Party Planning 101

August 8, 2011

Planning a menu can be stressful…especially when it’s for a large party or celebration.  Planning party menus is something I happen to really enjoy, but based on the number of questions I receive on this topic during my Connecticut cooking classes, I’m well aware that it isn’t exactly fun for most people.   How to begin, what to make, how much is enough, and what can be done in advance?
Dinner party

I have a few rules of thumb for party planning, designed to simplify the process and allow you as the host to actually enjoy your gathering:

Start planning well in advance of your party.  Depending on the size of the party, I start at least a week ahead of time.  I take this time to come up with menu ideas, make grocery lists, and make a timeline of what can be prepared in advance and what needs to be done the day of the event.

Come up with a menu.  The key to a good party menu is that you choose items that are not last-minute-labor-intensive, meaning you can do most of the work before anyone even walks in the door.   This way when everyone arrives you can have a glass of wine and enjoy your party!

I think of the menu in four parts:  hors d’oeuvre, main meal, dessert, and drinks.  For hors d’oeuvre, I try to keep it simple by having mostly, if not all, cold items (cheese and crackers, chips and dip, etc).  I might make one hot item only if it doesn’t interfere with my oven schedule.  For my main entrée, I don’t go overboard with too many side dishes.  For a smaller dinner party (10 people and under) I’ll choose some sort of protein (meat or fish), a green salad, and one to two side dishes (one vegetable, one starch).  If I’m having a larger, buffet-style party, I’ll usually have two entrée options (maybe a pasta as the first and a meat dish as the second), the same green salad, and one to two sides.  I also always get a good loaf of bread from my favorite local bakery to have sliced up in a basket.  I almost always purchase my desserts because baking is time-consuming and not my forté, so I leave that to the professionals.  And last but not least, beverages.  To alleviate having to set out a full bar of various bottles and mixers, I usually have wine/beer/seltzer on hand, and then I’ll mix up a big pitcher drink that goes along with the theme of my meal—Sangria for a Paella party, Vodka Lemonade for my cookout menu.

Come up with a theme.  I like to theme my menus based on the season.  No mid-winter barbeques or July chili parties.  I also like to give them some other sort of theme, whether it be ethnic/regional (southwestern food; Thai food), surrounding an event (Independence Day; football season), or even around a particular food (I once did an entire menu based around lemons).  Of course this part isn’t necessary, but it makes it fun and also gives you some direction when planning the menu.

Practice makes perfect.  It’s best to make recipes with which you are comfortable, preferably, ones you’ve made before.  Unless you’re extremely comfortable in the kitchen, don’t make something for the very first time when 25 people are on their way over to your house!  Even the most experienced cooks can have this backfire.  So, stick with what you know, or if you do want to try something new, it’s probably not a bad idea to do a ‘trial run’ before your party!  To make things even lower stress, when I find a menu I really like, I write it down in a little notebook I keep on the shelf with my cookbooks for future use.  I also write who I made the menu for so I don’t do the same one for the same group of people twice!

Make lists.  I’m a bit of a list-freak, but I usually have no fewer than three for any given party.  First my menu.  Second, my shopping list.  And third, my timeline of what needs to be done when.  This helps me get as much done ahead of time as is possible, plus it keeps me from forgetting anything the day of the party!

Have fun!  So many people tell me how they never get to enjoy their party because they are so busy working at it!  As I mentioned, do-ahead items are key.  I also think keeping the sheer number of items to a reasonable number is important (do you really need seven different hot hors d’oeuvre and five side dishes?).  Also, there is absolutely no shame in purchasing prepared foods!  The truth is that most people are just happy to be out, happy that someone else is cooking, and especially happy not to have to clean up afterward!  It doesn’t matter if everything isn’t perfect or restaurant-quality.  What matters is that everyone has a good time.  And that includes YOU.  So enjoy!


Smokefest ’11

July 25, 2011

Three summers ago our friends started what has become a July tradition.  “Big Mike” as my kids call him, has been brewing beer and  smoking meat for years, and his girlfriend is a fabulous cook, gardener, and all-around party planner.  When these New York City mice decided to buy a New York country house, they put their talents together and Smokefest was born.

Of course the highlight of the party is the meat.  Mike gets up at 7am  to start the smokers and prepare the 16 racks of  pork ribs and 15 lbs of brisket.  The brisket and half the ribs are prepped simply with salt and pepper, and the other half of the ribs get a dry rub the night before.  He may be a barbeque weekend warrior, but he’s no hack.  In fact, while smoking ribs for a charity event in Connecticut, Jacques Pepin stopped by for a taste and proclaimed “THOSE are some great ribs!”

Daniela makes a wide variety of side dishes—fresh from the garden.  This year she had a 6 foot grill loaded up with summer squash, zucchini, eggplant, onions, and 4 dozen ears of corn.  If that wasn’t delicious enough, she and Mike make a Cilantro-Lime Butter sauce (see recipe below) to brush on the corn which is De. Licious.  There are also salads galore—from potato, to tomato-peach, to cucumber, and more.  This year one neighbor brought some killer mac-and-cheese which you just couldn’t stop eating.

My favorite thing is the “Tavern”, a quaint little outbuilding (which Mike says is a character itself for this party), where little lights are strung along the ceiling, and coolers are filled with homebrewed beer (I loved the “6” a blonde beer), chilled whites and roses, water and soda.  Out back is a fire pit—where my kids spent most of the day filling s’more orders (you could choose from ‘burned’, ‘golden brown’ or ‘plain’ marshmallows, and could have your chocolate ‘very melty’ or just ‘kind of melty’).

It is so much fun to go to a party that’s all about the food.  It’s not anyone’s birthday and no one is being feted.  It’s just a gathering of people who love food, hosted by people who REALLY love food.  I can’t think of a better reason for a celebration!  Go Meat!

Smokefest Cilantro-Lime Butter

Courtesy of Mike and Daniela

3 limes, juiced

2 sticks unsalted butter

1 small bunch cilantro, chopped


In a small saucepan, reduce the lime juice until it is syrupy. Add butter, and melt.  Season to taste with salt and add cilantro at the end.  Brush on grilled corn or any veggies (also makes a great topping for clams!)

Hint:  Mike says you can spice it up by adding 1/2 tsp of chipotle!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Pine Nuts…VOTE!

July 18, 2011

One last push before voting closes on July 25th!!!

Ages ago I entered a recipe contest on a whim, and ended up the first runner-up.  The prize was the Cooking with All Things Trader Joe’s Cookbook, which became one of my favorites.  It also began a nice collaborative relationship with the authors, Deana Gunn and Woni Miniati.  I’ve been contributing recipes to their cookbooks ever since.

When I saw that one of my favorite magazines, Saveur, was having a Home Cook’s Recipe Challenge and the topic was “BBQ side dishes” I knew exactly what to enter.  It’s one of my favorite recipes which I’ve been making for something like 15 years.  My Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Pine Nuts is not only delicious, but simple to prepare (the peppers roast right on the grill next to your burgers or ribs).  It also happens to be delicious!

Check out the recipe, give it a try (you won’t be sorry!), and cast your vote today!  Thank you!

Vote for Season To Taste’s Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Pine Nuts here!


Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

A Lemony Cocktail for Summer

July 11, 2011

I absolutely love all things citrus–particularly in drink form, particularly in the summertime.  Two of my favorite beverages are the Aranciata and Limonata sodas from Italy.  San Pellegrino makes and distributes them here in the US, and they are widely available in grocery stores (usually sold in cans).  The Aranciata is sweet and orange-flavored while the Limonata is lemony and more on the tart side. Both are lightly carbonated.  They are crisp and refreshing all on their own, but also make fantastic mixers!

Lemon and mint are a great summery combination, so I added some vodka to the mix to create a delicious cocktail.  The result is a slightly fizzy lemonade for grown-ups which was recently featured as the Recipe of the Week on   Sip away!

Vodka Limonata with Mint
Makes 2 drinks

2 ounces vodka
1 tablespoon minted simple syrup (see below)
1 can San Pellegrino Limonata Italian soda
1 bunch fresh mint
lemon slices for garnish

Place vodka and simple syrup into a cocktail shaker with ice.

Shake to combine and divide evenly between two glasses.

Top with about 4 ounces of limonata soda and garnish with a lemon slice and a sprig of fresh mint.  Add ice if desired.

To make minted simple syrup, combine 1 cup granulated sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil until sugar is dissolved.  Remove from heat and add a handful of fresh mint leaves.  Allow leaves to steep in the hot syrup.  Cool completely, remove mint leaves, and store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Not Your College Student’s Ramen

July 5, 2011

“We were wondering if you could create a recipe using dorm ingredients like Ramen noodles?”

It was an unsual request, especially coming from the alumni office at my college alma mater.  As they explained, the alumni magazine was doing a spread on alumni who went into food careers, and thought it would be fun if we each submitted an original recipe.  They thought it would be even more fun if the recipe was created using ingredients which are widely considered “dorm food”.  Ramen noodles, boxed mac & cheese, peanut butter, or canned tuna.  Never one to back down from a food challenge, I accepted.  Oh, and this all had to be done for under $10!

The following weekend I was having a reunion with four of my best college girlfriends in New York City and we went to a new food ‘market’ of sorts called “Smorgasburg” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Think flea-market-meets-food-market.  Stall after stall of people selling delicious foods using interesting ingredients in interesting ways.  One of the stalls was mixing up delicious batches of sesame noodles and BAM I had my idea.  Sesame noodles made with ramen.

After a little trial and error, I came up with this recipe.  You can adjust the spiciness by using more or less of the chili paste (or leave it out entirely), but for me, the spicier the  better.  You can also swap out various vegetables for the carrots and snow peas, like red bell peppers.  Don’t like chicken?  Shrimp is a great substitute.

The long, thin Ramen noodles look suspiciously like the ones in the more “authentic” sesame noodle dish I had in Brooklyn…so hey, who has to know?  It will be our little secret.

Sesame Noodles with Chicken

Serves 3-4

3 – 3 oz packaged Ramen noodles (any variety)

¾ lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 cup carrots, cut into matchsticks (about 2)

1 cup snow peas, cut diagonally (about 4 oz)

2 teaspoons sesame oil


3 tablespoons sesame oil

½ cup smooth peanut butter

3 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

3 tablespoons rice vinegar (unseasoned)

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1-2 teaspoons red chili paste with garlic (or hot chili sauce with garlic if you can’t find the paste)–optional


¼ cup chopped scallions or chives

½ cup fresh cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

1.  Preheat the broiler of your oven or toaster oven.

2. Season chicken with salt and pepper and place under broiler for 7-8 minutes per side, or until cooked through.  Set aside and allow to cool slightly.

3.  Next make the sauce by placing all the sauce ingredients in the work bowl of a small food processor or blender.  Blend until smooth.  Add 1-3 tablespoons of hot water if sauce isn’t pourable and blend again.  Set aside.

4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add Ramen noodles (discard seasoning packet) and cook for a total of 3 minutes.  During the last minute of cooking, add the carrots and snow peas.

5. Drain in a colander and place in a large bowl.  Add 2 teaspoons of sesame oil and toss.  Set aside.

6. Shred the chicken with your hands or two forks and add to the noodles/veggies.  Add the sesame sauce and toss to combine.

7. Garnish with chives, cilantro, and sesame seeds.  Serve immediately.


Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

The Pinks of Summer

June 27, 2011

Pink.  Everyone looks good in it.  It’s cheery.  It’s fun.  And it’s the color of some of my very favorite summery foods and drinks!

  • Watermelon:  the ultimate summer food.  Look for whole watermelons that are firm, have a yellowish underside, and give a nice hollow ‘thump’ when you knock on it.  I cut it up into cubes for the beach (no rinds to throw out), or wedges for a backyard snack.  It’s okay to store at room temperature before it’s cut, but once you do slice it up, keep it refrigerated.
  • Watermelon Ale:  Made in my home state of Connecticut, Thomas Hooker Brewery’s Watermelon Ale is “strangely refreshing” according to the label.  I have to agree!  It’s perfect to sip while grilling on your deck.  Okay, so the beer isn’t actually pink (probably a good thing), but when sipped from the bottle you can imagine it any color you want!  Slighly sweet and actually watermelony in flavor, it’s a great addition to your fridge this summer.
  • Rosè wine:  I know there are a lot of people who still think of rosè wine as the sickly-sweet White Zinfandel.  But if you haven’t tried REAL rosè wine, you’re in for a treat because it’s perfect for summertime.  Most rosès are made from red grapes only, and are NOT a mix of red and white wine like many people believe.  If you like a particular grape varietal as a red, you’ll most likely also enjoy it as a rosè, slightly chilled during the heat of summer when drinking a big red seems like a waste.  I tend to prefer the fruit-forward Spanish rosès to the drier French rosès.  Some of my favorites are Rioja rosè and Garnacha rosè.
  • Pink frozen treats:  While out to a fabulous dinner in New York City (at Craft on 19th Street), I had a trio of delicious hand-crafted ice creams, including one flavored with rhubarb.  It wasn’t tart as I expected it to be, but rather smooth and sweet because of the addition of vanilla.  It was vaguely pink (like rhubarb) and phenomenally good.  I also love the new seasonal watermelon frozen yogurt on offer at Pinkberry (read my profile of it over at my other blog, The Secret Ingredient Online).  It’s clean and fruity with a little bit of tang.  Very refreshing!

Click for more information on Tracy’s cooking classes in Connecticut.


Vote for My Recipe @ Saveur Magazine!

June 21, 2011

Some of you may recognize this recipe as one I taught in my “Sensational Summer Salads Class”…it’s a delicious and colorful salad of roasted red peppers, pine nuts, feta, and olives, perfect as an accompaniment to your next barbecue.    Well, I’ve entered it into a recipe contest at Saveur Magazine, but editors only test the recipes receiving the most votes…so I need your help!  Please take a minute to go to the link below and vote for my “Roasted Red Pepper Salad with Feta” recipe…and more importantly, try it for yourself!  It’s a favorite in my house and hope it will be in yours as well!  Thank you!!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

White Wine Sangria with Mint

June 13, 2011

Inspiration.  It comes in many forms, in varying degrees of intensity, at unsuspected times, and in unusual locations.  While I was in the waiting room of the doctor’s office I was flipping through a food magazine which I had tucked into my purse, anticipating I’d be there for awhile.  As I looked through the pictures, read the accompanying stories, and browsed through the recipes, I was almost giddy with excitement.  All I wanted to do was run out of that office, plan a menu, whip up some pitcher drinks, and invite friends over for dinner.  The funny thing is that I didn’t actually want to make any of the recipes I was reading about—but yet they inspired me to want to go home and cook and create some of my own.  Yes, these are the things that make a food geek tick.

I love entertaining with pitcher drinks (supplemented with bottled beer and some wine) because they are just fun and easy.  It’s too much work to make drinks on a per person basis, so I just pick a drink that goes with the theme of the menu and whip up a big batch.  This particular warm day I decided to make a white wine sangria with grapes, cherries, some orange slices, and my delicious minted simple syrup.  I’m a very visual person and just imagining the colorful fruits swimming around in a pitcher of white wine made me happy.  Who doesn’t love to pour themselves a glass of cheer?

White Wine Sangria with Mint

Makes 1 pitcher –about 6 -8 glasses (double and redouble as needed)

1 – 750 ml bottle white wine (dry is better, but don’t spend a fortune on it)

2 cups of fruit, a combo of grapes and pitted cherries (or other small fruits)

1/2 navel orange, thinly sliced and quartered

2-3 tablespoons minted simple syrup (see below)

1 liter seltzer

fresh mint leaves

In a large pitcher, combine the wine, simple syrup, and fruit.  Allow to macerate for a couple hours in the refrigerator (okay to skip this step, but I recommend doing it!)

Before serving, add seltzer, fresh mint leaves, and some ice.  Serve cold.

(For minted simple syrup, I combined a bottle of purchased simple syrup in a saucepan with a handful of fresh mint sprigs.  Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and allow to steep while it’s cooling.  Cool completely and strain out the mint before adding to the sangria.  To make this from scratch, combine 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil until sugar is dissolved, add mint, and allow to steep as directed above.)

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

A Scone Too Good Not to Pass Along

June 6, 2011

I love creating recipes based on something I ate in a restaurant, something I heard about, or whatever is in my refrigerator.  However, sometimes I come across a recipe in a magazine, cooking show, or in this case, from a friend via another food blog, that is just too good not to share.  When my foodie friend Sarah updated her Facebook status with “Feta and roasted tomato scones. Ah mah gah” how could I not be curious?  Well, turns out the recipe is from “Sweet and Savory Life” , a photo-centric food blog written by Alice, a wonderful photographer, home-cook, and mom of three.  Her recipe for Roasted Tomato Feta Scones is wonderful. 

We usually think of scones as sweet, but this savory scone is delicious and would be perfect with brunch, lunch or dinner.  The roasted tomatoes are slightly sweet ( I roasted my own, but you can purchase them already roasted at the grocery store, as Alice suggests), the feta is tangy, and the scallions give a oniony bite.  They are also really pretty–the colors are fantastic.  Okay, so mine weren’t as perfectly triangular as hers, but I’m sure they tasted just as good.  I made a double batch and put half in the freezer for another day.  If you have a food processor (my very favorite small kitchen appliance), they mix up in a flash and are really very simple.  Give them a try–you will be saying “ah mah gah” too.

Roasted Tomato Feta Scones from Sweet and Savory Life

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

The Ice Wine Diva

May 30, 2011

I recently received a tee-shirt as a gift which read “Wine Diva” —all in pink sparkles.  My friend said when she saw it she thought of me, which made us both laugh.  Yes, I do drink my share of wine, but a diva I am not.   Not about wine or in general, but I still love the shirt and will wear it with the same enthusiasm that I wear my sparkly Harley Davidson shirt (which is even further from the mark than the diva shirt, considering I’ve never been on one and have zero interest). 

A few weeks back a friend came for a party with a bottle of white wine that wasn’t chilled, so I suggested we pop it into the freezer for a few minutes.  Well, to make a long story short, in the meantime we’d opened other bottles and were drinking my champagne sangria, and completely forgot about the wine.  I didn’t discover it until the next day when I opened the freezer to get some frozen waffles for my kids, and there it was, cork blown straight out, and frozen solid.  I had no idea wine would freeze!  I knew alcohol didn’t freeze, and that many people keep things like vodka and limoncello in their freezers.  Well, I guess wine doesn’t have enough alcohol to qualify as freeze-proof, and my proof was right in front of me.

I defrosted the wine and honestly it was fine (like I said, I’m not a diva about such things).  But as I was sipping my very chilly glass something dawned on me.  What if I made wine-cubes similar to my coffee-cubes, so in summertime when it’s particularly hot and I’m feeling especially un-diva-like I could pop a few of those cubes in my glass and not worry about watering it down?   Maybe it was the wine talking, but I thought it was a stroke of brilliance and pulled out my heart-shaped ice cube trays and filled them up.  Hey, if you’re going to put ice cubes in your wine, they might as well be heart-shaped! 😉

The unofficial start to summer has arrived—and divas don’t do well in the heat!  Soon, when it is 95 degrees and you’re sitting on your patio sipping a nice crisp glass of wine at the end of the day, you’ll be thanking me as your cubes clink together in your plastic wine glass. 

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.