A toast to 2011

Toasting the New Year with 1990 Cristal

Now that—egads!—it’s 2012, I’ve been looking back at my 2011 blog posts, which is causing me to blush with shame at how little I’ve posted since last September. And by “little,” I mean “not at all.” I could come up with any number of excuses for my indolence, but here are the two greatest hits.

First, a few months ago my nurse practitioner informed me that I needed to watch my cholesterol and blood sugar. Though this was unwelcome news, it should surprise no one who has read my posts about my love of berry trifles …

Summer berry trifle

or my unwavering devotion to cheese …

Solstmas cheese platter

This means I’ve been concocting a lot fewer buttery desserts and lot more lentils and brown rice lately, shaking fewer cocktails and making more tofu curry. And when I might otherwise be photographing my latest efforts in the kitchen, I’m more likely to be playing tennis with my husband.

The second reason is that while the Cocktail Host is out of work, I’ve been working time and a half trying to keep up with paying the bills, which means less time for cooking and blogging, and less money for hosting big blowouts.

That said, neither of these is a great reason for not keeping up with my blog. Because hosting get-togethers is pretty much my favorite hobby, I find that I host parties or have people over for dinner no matter how limited my means.

In part I can do this because I’ve gotten pretty good at turning whatever odds and ends are in the pantry into a credible dinner or hors d’oeuvres platter, but it’s primarily because we have a phenomenal group of friends that bring the party with them whenever they visit. For example, if we were left to our own devices, we might have had to cancel our seventh annual daylong open house (with seventy or so guests) on Christmas Day, but thanks to friends who gave us a big stack of firewood, brought buckets of champagne, made outrageously decadent eggnog, and did a thousand and one other things, from washing up dinner plates during the party to bringing an expensive bottle of Chartreuse so I could make one of my favorite cocktails to pitching in some cash for all the booze we bought for the party, it went on as always. And for this I am truly, deeply grateful.

Also, because of my generous (and food- and drink-loving) friends, as well as my work in food and travel publishing, I often get have experiences that are well above my pay grade. I visited New York City a few months ago and, before having a decadent dinner with some other food writers and editors and Tim and Nina Zagat (yes, those Zagats) …

Dinner at Del Posto

I visited some of New York City’s swankiest speakeasies for some out-of-this-world cocktails …

Milk & Honey cocktails

And even when I’m at home, I have it better than I deserve. I go to bars where I know the mixologists, who often slip me some fun new spirit to taste. I go to Boxing Day parties where The Working Cook prepares local whole-grain polenta with a decadent ragù. I have sommelier friends who never show up to a party without a fine bottle of wine. And I attend New Year’s Eve parties where Mr. Manhattan opens a honey-colored  bottle of 1990 Louis Roederer Cristal that he’s been aging for 20 years …

Photo by Arlie Ausich

So even if it means that my newest food obsession is vegan cooking (oh dear!) rather than blood orange cocktails (my two posts of 2011 with the largest number of visitors), I’m hoping to keep up the blogging in 2012. And if the next photo I post is of a mess of delicious but ugly lentils with brown rice, well, I apologize in advance.

Dear Blood Oranges, I think we’re through

My beautiful blood oranges, I know I’ve been singing your praises a lot lately. I mean you’re sweet and sexy and all that …

.. and when it was just the two of us, and maybe a bottle of gin, I enjoyed our time together. I really did. But I think it’s time to move on.

First of all, you’ve gotten a little precious for my budget. Yesterday I spent $9 buying a big pile of you at the farmers’ market in preparation for a party that night. And what did that get me?

A pile of this …

.. .which yielded this …

Really? 1 cup of juice for $9? I don’t mean to be stingy, but you’re not exactly a cheap date.

And then was the party itself (more on which later). Admittedly, when I made the Blood Orange Bee’s Knees, you had some stiff competition with about seven other drinks on the cocktail menu, but you I don’t think you knocked my friends’ socks off. Everyone talked about how pretty you looked, but even that was probably because of the nasturtium petal garnish I dressed you up with. You were like a gorgeous but not-too-sharp date you take to a party. Everyone was interested in you for about 15 minutes, and then they found someone more interesting to talk to, like my old friends The Aviation and The Boulevardier.

Maybe it’s me, not you. Maybe I didn’t come up with the right cocktail. Maybe I should be willing to spend a bit more money on you. But I think it’s time to cut our losses and say we’re through, at least for now. Besides, it’s almost rhubarb season.

Favorite blogs about entertaining? Please share!

This evening I added a few websites to my blogroll, all of them blogs about cocktail geekery, which is a subject I adore. I can spend hours on end reading about rosemary-infused gin and varieties of expensive Cognac. But since my blog is (theoretically) about entertaining, I was hoping to add some blogs about hosting parties, large and small, to my blogroll.

Here’s my dilemma: All of the blogs I find about entertaining are written by high-end catering companies, which typically feature gorgeous high-resolution photos of Willy Wonka-themed bar mitzahs, extravagant summer garden parties in the Hamptons, and weddings costing upward of $50,000 for the catering alone. The photos of matching invitations, fondant cakes, and artfully designed party favors are beautiful, no doubt, and sometimes I get inspired by these images, but these websites bear little relation to my own experience, which is to throw some food on the barbecue, mix up a pitcher of cocktails, and batten down all the hatches before I invite everyone I know to come over and join in the fun.

Blogs about cocktail geekery? Check!
Blogs with a zillion recipes? Check!
Blogs about entertaining with a ten-thousand-dollar-plus budget? Checkity check check!

But if you happen to know of any great blogs that focus on casual entertaining, on the ins and outs of having frequent (and not-too-expensive) casual get-togethers, I’m all ears. Please clue me in!

… and the hostess was stirring …

It’s 6:30 a.m. on Christmas morning, and I can’t sleep. I’m all atwitter, of course, because in less than 8 hours the hordes will descend upon our house for our annual Solstmas open house, possibly the largest event I’ll host all year. And although I can’t say there are exactly visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, there are at least visions of cheddar-ale soup, and glazed ham, and a carefully constructed ice ring for my punch, which I hope I can unmold without it falling apart. It’s the calm before the storm, and I really enjoyed watching the sun rise over San Francisco from my kitchen, where I had already assembled various pitchers and serving platters in preparation for the party.

The calm before the storm

Twas the night before Christmas …

… and I’m 15 hours away from one of the biggest parties I throw every year, an all-day open house where 50 to 80 friends and family members arrive for a full day of drinking champagne, eating a ginormous ham, and consuming ridiculous quantities of pumpkin pie.

Solstmas Party 2008. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

 

And yet, despite the fact that I’ve spent the last month shopping for Campari, combing through the thrift stores for more flatware, and making baroque “to do” lists (both for myself and to delegate to my husband), I haven’t written a peep about it on my blog.

In the last week or so I’ve been wondering why this is. At first I decided that I’ve simply been busy. Whenever I have a few free moments after a full day of work, I’m more likely to spend my evenings looking at recipes for cheddar-ale soup or dithering about what kind of punch to make than to sit in front of my computer and write. But in the last day I’ve thought of a few more reasons.

The first is that despite the fact this is the biggest party I throw I almost every year—actually, because it’s the biggest party I throw—I don’t try a lot of new things. I bake a ham. I put out a bountiful cheese platter. I make a bowl of punch. There is a such a crazy onslaught of guests (we invite practically everyone we know, and plenty of people we don’t know), that in large part I just have to stock up, batten down the hatches, and hope everyone has a good time. I don’t have the time to fiddle with delicate puff pastry or beautifully garnish canapes—the stuff that seems to me more worthy of blogging about. What is there to say about the fact I bought seven packages of crackers or five loaves of focaccia?

The second is that food prep on such a large scale isn’t very photogenic. Taking pictures of food prep requires a fair amount of time, and pretty meticulous approach to assembling dishes. But when I’m preparing for an event on this scale, my kitchen is in a constant state of chaos as I try to simultaneously make a quadruple batch of candied nuts, wash all my glassware, and fold the laundered kitchen towels.

Food at Solstmas 2009. Photo by Sharona Gottlieb.

At any rate, it’s given me a new appreciation for bloggers who write about their parties, and food and cocktail bloggers in general. And if I didn’t manage any posts on my party planning, maybe … just maybe … I’ll remember to pick up my camera tomorrow and document some of the fun. But I wouldn’t count on it.

Keeping it real, mom style

So after my mom, my most dedicated (only?) reader, saw my post about hostess envy, about wanting to be able to throw parties that feature large quantities of black truffles and meats mail ordered from D’Artagnan, she sent me the following email.

Read your last blog this morning, and I, also, am having a dinner party.

Menu: Boiled shrimp, boiled new red potatoes, boiled sausage, and boiled corn on the cob–all in one large pot with the same water and crab boil. Cook and drain.

To serve: Cover table with butcher paper.

Dump all food onto the table.

Eat everything with hands, no need for fancy plates or silverware.

Have plenty of Cheatah Mojitas,or beer before, during, and afterwards.

Dessert: San Antonio River Mud [which, if I recall correctly, is some goopy, chocolately graham cracker pie]

She sent the following pictures, before …

And after …

The thing is, I would have totally loved to have been at this party (I loved  old-fashioned shrimp boils when I was growing up  on the Gulf Coast). A good thing to remember when I’m knocking myself out making layer cake or lamenting my lack of black truffles.

Speaking of which, a recap on my dinner party coming up soon …

Hostess Envy

Last night I read an article published in the New York Times in 2000 by William Grimes called “Dinner for 7: What Could Be Easier,” describing an elaborate dinner party he hosted that year. I recognized my own process several times in the article, like when Grimes is “float[ing] in a dreamlike state” contemplating dishes like Thomas Keller’s foie gras au torchon before settling on something (a little) less elaborate. I always have this impulse before I throw a party, and in fact I call it the “Thomas Keller moment,” when I’m planning to make his confit of pork belly before I tally up the amount of time it would take to make it … the four other courses I’m planning.

The following especially struck a chord with my mood at the moment:

The dinner-party instinct is irrational. More often than not, entertaining involves blood, sweat and tears. It can be a one-way ticket to recrimination and regret. For the guests, of course, it’s a sweet deal. They bring a bottle wine or a bouquet and, presto!, they’re inside the velvet rope, ready for a stress-free evening of food and wine. For the hosts, the point can seem more obscure, especially an hour before the guests arrive, and more especially an hour after they leave

But still the urge strikes, again and again.

Can you tell I’m struggling with the menu and planning for a dinner I’m having in two days? I primarily blame the weather. After a blissfully cool summer the temperature jumped up to 101 degrees today, and I’m finding it dreadfully hard to motivate to run around from store to store or stand over the stove making stock. Right now I’m waiting for sunset–or at least until it drops below 90 degrees–before I head to the kitchen to make the pastry cream that’s going into dessert.

Honestly, I’m looking forward to the party–or at least I will be when the heat wave breaks tomorrow and I shake myself out of this heat-induced lethargy–but I must confess to a serious case of hostess envy after reading this article. In addition to dedicating what seems like days shopping and prepping, Grimes buys the following:

  • Rabbit from D’Artagnan
  • Venison, black truffles, and mushrooms from Urbani
  • A selection of fine Alsatian wines
  • Additional wine glasses and a pizza stone
  • Flowers for two different arrangements

This is, of course, in addition to various meat from the butcher and vegetables and other ingredients from an expensive grocer on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Perhaps if I entertained less often, I could afford to bust out with the truffles new stemware for a party, but as it is, I have to consider every expense. But rest assured, when I win the lottery, I’m putting in a huge order with Tsar Nicoulai Caviar and chilling an ocean of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame.