Archive for the ‘Dining In’ Category

I pride myself in being the mistress of the grill in our house. Steak, chops, burgers, and brats all are within my domain, not Gavin’s. He has no shortage of opinions about how he wants things grilled, but still usually leaves the job up to me. When it was time to upgrade our grill, about four years ago, that job was mine too.

I researched grills online and in my favorite food magazines. When it came down to the best grill for our money, the Weber Genesis won out. It had stainless-steel grates, three burners and 40,000 BTUs. This baby was exactly what I wanted. Gavin questioned my decision to not get a side-burner, but I was quick to ask, “Who uses those things anyways?” I didn’t think I would. I didn’t have marinades simmering alongside while I grilled. I couldn’t imagine boiling corn outside when we had a perfectly good stove inside.

Fast-forward to today. It’s warm and sunny, and Seattleites are enjoying being on the water, camping trips, outdoor concerts, and more. We, on the other hand, are still up to our eyeballs in the remodel of our home. We are living in the basement, surrounded by boxes of our junk, using our laundry room as a makeshift kitchen and our grill on nights when it’s actually warm enough outside. Cooking is otherwise almost non-existent since it isn’t very appetizing in our dark, dusty, cramped basement.

On the menu for tonight – and probably the next several nights – are bratwurst. They’re cheap, easy, salty, and satisfying. The thing is, we like to boil our brats in bath of beer and onions prior to grilling. Boil. In a pot. On a burner. I’ve tried to deny it before – that a side-burner would have been a nice thing to have on our grill. I’ve pulled a one-burner unit out on the deck to steam oysters – but still didn’t admit defeat. In the last several weeks, we’ve boiled pasta on that unit as well.

But tonight, I’m feeling weak. I give up. I can’t deny it anymore. I made a mistake. I should have bought a grill with a sideburner.

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“You can’t overcook pork belly,” was the last thing my dad said. Well pops, that is mostly true. Unless you burn the shit out of the crispy, crunchy skin on top of the pork belly.

I should have known. I should have KNOWN something would go wrong. Hours before we were hosting 25 people for a Bourbon tasting last Friday, I posted a very smug blog entry about how to host a “stress-free” party. I was pretty much asking for something bad to happen.

The party was actually a big success. We plied our guests with lots of super fatty, salty, irresistible food as we tasted our way through 13 Bourbons. Deviled eggs, guacamole, mini grilled cheese sandwiches, aka “the booze sponge,” and pork belly. The first belly turned out great. I scored the skin into 1-inch squares, which we cut through after pulling it out of the oven. We just served it off the cutting board with toothpicks. But then, I started tasting Bourbon.

Photo by Jeremy Cothran

We were only tasting eye-droppers full, but I lost track of time. I checked on the second pork belly and the skin on top just wasn’t getting crispy enough. So I turned up the heat for a few minutes. That worked, and after checking on the pork belly again it was nearly perfect. Gavin was busy showing guests around the house and I thought I could buy myself a few extra minutes by just turning off the oven and letting it finish up in there. Well, I didn’t take into account how hot the oven was at that point and the belly kept right on crisping. In fact it got downright blackened.

When I finally remembered the belly in the oven, I opened the oven door and released a giant plume of black smoke. Thinking quickly, I rushed it outside rather than letting it smoke up the entire house. Well, my friend Brooke knows a good good photo-op when she sees one. Priceless.

Photo by Brooke Azumi

It wasn’t a complete disaster however. Everyone actually gobbled up the second pork belly as well. It really is hard to overcook pork belly because all the fat continually bastes the meat and keeps it moist. Of course getting your guests drunk first helps too.

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I entertain a lot. I am also the daughter of people who entertain a lot. Growing up I had the benefit of watching and learning as my parents threw parties from small and intimate to large and elaborate. That being said, I have also learned a lot about throwing a dinner party from my experience in project management. Good planning and preparation in the beginning will help keep your project – or your party – on schedule and on budget.

During a recent dinner party, my friend Robin kept guffawing as we brought out more dishes yet still managed to sit down and enjoy cocktails with our guests. “GIRL! Are you kidding me?!” she blurted out. “I need you to teach me how to project manage a dinner party.”

I think Robin is like many people. She works, but loves to socialize. She loves good food and is a great cook, but sometimes hosting a party overwhelms her. Many people just over think hosting a party. I think if you plan and prepare in advance though, it is easy to host a successful dinner party.

With the holiday season approaching, I want to share my top 12 tips for dinner party success. OK, I just wrote these down for the first time. And I had like 18 to begin with. I think 12 is a better number:

  1. Pick a theme. No, not Princess Party or Mad Men Party, but rather cocktail party versus poker party. Do you want a sit-down dinner or a buffet? This will help you choose your menu, decor, playlist, and let guests know how casual/formal your event will be. This is much like defining or scoping out a project. You need to set goals, identify stakeholders and resources, and set a budget.
  2. Pick a menu. Items should be both realistic for your time frame and should include dishes you have cooked before. OK, fuck that. I ALWAYS over-commit and ALWAYS cook something I’ve never cooked before. That being said, I am a fairly experienced cook and host. It depends on your level of comfort, but your menu should be more or less formalized before moving forward. This is the first step of your project plan. This is the step when you start your To-Do list. If you are grilling, “fill propane tank” may need to be on the list. If you are expecting a crowd, “reserve rentals for plates, chairs and glasses” may be on the list.
  3. Invite your guests. Whether you use Evite or paper invitations, the level or formality and “theme” of the party should be clear. The wording you use can easily convey this, “Hey, let’s get together and get drunk;” versus, “Please join us for a multi-course gourmet meal.” This way, your guests know how to dress, who/what to bring and how long the party will last. You must also decide if you want guests to bring anything. I am generally not a fan of hosting potlucks. My kitchen is small but I am also a control freak. I’d rather select the menu and make everything myself. I usually ask guests to bring booze instead. This saves money and in some cases, trips to specialty wine or liquor stores. Never allow guests to bring an appetizer. This will guarantee that they arrive late…or just when you are sitting down to eat. If anything, have guests bring dessert. The invitation is like a project kick-off meeting. All stakeholders and key resources must be notified. OK – the only “stakeholders” are your guests and the “key resources” are you and any friends, family or willing partner that will assist you in your efforts.
  4. Create a shopping list. I usually plan a party at least a week or two in advance, but even a few days will work. The key is having a complete shopping list. This is the second key step in your project plan. Nothing will derail your party prep like a last-minute trip to the store. OK, lots of things can derail your party prep…but as I mentioned at the beginning. Plan. plan. plan.
  5. Break down each dish into small tasks. Work back through every menu item so you can spread the cooking and prep over a few days. Let’s say you want to serve deviled eggs for an appetizer (which you should, because they are delicious and everyone loves them). You can boil the eggs a couple of days in advance. Do this. If you want to make a pie for dessert, crust freezes beautifully and can be made weeks ahead. In fact, I think the best pies are ones made the night before so they can fully set-up before serving. This is where approaching a dinner party like a project has really helped me. There are different names & tools for this: work breakdown structure; Gantt charts; etc. The point is, you take each task – or in this case, each dish – and break it down into manageable steps. That way, you are not cooking all the dishes in one day. You also review each dish and identify any dependencies. This is particularly important with cooking. If something needs to marinate for 8 hours, you don’t want to learn that just 2 hours before guests arrive. Of course it depends on your project scope, which you defined in Step 1. You may be serving just chips and dip, but still you need steps in place to get that done. Step 1: Buy chips and ingredients for dip. Step 2: Make dip. Step 3: Chill dip for 24 hours. SEE?! If you didn’t read the recipe and work back through the steps, it would be an hour before your guests are arriving and you’d read, “chill dip for 24 hours” and panic.
  6. DON’T PANIC. Remember that your guests are there to see as much if not more than they are there to get fed or drunk. If you didn’t follow steps 1-5 then you’ll have to ad-lib. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. In a pinch, most supermarkets sell pretty tasty roast chicken.
  7. Clean the house the weekend before. If you don’t have that luxury, dim the lights, light a shit-ton of candles and hope the dust bunny living under the sofa doesn’t come out to play. Seriously. Heck, you can even unscrew all the light bulbs in the bathroom, and just illuminate it with candles instead. The one exception to the clean house rule is Halloween parties. For a Halloween party you shouldn’t dust for weeks because cobwebs and dust bunnies just add to the spooky atmosphere.
  8. Leave a few things for guests to help with. Someone will arrive early or you won’t be ready when the first guests arrive. Guar.En.Teed. Can you say scope creep? That is the term for when a project schedule gets thrown off because something unexpected comes up. This can happen at any time during the lead-up and preparation of a dinner party, but guests arriving early is a fun example. If you schedule this in however, you will be prepared for how to deal with it if and when it happens. Have your guests open bottles of wine, light candles, slice bread, or anything else you feel comfortable delegating. I have made my friends’ 6 year-old tear up an entire head of washed lettuce for salad multiple times. It keeps her busy and she loves to help.
  9. Set out serving dishes and serving ware a day or two before. This will help you identify if you are missing any key pieces. Maybe you loaned out your gravy boat. Now you know. This type of preparation will help you easily go from cooking to serving on the day of the party. I like to set up an area for wine, with all the glasses and openers, outside of the kitchen (to keep guests out of there) and if lots of people are bringing beer, a cooler in a hallway or out on a deck with the beer opener and a bucket for caps. (Wow, this is getting embarrassing admitting all this stuff).
  10. Clean as you go. Throughout the prep and cooking the day of your party, it is essential to clean as you go. Each pot, spatula, and grater you use, you should wash while something is boiling, baking or frying. There are always a few minutes to spare between tasks. Take advantage of them to tidy up as you go.
  11. Run and empty the dishwasher; take out the trash. Do these before guests arrive. It will make clean-up much easier.
  12. Have fun. Nothing makes guests more uncomfortable than a stressed-out host. Relax and enjoy yourself. And everything does goes to hell, at least throw away the box the roast chicken came in…

This post was inspired by www.freshpickedseattle.com. They are a great resource for local food events in the greater Seattle area. As part of their holiday content strategy, they asked local food bloggers to pitch in. Their theme next week is holiday entertaining and it got me in the spirit to share my tips.

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Inspiration for writing ebbs and flows for me, as I’m sure it does for anyone who writes and blogs. I am my own boss and my own editor…and deadlines come and go without huge consequences. As I look back through my archives, there are months with one entry and months with 10+ entries. I don’t beat myself up over this, but do want to get better. Or at least more consistent.

I’ve had a lot of fun food activities and meals over the summer. I’ve made gallons of ice cream, dozens of pies, canned pickles, beans, beets, carrots and dill relish, and have had some incredible meals out in restaurants. But instead of writing about those things…I’ve either tweeted about them or shared some snaps on Facebook. I promise I’ll get better. I promise to blog more.

Instead, today (tonight actually) I want to share with you some of my greatest hits. If you are new to my blog, I think these entries are a good way to get to know me.

Kentucky Bourbon Trail. If there’s one thing you should know about me, it’s that I love Bourbon.

Ridiculously delicious cookies. The other thing you should know about me is that I am half Swedish and half Norwegian (my parents both immigrated to the U.S.). I love to write about some of our favorite family recipes.

Go Bananas. I travelled to the Philippines in 2008 and loved it. And can’t stop thinking about it. And planning my next trip.

Italian with a Rock & Roll Soundtrack. Me and the Mr. went to NYC for our anniversary and ate at Babbo.

Poundcake. When I learned my husband was having an affair. With a dessert.

Amy Sedaris’ cheeseball. Why I hate potlucks, but love Amy Sedaris.

Marshmallow Heaven. One of my first blog entries and the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

Raincoast Crisps. Best. Crackers. Ever.

Kitchen Gear I Love. Hi, my name is Sonja and I love kitchen gadgets.

When Accidents Happen. I’m not too proud to share my failures.

I Got Schooled. An early experience at Seattle’s famed Zig Zag Café.

My Glamorous Job. My former life as a European tour guide. Not all it’s cracked up to be.

So, I hope you enjoy reading a little more about my past and hope to bring you a lot more in the future. Feel free to leave a comment and tell me what you think. Or follow me on Twitter. And if you are in the Seattle area, I hope our paths cross soon.

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Some Pig

I went to my first Seattle Food Bloggers‘ event tonight. Keren Brown of Frantic Foodie started the group and hosts monthly networking/eating/drinking events. Tonight’s event began at Beecher’s Cheese and continued – progressive dinner style – to their new food truck on 2nd and Pike St.

The food truck craze is in full effect in Seattle. The folks behind Beechers (and Bennetts, Pasta & Co., etc) just opened the pig mobile for business and it appears they already have the recipe for success: prime location + porkalicious food + affordable & efficient = Maximus Minimus.

The menu is simple, just two items: pulled pork sandwich or vegetarian sandwich (a combo of barley and veggies). You can order your sandwich mild (minimus) or spicy (maximus). Clever, huh? There are sides of coleslaw or chips and cold drinks available as well.

The whole operation is pretty slick. The person taking your order has a handheld device to send your order into the kitchen. The truck is outfitted with taps for the drinks. Evidently the lines the first two days have been pretty long, but I think they are prepared for how popular they will inevitably be. In fact, they’ll be very, very popular because this shit is deeeeelishious!

The pork is a shoulder cut that has been seasoned and grilled. Then, after a good amount of char is achieved it is braised for several hours. The bun was soft and mild (not too sweet) and held up really well under the weight of all that juicy pork.

So, how do you find the truck? For now they plan on staying at 2nd and Pike. I am not entirely sure about the hours, but I think they are planning to hit the lunchtime crowd on weekdays. It is pretty easy to spot the truck, since it is shaped like a pig. Check out their website for more details.

I met some nice folks at the event. At my table were Sara from Hungry Grrl, Lacey from Loving Local Food, Mary from Mary Eats and Ann & Abe from Tastefully Overcaramelized. Pretty good company, I must say.

And after looking at their blogs, I know I need to get to work on redesigning and renaming my own blog. We all lamented how hard it is to name your blog. Particularly since most clever domain names are already taken or worse, lorded over by cyber squatters. My top choices have been Fork It, Bittles, Wine and Swine and Satisfy the Craving. All our taken…so the search continues.
Maximus Minimus on Urbanspoon

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The Skillet Street Food Airstream serves a different neighborhood of the city each day of the week. On Feasting Fridays, it happens to serve the neighborhood near my office.

They are usually packed and run out of food, so getting there early is a necessity. I wake up at the crack of dawn, so a pre-noon lunch is just fine.

The Skillet menu varies, but a constant appears the be “the burger.” A half pound of medium rare grass-fed beef is topped with arugula, blue cheese, and bacon jam and served on a brioche bun. Oh yeah, you read that right. Bacon. Jam. Think onions carmelized in bacon grease. A generous serving of hand cut fries topped with salt and some fresh herbs comes on the side – all for $9.

It was a little chilly today, but I managed to find a tranquil courtyard in Seattle Center with benches in the sun. And then, I feasted.

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2009 is off to a great start, even with friends getting laid off left and right, and my own job less than stable. I’ve been able to stick to at least one of my New Year’s resolutions, which is (other than being a record!) to live more frugally.I’ve added a few new words and concepts to my culinary repertoire. They include ‘budget’, ‘frugal’ and ‘no waste.’

OK, I’ll be honest. My idea of frugal and your idea of frugal may not be exactly the same thing. I’m still living pretty high on the hog compared to most. There has been such a trend in newspapers (R.I.P Seattle P.I.), magazines and blogs towards frugal cooking, that I have been inspired. I am trying to cook out of what’s in the pantry (lots of dried beans and grains), waste less food and be mindful of sales and deals.
It is a really good discipline to get into, since it is preparing me for the worst case scenario.

I came across a great blog called The Simple Dollar because of their great breakfast burrito idea. The concept is that you can make really tasty breakfast burritos – in bulk – for freezing and reheating later.

With these breakfast burritos in the back of my mind, I continued with my plans of cooking out of the pantry (supplemented by the bi-weekly basket of organic produce we have delivered) and not wasting what we have in the refrigerator.

It started with the cheese. We’ve been working through a big block of mozzarella that we bought for a party a few weeks ago. The cheese would NOT be wasted! There are almost always cans of black beans and corn in the pantry and eggs in the refrigerator. All I needed to buy were some tortillas and salsa. I had a red pepper and an onion left from our produce basket that I sauteed up with plenty of salt and pepper. I probably could have spiced it up even more. Or, I could have skipped this altogether or subbed in fresh scallions. I had the pepper and onion though, so I used them.

Assembly line style, I lined up the tortillas and topped them with cheese, beans and corn, and the pepper/onion mix.
For the eggs, I scrambled one egg per burrito. You could less or more depending on how many of the other ingredients you have. You could even substitute in some egg whites, if you are into that sort of thing. I undercooked them a bit, as Simple Dollar recommended. Then, I spooned the eggs and some tasty salsa on top of the rest of the ingredients and was ready to roll.

Each tortilla was simply placed on a piece of plastic wrap and rolled tight. I wrapped them in a
second layer of plastic wrap just to be safe. All the the burritos were then placed into a ziptop freezer bag and into the freezer.
Reheating the burritos is simple. I’ve already had two and they tasted great. The key when you microwave them is to wrap them in a paper towel. You set the microwave on the defrost setting for about 2 minutes (I turn the burrito over halfway). Then, zap them on high for another 1-2 minutes, unwrap and eat.

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