Saturday, January 10, 2009

18 Tips to Make You a Fearless, Flawless Host

There are endless lists out there to help us learn how to stock a pantry and how to always be ready to put a meal on the table with a minimal amount of effort and time. These are handy and every one who lives under a roof besides their mother's should have a reasonably stocked pantry. But what happens when people drop in unexpectedly? Often it's a choice between the mustard and the pickles and it doesn't have to be that way. After years of entertaining drop-in company, here are a few simple things that I like to have on hand to make a party at a moment's notice:

  1. Crackers. A box of water or sesame crackers can sit in your pantry and not be involved in the regular trisket and saltine fray, thereby remaining pristine and ready for duty.

  2. Cheese. A block of good cheddar or gouda goes a long way and will last a long time and will keep you from carving the mold off of whatever is currently residing in the crisper in front of your guests.

  3. Nuts. Everyone loves nuts, even those with nut allergies. They just can't eat them. Salty ones make people drink too much so lay off the sodium. Even friends who never eat anything will eat nuts.

  4. A signature drink. At the Basilica we drink shrub in the summer and cranhattans (lately) in the winter. Pick a good crowd-friendly drink that's easy to replicate and keep the fixings around. It could be your twist on Sangria or an old-school drink like a sidecar. Pick one and stick with it.

  5. Little cokes in bottles. An easy way to put a smile on someone's face is to produce an ice-cold Coke in a little retro glass bottle. For some reason they taste unbelievably good and it feels like a luxury.

  6. Lemons and limes. Someone always wants one for something. You need them, too, or you're not cooking enough. Grind the leftovers down the disposal to get the funk cleaned out.

  7. Cocktail napkins. A plain pack costs next to nothing and are absolutely essential.

  8. A decent, all purpose set of wine glasses for 8. You can serve wine in virtually any glass but a rounder, fuller bowl makes people feel more at home. We use a heavy set that feel great in the hand and are practically impossible to damage. Break out the spindly ones for really expensive wine if you ever run across any and for dinner, and other than that offer a utilitarian glass that people aren't afraid will break.

  9. Sparkling water. Someone will want it if you offer and it's a great option with a lime for non-drinkers, which hopefully every group will have at least one. And a good mixer. A bottle of San Pellegrino is like a little Coke. It just makes you feel good. At the Basilica we drink Big K sparkling water and figure it works just fine but keep a bottle of good stuff around for others.

  10. A pack of lemon wipes for the bathroom. When unexpected guests arrive, nothing works better than a quick swipe of the bathroom with wipes that are already there and can be disposed of easily. Some of you may keep a spotless house and more power to you, but I require this kind of help to not scare off people and I suspect I am not alone.

  11. A few good beers. Even if you are not a beer drinker, keep a four-pack of something decent in the bottom of the fridge. As I've said before, Miller High Life is the house beer here, so we keep a few Stellas or Newcastles for those with more discerning tastes. Or those who came to our house to get away from their own Miller Lites.

  12. While on the subject of alcohol, keep a house wine. As I have posted before, we do Wal-Mart wine at our house and do not apologize for it. But, we also keep a red (La Pigeoulet) and a white (Bogle Sauvignon Blanc) around for slightly higher end consumption. These are both around $10 and taste like a much more expensive wine. There are plenty of alternatives at inexpensive prices. Find a wine person in a store, make friends, confess your shortcomings, be honest about what you like and they will steer you in the right direction.

  13. Hummus. A container of hummus is handy always. People eat it like candy and never moan over how they are going to have to pay for it on the thighs and shouldn't be eating it. You want your guests to be happy and carefree and not thinking about things they shouldn't be doing. Hummus fills the bill.

  14. Blue corn chips. Not very exciting but they work by themselves, with the hummus and with whatever salsa you can scrounge up. They go a long way and the blue ones just look better than the regular kind. Everyone likes them.

  15. Olives. Get a jar and throw them in the party pantry. People love an interesting olive. That's one that has something stuck in the center like garlic or an almond. They will wish when they eat them that they had a plain old olive with a pimiento in the center, but if that's what you start with, then they'll wish they had a fancy one. Exceed their expectations.

  16. Something sweet. Either a box of some sort of chocolate or sweet, or a frozen container of your famous Lemon-White Chocolate cookie dough. Making cookies on the fly pleases everyone. Not even the skinniest person in the party will turn down a warm, gooey homemade cookie. If you have them ready to drop frozen on a sheet, there is no effort and you will look like a culinary queen.

  17. Decaf. The older the crowd, the less people will accept coffee even if they want it unless it's decaf. If, like us, you normally drink caffeinated, keep a couple of those single pot packets for just this sort of occasion.

  18. A really good attitude. People want to visit you. That's a good thing. Believe me, not everyone is the kind of person people want to visit. If people feel that you want them to have a good time, they usually will have a good time. There is nothing better than sending people home knowing they felt attended to and pampered for a little while. That's what makes company fun.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

REDBOX--Cheap Movies, Free Movies, Easy Movies

I have been persona non grata in conventional movie rental stores since 1992 when people subletting my apartment rented two movies on my membership and never returned them. Several years later a friend tried to return a movie my husband had rented, gave my name and discovered I owed several thousand dollars for those two movies. I have since had a fear that I would be hauled to debtor's prison for this offense and avoided rental stores pretty much entirely. Netflix provided rentals easily for a while but there is a lot of guilt associated with receiving a movie that seemed so interesting in your queue only to barely have a passing interest in it as it sits on the coffee table, unwatched and unloved until it is returned.

But now there is Redbox! I am usually a latecomer to technological marvels like this but am happy to have discovered it. For those who have never checked these out here is the lowdown. Redboxes are found outside of McDonald's and in some groceries. You can go on the website to find the closest one to you. They feature the latest releases and have more movies than shown on the panel beside the box. They are one dollar apiece. A whole dollar. And you can keep your movie until 9 pm the following day. And return it anywhere.

They are heavy on kid's movies and horror films but have never been out of any movie listed that I have chosen. You will not find the latest art or indie film or foreign film and so cannot stand in front of the Redbox and feel smug about your superior interests and intellect. For that you will have to find the one independent movie rental store left in your town and patronize it also. But if, like me, sometimes you need to get your Jason Statham on, then head to the Redbox and rent The Bank Job, make a pizza and have a great Friday night date.

Redbox will give you a free rental when you sign up for their email updates. You will be required to give them your email anyway and they will acknowledge a rental, return and receipt online. They also give out random codes for freebies for anytime and usually provide one for Monday rentals. Some recent codes you may try are: BREAKROOM, REDBOX, and DVDONME. If you keep the movie longer than one night, it's a whole 'nother dollar for each additional night. I'll be posting freebie codes as I hear about them so keep checking back and enjoy the cheesecake!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Homemade Dog Treats

Any dog owner knows the value of a treat. Treats mean that the dog's butt hits the floor for about a half of a second before bouncing back up again. This is called "sitting" in our house and is the sole culmination of our obedience training. We are very proud of our meager accomplishments. For years our treats have been the giant bag of multi-colored bones that are found on the bottom shelf at the grocery. Their mere location in the pet product aisle means they cannot be good for the dogs. They love them but they are not the most discerning palates, one of them having also eaten the book Marley and Me. However, I always said that, in an alternate life, where I will have so much time on my hands I will make my coffee in a french press, I would make my own dog biscuits. We had greyhounds for years and there is no end to the lengths people will go for those dogs. My efforts here seem a pittance in comparison. We knew people who cooked special meals every day for their dogs with organic only ingredients. We had a petsitter that fried an egg and laid it gently on top of the dog food with every meal. Our dogs hated to come home.

Well, the combination of fear that I am feeding my dogs the equivalent of Hershey bars with every treat and the high cost of said treats have kicked me into DIY mode. I chose the simplest, healthiest looking recipe I could find and made them yesterday. DH says they are bland but is also jealous that I made peanut butter cookies for the dogs but won't make them for him. The dogs love them! I figure they cost about $1.00 for the ingredients, much less than my usual purchase. They took about 20 minutes of prep time. I added a bit more flour and kneaded them as they were too wet at first to cut out and also used 1/2 whole wheat flour and 1/2 white. Follow the title link for many more recipes for more ambitious pet chefs.

Peanut Butter Dog Biscuits

½ cups water(add more water later if required) ½ cup oil 2 eggs 3 tablespoons peanut butter 2 tsp. vanilla 2 cups flour ½ cup cornmeal ½ cup oats
Blend wet ingredients together. Whisk dry ingredients together and mix into wet mixture to form a ball of dough. Roll out and shape. Put onto a non-stick cookie tray or lightly greased one. Cook 20 minutes at 400 F. Turn off oven and allow the biscuits to cool in oven until crisp and hard. Store in airtight container.