Awhile ago I wrote that a book club proved to be the best way for me to meet new girlfriends when I moved to Chicago, a city in which I knew very few. (And speaking of book clubs: mine is in a state of delinquency. I will reinstate it soon. I feel as though the clouds are parting and life is falling into something of a rhythm now that the move is behind is and micro is sleeping stretches of 5-6 hours more consistently — even if that rhythm is dramatically syncopated.) I absolutely adored hosting book club because it gave me an excuse to entertain, something I have always enjoyed and something I have done since my college years, when I was wont to host formal dinner parties when we’d return home for the summer (complete with place cards and formal wear). In our 20s, Mr. Magpie and I put on countless holiday parties, costume parties, just-because parties (I believe we hosted a party for midsummers, a few Olympics parties, and even a Jersey Shore party back in the heyday of that program. There was a lot of self-tanner involved.) Nowadays, entertaining happens a lot less frequently, though I have promptly and with no small measure of delight realized that my new, larger kitchen and my new, larger living space have restored to me a desire to cook and entertain and have people over. So much so that I have already undertaken a baking project in our new home — something I rarely did in our former apartment because my stand mixer was stowed in a cabinet behind miscellaneous other items and there wasn’t much counter space to boot. In other words: baking was a logistical strain. No longer! One of the cool things about our apartment is that it has a long “L” shaped kitchen, with one “leg” flanked by a huge wall of built-in cabinets and a super-long countertop that Mr. Magpie and I have endeavored to keep entirely free of clutter to accommodate our love of cooking.
And so I envision a lot of entertaining in this apartment, beginning with hosting Mr. Magpie’s parents for Thanksgiving, which is incidentally not very far away. I overheard Mr. Magpie debating what size of turkey to get with his father and I thought — “That’s hilarious. We have months until Thanksgiving, and they’re thinking about — oh wait. It’s in about a month.”
At any rate.
Even before Thanksgiving, I am hoping to have a couple of gals’ nights at my home with some of my good girlfriends — one of my absolute favorite ways to fritter away a cold Tuesday or a rainy Thursday evening. Below, because my post on weeknight meals enjoyed such warm reception, I thought I’d share a couple of my favorite appetizer/snack spread recipes (I have so many more, but this is a start) for a night in with girlfriends, which I usually accompany with my favorite sparkles (I love Raventos i Blanc cava) or red (very into Chono carmenere at the moment — inexpensive and so velvety!), but sometimes, I’m in the mood for gin. My go-to drink is a Tom Collins with Hendricks gin.
+Prosciutto wrapped around the end of grissini and artfully displayed on a platter either spun out like spokes on a wheel or laid tidily in a row, so the grissini ends hang off the edge of the plate. Our Italian friends had us over for dinner back in Chicago and they started the meal with these and some fresh, thick wedges of mozzarella — and an aperol spritz garnished with an orange wheel and a castelvetrano olive! I’ve never seen something so elegant but easy.
+Mini toasts (these feel vaguely out of vogue and like something from 1962?) topped with a wedge of manchego and a slick of fig spread.
+Dry chorizo cut on the diagonal into oblong coins and then toasted quickly in a hot cast iron skillet, just so a little of the fat renders. Then slice a baguette and toast the pieces in the fat from the chorizo. Serve with a favorite hard cheese. Those slabs of bread dipped in chorizo juice — OUTRAGEOUSLY GOOD.
+Mini sandwiches. I don’t know why, but these always go over so well when I am hosting. I like to do comfort food — mini BLTs, or peanut butter and banana sandwiches cut into little strips but then I toast the bread in butter on the stovetop and coat them in cinnamon sugar (yum). Or sometimes I’ll duck out to a good BBQ spot and buy maybe a half pound of pulled pork and put it on mini Hawaiian rolls with a pickle chip on the top. For some reason, people tend to love this as a snack. Fun finger food!
+Ranch crackers. These are delightfully kitschy — something straight out of a 1960s cocktail party. They are addictive. Written in my grandmother’s loopy script: Mix 1 cup veg or canola oil with 1 tsp dill, ½ tsp garlic powder, and 1 pkg Ranch dressing mix. Stir with two 12-oz boxes oyster crackers. I usually amp up the dill and garlic — “oops! an extra 1/4 tsp fell in!” — to great effect. I like to serve this up in pretty silver bowls on every occasional table and especially by the wine station, where people are inclined to grab a little handful along with a fresh pour.
+Good-quality kielbasi (this was so easy to come by in Chicago — haven’t seen it as much in NY) cut into coins, toasted up in a skillet, and served with spicy mustard. I like to pierce the sausage coins with toothpicks in advance to make it easier to serve.
+Spiced shrimp (detailed the recipe here) with homemade cocktail sauce. Not hard, but make-ahead and keep chilled in the fridge.
+Spiced cocktail nuts. I actually find Giada’s recipes to be generally horrible, but this one is excellent. You can again make these ahead so they’re ready to go day-of.
+Homemade hummus with various chips and vegetables. I like to throw a lot of fresh herbs into the food processor when I’m making hummus, whatever I have on hand (I like dill, parsley, cilantro, or a blend of them all). My go-to hummus recipe: 1 can chickpeas, drained (reserve liquid!); salt; a minced garlic clove; scoop tahini (1/4 cup?); couple tablespoons lemon juice; splash of reserved chickpea juice. Place everything in food processor and add a healthy glug of olive oil and whatever herbs you have on hand. Blend. Add more oil or reserved liquid to loosen/make more creamy.
+For larger parties — especially ones around the holidays — Mr. Magpie and I often buy a spiral ham which we then reheat in a low oven for several hours with an orange/brown sugar glaze. That’s the easy part, though — the more involved part is making homemade biscuits. We’ve tried probably a dozen recipes in pursuit of a good one and I need to get Mr. Magpie to write a post about his most recent achievement in this category, because that damn biscuit had me dreaming and drooling for weeks. (I WILL get him to start a recipe column here — he has so many incredible recipes he’s ginned up over the past many years of tinkering in the kitchen.) Biscuits aren’t exactly hard to make — in fact, you can destroy them by overmixing them — but they do require time and advanced planning. Anyhow, we serve the ham on top of delicious buttery biscuits and they always bring the house down. At any rate, were I left to my own devices, I’d use the recipe in Garden & Gun’s cookbook. They know a thing or two about Southern cooking.
+Onion pissaladiere. This is so, so good. Essentially a pizza/foccacia/flatbread kind of thing topped with sauteed onions and garlic. Oh, it is good. I cut it into squares and serve the whole thing on a rustic-style wood cheeseboard.
+Chrissy Tiegen’s chorizo-and-jalapeno flecked queso. As with all good quesos, this starts with Velveeta. Enough said. Word to the wise: this makes use of a LOT of jalapenos and you might want to buy those disposable plastic gloves. I burned the hell out of my hands making these — they were actually throbbing for hours and hours.
+Pretzel bites. Alton Brown’s recipe for homemade pretzels is foolproof and excellent. Sometimes I make these to accompany an “Octoberfest” celebration with various kinds of German sausage and sauerkraut and the like — but I also like to make them when I’m having girlfriends over for wine night because who doesn’t love a salty carb?! I serve it with a few kinds of mustard. (This is also a great contribution to a football gathering / Super Bowl party.)
A few other things I like when entertaining the gals:
+Short drinking glasses for enjoying wine, Spanish style. (This is how they served wine in Barcelona and San Sebastian, and we totally co-opted it.) We call them “stubs” around this house (how inelegant…), but there is another benefit to them: they tend to be much harder to spill than a stemmed glass. I incidentally love drinking wine out of these exact juice glasses.
+Mauviel wine bucket. We received this beautiful, splurge-y item for our wedding and have gotten incredible use out of it. It’s so pretty, too.
+As seen at top: I have made such good use of our canning jars over time. Mr. Magpie likes them to store things like bacon grease and pickled beets and bread starter and strange concoctions he’s working on, but I use them for serving as well. They’re a great, rustic solution for presenting pretty gold cutlery.
+White serving platters. With time, I have learned that simple white serving platters are the best way to go. They present/showcase food so well and are incredibly versatile. I like things like this with the interesting beading along the lip, though I have a couple of very inexpensive white rectangular platters from Pier 1 that get heaviest use. The shape makes them easy to plate food elegantly because you can line things up in rows/tidily. I also get a lot of use out of an olive boat we have, though I repurpose it for myriad things — it’s a great shape for mounding up sliced sausage or chunks of cheese alongside a heap of olives, for example.
+Appetizer plates. Arguably the most-used dishes in our home. I am using these constantly, and for hundreds of reasons — a little afternoon snack for myself, a plate for butter to go with our bread at dinner, a makeshift spoon-rest, and — especially — for hosting my girlfriends. This is a great gift for a friend who enjoys entertaining!
+Dip bowls. Another great Pier 1 find. I am also using these constantly — they’re just the right size for a nice scoop of cocktail sauce or mustard or a little pinch bowl of nuts by the bar. Bonus: very inexpensive.
+Condiment server. I actually use this a lot more frequently to serve up little nibbles. I especially like to use this to bring out some sweet treats for “dessert” — I’ll put chocolate covered pretzels in one, yogurt covered raisins in another, and maybe some swedish fish in the third. Alternately, have also used this to plate vegetables to dip into french onion dip, i.e., one is filled with carrots spears, another with pepper strips, and the last with cucumber wedges. When I’m only hosting a friend for wine (i.e., no intensive appetizers), I’ll fill this with salty things like they do in fancy hotel bars — maybe one will have truffle potato chips, another will have marcona almonds, and the last will have cheezits, or something along those lines.
+Stainless steel serving bowls. I also have two bowls similar to these that I love — they simply make everything look classy. A bowl of popcorn dressed up in truffle oil or coated in some fresh parmesan and thyme (or just poured out of a bag!) looks fancy as hell — even though it only took a few minutes to put together.
+Trader Joe’s treats. When I am really short on time — or when I want to do something more involved and keep the rest low-key — I like to supplement with Trader Joe’s finds. I especially like their pastry pups (basically, pigs in a blanket). I brush mine with egg wash and top with their “Everything Bagel Seasoning,” which — you must try if you haven’t; I love putting it on scrambled eggs or mixing it into chicken salad. You can make these look very presentable if you line them up on one of those rectangular platters and flank with little silver condiment bowls of mustard and ketchup. I also like their “Bird’s Nests” (basically taste like onion rings, but are little mounds of veggies that you dip into a soy sauce dipping sauce), their egg rolls (surprisingly good — lots of fresh ginger in there), and their gyoza, although their instructions on the back are wonky and, if prepared as instructed, you will end up with lots of broken gyoza. I prefer to steam and then pan fry at the end.
P.P.P.S. On the heel’s of yesterday’s post about our apartment purchases: I have been attempting to figure out how we might be able to fit seating of some kind into micro’s tiny nursery. I had thought it wouldn’t matter but as I am still waking once a night to feed him (doctor says I can drop this feed but we’ve just in the past few weeks transitioned from two or three wake-ups a night to one, and…we’ll get there) and would like to have a place to read him a bedtime story/say prayers in the evening, I would like to make this work. (Right now, I bring him into our bedroom, which is at the other end of the apartment, and then carry him back to bed for his nighttime feed, which is not ideal. Otherwise, I place a mound of blankets on the floor and feed him there. Which is less than ideal as well.) At any rate, I’m on the hunt for the most petite armchair known to woman, and preferably not something too precious, as mini’s glider is already showing its wear and tear two years in. Considering this? Look how small! 23″ wide! Amazing.