Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Parlor and the Kitchen- Weeknight Entertaining

I know a lot of people who accuse me of entertaining on weeknights as a way of flaunting my self-employed status. Of COURSE I can have people over on a school night, I have all day to shop and prep and get the house ready, unlike NORMAL people who have to work all day and cannot conceive of getting home and starting to get ready for a party.

But to those who doubt me, I say NAY! For I spent the first fifteen years of my career working long days offsite just like you, and yet, I found that weeknight fun with guests actually perked me up, instead of being a drag. It feels a little bit decadent to have people over mid-week, like a tiny little piece of weekend. I promise, with a few little tips and tricks, you won’t hesitate to call your gang and invite them over some random Tuesday or Wednesday. 

Staples: Having some basic supplies that you always keep on hand can take a lot of pressure off of having guests on a weeknight. This is especially important in the area of pre-dinner nibbles. At an after-work gathering, there should be less time spent over cocktails and snacks, in favor of sitting down to dinner. It may be a social event, but people are less likely to overindulge in booze (more on that in a minute), and less likely to stay longer than you would prefer if you get to the main event sooner rather than later. Towards that end, I keep things like pretzels, chips, mixed nuts and olives in my arsenal for quick snacks. Want to go even more basic? Try popcorn. Freshly popped popcorn, tossed with salt or parmesan cheese, drizzled with truffle oil or given a shake of an herb mixture can take as little as 6 minutes and is an ideal snack, not overly filling and not expensive! My favorite recipe is below.

(thanks to Mama Says for the pic)

Paper or Plastic?: The company is the most important thing, so don’t be afraid to serve good food on disposable dinnerware, especially if you don’t have a dishwasher. No one wants to say goodnight to guests at ten, and still be up at midnight washing dishes, or worse, facing them in the morning before your coffee. Want some awesome stuff to keep on hand? Try Mozaik. They have very cool plastic plates, flatware, and serving stuff…disposable never looked like this! But they are sturdy enough to reuse if you decide to give them a second life, you can even put the plates in the top rack of the dishwasher. The flatware is tough and stands up to almost anything you are likely to serve, the plates are solid, and the servingware is contemporary and stylish.

Check out the Plates:

And the flatware:

I love this appetizer set!:

And which is best, you can get it in bulk, making it very affordable.

Mangia!  When in doubt, think pasta. Nothing is easier or quicker to get on the table than pasta, and nothing is more satisfying at the end of a long day than a bowlful of steaming strands. If you buy the fresh stuff, it cooks in less than 2 minutes, but keep a box or two of angel hair in the pantry which is 3 or 4 minutes from pot to plate. Sauce can be as simple as a jar of decent marinara…the one I use is Rao’s, but Lidia’s, Fanny’s and Bertucci are all good options, buy a few and do a taste test. Feeling guilty about sauce from a jar? Be sure to perk it up with really top quality parmagiano reggiano, freshly grated, and some fresh basil leaves torn roughly on top. You can mix in some chunks of fresh mozzarella or crumbled goat cheese for a richer dish. Want a heartier sauce? Saute some mild Italian sausage meat out of the casing, drain the extra fat and stir it in. Not a red sauce fan? Splurge on a small package of truffle butter or a bottle of truffle oil, and stir that in with some chopped chives and shredded meat from a rotisserie chicken. Can’t find truffle butter or oil, or it falls outside the budget? Use a fruity olive oil and lemon zest instead. Have slightly more time to cook? Check out this post on or pasta with chicken and zucchini, light and delicious.

(thanks to My Veggie Kitchen for the pic)

All pasta needs to round itself out is a loaf of good bread and a simple salad, and one of my personal go-to dinner party classic salads is below, an unexpected mix of celery, green apple and parmesan, it is fresh and crunchy and very easy to make. But feel free to buy a bag of pre-washed greens of your choice, and a good quality bottled dressing, the Newman’s Own are always a crowd pleaser.

School night sweets: If my family had a crest, the motto would be “Dulcis usquequaque!” which is “There is always room in the dessert compartment!”. And no, I am not remotely suggesting you bake on a Tuesday, unless you love to do it and the party is on Wednesday. You can always let one of your guests bring dessert to take the burden off you, or you can go with a classic stand-by, a freezer full of ice cream or sorbet! Basic, classic vanilla is easily topped with some fresh berries or a drizzle of a sweet liqueur to gussy it up…Kahlua, Chambord, Frangelico and bourbon are all great toppers. Want more of a show stopper? Try the recipe for Red Wine Caramel sauce below, it is a fantastic way of using up an open bottle.

In Vino Veritas: Speaking of wine, it is a weeknight, so no one is looking to party till the wee hours or have to head into the office hungover the next day. Stick with wine or beer, and be sure to offer sparkling water or other non-alcoholic beverages. I find that if there are bottles of cold water on the table in easy reach, my guests will help themselves and drink less.  I killed two birds with one stone by buying a case of  French Sparkling Lemonade in glass bottles with the cool flip tops.  That way I could offer it as a non-alcoholic option, and also save the bottles which I cleaned, removed the labels, and use and re-use for cold water.  I just fill up about 4-6 and stash them in the bottom of the fridge and then pop them on the table, about one for every two people.

I keep mine in a lovely old wooden wine crate that was a gift from Charming Suitor.

No luck like potluck! Want to have your gang over, but afraid that their elevated tastes will be let down by jarred sauce pasta and store bought ice cream? Toss the challenge back at them. Assign dishes to guests, those who can cook, will, those who can’t can buy the same bakery breads and desserts you would, but taking one more errand off your plate.

No day like today: Weeknights are great for socializing with that couple who keeps trying to make weekend plans, but your calendar is always booked. Weeknights are perfect for meeting your significant other’s friends for the first time, less pressure and shorter time to have to be on your most impressive behavior! Or a perfect night to get the girls (or guys) together without losing date night.

Go on.  I dare you.

And for a special treat, the best tip or recipe for weeknight entertaining posted in the comments section will receive this set of Mozaik serving bowls:


Herbed Popcorn

3 T peanut oil

¾ c popcorn kernels

3 T nutritional yeast (this will be with the dietary supplements at your local Whole Foods or health food store, and while it sounds like a strange addition, it has a nutty flavor that is reminiscent of parmesan cheese and pairs great with popcorn…if you can’t find it, you can substitute grated parmesan)

1 t ground mustard powder

1 ½ t salt (and more to taste)

1 t dried thyme leaves (or Herbes de Provence or Italian herb mix)

½ t garlic powder

¼ t cayenne pepper (optional)

Mix all of the spices and herbs with the nutritional yeast in a small bowl.

Put oil and popcorn in a large pot, shake to be sure all the kernels are coated, cover pot with tight fitting lid and turn the stove burner on high. Leave the pot alone until you hear the popping slow down, and then give it a shake or two just to be sure that you are getting all the kernels popped. When the popping slows to three seconds between pops, turn off the heat, remove the lid, and pour the popcorn in a bowl large enough for you to mix it around easily. Sprinkle hot popcorn with about 1/3 of the yeast/spice mix and toss popcorn thoroughly. Taste. Add more yeast mix and salt until you get the flavor you want. Once you have the right balance, let the popcorn sit uncovered at room temperature until completely cool. Store in Ziploc bags or Tupperware containers for up to 36 hours. You can toast on sheet pans in a 400 degree oven for 3-4 minutes to recrisp or if you want to serve warm.

Celery Green Apple Salad

2 heads celery with hearts, cleaned and sliced on the diagonal about ¼ inch thick, but long pieces

2 granny smith apples, sliced into thin slices

½ lb parmagiano reggiano shavings (you can also use manchego, cheddar, or gouda)

Juice of one lemon

¼- 1/3 c extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Toss celery and apple with lemon juice and olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange cheese on top.

Red Wine Caramel Sauce

3/4 c sugar

3/4 c red wine

2 T water

In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a boil over medium high heat. Cook without stirring until a pale-amber caramel forms, about 5-6 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully add the red wine. Place back over heat and cook, stirring to dissolve the hardened caramel, until it is slightly reduced, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl or pitcher and serve warm.

The red wine caramel can be refrigerated for up to 1 month. Bring it to room temperature or heat slightly before serving

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

Don't forget to make a comment to win!

Monday, June 28, 2010

48 Writers, 4 Book Clubs, One Amazing Contest

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to participate in an amazing online contest over at Alison Winn Scotch's blog.  She was giving away stacks of signed books to people who registered on her site.  It was enormous fun to watch the 1200 entries come in, but more fun was the e-mail exchanges with all of the other authors!  There were 28 of us by the end, and in an industry that is usually about just you and your computer, it was nice to see the little community we created.

Then Leah Stewart had an even bigger and better idea...

What if we gave a winning book club a year of books?  Ten signed copies each of twelve different titles, and the author's agreement to participate in the book club discussions via telephone!  How's that for a contest!

Even better, is that she got 48 writers to participate, so 4 lucky book clubs are going to have one amazing year.  And I'm thrilled to be a part of it!

Click below to enter by either joining the mailing list (future contests and information from the participating authors only, we’re not selling or sharing your info), or you can comment or like the Facebook note. And please forward this info to your friends, post the link on your facebook page, and tweet away!

Contest mailing list: Contest Mailing List

Facebook: Book Club Contest

And while it isn't nearly this level of excitement, check back here tomorrow for a small contest just for my readers!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Feasting Friday- Truly Amazing Banana Bread

I love bananas. They are a perfect food for me, quick, easy, delicious, healthy. If I’m running around, I can grab one on the go and have good energy. They are a satisfying snack, hitting my sweet tooth, but without sending me into sugar crazies. I will often make a light lunch of cottage cheese, a banana, and some whole wheat crackers. I like them at almost every stage, still slightly green when they are firmer and a little tart, up to speckled brown when they are sweet and fragrant.

But for the life of me, I have never been able to figure out how to buy the right number of bananas.

Invariably, I buy too many. I think I need four, but I only eat two. I am sure that I need six, but only three end up munched upon. I buy them slightly green, but they either ripen too fast, or go overripe seemingly overnight. Once they start to go, I let them. Because as much as I love a good healthy diet-friendly banana, I love banana cake and banana bread and banana muffins more.

If Little Sister and I have one thing in common, it is that our desert island dish, the last supper requirement, the most delectable morsel we have ever eaten is Susan G’s banana cake with chocolate frosting. She is our extra Mom, way beyond godmother or “aunt”, and I believe that her magic banana cake is probably one of the first solid foods either of us ever ate. She is an amazing cook in general, and ridiculously fabulous baker, but the banana cake is her masterpiece. It is the one dessert we will not share, not even one bite…go get your own…we will stab you with a fork if you try and sneak a Northeast corner.  And if we know there is going to be banana cake, we will eat lightly during dinner and be first in line at the dessert buffet. We have been known to (gently) elbow a small child out of the way. There was once a family “incident” involving a piece of the cake being absconded with, and nearly 30 years later the affront has been forgiven, but not forgotten.

I have tried over the years to replicate it, and for the record, while I make a very very good banana cake with chocolate frosting, it isn’t ever Susan’s. It will be the best one you have ever tasted. Until you taste hers. But I keep trying!

One of the tricks I learned from Susan (in addition to purposely underbaking brownies, never putting raisins where chocolate chips belong, and that you can safely double the amount of chocolate in just about any recipe) is that when your bananas go all brown and overripe, pop them in the freezer. You don’t need to peel them or put them in a bag or anything, just throw them in there. When you thaw them for use in baking they are practically pre-mushed, the texture is extra moist, and the flavor is intensified. With my small banana over-buying problem, I never lack for frozen baking bananas.

But it had gotten a little ridiculous…

So when Dakota Prairie Organic Flours sent me some of their products to play with, I knew that banana bread was in the offing! Because while my banana cake cannot compete with Susan’s, my banana bread is just about the best one ever. There is a reason that the one thing I baked and brought with me to meet Charming Suitor’s family for the first time was this banana bread!

The recipe doubles well, and the loaves freeze beautifully. It is a great simple weekend task, minimal effort, maximum taste, and the perfect thing to bring to someone’s house. You can use the batter to make lovely muffins of all sizes if you prefer.

And something about not having frosting makes banana bread much easier to share.


Stacey’s Famous Banana Bread

1 c sugar

½ c butter, softened

3 very ripe bananas, mashed (if yours are frozen, thaw on the countertop, snip one end off with a kitchen scissors, and let the banana and liquid slide out into a bowl…if you try to peel them, you will have a mess!)

2 eggs

1 ¼ c flour (I used the Dakota Prairie High Gluten Flour for this batch and it worked great!)

½ t salt

1 t baking soda


½ c toasted nuts, chopped if large (optional)

½ c chocolate chips or chunks, coconut, or dried fruit, chopped if large (optional)

NOTE: Add-ins should total between ½ and 1 c total. If you like it nutty, you can use a full cup of nuts, if you like it chocolate-y, do a full cup of chips or chunks!

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a loaf pan.

Cream softened butter and sugar with a hand mixer or in a stand mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy.

In a separate bowl, beat eggs until smooth. Add mashed bananas to eggs, blending quickly, then add the mixture into butter and sugar, and stir together.

Sift flour, salt and baking soda and fold into wet mixture. Fold in any add-ins. Pour into greased loaf pan and bake 45-55 minutes until a skewer comes out clean.

Cool on a rack.

My favorite combinations:

Toasted pine nuts and white chocolate chips.

Walnuts and dark chocolate.

Yogurt-covered dried cherries.

Pecans and milk chocolate chunks.

Sweetened flaked coconut.

Toffee chips.

If you do want the recipe for Susan’s famous banana cake with chocolate frosting, it is included in the mini-cookbook at the end of GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT…you’ll have to buy the book to get it! Frankly, while I am very proud of the book and think you will enjoy it, the cover price is worth is for this one recipe alone, I promise!

Yours in Good Taste,

The Polymath

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Parlor and the Kitchen- Tea and Honey

I’m not a coffee drinker by nature. I drank a lot of coffee in high school, and since then I’ve really been much more of a tea drinker. I love tea. I love the rituals around tea, the fancy silver tea sets and beautiful porcelain teacups. I love the different ways you can make your tea, honey and lemon, milk and sugar, fresh mint and agave nectar. Coffee, at its core, is always coffee flavored. But tea can be black or white or green, infused with fruits or spices, it can be spicy or floral, soothing or bracing, energizing or calming. I occasionally have a cappuccino or espresso at the end of a restaurant meal, but I probably only drink 6-8 cups of coffee a year. But tea, tea is an almost daily occurrence. I drink it hot and iced. Plain and sweetened. British, Thai, and Vietnamese.

(I should admit to the fact that I cannot make a decent cup of coffee to save my life, and my guests who request it are given directions to the Starbucks on the corner, or handed a packet of Via. It is very non-polymathematical of me, I know.)

One of the many things I love about working at home is tea. When I worked in an office, tea was a quick grab…throw some hot water and a tea bag into your cup and back to your desk. The only thing I ever had to think about was not spilling it on my computer.

At home, tea breaks can be a real luxury. I can pick whatever flavor of tea strikes my mood…and as you can see, I have many possible moods!

I use an electric teakettle, and love this one from Krups which I have had for nearly 5 years. Still going strong, and ultra fast.

I buy teas all over the place, with a consistent preference for loose teas. I keep a few specific flavors like Constant Comment in bags, but my go-to general brand is Republic of Tea. They have a huge selection of flavors, their decaf teas are as delicious as the leaded versions, and the canisters are beautiful.

I have used these individual pots by Beehouse for a long time now, and I love the convenience of the mesh inserts, the fact that all the parts can be tossed in the dishwasher.

But while the Beehouse pots are great when I know I will be having more than one cup, or when sharing with a friend, sometimes, usually at the end of the night, I just need one cup. And usually with honey.

So I was super excited when Moonspoon sent me their gorgeous tea strainer and honey dipper. I became aware of Moonspoon a couple of months ago, when I bought a few of their Arts and Crafts style pieces as a gift for my Charming Suitor, who loves that period. Everything they make is both beautiful and functional.

I love that the strainer can be used either to steep a single cup of tea, or as a true strainer, to catch extra loose leaves from a full pot as you pour. And the honey dipper is a unique flat design that works great. It held enough honey in one swipe to sweeten my cup, and the design makes it easy to clean, unlike the other honey dippers I have seen.

(The honey, by the way, is from Braswell's, who has a terrific line of honeys, jams, and preserves. Their Balsamic Onion Jam is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted with sharp cheeses or on roasted meats.)

For a fun hostess gift, try putting together a tea package! A small pot or the Moonspoon strainer, a canister or two of great tea, a jar of special honey with a honey dipper or a box of sugarcubes. I often collect unique teacups from flea markets and yard sales, usually just a dollar or two for singles, and include that in the basket. You can even go over the top and get an electric teakettle!

Yours in good taste,

The Polymath

Monday, June 21, 2010

Medium Rare Polymath

As I think I have mentioned before being a polymath may make me very smart, but it doesn't mean I'm not a moron.

Case in point:

A polymath knows that one should never leave the house without appropriate sunscreen on exposed body parts.

A polymath can tell you about SPF, and what it means, and the long-term effects of sun damage to your skin, as well as the benefits of certain amounts of sun.


This polymath will share that based on empirical research, one should not: 

Use last summer's spray sunscreen.

Be casual about coverage of old less-potent sunscreen.

Spend the four hottest hours of the day in a pool, where the now-degraded sunscreen can disappear from some, but not all of one's skin.

Choose to not bother to re-apply aforementioned useless sunscreen during the course of the day, assuming that the exposure might help to correct current Vitamin D deficiency.

Because if you do all of these things, you will, in fact, acquire a thoroughly uncomfortable sunburn on some but not all of your body.  The fronts of your legs will take on the blotchy mottled look of a partially cooked lobster, and the burned bits will invariably reside in the most painful locations.  Ditto your chest, which now looks a little bit like that pink camo pattern Juicy Couture made so popular a couple of seasons ago.  And your forearms will each get a strange bit of burn that look much like a map of the continents.  And if you are REALLY lucky, which of course I am, you will have one spot on your right arm which will look like someone painted two intersecting lines of pink that look like a large capital J.  SUPER.

Apart from the sad sunburn, and the lessons learned thereby, it was a fabulous weekend...including Charming Suitor and I playing a rousing game of Cranium with Little Sister and her own Charming Suitor, which was a close battle in which CS and I were ultimately victorious.

Note: do not try to hum George Michael's FAITH while simultaneously trying not to laugh and suppressing a wee bit of digestive pressure, or for sure you are going to accidentally break wind, and I am pretty sure that in the rules your opposing team gets an extra roll for flatulence.  Hypothetically.

Had a great Father's Day with Mom and Dad, he loved his new toy, my favorite travel charger from Chargepod, and my favorite furry nephew was delighted to hang out with us!

Hope you all had a great weekend and a happy Father's Day, I'll be back tomorrow with a new fun kitchen post!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Feasting Friday- Weeknight Risotto

I know a lot of people who are scared to death of risotto. On the surface, it seems like such a restaurant meal, and yet I have had far more bad risotti in restaurants than I have at home. Risotto is shockingly easy to make, takes much less time than most people think, and is a fantastic tool to have in your bag of tricks.

You can make a basic risotto with pantry items, or a fancy one with special ingredients. It can be an elegant appetizer, a delicious side dish, or a hearty one-pot meal. And despite its creamy consistency, basic risotto is surprisingly good for you, since most of the creaminess comes from the releasing of the starch in the rice into the stock, and not, as many presume, from actual cream. (of course, you CAN add cream, or more butter than I have in mine, or a spoonful of mascarpone cheese and no one will argue…)

When I was writing recipes for GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT, I focused on the comfort foods that the chef heroine, Melanie, would have wanted as she worked her weight loss program. Risotto is filling, even in small portions, and soul-satisfying. It is one of my go-to dishes, especially when I need a bowl of something warm at the end of a long day. So I knew there would have to be a version in the book!

For as long as I can remember, as much as I love making risotto, I hadn’t found the perfect pan. You need something heavy, so that it can stay put during all the stirring. But cast iron never really worked, I had problems with the rice sticking. You need something wide so that the rice and stock meld together easily and the rice all cooks evenly, which is difficult in a deeper pot, since the rice at the bottom tends to cook faster than the rice at the top. But my only options were my skillet, just shy of really being deep enough, and the sloping sides meant the tiniest bit of overzealous stirring and the contents are sloshed onto the cooktop; or my straight sided wide pan, which always trapped rice in the crevices, and wasn’t really big enough.

Who came to the rescue? Emile Henry. A French company specializing in heavy enameled ceramic cookware, designed to go from stovetop to oven to dishwasher. I had seen them in stores for years, but never cooked with one. Until they sent me this:

How freaking gorgeous is this casserole???? I mean, seriously.

Now, Emile Henry calls it a braiser, but the moment it arrived, all I could think about was risotto. And since Chicago decided to have a brief spurt of rainy Fall earlier this week, risotto seemed just the ticket. Plus I had not yet made my famous risotto for Charming Suitor. CS threw his back out last week, literally saving a woman from certain death or disfigurement by catching her when she tripped and started to do a header down the L stairs, making my hero her hero as well. He had a very long week and doctor’s appointments and endless ice packs and a lot of pain, and this Monday was his first full day back at work, so I wanted him to come home to something that was simple, delicious and soothing. A little bowl full of love.

Risotto it was! I knew I was going for the one-pot version, which is the version Melanie makes in the book. Shredded chicken, the meat from a store-bought rotisserie version, frozen peas, canned or fresh artichoke hearts. So easy. The recipe is also in the book, but here is a sneak preview version.

Made, I must say, enormously easier by both the Swiss Chop Chop I mentioned on Tuesday for the shallots, and the new braiser which I think Emile Henry should rename The Best Risotto Pan Ever. The pan was deep enough to contain the contents, and the curvy shape made for both easy stirring and no sloshing. It is a heavy piece, so it didn’t budge, and retained the heat amazingly well, which meant I could cook on medium-low instead of cranked up on high!

I’m a definite fan. And I can’t wait to see how it does in the Fall when I start craving braised stuff again.

CS is doing much better, thank you all for happy thoughts. (I think it might have been the risotto that cured him, but claims it is the anti-inflammatory drugs and rest, even though he did eat two huge bowlfuls and took the leftovers for lunch…)

He is hanging up his cape, tho, so ladies, watch your step on the stairs!

Risotto Ala Melanie from GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT

2 c Carnaroli or Arborio rice
10 c chicken stock
2 shallots, chopped
2 c cooked chicken meat, shredded (from a store bought rotisserie chicken is great here)
4 artichoke bottoms (preferably fresh) cooked and diced
½ c frozen petite green peas (optional)
2 T butter
1 T olive oil
½ c dry white wine or champagne
1 pinch saffron threads
¼ c grated parmagiano reggiano
2 T chopped flat leaf parsley
¼ c toasted pine nuts (optional)
Zest of one lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Put chicken stock in a saucepan and heat over medium until simmering but not boiling. Melt 1 T butter in a heavy bottom wide pan with the olive oil. Add shallots and cook till translucent.

Add rice and stir until each grain is coated. Add wine and saffron threads and stir till wine is totally absorbed. Add chicken stock one ladle at a time until almost completely absorbed, and then add next ladle. Stir continuously.

When it begins to take longer for stock to be absorbed, taste the rice. You are looking for al dente, not mushy or gummy. When you are getting close to the right texture, add the chicken, peas and artichokes to heat through, along with the lemon zest, salt and pepper. When the rice is perfectly cooked, stir in the remaining butter, the cheese, and the parsley, and do a final taste for seasonings. Garnish with pine nuts.

To buy your own Emile Henry braiser.