This will make me sound like an unabashed nerd, but a well designed grocery store is my happy place. I love turning the corners around aisles to discover unexpected treasures on the end caps. Encountering baby vegetables of any variety can turn my day around like that Dead or Alive song.
While at Trader Joe’s the other day, picking up some fancy cheese for a Sunday dinner, I impulsively picked up a box of those deliciously addictive Speculoos cookies. I’d had them before, but in the course of my daily life of writing books and waiting tables, I had forgotten about these gingery, crispy delights.
The Gent and I proceeded to devour the box within 48 hours.
We needed more. So many more. In a cookie-craving frenzy, I pawed through my pantry and uncovered cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, molasses…. I had eggs, and butter, and flour, even Almond Meal. Then I was called off work last night and the evening unrolled before me like a blank canvas waiting to be filled.
For Thanksgiving this year, I felt like doing something different. For me, holiday cooking is not so much about cooking the same dishes year after year. No, the holidays are the time that I try over the top recipes that I would never ordinarily have an excuse to make. This is the time that I bring out the recipes with obscure spices, with several steps, with long preparation times, like this Pumpkin and Spice infused vodka.
I used pumpkin instead of butternut squash because I think it’s more seasonal.
To peel and disembowel the pumpkin, pop it in the microwave for 2 minutes on high, then place it on a cutting board and slice it in half down the middle. Scoop out the guts (reserving the seeds to toast for a yummy snack), then peel and cube the pumpkin.
When asked to bring something to a cookout, I typically always bring a big old batch of pre- mixed cocktails. In California, in the summer, the pitcher of margarita is always welcome. So here’s my go to recipe.
Judging by the number of revelers I have in my restaurant right now– this is THE WEEK of company holiday parties.
Here are a few tips from the inside to help you make it through unscathed (and without scathing any of the staff):
1. Check out the menu before you arrive: Most any restaurant is going to require a party of 20 or more guests to choose a set menu. Try to get a gander at the menu from your office party planner in advance if you can. In addition to helping you figure out how flush your company coffers are (hint: Lobster= $$$, chicken everything = get your resume ready), you can figure out if you have any allergies that need to be addressed.
2. Discuss Allergies in Advance: If you have serious allergies that you are not sure can be accommodated by the menu you’ve just spied, call the restaurant so we can make a plan in advance. NOTE: This is only for serious allergies. If you just don’t like onions, that’s not what I’m talking about here. If you are seriously allergic to chiles, and going to a mexican restaurant, please call us in advance so we can make a dish that suits your needs. We want you to enjoy your party as much as everyone else!
3. Stick to the menu: Trying to order something that is not on your party’s pre-selected menu only delays your service. And by your service, that means potentially the service of your entire party. If you’d checked the menu in advance, and called the restaurant with any food allergies or dietary restrictions, then we would already have a dish for you…..
4. The coffee is trying to tell you something: When the coffee comes out, that means the bar is closing, the check is dropping, and you should probably start searching your pockets for your parking ticket. Sometimes your host has set a pre-determined end time for the party for budget reasons, and sometimes the restaurant is just closing soon….. If you realize after the coffee cups are empty that you are the only people still in the restaurant, then the polite thing to do is get ready to go. If every 3 minutes a different staff member buzzes by your table to ask if they can “get anything else for you?” then it is really time to take the hint so the bus boys can move all the tables back and get out in time to catch the last train home.
5. Share: You may be in a party of 50, but you are probably not the only party in the restaurant at any given time. Understand that there are other guests, not only in the restaurant, but also in your party. Avoid bottle-necking with your buddies in major thoroughfares. Not only is this greatly appreciated by the staff, it also decreases the chances that you’ll wind up with a manhattan or a lobster thermidor spilled on your Santa sweater. Pay attention to the pacing of the party, too, so that you don’t delay service for your whole group.
6. Order early: If your party has a coursed menu with a choice of entree for each guest, be ready to order by the end of your cocktail hour. The chef is going to pace your experience off of this order. Typically, the last round of appetizers won’t come out of the kitchen until the chef has the entree order in his hand. Otherwise, the wait between courses would be too long. If the staff comes around to advise the party-goers that the host “requests everyone to find their seats, we’ll take the order in a moment,” don’t be the lone group of holdouts snickering at the corner of the bar. The entree order isn’t going to go the kitchen until it is complete. So you are delaying the revelry of all of your office mates. Understand, also, that any additional requests you make of the servers while they are taking the order (another glass of wine, a new napkin) are not going to happen until the order is complete.
7. Don’t be afraid to call the restaurant: The best source of information for parking, directions, ingredients in certain dishes, etc, is the restaurant. Don’t be afraid to call us, that’s what we’re here for.
And, if you are trying to book a party at the last minute (because someone in the corner office forgot about Chrstmachanakwanzakah until today)—- Be Flexible. It’s the busiest week of the year for most restaurants, but if you can be flexible on your time frame, we can usually find a way to help you have an awesome party.
It’s been a while in the oven, but I’m so excited to post my first video to Where the Sidework Ends! This recipe is one of my favorites to make during the holidays. In Los Angeles, where it still is 70 degrees in November, you kind of have to lay on a thick patina of Holiday food and decor to note the passing seasons. This recipe is a lovely way to do that.
I love to use the brandied cranberries in cocktails, but they are also versatile as a garnish. My sous chef friend, Coco, popped these babies on a simple salad of mango, avocado, and panela cheese last night and they were out of this world.
Special thanks to the Gent for his editing prowess….
1 cup whole fresh cranberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 cup water (2 tablespoons)
1/2 cup brandy, divided into two 1/4 cup portions
In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, combine cranberries, sugar, water, and one 1/4 cup of brandy. Simmer until cranberries split open (about 3-5 minutes). Remove from heat and add remaining brandy. Allow to cool at least 2 hours before using.
The cranberries just get better the longer they sit in the syrup, so you can make these 3-5 days in advance. With all the sugar and alcohol in the recipe, these will keep well for about 2-3 weeks in the refrigerator. But you’ll eat them before that, for sure.
As I found myself puttering around the kitchen on Halloween, I had two words that kept popping into my brain….. Whoopie Pie.
As delicious as they are, though, whoopie pies can be a bit messy. And sometimes I just want a little whoopie, you know what I mean?
So I made ’em tiny. You can’t really call this a pie– because it’s so petite. So I’m calling these Whoopie Kisses. Not only because it’s appropriate, but it’s incredibly fun to say.
Pumpkin Whoopie Kisses
For the Cream-Cheese Filling
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tbs cinnamon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the Whoopie (!)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cloves
2 cups firmly packed dark-brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 cups pumpkin puree, chilled
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Make the cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat; set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves; set aside. In another large bowl, whisk together brown sugar and oil until well combined. Add pumpkin puree and whisk until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and whisk until well combined. Sprinkle flour mixture over pumpkin mixture and whisk until fully incorporated.
Tranfer batter to a pastry bag and pipe quarter-sized circles of dough onto prepared baking sheets, about a half inch apart. Transfer to oven and bake until cookies are just starting to crack on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of each cookie comes out clean, about 10 minutes. Let cool completely on pan.
Make the filling: Sift confectioner’ sugar into a medium bowl; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter until smooth. Add cream cheese and beat until well combined. Add confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon, beat just until smooth.
Assemble the whoopie pies: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Transfer filling to a disposable pastry bag and snip the end. When cookies have cooled completely, pipe a large dollop of filling on the flat side of half of the cookies. Sandwich with remaining cookies, pressing down slightly so that the filling spreads to the edge of the cookies. Transfer to prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate cookies at least 30 minutes before serving and up to 3 days.
The Holidays with a capital H have passed, but Valentine’s Day is lurking around the corner– like a girl who’s high-maintenance-but-thinks-she’s-low-maintenance– just daring you to mess it up. Score high marks (for dinner, anyway), with these tips:
·Book Now: Want that table at 8:00? Your best bet is to book sooner rather than later. You can always cancel, but you can never get it back.
·Figure out your budget: You can have a great dinner out at any price, so pick a place you can afford. It’s more fun to go to a casual place and have the best things on the menu, rather than dine at the top your budget and pray your date doesn’t order a second glass of wine.
·Expect a pre fixe menu: Many think it’s a way for restaurants to gouge you, but it helps the chef know how much to food to prepare, and makes sure you get your money’s worth on a special occasion.
Can’t stomach a pre fixe? Find ethnic eateries or eat at the bar at a ‘classier’ joint—they usually offer a la carte.
·For a ‘Quiet Table,’ book after 9:00pm: 8:00pm is the busiest time to dine on Valentine’s Day. Period. After 9:00, other tables are finishing, leaving you with a space that grows more intimate as you head toward dessert.
·Be nice to the staff: You’ll stand out on a night when the hostess and bartenders are bombarded by “where the HELL is my table” and “this Riesling is COLD.”
·Tip early: Not for the faint of heart, but if you’re serious about getting special treatment, excuse yourself from the table and find your server. Slip him a small token, $20 or so, and let him know that extra attentions showered on your date won’t go unnoticed when the bill comes.