Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Party Planning + Black and White Baby Shower Cupcakes

A few months ago, I hosted my sister's baby shower. Alexander (born in March) is the first grandchild in both my family and her husband's family. Naturally, we had to have a party. Since I love cooking, I offered to make the food for lunch rather than have it catered.

Cooking and entertaining can be stressful, but planning makes all the difference. Here are some tips to help you get everything done:

1. No Surprises: The most important thing to do is make something (a) that you already know how to make and (b) that you won't have to spend a ton of time putting together on the day of the party. Never made a bleu cheese souffle? Your sister's baby shower is not the time to try it. Ideally, you want to pick a recipe that you've tested and that's been well-received. The meal doesn't have to be fancy; it just has to taste good. Particularly for baby showers, people get hung up on making food that's delicate and intricate like fancy hors d'oeuvres. I understand why: they look impressive. But you're creating WAY more work for yourself if the whole menu is like that. Fancy hors d'oeuvres are labor and time-intensive. Plus, people like real food. Have you ever actually felt full from eating finger sandwiches? Unlikely. People will be happy with something tasty, so go with what you know and what works.

2. Plan ahead: For my sister's baby shower, I had a four-page printed list of everything I would need, including things like cutlery and napkins. It was sorted by menu item (i.e., main dish, salad, dessert). I finalized the list weeks in advance. When I went to the store to do the shopping, I walked around with the list and a pen, crossing things off and making notes. You can't expect yourself to just remember and think of everything a day or two before. Start your list early, revise it, add to it slowly, and remember to take it with you to the store!

3. Prep ahead: One of the reasons I picked the menu I picked for my sister's shower was because I knew there were lots of things I could do in advance. I made lasagna (one meat, one veggie). The whole day before the shower, I spent cooking and doing prep work. For example, I browned the ground beef, seasoned the ricotta cheese, and sliced the mozzarella. I used plastic food storage containers with screw-top lids (for safe transport) to hold all the prepped ingredients. The rule goes like this: The less you have to do on party day, the better! You want to enjoy the party you're hosting, not spend the whole day stuck in the kitchen. Anything you can prep ahead of time, do it!

4. Get help: Nobody says that you have to do absolutely everything yourself. A friend of mine who was coming to the shower called me up and asked if she could bring something. I said, sure, how about an appetizer? That's one less thing I have to do. Another friend asked how she could help the day of. I asked her to put one of the salads together. If someone offers to help you, take them up on it. Also, if you're making the main dish, why not get a store-bought dessert or appetizer? There's no rule that says you can't let people help you or take some help from the store. Party planning can be stressful, there's no need to make it harder for yourself than it has to be.

Enough advice! How about some cupcakes? I followed this recipe, but changed a few things.

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup raw sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup prepared coffee (just use some leftover from that morning)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla
Nutella (frosting)
White chocolate chips (decoration)

Directions: Heat the oven to 350. Line your muffin tin with cupcake liner or spray with cooking spray.

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add all the wet ingredients to it. Blend until smooth. Spoon the batter into the muffin tin and bake for 18-20 minutes.

When the cupcakes are cooled completely, spread Nutella on top as frosting (NOTE: don't refrigerate these. The Nutella will harden). Sprinkle with white chocolate chips. If you're making these for a party, make them the day before!

Enjoy your party!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Deconstructed Boudin Risotto with Spinach

I've mentioned before that we miss Cajun food. One of the things we miss most is boudin (pronounced boo-dan) balls. Take boudin sausage, roll it in bread crumbs, and deep fry it. Simply amazing. They are a staple at many Cajun restaurants and Louisiana cocktail parties.

I wouldn't dare disrespect the myriad Cajun cooks out there by attempting to make my own, but I thought a risotto dish that was at least reminiscent of them would be acceptable.

Notes: The Cajun version of boudin includes rice mixed with the pork, hence the risotto. I used brown rice, which is not traditional, but I couldn't find Arborio rice in the store that day. I liked the brown rice; it has a chewier texture.

Normal boudin balls would never contain spinach, but--come on--you need SOMEthing healthy in this dish. I figured chopping it up would hide it a little better.

If I had thought about it, I would have toasted up some bread crumbs and sprinkled them on top.

Risotto isn't hard, but it does take patience and observation. Just be sure to keep and eye on it.

Cajun food is, of course, on the hotter side, but you can adjust the hot sauce to your taste.

1 pound ground sweet/mild Italian sausage
1 1/2 cup short grained rice (Arborio, white, or brown)
1 small bunch parsley
2-3 cups of baby spinach
4-5 cloves garlic
4-6 cups of stock or water
Hot sauce

Directions: Heat a large skillet on medium-high. Pour the stock in a sauce pan and heat on medium-low. Mince the garlic.

When the skillet is hot, add the sausage and brown until just done. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel and set aside.

Add the garlic to the skillet cook for just a minute. Add the rice and toast with the garlic for another minute. Add four ladles of stock. Stir occasionally. When the rice starts to look dry and the stock is almost fully absorbed, add two more ladles of stock. Continue this process until the rice is almost cooked (approximately 45 minutes). Season with salt and pepper once the first round of stock is absorbed.

While the rice is cooking, chop the spinach and parsley. When the rice is nearly done, add the spinach, parsley, and sausage to the skillet. Douse it with as much hot sauce as you like. Heat everything together. Enjoy!