In Season: In the Orchard

In the orchard

Well, summer has gone with nary a peep from me on this blog. So, my friend Jen, of Cook It, Click It, Eat It, and I decided that we both could do for a little motivation (and accountability) to kick start our blogs again. We came up with the idea of choosing a seasonal theme and each doing a post around the theme. Jen will be focusing mainly on delicious seasonal recipes and I’ll be concocting beverages of all sorts and possibly some quick crafty projects. We’ve mapped out seasonal themes through the end of the year, and TA-DA! Today is the first!

In the orchard

Even though it was in the upper 80’s here in NC over the weekend, the calendar says fall has officially arrived. And nothing quite says fall to me like apples. And decorative squash. And sweaters. And warm bowls of soup. And impending death to mosquito kind. But, back to apples. Apple cider, that staple of fall drinks, is quite a versatile cocktail ingredient. A steamy mug with a shot of rum and a cinnamon stick is just the thing for a cool fall evening. But not so much when the thermometer is still pushing past the 80 degree mark. So I set out to find an apple inspired drink that is also cool and refreshing. A little cider, some bourbon, and a hint of bitters solved my hot-weather, fall drinking woes.

In the orchard

Apparently, there is some confusion over apple cider versus apple juice. I have no desire to enter into the debate, but I will say that I used Martinelli’s Apple Cider for this drink for two reasons. One, I was very taken with the attractive leaf motif on the glass jug. Yes, I admit to occasionally choosing grocery products based on prettiness. I am a shallow consumer with a weak spot for attractive packaging. Second, it was a lovely, clear, pale yellow, not dark brown and sludgy like some ciders. Not that there’s anything wrong with sludgy ciders (other than saying ‘sludgy cider’ makes me throw up in my mouth a little), but I wanted a clean, un-sludgy apple taste for this drink. If sludgy ciders are your thing, though, by all means feel free to substitute.

Bourbon & Apples

1/2 cup apple cider

1-1/2 ounces bourbon

dash of aromatic bitters

Combine all ingredients over ice and serve immediately.

In the orchard

I’d been kicking around ideas for a quick and easy apple craft for this post, too. I came up with a clove-studded monogrammed apple, mostly because I have a baggie full of cloves (don’t ask) that need using up. It was incredibly easy to do. I can just see these used at a fall place setting, lined up on a mantel, or nestled into a wreath. To make your own, lightly trace the letter onto the apple with a pencil. Then, using a toothpick, prick small holes about every 1/4″ along the letter outline and insert whole cloves into the holes.

Don’t forget to click on over to Jen’s blog at Cook It, Click It, Eat It and check out what kind of apple-y goodness she has going on for this themed post. I got a text from her with a sneak peek photo and it looked yummy! And stay tuned for more joint posts. Coming up next…OCTOBERFEST! Happy fall, y’all!

Insta-Party: Green Tomato Madness

Insta-Party: Green Tomato Madness

I recently spent a delightful weekend eating and drinking my way through Charleston, SC with my cousin, who I am lucky to also call a great friend. One evening found us at The Grocery for a very interesting and well-executed meal. It had been on my to-visit list for a few months mostly because they pickle and cure in house. You may not know, but i am quite the pickle aficionado. I dabble in the art of pickling and am an avid fan of others who pickle. You should hear me wax poetic about Gisella, our local farmer’s market pickle master. When I heard The Grocery was doing wonderful things in the pickling realm, it moved to the top of my must eat at list. My cousins, aunt, and uncle graciously humored me while I was in town.

Insta-Party: Green Tomato Madness

I had practically memorized their online menu so I expected to fully enjoy my meal there, but I didn’t expect to squeal with delight while reading…the bar menu. Four words: Dirty Green Tomato Martini. They pickle their green tomatoes before frying them (genius!) and then in another stroke of brilliant, non-wasteful thinking created a delightful cocktail by mixing the green tomato pickling brine with vodka. Trust me when I say our entire party was practically in a swoon over this drink. It’s a little sweet, a little salty, a little spicy, but not at all vinegary.

Insta-Party: Green Tomato Madness

Since I unfortunately live several hours from The Grocery and can’t visit frequently for a Dirty Green Tomato Martini fix, I pickled my own green tomatoes with the full intent to rip off, errr, recreate both their fried pickled green tomatoes and the martini. If you don’t feel up to pickling yourself, your local farmer’s market probably has its own version of Gisella doing wonderful work with pickled green tomatoes.

Dirty Green Tomato Martini, makes 1 drink

4 ounces vodka

1 ounce pickled green tomato brine

Wedge of pickled green tomato for garnish

Combine vodka and brine in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake 100 times and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with pickled green tomato wedge.

Insta-Party: Green Tomato Madness

To get pickled green tomato brine, you have to make pickled green tomatoes. Which are way tastier than I ever imagined. They are delicious fried (think fried green tomatoes meet fried pickles) but equally good straight from the jar. This snack really was a ‘what have we got in the fridge’ concoction, but turned out rather tasty. It was also a good personal reminder for me that virtually any combination of cracker+meat+pickle+cheese=delicious.

Pepperoni, Pickled Green Tomato, & Feta

Um, yeah, so not really a recipe, just combine bits of the pepperoni, green tomato, and feta on top of a cracker and eat.

Anyone having a strong reaction to this post? Totally grossed out by a pickle-based martini or pickled green tomatoes in general? Or are you intrigued and would give it a shot? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Insta-Party: For Bella

Bella's Insta-Party

We haven’t felt much like partying here at Ready, Set, Party recently. We had to say good bye to our dog Bella last week. Loss and grief are always difficult, but the unexpectedness of her death gives this particular loss an extra sting. But even though I’ve been mournful instead of  festive, I wanted to do an Insta-Party dedicated to Bella with some of her favorite things. Each one brings a smile for the memories and a tear for the loss.

Bella's Insta-Party

We had an unfortunate margarita accident a few summers ago. In the time I was gone to get paper towels, Bella had managed to lick up a good portion of the spill. Without thinking, I blurted out ‘Bella, stop drinking all the tequila!’ which caused a massive round of giggling. Because really, who has to tell their dog to stop drinking tequila?

The husband put together this lovely fresh citrus margarita for the Insta-Party and we laughed again about our crazy dog with a taste for the hard stuff.

Bella's Insta-Party

Fresh Citrus Margarita, makes 1 drink

juice from 2 clementines, or one orange

juice from 1/2 lime

juice from 1/2 lemon

2 ounces tequila

1 ounce Triple Sec, orange liqueur

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake 100 times until ice cold. Serve in a chilled glass (with a salt rim if you so desire).

Bella's Insta-Party

Bella also really liked carrots. Maybe more like was madly in love with carrots. She would perch nearly underfoot whenever I was peeling them and wait not-so-patiently for scraps. She was also quite an acrobat and excelled at catching peels in midair. I knew her Insta-Party had to feature carrots, but it was incredibly sad to have to compost all the peels instead of tossing them to her and seeing her toothy grin.

Fresh Carrots with Asian Mayo Dipping Sauce, serves 2

3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 3″ long sticks

1/4 cup mayonnaise (light is OK, but full-strength Duke’s would be better)

1 Tablespoon soy sauce

1 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar

1 green onion, chopped

dried red pepper for garnish

Combine mayo with soy sauce and vinegar. Top with chopped green onions and a sprinkle of red pepper. Serve with carrot sticks.

Bella's Insta-Party

This is my favorite picture of Bella. It captures so much about her in just one image – inquisitive, happy (just look at that tail!), and most memorable – constant energy. She will be greatly missed in our suddenly very quiet little part of the world.

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!

Insta-Party: Bitter Orange with Hummus, Feta, Cucumber Bites

Insta-Party: Bitter Orange with Hummus, Feta, Cucumber Bites

Yikes! I haven’t done an an Insta-Party in almost a month. Life has been busy, but that is totally unacceptable! I actually have had several real-life Insta-Party’s over the past few weeks (one was a romantic picnic next to a bubbling stream!) but they have all been off-camera. So I broke out the camera finally to bring you a fun and super quick Insta-party to liven up your Wednesday. Or Thursday, or any day, really!

Insta-Party: Bitter Orange with Hummus, Feta, Cucumber Bites

These yummy little snacks were so easy to put together. I tend to keep hummus in the fridge for snacking with baby carrots or pretzels, and a cucumber is always in there to be tossed on a salad or with some vinegar for a quick veggie side. And I literally get nervous whenever I use the last bit of feta, so it is always in stock. Put together, these are a tasty little bite of the Mediterranean.

Hummus, Feta, Cucumber Bites, makes about 20 bites

1 cucumber

3 Tablespoons prepared hummus

2 inch cube of feta, cut into 1/4″ cubes

Chopped pimento, for garnish (optional)

Slice the cucumber into 1/2″ thick rounds. Spread a little hummus on each slice and top each with a small cube of feta and piece of pimento. Eat immediately.

Insta-Party: Bitter Orange with Hummus, Feta, Cucumber Bites

Don’t let the name fool you, this is a sophisticated little drink that benefits greatly from the addition of a drop of bitters. I shook a small quantity with ice, but this would be equally enjoyable in a larger portion served on the rocks. I specify Fee Brothers bitters only because I am partial to them. Feel free to use whatever bitters float your boat.

Bitter Orange, makes one drink

1 ounce vodka

1/2 ounce fresh squeezed orange juice (half of a little clementine should do it)

1 drop Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters

Combine vodka and orange juice in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake 50 times and strain into an aperitif glass. Add drop of bitters and enjoy immediately while still very cold.

Never-too-old slumber party

I had a birthday not so long ago. I also am lucky enough to have a group of fantastic girlfriends who threw me a surprise party! What started as a tongue in cheek suggestion apparently turned into ‘Oh, we’re actually planning a surprise slumber party.’ You’ll have to forgive my horrible pictures. One of the surprises was a delicious (alcoholic) punch. They know I’m a sucker for punch, and after a few glasses, I no longer had full control over my camera.

They also put together a make your own pizza bar and my friend Megan decorated the dining table with sheets and a pillow to look like a bed! Seriously, isn’t that too adorable?? Amber kindly donated her froggy as a centerpiece and you can’t see it, but there were bras and panties hanging from the chandelier. Hysterical!

Also note Megan’s very clever DIY craft on the cups. She punched a hole in  a plastic cup, tied on a name card with some pretty ribbon, and then doubled up with an un-holey cup inside so we didn’t spill punch all over ourselves. Which was pretty much bound to happen.

They also put together a candy, jello shot, and cupcake bar! We’d already eaten most of the jello shots (made with cake flavored vodka, what?!?) and a whole lot of the candy by the time I got around to the picture, but it was so cute! They also had a selection of vintage toys to play with once the punch and sugar took hold.

They did such a great job and I am so touched by the effort. Thank you Amanda, Amanda, Amber, and Megan for such a wonderful evening!

The next day, my sister surprised me with a trip to see the Hunger Games (can you tell I like surprises??) and a delicious home-cooked dinner. And the picture below happened. That’s the husband cutting my birthday cake with a sword. I can’t make this stuff up, people!

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!