Epicurean Charlotte

Food & Wine Magazine

CHRONICLING THE JOYS OF FOOD AND WINE IN THE CHARLOTTE METROPOLITAN REGION

How to Throw a Holiday Party on a Budget

by Rachael White


The holidays can often drive people to go overboard on spending, but what if you’re trying to watch your wallet? Staying on budget doesn’t mean you have to cancel all holiday celebrations. It simply calls for a little more creativity. As you’ll see, creative thinking and a little planning go a long way toward making it all work. Here are some tips for throwing a fabulous holiday party on a budget.


Maintain a Tight Guest List

As nice as it would be to invite every Dick and Jane you know to your fabulous holiday bash, this isn’t the time to go overboard with your invite list. That person you met at last year’s office holiday party and promised to call but never did? Cut her from the line-up. Party planning sometimes requires ruthlessness—but it’s worth it in the name of better food, drinks, and decorations. After all, the holidays are about spending time with the people who are most important to you, so being picky about who you invite will help you create an intimate setting. A group of no more than 10 or 12 is perfect for a cost-effective yet elegant get-together. An added bonus of intimate gatherings: you’ll have more time to spend with your guests, enjoying their company (and vice versa), rather than constantly making the rounds or worrying whether everyone is having fun.


Focus on a Festive, Rustic Menu

Let’s face it: food is one of the most important components of any party—let alone a holiday party—and besides drinks, it’s usually the most spendy. But you don’t have to forego your budget or compromise quality to feed your guests. Here are a few affordable suggestions for filling fare that won’t empty your wallet.

Dress up standard fare. Get creative with the basics. Take potatoes: they’re filling, inexpensive, and versatile. Potato stacks, for example, are easy to make, affordable, and elegant. Another basic (inexpensive) ingredient: flour. Make a simple crust and compile a selection of sweet and savory tarts or galettes like a rustic potato tart. Dishes like these require few ingredients, and making the crust is easy and affordable.

Take it down a notch. I don’t mean you should compromise on flavor. However, if you rethink typical portion sizes, you’ll be able to offer a wider variety of food for a lower cost. Small bites are fun and festive, from miniature hamburgers to tiny cookies with shot glasses of milk, there are many appetizers you can make (or purchase) that won’t cost a ton of money. Not only are everyday foods undeniably cute in miniature form, they’re also easier to handle while mingling or holding a drink. Tip: Look for seasonal food offerings to keep the cost down but the taste factor right where it should be.

Cook the old-fashioned way. Break out your slow-cooker! Many cuts of meat that you may turn up your nose to for a fancy, sit-down dinner party are actually perfect for group holiday parties. With a little effort, you can serve a satisfying, warming meal for your guests with money to spare. From soups and stews to pot roast to short ribs, the options are endless for creating meals that will wow your guests and warm their souls. If you plan a meat-based meal, crock pots are very helpful in stretching the meat—and your dollar.


DIY Decorations

Decorations are essential for holiday parties. Twinkle lights, snowflakes, and other holiday-themed items help make the environment festive and put your guests in the holiday spirit. There are many ways to decorate your party space without spending a lot of money. Some take a little extra effort while others can be thrown together using items you probably already have on hand.

Take string lights placed in hurricanes, for example. They’re simple yet stunning, and they give off a soft light that helps create the perfect party ambiance for this time of year. Another great DIY idea: use paper to cut out beautiful snowflakes for garland. If you don’t want to buy paper, use pages from old magazines or newspapers. You might add a little extra sparkle by spraying the snowflakes with silver or gold glitter. Another surefire way to create a holiday-worthy environment: light tea candles and set them on mirrors or in decorative glasses. Scatter small branches or aromatic, fresh-cut herbs (sturdy ones like rosemary work best) around the candles, along with a few fresh cranberries, to create a beautiful centerpiece.

The key to throwing a holiday party on a budget is to keep things simple and make use of what you already have on hand. Don’t add a lot of fluff to the menu or decorations. Instead, do what you can in a tasteful manner to create a festive environment this holiday season. Play some holiday music in the background, relax, and enjoy the party with your guests!



Five Headache-free Holiday Hosting Tips

There's a reason the holidays are called the most wonderful time of the year. It's an opportunity to reconnect with loved ones over delicious food and shared traditions. But playing hostess can sometimes feel more like a burden rather than a blessing. This year, keep your holiday gathering fun, not frantic, with these headache-free holiday hosting tips.

1. Put time on your side. Start your dinner or cocktail party prep as soon as possible to make room for any last-minute surprises, like forgetting an ingredient or unexpected guests. Developing a checklist and assigning manageable to-dos each day will help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. For example, once the invitations have been extended, plan the menu and gather recipes and a grocery list. Take inventory of your cooking supplies, serving dishes, and tableware. While cleaning the house, identify what decorations are needed.

2. Know when to buy, when to DIY, and when to ask for help. From appetizers to desserts, determine what on the menu can be homemade, made ahead of time, or store-bought and how guests can contribute. Figure out what is actually feasible for your meal—it's OK if you can't make everything from scratch. If you've never made homemade pie, there's no reason to put your culinary skills to the test the night before. If budget allows, buy prepared dishes or desserts from the market and place on festive platters. Find do-ahead recipes that can be stored in the fridge until they're ready to be served. By prioritizing your menu and asking for help, it will alleviate unnecessary stress and allow you to enjoy the event.

3. Ditch the pile of dirty dishes in favor of disposable tableware. Instead of standing over the sink cleaning, spend the extra time celebrating with family and friends. Make sure to choose products that can stand up to heavy foods, such as mashed potatoes and gravy or stuffing. Try using eco-friendly products that are made from recycled material and are biodegradable in home composting, leaving you to only feel guilty about that second helping of green bean casserole. And, if your guests are known to be animated, opt for recyclable disposable wine glasses. They'll hold up the event's style without sacrificing your favorite stemware.

4. Set the scene the night before. Focus on setting the table, deciding where to put the drinks, gathering extra seating, and decorating the night before. That way, the day of the party, you just have to worry about putting out the food and drinks. While last minute rearranging is bound to happen, conquering the planned details ahead of time will help keep you sane.

5. Deck the dinner table with a napkin fold. For a sophisticated, yet deceptively-easy place setting idea, consider using a perfectly-coordinated line of disposable tableware and add a napkin fold as a pretty and practical accent. Although some napkin folds can be intricate, try a unique design such as a poinsettia that can be made in a matter of minutes. Include

Is Hating Cilantro Genetic?

by Justina Huddleston
reprinted with permission from menuism.com

You often hear people say, “you either love it, or you hate it,” about certain things, and with cilantro, that certainly seems to be the case. Even self-professed culinary adventurers sometimes find themselves at a roadblock with the herb, complaining of a soapy or bitter flavor. Julia Childs hated cilantro so much that she told Larry King in 2002 that if it made its way into a dish she was eating, she would just pick it out and throw it on the floor.

Other people love the herb. Its unique flavor is found in cuisines all around the world, having spread across several continents from its native southern Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia, even making its way across the sea to central and south America (while it’s known as cilantro in most of North and South America, in Europe and other parts of the world it’s called coriander).

In spite of its ubiquity, it seems that people are split over cilantro’s culinary value. Its polarizing effect is so infamous that it has inspired several groups of scientists to search for a genetic link to revulsion of the herb. And it turns out there is one … maybe.

At the University of Toronto, geneticists polled a group of 1,400 young adults about their opinion of cilantro. They found that people of different ethnicities have distinct impressions of the herb. While only 3 percent of respondents with a Middle Eastern background reported disliking cilantro, a whopping 21 percent of those with an East Asian background reported an aversion to the herb.

Another study of 25,000 people, from the genetic analysis company 23andMe, found a correlation between aversion to the herb and one single spot located next to a group of odor-detecting genes—specifically, next to a gene that is responsible for picking up on the soapy aromas that some people report tasting in cilantro.

Yet another attempt to pinpoint the source of cilantro aversion studied twins. Based on their cilantro preferences, scientists were able to isolate three more genes that could be responsible for how we interpret the herb’s flavors.

In spite of this, Nicholas Eriksson, the leader of the 23andMe study, says that the influence of certain DNA isn’t absolute. This genetic predisposition doesn’t actually “make a huge difference in cilantro preference from person to person,” he told NPR’s The Salt. In fact, according to the data, just 10 percent of cilantro aversion is the result of any specific genetic variants. And even for that 10 percent, the influence of this sort of DNA “isn’t like your height, that you’re stuck with. People can change it.”

But how?

Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has the answer.

In an interview with the New York Times, he explained that though someone’s brain may have an immediately negative response to the smell or taste of the herb, repeat exposure can help expand and change the brain’s perception.

He told the Times, “I didn’t like cilantro to begin with … But, I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day.

“So I began to like cilantro. It can still remind me of soap, but it’s not threatening anymore, so that association fades into the background, and I enjoy its other qualities. On the other hand, if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.”

Meanwhile, anthropologist Helen Leach has suggested that, as with many other foods, the cultural opinion of cilantro has fluctuated over the years. Though cilantro was a very common herb throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, it fell out of favor near the turn of the 17th century. Leach found references to coriander in French and English agricultural books that inaccurately traced the etymology of coriander to a reference to crushed insects and bed bugs, and the books were generally disparaging of the herb. She theorizes that this was a reflection of a subconscious attempt by cooks at the time to distance their food from the medieval dishes and flavors of the past. While some people genuinely just disliked the herb, the widely held negative opinion of cilantro at the time was likely a result of cultural trends.

So, if you passionately hate cilantro but are bothered by having to constantly pick those little green leaves out of your food, there is hope. Surround yourself with cilantro-positivity and attempt to retrain your brain. To speed the process, cilantrophobes might want to try it in pesto. Crushing the cilantro leaves releases an enzyme that helps mellow out the more potent aromas and flavors.

And if you already love the stuff, try not to evangelize—no one wants an arrogant, cilantro-loving know-it-all friend to be proved right!

Seven Basics to Serving Wine and Glassware: You Don’t Have to Spend a Million Dollars to Drink the High Life

by Madeline Puckette


Wine is a peculiar beverage because even something as simple as serving it in different glasses can change the way it tastes. This simple guide aims to help with the basics of serving wine and picking glassware to ensure that your wine tastes the best it possibly can.


A proper glass will make any wine taste better

In 1986, Georg Riedel, a 10th generation Austrian glass maker, came out with a line of affordable, machine-made crystal glasses called Vinum. The line featured different glass shapes for different types of wine, which caused a lot of confusion. Consumers were accustomed to using just one wine glass, and the Vinum line seemed to be complete overkill. Riedel had a clever solution, though, and he started hosting ‘wine glass tastings’ to prove first hand the difference a glass can make.

Regardless of his profit motives, Riedel was right. Even novice wine drinkers noticed a sizable difference between certain glass shapes. Ten years later, Riedel was awarded Decanter Man of The Year for his contribution to the wine world.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you have to buy the entire line of Riedel, Schott Zwiesel, or Zalto glasses, it just means that you might want to figure out what wine glasses fit your drinking style, because it really will make your wine taste better.


Wine tastes better served slightly cool

Hopefully you’ve already experienced how wildly different your coffee, tea, or soda (luke warm Coke anyone?) tastes at different temperatures. This same ideology applies to wine. Also, some of the more delicate floral aromatics in fine wines are completely subdued at overly cool temperatures or burn off too quickly when the wine is too warm.

• Red wine tastes better when served slightly below room temperature from 53˚F to 69˚F (light red wines like Pinot Noir taste better at the cooler end of the spectrum).

• White wine tastes great from about 44˚F to 57˚F. (serve zesty whites on the cool side and oak-aged whites on the warm side).

• Sparkling wine does great at 38˚F to 45˚F (serve high-quality Champagne and sparkling wines at white wine temperatures).

TIP: If you drink affordable wine most of the time, serving it slightly chilled will disguise most ‘off’ aromas. A wine above 70˚F will start to smell more alcoholic because of increased ethanol evaporation that occurs as the temperature rises.


Perfect the ritual of opening a bottle of wine

There are many different types of wine openers, and the most popular with pros is the waiter’s friend. Most of us instantly get the logic of inserting a corkscrew into a cork and using a lever arm to hoist the cork out, however it’s the little details that bewilder us.

Cutting the foil: top lip or bottom lip? Wine sommeliers cut the foil at the bottom lip. This is the tradition because foils were previously made out of lead. Also, this method tends to reduce stray drips when pouring at the table. Foil cutters, on the other hand, are designed to cut the top of the lip. Cutting the top lip is more visually appealing and ideal for moments where the wine is on display (like at a wine tasting).

Where to poke the cork? Poke the cork slightly off center. You want the radial diameter of the worm (the ‘worm’ is the curlycue part of a wine opener) to be centered so that it’s less likely to tear the cork.

Keep the cork from breaking. It takes about seven turns to insert the worm into the best spot, although wine openers vary. Basically, the corkscrew should be inserted into the cork about one turn less than all the way in. Some fine wines have long corks and you can go all the way in.


Nearly every red wine tastes better decanted

Decanting is the one thing we always forget to do that greatly improves the flavor of red wine. The classic method is to pour wine into a glass pitcher or wine decanter and let it sit for about 30 to 45 minutes. The faster way is to use a wine aerator, which decants wine almost instantaneously. With the exception of very old red and white wines, almost no wine will be harmed by decanting it (including sparkling), so it becomes a “why not?” question!

If you buy very affordable wine (sub-$10) on a regular basis, it’s not uncommon to smell rotten egg or cooked garlic. This happens even on some fine wines. Despite their sulfur-like aroma, these smells are not from sulfites nor are they bad for you. It’s a minor wine fault that is caused when wine yeast doesn’t get enough nutrients while fermenting, often during large, industrial-grade fermentations. Decanting a cheap wine will often alter the chemical state of these stinky aroma compounds, making them more palatable.

TIP: Stinky rotten egg aromas in wines can also be removed by stirring the wine with an all silver spoon or, if you’re in a pinch, a piece of sterling silver jewelry. It’s the real deal!


Pour a standard wine serving

A bottle of wine contains just over 25 ounces, so it’s common to see it portioned out into five-5 ounce (150 ml) servings. Fortunately, there are many U.S. restaurants that pour a generous 6 oz. (180 ml) serving, which is a nice gesture if you’re paying by the glass. Either way, it’s about either four or five glasses to the bottle. Often, very large glasses may hold close to (if not more than) an entire bottle of wine, so watch what you’re pouring at home. Make sure to share!


Holding a wine glass

Now that your wine is in your glass, how are you supposed to handle the awkward top heavy glass? It seems logical to cup the bowl, however your hands will heat up your wine, so hold it by the stem.


How long does wine keep after opened?

Most wine won’t last through the night if the bottle is left open. Here are a few tips to preserve open wines for much longer:

• Wine preservers are awesome, use them.

• Store open wines in the fridge (or wine fridge if you have one!). This cold storage will slow down any development of the wine, keeping it fresh.

• Keep wine away from direct sunlight and sources of heat (like above your fridge or oven).