved to grill out on a nice summer night. Chicken breast, the occasional steak, maybe pork chops. There’s something totally transportive about the smell of barbeque and smoke on a hot summer evening. It’s a safe zone for me. We couldn’t always afford the best cuts of meat, but a tasty sauce and an element of fun easily made those childhood memories great ones. My dad is the family’s grillmaster – the man loves to cook, loves to experiment with new recipes, and he knows how to handle anything you can think of to throw on the grill. I didn’t inherit his knowledge of perfect grill temperatures and how to test meat’s doneness by feel over a fire, but my husband is also a great grill guy, and I slip into my mother’s role of preparing the food, as I can remember helping her slide meat and veggies onto skewers as a child.

First things first: kebab or kabob? Technically, kebab is a big hunk of meat, usually lamb or beef, slow-cooked on a long metal rod and shaved off in thin slices to pile onto amazing sandwiches like gyros. Shish kabobs are meat and veggies cooked on skewers – the Americanization of kebab.

Either way you slice and dice it, there’s something very primal about cooking meat on a stick. I was thinking of cavemen huddled around a fire roasting things while assembling and flipping these on the grill. They’re an easy dinner to throw together – anything grillable is game. Kids can help assemble their own masterpieces, and picky eaters or guests with allergies can have their own selection of stuff on a stick to be grilled on a separate part of the grill.

Kabobs are the perfect FUN FOOD!

So let’s get down to DOs and DON’Ts.

  • DO make your own kabobs. Grocery stores will sell you pretty prepackaged kabobs with meat, onion, and bright pepper slices on wooden skewers. DON’T buy them. It’s much more cost effective to make them yourself.
  • If your are just cooking up a few skewers for yourself or a small gathering, DON’T assemble skewers the way you see them in grocery stores. You can make pretty patterns, but some veggies have different cooking times, and it’s important to cook your meat thoroughly. Having a skewer of meat, a skewer of mushrooms, a skewer of peppers, etc, will ensure that things with short cook times can be taken off the grill before they burn or turn mushy.
  • If you are having a party and want your guest to build their own kabobs, DO par-cook your veggies ahead of time so everything cooks evenly on the skewer. You can either grill or oven roast your heartier vegetables until they are about halfway done, and then set them out for your guests to add to their skewers. When grilled along with the meat, these will have just enough time to get piping hot and acquire those beautiful grill lines (and flavor!).
  • DO season these suckers. I found an herb-seasoned vinegar that added a great splash of flavor, and helped my other spices stick. You don’t necessarily want to crust your ingredients, but seasoning is, as always, so important to make food taste good. And why expend energy on cooking something that turns out bland? I would, however, shy away from garlic or garlic powder, as it burns easily. If you’re working ahead, this is a great opportunity to marinate your meat.
  • DON’T leave your grill unattended. These don’t take super long to cook, so stand over that grill like the world’s best babysitter or guard dog. Also, unattended fire can lead to bad things.
  • DO pick vegetables that cook up firm and won’t get mushy. Eggplant, while delicious grilled, is most likely going to fall off your skewers. I would also skip potatoes. This is a meal for squash, mushrooms, peppers, onions, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, anything that holds up well.

Fun Food Kabobs

When we first moved into our house, my husband and I could never find wooden skewers anywhere. This resulted in my mother-in-law and mother each buying us giant packages when they saw them next, so I’ll probably never have to buy them again. You can also use nice metal skewers, but be careful! These usually have nice loops on the end for an easy handle, but they get VERY hot and stay VERY hot. Don’t grab the handles without a potholder until you’re sure they’re cool. I have both metal and wooden skewers, and find myself with a preference for the wooden ones. Part of this is that we have six metal skewers, and usually end up with seven or eight skewers worth of stuff to grill. Another factor is slippage. Wooden skewers tend to have a grain to them, which helps grip your food even as it cooks. Metal skewers, as they get hot, have a tendency to help cook your stuff from the inside, which is great for chicken, but keep an eye on your food, as it may be more done than you think.

Ingredients:

  • Beef or chicken
  • Veggies (I used half a container of mushrooms, 2 small summer squash, and a green bell pepper)
  • Seasoning (I used an herb-infused white vinegar, chili powder, salt and pepper)
  • Skewers

Directions:

  • Cut your vegetables into square-ish pieces of a uniform size. You don’t want these to be too much bigger than your skewers- they should be easily separable. I went for pieces at least an inch wide and two or three inches long. Some things, like the mushrooms, I just cut in halves or quarters, depending on their size. Do your vegetables first so you can use the same cutting board for meat after without cross-contaminating anything.
  • Cut your meat into 1″ to 1.5″ -sized chunks.
  • Skewer it! Try to skewer in the very center of your bits and pieces. This will ensure that they stay balanced and don’t try to make an early bid for freedom as you’re flipping and transporting them. With vegetables, skewer through the skin if possible. Squashes and zucchinis have skin that will stay pretty firm as it’s cooking, and the extra grip on your skewers will help keep them from sliding off.
  • Season it. I splashed herb-infused vinegar over everything, then sprinkled chili powder, salt, and pepper. I only did one side, then seasoned the other side once everything was on the grill.
  • Once your grill is hot, throw these bad boys on, seasoned-side down. This gives you an opportunity to season the other side without making a huge mess. We used a grill mat, which can be helpful if you’re afraid things will slide off the skewers and between the grill grates.
  • Your vegetables will probably need 5-6 minutes before flipping. Our meat cooked quickly, and needed to be flipped after about 2 minutes. This is going to vary based on your grill, and any hotspots it has. A good reason to use seasoning is that it facilitates a sear, and can make it easier to tell when your food is ready to be flipped. I used long grill tongs to turn these once I saw a nice sear on the bottom.
  • Cook for the same amount of time on both sides to ensure even cooking and doneness. Use a fork to slide food from skewers.  This can lead to food flying everywhere, so be cautious and supervise any small children attempting this trick.

 

What’s your favorite fun food to assemble or cook?

Friends Luncheon – Feeding Friendships One Dish at a Time

Friends Luncheon – Feeding Friendships One Dish at a Time

Leading up to my visit to Claire’s, I was so excited for all the delicious food, but I had no idea our little friends luncheon was going to be so grand! Working on a fabulous meal together was the perfect way to catch up with out-of-town friends. I can’t wait for our next get-together! If you are thinking of planning a friends luncheon of your own, read on for some fabulous recipes and tips from Claire.

At this point, I think my love for hosting has been fairly well established, so for me, nothing beats having friends over for a weekend stay. I enjoy all parts of the process, from the planning stages up. I gleefully plot out a menu and a rough list of possible activities, carefully tailoring each visit to my guests’ particular tastes, and being sure to plan for several hours of doing nothing at all in order to establish a truly vacation-y vibe. Also, depending on the previous night’s activities, sometimes sitting around doing nothing is exactly what we need.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting several friends at once. Andrew and Meredith drove down from San Jose, and Candi made the trek up from Phoenix with her 9-year-old son. I made the long haul to several grocery stores.

For a get-together like this one, I like to keep the fare simple, but impressive. I planned the weekend menu around dishes that wouldn’t take too many ingredients, and that wouldn’t clash with each other on my cooking surfaces. My guests rolled in late Friday evening, so I threw together a basic cheese board with fresh bread, and we sat around it munching while we caught up. Saturday morning, I made buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy, and since we had such a heavy breakfast, we decided to make our next meal a late luncheon.

For the next several hours, we sat around laughing and digesting, and remembering why we all had so much love for each other, while planning out our friends luncheon.

I settled on making a roasted pork tenderloin, because it can be easily sliced into small servings, and it’s a fairly simple cooking process. We also had a trio of artichokes, another cheese board (because there’s no such thing as too much cheese), and one of my favorite crowd-pleaser recipes, tomato pie. For a dinner party, I usually like to have everything basically ready by the time my guests arrive. In a sleepover scenario like this, though, it’s much more fun when everyone hangs around the kitchen and helps, so I planned around each of my friends’ kitchen strengths. Andrew quickly got to mixing cocktails while I pulled ingredients out of the fridge. Candi, who, incidentally, is a fire wizard, went out to the patio to get the grill going while I started prep on the artichokes. Mer tested the cocktails and cheeses for quality control.

Friends Luncheon

For the artichokes, I squeezed a couple of lemons into a big pot of boiling water and dropped them in, then threw in the halved artichokes. After about 15 minutes, I checked them to make sure they were done, and then gave them to Candi. She slathered them in a mix of olive oil, lemon juice, kosher salt, and pepper, and finished them on the grill to char up the edges a bit. We put them on a platter with bowls of butter and mayo for dipping.

Our friends luncheon was coming together nicely, but surveying our progress, I realized that we were missing a key ingredient: dessert! Luckily, I had just bought a giant box of strawberries, so I put Candi to work hulling those while I threw together a shortcake. My recipe of choice comes from my grandma’s copy of Cross Creek Cookery, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and it is pure perfection.

While the shortcake cooled and the oven was still hot, Andrew took a break from mixing cocktails to work on the pork tenderloin. He put together a mixture of dried herbs and spices from my pantry, rubbed down the tenderloin, and threw it in a hot skillet. After he got a good sear on all sides, he put the skillet into the 450° oven and let it roast for about 18 minutes. Then he covered the pan in foil to let the meat rest while we prepped the tomato pie.

At this point, our friends Jess and Ian showed up. My husband and Ian loaded Candi’s son into the car and headed out to play some disc golf, and not a moment too soon, because Andrew’s cocktails were starting to catch up with us. Our 90’s hip hop dance party heated up while we waited for timers to ring.

When the tomato pie finally came out of the oven, we were ready to get to the grub. We put everything out buffet style, set out plates and silverware, and sat around the table inhaling the fruits of all our hard work. In our case, the tomato pie was maybe a little darker around the edges and the pork just a little more done than planned. That’s just what happens when you ignore the kitchen timer because you’re in the middle of a dance-off. Anyway, the best foods are flavored with laugh-attacks.

Friends Luncheon

Tomato Pie

  • 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 4 or 5 tablespoons whole grain mustard
  • 8 oz Gruyere cheese, sliced or shredded
  • 2 tomatoes, sliced
  • 1/2 cup to 1 cup fresh basil, coarsely chopped

Preheat your oven to 400°. On a lightly floured surface, roll the puff pastry out to desired size; I like to fit mine to a stoneware baking tray, but any cookie sheet or pizza stone will work. Bake the pastry for about 15 minutes, until it is golden brown, but not quite done. Spread the mustard evenly over the pastry, then layer on the cheese, basil, and tomatoes. Pop back into the oven and bake until the cheese is melty and the tomatoes are cooked, about 10 more minutes.

Friends Luncheon

Strawberry Shortcake

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 1 egg, well beaten
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 quart strawberries
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • Half pint of heavy whipping cream
  • Dash of vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Butter a round cake pan and set it aside. Preheat the oven to 400°. Mix the first five ingredients together and sift. Cut the butter into pieces and quickly work it into the flour mixture with your fingers. Add the egg, and then milk. Mix quickly and turn the dough into the cake pan and pat it into shape with the flat of your hand. Bake the shortcake for 20 minutes and then turn it onto a cooling rack.

Set aside a few of the largest strawberries to top the finished cake, and cut the rest into pieces. An hour before you’re ready to eat, add the brown sugar. Let the berries sit in the bowl for about an hour in a warm place, stirring occasionally to make sure they are macerating evenly. Cut the shortcake into two layers and butter each cut side. Pour the cream, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of sugar into a tall bowl and whip until stiff peaks form. To assemble, stack the cake layers together with strawberries and juice between and on top. Top with whipped cream and decorate with reserved berries.

Friends Luncheon

Printer friendly recipes: Friends Luncheon Recipes

The Art of the Cheese Plate

The Art of the Cheese Plate

Cheese is my soulmate, so when Sarah W. sends me photos of her cheese plates (which she does every week or two), my heart speeds up and I get butterflies in my stomach. Then I remember that Sarah lives in Ohio and we can’t share. It’s the worst kind of long distance relationship. I have been enlightened, however, with the knowledge that I’m not the only one who eats cheese for lunch sometimes, and that it’s actually a socially acceptable thing to do as long as you lay it out prettily on a plate before consuming. If I pick myself up one of these gorgeous boards, I may even convince the world that my midnight raid of the cheese drawer is because I’m fancy, and in no way related to, you know, beer consumption. I think we’ve delved into my issues enough for one day, so I’m going to pass the cheese plate to Sarah now. If she can inspire me to be a little more classy, just think what she can do for you! Spread the cheese, Sarah!

I don’t actually have a lot of meaningful memories associated with cheese or cheese plates (besides my mother telling me to never use low-fat or fat-free options because, “What’s the point?”), but I have to say, there are not a lot of things that rank higher than sitting outside on a beautiful day with a bottle of wine, a plate covered in cheeses, crackers, veggies, and fruit, accompanied by my best friend or husband.

Cheese Plate

Two kinds of olives, pickled carrots, fresh cherries on the left. Gouda, pepperjack, 5 county cheddar, cucumber slices, sharp white cheddar, porter-marbled, and crackers. Perfect with white wine.

So let’s talk composition. There are so many kinds of cheese. Washed rinds, soft cheese, goatsmilk, sheepsmilk, bleu cheeses, sharps, extra sharps, mild, layered, studded, alcohol-marbled. Going to the fancy cheese section of your local grocery store with the idea to lay out a bangin’ platter can be intimidating, let alone setting foot in a fancy cheese shop. And then, what if you don’t like your choices?

Real Simple has a nice article on selecting cheeses and all the niceties that go along with that, but I don’t always like following rules. Off the top of my head (and from copious field research), I would have guessed cheese plates are usually grouped bleus, creamy, sharp, and mild, and I wasn’t far off the mark. But I’m bored already discussing textures and types.

So how do you pick winners for your own cheese plate?

Cheese Plate

My winners from last summer – a 5 county cheddar (five cheddars of varying sharpness and softness layered one atop the other) and a porter-marbled

Answer one is to taste everything. Any cheese shop worth its salt and cream will hand you a sample. Taste, ask questions. It’s a lot like wine-tasting in that you’ll eventually find yourself with a few solid staples that are both unique and undeniably suited to you. Which leads us to answer two: know your tastes. Sample a mango-studded cheese if you spend all summer obsessively squeezing mangoes at the grocery store to see if they’re ripe for smoothies. Try a cheese marbled with dark beer if your favorite part of St. Patrick’s Day is drinking your dinner in form of Guinness or other stouts and porters. Be on the lookout for ingredients that you know and love in other preparations — artisans put a lot of things in cheese now!

To address the cheesy elephant in the room, if you have never liked any bleu cheese you’ve ever eaten (like my cheese-heathen husband), then ask your cheese shop associate what they’d recommend as an alternative. You might find yourself with a tasty gorgonzola or feta instead. Your guests will have a pungent cheese, and you won’t feel like you’re forcing yourself to eat mold.

Cheese Plate

Pepperjack, multi-grain crackers, sharp white cheddar, brie with strawberries, swiss, garlic-stuffed green olives, mango-studded, and honest-to-goodness air-popped popcorn.

Once you’ve settled on your cheeses, start thinking about what else you’d like to put on your plate — crackers, fruits, vegetables, meats. Brie with fresh strawberries is a super yum combination that finds its way onto my platters on many occasions. The beef sticks I’ve known my whole life as “smokies” make a great accompaniment sliced into inch-long pieces, while thick slices of fat smoked sausages and summer salamis are also a great standby. I have a little garden, and fresh cucumbers and green beans make their way onto my plates, as well as pickled carrots from the year before. And if you love the taste of salty, pickled things, grab feta- or garlic-stuffed olives as garnish. Fresh berries and cherries make a sweet statement against mild cheeses like jarlsberg and swiss. Multi-grain crackers, cheese crisps, even the humble saltine all make mini cheesy sandwich bites, and one of the most delightful things I’ve put in a cheese assortment has to be popcorn. Because why not?

Cheese Plate

These Vans gluten-free cheddar crackers are one of my favorite finds for cheese plates. Super thin and crunchy! Soppressata and salami picante are great cheese plate additions, and white cheddar cheese curds are the main attraction.

The only real rule I’ve come across in cheese plating is to keep wet things (olives, freshly-washed berries, pickles) away from anything they will get soggy (crackers, popcorn, chips). Other than that? Go nuts! I, personally, am not one for smears and smudges of jams and chutneys on a cheese plate, but you do you. Heap preserves on top of a small wheel of brie and pop it in the oven for about 8 minutes. Absolute heaven.

To prepare your cheese for plating, let it guide you. Firmer cheeses do well in thin slabs that easily stack on crackers. Softer cheeses can be cut into rough cubes with a very sharp knife, or allowed to crumble as they will. Creamy cheeses and spreads need to be accompanied by a knife. Layered cheeses, like my 5 county cheddar favorite, made a cute presentation cut into little matchsticks, but it wasn’t the most stable, and liked to fall apart. You can make your cheese plates as Alice in Wonderland landscape-ish or as neat as you’d like. Fan out slices or make a pile of cubes — it’s all up to you!

A last few recommendations: Slice your cheese reasonably close to when you plan on serving it. After several hours, it can start to get hard around the edges and get that greasy, unappetizing sheen. If you have leftover cheese, the best thing to do is have a leftover cheese plate for lunch the next day! Check out this guide on the best ways to store cheeses based on type. I’ve had good luck wrapping cheese in parchment, then plastic wrap, although sometimes you still need to trim hard edges, which is fine! Using the same cheeses over and over won’t get repetitive provided you add something new each time. Finally, I didn’t address dried fruit or nuts, but those are both excellent cheese plate accompaniments.

So, what’s your favorite kind of cheese? Does talking about cheese texture bore you to death, too? What’s the most unique cheese you’ve ever tried — and was it good?

Memorial Day BBQ – Watermelon Ricotta Starters

Memorial Day BBQ – Watermelon Ricotta Starters

 Since many of us have the day off and the kids are ending their school year, Memorial Day has become the unofficial kickoff to summer, with the scent of back yard BBQ wafting through the air. If BBQ is in the plans for you this Monday, try these refreshing appetizers from Sarah B. Sarah may have gotten a little confused with the west coast lingo, but she knows good BBQ, and she definitely knows good snacks! So, Sarah, give us a little lesson on BBQ and teach us how to make those awesome watermelon bites!

Since moving to California from North Carolina, I’ve come to realize there are tons of cultural differences that I wouldn’t have given a second thought to otherwise, generally when it comes to what things are called.

Here, the big road you drive on is called a freeway, not a highway. If you go to a Mexican restaurant and order a taco, the odds are good it won’t have a hard shell a la Taco Bell. Most importantly, though, is that people here use the word barbeque to refer to a gathering where you grill hot dogs and hamburgers, and not to refer to a meal that involves pulled pork.

In North Carolina, barbeque (or BBQ more often) is something of a religion, and the side of the state you originate from will determine the kind of barbeque you proclaim to be the best. If you’re from Western NC, you’ll likely go for the Lexington Style BBQ, made from pork shoulder and served with a sauce seasoned with ketchup, vinegar, and pepper.

If you’re from Eastern NC, you’ll be more likely to prefer Eastern Style (otherwise known as “the correct choice”). Eastern Style BBQ is vinegar and pepper based and includes no part of a tomato.

It should be noted that it’s next to impossible to find real BBQ around here, so imagine my surprise when I heard a couple of colleagues talking and one mentioned that her Memorial Day plans were to have some people over “for barbeque.”

I got really excited hearing this and jumped into the conversation, thinking at the very least I could procure some leftovers, and at best, I might score an invite.

“You’re having barbeque?” I asked, maybe a smidge too enthusiastically. “I haven’t been able to find barbeque anywhere since I moved here.”

She looked at me oddly for a second, then said, “They don’t have hamburgers near your house?”

After another round or two, we determined that when she said she was having people over “for barbeque,” that meant they were grilling out, having what I would call a barbeque. For me, having people over for barbeque means you’re probably having what they refer to in NC as a “pig pickin’” and would be rewarded with delicious pulled pork.

Needless to say, I’m still on my eternal quest to find some good BBQ west of the Smokies.

So I hope everyone has a great Memorial Day weekend, whether you’re having BBQ sandwiches (yay!) or plain old grilled hamburgers (boo!). If you get invited to a cookout, take along these fun appetizers, made with the quintessential summer fruit: watermelon! They’re super easy and super delicious.

Watermelon Ricotta StartersMemorial Day BBQ

Ingredients

  • 1 watermelon
  • 1 container ricotta cheese
  • Several mint sprigs
  • Olive oil, salt, and pepper to taste

Dice your watermelon into large enough chunks that they won’t fall apart if you take the middle out. Remove the center with a melon baller (or even a small spoon).

Fill the holes with ricotta cheese.

Drizzle olive oil over the cubes and add a dash of salt and pepper (to taste) over the platter.

Garnish each ricotta-filled cube with a mint sprig.

 

Mother’s Day Brunch – Stuffed French Toast

Mother’s Day Brunch – Stuffed French Toast

Happy Mother’s Day to all you amazing moms out there! I hope your refrigerators are covered in macaroni art and your kids bring you breakfast in bed! Well, that might be a little strange if you have adult children, so we asked Sarah Weber to update the tradition to something a bit more grown up. Stuffed French Toast can be made ahead and is sure to please Mom and the rest of your guests for a delightful Mother’s Day Brunch. Sarah, tell us how to get stuffed!

Ah, Mother’s Day. I love celebrating my mom, grandma, and mother-in-law, but figuring out something to do and finding a proper gift is getting harder every year.

Is it just me, or as we get older, are more and more problems easily solved with brunch? While panicking about what to do to honor the various mothers in my life this year, I remembered something.

As a kid, my family used to go to the fancy country club where my parents held their wedding reception to have a big fancy brunch with my grandparents. Little did I know that years later, I’d hold my own wedding reception in the same hall. My mom would share stories about working there when she was younger – folding napkins into elaborate designs; bringing home fancy leftovers for my dad; learning to use silverware from the outside in; making a “b” and “d” with your hands to remind yourself which bread plate and drinks were yours (this is still one of my favorite tricks to use at a crowded table). I would watch my blue collar-raised dad put his napkin in his lap before eating, and feel an odd kind of pride in him. My brother and I would raid the desserts table with my grandfather, returning to the table laden with chocolate pudding in glass cups and carrot cake and lemon pie on tiny cream china plates. My grandma would just about burst from beaming like a proud mother duck. She loves having family together. We’d stop at the garden center on the way home to pick new hanging baskets for my mom and grandmother to hang from their porches for the summer.

It’s been years since we’ve been to that brunch, but it was a very strong family tradition growing up. There was always French toast, with lots of maple syrup. Being something of a maple connoisseur, I figured I could work with that memory to make my own brunch. But to fancy it up a little, let’s try stuffed French toast. And let’s make it easy by making it the night before and baking it the day of. We know I love shortcuts!

Two quick discussions:

Bread – Brioche is a wonderful, lovely soft bread to use for this recipe. It soaks up the egg nicely and doesn’t fall apart when you cut into your finished product. Look for a bread that isn’t too dense – a loaf of Italian will do wonderfully, while sourdough isn’t going to absorb your egg mixture as well.

Fruit – You can use any combination of fruit your heart desires. I’ve made this with canned peaches, ricotta, and cinnamon; fresh strawberries, ricotta mixed with cream cheese, and the fruit glaze you put on cheesecake; even pie filling. Some other suggested combos: fresh blueberries slightly macerated with sugar and a touch of Merlot and mascarpone; apple pie filling with extra cinnamon and ricotta; mixed berries glazed with simple syrup and rum with ricotta. There are really no wrong answers here.

Ingredients:

  • 1 loaf bread (unsliced)
  • 1-2 cans fruit filling or fresh fruit, in bite sized pieces
  • 12 oz. ricotta cheese
  • 6-8 eggs
  • Splash of milk
  • Pinch cinnamon/nutmeg, or spices of your choice
  • Maple syrup

Start by slicing your bread pretty thinly and uniformly. Grease a 13×9 pan and line the bottom of the pan evenly with bread. This can lead to some creative cuts in your slicing.

Spread about half of your ricotta cheese evenly over bread. We’re going to cover this up, so it doesn’t need to be perfect!

Top your ricotta with fruit.

Repeat with more bread, ricotta, and fruit. Top with a layer of bread.

Mother's Day

Mix your eggs with a splash of milk and your spices. Pour evenly over bread.

Cover and pop this into the refrigerator overnight. This lets your eggs really soak into the bread. Remove from the fridge 30-45 minutes before you plan to bake this. When you’re ready, heat your oven to about 400 degrees and bake for a minimum of 45 minutes. You can cover with foil for the first half of your cooking time to keep the top from getting too brown.

Slice and serve with a drizzle of maple syrup on top. Adding some bacon and a Bloody Mary is an awfully good idea.

Do you have any Mother’s Day traditions? How are you planning to honor the moms in your life this year? What’s your favorite brunch food?

Printer friendly recipe: Stuffed French Toast