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Archive for November, 2010

Centerpieces usually require something in the way of flowers–not necessarily, but usually. So where to get flowers if you can’t just sashay out to your garden and cut them?

Yep, there’s your friendly neighborhood florist, who will gladly order anything if you know its name, and the staff will coach you if you don’t. There’s also Costco, where you can always find great flowers for reasonable prices. I must say, however, that some Costcos have to be watched, in that they might keep their roses a day or two too long. Do the pinch test: Take a rose between your thumb and forefinger and squeeze. If it’s loose, leave ’em! Even if they’re exactly the color you wanted. And that brings me to other part of “don’t count on Costco.” Their choices are whatever they get the killer deal on to pass on to their customers. Not necessarily the color you need for the party you’re planning. My neighborhood Costco’s floral manager tells me they can order ahead if they know exactly what you want and if it’s available. They have even held flowers a day for me when I didn’t have room in my own cooler.

Then there’s your local farmers market–always a great choice but, again, limited. If you’re good at adjusting your expectations, either Costco or the market is a great choice. You can count on the farmers market flowers to be fresh and locally grown. Look for seasonal flowers. Right now, among other things, you’ll find dahlias, mums and an array of colorful and unusual greens.

My very favorite flower place is 30 minutes away: the floral mart in downtown LA. It’s open to the public several days a week but only for a few hours. Most large cities have floral marts; check on-line to find the locations and hours of the one nearest you. And know that most vendors in the mart only accept cash. You can get, literally, anything that’s grown commercially somewhere in the world, even if it’s out of season here. The hardest part of the mart is sticking to your budget. I regulate myself by bringing exactly enough cash for my purchases and parking. If I run out of cash, I’m done. And I plan pretty carefully; you can bet your first trip will be over your budget, because you’ll keep finding another perfect addition!

I have been known to under-purchase and have to cut greens from neighborhood shrubs. (Confession: Once I went to a business park and helped the gardeners trim the birds-of-paradise for a huge tropical arrangement.) And I let my backyard shrubs get a little larger than they should because their greenery is a great floral filler. I am also “blessed” with the morning glory from hell, courtesy of my ex-next-door neighbor; my sister Hellen, an artist with flowers, says it gives a wonderful drapey look to arrangements. (Yeah, you’re right, Hellen, but what about the rest of the time? It’s taken over my Datsun roadster and is heading for the garage. Should I be afraid?) The point is that sometimes even a noxious weed can be a great–and cheap!–addition to a centerpiece. Be imaginative; don’t be afraid! You can make a stunning centerpiece without paying a stunning price.
Hazel

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December…yeah, okay. We like to throw theme parties, and December is nothing if not a month of opportunities for theme events. Here are the parties, large and small, that we are contemplating for this December:

Hannukah–it begins Wednesday evening, on December 1. That means it’s really early this year, and I’m pretty sure that also means Laurel Blechman will, once again, not have a chance to decorate for the holiday (too bad–we’d love to show you how she does it). But we will be posting directions for making the world’s easiest potato latkes, based on the method used by Sarah Gilden, daughter of Latvian immigrants–but also a real 1950s American cook. That means she loved certain convenience foods.

Roswell is as ready for the holidays as she ever gets.

Tree-Trimming Tea (try saying that fast three times! I can barely type it)–Hazel specializes in teas, so this will be fun. Don’t miss her gingerbread pumpkin trifle recipe. It’s easy; it’s delicious; it’s spectacular.

Solstice Gala–every year I promise myself I will keep this, my big annual party, simple. Every year I run amok. But this year, really, honestly, I’m going to keep it simple. Yes. Simple. (Stop snickering!) I’m contemplating setting up a taco bar, featuring my sister Hellen’s fabulous salmon taco recipe. And, naturally, a dessert bar.

Lazy New Year’s Day Soup & Salad supper? Or perhaps a Rose Parade brunch? Or?? We’ve got almost a month to think about how to ring in 2011.

We also going to take a few days to talk about party-planning essentials–how to find inexpensive, or at least reasonably priced, floral supplies and other party supplies. When you’ve got a whole month of entertaining ahead of you, every penny counts.

We’ll keep you posted.

Laurie

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Thanksgiving came on so suddenly this year! It doesn’t usually sneak up on me because we almost always have Thanksgiving dinner at my house. This year, my aunt Mary and I switched, so I didn’t put in the usual two weeks of cleaning, shopping and cooking. Not to say I didn’t cook, of course I did, just not as much pre-cooking as usual. Since I didn’t slave away for two weeks, I had my four-day weekend planned before our brunch was finished. I hung my outdoor Christmas lights. My 14-year-old niece Madison got roped into helping me (thanks, Maddie!) and now I’m inspired to start on Christmas.

At some point I made up this rule that my Christmas tree needed to be decorated on the weekend closest to my December 7 birthday. But it will be rough this year, because over Thanksgiving dinner, we somehow decided December 5 would be the perfect weekend to have a Tree Decorating Tea — at my aunt Mary’s. We’d get a great holiday tea and Mary would get her tree decorated — win-win, well, except my tree will remain undecorated til… hmmm, my sister Hellen has a phrase for this.

Mary is perhaps the one person I know who loves tea more than I do. We had a casual tea just last Saturday to plan our Thanksgiving dinner and here we are planning another in just a week. But teas are a lot more fun to plan than a huge dinner. Maybe it’s the tiny sandwiches or the great desserts…not sure why, they’re just fun! And Christmas-y teas are even more fun because the food is always so festive.

My aunt Mary and her husband, Phil, live in a historic mansion in Southern California at the foot of the mountains. It lends itself to both tea and holiday decorations, and Laurie and I are always inspired to do special teas for this wonderful couple and the house we dubbed Toad Hall in deference to its resemblance to the stately home in The Wind in the Willows.

What do we have planned? Stick with us: You’ll see. From food to flowers, we’ll show you how to decorate a tea, er tree.
Posted by Hazel

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Last but Hardly Least

When we were thinking about dessert, it wasn’t just our friends’ addiction to chocolate that we considered. We also thought about what we serve at Thanksgiving: pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan

Enough chocolate for any addict.

pie…plenty of pie, sure, but none of it chocolate. But I was making pastry for the Thanksgiving pies anyway, so I made a spare pie crust and put it the freezer. And then Hazel and I decided it needed a chocolate filling.

About pastry dough. It can be daunting. It can also be bought frozen. One of the best cooks I know just buys Marie Callendar’s frozen pie crust; she says it saves her a lot of trouble. So if that works for you, go for it. If you’re feeling ready to tackle making your own, almost any version will do. Here’s a link to my favorite recipe, courtesy Gourmet magazine, of blessed memory http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Pastry-Dough-235496.
I generally skip the shortening and use all butter, but that’s because I use shortening so infrequently, it’s always rancid by the time I open the container. I also haul out my trusty KitchenAid food processor and the world’s handiest, simplest pastry-making tool: a plastic, zippered pouch that you use to roll the dough out (these things are cheap, available at kitchen supply shops and online, and they’re invaluable–no extra flour, no scraping your pastry off the rolling pin, no temptation to commit suicide in frustration). And after I’ve made the dough, I roll it out in the pouch, peel the pouch off and place the dough in the pie pan, and then I chill it.

You can bake this the day before you plan to serve it, or you can prepare the dough and the filling ahead of time, then assemble and bake as soon the French toast comes out of the oven. Let me tell you: people are impressed when you pull a warm, homemade dessert out of the oven, and it’s not just because they’ve been drinking mimosas for three hours.

Here’s the filling we came up with. I used a 10-inch glass tart pan, so the filling isn’t deep.

Chocolate Pecan Tart

4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
3 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter
1 cup corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups pecans

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Melt the chocolate and the butter (you can do this in the microwave if you’re careful, but I have burned so much chocolate in the microwave over the years, I always use a double boiler). Cool slightly.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs lightly, then stir in the corn syrup, salt, vanilla, butter and chocolate. Add the pecans. Pour into the prepared pie pan or tart pan. If you use a 9-inch pie pan, the filling will take longer to cook than it will in the 10-inch tart pan. In a pie pan, bake about 45 minutes; in the tart pan, about 35 minutes. I serve it warm with ice cream.

Posted by Laurie

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First things first: Have something ready to hand your guests as they walk into the room. A cup of coffee, a festive mimosa…maybe a bite of something in case someone has been out for a 15-mile run before coming over. (Yes, I do have friends who do that.
Especially if they’re preparing for a marathon—or they have an idea that today’s menu will be caloric. And I’m here to tell you, this is not diet food!) We picked up some mini quiches at Costco to heat and serve. While we were there, we also bought a dozen croissants for the filled French toast. And, oh yeah, a tub of soft cream cheese. It’s true, Costco is the land of giants, but, boy, is it a great resource when you’re planning to feed a crowd.

The nice thing about this menu is that most of it can be prepared before your guests arrive, even the bacon (which we bake).

Mimosas, coffee or orange juice
Mini quiche appetizers

Essential Ingredients

Filled French Toast

Start by assembling the French toast:

8 croissants
2 cups softened cream cheese
1 1/2 cups cherry preserves

8 eggs
2 ½ cups milk
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 tablespoons sugar

Split the croissants. Spread each one with about a quarter cup of soft cream cheese; top with about three tablespoons of cherry preserves. (But if you prefer strawberry or raspberry preserves, go for it.) Press the halves together again. Place the croissants close together, so they are touching, in an 11×15-inch baking dish. (If you don’t have a baking dish that big, use two 8×8 square ones. Just be sure the croissants are packed together closely.)

Lightly beat the eggs, then stir in the sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and milk. Pour over the croissants. At this point you can put the pan in the fridge for an hour, until the last of your guests escape the freeway and arrive, hungry and cranky. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Give everybody a mimosa or coffee and then put the croissants in the oven to bake for about 30 minutes, until the egg stuff is cooked through. Pass syrup and powdered sugar for those who like their French toast nice and sweet.

We made a cinnamon-flavored syrup to pick up on the cinnamon in the French toast:
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
two cinnamon sticks

Bring the water and sugar to a boil, stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the cinnamon sticks and simmer for about five minutes. You can make this earlier and set it aside to steep. Rewarm and remove the cinnamon sticks when you’re ready to serve.

You don’t want to make syrup? Pick up something that looks yummy, maybe a berry-flavored syrup.

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Essential Ingredients


We like to start with a salad for a meal like this, something special but not complicated. It can be assembled ahead of time and then dressed at the last minute.

Once the French toast is in the oven, toss the salad and round up your guests. They’re ready for the first course.

Running out of time? Remember our rule: Never kill yourself trying to make everything perfect. There are always shortcuts.
We’ve been making variations of this salad, based on one in The New Basics cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, for years. This version was partly inspired by the discovery of a lovely walnut champagne vinegar found at Wine Country Chocolates’ tasting room in Sonoma (you can drool over their fabulous chocolates at their website) and partly by the last of the Bartlett pears at Ha’s Apples, a favorite farmers’ market stand.

Pear, Walnut and Cambozola Salad
2 firm Bartlett pears
1 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
4 ounces Cambozola
one head oakleaf lettuce
a couple of handfuls of baby arugula

Vinaigrette
1/2 cup walnut oil
2 tablespoons walnut champagne vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Make the vinaigrette. I always pour the ingredients into a small jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake it until the dressing emulsifies. Toast the walnuts (I do this in a dry skillet on top of the stove, so I can keep an eye on them, but you can spread the nuts out on a jelly-roll pan and bake at 325 degrees for about 10 minutes) and let them cool.
Clean the greens and tear the oakleaf lettuce into bite-size pieces; put it and the arugula in your serving bowl. Peel the pears and cut into thin, bite-size pieces and layer them over the greens. Creamy Cambozola, with a texture like Brie, has a fairly delicate flavor for a blue cheese; cut it into small pieces and sprinkle on top of the pears. Top with the walnuts and toss gently. Hazel, entranced by a colorful mix of nasturtium petals and other ornamental greens at Maggie’s Farms,

Stellar, indeed! Baby greens with flower petals

another farmers’ market favorite, purchased a dollar’s worth to add a little seasonal color to the salad. Toss with the vinaigrette and serve.

No time to shop for a salad? Remember our rule: Never kill yourself trying to make everything perfect. There are always shortcuts. Quick cheat:
You can buy a delicious ready-to-toss salad mix at Trader Joe’s or the supermarket. We like the cranberry-and-spinach salad with candied pecans at Trader Joe’s a lot.

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I adore flowers! I enjoy giving them and getting them. I love gardens, although I must admit, Laurie is the gardener, as you might notice if you’ve ever seen her garden blog. Not to say I don’t have my own garden with lots of roses. I do, but all that work! Wowzers! I’d rather someone else did it and let me just cut and arrange the flowers. But then they wouldn’t be dressing up my front patio and white picket fence. Plus, my rose taste leans toward coral and peach and pink, which severely limits my centerpieces, especially this weekend!

And that, my friends, brings me to our centerpiece. I try not to limit myself to just flowers. Fresh fruits and vegetables are always a great addition to any centerpiece. So that’s what I am doing for this weekend’s brunch. At the farmers market I picked up a mixed bunch of fall flowers and added a bunch of quirky orchid-like flowers in a fun variety of orange and rust. You can always find a great bunch of fall color at Trader Joe’s or at Costco.

I was recently gifted with a set of antique vases that are low and, when used together, link to make an oval. The only problem in the case of this arrangement is that the vases covered in a pastel rose pattern that clashes dreadfully with my fall colors. So I filled them with my pre-soaked Oasis, inserted all the flowers, cut to between 2 and 6 inches, until each vase was full, and then arranged fruit and fall gourds in front of and in between them. The result was fun and low, so our guests wouldn’t have to fight with the flowers to speak to each other.

If you don’t have something like this marvelous low vase, I suggest a few shallow bowls – there are always great choices at the 99 Cent Store. You can pick up three or four clear or, for this event, amber glass; load ’em up with soaked Oasis (available at Michael’s) and add your flowers. If you don’t want to spend a bunch on flowers, go outside and look around. There are fabulous autumn leaves everywhere. Fill your empty spots with short branches of colorful leaves, cut a little shorter than your flowers. I usually start with a few sprigs of leaves, add flowers and then fill in where needed. For less than $20 you will have an arrangement that will wow your friends and have you soaking up their praises.

Stick with me, today the flowers, tomorrow the table!

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