Spoonbar!

About a week ago a much-anticipated restaurant called Spoonbar opened in Healdsburg. I couldn’t wait to visit, mostly because the genius in charge of the bar program is Scott Beattie, author of the beautiful book Artisanal Cocktails and one of my favorite cocktail geeks in all the Bay Area. So, rather than wait until my next assignment in the Wine Country, I accepted an invitation from Mr. Manhattan to spend the afternoon at Spoonbar.

Wow. It did not disappoint. It was a spectacularly beautiful day, and with the cantina doors opened wide to the street made me feel like I was on vacation.

In the five or so hours we spent there (eek!), we had a lovely chat with Scott and his family, who were at the restaurant celebrating his grandmother’s birthday (so cute!). Along the way we tasted, ahem, several stunning cocktails.

One of my favorites was the drink I started with, chosen by Scott himself: the Tempus Fugit. It’s a genius Negroni variation, made with equal parts Ransom Old Tom Gin, Carpano Antica Vermouth, and Gran Classico Bitter, garnished with an orange twist. Proof positive that a cocktail doesn’t have to be complicated to be fabulous.

Other standouts included a La Floridita, sometimes called a Hemingway daquiri, one of my perennial favorites. In this case, it was stepped a notch, made with a mix of Flor de Cana and Agua Libre Agricole Rum, along with agave nectar, maraschino liqueur, and grapefruit juice.

As afternoon turned to night, Scott made us his version of a mai tai, made with Appleton Rum, St. George’s Aqua Libre Rum, Qi orange liqueur, orgeat, demarara syrup, and fresh lime juice. Nothing like those bastardizations of the mai tai you’ll find at tiki bars, this one was fresh and sophisticated, and, in a particularly Scott Beattie-ish touch, beautifully garnished with flowers.

In fact, many of the drinks are garnished with flowers, as evidenced by the riotous vases of flowers behind the bar

So, if you’re ever in Healdsburg, swing by Spoonbar and order an East India Sidecar (Germain-Robain Brandy, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur, bergamot-infused simple syrup, and Angostura Bitters) on my behalf. And say hi to Scott while you’re there.


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Getting my guests to eat their veggies

I’m usually not a huge fan of crudités platters, the obligatory plate of veggies (and usually a sour cream-based dip) that seems to show up on every buffet table. Somehow they always seem to be passed over for more exciting dishes, and they’re usually still full of dried-out broccoli by the end of the evening.

That said, I’ve made a couple of different crudités platters this month for a few different reasons. I was asked to contribute one to a potluck dinner, and right before my Fourth of July barbecue I discovered a crisper full of vegetables was begging to be used up.

But how to get folks to eat veggies when there would be plates of sexier food all around?

First, decided to make a duo of dips. One was a fairly traditional sour cream-based dip with garlic, herbs, and big hunks of blue cheese crumbled into it. I wanted a contrasting dip (no mayo, no sour cream), but veggies require something fairly rich to take them out of the realm of rabbit food. On a whim, I threw together the following ingredients, which were already in my pantry. I didn’t measure them terribly carefully, so I can’t vouch for exact quantities until I retest it, but it seems like it would be pretty hand to mess this up. Just tweak it until it’s the right blend of rich, spicy, and nutty.

Peanut Butter-Curry Dip

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 shallots, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon palm sugar
½ to 1 cup coconut milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in sauté pan over medium heat. Add the shallots, garlic, and jalapeno and sauté until the shallot is tender, about 2 minutes. Add the curry paste, chicken stock, peanut butter, lime juice, soy sauce, and palm sugar and whisk together until combined. Bring to a simmer and then remove from the heat. (Don’t worry if it looks curdled at this point.)

Let the peanut butter mixture cool slightly, then transfer to a food processor. Add ½ cup of the coconut milk and process until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and the mixture is emulsified. Add additional coconut milk if necessary to achieve the desired consistency.

Step two of trying to get my guests to eat their veggies: find an appealing way to present them. I usually don’t fuss too much with the presentation of foods that I serve, but I often make an exception for hors d’oeuvres, which seem to get eaten in direct proportion to how pretty they look. (Unless they’re fried or contain bacon, in which case you could just slop them on a paper plate.)

Poking around the kitchen I came across some little-used cocktail glasses I own, in which a v-shaped top fits into a square base that you fill with crushed ice. I removed the V tops, and voila, four containers of equal size for standing up the veggies.

I blanched the asparagus and green beans, sliced the bell peppers, and scrubbed the bejezus out of the cute lil’ baby carrots (honest – even though they still looked a little grubby). I tried to be super-clever and roll up long, thin slices of zucchini and skewer them on cocktail picks like little squashy lollipops, but I’m not that talented. And I’m in serious need of a new mandoline.

The upshot? At least 80% of the veggies were gone by the end of the party. Not exactly in the same ballpark at bacon bonbons or fried shrimp balls, but pretty good for veggies, I suppose.

If you have any suggestions about serving crudités platters, please share in the comments.

Fourth of July barbecue

I hadn’t intended to throw a party for the Fourth of July. My honey and my roommates were out of town all weekend long, and I was going to take a few days off to relax after working seven days a week for almost a month. But just as nature abhors a vacuum, I seem to abhor a weekend that’s not filled with food and cocktails and friends, so on Friday afternoon I emailed an invitation to a casual barbecue to be held on Sunday.

With less than 48 hours to plan, clean the house, shop, and cook, the party was necessarily a little slapdash. But I had two things going for me: 1) a barbecue is, by definition, a pretty casual affair, and it doesn’t require much more than throwing some slabs of meat on the grill; and 2) our friends really know how to pitch in and throw a party.

I spent a lot of this Fourth of July being grateful for the friends we have and their willingness to get s*#( done. Although I occasionally love to host fancy dinner parties or showers where I don’t want the guests to lift a finger, it’s just not practical to do that every week, which is about how often I like to entertain.

That’s why I have so many parties like I did today. I got the ball rolling by re-stocking the liquor cabinet and planning a few specialty cocktails, like today’s mojitos and cherry sidecars. I threw a six-pack of beer in the cooler. I made a pile of Moroccan-spiced burger patties and prepared a few nibbles, like homemade hummus and candied walnuts. I put out some veggies and dips.

After that, I stood back and kept the cocktails flowing as my thirty guests arrived with big bowls of pineapple-basil salad and ribs for the grill. With a big bottle of tequila and a bottle of plum wine. With sauages, both porky and vegan, and corn on the cob for the grill. With six packs of beer and pasta salads and lemony roasted potatoes. One guest even showed up with a bottle of both crème de violette and Crème Yvette, earning her a big wet smooch. A few hours after the party started we were madly shuffling things around on our kitchen table trying to make more room for all the new dishes that were arriving.

Obviously, it would have been nice to provide all the food for my guests from soup to nuts, but if that were my only choice, there would have been no party, which ended up lasting from 2 pm until after midnight. More evidence that (almost) everyone loves a party, and if you just take a little time to create the space for it to happen, it will take on a life of it’s own.

Menu

  • Cherry Sidecars
  • Mojitos
  • Apricot iced tea
  • Candied Walnuts
  • Homemade hummus with za’atar and pita
  • Vegetables with blue cheese dip and with peanut butter-curry dip
  • Moroccan spiced burgers
  • Corn on the cob
  • A great quantity of dishes brought by other guests, including this beautiful pineapple-basil salad (unfortunately, I neglected to take photos of all the other awesome food that folks brought)

A couple of guests asked for the recipe for the burgers, which turned out well, especially considering they took all of about 10 or 15 minutes to prep. This recipe could also be made with a not-too-fatty ground lamb, which would be much more authentic (but a bit more expensive).

Moroccan Hamburgers
Makes about 9 burgers

2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup harissa, plus more for serving
3 pounds ground chuck (preferably with 15 or 20% fat content)
Hamburger buns, for serving
Lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles, for serving (optional)

Prepare a hot fire in a gas or charcoal grill.

Put the fennel and cumin seeds in a small dry skillet and toast over medium heat, tossing frequently, until they are very fragrant, about 2 minutes. Watch them carefully to make sure they don’t burn. Using a mortar and pestle, grind them to a fine powder. In a small bowl, stir together the ground fennel and cumin with the coriander, salt, and harissa.

Put the ground beef in a large bowl and add the spice mixture. Using a light touch, mix together with your hands just until the spices are thoroughly blended.

Form the meat into about 9 patties of equal size. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Grill, turning once, until they reach the desired doneness, about 3 minutes per side for medium-rare. Meanwhile, toast the hamburger buns.

Serve each burger on a toasted roll with harissa on the side for those who want to spread it on the bun to add more heat. Add lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles, if desired, and serve.

Hostess bibliophila

I’ve always loved reading old cookbooks and books on entertaining. I remember leafing through my mother’s old Betty Crocker books as a kid and salivating over the pretty layer cakes frosted with fluffy white seven-minute icing and wondering if anyone actually ate chipped beef and cream sauce on top of waffles. The edition I was looking at was probably about 15 years old at the time, but it already seemed old-fashioned to me, with its red-and-white gingham cover and it’s ring binding, with little red tabs separating each of the chapters.

A few years ago, I wrote the text for The Hostess Diary, which has a sort of retro, nostalgic tone.

In the process of writing it, I dug up a lot of old entertaining books for inspiration.

I was fascinated to read accounts of 1950s bridge parties and look at the nausea-inducing pictures of ham and tomatoes quivering in aspic. Of course it was fun to see how they were comically dated (e.g., “A happy woman is one who is the center of well-being of a dependent, loving family. In times of crisis women always ‘rise and shine,’ thus astonishing that well-known stronger sex,” from 1943’s More Thoughts for Food). But if you can get past the recipes that suggest you bastardize traditional French cuisine by using canned vegetables and strawberry Jello, you’ll see that the basic ideas behind entertaining have remained the same: Greet your guests immediately with a aperitif or a cup of tea. Get your prep work done early so you can enjoy your own party. Know your guests, and plan the menu and activities accordingly.

This week I logged onto one of the online book swapping sites that I often use to see if they had any great entertaining books I wanted. Well, I couldn’t find any particularly good books on entertaining on the site, but I did find several that look spectacularly bad. A few of my favorites:

Why does this book exist? Do Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford sound like someone you want to get down with?

What way would that be, exactly? Put out a 5-gallon tub of onion dip and a 10-pound bag of potato chips and stand back? Hire little old ladies in hairnets to stand at various places in your house and hand out samples of miniature sausages?

This one just boggles the mind. The Amazon.com product description: “Share your faith through hosting barbeques, sporting events, coffees, youth and children’s gatherings, holiday parties, and other events in your home–and have fun at the same time.” I imagine a poor guest who thinks she has been invited to a cocktail party, only to discover a room full of ladies drinking tea and reciting Psalms.

I order all these and a several others, though the members of this book-swapping site have proven to be pretty flaky so far, so I only expect to receive a fraction of them. More details if and when they show up. And maybe I’ll even try some of those recipes (I’m looking at you, Meringued Prunes in More Thoughts for Food). They should be good for a laugh, at least, and maybe I’ll learn something in the process.