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For the 20 or so years that my sister Janet and I were weekenders in this area, we found the time to entertain our little circle of friends on a somewhat frequent basis. I was cook and bartender, and Janet always did a bang-up job of setting a beautiful table and washing the many dishes at the end of a long night.
I would never think of serving dinner without first having drinks and a selection of hors d’oeuvres, and that meant an entire day of cutting, mincing, slicing, whipping, chopping—and let’s not forget, shopping beforehand. Janet is the sole driver in the house, so again it was a team effort. Without her, there would be no groceries.
Before four or five of us would sit down to a dinner of main course, salad, side dish and dessert, I would have poured strong, garnished cocktails. Each guest was invited to choose from a bar set up with Scotch, bourbon, gin, vodka, rum, as well as white or red wine.
The spread, set up on various coffee tables in our intimate, cozy—read: small—living room, might contain hot artichoke dip; crunchy fluted cups made from wonton wrappers filled with savory fillings; crudité with at least two dips; Middle Eastern eggplant dip; herring in wine sauce; assorted olives; thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma; cheesy stuffed mushrooms; smoked salmon; multi-colored sautéed bell peppers with capers, garlic, and balsamic vinegar; slim discs of dried sausage; and good cheeses with a variety of crackers.
Moving on to dinner, I might have served a Moroccan chicken tajine with dried dates, apricots and chickpeas, served with couscous, and a Middle Eastern salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, red onions, romaine lettuce garnished with fresh cilantro and mint in a tangy vinaigrette of lemon juice and fruity extra-virgin olive oil. Sometimes I made stuffed pasta shells filled with a mixture of ricotta, spinach and tiny cubes of fresh mozzarella covered with a homemade marinara sauce and more mozzarella. I would top that off with a sprinkling of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese served with a salad of endive, radicchio and arugula with a balsamic vinaigrette. The repertoire of dishes was endless, as was the time it took me to prepare for my dinner guests.
I love cooking for people I care about, and take pride in it, but I am not a relaxed chef and don’t know how to cook in a way that does not turn out to be elaborate and innovative, and thus, exhausting. Eventually, I was feeling frustrated, if not the tiniest bit resentful, that I was spending the one full day of my weekend away from the city cooking without respite. I had put it on myself, for sure, but I came up with a new game plan a year or two ago that works for me. I now invite friends over for cocktails and hors d’oueuvres in lieu of a sit-down dinner. I purposely put out enough tasty tidbits that no one leaves needing to have anything more to eat once they arrive home.
Our two close friends, whom we entertain most often, favor my margarita madness evenings in which Janet and I prepare a big pitcher of fresh lime juice, good-quality blanco tequila, Cointreau or triple sec, and a touch of simple syrup. All of this I stir vigorously over ice, then pour into salt-rimmed traditional margarita glasses from Mexico. We settle down in the living room over fresh guacamole and salsa with chips as well as other hearty hors d’ouevres.
Particularly around the holidays, it’s a delight to have friends come by to toast the New Year and our ongoing friendship with a drink or two and an interesting assortment of finger foods. My current favorites are tiny lamb meatballs with a pomegranate glaze; mashed potato puffs fortified with crispy pancetta cubes and grated Parmesan and Gruyere cheeses; and cheesy spinach squares with golden edges. Both the potato puffs and the spinach squares can double as side dishes, and the meatballs can be served as a main course on a bed of fragrant jasmine rice.
So, here’s to a new year of peace, laughter, friendship, good health and great food.
Spinach Cheese Squares
Once out of the oven the gratin must sit for at least 10 to 15 minutes (covered with aluminum foil) so that the mixture sets and the squares can be easily cut. These freeze beautifully—just set the cut squares on a tray in the freezer and when frozen, pop them in a zip-lock bag. Defrost before cooking and bake for about 10 to 15 minutes at 350 degrees.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ½ eggs
½ cup flour
½ cup ½ & ½ or milk
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ pound Monterey jack cheese, grated on the large holes of a box grater
¼ pound aged white cheddar cheese, grated on the large holes of a box grater
1 tablespoon prepared pesto (from a tube, jar, or homemade)
1 package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
2 tablespoons minced onion
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a square or rectangular casserole, melt the butter in the oven. Remove. In a large bowl beat the eggs. Add flour, milk or 1/2 & 1/2, salt, and pepper. Mix well. Add cheese, thawed spinach, pesto and onion. Scrape into the casserole and smooth the top. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit for 15–20 minutes before cutting into squares.