Monday, August 20, 2012

Party Idea: DIY Bruschetta Bar

This weekend I helped out with the appetizers at a little soiree at my parents' house.  I was inspired by a recent Yummy Mummy post detailing a gorgeous summer dinner party with a great, eclectic menu.  They kicked off the party with a crostini bar...
I love any concept involving a bar of fixings.  A build-your-own burrito or taco bar, sundae bar, chili fixings station, or even an elaborate set-up of toppings for pho are some of my favorite ways to entertain.  People love to feel in control of their own consumption, and I love a concept that encourages creativity and conversation.  Plus, setting out fixings and allowing your guests to concoct their own creations makes it exceptionally easy to cater to special diets and picky eaters.  It's also so much fun to let your own culinary mind wander and see what kind of ingredients you come up with based on your guests and the general theme of the evening.  Finally, creating my Bruschetta Bar allowed me to help out at this party while still adhering to my current motto of it's-too-damn-hot-and-I'm-too-damn-pregnant-to-feel-like-cooking-much-of-anything (see: total lack of recipe posts for the last long while....).

The bar was a huge hit!  It looked gorgeous, and people kept coming back again and again to try different creations.  I had thought I'd made way too many crostini, but we actually ended up with fairly few leftovers... always a sign of success.  The best part was how easy this all was to assemble... a lot of it was in the shopping, and the remaining prep required minimal chopping and oven time.

DIY Bruschetta Bar
for a party of 10
I thinly sliced 2 fresh baguettes, set the slices on cookie sheets and brushed them with good olive oil, then sprinkled them with sea salt.  I baked them in a 350 degree oven until they were lightly toasted.
We bought:
Sun-dried Tomato Pesto
Farmhouse Chutney
Red Pepper Jelly (one of my all-time favorite condiments for anything)
Goat Cheese
Organic Cream Cheese
Fromager d'Affinois (a French double-cream, similar to a brie)
Shelled, salted green pistachios (which we finely chopped)
Dried apricots (also finely chopped)

I created a classic bruschetta topping by chopping three large heirloom tomatoes and tossing them with a chiffonade of a half-cup of fresh basil from the garden, a minced garlic clove, a hearty glug of olive oil, a dash of balsamic vinegar, and sea salt and pepper to taste.

And that was that!  Super easy to assemble, and instant rave reviews.  Some favorite combos were the d'Affinois with a sprinkle of pistachios and apricots, the cream cheese spread with pepper jelly (an idea I picked up on a river-rafting trip years ago -- except we used Ritz crackers as a vehicle -- and I have loved the flavors together ever since), and the goat cheese spread with farmhouse chutney and finished with a light dusting of pistachios.  The husband, being a bruschetta traditionalist, stuck to my tomato-basil combo and was equally happy.  

Try this at your next potluck or dinner gathering!  I prepped most of the bruschetta bar at our house and found it very easy to transport to my parents' place, so this would be a really fun thing to bring along and set up at a party where you've been tasked with an appetizer.  Mix it up with all different kinds of cheeses and spreads, and cured meats would be an awesome addition to the mix, as would smoked salmon and fresh dill, roasted figs, or an olive tapenade.  And here are some additional inspirations from my secret boyfriend, Chef Jamie Oliver.  Really, the possibilities are endless!  In fact, you could make a whole dinner of this set up for something like a book club or movie night with the ladies... leaving room for something killer for dessert.  Priorities...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Guilty Pleasure

Pregnancy is a singular experience.  This week marks the beginning of my third trimester, and it still never fails to amaze me how physical this whole condition is from start to finish. I know that sounds like the most obvious statement of the year, but I think as modern women with busy, already physical lives to lead, it is easy to brush off the more primal parts of pregnancy, bear down and get through.  When I worked in an office full-time while pregnant with little J, I know this was my M.O.  I felt compelled and duty-bound to keep my pregnancy symptoms on the down low, and keep things "normal" right up until the very end.  So, like thousands of pregnant working women everywhere, I'd puke in the bathroom during my first trimester, then quickly brush my teeth and return to the computer without saying a peep about it.  I'd work through the urge to nap, pretend my sweater wasn't actually leaping around with kicks during meetings and, towards the very end, casually have Braxton-Hicks contractions as I chimed in during planning sessions, all while acting like nothing was different.  I worked in possibly the most pregnancy-friendly environment of all time, with bosses who were like family to me, and yet I still felt this need to ignore the physicality of my own experience.

This time around, the physical ramifications of pregnancy have been utterly inescapable.  I wonder sometimes if this is because I have the luxury to truly live my symptoms since I am at home with the little man, or if this pregnancy is different; and probably a bit of each is true.  Running after a three-year-old in the summer heat with this much extra weight and less strength is grueling, probably more so than working from a desk, even with all the mental energy that entailed.  I'm also hyperaware of the encroachment of this new little fellow on each of my internal organs.  I'm quick to lose my breath, and sometimes can't seem to catch a full, deep inhale even just sitting on the couch at night.  It's increasingly harder to find a comfortable position to sit or sleep in, and I'm shocked by how quickly I vacillate from hungry to full and back again with the new dimensions of my stomach.  Most of all, I'll set down a lunch plate in front of the little dude, then become totally engulfed by the most consuming exhaustion right around 1pm.
I remember this exhaustion from my office pregnancy, and how I'd head into the bathroom and lean my head on the cool stall door for a few minutes with my eyes closed before returning to my desk, or put my head down on a table for just a beat to catch my breath.  I've never been a napper, and usually hate the disoriented and vaguely nauseas feeling that comes from waking up from a deep sleep in the middle of the day.  Even when little J was an infant, I'd eschew a nap in favor of getting nagging tasks done or having an hour just to myself... sleeping never seemed worth the trade-off.  Now, however, it seems non-negotiable.  Many afternoons, maybe even most afternoons, I put J down for his nap and proceed to crash out completely, in a pillow-mashing, drooling, snoring, fashion.  I'm stunned again and again by this newfound ability to go into a deep REM cycle between the hours of two and four.  It's amazing.

Napping is my new guilty pleasure, my lifeblood, my way of maintaining functionality while carting around these forty-odd extra pounds with no core strength in the New England summer heat.  It is also turning my personal schedule and routine upside down.  Naptime used to be the hours in which I kicked things into overdrive and really got things done around the house.  I'd cook, clean, catch up on what we call "homing" (like working, but on all things home related, from bills to fixes that need attention), crank out loads of laundry, return phone calls, and complete work projects.  This was also prime blogging time, when I'd be able to quietly clear my head and write.

Since my out-of-home employment came to an end roughly a year ago, I've been striving to treat blogging as my job, both in the hopes that giving it that attention would help it to become a more viable source of income and opportunity, and also because perhaps I felt a little adrift without the structure of my work and wanted to keep that fire burning somehow.  I set out each week with a goal of writing three blog posts, and would work diligently in any down moment I had to make that happen.  I felt productive, and the work felt promising.  And then sometime in May, with the move encroaching and my second trimester underway, those precious hours to write somehow seemed to evaporate.  I had boxes to pack, logistics to arrange, and a relentless need to nap.  At some point it occurred to me that it might be helpful to my all-around wellness to just let myself rest when my body asked to.  And so I did.  And I continue to do so.  And I know this space is suffering as a result.  I have a tremendous amount of mixed emotion about that, but mostly the exhaustion wins out every time, and I crash out in my afternoons, regardless of what I "should" be doing.  Let me say just how counterintuitive this is to my very nature.
Right now, I'm just waking up from a completely no-holds-barred snoozefest.  I have pillow marks on the right side of my face.  I feel the need to drink a quart of ice cold water.  I've got a warm, thumb-sucking toddler beside me, and a bit of a bleary feeling combined with the most delicious sense of refreshment and renewal.  I'm now going to be capable of getting through the evening without being a total maniac to those who love me, and that's lovely.  I also feel totally guilty.  Guilty that the husband could probably use an epic nap today too, but instead is working his buns off on conference calls and documents.  Guilty thinking about a friend just back to work from her second maternity leave who is sick and probably would love a nap and shouldn't have to read about mine or my precious mixed feelings about it.  And guilty that I zonked out even when I haven't written here in a week.  If I ever want writing to be my profession, I need to treat it as such, right?  Exhaustion be damned?

So here we come full circle and back to the physicality of pregnancy.  For now, my physical needs and the ability to tend to them trump all else, and posting here may continue to be sparse while I follow the lead of my energy and my body and this new baby and do what I have to do to feel as good as possible.  I recently finished an incredible book called The Happiness Project, and have been thinking a lot about the author's pathway to increased happiness in her life.  Among her gems of wisdom: "feel good to do good", "let it go", "lighten up", and that you have to make yourself happy in order to make others happy (basically, "put on your oxygen mask before assisting others"... something I'm not always good at).  All of these things apply to this new guilty pleasure of mine in some way.  I'd rather capitalize on this rare opportunity to be responsive to my physical needs than drag myself through and be sub-par at my first job, which is keeping this family and household together, only to offer you dialed in content from a place of sheer exhaustion.  I've noted some over-committed bloggers doing that this summer and wish they'd just let themselves off the hook instead of re-posting old posts or writing frequent uninspired and apologetic posts just to keep their readers engaged.  That doesn't sit right with me, even though I see the conventional wisdom in it.

Right now, I'm working on putting on my proverbial oxygen mask and removing the guilt from this pleasure.  I'm working through what my new body, life and schedule, and figuring out how to readjust and rebalance accordingly.  I imagine this is only the first of dozens of recalibrations that will need to happen in my life as a mom and as a working mom.  At the moment, I'm keeping in mind that quote from "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten", "Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o'clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap."  For now, I'm doing my part.