In Season: Oktoberfest

Oktoberfest Tasting

It’s time for another themed blog post with Jen at Cook It, Click It, Eat It. We chose Oktoberfest this time around since it is…October. Ironically, real Oktoberfest takes place mostly at the end of September, but I don’t like to get too caught up in specifics when there is beer to be sipped.

Oktoberfest Tasting

Since Oktoberfest is all about beer, I put together a fun quick tasting of several seasonal Oktoberfest beers. A beer tasting can get a little on the expensive side if you have to buy six packs of each beer. However, if you live near a Total Wine or store like it, stop by and make your own six pack and score single bottles of different beers to sample for significantly less money. For this tasting I picked up the following beers: Spaten Oktoberfest. Lake Front Oktoberfest, Harpoon Oktoberfest, Magic Hat Hex Ourtoberfest.

Oktoberfest Tasting

Aren’t they pretty? Even though they’re all the same type of beer, there are some noticeable color differences. We happen to have a set of 4 ounce tasting glasses because the husband home brews beer, but any small juice glass will work. A tasting serving should be about 4 ounces, so a 12 ounce bottle will yield 3 servings.

Oktoberfest Tasting

The husband and I worked our way through each one and wrote down our notes. Some crunchy pretzels helped clear our palates between sips. We started with the Spaten since it is the traditional German Oktoberfest. It was a good, very straightforward beer, not particularly complex but very drinkable. The American offerings were much more interesting, though, and we decided the Lake Front Oktoberfest was our favorite due to it’s sweet-bitter balanced finish and perfect fizziness.

 Oktoberfest Tasting

I whipped up a cute little beer tasting place mat to help us keep track of the beers and record our notes. You can download it here if you ever want to try your own beer tasting at home. I included a handy listing of beer terms at the bottom for inspiration during a tasting.
Beer Tasting Place Mat

Now, the picture below was staged, this is NOT how you want to end up after a tasting! We had a great time sampling the Oktoberfests, which was a type of beer I was not super familiar with. Make sure to jump over to Jen’s blog and check out the delicious food side of Oktoberfest, too!

Oktoberfest Tasting

Party On! Supper on the cheap

Party On! Supper on the cheap

This month, I am tackling the excuse I hear most often for why people don’t entertain: It’s too expensive. I’m about to knock the teeth out of that notion and prove that you CAN host a delightful meal for less than you think. With meat! And wine! And dessert! So, start flexing those frugal muscles and get ready to host a delicious dinner party on the cheap (and your guests will never know)!

*Please be aware this post contains gratuitous meat photos, just in case that sort of thing offends you.*

It’s fast becoming grilling season, so I chose a menu that would give us an excuse to fire up the grill for the first time.

Marinated Skirt Steak with Magical Chimichurri

Grilled Crookneck Squash

Chipotle Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Chilled White Wine

Ice Cream

Here’s the breakdown of the cost of each ingredient of this meal for 4: 2 lbs skirt steak $11.40, 3 lbs. sweet potato $2.00, 4 crook neck summer squash $2.60, 1 lemon $0.50, 2 bunches of herbs $1.50, 2 bottles of white wine $6.50 (don’t hate on the Charles Shaw when on a budget), 1 pint ice cream $3.50. Grand Total $28! That’s $7 a person! What?!? Yea!!

Party On! Supper on the cheap

I’m going to share with you my favorite trick to making a delicious meal while watching pennies: focus on quality, locally grown, in season produce. I’m talking whatever looks best and plentiful at your local farmer’s market or your own garden. Fresh, in season produce will always be less expensive than trying to find something out of season AND be of much better quality. Even though you might be able to find a $5 eggplant right now at the grocery does not mean it is good eggplant. This is one of those special, rare times when taking the cheaper route will actually yield better ingredients!

The very first summer squash varieties made their debut this past weekend at my farmer’s market, so I snatched some up. Living in the South is grand! Summer squash in April! They were actually slightly more expensive than they will be at the height of summer, but still a solid, quality bargain. Another bonus to in season produce – they’re already delicious so you don’t have to do much to them. A good coat of olive oil, salt and pepper, and a hot grill were all these squash needed.

Party On! Supper on the cheap

See what I mean about gratuitous meat shots. Oh yeah, that’s skirt steak in all it’s glory. It’s a chewy, extremely beefy cut that benefits from a nice long marinade and a quick hot grill. It is also very affordable, which makes it perfect for this budget Party On! Topping the steak with a little chimichurri sauce elevates it from plain old grilled meat into a company worthy main dish.

Warning, if you make this chimichurri expect future requests for it from everyone who tries it. Even people who hate cilantro love it. All the flavors combine to create something greater than the sum of it’s parts. I’m not 100% sure, but I think it might be magic.

Marinated Grilled Skirt Steak, serves 4

2 lbs. skirt steak

juice from 1 lemon

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon dried chipotle chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Place skirt steak in a large zip top plastic bag. In a medium bow combine all other ingredients. Pour marinade over steak in bag. Carefully press out as much air as possible from the bag and seal (by removing the air, we’re increasing the total surface area of the meat that the marinade is touching and can cut the time to marinate in half). Marinate in refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours. Fire up grill and remove steak from fridge. Let rest on counter 20 minutes before grilling, then drain off marinade and pat steak dry. Grill over high heat about 5-6 minutes per side for rare (longer for more well-done).

Magical Chimichurri, makes about 1 cup

1 bunch flat leaf parsley

1 bunch cilantro

2 cloves garlic

2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/4 cup olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

Clean parsley and cilantro well. Pull leaves off the bunches and toss into a food processor. Peel garlic cloves and put in food processor. Add vinegar and oil, salt and pepper. Process in food processor until well combined but not totally pulverized. Serve immediately or store in an air tight container for up to 24 hours. Slather it on steak, or vegetables, or bread, or nearly anything edible.

Party On! Supper on the cheap

When I’m planning a party on the cheap, I always look to inexpensive starches to round out a menu. The humble Russet potato is always a good choice as is the pretty, pretty sweet potato I chose this time. Don’t overlook rice or pasta side dishes, either. None of these starches cost much money and they are easy to dress up. My sweet potatoes, for instance, got dusted with some of the same chipotle chili powder that I put in the marinade for the skirt steak. It added just enough zing and heat to amp up the guest worthy factor of a roasted potato. I also didn’t peel them before I roasted them, and was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the crispy, kind of chewy potato skin.

Party On! Supper on the cheap

I hope this little dinner party encourages you to believe that you can be on a budget and still enjoy hosting a dinner party! Feel free to chip in with your cost saving tips in the comments. I would love to hear them!

Party On! How to cook fancy

Fancy Cookin' - Broiled lobster, lemon braised leeks, and mashed potato gratin

Sometimes life just demands a fancy meal. You know those occasions – to celebrate a big promotion or raise or because it’s Wednesday. But cooking a fancy meal at home can be intimidating. Sure, you might be a master at every day meals, but if the thought of cooking something fancier than a spaghetti dinner leaves you queasy, this is the Party On! for you.

Cooking fancy at home can be achieved by following 3 simple rules.

1. Have one ‘fancy’ ingredient. A fancy ingredient should be high quality, very yummy, and something you wouldn’t eat every day. It will be the star of the meal, so a high quality protein is the best fancy ingredient. Think filet mignon, oysters, extra jumbo shrimp, lamb chops.

2. Individual portions. This is key. Even though everyone will be eating the same meal, by serving them already plated in individual portions (just like at a restaurant) you up the fancy. This means portioning and plating everything BEFORE you serve to the guests. No communal passing of bowls or serving at the table. Bonus points to you if you have enough small plates, bowls, ramekins, etc. that can be used for serving an individual portion.

3. Make it look fancy. Garnish. Broil to golden brown. Use fresh herbs with abandon. TOP WITH CHEESE! A fancy meal should look like you went the extra mile to make it special.

Fancy Cookin' - Broiled lobster, lemon braised leeks, and mashed potato gratin

Here’s how I applied the rules for fancy cookin’ and whipped up a kick butt fancy dinner for the husband.

1. Have one ‘fancy’ ingredient. One word – lobster. Lobster tails are available frozen at any good grocery store. Let them thaw overnight in the fridge and they’ll be ready for action. Lobster tails also give the WOW factor of eating lobster without the ick factor of lobster homicide via a pot of boiling water. They’re also much easier to handle than whole lobsters, and they are cleaner to eat.

2. Individual portions. I used small ramekins to hold each serving of mashed potatoes. I also made a bed of leeks as a side dish but the leeks double as a pretty garnish under the lobster when plated. Each lobster tail is already portioned for one serving.

3. Make it look fancy. I split the lobster tail in half lengthwise to expose the meat. Then I brushed it liberally with fresh herbs, a little vegetable oil, and salt and pepper. The potatoes got topped with cheese and put under the broiler to get browned and crunchy. Again, the bed of leeks under the lobster is a fancier presentation than plopped in a pile on the side. Lastly, I added a few touches of fresh parsley to green up the plate.

Fancy Cookin' - Broiled lobster, lemon braised leeks, and mashed potato gratin

Now, onto the actual recipes for this fancy dinner! I pretty much used this exact video recipe from Wegman’s except I used Maine lobster and fresh herbs. The video shows exactly how to half the lobster tail, so I recommend watching it if you’re nervous about cutting through the shell.

Roasted lobster tails with fresh herbs

1 Maine lobster tail per person, thawed overnight in the fridge.

1 teaspoon (per lobster tail) fresh chopped herbs any mixture of parsley, oregano, and thyme

1 teaspoon (per lobster tail) vegetable oil

salt and pepper to taste.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lay one lobster tail flat on a sturdy cutting board. Using a strong, sharp knife, cut through the lobster shell down the middle lengthwise to create two halves. Lay the halves meat side up on a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining lobster tails.

Combine the herbs and oil in a small bowl. Brush oil and herbs over the meat of each lobster tail half. Season with salt and pepper.

Place lobster tails in the preheated oven and cook about ten minutes or until the shells have turned bright red (SCIENCE!) and the meat is opaque.

Braised leeks with white wine and lemon, serves 2 (can be doubled)

3 leeks

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup white wine

zest from 1/2 lemon

juice from 1/2 lemon

salt and pepper

Trim roots from leeks and trim off the darker green ends of the leeks. You only want to use the white and light green portion of the leeks. You should have anywhere from a 4″ to 6″ piece of white and light green per leek, depending on the size of the leek. Quarter each leek lengthwise to make long strips. Fill a large bowl with cold water and add leek strips. Swish the leeks around in the water to loosen any dirt (and leeks tend to be quite dirty). Let the dirt settle to the bottom of the bowl then remove the leeks and pat dry on a clean kitchen towel.

Melt butter in a large pan over medium high heat. When melted, add leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until the leeks begin to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add the wine and lemon zest to the pan. Lower the heat to low and cover the pan. Allow to cook covered for 15 minutes or until the leeks get very tender. Remove the lid and add lemon juice and salt and pepper.

Divide the leeks into 4 servings and pile onto each plate. Top with the roasted lobster tails.

Fancy Cookin' - Broiled lobster, lemon braised leeks, and mashed potato gratin

I’m not going to lie. These mashed potatoes were leftovers I fancied up. If you don’t have leftover mashed potatoes laying around, you don’t have to make them from scratch. Just pick up some pre-made mashed potatoes and pretty them up. The refrigerated brands of pre-made mashed potatoes are so good no one will suspect they’re not home made when served like this, though the Irish woman in me hates to admit it! Also, it’s not fancy, but the microwave will do a better and faster job of heating the potatoes. But don’t skip running them under the broiler or you’ll lose the fancy effect.

Fancy Mashed Potatoes, serves 4

4 cups leftover mashed potato or 1 container pre-made refrigerated mashed potatoes (Country Crock or Bob Evans are good brands)

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Move the oven rack to the 2nd top position and preheat the broiler. Divide the potatoes into 4 servings and fill 4 small bowls or ramekins with the mashed potatoes. Cover and microwave for 2-3 minutes, stir, and microwave about 1 minute more until hot.

Top each serving with 1/4 of the cheese and place the bowls on a rimmed baking sheet. Put under broiler to melt the cheese and brown the top, can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes depending on your oven. Just keep an eye on them so they don’t burn. Remove and serve when golden brown and yummy looking.

There you go, a whole fancy meal that’s easy to prepare whenever the mood strikes. Just pick up some individual pastries or tiny cakes for dessert and you’ll be ready to go!

Party On! Valentine’s No-Recipe Dinner

Valentine's Day No Recipe Dinner

It’s February, so that means another addition of my Party, On! series, in which I debunk excuses for NOT partying. Since Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, I figured this was a good time to address the issue of ‘It’s too hard to cook for just two people.’ To that I say, NU-UH! All you need to do is either adapt a recipe or cook without following a recipe. (GASP!)

There are a lot of recipes that can be reduced down to two servings. If a recipe says it serves 4, then prove math teachers everywhere right and use some real life division to cut the ingredient amounts in half. You will inevitably run into issues with this, though. For example, it’s nearly impossible to measure 1/16 of a teaspoon of something. You can also get stuck with a lot of extra amounts of ingredients that you won’t use up.

In our house, most nights it’s just the husband and me for dinner. And most nights, I cook without following a recipe. I know that’s kind of a scary idea. A recipe feels safe because someone has made this before and liked it. It’s tried and true! Without a recipe, how do you know that things will taste good together? Well, I wager that you have been eating food for the majority of your life. Through all these years of eating, you already know what tastes good together. To cook without a recipe, just pull on those tastes that you already know are delicious.That’s how I came up with the menu for this meal.

Now, I am going to contradict myself and outline recipes for the following dishes. But I hope that you’ll use these as a starting point and venture into unknown cooking territory!

Valentine's Day No Recipe Dinner

Cream Cheese Stuffed Peppadews I’m easing you into no-recipe terrain here. It’s the stuffing technique that’s important, not the precise ingredients

Peppadew peppers from the olive bar at the grocery store, or drained from a jar

Cream cheese

Stuff about a 1/2 a teaspoon cream cheese into each pepper. Drizzle olive oil over peppers and salt and pepper to taste. Don’t like peppers? Stuff some gigantic olives or mushrooms instead. Don’t like cream cheese, substitute any cheese of your choice.

Valentine's Day No Recipe Dinner

Blood Orange Salad with Feta and Black Olives This is just one example of a sweet, salty, savory salad. Try any combination of fruit, cheese, and acid/salt

1 blood orange per person, peeled and cut into 1/8″ thick round slices

feta cheese

salt-cured black olives, chopped

Place orange slices on plate. Top with cheese and olives.

Valentine's Day No Recipe Dinner

Pepper-Crusted Tuna over Bitter Greens with Lemon Butter Sauce Fish over something is the technique this recipe demonstrates. The something could also be a starch like pasta or rice, or a cold bed of salad greens, if you’re not a fan of bitter greens.

1 tuna steak per person

fresh ground pepper and salt

vegetable oil

1 head bitter greens (curly endive, escarole, chicory, or frisee), well washed and chopped

Butter

juice from 1/2 lemon

Salt both sides of the tuna then press pepper all over tuna steak. Heat oil in frying pan over high heat. Sear tuna until crusty and done as much as you like (I did two minutes per side because I like my tuna very rare). Remove tuna from pan and set aside. In same pan, add a little more oil and lower heat to medium. Add all of the greens and stir until wilted. Place greens on plates and tuna on top of greens. In same pan again, add 1 Tablespoon butter and lemon juice. Cook until slightly browned and drizzle over tuna and greens.

With a little practice, you can be cooking without a recipe all the time! If you want to read a great book about the no-recipe philosophy, I highly recommend How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson. Instead of jostling for position at the hostess stand with every other couple in the entire world on Valentine’s eve, why not stay home and whip up a delicious, intimate, custom dinner for two? With or without recipes.

Party, On! – Fondue

Fondue

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog and what I’m trying to do/say with it. What it boils down to is I want to encourage and inspire YOU to throw a party! So, in 2012, each month I’ll be sharing a Party, On! post where I breakdown an objection I have heard that prevents someone from stepping up to the hostess plate. This month I’m tackling the number one reason I hear from people in my generation (I’m looking at you 20 to 30 somethings) – I can’t cook. Friends, welcome to the fondue party, where your guests do all the cooking! If you can wield a knife without severing a finger and manage to stir with a spoon, you CAN do this party!

Fondue and I go back a long way. In high school, my friend Rachel and I discovered her parents had not one, but two fondue sets, complete with lazy susans and tiny bowls for sauces. Harnessing my budding hostess yearnings, we set out to coordinate the finest fondue party Reston, Virginia had seen since 1973. Armed with a small budget (from several evenings of babysitting) and the original cookbook for one of the fondue sets, we gathered our ingredients and got to work.

Now, being 16, neither of us were accomplished cooks, but that was the major draw of the fondue party, we didn’t have to be! Now, I’m not going to lie and tell you a fondue party takes no effort. It actually takes quite a bit of prep work, but none of it is difficult. At our tender ages, we were still well equipped to stir together sauces and chop vegetables and meat.

If you have ever been to a Melting Pot restaurant, you already know the proper format for a fondue party: Cheese, Salad, Meat, Chocolate. You also know that 4 guests is a magic number for fondue. Any more, and there is major fork confusion. Any less, and it hardly seems worth the effort! If you’re not lucky enough to own a fondue pot, ask around and someone will gladly lend you theirs. Now, don’t freak out, but the shopping lists and instructions for each course is below.

Cream Cheese Fondue – this is NO FAIL easy-peasy cheese fondue. Plus, it’s delicious. Serves 4.

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 shallot, finely chopped

1 Tablespoon sherry or white wine

1 cup half and half

8 ounces cream cheese (light is OK)

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1 cup shredded Swiss cheese

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 baguette, cut into 1″ cubes

1 Granny Smith apple. cut into 1″ cubes

In fondue pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add shallots and saute 2-3 minutes until softened. Add sherry/wine and allow to almost evaporate, 1-2 minutes. Add half and half, reduce heat to low. Cut cream cheese into slices and add to pot. Stir until melted. Add Parmesan and Swiss cheeses, stir until melted. Add lemon juice, stir well. Fork those bread cubes and apples and dig in. When all the cheese is consumed, clean the fondue pot.

Salad, nothing special, just to clean the palate for the meat

One bag’o salad

Vinaigrette of your choice

Toss salad and vinaigrette. Serve.

Meat and Mushroom Fondue

1-1/2 pounds meat of your choice, chicken, steak, shrimp, fish cut into 1″ cubes

8 ounces button mushrooms, cleaned and stems removed

4 cups chicken broth

Sauces (recipes below)

Heat chicken broth in fondue pot to boiling. Stab meat and cook in hot broth. Eat with sauces.

Fondue

No we’re getting to the interesting part of a fondue party – the sauces. Here are a few that I really like, but feel free to try out others.

Fondue

Sweet, Sour, and Spicy Fondue Sauce

1/8 cup hot pepper preserves

2 Tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 Tablespoon soy sauce

Combine all ingredients and serve. Best with chicken and shrimp

Fondue

Dijon Dill Sauce

1/8 cup sour cream

1/8 cup mayonnaise

1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon dried dill

Combine all ingredients and serve. Best with chicken and mushrooms.

Green Goddess Sauce

1/8 cup sour cream

1/2 cup mayonnaise

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 Tablespoons chopped green onions

1 teaspoon white vinegar

Combine all ingredients and serve. Good with pretty much everything.

Chocolate Fondue

Well, I thought I had a recipe saved, but darn if I can put my hands on it. This one from Michael Chiarello seems pretty close to what I normally do, and it’s a lot easier to link to him than go through my decade of recipe notes!

Yes, I know it’s a lot of ingredients and prep, but there really is nothing too hard about putting together a fantastic fondue party. No cooking skills required! I hope if you’ll give it a try and let me know how it goes!