I’m introducing today Sandy Bergsten, a friend since 7th grade, and a relatively new blogger who has something to say about entertaining, which is what her site AndSheCooks2.com is all about: “Entertaining with ease.” Sandy is a former professional cook who loves to entertain and she simply has always given the best dinner parties—whether from her tiny Manhattan apartment when she lived there or her house in Cleveland, and now in Dayton, Ohio. She was so good at it, made it look so easy, I encouraged her to blog about it. She’s taken up the challenge and I’ve requested a brief Q&A on entertaining issues people have and what she advises. Sandy is also sharing with us her recipe for Risotto Carbonara.
Michael Ruhlman: Hi, Sandy, thanks for being here and answering a few of my questions!
Sandy Bergsten: No, problem. But let’s stay away from that 7th grade make-out party.
MR: Ah, fond memories, dear friend, but food and entertaining is on the menu today. What in your opinion are the biggest obstacles people face when having a dinner party?
SB: Just doing it. People feel overwhelmed by the prospect, but shouldn’t. They feel they do not have ability, the time, or the money. All you need to do is jump into it. By preplanning, prepping, and getting organized anyone can entertain and have fun. The key is knowing what you do best and maximizing it, and recognizing where you fall short and delegating that.
MR: You used to do this for a living, but even you must have strengths and weaknesses.
SB: I was trained in Nouvelle Cuisine so I'm really good at making a multi-course meal. Happily, offering several courses is a great way to keep costs down (portions are smaller, especially for the main) and many of the components can and should be made ahead of time (soups, salad dressings, etc.), which means you're spending more time with your guests and less time in the kitchen.
Weakness: I'm a lousy baker. My desserts fall short—literally, my cakes and pies collapse. Most guests offer to bring something. I usually outsource the dessert. If I'm making my own, it will be something I can stow in the freezer like frozen chocolate crepes or lemon sorbet in lemon cups. For a quick go-to dessert, take gourmet brownies, cut each into eight triangles, arrange on a platter, sprinkle with fresh raspberries and a sprig of mint.
MR: You brought up cost; money is a big issue. How can you be frugal without seeming cheap or skimping?
SB: The best way to cut down on cost is portion size and preparing exactly what you need to serve. Most people cook way more than they need to when entertaining.
Serving several courses really helps. To start I often serve soup, which more often than not is essentially vegetables and chicken stock blended together. For my main course each guest gets 4–6 ounces of protein coupled with at least two fresh sides. I'm big on serving multiple vegetables such as puréed cauliflower (instead of mashed potatoes) alongside sautéed spinach and garlic. Grilled asparagus is always a winner, so are roasted grape tomatoes. Your perfectly portioned tuna steak is going to look fabulous when you have a bright, colorful plate.
Also think about the cut. My neighborhood butcher in New York City, Harry Oppenheimer, always said, “Save the best cuts when it's just you and your husband. For a crowd marinate a flank steak or pork tenderloin.”
MR: My philosophy as well; I do short ribs or a big slow-roasted pork shoulder.
SB: And I always serve a salad course after the main. That way people can fill up on a mixed green salad, a small selection of cheeses and a crusty baguette. A diminutive dessert is then the perfect finish.
Nowadays people appreciate being served a healthy, well-portioned meal.
MR: What do you do about all these whacky diets people are coming up with, and all these diet restrictions they expect you to accommodate? How do you handle that?
SB: Boy, this is a sticky wicket! On one hand you have people who might require an epi pen if they consume my gazpacho, which I make with clam juice. On the other you have folks who are simply trying on the diet du jour (an increasingly annoying fad). The fact is that entertaining means you actually want to "entertain" your guests, not watch them glumly poke around their plate.
Here's how I handle it. I ask everyone I invite if there is something that they cannot or would rather not eat. Once I get the verdict I plan my menu. Let me preface that I do not cater to the lowest denominator. I often make a suitable swap.
At a business dinner for twelve one of my guests disclosed that he was experimenting with being a vegan. Beef tenderloin with a fresh horseradish sauce was on the menu. Instead of opting for an entire meal with no mothers or faces, I proceeded with my tenderloin and grilled him a lightly marinated portabella mushroom. Here’s a post where the combined guests could consume seemingly nothing and the night turned out to be a huge hit.
People get all excited about gluten-free. Some simply choose not to eat it, others can become very ill if they consume even a speck. A quick look on Google will produce a long list of all the gluten-free things you can eat. Lactose is easy to avoid and easy for an intolerant guest to eat around. If a guest with a food issue can eat 75% of the meal I declare it a victory for all. It's just critical that you alert your guests ahead of time.
Maybe it's my age and my less forgiving metabolism, but nowadays my menus are fresh, light, and pretty healthy. I'm lucky that most of my friends love to eat absolutely everything. I must admit I tend to gravitate toward exuberant foodies. As for the picky ones, if they don't bring some other redeeming quality to the table, I'm apt to skip them next time I'm throwing a party!
MR: One last question, what’s your goal in writing about entertaining on your site?
SB: I get so excited when readers who haven’t entertained in years realize “I can do that” and then throw a party. In this fast-paced world of texts and tweets, getting people to the table is a remarkable feat. Showing them that they can have fun in the process—well, that’s an accomplishment.
- 2 (14.5-ounce) cans chicken broth
- 3 thick slices bacon, cut into ¼ inch strips
- 1 cup chopped leek, washed and trimmed, white and light green parts only
- 1 cup Arborio rice
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon butter
- ⅓ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (divided use)
- ½ cup frozen tiny peas, thawed and at room temperature
- 3 eggs, at room temperature
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Bring the broth to a simmer in a small saucepan and keep warm.
- Sauté the bacon until crisp in a large skillet over medium heat. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and drain on a paper towel. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of bacon fat.
- Add the leek and sauté for 4 minutes until soft but not brown. Reduce the heat to medium-low.
- Add the rice and sauté for 1 minute. Add the wine and simmer for 1 minute.
- Add the hot broth ½ cup at a time, simmering and stirring often. When the broth is almost absorbed, add another ½ cup broth until it is creamy and just tender, about 25 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring a medium skillet of water to a slow, rolling boil.
- Stir the butter into the rice. Add the Parmesan, bacon, and 1 tablespoon of the parsley. Carefully fold in the peas.
- In the skillet of boiling water gently add the three eggs from a bowl. Carefully swirl the water. Poach the eggs for 3–4 minutes or until just set.
- Divide the risotto among three plate/bowls and top with a poached egg. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon parsley and season with salt and pepper.
- Serve immediately, with extra Parmesan on the side.
If you liked this post on my Q & A with Sandy Bergsten, check out these other links:
- My post on the Ghostwriter Dustup.
- Recipe for making Cherry Liqueur from Leite's Culinaria.
- Delish is an all-around food blog that covers recipes, chefs, and more.
- It is hot out and we need to give props to Jeni's Ice Cream because her products are great.
© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.