Dining Al Fresco

I was just on Nantucket, eating in the lovely back garden of Met on Main, and was so inspired by their blue and white decor that I thought I would pull together some fun pieces with a similar look (stay tuned I will do a longer post on my favorite spots on the island soon).  Slightly nautical, a little french and all style these pieces will have your friend begging to come over all summer!

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Peacoat Beer Garden Set from World Market – These french bistro chairs are all the rage.  I spent the better part of 2014 trying to find some that weren’t ridiculously expensive and finally broke down and got some.  I love mine but these are even better paired with the long dining table and benches.  Our outdoor dining set is from World Market and the quality is really high.

Grey Rattan Outdoor Lantern from Target – I love the grey, almost driftwood like treatment and these would look equally good inside.

Acrylic Drink Dispenser from Crate and Barrel –  When dining outside you don’t want to spend the whole time running inside and out getting people drinks.  I actually have two – one for water to keep guests hydrated and one for a signature cocktail.  This acrylic version is great because it won’t get too heavy when full.

Galvanized Metal Tiered Stand from Pottery Barn –  This can hold drinks, snacks, napkins, shucked oysters – pretty much anything.

Globe String Lights from Amazon –  The easiest way to transform your back yard into a bistro are strong lights – make sure to pick up extra bulbs as I notice we lose a couple every year to wind etc.

Acrylic Wine Glasses from Sur La Table –  I have these glasses and love the way they mimic real glass goblets.  They are great for wine but also for our drink of the summer, the aperol spritz.  Best of all you never have to worry about breaking them!

Dottie Aqua Acrylic Drinking Glasses from Crate and Barrel –  They look like delicate french glasses but are ideal for summer cocktails on the deck.

Rope Melamine Platter from Pottery Barn –  A big platter is a must for outside dining.  Fill it up with grilled veggies and steak and everyone can eat off of it family style.  I love the deep blue and the slight nautical edging.

Indigo Bar Melamine Dinnerware from Pier One –  Can you believe these dishes are plastic?  They look like hand thrown porcelain but are super sturdy – if you buy this weekend they are even on sale!

Chilewitch Mosaic Blue Placemat from Williams Sonoma –  Chilewitch is made for outdoor living.  These woven plastic table “linens” are a little pricey but will last forever and just need to be wiped off.  I use them all the time inside and out.  This pattern almost exactly matches the benches on Nantucket!

Bistro Outdoor Flatware from Pottery Barn –  Don’t hand your guests a plastic knife and expect them to cut through BBQ chicken!  Yes you can use your regular flatware but why when this bistro set matches so perfectly?  Better yet you can keep it in the caddy recommended here and be ready to go anytime the mood strikes to eat outside.

Claude Napkin Set from Anthropolgie –  Fun, punchy napkins brighten up this look and give it a little boho beach look.  Paper napkins are just going to blow away anyways so give your guests a real napkin.

Acaica Flatware Caddy from Target –  Caddies like this are great for a casual look outside. Keep it stocked and just plunk down in the middle of the table for friends to help themselves.

Happy Memorial Day Weekend!!!

 

 

 

Hummus

Hummus definitely falls into that category of foods where you ask yourself, “Is it worth making this or should I just buy some?”  There are plenty of good brands of hummus to purchase, especially if you doctor it up with a drizzle of olive oil or a sprinkling of zatar spice.  The thing is you can never quite buy yourself the super smooth, fresh tasting, garlicy punch of your own homemade hummus.  There are a zillion of hummus recipes out there and once again I have practically tried them all to try and find the right combination of teqniques.  Most purists will tell you to start with dried chickpeas, soak them over night, cook them with baking soda etc etc but at that point, for me at least, the scales of why can’t I just buy this and dispense with the hassle starts to tilt into convince’s favor.  So canned chickpeas it is.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be some work involved.  I found the somewhat tedious task of taking the skins off of the canned chickpeas makes for a substantially smoother and better tasting hummus.  It’s not as easy as just dumping the can into the food processor but at least it’s not a multi day effort.  To peel them, drain and rinse the canned chickpeas.  Then take the chickpea between your fingers and gently squeeze – you will find the weird white casing comes right off.  For a can of chickpeas it took me about 15 minutes – just turn on your favorite cooking show and get lost in the mindless task.

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From my research I learned that the other benefit of cooking your own chickpeas was that when they are warm they take on the other ingredients better.  Well here we can easily cheat that by quickly nuking the skinned chickpeas in the microwave for a couple of seconds before adding them to the food processor.  After that its just a matter of taste with the amount of tahini, lemon juice and garlic.  The recipe below is how I like it but play around and see what you like best – some people really want more of that sesame tahini flavor, others really hate lemon juice and replace it with water.  The method is the key and once you have that down the sky’s the limit.  Hummus away!

Hummus (printable version at the end of the post)

Inspiration:  simple but not too simple method of making hummus
Special Equipment:  food processor

  • 15.5 ounce can of chickpeas, rinsed, drained with the skins removed (see above)
  • 5 -6 tablespoons warm water
  • 3 tablespoons tahini sauce
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • olive oil and zatar for serving (optional)

Once all the chickpeas are peeled (see above on how to remove the skins) place them in a  microwave safe bowl and microwave them on high for 20 seconds.  Add the warmed chickpeas to the food processor along with the rest of the ingredients.  Puree until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides.

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If its not as smooth as you would like add more warm water.  Chill for at least 1 hour to let the flavors meld – serve room temperature with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of zatar (optional).

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Hummus

  • Servings: 2 cups
  • Time: 2 minutes (plus 15 minutes to peel the chickpeas
  • Print

Special Equipment:  food processor

  • 15.5 ounce can of chickpeas, rinsed, drained with the skins removed (see above)
  • 5 -6 tablespoons warm water
  • 3 tablespoons tahini sauce
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • olive oil and zatar for serving (optional)

Once all the chickpeas are peeled (see above on how to remove the skins) place them in a  microwave safe bowl and microwave them on high for 20 seconds.  Add the warmed chickpeas to the food processor along with the rest of the ingredients.  Puree until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides.  If its not as smooth as you would like add more warm water.  Chill for at least 1 hour to let the flavors meld – serve room temperature with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of zatar (optional).

A Cinco Taco Party

Happy almost Cinco de Mayo!  I love, love, love, that it is falling on a Friday this year since I already do Fiesta Friday.  It also marks the 2 year anniversary of A Capitol Contessa being born, so lots to celebrate.  If you want to kick your celebration up a notch there are some cute ideas here on how to make your taco night extra special.

First up the margs – those are a given but how cute would it be to serve them in Patron bottles?  The mini bottles are sort of pricey but you can use the tequila inside and then just wash them out and reuse the bottles anytime you want to fiesta.

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You could serve my spicy grapefruit margaritas from my very first post in honor of the anniversary (skip the salt air though as I am not sure how you would get it into these bottles).  If you are pressed for time, I like to cheat with this skinny margarita mix from Williams Sonoma.  I usually HATE margarita mixes because they taste super fake and have way too much acid but this one is great – I just doctor it up with a couple squeezes of fresh lime juice and you are good to go.  Now we need to talk decor – Mexican themed of course.  I like to throw down some serapes as table covers (they are excellent for hiding salsa spills).  I also found these colorful votive candle holders at the dollar section of Target – definitely look around close to Cinco de Mayo and you can find some cute items that you can pull out every Fiesta Friday.

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Since this is a special party I always think favors are the way to go.  You can always do mini tequilas but I found these incredible bags of sea salt for margaritas in beautiful handwoven bags.  A really nice touch and something your guests can use over and over again at their own homes.

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Ok on to the menu – the most important part!  You need a great starter to go with those adorable margaritas so try my queso and poblano dip.  I also set out regular salsa – I love Rick Bayless’s Chipolte Salsa, it’s the only jarred salsa I will eat.

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Then on to the tacos – I went grilled chicken for ease but you could also make my carnitas or my Carne Asada tacos.  I just simply marinate chicken breasts for an hour or so in lime juice, olive oil and grated garlic and then throw in the grill.  Cause really it’s all about the toppings right?

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I like to have as many toppings as possible and lots of them are things you already have in your house.  If all the queso and salsa aren’t gone from earlier set those out for the tacos.  Then chopped red onion, grated cheese (jack is my fave), some sautéed peppers and onions for a fajita type feel, sour cream, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce…and on and on – the limit is your imagination!  I had some yummy mole sauce from a local Mexican market that I threw out there – those places are gold mines of inspiration.  Also make sure to set out hot sauces (we have maybe thirty), heat up some store bought tortillas and you have taco night.

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A great side for tacos is my tex mex quinoa salad as it’s a one bowl wonder that has veggies, beans, and quinoa all in a tart vinaigrette.  Also good would be my mexican beans and greens or my mexican creamed onions.

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To finish off the evening make life easy – grab some mango or strawberry popsicles from the store and call them paletas (Mexican popsicles) – especially good served in a glass of mezcal as a night cap!

Thank you to everyone for making A Capitol Contessa even more popular in its second year as in its first.  We had over 7,000 visitors!!!  It really is a joy for me to share my cooking and entertaining adventures with the world.  Raise a margarita and have a great Cinco de Mayo/Fiesta Friday!

Ham and Cheese Panini

This rainy spring weather has me in the mood for comfort food and what fits the bill better than a warm cheesy gooey sandwich??  They key to a sandwich this simple is the best ingredients – imported ham, fresh bread, peppery mustard and rich cheese all come together for the perfect combination.

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I made mine in my panini press but you can easily just make this in a skillet like a regular grilled cheese.  I got my ham at Dean and Deluca and had them slice it impossibly thin.  Make sure its high quality, salty ham so that it almost melts along with the cheese.   The bread is a nice pullman loaf from Spring Mill Bread Company – no Wonder bread please!  Mustard makes a really nice foil to the rich ham and cheese so make sure to use a spicy dijon.  I really like this version that has green peppercorns in it but any strong mustard will work.

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So get out of the rain and make this delicious sandwich – in only a couple of minutes you will be warm and happy.

Ham and Cheese Panini (printable version at the end of the post)

Inspiration:  rainy days
Special Equipment:  panini press (optional)

  • 2 tablespoons room temperature butter
  • 4 slices of white sandwich bread
  • 3 tablespoons dijon mustard
  • 3/4 cup grated gruyere cheese
  • 1/4 pound of thinly sliced ham

Butter one side of each piece of bread (it is important to have room temperature butter so it spreads thinly and easily).  On the other side of the bread (the non buttered side) spread a thin layer of mustard.  Divide the ham and cheese and pile them up on 2 slices of bread on the mustard side, then place the other 2 slices in top to create two sandwiches with the butter sides out.  Heat the panini grill (or a skillet over medium high) and add the sandwiches.

Toast for 3 minutes or so until the bread is nicely browned and the cheese has melted (if you use a skillet use a plate and push down on the sandwich in the pan, flip once – it may take a minute or two longer).  Let rest for 1 minute then slice in half.

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Ham and Cheese Panini

  • Servings: 2
  • Time: 4 minutes
  • Print

Special Equipment:  panini press (optional)

  • 2 tablespoons room temperature butter
  • 4 slices of white sandwich bread
  • 3 tablespoons dijon mustard
  • 3/4 cup grated gruyere cheese
  • 1/4 pound of thinly sliced ham

Butter one side of each piece of bread (it is important to have room temperature butter so it spreads thinly and easily).  On the other side of the bread (the non buttered side) spread a thin layer of mustard.  Divide the ham and cheese and pile them up on 2 slices of bread on the mustard side, then place the other 2 slices in top to create two sandwiches with the butter sides out.  Heat the panini grill (or a skillet over medium high) and add the sandwiches.  Toast for 3 minutes or so until the bread is nicely browned and the cheese has melted (if you use a skillet use a plate and push down on the sandwich in the pan, flip once – it may take a minute or two longer).  Let rest for 1 minute then slice in half.

ACC Parties: A Spring Menu for Easter

Easter in my family is a big deal and definitely my 2nd favorite holiday (sorry nothing beats Christmas!).  There is something about the little chickies, the pastel candy and all those spring ingredients that make me so happy.  Even if you don’t celebrate Easter the beginning of spring is a great time to gather your family and sit down to a nice meal that celebrates the best parts of the season.  Here is a suggested menu that has a lot of moving parts but actually very little needs to be done the day of, leaving you free to hunt Easter eggs and binge on candy with the fam.  I wanted the table setting to be whimsical, especially with kids in attendance.  I found these super cute carrot utensil holders at the dollar section of Target and paired it with our Vera Wang wedding china, set on chargers that sort of mimic an Easter basket.  Glitter eggs scattered over my homemade seersucker tablecloth and bam, spring is alive.

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I don’t like to have giant flowers getting in the way of conversation so instead I opted for some thyme from my garden staggered down the center of the table in white pots.  How cute is that cabbage serving dish?  I found it for $4 at Home Goods the week before Easter so I knew it had to make it to the table.  I set up our kitchen island as a appetizer and drinks station with a floral Cynthia Rowley tablecloth (also Home Goods!) and some baby’s breath mixed with bells of Ireland for flowers.

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Cheese and Chartucherie Board

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No party is complete without one!  Since both of the aps I was actually making were veggie based I knew I had to get some cheese in here somehow.  Just pick a nice selection and throw some dried apricots or grapes on the plate to jazz it up.

Chilled Sweet Pea Soup with Mint and Cream

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Nothing is more springy that sweet peas (no one needs you know you get em out of a bag!).  This soup is simple and can be made up to two days in advance.  I served it in cute little glasses for sipping but discovered that the texture really wasn’t ideal for that so I would suggest providing spoons for people to eat the soup with instead.  It’s a super light appetizer that adds a nice green punch to the mix.

Za’atar Spiced Beet Dip with Goat Cheese and Hazelnuts

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I had been dying to make this dip since the first time I spotted it in Food and Wine Magazine all the way back in 2012 – goes to show how many recipes I have socked away!.  It’s totally beautiful but I knew it would also be delicious, being the brain child of Yotam Ottolenghi, of Jersuleam (and this post) fame.  Everyone loved the earthy complex flavor and of course the color!

Lamb Kebobs with Minted Yogurt Sauce

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Lamb is the quintessential Easter dish but with grilled lamb kebobs you can make life much easier.  Marinate the lamb up to two days before and then just throw on the grill as you are having appetizers.  I love that it doesn’t hog the oven like a big lamb roast and it also encourages your guests to go outside and enjoy the spring, keeping the grill master company.  This version by Ina is so good though I skipped her sauce and went for my standard mint and yogurt sauce found here.

Make Ahead Polenta

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As described in this post, make ahead polenta can be really done with any kind of polenta recipe you have by just increasing the liquid content.  This was a great side for the lamb and didn’t require me standing over a hot pot frantically stirring the polenta – it was even a hit with the kiddos!

Roasted Asparagus

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Just toss spears with olive oil, salt and pepper and put them on a baking sheet.  During the last 15 minutes of the polenta put the baking sheet in the oven, toss once and voila!  A nice crunchy veggie side with almost zero effort.

Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

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Ok so here is where most of the effort for the meal came in.  I realized when I was planning the menu that I had so many make ahead items that I didn’t really have much to do “day of.”  That can sometimes spell disaster because then I set and reset the table, putter around driving my husband crazy (and myself) before our guests arrive.  So I made an easy layer cake and decided to try my hand at the basket weave frosting on top.  I followed this tutorial from Wilton – it was actually pretty easy once I got the hang of it.  It does take a while and my hand was sort of cramped into a claw for a bit but you can do this first thing in the AM and just keep the cake at room temp (or in the fridge if it’s really warm in your house).  I also got  beautiful edible dried flowers from Terrian and scattered them on top.  I have to say I was really proud of this one but if you don’t have the time or energy a store-bought dessert or even this cake without the fancy pants frosting would be delicious.  Happy Spring to everyone!

ACC Parties: A Masters Party

Marry a golfer and you marry golf they say.  Well “they” are right.  From about March to November I can count on Patrick golfing at least once a weekend, every weekend, and sometimes twice.  I am not planning on taking up this incredibly frustrating and expensive sport, I will leave that to the husband.  However, I am not opposed to wearing preppy golf clothes, vacationing at lovely golf resorts and throwing a golf themed party when called for.  The Masters is actually the one golf tournament that I used to watch even before I met Patrick, simply because Augusta is that beautiful.  Even before HD the greens just always seemed so green and the rows of azalea bushes in bloom made you want to don a funny hat and some white pants and start wacking around a little ball.  I decided the best way to celebrate this annual event was with a party, so the golf lovers could watch the Saturday rounds, and those of us less invested would have yummy food and drinks to keep us entertained.  I may have gone a little theme overboard but that’s part of the fun.  Here are some great menu and decoration ideas to get you ready for the 2017 Masters.  You know I love a party favor and personalized tees were a no brainer for this one.  I got them at Oriental Trading and then put them in cello bags with Masters green ribbon.  Super easy to do and actually functional (if you golf).

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Every party needs a bar and a signature cocktail.  The signature cocktail here was really easy – a John Daly.  This refreshing mix of lemonade, iced tea and vodka is a twist on the original Arnold Palmer and named for another, lets say more notorius golfer.  I split the difference on making my own iced tea and adding Trader Joe’s lemonade.  Just make sure to make a BIG pitcher and add fresh lemon slices, easy on the vodka.  This is an all day drinking affair so slow and steady wins the race.  We also had a selection of beer and wine over in the bar corner as well as in the other rooms.  For the bar set up I decided to riff on the famous Amen Corner of the Augusta National Golf Club.  Amen Corner is a nickname for the 11th, 12th and 13th holes and has something to do with the first time Arnold Palmer won his first Masters (ask a golf expert please – my expertise is parties).  Anyway since our fireplace is a perfect bar set up and in a corner – viola!  Some letters from Paper Source and we have Amen Corner.

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Since Augusta is in Georgia I went with a Southern theme for the food.  Pulled pork sliders are delicious and easy to keep warm in a slow cooker so people can help themselves through out the day.  I made my own but you can also make life easier by ordering from your local BBQ place.  You also need a classic slaw that acts as a veggie side and works so well inside those sliders.  Make sure to have a spoon handy for people to serve the pulled pork and a big bowl of buns.

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To keep the table themed and fun I used a grass table runner you can find on Etsy and glass jars full of golf balls.  The Masters always serves Pimento Cheese sandwiches so I made them using Southern Living’s recipe and then added cute little flags I made out of toothpicks and yellow paper.  Round things out with chips and mini corn muffins and people will have enough food to hang out all day.

DSC03333Last but not least you are going to need something sweet so I made Peaches and Cream Oatmeal cookies (georgia peaches get it??) and had a friend bring her delicious brownies.  Golfers and non golfers alike had a blast – I hope you enjoy this year’s Masters in style.  DSC03335

Cheesey Creamed Spinach

This dish is inspired by an incredible meal Patrick and I had when we were in Chicago last summer (you can see more about our trip here).  Of course we had to hit up one of the city’s steak houses and Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf did not disappoint.  Dimly lit, with strong drinks and large steaks it was everything we could want right down to the amazing creamed spinach side covered in melted cheese.  The minute I got home I wanted to start figuring out this recipe but being that it was July in DC I had to wait for the temps to drop for this ultimate comfort food classic.  It took a couple of tries but I think this version comes pretty close.  For anyone who has ever cooked with fresh spinach you know how much it wilts down.

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Make sure when you drain the spinach after its been cooked that you really press as much water out as possible so your finished product isn’t all watery.  I used my Crate and Barrel pasta pot with the colander right in it which was perfect because I would really press on the spinach to get it dry.  This dish would also be really cute done individually for a dinner party.  I am mildly obsessed with these Staub mini roasting dishes which would be perfect so that everyone gets their own cheesy crust.  Probably goes without saying but this is the perfect dish to serve alongside a steak and a large glass of red wine.  I hope to get back to Bavette’s at some point but for now this should hold us over.

Cheesy Creamed Spinach (printable version at the end of the post)

Inspiration:  Bavette’s Bar and Bouef
Special Equipment:  none

  • 2 pounds baby spinach
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 large or 2 small shallots, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese

In a large pot of boiling salted water cook the spinach for 30 seconds, then drain in a colander squeezing out any excess water.

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In a saucepan or skillet with high sides melt the butter over medium low heat.  Cook the garlic and shallots for 3 minutes until softened.  Add the nutmeg and flour and stir so that everything is combined.  Cook for another minute until the flour is incorporated then whisk in the milk.  Cook for another minute or two until the mixture begins to thicken.  Stir in the spinach and the cream and allow to cook for another minute or two.  At this point you can cool and refrigerate for several days.

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If you are going to serve it right away, preheat your broiler and pour the spinach mixture in a baking pan.  Sprinkle it with the gruyere and place the pan under the broiler for 2 to 5 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbly (watch closely so it doesn’t burn).  Let it cool for several minutes then serve.

Cheesy Creamed Spinach

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Time: 15 minutes
  • Print

Special Equipment:  none

  • 2 pounds baby spinach
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 large or 2 small shallots, chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 1/2 cup grated gruyere cheese

In a large pot of boiling salted water cook the spinach for 30 seconds, then drain in a colander squeezing out any excess water.  In a saucepan or skillet with high sides melt the butter over medium low heat.  Cook the garlic and shallots for 3 minutes until softened.  Add the nutmeg and flour and stir so that everything is combined.  Cook for another minute until the flour is incorporated then whisk in the milk.  Cook for another minute or two until the mixture begins to thicken.  Stir in the spinach and the cream and allow to cook for another minute or two.  At this point you can cool and refrigerate for several days.  If you are going to serve it right away, preheat your broiler and pour the spinach mixture in a baking pan.  Sprinkle it with the gruyere and place the pan under the broiler for 2 to 5 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbly (watch closely so it doesn’t burn).  Let it cool for several minutes then serve.

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