…and a good time was had by all

Deck the antique sideboards with strings of cheap multicolored lights, fa la la la la...

I love to throw parties. No, wait, scratch that–I love to plan parties, and I love to go to parties. What I don’t love so much is all the cleaning and rearranging of furniture; the endless lists and invariable forgetting of at least one item from every list; the last-minute rush to make everything fall perfectly and seemingly effortlessly into place. Mind you, none of these things usually stop me from having parties, but being a hostess tends to bring out the worstest in me, and every time I tell Long-Suffering Husband that I’d like to entertain, I can practically see the effort it’s taking for him to not groan out loud.

This time, however, a lot of the hullaballoo and hecticness was taken care of, by none other than my very favorite grocery store, Wegmans*. In October, I was honored to be chosen as the winner of their “Family Time” contest, the prize for which was an Italian-style Sunday dinner for eight. Rather than try to decide whom among our friends we would ask to join us, LSH and I decided to throw open our doors and celebrate: my having won the contest, our upcoming anniversary, and the holiday season. To make a dinner intended to serve eight actually feed 30-40 people, we asked everyone to bring an Italian appetizer to share. The result? A convivial gathering of friends old and new, much riotous laughter, even more expressions of gustatory pleasure, and a broken wine glass or two (because it’s not a party until something gets broken).

Sorry, partygoers, but before y'all arrived, I squirreled away the summer sausage for private consumption. I love ya, but... it's summer sausage. I'm sure you understand.

But I get ahead of myself. Earlier that afternoon, a friendly fellow from Wegmans showed up with what appeared to be a normal-sized sedan, out of which he kept producing boxes and bags–a veritable parade of offerings. I took fewer trips when I moved into my college dorm. We hauled it all inside, started unpacking and taking pictures, and spent a good fifteen minutes oohing and aahing over it all.

Just like Perkins offers a bottomless cup of coffee, this seemed like the bottomless box of foccacia.

There was a fruit basket, with some cheeses, and the most darling miniature cheese board and cheese cleaver (when I’m done with it, I’m going to give it to the farmer’s wife, since it’s perfectly sized for blind mouse tails). There was a giant focaccia, and underneath that focaccia was another giant focaccia.

There were pans of sauce, pans of pasta, a beautiful long tray of nibbly things (and you know how I adore nibbly things), a box of cannoli that I had to hide from the children, a platter of salad with the same circumference as a hula hoop. Oh, it was an impressive spread, my friends.

It's a sweet little buffet of scrumptiousness. Don't eat the shiny berries in the back, though; they're poisonous

Either Wegmans had a typo, and this was supposed to be "Dinner for 18," or the lovely woman in Catering took extra special care of us.

And then I had to tart it all up with my tricolor glitter pom-pom sticks. What can I say? I am powerless when there’s glitter afoot; I have to succumb to its sparkly siren song. These little antipasto-on-a-stick numbers were my contribution to the cocktail party, above and beyond the Wegmans bounty. Clearly, I suffer from some kind of neurosis related to not having enough food. Maybe it’s in my genes, since both my grandparents lived through the Depression and, in their later years, liked to collect used light bulbs, twist ties, and toilet-paper tubes. Just in case.

It's Christmas! in Italy! and Glitterland!

My inner bag lady really wanted to fish the used sticks out of the garbage, so they could be reused. But I drowned her with wine.

Just as I finished impaling bocconcini and artyhearts on the sparkle sticks, the guests began to arrive…bearing food. Copious amounts of food. In the event that a freak, flash blizzard made the entire guest list snowbound inside our house, we would even then be eating leftovers for days. There was that much food. Our wonderful friends brought dips, chips, beer bread, more dips, baguettes, pizza bread with a dip, a red cabbage-and-sausage casserole, pate and artisanal ham from The Piggery in Ithaca, more cheeses, beer, wine, vodka and mixers.

Luckily, Dr. Atkins had a prior committment and couldn't make it.

Needless to say, it was all scrumptious. Scrump-diddly-umptious, even. After an initial lap around the living room to socialize, it seemed as though most guests stationed themselves at strategic points around the buffet, in proximity to their favorite foods. The children, who were upstairs watching movies while simultaneously tearing all the bedclothes and mattresses off the beds and playing Legos, would make occasional sallies downstairs for bread and dip, and of course for the cannolis when I eventually, reluctantly put those out.

And although we were very nearly literally pressing food upon people (“Hold still; I’m just going to tuck this meatball into your neckline, OK? It’ll make a great little snack later”), and despite the fact that more than once I was heard to exclaim, in my best Italian nonna voice, “Mangia! Mangia! Eat, you’re too skinny…” we were still left with a staggering amount of food. It was like Thanksgiving all over again; we ate leftovers for lunch and dinner for the next three days, then finally cried Uncle and packed up the rest for the freezer. It’s going to be a long, long time before I have to buy sauce. Or focaccia. But you know what? I’m just fine with that.

*N.B.: I am not professionally affiliated with Wegmans, although it is my devout wish to be so, especially since they recently were named #3 on Fortune‘s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. Nay, I just adore (and spend way too much money at) Wegmans.

My Love Affair with Bacon. Part I.

The hostess with the baconest

Indulge me as I give you a bit of necessary background: last summer I was at a crawfish boil hosted annually by dear friends of mine, and there I met a new friend. The talk turned, as it often does when I’m around, to food, and this woman and I bonded over our mutual love of olives, bacon, capers, pickles and all other things salty. We started talking about all of the wacky bacon pairings and recipes, and then it hit us, in one of those cinematic moments where two people turn to each other and exclaim in unison. In our case, it was “Let’s have a party and serve nothing but bacon dishes!”

And thus was born BaconFest.

My birthday was coming up, so we invited a select group of what the tabloids call “gal pals” — it seemed somehow fitting that this would be a girls-only event — and asked each to contribute a bacon-themed dish. My new friend and I spent many, many, many hours wrapping things in bacon, sticking toothpicks in them, baking them, cooking bacon on the stovetop to coat with chocolate or use in dips, and so on. Somehow, despite weeks of planning, we ended up with a rather one-dimensional bacon feast; I would have liked to have more in the way of bacon caramels, peanut butter and bacon truffles, bacon pops, stilton-bacon cheesecakes, etc. Stuff that would have taken considerably more time and skill that our wrap-n-stick toothpick routine.

Anyway, you live, you learn. I had made a batch of bacon bourbon and one of bacon vodka through a rather unattractively named process called “fat washing,” so we did have the novelty of bacontinis and bacon bloody Marys and maple-bacon old fashioneds.

So what did we have, then? Let’s take a look-see, shall we?

Jalepenos, stuffed with cream cheese, wrapped in bacon. These were my favorite.

Dates, stuffed with blue cheese, wrapped in bacon. Tasty, but one participant said that they reminded her too much of cockroaches, so we had a lot of these left over.

Plain ol' green olives, wrapped in bacon. A staple of my mother's cocktail parties, circa 1978

Bacon-wrapped water chestnuts with a sweet and spicy glaze. My co-hostess made these, and they were waaay too spicy for me.

Bacon-wrapped Townhouse crackers, courtesy of the Pioneer Woman

Just your standard cream-cheese-sour-cream-based dip, with blue cheese crumbles and bacon mixed in. Meh

Melted semi-sweet chocolate, slathered between two pieces of bacon, sandwich-style

Honestly, looking back on these pictures, I’m getting a little nauseated. All of these dishes were delectably for the first two or three bites. OK, maybe five in the case of the jalepeno poppers. But after a while, it was just all — too much bacon. I know, I know! It’s blasphemous. I had set out to prove the old adage “There’s no such thing as too much sex or bacon” but I failed.

And if all that weren’t enough, my friends brought bacon dishes too. Egads! Would the parade of excess never end?

What the well-meaning friends brought:

Candied Bacon, aka Pig Candy. This may have been the recipe that set off the Great Bacon Craze. These were divine.

Just bacon. Lots and lots of bacon, with two dipping sauces. One was a Thai peanut sauce; can't remember the other one though. And toothpicks -- how genteel!

The last guest to arrive brought the healthiest dish. It actually has green matter! A salad of tortellini, spinach, red onion, bacon and poppyseed dressing.

Despite allowing Long Suffering Husband to take a sampler platter up to his attic office (he calls it the “sanctum sanctimonium”), and packing up doggy bags for assorted boyfriends, husbands and sons, we still had a ton of leftovers. I froze it all, and throughout the coming months I’d sometimes take a few bacon nibblies out, nuke ’em, and indulge. Other than that, however, I think I’ve had bacon only once or twice in the entire year. I burned out on bacon — and it kills me to say that. To this day people still send me links to bacon paraphernalia and kooky bacon products. And I chuckle politely, all the while saying to myself, with a sad, slow shake of my head, “Never again….”

At least, not until… (to be continued)

Unique, Delicious and A Supreme Pain in the Ass

The summer roll assembly line -- I was the Henry Ford of wrapped cylindrical foods

No, smarty pants, this isn’t an autobiographical post. The title refers to summer rolls, which I decided to make as a potluck offering for a Fourth of July party. You know, because nothing says “I’m proud to be an American” like pan-Asian food.

(To be perfectly honest, I don’t know whether I mean that last sentence sarcastically, or not.)

More to the point, summer rolls are unique, beautiful and delicious. And unlike so very many delicious foods, they are pretty much fat-free, low-calorie and generally not-too-terrible for you.

They’re also a pain in the ass to make.

Look at those shrimps, all nestled up snug.

That’s why I did as much of the prep work (cooking the chicken, chopping the vegetables and herbs) in advance, and timed it so that I could sit and listen to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on the radio. By the time the hour was up, I had two 9×13 covered pans full of summer rolls, all lined up in rows—much like the orphans in Madeline, only tastier. And covered with damp paper towels.

I made two varieties, because I’m an overachiever like that. The chicken rolls had mango, cellophane noodles, carrot, cilantro and chives; the shrimp rolls had cellophane noodles, carrot, cucumber, chives, lettuce and mint. Chicken cozies up to mango and cilantro.

We won’t talk about the dipping sauces that I made and forgot to take to the party, except to say that they would’ve been delicious. Hrmph.

My summer rolls and sauces were adapted from a recipe in the July/August 2010 issue of Everyday Food, but here’s another recipe from Epicurious that looks pretty good, to get you started. Half of the fun of summer rolls is making up your own combinations of fillings, improvising, using up leftovers, and imagining what will look pretty under the transparent rice-paper wrappers. After all (cue patriotic music), isn’t that the foundation on which this fine nation of ours is built? Freedom of choice, freedom of expression, and freedom to eat whatever the hell we please, on any day of the year?

Happy birthday, America.

Kale Chips. Sing Hallelujah.

Spreadin' the Gospel Since 2009

Are you like me, kids? Do you sometimes have trouble figuring out what in tarnation to do with yet another one of those ginormous bundles of greens that your CSA unloads on you? If you answered yes, I have two words for you: Make kale chips. Whoops–that’s three words, isn’t it? Math was never my strong suit.

If you answered, “Hahahaha! Yeah, right” (as I know most of you probably did), my message is the same:

Make kale chips.

Seriously. Stop reading right now, put your trusty flip-flops on, go to the store, and buy some kale. Buy two bunches. That’s how confident I am that you will like these chips.

Back so soon, are you? OK. Start by stripping the leaves from the stems, and tearing the leaves into bigger-than-bite size pieces. About the size of, say, your iPhone. They’ll shrink.

Wash your kale by immersing it in a big vessel of water, like a stockpot or bathtub. Lift them out and spin them in a salad spinner or dry them on layers of paper towels.

Next, dash some olive oil into a big bowl. Add kosher salt, pepper, some garlic powder, maybe some red pepper flakes. Keep it simple, snacker. Throw the kale pieces in and toss with your hands. Yes, your hands. Dump the whole mess onto a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan. Put this into an oven that’s 400°-ish.

Now, and here’s the important part: don’t go far. These babies will burn.

After a few minutes, toss with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula. Repeat. When they seem about half crisp, what I do is turn off the oven and let them continue to dehydrate as the oven cools. It’s OK if a few of them get caramelized; you just don’t want to burn the whole lot.

It’s a fine line between caramelized and burned, you know.

When they are cool, dig in! Kale chips are salty and crunchy, and some greens-hating bairn (in my house, that would be Thing 2) have even been known not only to eat and enjoy them. You can do this with other greens, too, like collards. Or spinach, although I would use the crinkly mature spinach, not the delicate baby spinach–that would melt into nothing, I’m afraid. Plus, we have better uses for baby spinach, like smoothies.

Now, go forth and spread the gospel of the green chips, my children. Hallelujah.

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