Through the years, my love of cooking has morphed into a love of entertaining—which for me is as simple as having another couple over for dinner and eating in the kitchen. The interesting thing about loving food and cooking is seeing how it connects people. And for me, this love of food takes many different forms, from cooking sites to cookbooks to TV shows to restaurant menus. I find myself taking pictures of outstanding tablescapes and gorgeous plates of food. So this small obsession that has been with me since I was in grade school has certainly evolved. The benefit of cooking and entertaining has another aspect for me: it’s my therapy. It's soothing, distracting, stress relieving, an outlet for creative expression. Cooking is my way to show love and bring family and friends together.
MAKES ONE PITCHER
1 (750 ml) bottle prosecco, chilled
1 cup limoncello liqueur, chilled ice
Add the prosecco and limoncello liqueur to a pitcher and stir.
Place a handful of blueberries in a glass, top with ice and fill
with the limoncello prosecco. Garnish with thyme and lemon slices.
I think when you’re a genuine foodie, your love of food carries over into lots of arenas. When I’m too tired at night to read my latest novel in bed, I turn to cookbooks. I STILL love to buy cookbooks, but I’ve become more discriminating—only if there are pictures and clear, concise recipes. Other criteria when looking to buy: how many of the recipes do I like? How many would I TRY? Ina Garten became my go-to guru years ago, and I continue to buy her latest cookbooks, even if some of the recipes are repetitious. And I’m a sucker for Dorie Greenspan’s Baking Bible. On my cookbook shelf you’ll find the classics: The Joy of Cooking, Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and The Zuni Café Cookbook.
My husband Mark says that our TVs are only on the Food Network or Law & Order SVU when he comes home. (Not true.) And on Saturday mornings when I’m on the treadmill, I watch Bobby Flay’s Brunch at Bobby’s and record Barefoot Contessa. My go-to blog sites are David Lebovitz, Handle the Heat, Smitten Kitchen and Food 52. Youtube is fantastic for videos—try Tasty. FUN. As long as I continue to love it, I’ll be in the kitchen planning my next dinner party and trying new recipes.
TIPS FOR COOKING
1. Mise en place is the French for “setting in place.” This is right up there in importance in professional kitchens. It’s all about the prep. I do it 95% of the time, and when I don’t, I usually regret it. (I THOUGHT I had vanilla extract!)
2. I’ve learned to toast nuts first, even if the recipe doesn’t call for it. I put them on a cookie sheet in a preheated 350-degree oven and bake for about 10 minutes—usually just until they start becoming fragrant. For pine nuts, I just barely brown them in a little skillet on the stovetop. And always let them come to room temperature before using.
3. I used to break eggs on the side of my Kitchenaid mixmaster and accidentally dropped eggshell in—big mistake. One time I crunched down on an eggshell in a French Silk Pie; I was mortified because we had guests. No one else complained, but I always wondered... It only takes one extra dish and a few seconds more to break them first in a small saucer and THEN add.
4. A few years ago I got in the habit of using clear baggies for both leftovers and for holding cut-up vegetables, etc. for a future dish. So easy.
5. After I tear and clean my lettuce, (or after Mark, my sous chef, does it) I put it on a paper towel-lined cookie sheet and pat it dry. I store it in large baggies with the damp paper towels I used in the middle of the lettuce and on the top. It absolutely makes a difference in the lettuce staying crisp.
6. I use a garbage bowl and keep it at my work station when I prep food—toss potato peels, egg shells, carrot ends in—for easier and more efficient clean-up.
7. Replace your tired kitchen towels.
8. Keep a small stash of Kosher salt out and handy in a covered container.
9. Make your own croutons. Toss cubed bread on a rimmed baking sheet with olive oil, salt and a little pepper. Bake until golden; toss once while cooking. You’ll never use store-bought again.
10. A very quick appetizer: marinate a block of feta or goat cheese with a good olive oil and add chili flakes and fresh herbs.
11. If you need more oil when you’re sautéing, add it in a stream around the inside edge of the pan so it will be heated by the time it reaches the food.
12. Season and taste as you go at different stages of cooking. You can add salt much more easily than taking it away.
13. WATCH garlic when cooking and chocolate when melting... don’t multi-task.
14. Microwave a lemon or lime for 10 seconds before squeezing to extract the most juice.
The benefit of cooking and entertaining has another aspect for me: it’s my therapy. It’s soothing, distracting, stress relieving, an outlet for creative expression. Cooking is my way to show love and bring family and friends together.
ARTICHOKE GRATIN TOASTS
2 cups cooked, drained, chopped artichoke hearts
(I use Trader Joe's frozen 12-ounce bag)
1 medium Yukon gold potato, about 6 ounces, peeled and diced very small
1 small garlic clove, minced fine
1/4 cup heavy cream, plus up to 2 tablespoons more
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 cup fresh grated good Parmesan
6 large slices sourdough (or substitute your favorite bread)
INSTRUCTIONS Cook frozen artichokes on stove in simmering water until tender but not mushy, about 4 minutes. Drain in colander and dry on paper towels. (I put layers on a cookie sheet.) Press out as much water as possible. Cover potatoes with water and add a little salt. Bring to simmer and cook about 8 minutes until potatoes are tender but don't fall apart. Drain, dry pot, and put cream, garlic, zest, salt and pepper in. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring, for 1 minute (this will be a small amount). Add potatoes and cook for another 1-2 minutes.Chop drained-dry artichoke hearts into 1/2-inch chunks and put in large bowl. Add salt and lemon juice to taste. Add potato cream mixture and 3/4 cup cheese. Stir together. Add salt and pepper to taste. If dry, add a little cream.Heat the broiler on your oven. Arrange bread on a foil-lined cookie sheet and add artichoke mixture evenly to each piece. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and broil until brown and melted, about 5 minutes. Watch carefully so it doesn't burn. Eat hot.
Tips: Can make mixture ahead up to 2 hours. (Don't add to bread until ready to broil.)
This can be a delicious dinner served with your favorite salad.
Thanks to Smitten Kitchen.
MAKES 6 LARGE TOASTS
BIG ITALIAN SALAD
For the Dressing
1 cup loosely packed fresh Italian parsley, roughly chopped
10 big leaves fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1-1/2 teaspoons honey
For the Salad
1 large head romaine lettuce, washed, dried and torn into large, bite-sized pieces
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup chopped hothouse cucumbers
1 large carrot, peeled into ribbons
Handful grape tomatoes, halved
Handful pitted olives
Ricotta salata (see note) or feta, crumbled to taste
Make the dressing: Combine all dressing ingredients in a food processor and blitz to blend. Place all salad ingredients in a large bowl. Right before serving, add about half of the dressing and toss well. Add more dressing little by little as necessary; be sure to dress greens very generously, otherwise salad will be bland. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Reserve leftover dressing for another use.
Note: Ricotta salata is an Italian sheep's milk cheese that has a salty, slightly tangy flavor, almost like a dry Italian feta. It is not the same as the wet ricotta in the tub. You can find it at Whole Foods, gourmet grocers or specialty cheese shops. I only use feta.
Adapted from Jennifer Segal, onceuponachef.com.
CATHY’S TOP 10 ENTERTAINING TIPS
- Ask your guests what foods they don’t like and if they have any allergies.
- Decide on the menu well in advance and make a time line.
- Whenever you can make a dish ahead, do it, including salad dressing. This could also mean prepping a recipe by shaving Parmesan, cutting veggies and tearing lettuce, etc.
- Plastic bags should be your new best friends. All these prepped ingredients should go in bags.
- Set your table one or two days in advance. Get out all serving pieces and accompanying utensils and label with post-it notes.
- For a buffet, make a pretty tent card describing each dish. It will save lots of questions.
- I love lots of votives or tea lights. Be generous with these.
- Use unexpected napkins; I love pretty dish towels rolled up.
- If you’re using music, decide ahead what you want. A mix is always fun.
- Something unexpected: place strawberry halves in an ice cube tray, add water and freeze. These add a pop of color to your drinks.
Adapted from Jennifer Segal, onceuponachef.com.
Tablescape designed by Pryde's Kitchen & Necessities.
Alla Spaghetti Le Cirque's Primavera
Note: I prefer thin spaghetti from Barilla.
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces button mushrooms, quartered
1 cup asparagus tips, blanched
1 cup small broccoli florets, blanched
1⁄2 cup frozen peas, blanched
1 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise, cut to 1" lengths, blanched
1 pound spaghetti, cooked al dente
1 cup heavy cream
2⁄3 cup grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons thinly shredded basil
1⁄2 cup lightly toasted pine nuts
Heat 5 tablespoons of oil in a 12" skillet over medium heat. Add 2⁄3 of the garlic; cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms; cook 3 minutes. Add asparagus, broccoli, peas and zucchini; cook 3 minutes. Add pasta, cream, Parmesan and butter; season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Transfer to a platter. Bring remaining oil and garlic, tomatoes and basil to a simmer over medium heat; pour over pasta. Garnish with nuts.
MY GO-TO BROWNIES
MAKES 16 2"-SQUARE BROWNIES
3-1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1-1/2 cups sugar
3 lightly beaten eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup flour
Pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter and chocolate slowly in a small pot. Take off burner and whisk in sugar until incorporated. Add vanilla and eggs and whisk. Add flour and stir just until incorporated. Spray 8”-square pan and add mixture. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Very important: start checking for doneness at 20 minutes. A toothpick in the middle should come out with brownie on it, but not be wet. Let cool a little before adding powdered sugar.
Note: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overdone these—and I HATE dry brownies.
Watch carefully. And here’s a bonus: for a brownie pie, spray 9” pie pan and serve with sweetened whipped cream. WATCH TIME.