Monday, October 4, 2010

The Parlor and the Kitchen- Cocktail Party

I don’t cook professionally. And as much as I love to write about food, especially here, I don’t cook as an excuse to write about it. I don’t believe that I could effectively work the line in a busy restaurant kitchen, nor do I want to. I cook for my family and my friends and my love and myself. I cook because I believe that food sustains the soul and spirit. I believe food can heal the heart and enliven the body.

I also sometimes believe food is a cure for boredom, an answer to depressing circumstances and a necessary accompaniment to late night television, none of which is particularly a good idea, and yes, I do in fact know better. I just forget I know better now and again.

But at the end of the day, good food prepared with love is a way to say to the person you are cooking for “You mean something special to me.” even if that person is you. Sometimes you need to cook an elegant meal for one, and savor your own abilities!  Especially if you are having a craving for something special.  I was already head over heels for my Charming Suitor before he ever heated a pan on my behalf….but when that man cooked me dinner for the first time, a perfectly roasted breast of duck, marinated in orange and lemon zest and coriander, with new potatoes and steamed green beans, all perfectly cooked and offered up with a deep generosity of spirit…well, my little heart about beat right out of my chest.

Nothing makes me happier than someone who invites me over and assigns me something to bring. Or the friend who calls in need of a potluck dish and wants me to ghost-cook it for them. I have no desire to run a catering business or open a restaurant. I don’t want the health inspector knock knock knocking at my kitchen door. I just want to play in the kitchen for the people who mean something to me as a way of showing my love.

My Dad was recently elected President of a board of a local charity that he has been working with for a while now, and as his first official act, he invited the board and staff over for a cocktail party. It was a chance for the new board members to meet the rest of the group, and for everyone to mix and mingle. I got tapped to do the food. My favorite kind of assignment. “Here is the budget, do whatever you want, just make it lovely.” AWESOME!

I don’t get to do larger scale cocktail parties very often, since at home CS and I prefer dinner parties for a maximum of 10, or BBQs for bigger groups. But I love to make little nibbles, and it is exciting to be able to pull out some of those recipes now and again (all of which I will share at the bottom).

For this event I made:

Edamame Mousse- This is totally decadent and delish. I serve mine in Chinese soup spoons for that cater-y touch, you can buy them in bulk pretty cheaply in both melamine and porcelain. But you can just serve it in a bowl with stuff to dip in it.

Pasta Skewers with Artichokes and Tomato Brown Butter Vinaigrette- Costco fresh pasta bundles filled with goat cheese and herbs, but you can sub any fresh tortellini from the grocery store that you like. Frozen artichoke hearts. You can use canned, but see if you can find the frozen ones, I think it makes a difference. Cook the pasta, toss in olive oil, salt and pepper and chill. Thaw the artichoke hearts and season with salt and pepper. Put one of each on a skewer (I love bamboo!) with a bowl of the dipping vinaigrette in the middle. Any leftover? Pull ‘em off the skewers, toss the bunch in a spoon or two of the sauce and you have killer pasta salad.

Sweet Corn Vichyssoise with Popcorn- this is barely a recipe, and a little late as corn season is nearly over, but save it for next summer. Steam 6 ears of corn. Strip off the kernels and put the cobs in a pot. Put 2 quarts of water over the cobs and boil 30 minutes. Put the kernels in your blender with just enough corn stock to reach the level of the kernels. Blend until smooth. Too thick? Add more corn stock. Should be a thick texture. I pass mine thru a strainer to get the bits for a really velvety texture. Season to taste with salt. You can serve hot or cold. For garnish I made popcorn and seasoned it with salt and pepper. I served mine in these cool disposables from Mozaik.

New Potatoes with Smoked Salmon- These are a great use of store bought stuff, and a terrific way to make an expensive luxury item like smoked salmon go a very long way! I only used about ¼ lb in this whole platter! Boil new potatoes then chill. Slice off a bit of both top and bottom, so that they stand up securely, and with a melon baller or the tip of a spoon, make a small well in the top. I bought a good cucumber tzatziki at the store and added sour cream, lemon zest and grated horseradish. You can also use your favorite creamy sauce for salmon. Put some sauce in the well, put a layer of salmon on top and garnish. Dill and chive are obvious, but I used chervil here, and have also used celery leaves. Just a bit of unexpected!

Duck Confit Wontons with Balsamic Onion Jam and Fried Pickled Ginger- Big wow factor, minimal work. I bought duck confit, you can also sometimes find roasted duck premade at Costco. Can’t find confit? Head to Chinatown or your favorite Chinese restaurant and buy a roasted or BBQ duck. Or substitute a rotisserie chicken. Remove skin and shred the meat by hand, looks better than cutting. I use Braswell’s balsamic onion jam, it is amazing on almost any meat you can think of. Can’t find it? Try fig jam instead, and stir in a bit of balsamic vinegar. Or caramelize onions with a bit of vinegar yourself. I went lazy. I bought wonton skins, cut them into rounds with a biscuit cutter and fried them in peanut oil till golden brown. Pickled ginger (if you can’t find the jars just stop by any sushi restaurant and ask for some) I also fried in the peanut oil until just crispy. Be sure to pat the ginger very dry before frying or your oil will spatter! Crispy wonton, bit of jam, some shreds of duck, a piece of ginger, toss some finely chopped chives around. YUM!

Caprese Tomatoes- One bite salad. Hollow out cherry tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil. Wrap fresh mozzarella balls in fresh basil. Stuff in tomatoes. Pop in mouth.

Fill in your buffet with a nice cheese platter.

And a veggie basket.

Maybe a couple of dips that you like.

Some olives and nuts here and there don’t hurt.  Ditto salami sticks and breadsticks here and there. In vases. Because it is fun.

There is always room in the dessert compartment…I love this platter of fresh figs and strawberries with rough chunks of dark and white chocolate. I buy good quality baking chunks (these are Callebaut) and use the tip of a knife to break off large-ish ragged bits. And I’ve been dying to try my new silicone baking sheets with the mini squares, so I just made a batch of my banana bread with mini chocolate chips instead of big ones and baked these cuties!

Some of my tips for a great looking buffet:

I stick to white and wood for serving pieces. If necessary I fill in with silver or glass. I think food just looks best on white and these pieces can be gotten very inexpensively so if there is breakage, it doesn’t hurt. I don’t think I paid more than $20 for any of my white serveware, and most are in the $10-15 range.

Small white appetizer plates can be had for about $2-3 each at restaurant supply places, Cost Plus World Market and the like. Keep an eye out for sales. Unless you do not have a dishwasher, or you do not have a lot of storage for such supplies, in which case for the love of god go plastic or paper. Ditto for glassware.

I am terrible at flower arranging. I stick to small vases with one kind of flower per vase, and strew them around. Keeps it simple and no one knows I suck at it.

Buffets need a certain amount of scale or they look chintzy, so buy about 25-30% more food than you actually think will be eaten. But don’t make work for yourself with platters that need replenishing. Put out everything and let them at it.

If you do serve something in a Chinese spoon, on a skewer, or in a small cup, place a plate near the platter for discards. Be sure to put one dirty one on each so that people know what they are for. Ditto small cups for olive pits.

Most important, have fun! Mix and mingle. Set up a self-serve bar so you aren’t running drinks all night and hang out with your people. And if you have the budget, a couple hours of someone in the kitchen to help clean is a godsend. You can easily find a student for $10-12 an hour, and having someone cleaning as you go and then helping clear the decks at the end of the night can make the worst part of the party go much smoother.

Here are some of the recipes from the party:

Edamame Mousse

3 c Edamame (I buy this frozen and out of the shell, or it is a major pain!)
½ c butter
½ c cream
½ c truffle oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Onion Sprouts or chopped chives

Boil thawed edamame until tender in salted water, about 10-12 minutes. Puree in food processor with rest of ingredients and season to taste. Serve room temp or slightly warmed sprinkled with onion sprouts or chopped chives.

Brown-Butter Tomato Vinaigrette for Pasta Skewers

3 sticks unsalted butter
6 T sherry vinegar
6 T tomato water (chop 2 large fresh peeled tomatoes into a large dice and cook over medium high heat for 2-3 minutes, then strain in a sieve lined with cheesecloth to just capture the juice. Can substitute one small can of crushed tomatoes strained)
2 T strained tomatoes (from making the tomato water)
12 T extra-virgin olive oil
2 T chopped shallot
2 t Dijon mustard
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat until browned but not burned, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and reserve, but be sure it does not solidify.

In a blender (or with your immersion blender), combine the vinegar, tomato water, olive oil, shallot and mustard. Blend until smooth. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the reserved butter and blend until thickened. Season to taste and set aside at room temperature until ready to serve. If you have to put it in the fridge, be sure to bring it back to room temp before serving.

I use this as a salad dressing (regular or pasta salad), but also as a dip for shrimp, skewers of veggies, or anything else. It would taste good on your shoe!

Chef D’s Awesome Cheese Dip

I am lucky to be surrounded by great friends who cook, and Chef D is legit, and she owns a cooking school! This cheese dip is killer. I’ve posted it before, but it bears repeating.

4 oz cream cheese
1/4 c mayo
2-3 T of Greek yogurt
2-3 T lemon juice
1 t smoky paprika
10 oz grated cheddar
8 oz fontina
4-6 scallions, sliced
¼ t red pepper flakes

Grate the cheese either by hand or in a food processor. Put everything into the processor and blend til it is dip like - taste & adjust lemon & S+P. I sometimes add a splash of Worcestershire just for the helluva it.

White Bean Caramelized Onion Dip

A great substitute for hummus, because let’s be frank, aren’t we all a little sick of hummus?

2 cans cannellini beans or other white beans, drained
Juice of 1 ½ lemons
½ c extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 T fresh thyme leaves
½ c caramelized onions (about one large onion cooked in 2 T olive oil over med-low heat till deep brown)
S/P to taste

Combine all ingredients in food processor and blend until creamy and smooth.

What are your best tips and recipes for a great cockatil party buffet?

Yours in Good Taste.
The Polymath


  1. That was a very informative and delicious looking post. I think I'm moving to an apartment where I can totally envision throwing a cocktail party (with a real, modern kitchen, which will be quite a change from the little dumpy ones that I've always had)and you've made my imagination go into overdrive. Of course, your food is still too complicated for me because I'm a kitchen wuss-- but a girl can dream. Thank you!

  2. Stacey! This is all so beautiful. It makes me want to throw a dinner party tonight! Lovely post.

  3. Wow. It's all so pretty and yummy looking. My culinary prowess can be summed up by telling you that I got stuck on the Caprese Tomatoes. I spent a good five minutes thinking "but you can't eat basil leaves, can you?" / "but she put it in the recipe and she's not dead and I presume no one else has died from eating her stuffed tomatoes"/ "wonder why I thought you couldn't eat basil leaves?"/ "it's in pasta sauce, right? Like the Prego spaghetti sauce? Yes! Basil leaves are awesome"/"So what is it that you can't eat? I know there's a leaf..."

    Took me another ten minutes to figure out that it's bay leaves that you are supposed to remove before serving.

    So I'm always super impressed when someone can "whip up" a buffet like the one you presented. It's like a carnival for the senses. :) But, lest you think I'm completely useless in the kitchen - I do make a mean Mac&Cheese (the tricky part is opening up the box but once you've figured that out, you're golden).

  4. Running with kids to and fro...someone invites us for a last minute "get together"..I head to the Chinese place pick up about 15 egg roles, slice them up...and people love them!! Get differnt sauces and there ya go..yea, I'm lazy like that. Love your table!!

  5. Holy shit, woman! Martha Stewart would be impressed!

  6. My favorite two easy appetizers I do is spread cream cheese on one or two pieces of hard salami and wrap around a scallion. Another easy dip is put a block of cream cheese on a platter and pour Pickapeppa Sauce on top. Serve with your favorite cracker. Everyone loves these unique eats! Yum!

  7. Ooooh, that looks amazing, excellent work! My problem is knowing how much to fix. I still haven't gotten that formula worked out, so I end up eating leftovers for days and days (not that it's an entirely bad thing, but....) So any tips would be appreciated!
    I get great reviews on a cheese spread that's cream cheese, finely grated sharp cheddar, some minced onion, finely chopped red pepper, and drained crushed pineapple with a dash of season-all.

  8. I figure on one hors d'oeuvre "bite" every twenty minutes per person, so for a 2 hour party, 6 bites per person. By filling in with veggies and dip, nuts and olives, cheese and crackers for the grazing, you should be fine on food. We expected 30 people for this party for 2 hours, so I made 6 different hors d'oeuvres, 30 pieces of each, plus the extras.

  9. I can't wait to try your dips! Yes, I am very sick of hummus. :)

  10. I love the mini banana breads! I have made your banana bread recipe for my hubby & he loves it. The mini ones are so cute and perfect for get togethers. About how long do you bake them? And about how full did you make each mold?

  11. I filled the little molds about 2/3 full and baked for 12-14 minutes. You can also use mini muffin molds.

  12. not so much for a fancy or "upscale" gathering, but moreso - a football watch party or the like...

    1 can chili (I prefer with beans, but do what you like)
    1 16oz block cream cheese (reduced fat works if you're into that kind of thing)
    3/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese
    2 cloves garlic, minced (or pasted)

    preheat oven to 350

    mix all ingredients (reserving half of the cheese). when well incorporated, place in oven for 20 minutes. pull out, top with remaining cheese, and place back into oven for another 10 minutes. (for extra bubbly cheese goodness, flip on the broiler for a minute or two at the end)

    serve with favorite sturdy chip (fritos work amazingly well with this one)

  13. i personally love a good cheese platter. i add parmesean cheese crisps (litle piles of cheese baked at 350 until gold.)and salami crisps (crisp the salami at 350)... we use these instead of crackers. along with fruit, of course. :-)

  14. Wow, I'm so impressed by this delicious-looking spread! You are a woman of many talents, Stacey. :) I can't wait to dig into your new book. xo

  15. Stacey, Bought your book, LOVE IT!! Your recipe for Duck Confit Wontons with Balsamic Onion Jam and Fried Pickled Ginger sounds delicious - not sure I am up for attempting the way you did it - but - going to try to make something close to it this wkend with my own Charming Suitor!! Fingers XX for luck!
    Thanks again for writing things that make me laugh, oooh and aaah.. Keep up the grand work!