Once upon a time, my fellow Hey Sis sister and I lived in Chicago, a part of our story you have heard many times before. We had this adorable life where we could throw parties together with our dearest friends, stay up late, and drink ourselves silly (Responsibly, of course. We certainly never imbibed so much as to neglect the burning candles on the dining room table and starting the fire alarm while also receiving a scolding by the spouse. Absolutely not.) The food and beverages were always classy and creative but accessible and affordable. We made a great team and guests always left happy (again, I stress, responsibly happy.)
How about a ridiculously old photo of said parties for old time sake?
Today, we still throw "parties" but this time we are simultaneously hosting the parties in two different states and the guests are whining hangry children and who ultimately eat two bites of the dish you thought you prepared with their favorites in mind only to discover they no longer care for green things or red things or really anything touching those things, thank you very much.
If you follow me in my other writing world at Raise and Shine you might remember a recent Ladies Rendezvous I participated in with a group of 10 friends from college, many of which once attended these great gatherings hosted by Emily and myself(and if you have not, go check it out right now.) I speak there about the incredible experience of finding our lost selves amidst the faces of these old friends, the self that lived a life with a little more freedom, and less needy dependents.
I said it there and I will say it again, I recommend this adventure to anyone who can find the time. And I urge you to really search to find the time. It is lifesaving. We grow and change and add precious responsibilities to our lives, but we can't forget to reconnect with that old self, like the old self that once knew how to throw incredible parties.
On this excursion, we were lucky enough to score a fantastic rental (AirBnB always for the win) with a kitchen far more gorgeous than any kitchen I have ever had the pleasure to cook in, and very well stocked, might I add. In most rental kitchens you are lucky enough to get a good pan and a knife. And knowing we had this amazing space to gather together, it only made sense to take advantage of it.
I was honored to take on the roll of Culinary Concierge for the weekend. As I began to create plans, I recognized that old familiar feeling of anticipation and adrenaline that accompanies hosting adventures such as this. There is always a desire to impress but with ease, and with an appropriate price tag. While we were treating ourselves to a great getaway, we needed to be smart about it. So with a fixed price, I set about crafting a menu for our three night stay, which included all breakfasts, one lunch, and two dinners. Remarkably, I was able to do this for around $45 a person. I must say, I was quite impressed with myself.
Now let's say you find yourself with the great pleasure of hosting a similar adventure in culinary expression. I want to share my secrets with you, so you can, too, experience the exhilarating feeling of saving money, having fun, while also finding yourself again. (Also, full disclosure, I promised all the hungry travelers at the Ladies Rendevoux I would share the recipes. So after enough nagging and empty promises, I submit.)
The first recommendation I must make is to shop for your parties at Trader Joes. Not only are prices unbeatable, their selection is fun and unique, but also mostly consistent around the country. I was able to pre-shop at my local Trader Joes in Austin (when working with a very specific budget I always check and recheck prices before I finalize a menu. I am too frazzled in a store to rethink my menu if something is pricier than I first planned) and found the same items in the Trader Joes in Portland. Assuming there is a Trader Joes in your area, you can’t go wrong.
We'll begin with the first night, a revival of the Wine and Cheese parties of our former lives. Many of us were arriving that evening after a long day of travel. We knew our own expectation for the night’s itinerary would be wine, nosh, and lots and lots of catching up with another. Because of that we needed a spread of food that could be easily prepared, we could snack on all night while we got comfortable and reconnected.
For this night we created a Summer Cheese and Crostini Bar. This is one of my favorite crowd pleasers for social gatherings. I have done a similar take on this at a large catering event for up to 100, but it is just as easy and appealing for a group of 10. Using the flavors of the summer, we prepared a couple of easy toppings using seasonal ingredients like tomatoes, summer squash and strawberries. With baskets of toasted bread, pantry items like honey and pepper jelly, fresh fruit and herbs, deli sliced charcuterie (including a quick crisp in the oven prosciutto and maple syrup) and of course the tasty cheeses (all found in the well curated cheese department of Trader Joes!) we rounded up a variety of options for one to create the crostini of her dreams.
The Pickled Strawberries were a surprise delight, especially atop the herbed goat cheese. The White Balsamic I found for this recipe at Trader Joes was an amazing find (used also in our vinaigrette to make an appearance later.) Roasting Tomatoes is the simplest and tastiest way to up your summer tomato game. When done right, they are like candy. The Summer Squash was adapted from a salad recipe with blue cheese, so it worked even better atop a slice of bread and tangy Stilton. Really, I think the lesson I take from this is if something is good as a salad, it would probably be even better on top of bread, am I right? We balanced all this bread goodness with a gorgeous vegetable spread and some tasty veggie dips (stay tuned for those!)
One of the great qualities of a Crostini Bar is it provides allowance for a variety of taste pallets and diet preferences. A gluten free guest can enjoy the various toppings like a salad or nosh on meats all night long. Not quite ready for the strong flavors of a blue or goat cheese? I always include a buttery Brie or a nutty hard cheese closer to a cheddar. And with only a few quick preparations, the host can lay everything out and let the guests do all the work. This is exactly the type of hosting I was on board for, as I didn’t want to miss any of the juicy talk while stuck in a kitchen.
So if an evening of friend connecting is in your future, might I suggest this Crostini Bar. This is Summer inspired, but as in all of our recipes, this is easily adapted to the produce available to your season of choice. Roasted grapes would be great pickled for the fall, or roasted cranberries in the winter. Thawed frozen fruit is also a welcome surprise in the winter. The summer squash would be amazing with winter squash. In fact, as I type this out, I’m thinking I should do a winter version of this later in the year (because you know we’ve been so good about keeping this blog up and running that will definitely happen.)
This is only night one. Many more delicious recipes to come. Also, I wanted to include some of our favorite TJ wines, but why not stretch this out as long as possible. More blog content the better, I always say!
Hey Sis, try this...
Summer Inspired Cheese & Crostini Bar
· Toasted Bread
· Pepper Jelly
· Sliced Peaches
· Fresh herbs – thyme, parsley, basil, or whatever you can find
· Cheeses – My favorites: Any triple cream brie, Stilton with Apricot, log of goat cheese rolled in chopped herbs, Creamy Toscano soaked in Syrah.
· Charcuterie – My favorites: Prosciutto, Sopressata, Genoa Salume
· Pickled Strawberries (recipe below)
· Roasted Tomato Salad (recipe below)
· Grilled Summer Squash (recipe below)
Pickled Balsamic Strawberries (adapted loosely from Half Baked Harvest)
· 12 ounces fresh strawberries, halved
· A few sprigs of fresh thyme
· 1 cup white balsamic vinegar
· 2 tablespoons honey (more to taste, depending on the sweetness of the fruit)
Add the strawberries and thyme to a glass jar. In a bowl whisk together white balsamic and honey. Pour over the strawberries. Seal the jar and place in the fridge until cold. Should last about 3-4 days in the fridge.
Slow Roasted Tomatoes (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
· Cherry Tomatoes
· Olive Oil
· A couple cloves of whole garlic
Preheat oven to 300°F. Halve each cherry or grape tomato crosswise, or Roma tomato lengthwise and arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet along with the cloves of garlic. Drizzle with olive oil, just enough to make the tomatoes glisten. Sprinkle salt and pepper, though go easily on these because the finished product will be so flavorful you’ll need very little to help it along.
Bake the tomatoes in the oven for about an hour or so. You want the tomatoes to be shriveled but with a little juice left inside–this could take more or less time depending on the size of your tomatoes. Add more olive oil as desired for topping crostini.
Grilled Summer Squash (adapted from this Food and Wine salad)
· 1/2 cup pecan or pistachio, toasted (any nut you have will do)
· 2 pounds mixed zucchini and summer squash and pattypan squash
· Favorite vinaigrette
Quarter the zucchini and summer squash lengthwise and cut off the soft, seedy centers. In a large bowl, toss all of the squash with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Light a grill. Grill all of the squash over moderately high heat, turning once, until lightly charred and tender, about 10 minutes.
*Note: We did not have a grill at our rental so I just roasted the squash in a 400 degree oven until tender.
Chop the zucchini and summer squash and transfer to a large bowl. Toss with favorite vinaigrette to taste and nuts.