Sunday, September 26, 2010

Party Finger Foods

For cocktail parties, finger foods are the best way to go so your guests can mingle, glass in one hand and appetizer in the other. Here are some classy little appetizers I recommend:

Mini tartlets with gouda and wild mushrooms
Prosciutto and sage-wrapped pear slices
Cherry tomatoes topped with goat cheese and fresh chives
Puffed pastry "stars" with spinach and sundried tomatoes
Crostinis topped with artichoke puree, sauteed leek, and a pesto dollop

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Estragon Eats

Estragon, the South End's self-proclaimed "slice of Madrid," serves up a nice mix of traditional Spanish favorites with a few modern twists. Inspired by 1930s Spanish salons, Estragon's funky style (the black and white checkered floors reminded me of our kitchen at home frankly) creates for a charming ambience. It relishes in its own imperfection: the vintage Facism poster print on the wall that borders between avant-garde and offensive, the dim lighting that's just a tad too dark, the closely-packed tables so that it's just a bit too noisy, the music selection that switches from flamenco classics to Shakira, and the waiter that's so twitchy he's either suffering from an affliction to the nervous system or he's on drugs. One or the other.

I started with their enticing cocktail menu choosing the Zoie Samone - raspberry vodka and chambord in a martini glass that they top off with a splash of rose cava - yes, the "girliest" drink imaginable, but so good! Of course there's always the sangria staple, a universal crowd-pleaser. The tapas menu had the traditional sections of appetizers on toast, vegetables, seafood, meat, and cheese, including the larger paella plates as well. We selected the Espinicas a Catalana first, my all-time favorite Castillian spinach dish sauteed with pine nuts and golden raisins, which are little nuggets of sweet goodness that pop in your mouth after the rich garlic-infused greens. Then for the crispy fried artichokes, which had the nice crunchy exterior and soft, warm inside, one of the most mouth-watering dishes we tried. The grilled leeks with Romesco tomato sauce were nice and smoky to taste, though to the point of being too blackened and stringy in some parts, making it difficult to cut easily with a knife. The garbanzos fritos, crispy paprika chickpeas, were not at all what I expected - I ordered them after hearing good reviews and was surprised to find a dish of individual garbanzo beans coated in the spicy crust rather than more falafel-like cakes as I had expected, and initially I was turned off by their appearance. But give these a second try, as I found the firey after taste of these tiny morsels to be almost addictive, and soon they had all but disappeared. Following our assortment of tasty vegetable dishes we chose the seared scallops, served in a warm, aromatic saffron albarino cream and topped with fried leeks to add a nice crunch to the soft scallops on the tongue. The scallops were cooked perfectly, soaking up the flavorful cream and emulsifying after each bite to melt away ... each bite was a delight.

So Estragon offers tasty Spanish food in a fun, bohemian setting - definitely worth a trip.

3.5/5 stars.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lean and Green

After we watched the popular documentary "Super Size Me" the night before last, I was in the mood for a good salad. If I wasn't anti-fast food before (and I haven't stepped foot in a McDonalds in nearly a decade, other than to use the bathroom, of course) this film made sure of it. So, feeling gung-ho about saving our cholesterol from the high fat/red meat eater's fate, I decided to make a dish that I like to call my "mean, lean, green machine" - an epic salad packed with vegetables and low fat protein sources. Here it is:

Baby spinach leaves with garbanzo beans, hard boiled egg, roasted yellow peppers, sundried tomatoes, sliced mushrooms, topped with steaming tofu in an arrabiata sauce (Roman sauce of tomatoes, garlic, and red chili), a sprinkle of shredded skim mozzarella, a drizzle of good olive oil and freshly ground black pepper. Who knew a tofu salad could be so good?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Peaches and Cream Oatmeal Cookies

Though I love a decadent dessert, sometimes you want to feel good about what you're eating.  These cookies are packed with healthy oats and dried fruit to give them a granola-reminiscent-I-could-eat-these for-breakfast feel, while using one of my favorite classic favorite combinations: peaches 'n cream!

Peaches and Cream Oatmeal Cookies:


  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour (I added a bit more to make my cookies fluffier)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 stick butter, softened (I typically use Earth Balance vegan butter but regular is fine)
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 1/2 cups rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried peaches (or whichever dried fruit your heart desires!)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (I added less - I don't like to overdo nuts in cookies)
  • 1/2 cup white chocolate chips (naturally you eat the rest of the bag ;) )

*I also added a dash of vanilla, personal preference.


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven.

*To soften the dried fruit, I soaked the peaches in water for 15 min. prior to mixing in.

In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Slowly add egg and continue mixing. Slowly add flour mixture, oats, peaches, walnuts, and white chocolate chips. Mix until combined.

Line 2 sheet trays with parchment. With wet hands make 20 balls from the dough placing evenly among sheet trays. Press down on cookie dough with palm of your hand to make a flat circle. (I completely omitted this step and used an ice cream scoop to place balls on ungreased cookie sheet, hence the thicker cookies - I'll try this method next time.)

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden and still a bit tender in the center. Remove from oven and let sit on sheet trays 1 minute. Remove to cooling racks to cool completely.


Brown Betty Beauties

The sinfully delicious "Hattie Don't Play" cupcake - chocolate on chocolate decadence!

The classic red velvet cupcake with cream cheese frosting

Friday, September 17, 2010

Cupcakes Galore

As I've commented many times, "Vampires and cupcakes are so in right now." And it's true: the only fad that's become as trendy lately as glitter-wearing angsty teens is cutesy decorated desserts. Blame the commercial success of such television programs as Ace of Cakes for the rise in attention to the pastry industry (Top Chef just premiered their new series "Just Desserts" in response to this growing trend) but I think there's a universal appeal in desserts - we all have an inner sweet tooth, people - and something endearing about these whimsical cup-sized creations. Cupcakes bring you back to childhood, really, to second grade birthday parties in which the girls wore little dresses for a "tea party" and brought their Barbies along, and each guest got her own individual cupcake, be it yellow, blue or pink, each envious of the birthday girl's lone flaming candle.

Now look at the booming cupcake industry: a few individuals caught on to cupcakes' enticement, bringing out every inner child, and they created cupcake shops to celebrate this. Selling cupcakes individually, devoting attention to decorating cupcakes by hand to look as works of art, they garnered attention for this peculiar niche and began the trend that has now become a culinary cultural phenomenon. Some say it began with Magnolia bakery in New York City, others have their own opinions about "where it really started." Whatever your preference, here's my guide to the creme de la creme of cupcakeries on the East coast.

Boston: Sweet, with locations in Back Bay and Harvard Square, has got the chic and elegant thing down to a T - in Beantown you're practically obligated to try their Boston Cream Pie cupcake flavor, sweet chiffon cake filled with homemade pastry cream and topped with chocolate ganache and a frosting "cherry." They also sell "little bites" versions if you just want a taste, which really appealed to me. Yet I have to say my favorite cupcakes in Boston are those of the bakery at Party Favors in Coolidge Corner, which really rock. They come in tea, regular, or jumbo sized, in florals, custom, or their assortment of fun flavors such as Oreo cookies 'n cream and a German chocolate cake with Bevarian cream, or the positively decadent affair topped with Godiva truffles. Here, it's go big or go home.

New York: Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street in the West Village opened in 1996 and grew a steady following as "the" late-night bakery in the city, with a line out the door at 11:30 pm on weekends. There is always a line wrapping around the corner each time I have visited this bakery, which is really a tiny little shop that barely fits ten customers, let alone the overflowing masses. Yet their quaint charm with Depression-era icebox cakes and classic "Barbie cake" pink-tinted vanilla buttercream cupcakes, Magnolia soon became an NYC staple and is now legendary.

Philadelphia: Brown Betty Dessert Boutique is like a lingerie store for desserts. With sexy decor and flavor titles such as the Rum Nudie, you wonder what kind of tasty treat you're buying - perfect for its Brown Betty Petite city center location near Rittenhouse Square, a fashionable district with panache. In Philly last weekend we tried the classic red velvet cupcake at the sinful Hattie Don't Play - chocolate on chocolate with the richest fudgy frosting imaginable. Betty don't play, mkayyy.

Washington, DC: Georgetown Cupcake, the gourmet cupcake shop that's now a fast-growing enterprise. I have it on good authority from my spies in the industry - okay my sister worked there - that the owners Katherine and Sophie, fashion industry vets who took their design skills to style desserts instead of dresses, pride themself in presentation. Any tiny imperfection in the decoration and that cupcake can't be sold, which is why staff has to work for months at the shop before they're even allowed to ice a single cupcake. It's an art form, respect. With a more extensive menu than the other cupcakeries featured here, in addition to the traditional staples Georgetown Cupcake has daily specials that switch weekly - come Monday and you'll find Honey Banana and Toffee Crunch, come Tuesday and find Lemon Blossom, Thursday Key Lime, Friday Lava Fudge and Saturday Salted Caramel. I've tried nearly all the flavors (perks of having family in the industry, and the dozens of "imperfect" cupcakes that never hit the glass case) and they're damn good. Georgetown Cupcake even developed a seasonal menu with rotating flavors, with Irish Cream for St. Patrick's Day, Pumpkin Spice in autumn and White Chocolate Peppermint, Gingerbread and Chocolate Egg Nog in December. Now that they have expanded into catering I dare say these cupcakes are taking over the world ...

So take a trip up and down the eastern seaboard and try them all - get ready for a sugar rush!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

'Round the World Dinner Party Ideas

Mexican Fiesta
Perfect for: Cinco de Mayo; large gatherings such as college friends reunions
The Food: fajitas or enchiladas are the easiest when feeding a crowd. For more intimate dinner parties go for the more complex Mexican dishes such as chicken mole and chile rellenos to give the guests an extra "wow"
The Drinks: margaritas of course! Sangria, though Spanish, is another crowd favorite. For a twist make white sangria, substituting a light white wine like pinot grigio or even moscato for the traditional red wine, soaking canned peaches, pears, and green grapes with a splash of seltzer and triple sec for taste.

French Feast
Perfect for: entertaining to impress, such as your boss or in-laws ...
The Food: a salad nicoise is my French dish of choice, and reasonably easy to make and assemble - boil the eggs and potatoes, sear the tuna, and arrange with vegetables to make it look pretty on the plate. Heartier French meals I've done that have been well-received are beef bourguignon and cassoulet.
The Drinks: Sauvignon Blanc for the seafood salad and Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot for the meat dishes. Follow the meal with creme brulee or chocolate mousse for supreme decadence.

Into India
Perfect for: more adventurous eaters looking to spice up their Friday night
The Food: tandoori chicken or rogan josh are good protein dishes to try out if you're taking your first steps in venturing into Indian cooking, and my personal favorite vegetarian side dishes are saag paneer (spinach) and dahl (lentils.) Add some basmati rice and warm naan bread and you've got yourself a well-rounded feast.
The Drinks: I typically choose a red wine for Indian food; tends to pair well, and if you want to go the extra mile make your own mango lassi for guests' dessert - just blend mango, milk, yogurt, sugar and a dash of cardamom in the blender until creamy. *Note Trader Joe's sells frozen mango cubes in the frozen food aisle.

Taste of Thai
Perfect for: wintertime - spicy curry is sure to warm you up
The Food: I find the pad Thai and curry dishes served over rice are the easiest way to "feed the masses" as my Dad would say - stir-fry your favorite vegetables and choice of chicken/tofu/shrimp/etc. in a wok and serve over rice - make it as spicy as you like!
The Drinks: Singha beer or Mai Tai cocktail

Hawaiian Luau
Perfect for: summer barbeques
The Food: grill festive skewers such as salmon, pineapple and bell peppers with teryaki glaze or coconut shrimp and spicy dipping sauce - finger friendly food with lots of color to match those tacky flower leis. Lots of fresh fruit - no need to roast a pig on a spit in the backyard, people.
The Drinks: Blue Hawaiian cocktails and strawberry daiquiries with a cherry on top

Make-Your-Own Sushi Party
Perfect for: bored adults and kids alike
The Food: go to a Japanese market and pick up grade A sashimi - basic crab meat, tuna, and salmon work best to start - seaweed wrappers, rice, and sushi mats to roll. Steam the rice to super sticky consistency (this is an art that takes years so don't be hard on yourself the first try,) dice up some cucumber really fine, and lay out the table with bowls of ingredients for guests to use as they attemp to assemble their very own sushi rolls.
The Drinks: Sapporos and saki gets the party really going - be sure to take photos of the creations before they're eaten!