Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

Money, Time and Space-Saving Thanksgiving Tips (For apartment dwelling hosts!)

 

Well, folks. I did it. I made my very first turkey. I feel like I just crossed some important threshold in my adult life. I haven’t felt this grown-up since I booked my first podiatrist appointment.

Saturday I hosted my 2nd annual Friendsgiving dinner, and it was awesome. It’s my new favorite fake holiday, trumping even Festivus and National Talk Like a Pirate Day. Last year was my first time to host this important event (hence…2nd annual), and things went more smoothly with a year’s time and a little experience under my pilgrim’s belt. Since Thanksgiving (aka: best real holiday ever) is right around the corner, I thought I’d share some of the tips that helped me feel stress-free. If you’re an apartment dweller, hosting a seated holiday dinner can seem like a pretty intimidating idea, but I assure you…it can be done!

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SAVE SPACE

FIGURE OUT WHO’S COMING: I hesitated writing this post because friends read my blog who weren’t part of this event, and if I had it my way I’d own a 30-seat table so I could accommodate more wonderful people. But since Friendsgiving/Thanksgiving is a seated dinner, it forces us to narrow the focus on a specific guest list. For Friendsgiving, I choose to invite a group of people who all know one another pretty well (you’ll see why this bit is relevant later in this post). We had 17 last year, and it was tiiiiiight. But do-able. So if you live in an apartment, never fear! You can do it. But be realistic with how many invitations you extend.

MOVE STUFF AROUND: When I host seated dinner parties, I end up completely deconstructing my home. With a two-room apartment (note: two-room, not two-bedroom–big difference), I really have no choice. When dinner is served in our kitchen/living room, that means appetizers and desserts are served in our bedroom.

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The sofa gets moved to the bedroom, so folding tables can be brought in for dinner. A chest of drawers next to our bed gets cleared off and becomes a dessert buffet. It’s very New York, and actually makes the party feel more intimate and kind of sweet. Little do our friends know that their chocolate cake is being served right above Vin’s underwear. Well, now they do.

INVEST IN FOLDING TABLES: We got three folding tables at Home Depot and ten folding chairs from Ikea, and we get SO much use out of them. We also use every counter available for hosting– bedside tables, bureaus, windowsills. Gotta make the most out of your space when you’re an apartment dweller!

CLEAN OFF YOUR KITCHEN COUNTER: When potlucking, your kitchen counter is going to fill up FAST once people start arriving. Hide things that aren’t essential, pack away any unused appliances, and make sure you have a big blank canvas for people to start piling things on.

GET YE A COAT STAND:  In a small apartment, 14 coats and 7 purses can make a tight space feel immediately claustrophobic and messy. Instead of having people drape coats on the couch or bed (which I always need for actual seating/lounging), Vin and I cram our own coats in a closet, then make sure all guests’ coats get corralled in one place on the coat stand.

 

SAVE TIME

PAPER OR PLASTIC? For me, both. We don’t have a dishwasher, and no one has time or energy at the end of the night to hand-wash 14 sets of big plates, little plates, bowls, cups and wine glasses. To keep things looking uniform and pretty without falling victim to dishpan hands, I use a strategic mix of permanent plates and disposable serveware. Knowing we will spend a lot less time wasting water makes me feel a little better about all the garbage we put out. Once I know I’m hosting and have a good idea of our guest count, I buy my plates, napkins and tablecloths. I like to get all decorative stuff out of the way early so I can just focus on food the week of the party.

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I set the tables with plastic tablecloths and paper plates and cups. Then I mix it up with glass stemware, pretty silver or glass platters, and good silverware. With the lights off and candles lit, you really can’t tell the difference anyway. Party City has a great selection of disposable stuff in a full range of autumnal colors and they’re cheap. Local dollar stores are good resources too. Pick a color scheme, stick to it, and cheap stuff looks more expensive. Is it sad that I get so much enjoyment from setting a table? Eh- don’t answer that.

BUY YOUR TURKEY EARLY!  For last year’s Friendsgiving I served pork tenderloin because a) I had no idea you had to defrost a turkey for several days in the fridge, and b) I completely underestimated how difficult it would be to find a fresh turkey in Queens two weeks before Thanksgiving. You generally need 24 hours of defrosting time per 5 pounds. For a 21-lb bird, I bought it on Monday night, and cooked it up on Saturday.

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PREP ALL WEEK: I don’t like rushing the day of a party, so I’ve learned over the years to use the whole week to ensure that I don’t. I knew I was making sweet potato casserole and butternut squash soup, so I peeled and baked those a few days before the event and stored them in tupperware until I was ready to assemble the dishes. That morning, all I had to do was mix them with the rest of the ingredients. Easy-peasy. Anything that required baking (ie: pies, cookies, cornbread) was taken care of Friday night, so they wouldn’t have to compete with the big bird for oven space on Saturday afternoon.

TAKE SHORTCUTS: Sorry, I don’t do homemade crusts. Those little Jiffy pie crust mixes cost less than a buck and create a pretty decent pie crust in like two minutes (seriously, all you do is add cold water, stir and roll out into your pie pan).  In lieu of homemade rolls (which I do love), this year I made cornbread instead, which requires no rising, kneading or hand-holding. Know what’s even faster? Go to the bakery or grocery store and buy ready-made or frozen bread dough. Bada-bing, bada-boom. Most people don’t notice the difference.

 

SAVE MONEY

GO POT-LUCK:  Thanksgiving is a communal feast if there ever was one. I would have been stressed out, cramped for time, and halfway to broke if I’d made all the dishes myself. Once I extended the initial save the date (about 6 weeks in advance) I let people know I’d send out another email to get a thread going about food contributions. As the host, I would make the main course (turkey), a few sides and a dessert. I then gave some suggestions for contributions that would be helpful, and would blend with what I was planning to cook. Since everyone has different dietary restrictions, I made sure we’d be covered in all areas so I asked for friends to contribute vegetarian-friendly and dairy-free side dishes and desserts.

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WELCOME NON-FOOD CONTRIBUTIONS:  Not everyone enjoys cooking, so always extend a non-food option. Wine, beer, soda, ice, coffee creamer and jugs of water are always helpful.

RECYCLE, REUSE, REPURPOSE:  Did you know you can reuse all those glass candle holders you have? If you have old wax in a nice glass canister, pop it in your freezer for a few hours. Then you can break up the wax easily with a knife and wash it out with Palmolive and a sponge. They’re great to use as vases, candy dishes, or to burn fresh candles in. The short vase here used to house a candle. The tall vase is actually a drink dispenser filled with fake leaves I picked up for a buck at the dollar store.

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USE BUDGET INGREDIENTS: Pumpkin desserts are cheap; pecan desserts are not ($8 for a tiny bag- no pecan pie this year folks!). Sweet potatoes–cheap! Dishes requiring bacon? Not cheap! I wasn’t planning on making brussel sprouts, but when I went to my market on Friday, they were on crazy sale, so I ended up swapping out green beans for brussels at the last minute. A little flexibility can shave off  quite a few dollars.

 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

BUY A BIGGER TURKEY THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED. I bought a 21-pounder, thinking there’d be tons of leftovers. If you’re going to go ahead and devote so much time to one food project, make a really big one and get a few more meals out of it. Our group ate the bird clean! Wish there were more leftovers this week, but I’m really glad they liked it and I didn’t kill anyone. (PS: If you don’t have one, make sure to get a meat thermometer so you don’t kill anyone either).

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GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT: I heard four people ask “Is there gravy?”. There wasn’t. Note for year three– make the gravy. Also! Buy gravy boat.

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE:  Recipe didn’t call for it, but I threw a shot of whiskey in my sweet potatoes. Know your audience.

DON’T GO NUTS. I cop to the fact that I tend to overdo it. I start scouring Pinterest and my cookbooks, and then fantasize about making a huge spread with a million different things. I have to continually remind myself to reign it in a bit, and not go bananas with too much food. I kept it much simpler this time, and it made my day less complicated, less expensive, and no one missed out on anything.

SERVE ALLERGENIC STUFF SEPARATELY: We’ve got friends who are vegetarian and others who can’t have nuts or dairy. I like keeping small bowls of toppings on the table so people can customize dishes to their liking. Last year I made a butternut squash polenta which people could top with either bacon or cheese. This year I made a butternut squash and apple soup, then left out bowls of maple-cinnamon-cream (holla!) and almonds to put on top. The cream also doubled as topping for the pumpkin pie. If you can go double-duty on items- do it!

BUY TAKEOUT CONTAINERS:  The last few events I’ve hosted left us with pounds of uneaten food in our fridge.  I finally wised up and bought some takeout containers so guests could help us finish up the leftovers. Everyone packed doggie bags, and we now have a reasonable amount of food to eat for the week.

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SET THE MOOD:

START NEW TRADITIONS:  Thanksgiving, in my opinion, is the best holiday because it’s the one that emphasizes bonding, community, gratitude, and togetherness as opposed to over-the-top expectations and egregious consumerism. It’s a holiday that seems to bring out peoples’ sentimental sides, and it’s a great time to begin and maintain traditions with your family and friends-that-feel-like-family.

I started a tradition last year that our group seems to really enjoy, and it’s one I plan to continue doing as the years roll by. I give little writing assignments at the table that put a spin on the old “what I’m thankful for” lists people conjur up this time of year. For example, last year, I gave everyone a card and had them write 3 things they’re thankful for. Then they had to also write something nice about the two people sitting next to them. It ended up being a great mix of sweet and hilarious. Apparently my husband smells “exactly how a man should smell.”

friends notes

This year, I had everyone draw a name of someone else sitting at the table. Then they had to write down everything they were thankful for, in the voice of the person whose name they drew. It ended up being a collective roast, and it was hysterical. My friend Kerri drew my name and read her list in a questionable Texas accent, giving thanks for having a group of friends in Queens so I could “introduce them to cornbread and good manners”. It was fantastic.

And now I need to know…what are your best tips for hosting Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving on a budget? Do you have any fun traditions that you do year after year?

Anyway, that’s a wrap for this post. Off to stick my face in some leftover pie.

 

 

 

 

 

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16 Tips for Stress-Free Entertaining

Before there was Martha Stewart, there was my mother, who stenciled roses on top of homemade pie crust and hired fortune tellers for Halloween parties. She was the kind of mom who baked delicate homemade petit fours for my tea parties, and added dry ice to the punch bowl for my brother’s magic-themed birthday bash. She could arrange a food platter like nobody’s business, and I’m still convinced she invented the world’s first cookie bouquet.

To say I’m a chip off the old block doesn’t really cover it. I’m pretty much the whole damn block.

I love to entertain at home. I love the planning. I love dreaming up the menu. I love shopping for food and decorations. I love setting the table, for crying out loud. I enjoy the creative part of making something to share with others. But mostly, I love when the planning ends, and my tiny apartment finally begins to be filled by the people that I care about. And then they start talking, and eating and laughing and my heart starts thinking, “Man, life is good.”

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But it has taken some time for me to learn how to throw a nice little party, and I figure out something new every time I host one. I’ve learned by default what’s worth the effort, and what’s not; what adds stress and what taketh away. There are definitely a few formulas that I stick with when hosting, and they help me avoid overcomplicating the event so that I can actually enjoy it myself. Because if you’re doing it right, there’s a point in the party when the hostess needs to become a guest too. If not, you’re just a waitress accommodating to everyone else. And what’s the fun in that?

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The first party I ever threw was a Cinco de Mayo brunch back in 2007. I had moved into my very own apartment the previous fall, and because I had lived with roommates up until that time, didn’t have a whole lot in the dishware department. Vin and I made huevos rancheros–a truly delicious breakfast dish– but a poor choice when entertaining a group of 10. We spent the morning in the kitchen flipping made-to-order fried eggs while our friends were out back drinking and enjoying!

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Since then, I’ve definitely figured out ways to make entertaining fun for guests and easier on myself. I’ve also bought a few nice bowls so I don’t have to use pots as serving pieces:). Here are a few of my favorite tips that I’d like to pass along to any other hostess-with-the-mostess types.

 

1. GET ORGANIZED.

Pick a date well in advance and inform people as early as you can, especially if you’re hosting during a busy time like the summer months or holiday season. You’ll have a better turnout, and it will give you plenty of time to pull together everything you need.

2. GET COHESIVE.

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I’m not suggesting you must always have a theme for every gathering you host, but if you pick a few colors or a type of cuisine to base everything around, it can really keep you from getting overwhelmed by too many options.  Plus, keeping to a color scheme (even if everything is from the dollar store) makes everything look slightly more high-end, less hodge-podge.

 

3. KEEP SERVING WARE SIMPLE:

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I’m sure my wedding registry looked uber-plain to people, but I purposely wanted everything white, clean and simple for several reasons. 1) It will never go out of style and is therefore easy to replace if something breaks. 2) Food looks best when presented on a white plate (go to any restaurant–what do they serve you on?), and 3) I’ll always have a blank canvas to work around any party theme.

4. ACCEPT HELP WHEN OFFERED!

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Do you know what this cake would have looked like if I i’d frosted it myself? Bad. It would have looked bad. I’m a slap-it-on and walk away kinda gal, and this pretty young thing would have looked like a real hack job with me at the decorating helm. But my husband is super detail-oriented, and frosting a cake to perfection is the perfect pre-party job for him. For my most recent party, two of my friends (thanks Bridget and Chris!!) came over early to help set up, and it was absolutely invaluable. And I have to give Kathy a shout-out for washing ALL the dishes after my last two parties. Good friends will always step up–let ‘em!! (and if they ask what they can bring to help out, always say ICE).

 

5. DON’T OVERCOMPLICATE YOUR MENU.

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Unless you’re having a very small group over, now is not the time for 7-course meals. Make tried-and-true simple recipes that you’ve made before.  Make things that can be made the day before, or better yet–three days before and keep. Make stuff you can leave out on a table and walk away from. You don’t want to cook something you have to constantly tend to or prepare while guests are already there. Think dips with crudites, crackers and breads, easy pasta/grain/fruit salads, stuff that still tastes good even after it’s gone cold or can stay warm with a crockpot or chafing dishes.

 

6. GO SEASONAL.

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Consider the season and the weather when choosing your food. No one wants to eat hot, gooey pasta in the hot summer sun, and no one is feeling like a bunch of wimpy salads during a wintry Superbowl game.

 

7. POTLUCK WHEN YOU CAN!

One of my favorite house parties was a totally impromptu hang-out for Vinny’s birthday a few years ago. I didn’t have the energy to do a full party, so I just emailed a few good friends and told them to bring whatever they wanted to throw on our grill. Our buddies got totally creative–one brought three kinds of pre-marinated chicken wings and quesadillas, another brought homemade seitan ribs for the vegetarians in our group. They all brought their own beer. All we provided were chairs and a grill, and we had an awesome time! (and we didn’t pay a cent–holla!)

 

8. LABEL YOUR FOOD.

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You don’t have to get crazy and add sequins or anything (I happen to love getting my craft on), but people have myriad food allergies, sensitivities and preferences, and guests are always appreciative when they know what they’re getting themselves into. That said–would everyone please stop doing these custom water bottle labels? It’s water–we get it. I still don’t understand the point of that, and it’s just so wasteful. Get a big jug and throw some water in it. DONE.

 

9. KNOW YOUR CROWD.

Our usual crew prefers beer over cocktails, and foods on the healthy side as opposed to super heavy party fare. I plan accordingly, and most of the stuff generally gets eaten. Sometimes you have to forget about what you like, and think about what others like. Vin and I both hate olives, but we’ve put them out at parties because they’re easy finger food that  require zero effort on our part and a lot of people enjoy them.

 

10. SOURCE OUT!!

Not everything has to be homemade, Martha. Most of the time people can barely tell a difference anyway and enjoy the pre-bought stuff just as much. You think I’m standing around a stove frying 60 pieces of chicken on a July afternoon? Ain’t nobody got time for that! KFC baby! PS: Everyone assumed it was homemade because I made everything else. And if friends offer to bring dishes to the party, be a smarty and say “Yes, please, and thank you!”. One less thing for you to make!

 

10. DIY FOOD BARS.

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This is the only way I serve food at big parties these days. People like to customize their own meal and  it’s fun too! For Vin’s surprise birthday last weekend I made a chicken and waffle bar. I bought three big buckets of KFC, dumped the chicken in blue beach buckets, then set up a station for people to make their own waffles, so they were fresh and hot. I had a salad bar in the other corner with homemade dressings and sliced veggies. It was great fun and super easy for me to do. I’ll make a separate post about food bars soon because I’m a big fan!

 

11. SET A SCHEDULE

Do as much as you can the night before, or a few days before. Don’t leave decorations and shopping for the last minute. Take a shower and do your hair in the morning before you start setting up. You’ll have a hard time fitting that in the closer you get to party time.

 

12. SET THE SCENE.

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<In NYC apartments, you  have to get creative with your space. For a Christmas party, we moved our bed to the other side of the room, then set up a dessert bar right between our two bedside tables. Do what you gotta do!>

Have a tidy house, but there’s no need to break your back mopping floors and dusting corners. Make sure you have a clean toilet and sinks. Make the bed if people are likely to amble into your bedroom, and try to create as much freed-up space as you can so no one feels like they’re suffocating (this is for apartment dwellers like me). Our floors usually get so filthy with people walking in and out that there’s really no point in mopping before they get there.

 

13. HIT THE DOLLAR STORE.

My platters and dishes are from Crate and Barrel, but most of my decorations come from uber-cheap spots like local dollar/variety stores, IKEA, and Party City. Discount retailers like Home Goods, Marshall’s and TJ Maxx are also excellent places to find party accessories. Online, I use orientaltrading.com a lot and tablecloths.com for really inexpensive cloth tablecloths, napkins and runners (be aware: they ain’t great quality, and stain very easily, but man are they cheap).

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(All holiday decorations in this pic are from materials purchased at the dollar store!)

15. MAKE GUESTS COMFORTABLE.

Make sure you have adequate seating and good air conditioning. If you don’t have tons of tables, try to serve foods that don’t require cutting, since it’s so hard to do that with a plate of food balanced on your lap.  For last weekend’s party, my friend Chris rightly predicted that bug spray would be needed–something I had completely overlooked. People will leave early if they’re getting eaten alive, so that was a good call.

 

16. INVITE FUN PEOPLE!!

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None of this other stuff matters without the people. With the right crowd, you can avoid all this fussy advice, offer up a bowl of Cheetos and a pitcher of Kool-Aid and call it a fiesta. Maybe I’ll try that next time.

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Bonus tip #17)  I’m sure they’re overdone at this point, but photo booths are always fun.

What tips would you share about throwing a stress-free party? Please feel free to share!

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Wedding Part 3: The Devil’s in the Details

Yes, I was a crafty bride. I went homemade for a lot of my wedding decor, not just to personalize the event, but because doing crafty things with my hands relaxes me and brings me joy. If it didn’t, I honestly never would have logged so many hours at Michael’s, cause these little DIY projects can drive you crazy if you let them.
We got a lot of great feedback on how personal our wedding was, but like anything else good in life, it’s not about the stuff. The personal details added warmth to the event, but they’ll never be as memorable as the people we shared it with. That said, if you’re currently planning a wedding or thinking of having one in the future, don’t stress out about the stuff. Get some good people in the door, and you’ll have the greatest day of your life.
Still, we had some cute details at our wedding that I think are worth sharing. So…
Welcome to the weddin’, y’all!
Ceremony
 Get you some sweet tea, and have a seat. I’ll show you around.

Our favorite band is the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but Vin is really the super fan. Oddly enough, the day I found this lyric and decided to use it as a display, he came home and said, “So how are we gonna incorporate John Frusciante into the wedding?” I don’t think Frusciante was on this album, but it was close enough:)

A few days before the wedding, my bridesmaid Missy flew in and helped me with last-minute projects, including baking six dozen chocolate chip cookies for the program favor bags. She stayed and helped out the whole week. Did I mention she runs a business and has two children? I don’t know how you begin to thank someone for being so generous with their time when it’s already so hectic. The day before the wedding my grandmother and aunt rolled out the cookies and baked them, then prepped the bags. I can’t tell you how much I love knowing that my grandmother made cookies for my wedding.

Flowers
I loved our flowers and what made them even more special was that my dad’s next door neighbor Cindy (from yesterday’s post) was the one who arranged them! My dad’s wife Angie did an amazing job picking out the pedestals and vases. I wanted the color of the florals to resemble a Texas sunset, but I also wanted to incorporate lots of greenery, succulents and fresh herbs. We were married under this topiary arch right behind my dad’s house.
I did some online research, and learned that rosemary is often given to guests at Croatian weddings, so I wanted to incorporate it into our bouquets and bouts to honor Vinny’s family heritage. Cindy worked in some other fresh herbs (I’m seeing some sage in my bouquet) for an earthy look.

 

 

Bridesmaids
My two best friends wore sundresses from J. Crew. I found their hair flowers and earrings at H&M.
Cocktail Hour

While Vin and I took pictures, guests enjoyed cocktail hour on the other side of the yard.

 

We were able to get a free tiki bar for the night from a local vendor.

 

Anybody who’s been on a wedding blog in the last few years is sick to death of the photo clothesline, but our guests really enjoyed seeing photos of me and Vin through the years. It was unique to them!

 

For our guest book, I used an empty photo album I already had lying around and put some glittery letters on the front to jazz it up a little.

 

I scattered pictures of our guests throughout the guest book, and most people ended up signing near their picture, yearbook-style.

 

One of my favorite details was the brainchild of my mother-in-law…the Croatian Station! Not only did she wrap up five bottles of authentic Croatian liquors to schlep from New York to Texas, she also smuggled in several pounds of homemade prosciutto made by relatives in Croatia!

 

Guests went crazy for the meat and cheeses, and my dad is still sipping on the liquers months later.

 

I kept the Croatian theme going on the escort cards by translating each table number into the language (thanks Google!).
Reception Decor
The reception was held on the neighbor’s ranch property next door to my dad’s house. They were so unbelievably generous to let us use their terrific space.
 
Can’t get married on a ranch without a few hay bales and wagon wheels laying around…
And as a matter of practicality, we rented a luxury bathroom trailer with three separate loos for our guests’ comfort. Dad, ever the country boy, kept referring to it as “the three-holer”.
The amazing Cindy setting things up!
I made the table numbers into luminarias (often seen in the southwest). With the candle lit, the numbers glowed once the sun went down.

 

One of my favorite personal touches was the wine, which was homemade and gifted to us by Vin’s cousin Anthony who makes his own wine in California. Isn’t that awesome?!

 

I didn’t think individual menus were necessary since dinner was station style, so I just made one menu for each table, mounted it on a stick and stuck it in a little potted succulent. I did some basic stitching on each one for a homemade touch.

 

The Grub

Our caterers were amazing. We went with Southern favorites and served tacos, shrimp sauteed with garlic, jalapenos and tequila, jalapeno cheese grits and truffle mac and cheese served in tiny cast iron pots. So fun!

No traditional cake for us. We had an assortment of doughnuts (Vin’s absolute favorite thing in life), cupcakes, and cake balls as well as traditional Texas favorites–pecan pie and banana pudding.

Vin’s mantra. Represent.

 

And with that…I am officially done squawking about my wedding. Thank gawd. I’m exhausted.

I’d like to give a shout out to our terrific vendors. They all come highly recommended if you’re planning an event in the Houston area.

Caterers: Behind the Bash
DJ: Space City Entertainment (Jason Garcia= PHENOMENAL)
Tent/ Furniture Rental: One Stop Tents & Events
Florals: Cindy Schnuriger, (email me for contact info)
Photography: Jason + Anna Photography (based out of Arizona, but will travel)
Cupcakes: Fiona Bakery; fionabakery.com
Donuts: Shipley’s
Wedding Dress: RK Bridal (NYC)
Groom: Suit by J. Crew
Makeup: Kristin, Mystic Elegance  (281-910-2372)
Hair: Margarita Garza (713-805-5208)

 

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Dollar Store Holiday Decorating

I usually don’t knock myself out decorating for the holidays, but since I was hosting a party at my home, it definitely called for a bigger dose of hall decking. I have a few rules for myself when decorating for any holiday:
1) Don’t spend tons of money.
2) Buy stuff I’ll use again, potentially all year or at least for other holidays. 
3) Make sure I have ample room to store whatever I buy for 11 months.

Know where I went shopping? Dollar stores. Yup. Nearly everything I used to decorate for the holidays was from a discount, dollar, or thrift store. Including the white tree, which cost only $30. The ornaments were free, as they were all handed down from Vin’s grandparents. It’s hard to see in this pic, but I made a banner by folding a package of doilies ($2) over a piece of ribbon. I got the idea from Pinterest.

I bought a spool of thick ribbon and taped it over a painted canvas (which I already had in the house). 
I used the same ribbon to hang two mini garland wreaths (50 cents each!) in my bathroom.

I bought two big garland wreaths for only three bucks each at a discount store, then tied on a few red ornaments for a little color. The two nutrackers were found at a thrift store for $1 each, the ornaments came from a dollar store and the straws were leftover from other parties. 
Aren’t those little trees cute? One buck a pop, surrounded by white candles 
I had leftover from Halloween. 
And when I couldn’t find what I needed, I made it! I had no desire to go out and buy stockings to 
fill the wall, so I made them out of paper. The snowflakes hanging from the ceiling are made from perforated scrapbook paper. 
If you’d like to share how you decorated for the holidays, be sure to submit your photos to Inspired by Design’s facebook page!
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On the 10 Night of Christmas…We Hosted an Ugly Sweater Party

Oh, ugly Christmas sweaters. I remember you from the ’90s. Mostly you were worn by my teachers and paired with jingle bell earrings and those little ankle socks with the bunny pouf on the back. Today you are mysterious and elusive and extremely difficult to find unless you have a relic from the old days hiding in your closet. I went to no fewer than 10 thrift stores looking for just one of you, but to no avail.

That’s because everyone and their mother seemed to have hosted an Ugly Sweater party
 this year. Vin and I were two of them. 
I never did find my sweater, but it didn’t matter because I found this instead. 
A floor-length, cherry red, bell-sleeved hostess gown in synthetic velvet. I’m never taking this baby off.
The decor was bright and colorful, just like our moods. We moved our bed to the other side of 
the room (ah, New York City!) so we could have an entire table full of cookies in our bedroom. 
In the living room, we’d set up a baked potato bar (highly recommend…just stick the 
hot potatoes in a crockpot and let people fill ‘em themselves!).
The food was fun, but the real highlight of the evening was the photo booth set up in the backyard. I give our friends major credit for braving the cold to delight us with their ugly sweaters and pretty faces. Here are just a few of the many, many pics we snapped that evening!

Merry Christmas from the family. And Happy Hanukkah!!
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Blogger Party Potluck: Spooky Supper

I always figured once I reached adulthood, Halloween was the kind of holiday I would just assume leave to the kiddies. But then I got into having people over for dinner, and realized how incredibly fun hosting for Halloween can be. And while I’m still not terribly creative with my costumes (I stuffed balloons down my shirt last year and called myself Dolly Parton), I do like to pull out all the stops with my home decor and food.

I’m not hosting a dinner this year, but if you happen to be, check out these great links to create the perfect fright night. It’s a mix of simple autumnal fare and shticky snacks.
Spooky Halloween Supper (for Adults and Kids)
Setting the Spooky Scene…
Straight from the Cauldron…
 Big Boo-tiful Buffet


Grown-Up Grub
(Kale salad is particularly great for entertaining because it should be dressed an hour before serving)
Mother-Tested, Kid-Approved

No Tricks, All Treats

Happy Halloween!
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Middle Eastern Dinner Party

Middle Eastern Dinner Party

In July, I threw a sweet little dinner party. That’s right, July. I wanted to wait until all the guests had digested properly before speaking of the soiree.

Vin and I hosted the dinner in our little Queens backyard to introduce his Croatian family to my southeast Texan brood. It was an exotic evening filled with food, fun and a whole bunch of different accents. I chose Middle Eastern food not only because our neighborhood of Astoria has a large Middle Eastern population (and great food sources), but also because some of the attendees from my Dad’s wife’s family are Lebanese, and I thought they might enjoy it.

Party Tip #1: Know your audience and tailor your menu and decor accordingly. 

I picked up some colorful flowers down the street and plopped them in turquoise bell jars, then gave them an exotic jolt by taping gold doilies on each side ($2.50). The white candle holders are from Ikea ($2.99 each) and are fantastic because the high sides prevent the wind from blowing out the flame.
Party Tip #2: Look for creative ways to spruce up items you already have to make them look custom for your party. No need to buy new decorations/platters for every type of party.
I’ve yet to find a tablecloth to fit two long folding tables, so I used two cheapo gold plastic tablecloths as a base, then topped them with a more ornate velvet window curtain I no longer use. I still don’t have a set of matching plates so I scooped up these hard plastic plates at Party City ($12.99 for 10) and thought they looked great. (Don’t use real knives with plastic plates though–they look like a crime scene afterward).
Party Tip #3: Think outside the box. It doesn’t have to be labeled tablecloth to become one. Old bedsheets, butcher paper and window curtains work just as well.
I bought some fresh pita and made a few dips for appetizers. The roasted red pepper dip, jalapeno-garlic-lemon feta, and roasted eggplant dip were all made by me, but I bought the hummus at a great Lebanese deli a few blocks away. 
Party Tip #4: You do not have to make everything yourself. I’m a glutton for punishment and usually take on too many homemade tasks, but I’m starting to come around to the idea of making life easier and opting for a mix of homemade and pre-made foods.

I used one of my craft punches to make the food labels, then glued on some gold rhinestones for a little flash. I’m acquiring quite the Martha Stewart craft punch collection and will likely enroll in some kind of “scrapbooking for seniors” club in the near future.

Party Tip #5: Whether they’re elaborate or not, I’ve found that guests really do appreciate food labels. People like to know what they’re getting themselves into (it’s especially helpful to give a warning if something is super spicy or has meat in it for vegetarians).

For the main course we had lamb meatballs with tzatziki sauce (the big hit!) and a tagine with spiced butternut squash, sweet potato, honey and currants. I also served a great orange salad with red onion, olive oil, fresh mint and salt and pepper.

Party Tip #6: If you’re going to have lots of heavy dishes, try to lighten things up by adding a fresh fruit or green salad. It’s also nice to add a splash of color to the table.

We also had a bevy of delicious desserts brought by Vin’s mom as well as few that I didn’t end up serving because everyone was so full. We washed everything down with a homemade mint tea.

Party Tip #7: Refer back to Party Tip #1–Know your audience. Skip the tea. Buy some booze.

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Halloween 2010…Spooky Supper!

Halloween 2010…Spooky Supper!

It’s November now, which means your local Rite Aid has already put out Christmas ornaments and marked down chocolate 75% (watch out Butterfingers, I’m coming for you), but  I wanted to share details of my first-ever spooky supper. Here’s what went down at my house Halloween night…

We dined in the dark as my Party City Halloween CD played on a loop. Has anyone else ever noticed how repetitive “The Monster Mash” really is?
There were spiders, and cobwebs and candles galore. Oh, and heads. Doesn’t every dinner table include at least a few random heads?

I made cosmopolitans with candy-corn infused vodka. Got the recipe from my gal Martha.
This is what happens when you entertain in New York City. You have the “cocktail hour” in your bedroom which sounds frightfully risque, but was actually pretty tame. We ate chips and dip and took a few photos of each other on our camera phones. 
I made a roasted beet and goat cheese dip (fantastic!) and served it alongside some rustic-colored chips made of sweet potatoes and carrots. People avoided them for the first 30 minutes thinking it was a big bowl of potpourri. Must have been the floral essence seasoning they dust on top of those things.
Still no-skin and bones, even after a hearty cocktail hour.
I’m thinking of leaving the glitter skulls out all year. They really add a certain something to my home decor.
After appetizers, I led everyone into my lair, where I force-fed them mini chocolate bars and poured this strange orange liquor down their throats.
For the main course I served brussel sprout slaw and pecans with honey-maple dressing and a butternut squash lasagne. The gentleman with the party hat gave me a compliment about the food that I’m too embarrassed to repeat here. Let’s just say I was flattered and leave it at that. 
And now it’s off to pumpkin pies and stuffing recipes! This guy looks like he could use a good meal.
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Creepy Crib Tour

Creepy Crib Tour

I hate haunted houses. I know hate is a strong word, but I’ll use it liberally in this context. Fumbling around in the dark through narrow corridors while asshats in overalls and Jason masks run around with roaring chainsaws does not a good time make. Not for me, anyway. And forget scary movies. If I had enough hands to plug both ears and cover both eyes at the same time, I might consider seeing one, but until then I’ll stick with romantic comedies, thankyouverymuch.

And yet, here is my living room, covered in cobwebs and black bunting. I’m in the spirit this year. Just whose spirit it is, I’m not so sure. Bwah, ha, ha!
halloween decorations
I draped my media console in a black tablecloth ($2.99, Party City) to lay the creepy foundation. Using stuff I already had, like votive candles and cake stands, helped keep costs low.
halloween decorations
I swapped out the existing art with some creepy-chic alternatives. For free art, I used these spooky templates. In hindsight, I wish I had positioned Mr. Skeleton a little differently for his photo op. I know he doesn’t have any skin, but he’s fixin’ to get some 2nd degree burns in a very delicate area.
halloween decorations
No Halloween display is complete without that weird stretchy spiderwebby stuff. I spent about 6 bucks on the big bag and have it draped in every corner.
halloween decorations
Propping a mirror behind the silver balls (aka: last year’s Christmas ornaments) and red candles (this summer’s Citronella candles) creates a really cool effect when all the lights are off and the candles are lit.
halloween decorations
I sprayed the white mini pumpkin with some silver glitter spray for a nice glow. Those eyeballs peering up at you are filled with not-so-scary chocolate and peanut butter. Until you try to button your pants. In bulk, they are very scary indeed.
halloween decorations
I took this photo a few weeks ago; it was a window display of a costume store. Printed it out on some photo paper, popped it in a frame I already had, and I have a cute custom print of bones playing skins. It’s got a personal touch too; my boyfriend is a drummer. And he’s skinny.
halloween decorations
Here is my skinny drummer with his “half-bad” friend last October in Salem, Massachusetts. If you’re into the holiday, you must try to take a trip there in the weeks leading up to the 31st. It’s the best thing that’s happened to Halloween since It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
halloween decorations
Black crows and glittered skulls are definitely Halloween-specific, but looking outside the Halloween aisle can result in some good finds too. I got 12 silver votive bases in the bridal aisle at Party City ($6.99) and an 18-pack of long white tapers in the general candle aisle at Pier 1 ($10).
halloween decorations
I’ve had these candlesticks forever, and they added a nice gothic look to the decor. Our nephew Ethan had fun spearing the flame with a breadstick last weekend, which resulted in a wax waterfall. I’m not encouraging your kids to play with candles, (ok, maybe I am a little), but the result here is awesome!
halloween decorations
Eat a sandwich, for Chrissakes!
Are you creeping out your crib for Halloween?
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Baby Shower Brunch

Baby Shower Brunch

As promised, here are more details from the baby shower brunch I hosted for my friend Aimee this past Sunday. I was really pleased with the way it turned out, and everyone seemed to have a great time.

 

It’s a small yard, so I set it up into sections so people could enjoy coffee and a few little bites before we were ready to sit down for the real meal. See that pink “bench”? It’s actually two storage containers we store off-season clothes in, covered with a long piece of plywood to create more seating. I’m all about repurposing items for double-duty.
A mini-table for our friend Mel’s darling 3-year-old daughter, Devynn. It was conveniently located next to the garden hose for easy clean-up after breakfast.
(photo by guest Kerri M.)
APPETIZERS:
To start, the girls gathered on the benches and snacked on fig and blue cheese pizzas and scones with lemon curd, honey-cinnamon butter and strawberry preserves. Our friend Bridget makes dynamite scones, and no breakfast gathering is complete without them.
For drinks, I served this yummy Raspberry Limeade, as well as a refreshing Orange-Elderflower Spritzer, hot and iced coffees and assorted teas. Cute labels, right? I found them on Eat Drink Chic.
MAIN COURSE:
{French Toast Kebobs with berries and bananas, topped with blueberry compote}
{Breakfast potatoes with rosemary, thyme, parsley, and garlic}
{Frittata ‘cupcakes’ with spinach, sausage, red pepper & cheddar}
(plus spinach, onion & cheddar for vegetarians)
Once Kerri discovered that putting a cloth napkin on her head cooled it considerably, everyone followed suit. Trends really do start in NYC.
Instead of traditional shower games (which the guest-of-honor said she could live without), I made a template for a Mad Libs game to write funny predictions about what this new baby will be like.
Everyone in the group is as bawdy and vulgar as they are creative, so the resulting stories were predictably hysterical. I’m a little too embarrassed to post a filled-in copy, so here’s a plain template.
Putting a smile on Aimee’s face was my goal for the day. Mission accomplished.
(photo by Kerri M.)
Game over! Now onto…

 

DESSERTS:
{Chocolate Shortbread with ganache and chopped pecans}
{Lemon Bars}
{Fig Tart with Lemon-Mascarpone Cream and Rosemary-Cornmeal Crust}

 

I had so much fun planning this baby shower brunch! Who’s next, girls? The table is waiting.
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