October 23, 2010

How to have a Secret Supper Club (small scale)

Blog, boy did our family have big fun hosting our first Secret Supper Club.  What's a Secret Supper Club, you ask?  Well, technically it's like having a one-night, private restaurant in your home, where foodies gather to sample a single menu of culinary delights.  They may be friends or friends of friends, but typically an SSC includes more like 25-50 diners.  We went small scale for ours, including our family of four plus the awesome boyfriends.  But what we lacked in size, we made up for in ambiance.

To get the ambiance of our SSC, you could start by launching this recording of Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly with Me."  That'll give you the fun, jazzy, slightly elegant, 60's-style vibe we strove for at Magic House for the occasion.  Hit it, Mr. Chairman!

Our first floor was decked out in classic autumnal/Halloween decorations, and I tweaked the lighting to go for a nightclub atmosphere.  (It worked...Manzi commented, "It looks like Blu [hip downtown club] in here!")  Manzi provided tunes from her old standards CD collection, so we enjoying the musical stylings of Dean Martin and Bobby Darin along with Frank.  For your SSC, pick any era/theme that works for you and your guests!  (I'd like to go for Big Band next time.)

Completely optional for your Secret Supper Club:  cats.

We kept to the theme with the bar service, as I offered specialty drinks for the night chosen from AMC's "Mad Men," classic 60s drinks.  Here's the menu:

And the bar prepped for business:

Theme-oriented clothing was an option for guests (I don't mean "clothing was optional," Blog...SSC is not that kind of a get-together).  I wore a cocktail dress and Manzi went for a 60's mod look. 

Katie looked sharp as always...

...and the guys (as guys will do) were more casual but still nice.  For your SSC, you can leave the style vs. comfort option up to your guests too.

Our dining table comfortably seats six so that was the perfect number for our party.  You may want to go with china and white linens for a more traditional supper club look, or seasonal like we did with our autumnal colors.

Of course first and foremost, Secret Supper Club is about great food.  You don't have to, but we made our SSC pot luck style, because we have a lot of great cooks in our family.  The execution and serving of the meal can be made more enjoyable (we confirmed) if (1) people prep as much in advance as possible, and (2) you serve by courses, which means not too many people in the kitchen at once.  It's also nice to spread the meal out over the evening:  ours took about three hours from start to finish.

Up first was Nate, who prepared the most delectable and unreal appetizer:  tuna tostadas.  He lightly seared some sushi-quality tuna, and served it sliced thin on corn tortilla pieces, topped with black bean and mango salsa, roasted red pepper sauce, and avocado vinagrette.  Absolutely divine, Blog.  We each enjoyed two or three pieces while enjoying our cocktails in the living room.

The next course, eaten at the table, was Katie's pumpkin bacon soup.  She made this delectable, creamy concoction with the perfect combination of subtle autumnal seasonings, a little kick of cayenne, and the best bacon in Wisconsin, Nueske's. 

Words cannot describe the deliciousness of this soup, Blog...I would love to have a bathtub full.  Nevertheless, note that smaller servings are key to a Secret Supper Club that won't leave you gorged and logey!

The main course included:  My salad (a copycat of the chop salad at Maggiano's, with bleu cheese, prosciutto, red onion, a nummy vinagrette, and homemade garlic croutons)....

...Manzi's brie orzo (creamy, rich, and scrumptious)....and a chicken stir fry with orange teriyaki flavors that was technically Chris's dish but prepared by Katie in the kitchen (so, so tasty with that sauce).

After a bit of clean up, we retired to the living room again for coffee and dessert, that being Davie's contribution of chocolate tiramisu.  The tiramisu connaisseurs among us (myself included) thought it was the best version they had ever tasted.  Davie used a recipe from Giada De Laurentiis, which we tweaked slightly, replacing the marsala with half creme de cacoa, half Starbucks coffee liqueur, and replacing the espresso with very strong coffee in the Highlander Grogg flavor from Berres Brothers.  So, so, SO delish!

Add to the evening our hysterical conversation in response to Chris's prompt, "If you could put any musical act onto a plane that was going to crash, who would you choose?", and you have the picture of a perfect Secret Supper Club.  Needless to say, we had some very opposing opinions of ABBA, Phil Collins, and the Eagles.

So, Blog, you may be wondering how, in essence, a Secret Supper Club differs from a dinner party.  My answer:  it's all in how you look at it!  The whole point is to look at it as a very special occasion, and do a few little things to make it so.  I'll tell you, the fact that four of the evening's dishes made our Favorite Foods Ever List (the appetizer, the soup, the orzo and the tiramisu) didn't hurt. 

And what made it the most special was that special people made it and enjoyed it together!

October 19, 2010

Blog’s imaginary cupcake shoppe

Today I’m letting Blog take over (always a risky proposition) to weigh in on the hottest topic in America today. No, it’s not the upcoming election, Obamacare, or even “Jersey Shore.” It’s cupcakes. What’s on your mind, Blog?

Well, Diana, it seems cupcakes are the new martinis. I mean, a few years ago everyone was obsessed with developing crazy new martini recipes, like the Scarlett O’Hara (vodka, Irish whisky, with dirt-rimmed glass and turnip slice garnish). But right now, the craze is definitely cupcakes. All you need is an oven, a cupcake pan, and your imagination, and you too can develop a menu of exotic cupcakes and open yourself a cupcake shoppe (and I hope you are pronouncing that “shoppee” in your mind when you read it).

I, Blog, would name my awesome shoppe “I’ll Cup Your Cake” or maybe “Cuppeecake-adelic.” It would have a sign shaped like a what? A cupcake! With sparkles. My spokesperson would be Elijah Wood. Why? Because I found this super excellent photo of Elijah Wood with a Cupcake:
Need I say more? And I would offer great cupcakes like these:

1. The Jalapeno Ranch. Cornbread cupcake with spicy bits of jalapeno, with fluffy Ranch dressing flavored buttercream frosting.

2. The Death by Chocolate. Dark chocolate cupcake with chocolate chips, bits of real Godiva 80% cacao chocolate, fudge pudding filling, chocolate buttercream drizzled with chocolate and dipped in chocolate sprinkles, with a chocolate chocolate chip truffle on top, topped with more drizzle and sprinkles, all tucked inside a bigger dark chocolate cupcake with chocolate chips, bits of real Godiva 80% cacao chocolate, fudge pudding filling, chocolate buttercream drizzled with chocolate and dipped in chocolate sprinkles, with a chocolate chocolate chip truffle on top, topped with more drizzle and sprinkles.

3. The Death by Vanilla. Vanilla cupcake with vanilla chips, vanilla pudding filling, vanilla buttercream drizzled dipped in vanilla sprinkles, with a vanilla truffle on top, topped with more sprinkles, all tucked inside a bigger vanilla cupcake with vanilla chips, vanilla pudding filling, vanilla buttercream drizzled dipped in vanilla sprinkles, with a vanilla truffle on top, topped with more sprinkles.

4. The Meat Lover’s. Meatloaf with gooey cheese filling, topped with garlic mashed potatoes and a meatball.

5. The Wapatuli. Captain Morgan’s rum cupcake with Hawaiian punch/Everclear flavored filling, and Malibu/Jack buttercream frosting.

6. The Lady Gaga. Electric pink cupcake piled very, very, VERY high with glitter frosting and topped with Beanie Babies.

7. The Thanksgiving (seasonal). Sourdough stuffing cupcake with gravy filling and bits of real turkey, with pumpkin cream icing, sprinkled with corn.

8. The Lost. Coconut cupcake with bits of Apollo bar, buttercream frosting flavored with MacCutcheon scotch, topped with a Dharma brand macaroon.

9. The Handyman. Oriented strand board cupcake topped with spray foam insulation.

10. The Wisconsin. Cheddar cheese flavored cupcake with bits of bratwurst, dipped in beer batter and deep fried, on a stick.
How could my cupcake shoppee possibly fail with treats like these on the menu? My mouth is watering just imagining it. Or would be if I weren’t merely a mouthless, non-corporeal, anthropomorphized being. Yum.

[<--P.S., you can get the actual awesome instructions to make an actual meaty meatlovers cupcake like this one here!]

October 15, 2010

Disliking your job? Well, you’re not alone

Blog, I know you don’t dislike your job, because I’m such an awesome boss! LOL But seriously, folks, everywhere I go lately, I seem to be hearing people complaining about their jobs. Is job dissatisfaction more of an issue these days than usual? I think so.

Firstly I’d like to speak on behalf of my fellow American workers--yes, we do know that we enjoy good pay, benefits and working conditions by the standards of many countries on Planet Earth, and we don’t mean to ignore that fact. Still, I think we are right to be upset at some of the trends affecting the workforce in the U.S. of A.

What I’m hearing here is complaints about salary stagnation or cuts, benefits reductions, and an overall decline in rewards for our work. I’ve heard of companies that require long hours and increased workload of their employees, rather than adding staff or rehiring those who were let go. I’ve heard of businesses that hire temp-to-perm, only to keep staff at the temp level indefinitely to avoid having to pay them benefits.

My theory as to why this is happening is not rocket science: Used to be that when you felt ill-treated by an employer, you looked for a different, better job. I’ve done that myself a couple of times. After a couple of weeks or months, you nailed down the new position and handed your icky employer a resignation letter. With some smug self-satisfaction, I might add.

But not so in 2010. The unemployment situation being what it is, there are just not that many jobs. And those that exist, are offered at salaries below what used to be appropriate--and therefore below what you’re earning now, possibly even with that pay cut you took in 2009. The benefits are lower everywhere, the perks harder to find. And if you do risk temp-to-perm, you may go benefit-less for longer than you ever suspected.

In real estate, you call it a buyer’s market: devalued properties eager to be bought. In the world of employment, it’s an employer’s market. And it seems a lot of employers are taking advantage of it without the slightest shame.

Raise your hand if you’re ready to punch the next person who says “Be glad you have a job!” As much compassion as I’m sure we all feel for the unemployed, we can’t be expected to be happy about what’s happening to the employed. Suddenly it seems that employers have license to take as much advantage of workers as they want, since after all, we should all just be glad we have jobs.

What we see is an economy that really seems to be recovering. We see the companies we work for reporting sales comparable to and even above what they achieved in the boom days. We see economic indicators improving. And all we ask is if we could all be reset to the way it was before things took a dive...we don’t even expect to get back the raises and bonuses and cost-of-living adjustments we missed out on.

Unfortunately, by not doing that, employers can pad their bottom lines even more. (And dare I say, increase certain key salaries.) It’s looking like ethics and genuine human compassion are not motivational enough to many businesses, so they take advantage of the situation because they can.

Those who know me know I am totally a proponent of free-market capitalism. And those not so enamored of capitalism will tell me, “See, here’s what happens in this system you love so much! Bwahaha!” Yeah, I get that what’s going on is partly inherent in capitalism.

But you know what? There’s another principle that occurs in free-market capitalism: You get what you pay for. And if what I hear on the street is any indication, the employees’ response to

“Be glad you have a job”


“Okay, I’m only going to work hard enough to keep from being fired.”

What businesses get in return for their attitude is bad morale, which leads to lower productivity, mistakes, and eventually, a failing business.

American workers as a group generally have pride in their work performance, and what I see happening even now is people working harder, putting up with the situation, grinning and bearing it. But eventually even the most dedicated employees crack if they feel they are being consistently taken advantage of. Their new focus will be on determining just how little they have to care to keep their job, and they will strive for that benchmark instead of doing their all to help their companies succeed and thrive.

The recession was scary, and we all had to make sacrifices. But if the powerful expect to reap the benefits of recovery while their underlings continue to sacrifice, they will eventually get their comeuppance. Jobs are coming back, and American workers won’t forget which companies treated them fairly in the aftermath of the recession and which did not. In a free market, the good employees do find their way to the good employers, and they will do that again.

So that’s my little manifesto, Blog...wow, I felt like Che Guevara or something for a minute there! I want to close on a more positive note: To those employers who treated your employees well during this time when you could have gotten away with less (and you know who you are), thank you! Here’s to your huge success in 2011! And please send me your names, I have a lot of friends looking for new jobs. :-)

October 4, 2010

New clothes for I.C.U.

Blog, during Davie's and my little trip to Madison last Friday, I lost the cloth case that has been my camera's protective clothing for the several years I've had him. Poor, naked little guy. So I had to come up with a new get-up for I.C.U. post haste.

What specifically to do was pretty much a no-brainer to someone who has a huge pile of felt and a huge box of buttons. Please don't think I was clever enough to come up with this idea myself. Many more have done so before me, as a search for "camera case" on Etsy.com will reveal.  At any rate, I think it turned out pretty button.

The trickiest part of my sharing I.C.U.'s new outfit with you was the fact that, well, he can't take a photo of himself wearing it! Obviously! I had to call in 'Berry, my phone, to be substitute photographer. When I saw the pictures that 'Berry took, I realized how much better a papparazzo I.C.U. is. Well, what part of "Your camera will take better photos than your phone" is counterintuitive, Blog?

So the top photo in this post had to be I.C.U.'s picture of the case without him wearing it. Before you decide to post a comment about how 'Berry's pics are almost as good, please be informed that I had to photoshop the heck out of them to fix the colors, brightness, contrast, etc. So what you're seeing is actually a demonstration of my amazing Photoshop skills.  Oh yes, I do rock.  (Um, sorry.)

And really, should we be overly concerned about my phone's ego? After all, he's the one who can get to the Web almost anywhere, download my email, check in to Facebook, and play Bubble Chain.  I.C.U. doesn't do anything but take pictures, so he damn well better do it well.

And now, thanks to my huge pile of felt and huge box of buttons, he can do it in clothes again.  Well...actually...that's not true, as I just proved.  But you know what I mean, Blog.

October 3, 2010

Blog interviews the word "awesome"

It's high time I once again handed over the reigns to Blog for one of his awesome interviews. And today his awesome interview is with...wait for it...oh yeah, the title already told you, the word "awesome."  Take it away, Blog!

Blog:  We're really pleased you could take time from your busy schedule to join us today, Awesome.

Awesome: Glad I could fit you in, Blog. Did you know at any particular second on Planet Earth, an average of 9,207,450 people are employing me in conversation?

Blog:  Doesn't surprise me a bit.  I know how difficult it's going to be for me to get through this entire post without employing you myself, Awesome.  Can you give us some reasons why you believe you've become so popular?

Awesome:  I have a theory on that, Blog.  I call it The Awesome Theory About Awesome, or TATAA.

Blog:  Of course you do.

Awesome: "Awesome" is one of those rare adjectives that can be used in place of any number of positive descriptors.  Those other descriptors would give the listener more specific information about the awesomeness of the thing being described, which would be good.  But the speaker would have to employ his or her brain and take the time to actually choose the most appropriate adjective, which would be bad.

Blog:  Not sure I'm clear on that, Awesome.  Could you provide some examples?

Awesome:  But of course.  Help me out by substituting "awesome" for each more accurate adjective I use.  This won't count against you in your effort to not use the word in this post, Blog.

Blog:  Okay, good.  Go ahead!

Awesome:  "This monster cheeseburger with jalapenos is delicious."

Blog:  "This monster cheeseburger with jalapenos is awesome!"

Awesome:  "I think Brewster Rockit is a very clever, humorous and entertaining comic strip."

Blog:  "I think Brewster Rockit is an awesome comic strip!"

Awesome:  "Diana Laurence's books are original, creative, engaging and delightful."

Blog:  "Diana Laurence's books are awesome!"  Well gosh, Awesome, I see what you mean.  It's almost like every other positive adjective in the English language could be eliminated if we all agreed just to use "awesome" for everything.

Awesome:  Not only that, it's a multi-purpose exclamation of pleasure too!  Let's try it, Blog.  "You got the job?  I'm so proud of you!"

Blog:  "You got the job?  Awesome!"

Awesome:  "There's a rest stop at the next exit with bathrooms? Thank heavens, because I royally have to pee."

Blog:  "There's a rest stop at the next exit with bathrooms? Awesome!"

Awesome:  "Firefly is coming back to television?  That's the best news I've had all month because that show was so original, interesting and fun and I really thought Simon Tam was hot."

Blog:  "Firefly is coming back to television?  Awesome!"

Awesome:  I tell you, Blog, I'm like the Swiss army knife of words.

Blog:  Meanwhile, you've appeared so much in the copy here that the word is starting to look weird to me.  AH-WEE-SO-MEE...

Awesome:  Uh...steady on, Blog.

Blog:  Sorry.  Anyway, tell me, Awesome...have there been any other words in history that can compare to you in ubiquitousness?  Ubiquitosity?

Awesome:  I think the closest thing is "cool."  However, there are certain situations in which you can employ "awesome" but "cool" doesn't work.

Blog:  As in?

Awesome:  Well, like you can say "Thomas Jefferson was awesome at writing stuff like the Declaration of Independence," but not "T.J. was cool at writing stuff like the Declaration of Independence."

Blog:  Yes, I see the subtle difference.

Awesome:  You can say "This hot pad is too awesome" but not "This this hot pad is too cool."

Blog:  How about "This cool pad is too hot?"

Awesome:  Right.  Meanwhile, other slang words that have been used as positive modifiers over the years are equally not as versatile.  Like "fresh," "the bomb-diggity," "rockin'" and even "sweet."

Blog:  Not to mention "the cat's pajamas."

Awesome:  Good example.  Like you can say, "That cat's pajamas are awesome," but not "That cat's pajamas are the cat's pajamas."

Blog:  "That cool cat's pajamas are cool"?  No way!  "That cool cat's pajamas are awesome" is so much better!

Awesome:  You know it, bro!

Blog:  And if you checked into a fancy hotel and opened the door to your rooms, would you say "Hey, this suite is SWEET!"?  If you bought yourself a fine aged cheese, sampled it, and found it delicious, would you say, "Wow, this aged cheddar is FRESH!"?

Awesome:  Awesome suite, awesome cheddar, my friend!

Blog:  Well, now I see why any minute of the day, 9,207,450 people are employing you in conversation.

Awesome:  Not to mention the additional 3,707,825 people employing me on Facebook and in tweets.

Blog:  I don't know what English-speaking peoples would do without you, Blog.

Awesome:  They'd have to refamiliarize themselves with hundreds of words like grand, attractive, spectacular, inspiring, appealing, beautiful, skillful, exemplary....

Blog:  Oh stop, stop, my head hurts.  A person's vocabulary can only be so big.

Awesome:  Exactly.  And you're welcome.  But now I must be off, I'm needed all over the English-speaking world!  TA-TAA!

Blog:  Ta-taa, Awesome.  You've been really great.