Entertaining: Birthday Game Night, Italian Style

So someone around here is celebrating a birthday this week.

Spoiler alert: It’s me.

Tomorrow I turn 40 years old. How in the crap is that even possible? It feels like just yesterday I was in middle school, high school, graduating from college, buying my house. Even though I am 40, I don’t feel like I’ve aged much. Sure, I definitely look older than I did when I moved to the Lehigh Valley, but I feel as if I’m still figuring things out. I see friends my age and people I attended high school with on Facebook talking about their kids going to middle school or high school, and most days I don’t even feel responsible enough to have two cats. Adult Level: I honestly have no idea what I’m doing.

Looking back on my life, there are many things I’ve missed the boat on: a “normal” college experience, finding my life’s true calling, a rewarding and fulfilling career, marriage, kids…you get the picture. I don’t really feel like my life is missing anything, but to know that I’m sort of at my midway point and haven’t accomplished as much as many of my peers, I feel…I suppose inadequate is one way to put it? Only sometimes. Other times I’m damn proud of the things I’ve done and who I am.

But I’m not trying to live my life in comparison to others. I’m not that insane. And when the hell did this post get so deep?

Right. Anyway, birthday! We celebrated Friday night with food, beverages, and our usual game of Cards Against Humanity.

Because we’re terrible people. 

Since a couple of my friends were scheduled to run in a marathon this weekend I figured they would want to carb-load to prepare (or whatever it is those runner types do), and I was in the mood for Italian, so pasta was the perfect choice. I made this recipe for a penne with vodka sauce that I saw on Barefoot Contessa a couple weeks back. I have my own version of penne with vodka, but the way this sauce was made intrigued me – cook the onions and garlic, add one cup of vodka (dang, Ina) and cook down, add crushed tomatoes, then roast the sauce in the oven for 90 minutes before adding the cream and pasta. It was pretty damn tasty, but I honestly don’t know if the additional roasting time made that much difference in the end.

I wouldn’t not make it again, I just don’t know if I would go to all that trouble every time I want penne with vodka sauce.

In addition to the mountain of pasta I made (because of course I doubled that recipe, because my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother would disown me if I didn’t cook for double the amount of people I was hosting), I served a simple garlic bread (roast a whole head of garlic in the oven, blend with softened butter, add parmesan cheese/salt/pepper, spread on bread, bake until crispy)…

and a caprese salad with store made pesto instead of the normal fresh basil. Seriously, if you don’t have a ton of homegrown basil at your disposal, get the pesto from the Mediterranean bar at Wegmans. It’s totally banging.

A squeeze of bottled balsamic vinegar glaze makes it perfect.

To finish off the meal I baked an Italian cream cake and I’d go into detail but this beauty totally deserves a post of its own.

Perhaps tomorrow. Look at that, it’s my birthday, and you’re getting the gifts!

Party Time: Birthday Tapas Night

A while back, I hosted a combination birthday/game night party for one of my good friends. I had been wanting to do tapas-style food for a while, and I figured a birthday celebration would be the perfect opportunity. I got the inspiration from a novel I read, of all places – the main characters go to Spain, blah blah blah, I won’t bore you with specifics – but the description of the food sounded incredible. There is also a popular tapas-style restaurant in the area that I got a few ideas from. I researched some recipes on Pinterest and ended up putting together what was (in my humble opinion) one of my tastiest menus in recent memory.

We start with Albondigas, or meatballs in spicy tomato sauce. These are a staple at most tapas restaurants, and with good reason. Tender, flavorful meatballs, browned and simmered in a spicy red sauce. I served some pieces of fresh baguette along side of them, perfect to soak that sauce all up. This recipe makes a ton of meatballs, and I made the mistake of doubling it. For four people. Eating albondigas for a *week*, I was. Without complaints.

Next up was something the birthday girl spied amongst all my pinning, and left a comment along the lines of, “YES PLEASE,” underneath it. How could I refuse?

These Chorizo and Puff Pastry Bites with spicy dipping sauce were definitely a good choice. The recipe itself is not complicated, but the construction was a tad frustrating for me. Mine obviously do not resemble the ones in the picture that accompanies the original recipe, but I’m fairly certain they tasted just as good. I was worried about using raw chorizo and puff pastry together — if the pastry would cook faster than the chorizo, etc. —  and while a few of them did get a little “well done” on the bottom, I think they came out fine. I would perhaps flip them halfway through baking, or roll the chorizo out a little thinner before assembling.

To compliment everything I threw a couple noshy bites together as well — I wasn’t particularly thrilled with any of these and could have absolutely omitted them given the amount of people I was hosting this time around.

See? Kind of…meh. On top are some roasted chick peas, bottom right marinated olives, and bottom left sweet & spicy roasted almonds. I know for next time to focus on the main dishes and not bother with the stuff that people (including myself) will barely touch.

While I was planning the menu it became apparent we were going to need a non-meat option. But I was not about to sully all of this Spanish magnificence with some lame veggie plate, oh heavens no. So I came up with this, which will soon have its own post complete will full recipe:

Smoked paprika roasted cauliflower bites with roasted garlic aioli. Dudes. This was AMAZING. One of my guests was, by his own admission, not a “cauliflower fan”, nor does he like any kind of creamy, mayonnaise-based sauce, but this? He couldn’t get enough of. I couldn’t, either. I would have been happy with just cauliflower for dinner that night, honestly.

But then I would have missed out on this (brace yourselves, vegetarians).

I mean.

Garlic Brown Sugar Flank Steak with Chimichurri. So moist, so tender, so full of flavor. And the chimichurri on top of it was such the perfect compliment for the meat. (Side note: how have I never made chimichurri before? More chimichurri in my life, please.) I *need* to make this again, and soon. I might play around with it a little and turn it into kabobs. I’ll never tell. Okay, maybe I will.

To compliment all of this food I served three different kinds of wine, a Spanish Rioja, a tasty Fume Blanc from Sonoma, and a bubbly Spanish Cava. It’s not a party without something sparkling.

Lest I forget, we of course had dessert. Because how can you have a birthday without cake? I was planning on a showstopper of a cake; three layers of lemon chiffon, with tart lemon curd in between, all covered in strawberry swiss buttercream. In my head, it was magnificent. In person, however…

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 9.28.45 PM

HAHAHAHAHAAAAAAA. It tasted damn good, at least.

That Long-Overdue Oscar Party Post

So this post has been…a little delayed, but I still wanted to talk about my Oscar party, because a friend of mine took such nice photos for me and it seems such a shame not to share them.

See? Thanks, dude. You’re my official party photographer from now on.

This is about the fourth or fifth year that I’ve hosted an Oscar party, and it is hands down my favorite to plan. I’m always trying to make or do something different than the year before, and this year was no exception. I tend to go with finger foods for my Oscar parties — just a tad more upscale than your run of the mill chicken fingers and pigs in a blanket. Not like caviar or foie gras on toast points, but something different and fun. Another factor this year was the necessity for a few make-ahead dishes. Thanks to an overnight shift at Job 2 the night before, I made a conscious effort to cut down on the amount of work I would need to do on the actual day. It’s smart to do this any time you’re entertaining, but it was a necessity for me this time around.

For my “main” offering, I (with the help of my friend Sara via text), came up with Mediterranean style sliders with all the fixings.

I used regular ground beef for the patties, adding garlic, onion, parsley, montreal steak seasoning, and some traditional kufta spices — allspice, coriander, and a tiny bit of cardamom and cinnamon. I served the sliders with mini pita rounds (OMG SO CUTE), and toppings like sliced plum tomatoes, caramelized onions, homemade tzaziki sauce, store bought harissa, and some homemade dakkous, a mild spiced tomato sauce, so kindly made by Sara. (Side note: I also had some crumbled feta to go with these, but totally forgot to put it out when the time came. We didn’t miss it.)

These were fun and super tasty and I will be making a regular burger sized version of them this coming summer, you mark my words.

My next offering was a tasty nibble I found via Pinterest, these sweet and spicy chicken/bacon bites. Diced chicken, wrapped in bacon, rolled in a brown sugar/spice mixture and baked. Easy to assemble, a great make-ahead option (I would not roll them in the spices until you’re ready to bake though), and just damn delicious. A hit all around.

I might need these again soon. For the protein, you know.

Because I can’t host a party without something on top of a slice of baguette, I threw together these crostini with sun-dried tomato jam and herbed goat cheese, an old favorite of mine. The tomato jam is better when you make it a few days ahead of time, and all you have to do to serve is toast the bread slices, stir a little fresh thyme into softened goat cheese and have at it.

I assembled mine a little differently than Giada did hers, but I won’t tell if you won’t.

Not pictured: Requisite crudite tray, because vegetables are boring. 

One thing I’ve started to do when entertaining is to offer a signature cocktail. Instead of assembling a full bar (which, let’s be real, my tiny kitchen is not equipped for), I serve just one main drink alongside a couple basic spirits, beer, or wine. This time around I crafted a pear sangria, made from pear juice, white wine, and a touch of St. Germaine. Fresh sliced pear to garnish.

Boozy! Careful with that one, it’s dangerous.

Along with our savory finger foods, I also served up some small(ish) desserts to finish up the evening. The first, which there’s no photos of because they were the last thing I served and we were all stuffing our faces full of sliders and bacon wrapped chicken deliciousness at that point, were my peanut butter tandy cakes. Always a hit.

Next were some white chocolate dipped strawberries. Simple, pretty, and…healthy? Mer. Maybe a little.

Also cute.

My final dessert was the result of seeing something on Pinterest and adapting it to suit my own cravings. I saw these mini cheesecake cookie cups and thought they would be perfect, but at the time I was planning this shindig I was craving lime. Specifically, key lime…anything. So I nixed the cherry pie filling from the original recipe, whipped up some key lime curd instead, and voila. Key lime cheesecake cookie cups. Big name. Tiny dessert. Freaking YUM.

Seriously, these might warrant a post of their own in the future.

Until then, I am working on ideas for my next party. Which is next week, so I might post about it by September.