Friday, September 30, 2011

Summer of Sam Playlist

Here's the link to the Summer of Sam playlist on iTunes. If you're throwing yourself a 70's dance party, there are roughly 5,000 disco compilations you can pick up. But part of the fun of throwing an homage to the past is doing a little musical exploration yourself.

This playlist is chock full of songs I was psyched to find on my own journey through the 70's - it's got funk, teenage punk rock girls, post punk, glam rock, gritty rock,  a little disco, and some awesome 70's covers of 60's Stones. Learn to love the 70's, y'all! It isn't hard to do.

Here's the playlist:
1. Getting Uptown to Get Down/United 8
2. Express Yourself/Charles Wright
3. Wanoah/Black Heat
4. Let's Stay Together/Al Green
5. Jive Talkin'/The Bee Gees
6. Sir Duke/Stevie Wonder
7. Nutbush City Limits/Ike & Tina Turner
8. Gimme Shelter/Merry Clayton
9. Jumpin' Jack Flash/Ananda Shankar
10. Hong Kong Garden/Siouxie & the Banshees
11. Shake Some Action/The Flamin' Groovies
12. Suffragette City/David Bowie
13. Lust for Life/Iggy Pop
14. Destroyer/DMZ
15. Uncontrollable Urge/Devo
16. Blitzkrieg Bop/The Ramones
17. Cherry Bomb/The Runaways

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Turkey Corn Chili

My friends, summer has gone. It flew the coop days ago, leaving us with nothing but melting popsicle memories, late harvest tomatoes and fading tan lines. Cruelty.

The good news is that it's now officially fall, so, as everyone knows, it's officially time to start making chili. It's all very official.

Chili comes in all forms -- beef, three-bean, meatless or five-alarm, to name a few. Mine comes with turkey and corn, and just a little bit of heat; it's a right fine way to ward off fall's chill and ring in this glorious new season -- of football tailgating.

Fall weekends are ripe with football games and, ardent fan or indifferent observer, football games are the perfect excuse to gather friends for eating, drinking, general noise-making, and also eating. I think you'll agree that a big batch of chili is the consummate football-watching food. Warm, filling, crowd-pleasing -- it's a thrown-together, one-pot, rough-and-tumble meal, and it makes excellent use of all kinds of toppings. And hey, who doesn't love toppings?

...Probably Giants fans.

Turkey Corn Chili
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1.5 lbs ground turkey
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 Tbsp ground cumin
  • ½ Tbsp. ground coriander
  • ½ Tbsp paprika
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 small red bell peppers, chopped
  • 1 medium zucchini, halved and sliced into half moons
  • 1 or 2 jalapeƱo peppers, seeded and finely chopped (if you like spicy, go for 2 jalapeƱos, or use 1 and don’t take out the seeds. Or really knock yourself out with a habanero chili. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
  • 28 oz. can diced tomatoes (with juice)
  • 15 oz. can kidney beans, drained
  • 1.5 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 10 oz. fresh or frozen sweet corn kernels
  • Sour cream or plain Greek yogurt, for topping
  • Grated Colby Jack cheese, for topping
  • Sliced scallions, for topping
Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions and let them sweat, until they turn soft and translucent. Add garlic and saute for a minute or two.
Add the ground meat and break up into small chunks with a wooden spoon. Add the chili powder, cumin, coriander, paprika and salt, and let the spices meld over the heat while the meat browns, about 5 minutes.
Add the chopped veggies, diced tomatoes with juice, kidney beans, chicken broth and tomato paste, mixing to combine. Let the liquid heat up for 5 minutes or so, then add the corn. Cover the pot and let the chili simmer 10 – 15 minutes, until fragrant and steaming.
Serve with a healthy scoop of sour cream (or plain Greek yogurt), a sprinkling of shredded cheese, and a handful of sliced scallions.
Serves 6-8.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My Friends Need Drinking Lessons

Dear Bashionista,

I've been trying to build up a little bar in my kitchen. I've got about a dozen bottles and some sweet vintage bar tools and shakers. It looks great! Aaaand it goes completely untouched. What am I doing wrong? Doesn't alcohol sell itself?? My friends come over and just grab a beer out of the fridge - even the people who don't like beer.

How do I get this (cocktail) party started?

Denise D.

Here's the thing. The only people who will walk right up to a bar and start pouring are drunks and bartending enthusiasts. For casual drinkers, a bar can be really intimidating.

So why go to the trouble? A bar is a wonderful thing to have. As a host, a well-stocked bar is party insurance. A massive amount of beer is too hard to store and too easy to skunk. Too much beer is a pain, too little beer is a disaster. But the hard stuff keeps, it looks fancy, and there are times when you'd much rather keep it classy with a highball then feel your beer bloat weighing you down.

Plus, with a bar there is the potential for alchemy. It gives amateur bartenders a chance to show off their skills. It opens you up to new flavor combinations and it makes room for the unexpected.

So don't give up on your bar - just bring the bar to the people.

1) Help them help themselves
Before your event, take stock of your bar. Scan through a bartending book and choose between five and 20 cocktails you could make without having to buy more than a bottle or two and some mixers. Then set up your bar around these cocktails - display the bottles you've selected along with their mixers and garnishes, and whatever tools people might need; can opener? blender? shakers? shot glasses for measuring? Print out a menu of featured cocktails and mount it on some cardstock, or just tape it to the wall. Leave the bartending book within reach and use post-it notes to tab the pages.

2) Do the work for them
Pre-mixing some cocktails is a great way to get the party lubricated. I recommend mixing up two different pitchers and labeling them. You could make labels from brown paper bags and tape them on, or use a grease pencil on a glass pitcher. Write the name of the cocktail, and then suggest a mixer that could be added if it's too strong. Depending on the size of the party, you might also want to serve a punch, or leave out a shaker of shooters people can pour.

3) Don't forget the teetotalers
It's nice to remember your friends who aren't drinking, for whatever reason. Make a third pitcher of mocktails, so they can feel festive, too. Label the concoction and if you want, recommend a liquor people could spike it with.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Throw Down: Summer of Sam

This party is inspired by the Spike Lee film Summer of Sam, and it takes place at the intersection of disco, punk rock, and 70's serial killers. The polyester was tight, the headscarves were flowing, the dancers were slick and the rockers were gritty.

From transforming your space on the cheap with stage tricks and found kitsch, to feeding your guests and keeping them dancing all night, we've got you covered. Click here for a playlist to get your groove on, and click here for a photo gallery of costume ideas.

Now, there's nothing stopping you from throwing a 70's party in your home, and I encourage you to adapt these ideas to suit your space. But consider for a moment renting a venue for your party. It's not as crazy as it sounds. Personally, I'm fortunate enough to be a member of my local community theater, The Footlight Club, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. One of the benefits of membership is a great discount on the rental for the space. But VFW halls and Masonic Lodges can be had for a fair price. Typically, I ask for a $5 donation at the door, which covers the cost of the hall, and then I provide all the food and drink. If this is still out of reach, consider having a combined birthday party with a few friends where you split the cost food and drink. Suddenly it's looking like a small price to pay for throwing the party of the century.

Working the Door

Thanks Mom for never
throwing this out! Owlie over
here adorned my childhood
bedroom wall.
 In my article here I address the finer points of greeting your guests - including the kind of instant camera I swear by these days. When I threw this party, I had come into a little bit of money and my one splurge was hiring a recent photography grad to be my official party photographer. She snapped pictures of each guest and created a photo album so amazing that it might be the one thing I'd grab if my house caught fire.

In leaner years, instead of hiring someone I've asked my close friends to pitch in and help me out by manning the front door. I would assign teams of 3 friends who know each other, and ask them to just take one 30-minute shift and hang out in the entry hall instead of on the dance floor. One person takes coats, one person snaps a polaroid, and one person takes your donation and gives you a hand stamp - for Summer of Sam, I chose a great stylized owl stamper.

This old phone had the
perfect look - and showed
up in a ton of pix.
 I am a huge fan of giving guests props to pose with - one small detail can set the scene. For months before this party, I collected items that would make excellent props; obselete technology from my parents' house, 1/2 price outdated calendars with 70's movie posters I could tack on the wall, a toy gun from a costume shop - this is a serial killer party, after all - and for about $3 I was able to pick up some iconic record albums at my local secondhand store.

The Party Room

Picture a big square room with not much in it - this is your canvas (and conveniently, the layout of most Masonic halls). Now divide this room into long thirds. The center third of the room is the dance floor - which in this case, is conveniently marked off with support columns. This leaves two thirds of the room to create little nooks and different hangout spaces.

For a dance party, I swear by fairy lights - easy to put up, and instantly mood-setting. Some dear friends helped me out by stringing a multitude of lights around the columns on the dance floor. However, fairy lights alone wouldn't cut it in such a large space. So I bought one lava lamp and borrowed two more from friends - these gently illuminated one corner where we served fondue. And for the important work happening at the bar area, I used a clip-on adjustable light, and set up another incidental lamp with a charmingly decrepid shade.

And since the '70's were the era of John Wayne Gacy, I couldn't resist setting up an evil clown lite brite as a marquee on the dance floor.

Fondue Party
To the right of the door I set up a fondue station. Every hour or so, we'd melt a new batch of deliciousness and set out a new set of dippers. Fondue, forks and friends, salvaged carpet square, coffee table. It turned into a great spot to sit and nosh and watch the world go by.

Technology & The Movie Pod

For our dance party, a great friend who's in a band loaned me some speakers that could dock to my iPod or computer. DJ services could easily double the cost of your venue, so if you can't beg or borrow a proper sound system, you can make do with a decent boom box cranked up.

I am also fortunate enough to know someone willing to trust me with his movie projector, and so I put it to good use. To the left of the door, I created a little pod. I set up a few couches and armchairs that were hanging around the theater, creating a long, narrow living room along the wall. At the far end of this "room," I set up a TV, screening movies like Boogie Nights on mute. From the ceiling I hung a crisply ironed, white sheet, as a wall between this pod and the rest of the room. I then projected additional movies silently onto the sheet. The beauty of this technique is that you can see the movie on *both* sides of the sheet. You can watch Saturday Night Fever, Almost Famous and Summer of Sam on couches secluded in the pod, or you can see them from the dance floor, where they seem like an arty video installation.

Buffet & Sample Menu

Guess what? Movie projectors are crazy expensive. So my top priority was to protect this equipment, while balancing it on a little gallery post in the middle of the floor. Simple solution: arrange the buffet tables in a U around the projector.

The food I chose was all prepared well in advance. The mac & cheese and pigs in blankets can be popped in the oven with very little fuss and the bread can be tossed in a the same time to be warmed. I did ask my cousin to help me out by melting fondue for me once an hour, but I had prepared tupperware containers with the fondue ingredients, and separate containers with pre-cut fruit and bread cubes so it was super-easy to melt and serve.

Fancy Olives
Salted Nuts
Onion Dip with Crudite (made with onion soup packets in sour cream - so 70's!)
Pigs in Blankets
Store-bought Sheet Cake

The Bar & Featured Mocktail

I wanted to make the bar extra special and so I talked to my friend Kristen Bonstein about a project I thought would be right up her alley: Designing a serial killer tryptich that would rest behind the bar. She did an incredible job of displaying the madness of John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz and the Zodiac killer, and the effect was chilling.

Featured Mocktail: Rainbow Punch
This punch is a refreshing blast from the past and is quick to make.
In a punch bowl, combine two 46 Oz. cans of Hawaiian punch, a cup of sugar, 4 cups of orange juice, and a 2-Liter bottle of chilled Sprite, and stir to combine and dissolve sugar. Float a 1/2 gallon of rainbow sherbet on top.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Plan: Harvest Feast

Ok, kids, here is the down and dirty list of exactly what you need to do to singlehandedly throw an unforgettable Harvest Feast. (Well, ok, you will singlehandedly be doing all of the cooking. But feel free to ask a helpful friend to assist with plating or bringing food out to the table). We think of every detail so you don't have to! Here goes.

2 Days in Advance:

Clean your house! Seriously. I can't tell you how much I wish I would take my own advice, and how many times people have shown up to find me standing in front of a pile of crud with a dustpan in my hand and a guilty look on my face. Or the number of times I have thrown a pile of clothes in the wash an hour before go time, and then forgotten that I have wet wash in the machine until 48 hours later. Do as I say, not as I do.

Buy the booze! Take time to choose some nice bottles of wine, have your booze and mixers lined up and at the ready.

Dress up your table! This is your chance to get crafty. Gather up fall leaves and make a bouquet. Think of a creative way to make place cards - I have a collection of polaroids of my friends I like to use, but you could try hand-lettering cards and stamping them with a fall icon. You could also find acorns to spread across your tablecloth. And apologies to stores like Pottery Barn that roll out new plate patterns for each season, but who are they kidding? Update your table's look for pennies - buy some cheap glass votive holders, and wrap them with strips of fancy translucent paper in colors to match your table - I like orange for fall; it'll give your table a great glow.

1 Day in Advance:

Buy the food! Here's your grocery list.

Fruits & Veggies:
pt. raspberries
2 white onions
red onion
1 clove garlic
bag of mixed greens
bag of cauliflower florets
1 lb. raw beets

Italian Food:
1/2 cup pine nuts
arborio rice
jar of your fave tomato sauce

Bread & Jam:
french bread
blackberry jam
smooth peanut butter

Cooking & Baking:
olive oil
raspberry vinegar
baking soda
brown sugar
2 1/2 oz bittersweet chocolate per person
unsweetened cocoa powder
big marshmallows
graham crackers
seasoned bread crumbs
garlic salt
sea salt

Cans & Jars:
two 12 oz cans kernel corn
1 cup chicken broth
6 cups vegetable broth

salted butter
unsalted butter
boursin cheese
cream cheese
small hunk of parmesan
large hunk of fontina cheese
sliced mozzarella
2 eggs
whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
whipped cream

Meat & Fish:
4-6 boneless chicken breasts (there will be a ton of food, so lighter eaters may be happy splitting one)
scallops (1-3 per person, depending on size of scallops)
Day of: 
Cook the feast! I'm going to assume your first guests will walk through the door at 7pm. Adjust times to suit your actual start time.

2pm Set out a stick of butter to soften
2:30 Set your table with tablecloth, place cards, napkins, glasses, salt & pepper shakers, silverware, candles and a centerpiece if you're having one.
3pm Pre-slice your french bread and bag it for now. Set out 2 baking sheets (one for crostini, one for cookies), and a platter for serving your crostini. Stack your salad plates, soup bowls and dinner plates for easy plating when the time comes.
3:10 Make corn chowder: Chop 1/2 an onion, mince 1 clove of garlic, chop 1/4 cup of parsley. In a large pot over medium heat, melt 1 Tbsp salted butter and add these three ingredients. Saute for about 5 minutes, until onions are tender. Add 3 Tbsp flour and stir well to create a roux. Whisk in 2 1/2 cups milk and 1 cup chicken broth. Add both 12 oz cans of kernal corn and 2 1/2 Tbsp cream cheese, and allow to heat through. Add 1 tsp garlic salt and 1 tsp pepper. Stir together, then cover and remove from heat.
4pm Carefully toast your pine nuts, and combine 1/4 cup raspberry vinegar, 3/4 cup olive oil, and 1 tsp sea salt in a shaker bottle to make your vinaigrette. Place vinaigrette on the table and allow guests to dress their own salads when the time comes.
4:05 Plate your salads ahead of time: handful of greens, small handful raspberries, small handful pine nuts, 3 shaves of parmesan.
4:15 Prep your chicken parmesan: Pound your chicken breasts to 1/2 inch thickness. Whisk together 1/2 cup milk and one egg. Dip the chicken pieces in the mixture, then dip them in seasoned breadcrumbs. Heat 3 Tbsp. olive oil in large pan over medium-high heat. Brown the chicken about 3-4 minutes per side, then place the pieces in a glass baking dish. This can be stored under plastic wrap in the fridge.
4:45 Make cookie batter: Combine 1 1/4 cups flour, 3/4 tsp baking soda, 1/4 tsp salt. In a separate bowl, combine softened stick of butter with 1/2 cup white sugar and 1/2 cup packed brown sugar. Add 1 egg and 3/4 cup smooth peanut butter to buttersugar mixture. Mix dry mixture into wet mixture in increments. Cover and refrigerate until you're ready to bake. Smush up some graham crackers in a bowl and reserve for later - this is for the rims of your hot chocolate mugs. Oh yeah.
5pm Prep your cauliflower: Steam florets in a frying pan with a 1/2 cup of water until tender. Place florets in a baking pan. Drizzle olive oil on top. Shake about 1/2 cup seasoned breadcrumbs and 1/2 cup grated parm on top of florets. Cut pats of salted butter, to taste (1/2 to 1 stick) and place them all over the top. Sprinkle paprika, salt & pepper to taste on top of that.
5:30 Prep your risotto. Pour 6 cups vegetable broth into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Peel and cube your beets.
5:50 Add your beets to the broth and simmer until tender. Finely chop a red onion. Grate 2 cups fontina cheese. Chop 3 Tbsp parsley. Set these aside for later.
6:20 Remove beets from broth with a slotted spoon. Cover broth and remove from heat. Your prep work is done! Relax for a bit.
6:45 Pre-heat your broiler/Open a bottle of red wine and let it breathe.
7pm Guests arrive/toss your french bread slices on your baking sheet, pour a generous drizzle of olive oil on top, flip and drizzle the other side and broil, 2 minutes each side.
7:05 BACK BURNER 1: On medium flame, bring corn chowder up to a gentle simmer./BACK BURNER 2: Bring vegetable broth back up to simmer./FRONT BURNER 1: Melt 1/2 stick unsalted butter in large heavy saucepan, and add the chopped red onion and 3 Tbsp raspberry vinegar. Cook gently for 10 minutes until soft, golden and translucent, but not browned.
7:10 Remove crostini and lower oven to 350degrees. While still warm, spread boursin cheese on each crostino, then spread a nice smear of blackberry jam on each. THIS IS A GREAT JOB TO DELEGATE if your first guests are sweetly offering to help. They can also bring out the crostini and pour themselves some wine while you're cooking.
7:15 FRONT BURNER 2: On medium heat, melt 4 Tbsp. salted butter in a skillet for your scallops/FRONT BURNER 1: Add the cooked beets to your risotto pot, then 2 1/2 cups arborio rice, and stir until well-coated with butter and heated through.
7:17 Begin adding hot broth to your rice, a large ladle at a time, stirring gently until each ladle has almost been absorbed by the rice. The risotto should be kept at a bare simmer throughout cooking, so don't let the rice dry out - add more broth as necessary. Continue until the rice is tender and creamy, but the grains still firm. You'll be stirring almost continually, but you can step away for the moments it takes to multitask the next few jobs. Your guests will be without you for the first half hour, but they'll have courses to nibble on, and you can catch up by eating a couple of courses at once.
7:20 Cook scallops 2-4 minutes per side, depending on the size of scallops
7:25 While scallops cook, ladle chowder into bowls.
7:28 Add scallops and shake out a dash of cayenne on each bowl, and serve chowder.
7:30 Throw cauliflower in the oven.
7:35 Throw 2 slices of mozzarella on each chicken piece, then pour jar of sauce over the whole deal. Bake it in the oven.
7:37 Risotto is finished cooking! Taste and season well with salt and pepper, then beat in additional 1/2 stick of unsalted butter, the grated Fontina and the parsley. Cover and let it rest until it's time to serve the main course. Sit down with your guests and eat your soup and crostini.
7:45 Bring out the salads and pass the vinaigrette.
8pm Remove chicken and cauliflower from the oven but leave it on 350degrees. Dinner is served!
8:30 (or whenever you can actually contemplate dessert) Get a helpful friend to scoop cookie dough balls and place them on the cookie sheet - flatten and crosshatch each ball with a fork. These will then bake for 12 minutes. In the meantime, make the hot chocolate. (These amounts are for a single serving - just multiply by number of servings). First, gently melt butter in a small saucepan. In a second saucepan over low heat, combine 1/2 cup whole milk, 1/2 cup heavy cream, and 2 Tbsp sugar and heat until sugar is dissolved. Add 2 1/2 oz bittersweet chocolate chips and a pinch of cinnamon and whisk constantly until the chocolate is melted. Do NOT let the mixture come to a boil. Rub melted butter along the rim of each mug, dip into graham cracker crumbs to coat, and fill the mugs with hot chocolate. Place a Tbsp of whipped cream and 3 big marshmallows on top. If you have one of those snazzy creme brulee torches, you can toast the top of those marshies. If not, you can sprinkle with a dash of cocoa powder.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sentimental Songs for Indian Summer

Follow this link to a playlist of great songs for late summer. This mix could be the perfect accompaniment to a Harvest Feast, or the soundtrack to a crisp autumn evening snugglefest. Get cozy!

Here's the tracklist:
1. The Littlest Birds/Be Good Tanyas
2. English Girls Approximately/Ryan Adams
3. Fake Empire/The National
4. Over and Over Again/Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
5. This Tornado Loves You/Neko Case
6. Where Does the Good Go/Tegan & Sara
7. Energy/Lisa Germano
8. Two Days Short/Two Gallants
9. Long Time Traveller/The Wailin' Jennys
10. Resurrection Fern/Iron & Wine
11. Oliver James/Fleet Foxes
12. Like Castanets/Bishop Allen
13. Ocean and a Rock/Lisa Hannigan
14. Wasuze Otya?/Samite

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Caprese Salad and Potatoes & Beans with Pesto: A late summer spread

Here's the latest column from our contributor Cara Valla, sous chef at San Francisco's Chiaroscuro. Enjoy!

As the summer comes to a close, don't despair! It's time to sit back, relax and enjoy that pungent green herb we love so much . . . Sorry, stoners, I'm talking about . . . basil! Whether you are adding an herbacious tone to salads, showing off the luscious green leaves in a caprese or letting a fresh pesto hightlight the delights of this herb, you are sure to capture the freshness of summer in each bite.

The Classic Caprese Salad

The old saying goes "what grows together goes together" and nowhere is that statement more true than when it comes to tomatoes and basil. Even the mingled scents from the plants in the garden create a delicious aroma. The caprese salad is a way to let these two ingredients play off of each other against a clean pallate of mozzarella.

Fresh tomatoes
Extra virgin olive oil
Balsamic vinegar

Simply slice tomatoes and mozzarella and arrange on a platter, drizzle with olive oil, salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar. Right before serving, tear basil leaves with your fingers or cut with a very sharp knife and arrange over top (Basil leaves bruise very easily so using a dull knife will also dull the flavor. It is always best to tear with your fingers rather than use a dull knife).

These days it seems everyone is trying to reinvent the classics. Although this flavor combination is a knock out, you can always have a little fun with how you make all the tastes sing together. For example, you could use a reduced balsamic to drizzle over the top, or you can experiment with some other types of cheese like burrata, bufalo mozzarella or fresh farm cheese.

Pesto, Potatoes & Beans
This dish is a very classic Italian combination. It can be used as a salad, side dish or to dress a pasta. Your vegetarian friends will love you for it.

1 clove garlic
1/4 cup toasted nuts (almonds and pine nuts work wonderfully but feel free to experiment with your favorite!)
1/2 cup good quality olive oil
1/4 cup grated cheese (parmesean, pecorino or any other dryer cheese you can grate)
1 large bunch of basil

2 cups green beans cut into 1" pieces
2 large potatoes peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 tsp lemon zest (optional)

In a food processor or mortar and pestal crush garlic with nuts. Add a little oil and cheese, and when you have developed a paste, add in basil.
Add oil and more cheese if desired to create a loose but not overly oily sauce. IF you are keeping the pesto overnight cover with a thin layer of oil to prevent browning!

Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil and add prepared beans. Cook for about 30 seconds to 1 minute (depending on how soft or crunchy you like your beans!) remove beans and immediatly cool in ice water. Reserve water to cook the potatoes. Add cubed potatoes to water, boil for about 5 minutes and cool immediatly in ice water. After potatoes are cooled let air dry or pat with a towel.
Heat a saute pan with a thin layer of olive oil. When the oil is hot...but NOT smoking, add the potatoes and cook until crispy on all sides. Add the beans for the last few minutes. The beans and potatoes can then be tossed with the pesto and perhaps a little lemon zest as desired.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

10 Cheap Gift Ideas

Dear Bashionista,

I'm trying to figure out what to get my friend for her birthday, and at the same time I'm constantly being inundated by emails from Groupon. What is the etiquette for giving a massage Groupon for a gift? It is nice, or kind of chintzy?

Susan D

The kind of people who would open a card giving them a free massage and think LAAAME - she didn't pay full price! are not the kind of people I would want to be friends with. As far as I'm concerned, you could give someone the phone number of a massage student looking for practice clients and that would still be an awesome gift. However, one trouble with Groupon is that you need to remember to fit it into your life before it expires - in which case I highly recommend presenting the physical Groupon in a card or a box, rather than emailing it, so that your friend can tape it to her bathroom mirror until she remembers to schedule it.

The second trouble with Groupon, which is true for any gift certificate, is that yes, your friend, boss, or bridezilla will know exactly what you spent, and possibly judge you. If you find a deal that puts you so far below your gift-giving budget, pass some of the savings along to them, and make it a gift pack. Throw in some nice shea butter lotion so she can remoisturize and extend that heavenly massageousity, and your favorite kind of tea to continue her relaxation day.

But let's talk gift-giving etiquette in general now. If someone is throwing a birthday party or housewarming, you really shouldn't be showing up empty-handed. If the host is asking for everyone to bring beer or food, then ok, your hands are full. But if all you're being asked to do is show up and enjoy yourself, or if we're talking about the birthday of a dear friend and you would like to go above and beyond a six-pack of lager, then here are some gift ideas that will be warmly received without breaking the bank.

1. Mix CD
[Blank CD $.50 + CD case $.50 = $1]
This gift requires a maximum of thoughtfulness at a minimum of cost. You can burn songs you've already got, or buy some on iTunes - click here for some ready-made playlists you can download. Take some time designing a cool cover, or just cut out a square of wrapping paper and write the tracklist on the back. It's a great, personalized gift that will be enjoyed for years.

2. A Nice Card and an Instant Scratch-Off Ticket
[Card $4 + Lotto ticket $2 = $6]
A sweet or hilarious birthday memento and the chance to win thousands of dollars? Great gift, super cheap.

3. Lemon juicer and pitcher
If your friend loves to cook, there are a million fun kitchen toys you can buy him or her. Personally, I love the ceramic lemon juicer my boyfriend gave me - it's sunny yellow, and won't crack from fatigue like my plastic one did. And now I mentally thank him everytime I need fresh lemon juice and don't have to gouge my fingers into the lemon like it owes me money.

4. A Great Book
If you have a solid half hour to decide on a gift, head for the bookstore! Have a list in mind of your favorite books, but give yourself time to browse for the book that looks perfect for your friend. Or plan ahead - looks like my favorite book at the moment is only $9 on Amazon.

5. Adhesive Mustaches
It's an instant mustache party! Make your friend's birthday memorable by making his friends look ridiculous. A steal at only $10 - and you should be able to find them for less at your local costume store.

6. A Big Bottle of Fancy Beer
My faves at the moment are Shipyard Smashed Blueberry Beer, Sam Adams New World Tripel, and Unibroue Fin du Monde. These three are festive and lovely, very drinkable, and a little more money than most people will spend on their own beer consumption, so they make great gifts. If your friend loves hops, act accordingly - you will know the big hoppy beers because they will scream about it on the label.

7. A Cool Calendar
Pick the right calendar to match your friend, and he'll be thinking of you all year long. I'm already on the lookout for the Pride & Prejudice & Zombies 2012 calendar.

8. Massage Groupon
See! You are a great friend. This particular massage is valued at $105, but at half off, it's still quite the gesture.

9. Box of Table Linens and Dishtowel
[$35 tablecloth + $40 eight cloth napkins + $6 fun dishtowel = $81]
For less than the cost of a full-priced massage, you can put together an amazing box set of linens - something that will dress up your friend's table for the next decade.

10. Chipotle Chile Candied Pecans
[$30 ingredients + $1 canning jar or other container + optional bottle of bourbon]
Finally, here's a delicious gift that you can make yourself. This recipe comes from the book Gifts Cooks Love by Diane Morgan - it's an awesome find and I recommend it if you are the sort of person who loves spending more time than money on a gift.

1 stick unsalted butter
1 tsp ground chipotle chile powder
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 lb. large pecan halves

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 300degrees F. Have ready a large, rimmed baking sheet, preferably nonstick for easy cleanup.

2. Melt the butter on the baking sheet in the oven. Be careful not to let the butter brown. Set aside.

3. Combine the chile powder and brown sugar in a small bowl. Pour the vanilla over the brown sugar. Set aside.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add 1/4 tsp salt and beat on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Add the sugar mixture 2 Tbsp at a time, beating on high speed to form a strong, shiny meringue. Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a rubber spatula to gently fold in the nuts until they are well coated.

5. Gently tip the rimmed baking sheet so the butter coats the bottom of the pan. Using a rubber spatula, spread the nuts over the butter, without stirring, to form an even layer without deflating the meringue.

6. Bake the nuts for 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven and stir the nuts with a spatula, moving the nuts at the center of the pan to the edges and the nuts at the edges closer to the center. Return the pan to the oven, bake the nuts for 15 minutes longer, and stir them again. Sprinkle the nuts with the remaining 1/2 tsp of salt.

7. Continue baking, stirring every 15 minutes, until the nuts are separated, have absorbed the butter and glisten, and are beautifully browned, 45 minutes to 1 hour longer.

8. Immediately turn the nuts out onto a counter lined with a long sheet of aluminum foil, spread them out, and let cool completely.

Yields 4 quarter-pound packages of nuts. They will keep for up to 3 weeks, stored in an airtight container.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Throw Down: Harvest Feast

The weather is starting to get deliciously crisp, grapes are sweetening on the vine, your local package store has massive displays of pumpkin beer. Now is a perfect time to be thankful for all the good things you've got, and gather your loved ones for an early harvest feast - before the price of berries goes through the roof.

Click here for a playlist of dinner music, and click here for your minute-by-minute cooking plan. This plan is ambitious, but it *is* possible to pull it off gracefully. If it seems overwhelming, consider splitting these tasks with a friend or loved one - what looked impossible will suddenly seem easy. But for now just sit back and imagine the deliciousness.

The Menu
Designing the ultimate menu is tough. In the last 130 years or so, we've gotten out of practice with the pacing required for a multi-course meal. We've also gotten out of the habit of having a team of servants living below-stairs, sending up roasted pheasant via dumbwaiter. But don't despair - in this day and age it is still possible to serve up a sumptuous feast of legendary proportions, and do it singlehandedly.

First course: Crostini with boursin cheese and blackberry jam
Elegant and easy, that's my motto! A loaf of french bread can be thinly sliced in advance, laid on on a cookie sheet with a generous drizzle of oil and then popped under the broiler as the first guests arrive. After about two minutes per side, each piece gets a quick smear of boursin and another of jam. If you're still finishing up in the kitchen, ask a handy friend to uncork a bottle of wine for you and leave your friends to relax and mingle.

Soup course: Corn chowder with sea scallops and paprika
This looks ever-so impressive, and is nearly foolproof. The chowder can be made in advance and then can hang out on a light simmer. Scallops are really, really difficult to screw up. Melt some butter in a pan, throw in the scallops, flip them once. The bigger the scallop, the lower the flame. You want them to be beginning to delicately brown when you start to flip them. The process takes about 3-4 minutes per side, and they don't need babysitting. When the time comes, each person gets a big ladle of soup, 1-3 scallops (again, depending on size), and a quick dash of cayenne for color. Totally impressive, incredibly simple.

Salad course: Mixed greens with raspberry vinaigrette, pine nuts, shaved parmesan and raspberries
The only thing standing in the way of a perfect salad is how quickly pine nuts can burn in a toaster. It's important to brown your pignoli BEFORE you are totally stressed out and multi-tasking. Once your pine nuts are in order, this salad is a snap to make. For a rush job like this, I am completely in favor of bags of pre-washed greens. You can make your own dressing, or just buy a raspberry vinaigrette you like. Moments before the salad course, toss greens and dressing in a big bowl, use some tongs to quickly plate them, toss out pinches of nuts, pinches of raspberries, and three quick shaves of parmesan on each plate and you are DONE.

Main course: Chicken parmesan; Beet risotto with broiled radicchio and fontina; Baked cauliflower
Chicken parm is your friend - the chicken can be breaded and fried up well before go time and placed in a baking pan in the fridge. As soon as your guests are happily munching on bruschetta, cover the chicken pieces with pre-sliced mozzarella, pour in a jar of your favorite tomato sauce, and pop it in the oven along with a pan of cauliflower. Which, by the way, will be a totally decadent, melt-in-your-mouth vegetable side, requiring only heat, butter, olive oil and seasoned breadcrumbs.
The risotto is the belle of the ball, and requires the most attention in the form of constant stirring for about half an hour. It's likely that you'll be finishing her up during the appetizer course, but that's no problem. Risotto needs at least 10 minutes to settle, and it'll keep its heat for a good bit of time after that.

Dessert: Spice-infused hot chocolate with toasted marshmallows and a graham cracker rim; Fresh-baked peanut butter cookies
Even if you've been plating small portions this whole time, your guests will need time to digest and settle in - about the same amount of time that it takes for a pre-sheeted batch of peanut butter cookies to bake, and for you to pop into the kitchen and heat up a batch of hot chocolate. If people are completely stuffed, you can give them little cookie bags for the road - but the spiced chocolate & peanut butter combination is pretty unbeatable.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Kristopher's Award-Winning Vodka Recipe

And the winner of the Vodka-Infusion contest was . . . Kristopher Moreau! He got to walk home with 50 smackers. Right on! Scroll down for his award-winning recipe.

We had a dozen people sampling 8 different vodkas, which in retrospect was kind of perfect. It was a small enough group that we were able to sample each flavor together as a group, with lots of loud toasting and communal vodka reaction faces.

In my initial write-up for this party, I recommended that you limit tastes to 1 Tbsp. HAH! Ahahahaahahah. Ahah. That would be insanity. Trust me, approximately one teaspoon is really all the sample size you need to know what you like. And after the tasting you will still have enough liver stamina to enjoy mixed drinks with your favorite flavors.

Also, someone asked me why I didn't have Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan on queue. Brilliant suggestion! I highly recommend screening a movie like From Russia with Love on mute, and then once the party starts dying down, roll right on into an afterparty with our friend Borat.

Here is Kristopher's recipe - simple and effective!

Kristopher's Blueberry Kiwi Vodka

1 pint blueberries
3 kiwi fruits
1 quart of Smirnoff vodka

1. Peel and cube the kiwi fruits. 
2. Cut a small incision in each blueberry.
3. Put the blueberries, kiwi and vodka in a sealed jar.
4. Store it in a dark place at room temperature for 6 days, shaking once every 24 hours.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Vodka Flight Playlist

Here's a fun playlist to accompany your next vodka-tasting. Some songs go down smooth, and others have a kick. It encompasses the many moods of vodka; elegance punctuated by passion, heroism mixed with sass, all leading up to the moment when you decide to start dancing on the coffee table.

This is a great soundtrack for any fun party with chatty friends, or for your first long car ride with a new ladyfriend.

Here's the tracklist:

1. New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down/LCD Soundsystem
2. Summertime Clothes/Animal Collective
3. Jungle Drum/Emiliana Torrini
4. Dance, Dance, Dance/Lykke Li
5. Chinese/Lily Allen
6. Relator/Scarlett Johanssen & Pete Yorn
7. It Hurts to See You Dance So Well/The Pipettes
8. Loro/Pinback
9. Dead Sound/The Raveonettes
10. You Can't Hurry Love/The Concretes
11. Whatever Lola Wants/Sarah Vaughan
12. Botch-A-Me/Rosemary Clooney
13. See America Right/The Mountain Goats
14. Come on, Feel the Illinoise/Sufjan Stevens
15. Girls & Boys/Blur
16. If You Leave/Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
17. Got a Thing on My Mind/Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
18. O . . . Saya/A.R. Rahman & M.I.A.
19. Paper Planes/M.I.A.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chocolatey Beer Cupcakes with Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

Your party has beer. Your party has cake. But does your party have beer flavored cake?

I'm guessing not, because, frankly, beer flavored cake sounds disgusting. But wait -- hear me out. I don't mean cake that tastes like beer. I mean cake that is flavored with beer, and subsequently tastes rich and moist and malty, and also slightly hoppish. Hoppish? Oh, you know, like hops.

These beer cupcakes are slightly chocolatey, slightly hoppish, and entirely satisfying. The round, chocolatey, beer-ish flavor of the cake is offset by bright, tangy orange cream cheese frosting, and the whole thing just kind of works, and you'll want to eat them slowly, and drink beer while you do, and maybe you could share them, and why are you still here? Go make some of these guys and throw a party. A beer and cupcake party. Because, as it turns out, those two make a pretty nice pair.

Chocolatey Beer Cupcakes with Orange Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients: For cupcakes:
  • 1 cup Guinness or similar dark beer
  • 10 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup Dutch process cocoa powder
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
For frosting:
  • 8 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
  • 1 tablespoon orange zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the cupcakes, start by preheating the oven to 350 degrees and filling a cupcake pan with cupcake liners (this recipe should make about 24 cupcakes).

Put the beer and butter into a saucepan and heat gently until the butter has melted. Whisk in the cocoa powder.

Using a mixer, beat together the sugar, sour cream and eggs, and stir in the vanilla. Add the beer and cocoa mixture to the sour cream mixture, and mix until combined. Add the flour and baking soda, and mix gently until incorporated. The batter should be quite runny.

Pour the batter into the prepared cupcake liners and bake until golden and puffy, about 25 minutes (a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake should come out clean). Let the cupcakes cool while you make the frosting.

To make the frosting, beat together the cream cheese and butter until smooth and creamy. Add the confectioner's sugar and beat, starting slowly, until well-mixed and smooth. Add the orange zest and vanilla and beat to combine. If you find the frosting too stiff, add a bit of milk to loosen it. If it's too soft, add more confectioner's sugar until desired thickness is reached.

Once the cupcakes have fully cooled, spoon or pipe the frosting on top. Enjoy as soon as possible.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My Friends Are the Reason I Can't Have Any Nice Things

Dear Bashionista,

Why do my party guests refuse to use coasters?

I have so many of them -- six colorful Mucha coasters I purchased in Paris spread out on my coffee table, three vinyl record label coasters on each of my two end tables and even five additional Japanese backup coasters on my kitchen counter -- so many, you can barely see my shiny new granite tabletops, let alone place sweaty glasses on them.

Yet I still find myself, time and time again, politely asking guests to use the coasters. I haven't witnessed it happening, but I can see in my mind's eye my guests pushing coasters aside to make room for their drinks. I realize my coasters are lovely -- especially the Mucha ones -- but they're so much lovelier because they have been placed there with a purpose.

And that purpose, which I guess I need to spell out because apparently it isn't obvious, is to set aside a seductive spot for your sangria, provide a perfect perch for your Prosecco, cultivate a captivating cove for your coffee, lay out a luxurious lounge for your liquor, and muster up a majestic mat for your Maker's Mark -- that will keep me from having to refinish my furniture semiannually.

It's so elegant and alliterative, why can't my guests figure it out?

High Coaster Living

Excellent question!  Short of "forgetting" to take the price tags off your furniture, there is no good way to tell people, Hey, I don't know about your neighborhood, but where I live, you can't exactly dumpster-dive for mahogany end tables. And let's face it, once the liquor starts flowing, most people under 40 are flashing back to college, where decorating Ikea furniture with concentric beer stein rings was a gentleman's hobby.

But you shouldn't have to choose between your friends and elegant furnishings, and you also shouldn't have to be the guy mopping the flop sweat from your brow as you stand in the corner calculating the cost of resurfacing. All you need to do is drunk-proof your house.

1) Take the furniture out of the equation.

Anytime you're cramming people shoulder to shoulder into your house, hide your breakables. And if your friends are the sort of people who see wooden furniture as disposable, take your end tables on a little vacation to the back bedroom.

2) Take the coasters out of the equation.

If you know you'll need those tables during the party, consider investing in some tablecloths. Your shiny surfaces and stylish coasters can impress the pants off the ladies some other night. You'll be more relaxed knowing that your tables are safe, and your tables will feel stylish in their partywear.

3) Make it personal.

If you've got a small enough group that you'll be able to fix everyone their first drinks, have a stack of coasters at the ready. Hey there Drunky McNasty, I picked this coaster out just for you. Even your most inebriated friends should know bar etiquette when they see it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Throw Down: Vodka-Infusion Tasting

Vodka infusions combine two things that are dear to my heart: cooking and drinking. When one of our readers suggested a vodka-infusion party, I thought, What could be better? . . . Oh, I know, a big fat cash prize for the winner.

If you are similiarly taken with this idea, then read on to learn how to throw your own vodka-infusion party. I call it: From Russia with Love. Click here for a Vodka Flight Playlist, and click here for our winning infusion recipe!

The Contestants
First, you need to limit your contestants to only about a half dozen or so, and plan to create tasting flights of about 1 teaspoon per flavor. Unless you're filming an episode of Drunk History, there is only so much vodka you can give to your houseguests. You don't want your dearest friends waking up the next morning wishing they had never been born.

Email your contestants and send them this link to everything they need to know about vodka infusions. Different ingredients take different amounts of time, but two weeks is the most time you'll need. Invite your team of infusers over two weeks before party time. You supply 1 Qt. canning jars (you can pick these up at your local gardening store for about $1 a pop), squares of cheesecloth, and if you're feeling generous, the list of ingredients each contestant specifies. The infusers supply their own vodka, and take their infusions home to incubate them.

The care and feeding of infusions is pretty simple; they need to be shaken 3-5 times a day, and stored in a cool, dark place. Once properly infused, the ingredients need to be removed, the vodka should be strained through cheesecloth, the original container should be thoroughly cleaned, and then the new and improved vodka can be returned to its home. It's up to your guests if they want to get fancy - choosing a cool bottle, or creating their own label.

The Party

Display the vodkas where they can be the center of attention. Next to each bottle, you'll need a stack of shot-size disposable cups. Number each cup with a sharpie marker, so that each stack corresponds with its bottle, i.e., a stack of #1 cups by the first bottle, #2 cups by the second, and so on. This will be a bit time consuming, but will make the voting infinitely more easy. For voting, you'll simply need a blank scrap of paper for each taster, and a drop box for anonymity.

Utilize all the table space you have. Each taster should be able to get comfortable with six mini-shots in front of her so she can sip and decide which her favorite is. When voting, she'll just have to write down her favorite cup number.

If you feel like screening videos silently in the background, you could continue the Russian theme with something striking. From Russia with Love is instantly recognizable. It seems like every ten years someone remakes Anna Karenina - this one stars Greta Garbo. Or you can impress everyone by having heard of Russian Ark - an epic and visually-gripping movie shot in all one take.

Sample Menu
Food is ESSENTIAL at an event like this; people will need something in their stomachs to soak up the alcohol. I'm including a link to making Russian dumplings, called Pelmeni and Vareniki. Making these would be incredibly ambitious, so alternatively, you can look in the freezer section of your supermarket, especially if that supermarket is in a Russian neighborhood. Or you can settle for some frozen dumplings or blintzes.

However, take if from me that Russian dumplings are phenomenal. Pelmeni are meat-filled and are typically served with melted butter as a sauce. Vareniki (which I swear sounds like "vleminki" in my ex-boyfriend's Ukranian accent) can be filled with blueberries, and are usually swirled around in a simple sauce of sour cream and sugar. This might be my favorite food on planet Earth, and I hope for your sake that you get to try it someday.

Featured Cocktail: Moscow Mule
The perfect cocktail for this event will depend on the types of infusions you've got going on. But Moscow Mules are a great thing to do to vodka, and at a party like this you can make them on the weak side and they'll still be delicious. Combine 1 oz (or less) of the vodka of your choice with 1/2 cup of ginger beer (it's non-alcoholic, with a little more kick than ginger ale), 1 tsp. simple syrup and 2 tsp. fresh lime juice. Garnish with fresh mint and a slice of lime. Nasdrovie!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Superhero Photo Gallery

As promised, here is a photogallery of some of the fantastic costumes my friends came up with at our recent Superhero Masquerade. Feast your eyes!

Holy cow! It's Wonder Woman, complete
with her lasso of truth. Gold headpiece
and cuffs made from fabric she picked up.

I borrowed my friend's enormous bra and
stuffed it with four pairs of balled up
pantyhose. I'm wearing dance tights,
skirted bikini bottom, and a blonde wig
that I have gotten a ton of mileage out of.

Shannon (pictured right) constructed this costume and
sceptor. She's dressed as Codex from The Guild.


I don't know where he found those Geordi
Laforge glasses, but they really transform
him into Cyclops.

Woah. The Silver Fox here made his own
mask, bought the cape and gloves, and
happens to own some serious workout gear.

KaBLAMMO! My dastardly boyfriend designed his own icon,
affixed here to his chest.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Superhero Masquerade Playlist

Here is the playlist to get your Superhero party rolling. It starts out chill and works its way up to a great payoff. Along the way are some real gems - enjoy!

This mix is also great if you're trying to impress a bunch of nerds around the gaming table, or tapping your feet as you paint your tiny Warhammer figurines.

Here's the tracklist:
1. Superman/Five for Fighting
2. Strongest Man in the World/Menomena
3. Flash's Theme/Queen
4. Iron Man/Ozzy Osbourne
5. Jimmy Olsen's Blues/Spindoctors
6. Kryptonite/3 Doors Down
7. Incredibles: Road Trip/Missile Lock/Road Trip//The City of Prague Philharmonic
8. Batman/TV Theme
9. Spiderman/TV Theme
10. Superman: Prologue and Main Title/John Williams
11. Star Wars: Main Title/A Galaxy Divided/ Kevin Kliner & John Williams
12. Kung Fu Panda: Hero/ Hans Zimmer & John Powell
13. Greatest American Hero Theme/Joey Scarbury
14. Labyrinth: Magic Dance/David Bowie
15. Holding Out for a Hero/Bonnie Tyler