I went a little bit hog wild this weekend. Reason: The Oscars. I love throwing a good party, and the Oscars gave me a great reason to cook up some tasty food for my friends. I put together a pretty ambitious menu, mostly comprised of foods I'd never tried before, a party planning no-no that I always (unwisely) ignore. I was trying to go for a theme of yellow food and foods that I could shape into stars, if possible. My biggest struggle with party planning and cooking lots of different things is working out the timing. If I could crank out dish after dish and not worry if a) they'll fit in the fridge, and b) whether they will need to be warm or hot or cold in 5 hours, then I'm sure it would be a (relative) cinch. But of course, that is never the case, and to further complicate things, I was doing the cooking at the house where I was dog sitting (constant vigilace is required to make sure border collie hairs do not end up in the food!), but the party was at another friend's house, so there was the problem of transferring things: what goes in tupperware? What can I plate now? Will everything get ruined when I bounce down the awful dirt road which I don't think has been graded once since I started dog sitting here 3 years ago? Whew! It was a lot to think about!
In the end I scrapped a few of my planned foods, because I realized after grating about a pound of cheese and going through about 2 dozen eggs, that a lot of my foods were cheese and egg heavy (they are golden, which made them natural choices when I was planning). Homemade potato chips and mini star topped quiches, based on these Star Topped Mince Pies both got the axe at the last minute, the chips because they were a disaster, and the quiches because of the aforementioned cheese/egg overload issue. I still think they would have been fantastic, but they seemed redundant at that moment.
Puff Pastry Stars:
One dish that did make the cut was puff pastry stars that I cut out of pre-made puff pastry, baked, then topped with a dollop of creamy goat cheese, a slow roasted cherry tomato half, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar reduction. (Because I was using cherry tomatoes they only took about 1 1/2 hours to roast to perfection, and I was able to do them in a toaster oven, so didn't waste quite as much energy and heating your entire oven for that long). These were good, although I scrimped a little and used store-brand puff pastry. Next time, if it's available, I would use something like DuFour brand, which is hands-down the tastiest puff pastry dough I've ever tried, although it's a mite more expensive than Stop n' Shop brand. The tomatoes obviously need to be cooked ahead of time, and the cheese and puff pastry need to be brought to room temperature, but the baking should occur at the last minute, according to package directions, and will take less than 15 minutes, at which point they come together very quickly.
Among my favorite dishes was a polenta "pizza." I have been doing a little bit of experiementing with polenta lately, a polenta "lasagna" being one of my favorite creations. This Brown Eyed Baker recipe tops a sheet of polenta with cheese and sauteed veggies. It was delicious, and can be modified a hundred different ways, although I liked the suggested spinach, mushroom and tomato topping. There is this misconception that polenta is a tricky and time consuming thing to make. Let me say this: it's not! There is also the fear that finding "polenta" or "instant polenta" in the grocery store is tricky. You don't need it! There are recipes out there that tell you to boil, then simmer, cover, then uncover, stir vigorously for 30 seconds, rest for 2 minutes, then repeat 20 times. I've even tried one, and I have to say, they're not worth it. I swear by a polenta recipe that I found in a thrift store cookbook several years ago. Basically you need cornmeal, plain old cornmeal, and liquid in a 1: 4 ratio, i.e, 1 cup corn meal, 4 cups liquid. You can use all water, but I prefer a 50/50 mix of water and milk for a little more creaminess. You bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat. When you reach a simmer, sprinkle the cornmeal in and whisk while doing so until all the cornmeal is incorporated. Continue whisking over low heat for 3-4 minutes, until the polenta reaches a thick consistency. Season with salt, pepper, cheese, butter, or whatever. Polenta in 10 minutes, guaranteed. The only time this recipe has ever failed me was when I spaced out and dumped all the cornmeal into the simmering milk without whisking, then I had lumpy polenta. But add it gradually and whisk while doing so, and you'll be golden! I'll definitely be making this one again, and it was also great because I was able to make the polenta sheet the night before, refrigerate it, then bake closer to the last minute.
PS. If any of you readers also follow the blog Orangette, I had to laugh when I read the most recent post, which incidentally is also about polenta. I didn't see it until after I wrote my bit on polenta, but I'd say we're on the same page! See, even a seasoned, respected food blogger agrees with me! Polenta is not hard, and fear of polenta can easily be overcome! In this recipe or just plain, try it!
Chicken Satay with Peanut Dipping Sauce:
Another favorite of the night was chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce. Erik trimmed chicken breasts of excess fat and cut them into skewer-able strips. We marinated the strips for a few hours in a mix of 1 cup of greek yogurt, and about a tablespoon each of minced or grated ginger and garlic, and a big tablespoon of curry powder, to get a nice yellowy color. Before skewering the chicken, we soaked the wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes to help to keep them from charring, then Erik grilled them, I'm guessing about 4-5 minutes per side, until they were cooked through. The yogurt marinade made the chicken very tender and almost creamy, much like the yogurt itself. They were quite different than chicken satay that you might order at a Thai restaurant, but still delicious, especially when they were warm from the grill. The peanut dipping sauce that I served along side the satay was from an Emeril Lagasse recipe that I've made several times before. I don't make any adjustments to the quantities or ingredients, but I will point out that if you have a mini Cuisinart you can use it to mince the garlic and ginger, then just mix the rest of the ingredients and pulse until it's a blended, creamy sauce. I made this an afternoon ahead except and refrigerated it until showtime, at which point I topped it with chopped peanuts and cilantro. Delicious!
And of course, no party is complete without sweets (at least, no party that I throw!) Chocolate dipped strawberries are always elegant, even when they're underripe, big, scary, winter strawberries. The real tasty treats though were mini chocolate cupcakes topped with the same, incredible mocha frosting that we used on our Buche de Noel last December! I haven't settled on a favorite, go-to cake batter yet, so this time I tried a fairly easy Paula Deen recipe (without the filling, although it does sound delicious!) I dug up on the Food Network website. It made a nice, chocolaty cake that was incredibly tender. I halved the recipe, and even halved it still yielded about 40 mini cupcakes, which was more than enough! By the time I got around to making the frosting I was feeling a bit rushed and panicked, and managed to ruin the egg whites twice, thus wasting 4 eggs and half a stick of butter, which made me even more annoyed and frantic. Luckily Erik stepped in and helped me out, and the third time was a charm (turns out, in my rush, I forgot to put sugar in--both times--hence the two failed attempts). Again we made a 1/3 recipe of Ina Garten's AMAZING frosting, which was still too much for all those cupcakes, but was easier than trying to figure out a 1/4 recipe. I finally got to use my pastry bag with a fancy tip, so the frosting looked (almost) professional, and it was actually a heck of lot easier and faster than trying to pick up and frost all those cupcakes, and then put them down without smearing the sides. If you make these ahead of time, refrigerate the cupcakes, because it will help the frosting set up--it will soften up again after sitting out at room temperature for 30 minutes, so no need to worry about hard frosting, but it makes them easier to transport because the frosting isn't sticky.
If you've made it to the end of this lengthy post, congratulations! There were more dishes, but these were the highlights, perfect for the Oscars or any time you're throwing a casual cocktail party. And apologies for the lack of photos--I was just too busy to think about it!