Ladies Who Lunch

Olivia, my Mom, Elena. The best assistances ever! It goes without saying, good attracts good, and these women are pure good.

Olivia, my Mom, Elena. The best assistances ever! It goes without saying, good attracts good, and these women are pure good.

Last year I had the awesome opportunity to cater a lunch for the lovely ladies of The Women’s Club from my Mom's condo community.  They are a fantastic group of vital women who meet for various occasions. They have a book club. They go to the theatre, take field trips and just enjoy one another’s company.  They regularly host parties and luncheons, and that's where I came in.  My Mom is in charge of organizing one summer luncheon each year.  After hearing about the one she organized last year, I asked if she wanted me to help her cater the upcoming one. My Mom is an amazing woman who is always willing to help others and give of herself. So, naturally I wanted to do something special for her and for her friends.  This particular luncheon is usually a casual one serving up typical summer fare, like sandwiches and potato salad and such. My goal was to up the ante a bit, and so I embarked in creating a menu that they might enjoy.  I sat down with my Mom and her friend, Elena, who helps her with this event.  As luck would have it I was just coming back from working a catering event in the Hamptons and had some leftovers with me.  Call it fate, kismet or just plain damn good luck that I had this nibbles for them to try. It was almost like a wedding tasting. As I pulled out dish after dish for them to taste test, we took notes, jotted down what they liked, what I could slightly change and what I could add, all taking into account the likes of their group.  It was great to have both my Mom and Elena providing valuable feedback so we could tailor the luncheon to offer up some delicious dishes. And so the menu was set, and the plan hatched. 

Tomato Mozzarella Puff Pastry Tartlets

Tomato Mozzarella Puff Pastry Tartlets

Main
Tomato Mozzarella Puff Pastry Tarts
Arugula & Parmigiano Reggiano with Lemon Vinaigrette
Egg Salad
Chicken Salad with Grapes, Apples & Walnuts served with Romaine boats
Turkey Breast & Swiss Cheese Roll Ups
Asian Slaw with Peanut-Tahini Dressing
Israeli Couscous with Sautéd Zucchini & Roasted Tomato with a Roasted Garlic Dressing
Cucumber Salad
French Baguettes

Desserts
Peach Cobbler with Whipped Cream
Lime Zest/Raspberry Filled Cookies
Mini Cheesecakes
Watermelon

Normally they use throw away plastic tablecloths and paper dishes. It was a hard sell at first, but I convinced my Mom that using cloth tablecloths and real dishes would make it feel special. As you all know, I HAVE tablecloths. Enough, in fact, to cover the buffet table and all the seated tables.

The luncheon was held in the condo’s clubhouse, which meant we had to set the room up with tables and chairs for 30 guests. They showed me their usual set up, but in traditional Dana fashion I rejiggered the entire space. Thankfully, I had the help of my Mom, Elena and Olivia.  Especially since I decided that we would seriously need to move most of the furniture around. They were very willing and accommodating to my suggestions. Moving the seating area that was directly in front of the fireplace gave way for a perfect place to set up the main buffet table, front and center. It was August, so no need to have access to that. With this new placement, we were able to better utilize the entire space and the built-in counters next to the fireplace. Which is where I placed the plates, napkins and utensils for a better flow.

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I was happy that they allowed me to move around furniture so we could set up the buffet table for maximum access. I placed a menu on the table with all the offerings. You can also place cards in front of each dish as a way to identify the food.

I was happy that they allowed me to move around furniture so we could set up the buffet table for maximum access. I placed a menu on the table with all the offerings. You can also place cards in front of each dish as a way to identify the food.

When setting up a buffet table, think about the flow. Think about how people will reach for the food items and make sure you place them accordingly. Set higher items in the back, and group foods together. Bread near the items like the Egg Salad and Chicken Salad, condiments close to the cold cuts, for example.

It’s important to lay the food items out in a way that makes it easy to reach, pretty to look at and in a order that makes sense.

It’s important to lay the food items out in a way that makes it easy to reach, pretty to look at and in a order that makes sense.

Make sure you have utensils for each dish and have any condiments close by.

Asian Slaw   gives a nice spice to all the other dishes. And you can’t go wrong with a few cold cuts.

Asian Slaw gives a nice spice to all the other dishes. And you can’t go wrong with a few cold cuts.

Make your platters look pretty. Arrange the food so your guests feel that you took time and care in preparing the meal. It makes them feel special, as they should.

Chicken Salad with Fruit & Nuts     is a perfect summer dish. Great with lettuce leaves or on rolls, or just plain by itself.

Chicken Salad with Fruit & Nuts is a perfect summer dish. Great with lettuce leaves or on rolls, or just plain by itself.

Israeli Couscous  , it’s fluffy and light but satisfyingly filling. The oven roasted garlic and tomatoes give this dish it’s depth of flavor.

Israeli Couscous, it’s fluffy and light but satisfyingly filling. The oven roasted garlic and tomatoes give this dish it’s depth of flavor.

Peppery Arugula Salad with shaved Parmigiana Reggiano. It may be a simple salad but with just a few ingredients, it is a fresh, flavor punch.

Peppery Arugula Salad with shaved Parmigiana Reggiano. It may be a simple salad but with just a few ingredients, it is a fresh, flavor punch.

Lime Zest Cookies   with Raspberry filling. Tart and sweet and delicate.

Lime Zest Cookies with Raspberry filling. Tart and sweet and delicate.

Mini   Cheese Cakes  . Use the base recipe for the pie but instead of using one pie crust, use crushed graham crackers with melted butter and press into mini cupcake tins. Then fill with batter and bake. These are perfect two bite treats. Champagne grapes give a tart pop.

Mini Cheese Cakes. Use the base recipe for the pie but instead of using one pie crust, use crushed graham crackers with melted butter and press into mini cupcake tins. Then fill with batter and bake. These are perfect two bite treats. Champagne grapes give a tart pop.

We used my Soothing Blues theme but gave the tables a vibrant color pop with small centerpieces using Ribbon flowers accented with white hydrangeas cut from my garden.  Simple but striking. The best part was showing Elena, who was reluctant in arranging the flowers, just how easy it is to create a floral arrangement with impact. Hesitant at first, her confidence grew once I showed her color blocking and explained that simpler is better. And with that she finished the rest beautifully. The key; do what looks good to your eye and it will look good to others.

I had to convince them away from paper plates. These outdoor reusable plastic plates were still casual but a tad more special.

I had to convince them away from paper plates. These outdoor reusable plastic plates were still casual but a tad more special.

Strong contrast creates a striking floral arrangement.

Strong contrast creates a striking floral arrangement.

Some featured more fuchsia with white accent. Some reversed.

Some featured more fuchsia with white accent. Some reversed.

It was so lovely to be welcomed into their group and serve them food that they enjoyed.  Everyone seemed to have a good time and loved the food offerings.   

Ladies on the buffet line
Ladies waiting for the buffet
Chatting after a little dessert.

Chatting after a little dessert.

Smiles and good conversation. And yes to regular dishes but plastic cups just made more sense.

Smiles and good conversation. And yes to regular dishes but plastic cups just made more sense.

There is a simple joy in sharing food. In creating an atmosphere where people feel loved by your efforts.  Remember, no matter what we do in life, whether it be the words we speak, or the food we make, the flowers we arrange, or the door we hold open, when done from a place of purity then the world is stirred with love. Thank you to my Mom, Elena and Olivia, and to Rhona and the entire Women's Club for welcoming me to your luncheon last year.  Here’s to all of you, hoping you enjoy these memories and share many more happy adventures and good eating together!

And for the rest of my readers, I hope this brings about inspiration on how and what to serve for Ladies’ Summer Lunch. Ok, Men are welcome, too! In fact, all are welcome. Stir it with LOVE!

If you are interested in my Private Chef services, please contact me directly: dana@2fishinc.com And please feel free to pass along my info. Thank YOU!

Versatile Summer Crunch Salad

I think it is safe to say that summer has finally arrived here in the Northeast. We wait long and patiently. I’ve finally put away my heavy sweaters and traded cozy fireplace nights with dreams of warm days and cool nights. I also started dreaming up dishes that cool the palate and refresh during those toasty days. Chalk it up to another one of those times when I just started pulling whatever I had to create a salad for lunch. Now remember, salad is a term that sums up any combination of food that is cut up in small pieces, and can be served cold, room temp or even warm. Think about it; a salad can be of fruit or lettuce. It can be potato or pasta. Bean or tabouleh. You get the picture. The word salad is probably one of the most versatile words I know in the culinary world. So why not create a versatile salad, one that can be used in a variety of ways.

Here goes. As you know from other salads I’ve made, I cut each ingredient in ways that combine well for that particular salad. Some items sliced, others diced. In this salad, in order to create a chunky bite- ful, cut all the veg to approximately the same size.

The line up: Fennel, red onion, scallions, mini bell  peppers, English cucumber, celery.

The line up: Fennel, red onion, scallions, mini bell peppers, English cucumber, celery.

Ingredients

1 English cucumber, seeds removed, cut in cubes
7 mini bell peppers*, seeds removed, cut in pieces
1 heaping c fennel, stalks & bulb, cut in chunks
2 scallion, sliced
1/4 c red onion, diced
3 celery stalks, cut in pieces

* If you don’t have the mini peppers, use one regular sized red pepper

Dressing
3 T fresh lemon juice
1.5 T fennel fronds, minced
1/4 c olive oil
1/2 t salt
1/4 t black pepper

I feel silly even writing the title ‘Instructions’ and giving a step by step since all this is chop and dress. Maybe I should just leave it at that. Chop. Whisk. Dress.

For some salads I leave the seeds in an English cucumber. For this one, no seeds. I use a demitasse spoon to scrap the seeds because it’s the perfect size. Then I cut down the center lengthwise and then cut cubes.

For some salads I leave the seeds in an English cucumber. For this one, no seeds. I use a demitasse spoon to scrap the seeds because it’s the perfect size. Then I cut down the center lengthwise and then cut cubes.

Chop all your vegetables and place in a bowl. As I mentioned, for this salad, the key is chopping everything into bite sized chunks. That helps to create the crunch factor.

Cucumbers

Cucumbers

Mini bell peppers

Mini bell peppers

Red onion

Red onion

Scallions

Scallions

I used both the fennel stalks and the bulb, chopping them in chunky rounds.

I used both the fennel stalks and the bulb, chopping them in chunky rounds.

For the dressing, just whisk together all the ingredients and pour over.

Super simple, fresh mix of lemon juice, fennel fronds, salt, pepper and olive oil.

Super simple, fresh mix of lemon juice, fennel fronds, salt, pepper and olive oil.

Pour and mix and sit and think of all the ways you will use this salad.

Pour and mix and sit and think of all the ways you will use this salad.

Chunky, crisp, refreshing with lots of flavors mixed up in every bite.

Chunky, crisp, refreshing with lots of flavors mixed up in every bite.

So why is this versatile? Because it can be the base to bigger salads or to fill out a lunch plate as I did. I grilled up some asparagus, sliced some avocado and spooned a heaping of this crunch salad for a satisfying lunch.

Then the next day I included it on a lunch plate for JuanCarlos which featured salmon, arugula as a base with the crunch salad on top alongside some store bought tabouleh. Now that is a lunch for a king. King JuanCarlos.

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But in case you need a few other ideas:

  • Add chick peas, or make it a multi bean salad adding black beans and cannellini

  • Add tuna and stuff the whole kit and kaboodle into a pita

  • Cook up some pasta shells and toss them all together

  • Use the full leaves of Boston or Romaine and fill them with this mixture

Ok, you get it. That’s a start. I trust you will come up with a few of your own. For now, start with the base and build from there. Salad: versatile no matter how you dice it.

Happy Summer!

 

Fish & Bean Soup

You know the old saying, “Soup Is Good Food”.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s soothing. It’s filling. It warms your belly, and your soul. It cuddles you from the inside out. For me, it really doesn’t matter what time of year it is, I tend to always enjoy a bowl of soup. Naturally, soup fulfills its goals most definitely during the fall and winter months.

Soups can run the gamut from super complicated and time consuming endeavors, all the way to ‘throw it all in a pot and cook’. From thin, clear broths to thick, chunky stew types. From vegetarian to hog filled meat pleasers. No matter what kind you are making, the key is flavor layering. Building up flavor profiles one by one gives depth and makes the soup richer.

Even though I featured this soup with a simple ‘how to’ in my recent blog post Monday Night Dinner, some of you asked for more specifics. So if you ask, I want to deliver. Whatever I can do to make cooking easier, and a pleasure for you. JuanCarlos was the one who made this soup for our guests that evening. I have made versions of this by adding spinach and scallions. You will see that the add on possibilities are vast. Savoy cabbage would be great, or a scoop of rice. But I like to enjoy it like this, clean and pure to let the broth sing and the fish shine.

So, here goes it. This recipe and the steps are so easy you won’t believe that it takes practically no time to cook. The determining factor is the kind of fish used and how they are cut. Shrimp, Calamari (Squid) and Monkfish all cook in the same time, and super fast. I mean, 5 minute FAST!

I would venture to say if you had all your ingredients out and ready to cut, you could make this soup in 20 minutes start to finish.

Get the timer ready!

A few simple ingredients make a fish soup that will be remembered.

A few simple ingredients make a fish soup that will be remembered.

Ingredients

3/4 lb Monkfish, cut into bite sized pieces
3/4 lb shrimp, cleaned/deveined, cut into bite sized pieces
2 calamari bodies, cleaned, cut into rings
1 c onion, diced
3-4 large garlic cloves, smashed
1/2 c parsley, chopped
2 qts broth (fish or vegetable)
1/4 t red pepper flakes (add more if you like more heat)
1.5 t salt
1/4 c Olive oil

Instructions

1.Cut the onions, garlic and parsley. Add the onions and garlic to a pot with oil, salt and red pepper flakes and
cook over a medium low heat, softly sautéing them. Then add the parsley, and cook slowly.

The aromatics. This is the beginning of flavor building.

The aromatics. This is the beginning of flavor building.

Build up the flavors and let the onions and garlic flavor the oil.

Build up the flavors and let the onions and garlic flavor the oil.

Then add the parsley and let it do the same.

Then add the parsley and let it do the same.

2. Meanwhile, clean and cut the fish into bite sized pieces.

Monkfish comes in a long strip. I cut in down the middle, then cut small 1” cubes.

Monkfish comes in a long strip. I cut in down the middle, then cut small 1” cubes.

For soups, I usually get a smaller shrimp and then still cut them in 1/3’s so they are small enough to fit on a spoon.

For soups, I usually get a smaller shrimp and then still cut them in 1/3’s so they are small enough to fit on a spoon.

No one should have to take the time to clean squid. Buy it cleaned. Just make sure the inner cartilage is removed. Then slice ringlets.

No one should have to take the time to clean squid. Buy it cleaned. Just make sure the inner cartilage is removed. Then slice ringlets.

All the fish is ready to go while the aromatics are cooking.

All the fish is ready to go while the aromatics are cooking.

3. Once the aromatics have softened (you don’t want caramelization, just a translucent cook through), add the
beans and their liquid. Slowly warm through.

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4. Add the broth. If you only have 1 quart of broth, do as I did and add quart of water. Just make sure that you
taste for seasoning since water isn’t seasoned where I come from. Bring to a boil.

5. Lower heat to a simmer and add all the fish pieces. Cover and cook for 5-6 minutes until the fish is tender.
DO NOT cook longer or the fish will get overdone and rubbery.

Monkfish in the pot.

Monkfish in the pot.

Squid next.

Squid next.

Shrimp ahoy.

Shrimp ahoy.

Taste the calamari and make sure it’s cooked through. Also, taste for seasonings.

Look at how beautifully cooked and tender each piece of fish is. A bowl of Good Food.

Look at how beautifully cooked and tender each piece of fish is. A bowl of Good Food.

All that is left is to serve it up immediately, garnish with more parsley and enjoy a warm bowl of clean broth with hearty protein. It will warm your soul, bring a smile to your face, and joy to your heart. Seriously, how much more can one ask from a soup?

Brunch Made Simple

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Brunch is supposed to be a relaxed, chill vibe. A time to hang with friends and family. The whole idea is rooted in the premise of sleeping in, then eating lazily in the late morning.  That is true if you are going out to eat, or to someone else's home.  But if you are hosting, it's a bit harder to sleep in. Plus it can feel a bit overwhelming, knowing there are mountains of ideas on what to serve.  I am guilty of wanting to offer up more options than are possible to consume.  (Or to make, for that matter.) The essence of brunch is that beautiful crossover of food from breakfast items to lunch or even a few heartier items. There in lies the rub.  All those choices create a mind numbing battle of what to serve when the possibilities seem endless.

That was my dilemma a while back when we hosted a brunch for our dear friends Carl and Malcolm. I had all sorts of ideas, but I was determined to keep it as simple as possible.  In the end, I felt like I accomplished that, so much so that I recreated the same menu for a Sunday brunch with our other dear friends, Nicki and Jeff. 

A little forewarning, in order to keep this post manageable, each recipe below is a hot link, bolded and highlighted in blue. Just click to be whisked away to see how to make it.

Let us begin:

There were two slight changes to the menu for Nicki and Jeff versus the original. I didn't serve the polenta cake, but did add an amuse-bouche of Ibérico ham, Marcona Almonds, olives.  It was a nice way to greet our friends and settle in a bit as we caught up on our life tales and the many moons that had passed.

Now, you've heard me say many a time that it is essential to serve warm items, room temp and chilled items. This holds especially true for brunch.  Certainly, if I were serving brunch in the winter I might lean on a few more warm plates, but this combo seems just right for the rest of the seasons. Plus, as we head into summer we are in prime time for more entertaining in general, especially outdoors.  Brunch is ideal for backyard entertaining.

 

 

After the nibbles that amused our mouths and whetted our appetites, we started off with a chilled dish, then moved on to all the other plates. Let the party begin with a refreshing and clean burst of citrus.

Citrus Salad Martini

A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

A 'brighten your day' start to Sunday, or any day for that matter.

Next up was a continuation of fruit, transitioning to savory with this lightly tossed salad.

GRAPED UP BOSTON SALAD

Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion. It's bright and light.

Boston lettuce with grapes, fennel, celery, scallion. It's bright and light.

Something warm with...

TOMATO & GOAT CHEESE PIE

Warm and savory. The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Warm and savory. The sweetness of the tomatoes balances the tang of the goat cheese.

Something room temp and hearty...

Salmon Salad Platter, Deconstructed

Polenta Cake

Polenta cake cut into slices.

Polenta cake cut into slices.

Ingredients

2 c polenta (cook according to package)
1.5 T butter
1/4 c chives, chopped
1/3 c goat cheese
salt, pepper

Instructions

Once the polenta is cooked, remove from the burner and stir in the butter, goat cheese and chives, salt and pepper until combined.  Lightly oil a cast iron pan and pour in the polenta. Bake at 350 degrees until a crust forms. Turn onto a board or plate and cut into wedges.  Best served warm but room temp is good too.

What I love best about this meal is that so much can be done in advance. The big plus is that any of these can be served at room temp, therefore, less stress about timing and getting the plates to the table.  

Then for dessert, I kept with the same theme of simple.  Prepped ahead of time and waiting on the kitchen table, I brought out a small platter of fresh cheeses (Manchego & Ibores),  grapes, strawberries and Sweet Olive Oil Crackers. Certainly, you can go sweet at this stage of the meal, but this felt right, and I believe our guests thought so too.

So, although YOU might not be sleeping in as late as everyone else, but taking the homemade brunch route doesn't have to stress you out.  Create the perfect crossover meal.  

 
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Sunday Lunch with Friends

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When I was growing up Sundays were traditionally a family gathering day. It revolved around the main meal served around 2pm usually consisting of pasta and meats from the gravy (sauce).  Oh the glory days, when life was much simpler and we made time to gather for food and laughter.  Much to my sadness, those days of living around the corner from one another and having oodles of time are long gone.  And so are the weekly family gatherings.  I could go into a long diatribe about that subject but the point here is to try to create new Sunday traditions.  With that in mind, JuanCarlos and I usually cherish making pasta on Sundays.  We have this funny joke between us where one of us will smilingly state, "Lidia said".  We glommed this phrase after watching a cooking show with Lidia Bastianich where she stated that it's ok to eat a little pasta every day.  That was all I needed to justify my habit. We couldn't agree more and with her permission we proudly, confidently shout out: "Lidia said", and a tradition was born.  We also try to harken back to those olden days and invite people over.

The only unfortunate part is that since we live in the burbs we don't have many friends who can just stop by.  
We do, however, have a few that like to venture up from the Big Apple.  And so one wintery Sunday we were graced with a visit from two adventurous souls from Manhattan willing to share a Sunday meal with us.  They are originally from Florence, Italy.  Our friend, Tecla, now lives in NYC but her dad, Paolo, recently returned to Tuscany and was here for a visit.   When we were in Italy last April, he welcomed us into his home, so it seemed only fitting that we would return the favor in this small way. (Tecla's husband, Scott was not able to join us.)

Tecla is always smiling and laughing and is a blast to have around.  Paolo is a gentleman and a gem of a man.

Tecla is always smiling and laughing and is a blast to have around.  Paolo is a gentleman and a gem of a man.

First things first. Set a simple but inviting table. 

It was a Sunday lunch so I wanted to keep it informal yet welcoming.  Staying with an all white dish theme and adding cream hued napkins helps to tone down the formality.  In order to keep it from feeling too overdone, I opted for no tablecloth instead using a layered placemat approach.  First layer is a cream linen placemat with a dark wooden wicker mat placed in the opposite direction so it hung over the table.

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Bird's eye view of this simple but chic table setting.

Bird's eye view of this simple but chic table setting.

Adding individual salt & pepper shakers to the table avoids each guest having to pass them around. It's especially helpful since some guests might feel intimidated to ask thinking that adding salt/pepper is an insult to the chef.  

I left the middle of the table open as the landing spot for the family style platters and moved all the candles and votives to the far end of the table. It's all about the food and company.

Now with the table set, onto the food. 

What a treat to share a Sunday meal.  I know I rambled on and on about enjoying pasta on Sundays.   So I bet you are anticipating a pasta dish.  Foiled again.  We swerved from that tradition, and instead made risotto and pork loin.  The traditional part was served by a big dose of enjoying a meal with people we love, and that was plenty enough tradition for us. 

Hosting doesn't mean that you have to go nuts preparing for days. Simple food that tastes good is all you need.  And that is exactly what we did.  I had made a bean and escarole soup the day before and thought it would be nice to start with a little bowl to warm their souls on that chilly day.  Then we moved onto to snacking from a cheese/charcuterie platter followed by roasted eggplant topped with feta gremolata and roasted tomatoes.  We enjoyed those treats in our kitchen while we caught up on life, and while I began making the risotto.  

Charcuterie & Cheese Platter, chock full of  Serrano ham, chorizo, Mahon Curado  cheese, grapes,  Marie's Gone Crackers

Charcuterie & Cheese Platter, chock full of Serrano ham, chorizo, Mahon Curado cheese, grapes, Marie's Gone Crackers

Roasted eggplant with  feta gremolata  and  roasted tomatoes .  Honestly, having a ton of roasted tomatoes in your fridge or freezer is your best secret weapon.  The dishes you can make are endless!

Roasted eggplant with feta gremolata and roasted tomatoes.  Honestly, having a ton of roasted tomatoes in your fridge or freezer is your best secret weapon.  The dishes you can make are endless!

Our meal was a simple offering of:

Pork Loin
Creamy Risotto
Sautéd Mushrooms
Apple Crisp Salad

Served with an Italian red wine 

Cream Puffs served with warm strawberry compote

Pork Loin, simple but tasty and fresh with a squeeze of lemon.

Pork Loin, simple but tasty and fresh with a squeeze of lemon.

Creamy risotto, replacing pasta this Sunday. Still hearty and satisfying.   

Creamy risotto, replacing pasta this Sunday. Still hearty and satisfying.   

Apple crisp salad and sautéd mushrooms

Apple crisp salad and sautéd mushrooms

Fill your plate.  Fill your heart.

Fill your plate.  Fill your heart.

Dessert was a pile of cream puffs served with warm strawberry relish, and continued to keep the wine flowing.

Cream puffs

Cream puffs

I can't tell you how fortunate we are to have such wonderful friends, and the ability to share delicious food that is super easy to make, and even easier to enjoy.  

I hope you have a Sunday tradition that you cherish, or take this cue to create one to enjoy for decades to come. 

P.S. Out of pure coincidence and happiness, this post is launching on Tecla's birthday.  So happy birthday, dear friend.  Here's to many more Sunday lunches and more!

 

I love hearing from you, so please feel free to leave a comment.

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