Pork Sugo + Dinner Party Tips

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For my birthday this year, I decided to host a small dinner party at my apartment. It was a mildly ambitious idea, since my birthday was on a Monday this year and I was away that weekend. But with a bit of planning, I was able to throw something together, something that was so well-received that there were barely any leftovers. A few things I learned along the way:

1) PLAN AHEAD. I cannot emphasize this enough — decide what you’ll be making, buy all of your ingredients and create a cooking schedule a few days before the actual party. Even if you plan to cook mostly on the day of the dinner, have a mental timeline of what you’ll make, when you’ll make it and how long you’ll need. This was essential for me, since I wouldn’t be able to do any shopping over the weekend, and had very limited time to actually cook.

2) Many people say that you should never try new recipes when cooking for others. I won’t go that far, but I do think it’s best to avoid new techniques. If you’ve never used a pressure cooker before (or roasted a chicken or cooked fish, etc.), a dinner party isn’t the time. But if you’ve braised meat a hundred times in the past, go ahead and try that new braised short ribs recipe. Since you already know what you’re doing technique-wise, trying new ingredients won’t derail you. Just taste as you cook, to make sure that you like the flavors.

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3) Lean on make-ahead recipes. Because my party was on a Monday, I knew that I’d have to make the bulk of my meal on Sunday night. So I chose something that I knew I could make ahead of time and that would reheat well. Even if you have all day to cook, make things easier on yourself by giving yourself some extra time to get everything together.

4) Avoid any embarrassing moments — ask your guests about any food allergies or preferences beforehand. There is nothing worse than spending all day cooking up pot roast and then finding out that half of your guests are vegetarian.

5) Keep it simple. You don’t need a hundred items or ten-step recipes or tricky-to-use ingredients. You’ll have a million things to do without adding complicated elements to the dinner. Keep things relatively low-maintenance, so that you can really focus on making a delicious meal.

6) Let your friends help. You might be making the bulk of the dinner, but ask friends to bring snacks, wine, dessert and any other small things. They’ll be more than happy to contribute (I’m assuming. You’re friends with them for a reason, right?), and it’ll ease some of your workload.

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7) And definitely don’t forget to have fun! At the end of the day, you’re hosting a party. It’s supposed to be a good time, and your friends will love you regardless of what you serve.

For my dinner party, I made pork sugo, which is an Italian meat stew that’s often served with pasta. I simplified Food 52’s recipe a bit, partially because I am incapable of following instructions properly and partially because I used what ingredients I had on hand. Like all braises, the meat cooked itself slowly on the stove while I slowly worked my way through the Gilmore Girls ouevre. I served it with polenta and Brussels sprouts, and barely got a chance to grab a pic before it was devoured. Guess that’s a sign of a good dinner party?

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Fudgy Red Wine Brownies

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Lest you think that I refuse to eat anything other than red wine and chocolate for my birthday, these red wine brownies were not for me. (Though Nila did unknowingly bake me the same red wine chocolate cake from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook for my birthday this year–my friends know me so well.)

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These were for Abby’s bachelorette party, as a snack during our wine tasting at Macari Vineyards. For the occasion, I wanted something intensely chocolate-y, but not too rich. My first thought was truffles, but rolling out a few dozen truffles seemed tedious. (I could better spend that time watching yet another episode of Gilmore Girls, of course.) Next I thought fudge bars, but that could become a sticky mess.

Then I remembered my red wine birthday cake, and how the wine and chocolate complemented each other so nicely. Plus, wine for something to be eaten at a vineyard seemed like the perfect fit. But since cake is kind of hard to distribute, I went with my favorite picnic standby, bars … aka red wine brownies.

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Ultimately, we didn’t end up eating these at the vineyard — we inhaled them in a limo instead. They were a huge hit, delivering on the promise of intense chocolate flavor without being too sweet or too heavy. I used a red blend that had notes of cocoa and vanilla in it, but any medium-bodied wine will do. (Don’t use anything too dark, since it may overpower the rest of the ingredients.) The original recipe added a glaze, but I wanted to avoid anything potentially messy. The brownies didn’t need it though, since they were perfect all on their own. Continue reading

Mini Plum Cakes

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Plums get a bad rap ’round these parts. They fall low on my stone fruit totem pole, well below peaches and nectarines and cherries and apricots, and even below pluots and apriums and other weird hybrids that derive from the plum. Too often, I’ll bite into a seemingly ripe plum only to recoil in horror, eyes watery and mouth puckering — man, an unripe plum can be tart.

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So, rather than get burned twice a hundredth time, I’ve just stayed away. But then there were some very pretty looking plums at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago and I couldn’t resist. And then I kind of forgot about them, and let them languish a bit in my fridge. And then somehow what was supposed to be a quick afternoon snack turned into a perfect afternoon snack: buttery, plush cake enveloped around a tart-sweet plum that softens and becomes jammy in the oven.

I could tell you more about these, but let me just show you instead:

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A lid of sliced almonds adds a little crunch, and they bronze beautifully in the oven. Aren’t they so pretty? Is it just me?

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Plums are making their final appearance this summer, so don’t miss your chance. Make these beauties before time runs out. Continue reading

Autumn Crostini with Kale and Squash

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I’ve been in a bit of a weird food rut lately. I can’t ever figure out what I want to eat, I don’t crave things with the same ohmygahhhmusteatthisnow intensity. I float between “hmmm, I guess that sounds good” and “maybe I’ll make that,” no longer spend every waking hour contemplating what I’ll eat next. It’s all very weird. (Or, maybe normal? How often should one think about food anyway?)

Maybe it’s end-of-summer listlessness. There’s only so much one can do with zucchini and tomatoes and corn before they get boring. Or maybe the prospect of cooking yet another balanced meal for lunch and dinner is bit … blah. I haven’t been truly excited to be in the kitchen for a while, despite spending copious amounts of time there cooking stuffed peppers or making banana bread.

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So I thought I’d try “unconventional” this week. Monday, I had a grilled cheese for dinner, with sauteed kale, sharp cheddar, pesto and tomatoes. It was pretty glorious, and kind of fun to indulge in something I very rarely eat. Tuesday night, I had these autumn crostini, appetizers for dinner, if you will. A puree of butternut squash, roasted garlic and balsamic vinegar (similar to these mashed potatoes) formed the base, topped with sauteed shallots, kale and feta.

Usually, I’d just toss the roasted butternut squash cubes with the kale (either sautéed or fresh) and create a salad, maybe with a grain. And in fact, I did use half of the squash in a lentil salad to (maybe) be named later. But crostini seemed like a fun way to use up leftover bread, and the butternut squash mash is a cinch with a food processor, stick blender or even just a fork and strong biceps.

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Even though the recipe is by all accounts “healthy” and “balanced” and all those other things that grown-up dinners should be, it felt weirdly exciting and special to basically have a snack for dinner. Paired with a glass of wine and the strangest episode of television I have ever witnessed, it was a respite, however brief, from my food apathy.

Do you ever get stuck in food ruts? How do you deal? Continue reading

Stuffed Peppers with Quinoa and Ground Beef

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Growing up, Sundays used to be my mom’s cooking day. She’d start by chopping up a big mess of vegetables, then slowly cook most of the food we’d eat that week, working through each recipe one by one until, by dinnertime, she’d made six days’ worth of lunch and dinner for four people. We’d “help” by keeping her company, aka watching football and getting in her way.

Obviously, I’m not nearly with it enough to plan and make that much food in one sitting. (Also, I don’t have the patience.) But sometimes, I kind of love day-long “cooking projects.” Most days, I don’t have a ton of time to spend slaving away in the kitchen, so on those occasions when I do, it’s nice to spend a few hours chopping vegetables, turning on the oven, stirring multiple pots and pans and just generally working towards creating a real meal. It’s my version of my mom’s cooking days, only the only person getting in my way is me (not hard to do — I have basically one square foot of usable counter space) and no one yells at me for cheering too loudly when my team scores.

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These stuffed peppers with quinoa and ground beef can be a project, or, if you don’t have the time, something that can be assembled in parts over multiple days. You could cook the ground beef in 20 minutes one day, the quinoa in 15 on another day and then spend 30 minutes assembling and baking on a third. Start to finish, the recipe takes a little over an hour, so it’s not a terribly difficult endeavor regardless, though there will be a lot of dishwashing involved. You’ve been warned.

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Is it worth it? Totally. Every day that I’ve brought these peppers to work, my co-workers have raved over them, and they’re just going off how good they smell. They have a nice crunch from the nuts and from the quinoa, which gets toasty when the stuffed peppers go in the oven for the final time. The raisins, which I added because they were in the back of my pantry and needed to be used up, actually taste good here (shocking, I know!), adding a slight sweetness to balance all of the savory, spicy notes. If only all of my cooking projects turned out this delicious … Continue reading