Holiday Entertaining – with less stress

Holidays are often very stressful. We often pile on even more tasks on top of all those  we already have in our daily lives. Of course, we want to spend time with family and friends and share special meals with them.  That can add a whole other level of stress – choosing the most delicious recipes, having just the right place setting and decor and then after preparing it all – mustering up  the energy to enjoy the gathering!

Below are some tips that I used when I was catering and still use wihen planning for entertaining. This is one of the topics we talk about in the Culinary Learning Vacation and I excerpted some of the text from the reference manual we use.

First and foremost – plan, plan, plan. Nothing can take the place of knowing what you need to do, putting the tasks on a timeline and organizing it well. Group simialr tasks together to maximize efficiency. Plan everything from the shopping, to cooking and serving –  right down to the plating. What service piece is used for each dish; how will it be garnished, where will it be placed on the table and such.

Create a menu that allows for staggering the preparation. For example, many items can be prepared ahead with very little last minute effort required.  Choose only one or two items that require a lot attention just before serving. Or if you do choose something like risotto that does require last minute attentiona, consider an alternate way of serving it such as Risotto Cakes or Arancini that allow you to have risotto and still make it ahead. I will be posting some ‘holiday’ recipes on the website that are perfect for making ahead.

Whatever you do – make sure you are part of the festivities and enjoy!

Menu Planning Guidelines

  • Balanced selections —  Taste, Texture, Color
  • Dietary considerations – have options for vegetarian, low fat, low sodium, religious, etc
  • Varying degrees of difficulty and time required
  • Balance the time required for each item to finish and serve
  • How will it look when served – to the first and last person
  • Make it a comfortable eating experience for the guests – finger foods that really are, two bite appetizers, easy disposal
  • Avoid communal dips or make it easy to have an individual serving 
  • K.I.S.S. —  Keep it simple and spectacular
 Event Planning

  • Prepare a shopping list by category & store
  • Prepare a food prep timeline by menu item
  • Prepare a task list by day
  • Plan the actual event – lay out a timeline
  • Be realistic – don’t over plan your time
  • Plan food and beverage locations to help traffic flow
  • Finishing touches should not “finish” you off
  • Consider hiring some local youth to help with serving and clean-up
 Hors d’oeurve                                                         

  • Plan on 6 hors d’oeuvre per person per hour - less if it is a full dinner party
  • When serving trays of passed hors d’oeuvre, go with single subject on a tray vs. a mixture of everything. 
  • Fresh herbs or edible flowers make an attractive garnish on the trays. 

                             

 The Main Menu

  •  For the first course, try to have something that can be “pre-plated” or very quickly served, like a soup or colorful composed salad. 
  •  Braised foods work well for the main course because you can make in advance and reheat.  These dishes are usually best in cold weather when “comfort foods” feel appropriate.
  • Ambient temperature foods can work well. Be sure to choose foods that really taste great at room temperature.
  •  Dessert can often be made ahead of time, either the day before or in the morning.  Also, buying a wonderful cake from a pastry shop is totally acceptable.
 Additional Tips

  • Make sure the dishwasher is empty when your company arrives.
  • Set the table the day before.
  • 20/20 rule for wine: 20 minutes before company arrives, put the red wine in the refrigerator and take the white wine out.
  • Consider removing everything from underneath the sink so when the dirty dishes start coming back from the dining room, you can stash them in a bin and do them later without them making the kitchen look messy during the party.
Presentation 

  • Plan garnishes and presentation when planning the menu
  • Incorporate ingredients in the garnishes; use variety on different items
  • Make sure garnishes edible and trays are food safe
  • Be creative and artistic – decorate undersides of glass platters
  • If using place cards, be innovative - small package with name tag,ornament with name written on
  • Remove, restock or rearrange when buffet items run low
Check out these web sites for some more tips on entertaining – http://www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/entertaining/partiesevents/tips_plan
 http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/badaily/2012/10/10-essential-tips-for-entertai.html
 http://www.housebeautiful.com/kitchens/tips/easy-entertaining-tips-ideas#slide-1
 

 

Caring for your knives

Knives will most likely be one of your biggest investments in kitchen equipment. Proper care of your knives is important to keep them in good condition and to make them efficient to use. A dull knife is a dangerous knife. Because it is dull you will tend to apply too much pressure when cutting products. This can cause the knife to slip which may result in cutting yourself.

Knives should be sharpened regulary to keep the edge at maximum performance.  Sharpening can be done with a tri-stone, a diamond stone or a manual sharpener such as the Minosharp.

The angle of the edge for most knives is 20° – 22°. Some Japanese knives have a thinner edge with a lesser angle. Professional knife sharpening shops will know the proper angle for sharpening your knife. When selecting the shop or person to sharpen your knives be sure to get references from others that have used the service. When using the knife it should be honed frequently with a honing steel to keep the edge in good alignment. These steels are often mistakenly called sharpening steels when in fact they do not sharpen the knife. Some steels, such as a diamond steel will sharpen the knive as it is being honed.

 

 Knives should not be put in a dishwasher. Instead they should always be hand-washed and dried well. Store them in a knife block with horizontal slots so the knife edge is not resting on the wood. If the knife block has vertical slots, I store the knife with the edge up. Some knife storage units are designed for drawers instead of countertop.

Join us for a class at CasaLana Gourmet Retreats to learn more about caring for your knives.

Knife Components and Selection

Knives are one of the most essential tools in your kitchen. You will benefit greatly by selecting good quality knives that are well-made and durable. Personal preference is a factor in the selection and of course the knives must support your style of cooking and use. Because knives are also one of the most costly items you will purchase when equipping your kitchen, the evaluation and proper selection are very important.

Components of the knife -

  • tip – usually pointed which makes it useful for piercing products to initiate a cut. A few styles have a more rounded or blunt tip (e.g., Santoku or vegetable knive)
  • blade – the cutting area of the knife. Standard chef’s knife has a curved blade which is conducive to the ‘sawing / rocking’ motion used for most knife work. Other styles are straighter (e.g., Santoku) and are more for straight chopping.
  • bolster – the area of the knife at the end of the blade next to the handle. Usually thicker than the blade. Should be deep enough to allow your hand to wrap around the handle without your knuckles touching the cutting surface when working.
  • tang - the secion of the knife that the handle is attached to. Preferably it will extend the length of the handled.
  • handle - the section of the knife where your hand will hold it.

Some standard selection criteria to consider -

  • Choose knives that feel well-balanced and comfortable to your hand.
  • Knives that are forged as a single component with no welded pieces are the strongest and have good balance.
  • The handle should feel comfortable to hold. Polypropylene handles are very common. Some knives have handles of the the same metal as the blade (e.g., Global Knives). Wood handles are less common due to sanitation concerns.
  • A solid tang that goes the length of the knife handle gives better balance.

Most kitchen knives are from Germany, England and Japan. The most durable knives are forged from a single piece of steel. This is a longer, slower method of production and results in a higher quality knife. Stamped knives are cut from a sheet of metal. The stamped knife will have a thinner blade, less weight and are lesser quality.  

Learn more details about knife selection, use and care in the hands-on Culinary Vacations at CasaLana Gourmet Retreats.

Necessary Tools

With my recent marathon of processing plums, I again realized how important it is to have the right tool for the job. Without the correct equipment the task takes much longer and the results can be less than desired.

FOOD MILL – For the cooked plums that I used to make jam, conserves and syrup, I needed a good sized food mill. I chose the medium size mill plate so I would get most of the pulp and some skin to add a little tartness. I pitted the fruit and cooked it with some cinnamon and ginger. After it softened I let it cool and then processed it in the food mill. That gives the base to start with for making the finished product.  In my situation the food mill is essential and I use it often. If you do much canning or preserving, then is probably not an essential tool for your kitchen as well.

MESH STRAINERS – For the puree base that I wanted to freeze, I needed a strainer with the right size mesh that would catch most of the skins but let the pureed pulp pass through. After pitting the fruit I processed it in the high-speed blender (or a food processor) and then passed it through the strainer. At this point it can be frozen to use later in many ways. I use it as a base for sorbet, sauces and glazes.

A variety of strainers in different diameters and with different size mesh is essential to getting the results you want. Some should be large mesh like a window screen. Others should be very fine, double mesh. If you are straining to get a totally smooth, silken texture then you need a very fine double mesh. However if you want some of the product to pass through the strainer, as I did for the plums, then you want a larger mesh strainer. One of each is plenty to start and you can add on from there.

Want to learn about canning and making preserves? I may be adding a class on preserving. Check the schedule or contact me at CasaLana Gourmet Retreats website.

Culinary Adventures in Peru

I traveled to Peru in June 2012 to experience the incredible Inca ruins, the rich culture and of course the cuisine. It was a truly memorable trip of a lifetime. I returned home with great respect for the food and traditions of the Peruvian culture. I’ve always loved quinoa and amaranth. Seeing the colorful, abundant crops in Peru, the difficult terracing on the steep Andes terrain and the hand-harvesting gave me even more appreciation of the grains. These ancient grains truly are ‘super-food’.

Quinoa is a great source of protein and a good alternative to high carb foods like potatoes, rice and pasta. The liquid to grain ratio is the same as rice (2 parts liquid; 1 part grain). I rinse it before cooking so it will be less starchy. The quinoa basically absorbs whatever flavors you add to it which makes it versatile enough to use for breakfast, savory sides, salad and even dessert. Quinoa is often on the menu in classes at CasaLana Gourmet Retreats as a side dish or salad.

I like to make it as a hot breakfast cereal in place of oatmeal. Cook it in milk (or for non-dairy use coconut milk – the beverage type). I add some chopped dates, or other dried fruits, for sweetness and some chopped crystallized ginger. You can use the same approach in cooking it to make it as a dessert – cook it in a sweetened liquid, add vanilla, cinnamon and other flavors of your choice. Serve it as you would serve rice pudding or topped with fresh fruit. It’s delicious, satisfying and a healthy alternative to sugar-laden desserts. You won’t need to feel guilty about indulging!

Abundance of Harvest

July 2012 marked 13 years since I opened CasaLana. Part of my attraction ot the property was the grove of fruit trees – apricot, apple (5), fig (6), peach, pear, plum and cherry. I’ve noticed over the years that the trees have a really abundant yield every other year. Well, this year the Santa Rosa plum tree has given more than I can ever remember. There must have been literally hundreds of pounds of plums.

The dilemma is what to do with so many plums that ripen within a 3 – 4 week period. I can’t bear to see it go to waste so I turn it into everything imaginable - jam, conserves, compote, syrup and chutney which you can find in the Culinary Essentials on-line store. I also puree the fruit and strain the raw, unsweetened pulp. I freeze that to use as a base for sorbet, sauces, glazes, syrups, etc. And of course, the CasaLana breakfasts and class menus feature whatever is currently available from the garden and orchard. So plums will find there way into relishes, glazes, compotes and more. There are some great ‘harvest’ classes coming up at CasaLana Gourmet Retreats. We’ll use plums or the plum conserves in desserts like the crostata recipe on the website.

Since it takes a lot of time to process hundreds of pounds of plums, I’ve been donating the surplus to some local restaurants. You’ll find dishes with the plums on the menus at Solbar, Brannans Grill  and All Seasons Bistro in both savory and sweet dishes.

Next up in the orchard – apples and figs, YUM!

 

Stock up on Pesto

Having a well stocked pantry is one of the the most important factors in making your cooking experience fun, flavorful and rewarding. I have a number of key items that I consider my ‘go-to’ for putting together a quick meal that tastes as if it took hours to prepare. Pesto is definitely in that category.

One of the pleasures of summer is the array of wonderful basils, cilantro and other herbs that I like to use to make pesto. Of course I love it when it’s freshly made but it freezes very well too. At the end of summer, before the threat of frost, I harvest all the basil and turn it into pesto and oils to carry me through the winter months. Having a pasta dish tossed with the fresh summer flavor of basil on a cold winter night makes everything seem brighter.

I prefer a blend of herbs when making basil pesto. I use mostly basil  but I add some parsley and mint for an added nuance of flavor. Basil oxidizes easily and the parsley and mint help keep a brighter green color.

For a lower fat version, reduce the amount of olive oil. I use lemon juice and/or vegetable stock reduction to replace some of the oil. After it is in a paste consistency, then I add enough oil to get the texture I want and bring the flavors together.

For a vegan version of pesto, replace the cheese with sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds. I usually sprout the seeds first by soaking them in water for a few hours. This makes them even more nutritious.

There are a number of ‘garden harvest’ classes coming up this summer that will include making different types of pesto – sundried tomato; roasted pepper; cilantro; arugula or others. I will be posting some of the recipes on Gourmet Retreats with the newsletter.

Signs of Summer – Early Figs

All of the fruit trees at CasaLana are loaded with fruit - cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, pears, apples – but the crop that excites me the most is the abundance of figs I see.  There are two harvests of figs each year - the first , called a breba, is usually a lighter crop. It is from the growth of branches that sprouted the prior year. I first learned about this from my friend Marie Simmons when she was teaching a ‘Fig Heaven’ class at CasaLana Gourmet Retreats. With 6 fig trees on the property, it truly is a fig heaven. The figs from this ‘breba crop’ are what you will be seeing in markets very soon and they will be available for a few weeks. The second more abundant harvest is in late summer and early fall.

One of my favorite things to do with figs (besides eating them right off the tree) is to grill them and glaze with a balsamic reduction. If you love proscuitto or pancetta, you can also wrap the figs with it before you grill them. I like to use these to top a salad of just harvested baby greens tossed with a light balsamic vinaigrette. The finishing touch is some crumbled blue cheese. These flavor profiles - figs, balsamic and blue cheese - have a great affinity for each other and are just meant to be together. I’ll be adding a recipe on the website soon for Grilled Figs and Balsamic Glaze. They will also be featured in many dishes we make in the hands-on classes over the summer. Maybe I’ll do another ‘Fig Heaven’ themed class in the fall. Look for the recipe and class updates at Gourmet Retreats.

I anxiously await the full harvest in late summer so I can replenish the supply of Spiced Fig Preserves and Apple-Fig Chutney that is available at CasaLana and in the on-line store Culinary Essentials.