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When I was working on this book and talking with folks about it upon its release, I was a little surprised sometimes at the reactions I got to the idea of a “game”-related cookbook. In my head, of course, it was firmly framed around a gathering of friends playing dominoes or poker and wanting to eat well, but eat without the mess of sloppy finger food (think big slices of greasy pizza) and distraction of traditional dinnertime fare (knives and folks? not on game night!).
But when others heard “game” they often thought either “football” or “venison.”
So I spent a lot of time quickly explaining my book’s interpretation of game-friendly food. But heck, if you want to make the Beef Yakitori skewers with bison instead, I’m sure it would be delicious. And the truth is, the book could just as well be used to stock up on snacks before settling in front of the TV for a Saturday afternoon of game watching. That’s another occasion when your focus is on something besides sitting at a table, squarely in your chair with a dinner plate in front of you. You want to be able to grab an Herbed Biscuit with Smoked Salmon with one hand and pump your fist in the air with the other when your team makes that field goal.
I’m thrilled that folks are turning to Gourmet Game Night for any and all times when convenient, mess-free eating fills the bill. With the Big Game around the corner , I can again echo this post from this time last year (you’ll find a recipe there for my twist on pimento cheese). And last year as well, friend Shauna Ahern took my book for a gluten-free spin for some treats to enjoy while watching the Super Bowl.
In the past couple of days I’ve come across a couple blog posts about folks cooking a bunch of recipes from the book without a Scrabble board or deck of cards in site, or even a football game. One translated the finger-food treats into a menu for tea with the gals. And this recent post on Not Martha noted that the large group of friends gathering that evening just socialized over the “game night” spread instead of sitting down to play any games.
It’s all good. It thrills me to know that folks are discovering the versatility of the recipes in the book. In fact, I’m thrilled, too, if the book just serves as any kind of inspiration for getting into the kitchen and perhaps simply adapting what you already love to cook so that it becomes a scaled-down and mess-free version of its original self. The book’s a tool and a resource, and definitely meant to be used in whatever capacity suits you. Whether it’s a game day, game night, or there’s no game in sight.
But actually, trailers are now for cookbooks, too. And other books that show up on shelves each year. I’d never heard the concept of a cookbook trailer until a matter of months ago, when I started seeing/hearing friends talk about trailers they were working on, or seeing links they posted on Twitter. In this modern age, book promotion takes on many forms, no more just a press release sent out by the publisher followed by a string of (often mind-crushingly boring) book signings by the author. Cookbook dinners, fun events, cooking classes, and — borrowing from the world of film — now the cookbook trailer.
Well, just so happens that I’ve got a trailer too! Even though Gourmet Game Night has been out for a little over a year now, a new local company Visual Quill chose the book as a project for their launch portfolio. It was an honor to be part of their early efforts and I’m thrilled with the results! Jazzy, colorful, bold graphics, bouncy pace — it gets the idea of the book across delightfully in just one minute. Hope it makes you want to call a few friends to come over and play some games soon, while you’re nibbling on some tasty food. Food that you’ve cooked from Gourmet Game Night, of course!
It’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in all the great food options that surround an ideal game night scenario: mini serving dishes, favorite game-friendly ingredients (endive leaves, cocktail bread, mini tart shells), fun little picks and skewers to use, finger-food menu plans and such. But at some point you and your guests are going to get a bit thirsty! What’s a game night host to do?
A pitcher of Orange Negronis ready to go......
In my opinion the thing you shouldn’tdo is try to be the master mixologist on game night. There are plenty of occasions on which you can show your cocktail-crafting finesse, shaking up a perfect Manhattan for one guest and a kaffir lime gimlet for the next. Game night, however, isn’t the night for such showmanship. One of the credos of a successful game night is that once play is under way, food and drink really shouldn’t distract from the fun. You hopping over to the kitchen to shake up a few more cocktails and putting the game in “pause” mode only cools the fun that’s been building since you sat down. Instead you’ll amaze and delight your friends with the simple act of filling their glasses in a matter of moments, poured from a chilled pitcher in the fridge.
Just like the food you serve while playing dominoes or Cranium, the drinks you serve should be game-friendly as well. And game-friendly can be most succinctly defined as “not distracting from the game at hand.” Distraction can come in many forms. Having to put down your poker cards to pick up a knife and fork to cut a piece of meat. The host leaving the table for 10 minutes to dish up some food or cook something à la minute. Or to make a new round of cocktails.
So instead of the shaken-to-order beverages that are de rigeur for cocktail fans most nights of the week, think instead about those great films from decades gone by when stirring up a pitcherful of spirits was in vogue. The Thin Man, of course, with the gallons of martinis they drank each film. Or Auntie Mame in which the dapper young 10-year-old Patrick has been well taught in the art of
stirring an extra-dry martini “so it doesn’t bruise the gin.”
A refreshing strawberry-ginger Champagne cocktail served in my favorite stemless wine glasses
Okay, so crafting the drink’s been covered. Find yourself a fun, sleek, kinda retro pitcher and you’re good to go. Larger ice-tea-and-lemonade type pitchers can certainly be used — but are best for punches and sangrias and other drinks that will make good use of the volume of a big pitcher. Unless, of course, you’ve got quite a large crowd of cocktail drinkers on hand to consume the couple bottles’ worth of gin or rye it’d take to fill one of those things!
Now on to serving the evening’s libation. There’s generally a lot going on around a game night table. Cards being dealt, dice being tossed, Monopoly money being distributed, dominoes being shuffled. It takes just one bit of extra flourish with one of those gestures and a tall wine glass quickly goes crashing down over the evening’s accoutrements. Stemless glasses to the rescue. And it’s incredibly convenient that stemless glassware’s been hot stuff lately. Even the primo lines of classy wine glasses are now coming no stems attached, such as these elegant ones from Spiegelau or this fun set from Riedel. And yes, of course, you can serve a Negroni in one of these glasses just as well as you can a splash of Merlot!
I’m also a big fan of using other fun small glasses as multi-purpose vessels for cocktails, wine, beer, or whatever else you’re pouring. Tumblers such as these, or any old-fashioned type glass that’s short and squat and does its job of holding tasty beverages with little risk of spillage. Though, granted, unless you give everybody one of those charming baseball caps with the cups attached and a tube you sip your — well, isn’t it usually beer?? — from, there’s really no guarantee nothings gets spilled. But just hedge your bets, the way you do when you’re holding pocket queens but not sure what the guy to your left has.
Pomegranate-Mint Fizz served in lovely tumblers made by a glass artist friend
So, here’s what it comes down to to drink well on game night:
A) don’t skimp on quality — this is a wonderful dinner partly like any other, you just happen to be playing games in addition to the other great conversation you usually have with friends when sharing an evening together.
B) pull out the pitcher and stir things up in big batches. Yes, you do get to have both quality and quantity.
and C) secure a little insurance against dampening the evening — both literally and figuratively — with spilled drinks by keeping a low profile with the glassware.
And with that, I wish you a wonderful game night full of fun and good spirits! Cheers.
Yep, she’s right. My pal Tracy Schneider imagined aloud in this blog post that when I wrote Gourmet Game Night I was likely ”thinking of Scrabble, poker or backgammon” rather than football. I don’t care much for the game, actually. Never watch during regular season. Last Super Bowl I watched was when the Seahawks played and you know how that game went! I get worked up too easily and just can’t take that kind of stress….
But it warmed the cockles of this writer’s heart to find folks citing my brand of “game night” eats as being ideal, too, for the other big game on most people’s minds right now. In fact, when I was working on the book and telling folks the title, many jumped to the “appropriate for watching football” interpretation right away. An interesting personality test! I say “game” and you say…. what? “Scrabble”? “football”? (or perhaps even “elk”?)
Right on, though, that whichever “game night” you subscribe too, the board games and football both deserve to be the focus. The food delicious and satisfying, but not center-stage. Nothing puts a damper on the momentum of a fun round of Cranium like the host leaving the table for ten minutes to pan-fry steaks. And is it really worth the risk of missing the 70-yard kick-off return, because you had to get those chocolate soufflés out of the oven? Food that can be made ahead and holds up well for a few hours. Food that’s easy to eat and doesn’t require big plates, lots of table space, pesky utensils. That’s what you need.
Here’s one option. Who doesn’t love pimento cheese, right? I had very little experience with the stuff until a trip to Kentucky a few years ago introduced me to the glories that are cheese blended with peppers and bound with a bit of mayo. I went a bit creative with the concoction for my book, instead of making an everyday sandwich, I spread the cheesy goodness between flour tortillas then cut them into little “towers” for just something different. You can instead just sandwich between a couple slices of bread. Or serve as a decadent dip for carrots and cucumbers. Or schmear on bagel chips, crackers or anything else that served as an edible perch.
So, this is my extent of joining the Super Bowl whoopla. Sharing my variation of pimento cheese with you. Enjoy.
Game Day Pimento Cheese
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 cup top-quality mayonnaise
1/2 cup finely chopped pimentos
1/4 cup finely chopped hot pickled peppers (I love Mama Lil’s)
Combine the cheese and mayonnaise in a food processor and pulse a few times to blend and finely chop the cheese. The mixture should still have some chunky texture. Transfer the cheese mixture to a medium bowl and fold in the pimentos and peppers until thoroughly blended.
Makes about 3 cups
That’s all there is to it! Spread thin layers on large flour tortillas if you want to replicate my Gourmet Game Night version, and use a serrated knife to cut the stack into squares. But there are loads of ways to serve this simple combo. Have a ball.
Is it just me, or did this recent transition from one year to the next come with a larger-than-usual dose of year-end lists? Both of the looking-back-on-what-happened this past year and the ever popular crystal-ball-gaze toward what the coming year may hold. And food trends certainly stand out as one of the most popular themes that get scrutinized at year’s end. I maxed out pretty quickly, but was thrilled when a friend posted a link to this year-end list to beat all year-end lists. Absolute brilliance.
Early on in this parade of year-end musings, I came across one trend note from 2010 that I could actually get behind. Among the “hot food fads for 2010″ that Parade Magazinecited back in November was this one at #2: “the incredible shrinking dinner party.” They referenced that the small-plates movement has moved from restaurant menus to home dinner tables, evidenced in large part by the increasing availability of serving pieces and dishes that are tailored for mini-portioned foods. They mention the individual Le Creuset pots (like this one I’ve got, about 1 cup capacity), Staub bakeware, an array of mini porcelain dishes (such as these oval dishes) and “shot glasses for soups or deep spoons for slurping up a single dumpling.” Hmmmm, that sounds familiar. Part of my mantra in Gourmet Game Night is that it’s not just the recipes that make food game-friendly, but also the serving pieces. Soup served in a shot glass or espresso cup takes up a ton less dinner-table real estate than does a traditional soup bowl. And serving salads or small portions of meat on an Asian porcelain soup spoon eliminates the need for a fork and lets your guests eat very well, very easily.
So I’m fully behind the incredible shrinking dinner party. Not only does the array of small dishes like those above (not to mention the fun and diverse selection of picks and skewers that also make small portions super game-friendly to enjoy, check out the offerings here at Pick On Us) allow guests to enjoy a smaller sampling of a greater variety of items tapas-style. It also is a healthy, sensible way to eat. Instead of sitting down to a big dinner plate full of food that you eat in quick order, this game-night setting of smaller portions is enjoyed over the course of a couple of hours. The game play naturally helps folks pace themselves–a few meatballs and a mini salad one moment, a small dose of soup and baby sandwich half an hour later–and are far less likely to get over-stuffed.
Here’s to taking that 2010 trend and blazing forward into 2011 with lots of fun and delicious game nights that celebrate how delicious small can be.
Round or flat? It’s a debate that dates back centuries. Or at least had, until folks realized that those schooners didn’t slip off the edge of the Earth when adventurers went exploring.
But it’s a debate that came back to life as I was brainstorming recipes for this book. I was thinking about including mini pizzas and baby biscuits among the game-friendly fare of the collection. Then I started to wonder if folks would have the ideal-sized little round cutters to use and how much trouble it would be to fiddle with cutting a bunch of circles and reshaping the dough to cut more….
Then it hit me.
Who says the edges have to be round? Why reinvent the wheel when the square is such an elegant and more congenial shape for the cook to deal with?
So I threw out that old convention that pizzas and biscuits have to be round. I rolled those respective doughs out to squared shapes and in a matter of a few swipes of a knife, you’ve got a few dozen squares ready to bake/fill/top as needed. Oh, and a favorite tool in my chaotic drawer of utensils is actually a pizza cutter. That rolling blade makes forming an even, clean cut through the dough a ton easier. Drawing a knife blade across can often tug or stretch the dough, while the rolling motion of the pizza cutter does so with no adverse side effects.
I kinda did the same round-to-square exercise with cheesecake. For one thing, a traditional large cheesecake doesn’t quite fit the game-friendly criteria, one slice is pretty big and dominates the smaller plates used for Game Night eats. And the idea of finessing a presentation of individual cheesecakes in mini round pans of some kind seemed more trouble than it might be worth. So I simply re-cast the cheese in a square cake pan, with a layer of filling topping a base of pressed-in cookie crumb crust. Bake, cool, cut into small squares. And there you have it.
Squares. It’s the shape of things to eat on game night!!
Mocha Cheesecake Bars
The ever-popular cheesecake makes an easy transition to game night, taking on a shallower square form that’s easy to cut into finger-friendly pieces. If you’re unable to find simple chocolate wafer cookies (the Nabisco brand wafers are a great choice), you can use graham crackers crumbs instead for the crust.
1 1/4 cups very fine chocolate wafer cookie crumbs (4 to 5 ounces cookies)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
3 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons Kahlua or other coffee liqueur
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
3/4 pound cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In a medium bowl, combine the cookie crumbs and melted butter and stir to evenly mix. Put the crumb mixture in a 9-inch square cake pan and press the crumbs evenly across the bottom of the pan. Bake the crust until set, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 F.
Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler over medium heat, stirring occasionally. (Alternatively, melt the chocolate in a microwave.) Take the top bowl from the heat and stir in the coffee liqueur and espresso powder. Set aside to cool.
Whip the cream cheese and sugar in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until well blended. Add the eggs and continue beating to make a smooth batter, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Use a rubber spatula to fold in the chocolate mixture until thoroughly incorporated.
Pour the batter onto the cooled crust and spread it out evenly. Bake the cheesecake until set, 35 to 40 minutes. Set aside on a wire rack to cool completely, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.
Cut the cheesecake into 5 strips each direction, for 25 squares. Arrange them on a platter or tray and serve.
Makes 25 cheesecake bars
↑ can double all ingredients, making the cheesecake in 2 pans
↓ best not to halve; extra will keep well for a few days, covered and refrigerated
¤ can make the cheesecake up to 2 days ahead, cover, and refrigerate
I’m so thrilled that Crate & Barrel is carrying Gourmet Game Night! Not only carrying the book, but as I understand things the book is due to be part of a special display during the fall months building up to the holidays. Woo-hoo! What a great match for the book. Crate & Barrel does, after all, feature a phenomenal array of dishes, glassware, small plates, picks and such that make game night entertaining a breeze.
I’ll be doing a couple signings in two stores near me, October 23 from noon to 4:00 pm at the Seattle location and October 30 from noon to 4:00 pm at the Bellevue location. And hoping I might add another signing or two to the calendar with other travels this fall. Check out my events page for information on these and other Gourmet Game Night events in the coming months.
Just think: an ideal holiday gift for countless people on your list! A fun little cookbook with lots of tasty recipes and great ideas for effortlessly hosting a fun game night dinner party. And while you’re at it, pick up a set of stemless wine glasses, appetizer spoons, small plates, or fun picks. Add one of your favorite games and shazam! You’ve got a really fun holiday gift that will be one of those that keeps on giving–in the form of delicious game night fun–again and again.
Never too early to start stocking up on those holiday gifts, after all. Despite that I, myself, still tend to wait until the calendar page turns to December. That’s just my style. Driven by deadlines!
Sometimes I’m kind of sheepish about creating a recipe that just seems SO simple that there’s almost nothing to it. But then I’m constantly reminded that, in fact, there’s probably no such thing as being too simple (like too rich or too thin?). This is just one of those recipes. Throw a few things in the food processor, purée a few moments, spoon onto a wedge of pita. You’re good to go! In the book, I top the spread with small pieces of crisped pancetta, which add crisp-salty-rich character to complement the slightly sweet and soft texture of the spread. For vegetarians, another option might be crisply fried thin slices of shallot. Or even solo, the pea mixture is mighty tasty.
Interesting thing to me is that regardless of the simplicity of the dish, everyone just loves the flavors of it. Even if part of their reason to be jazzed about it had nothing to do with how easy it was for them to make. It was one of the dishes I served at the book launch party last month, folks raved. Your guests will too! And you don’t even have to let on that it’s such a quick thing to put together.
Green Pea and Mint Spread with Crispy Pancetta (from Gourmet Game Night)
2 cups fresh or thawed frozen green peas
3 tablespoons chicken or vegetable broth or water, plus more if needed
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh mint
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
5 thin slices pancetta
2 thick (6-inch) pitas, preferably without pockets
Bring a pan of salted water to a boil and prepare a bowl of ice water. Add the peas to the boiling water and simmer over medium heat until tender, 2 to 3 minutes for fresh peas, about 1 minute for frozen peas. Drain, add to the ice water, and let cool. Drain the cooled peas and scatter them on paper towels to dry.
Puree the peas, broth, and mint in a food processor until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. the texture should be firm enough to hold its shape but not stiff; add another teaspoon or two of broth if needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Refrigerate, covered, until you are ready to serve.
Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the pancetta slices and cook until nicely crisp and lightly browned, about 5 minutes, turning the slices occasionally. Drain on paper towels.
Preheat the broiler and set the top rack about 5 inches below the heating element. Set the pitas directly on the rack and broil until lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes per side (use tongs to turn the pitas easily). Let cool, then cut each round into 12 wedges.
Top the broad end of each pita wedge with about 1 tablespoon of the pea puree. Break the pancetta into bite-sized pieces and press a piece into the puree on each wedge. Arrange the wedges on a platter and serve.
Makes 24 pita wedges
↑ For a large party, you can double or triple all the ingredients, but make the puree in batches
↓ For a smaller group, you can easily halve all the ingredients
You can make the puree up to 1 day ahead, cover, and refrigerate. Toast the pita and cook the pancetta up to 4 hours ahead. Assemble shortly before serving.
It’s not that hard to come up with a good excuse to throw a party. We do it pretty often at this house….not just for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays. But we celebrate made-up holidays like Open That Bottle Night. Or have friends over to see the blooms on our tree peony, and have them stay for dinner. And I threw my husband a 33 1/3 birthday, since his traditional December birth dates comes as such a distracted, chaotic time of the year. Anything for a party!!
So with the release of my latest cookbook looming, I figured that was a no-brainer excuse to gather friends, family, colleagues to help me celebrate. We did just that last week at the book release party I threw for myself. I was so pleased and honored that so many folks came to share a cup of cheer (in the form of Washington wine). Seventy or eighty passed through The Tasting Room, where manager Jen and colleague Sarah were wonderful hosts. I’ve known Jen for a decade or more, from an early connection via the Washington Wine Commission. She still has her toes in Washington Wine, as GM and co-founder of The Tasting Room in Seattle’s Pike Place Market (with a second location in Yakima, which I haven’t made it to yet). I’m a big fan of Washington wines, so having the party in this cool space and sipping local wines was an easy draw. BUT, better yet — Jen’s a big fan of games! She has a growing collection of board games on hand at all times, so customers enjoying their glass of chenin blanc or syrah can be playing a game of Rummikub, Connect 4 or Jenga while they’re at it! It made The Tasting Room about the best place to celebrate the launch of Gourmet Game Night.
Of course it wouldn’t be a cookbook release without some samples of recipes from the book. Dear friend Susan Volland came to the rescue and put together the food for the evening, it was an up-to-eyeballs week for me and cooking volumes just wasn’t in the cards for me. We chose a menu of easy-to-transport items that offered full-flavor bites at room temperature. It was her bright idea to serve them on inexpensive (i.e. disposable) checkers and backgammon boards, and Chinese checkers trays. Fun. The Mole Flank Steak with Pickled Peppers went fast! I rub the flank steak with an easy wet paste of cocoa powder, sesame seeds, chile powders, garlic, then grill it. The steak is sliced and wrapped around pickled peppers to thread onto skewers for serving. Lots of flavor in one little bite!
The same can be said for the more diminutive Pickled Grape and Blue Cheese Skewers. Also very easy, red grapes swim for a spell (about 2 hours ideally) in a marinade of red wine vinegar, spices, bay leaf. Then the grapes are drained and skewered on a small pick with a square of blue cheese. The bright sweet-acid-spicy flavor of the grape contrasts beautifully with the rich creamy character of the cheese, a fun little nibble.
And a crowd favorite was the brutally simple Green Pea and Mint Spread with Crispy Pancetta. The vivid color and fresh flavor of the pea-mint spread is immediately appealing, with that crisp, decadent accent of pancetta to finish. I serve it on wedges of pita bread in the book, but the versatile spread could be served on toasted baguette slices, crackers, or even in little hollowed-out cherry tomatoes.
Lastly, of course there had to be a bite of something sweet. And who can say ‘no’ to chocolate? I figured the Chocolate Tartlets with Brandy Cream would be a crowd-pleaser. Though prepared tartlet shells are available in more and more store and online, what I fell in love with while working on this book was these phyllo tartlet shells. They’re pre-baked and ready to go, so you could use them for countless things. Spoon a bit of my orange-walnut chicken salad into the shells, or spoon the wild mushroom tapenade meant for crostini into these delicate little cups instead. They’re ideal for the chocolate tartlets too, the rich chocolate topped with a dollop of brandy-embellished cream (plain old whipped cream can be used, too).
It’s great to have friends in the food business. My pal Lisa Dupar, the doyenne behind Lisa Dupar Catering, clued me in to this web site, Pick On Us, which is a crazy candy store of game night goods. The site has a seemingly endless array of picks, skewers, and various types of containers that have—ostensibly—caterers in mind. But so many of the choices are ideal for game night parties. After all, both are all about entertaining in a creative, efficient, mess-free fashion.
Since the site has caterers in mind, you won’t find a little bag with 25 picks in it for next weekend’s party. Most products come in 100-count or more volume. But at prices in the roughly $5.00 to $15.00-per-100 range, it’s an affordable investment to make. Plus, they’re small, non-perishable and will happily sit tucked in the back of a cupboard or on a closet shelf until the next time you need to dig into the stash.
I wish I’d come across these bamboo “boats” earlier, I would have loved to play around with them while testing the book’s recipes! They’d be great for the sage popcorn recipe I have in the book, or maybe those addictive olive-cheese crackers! But I’ll be placing an order soon, since there’s a never-ending string of game night parties in our future. That’s something we can count on!