The Best-Ever Entertaining Tips from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen
Skip the caterer. With a few simple chef secrets, those who barely know their way around a kitchen will quickly be cooking like a pro—and entertaining like one, too. And who better to share these tips and tricks than the culinary stars who have attended over 40 years of the ultimate culinary event, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen? Here's how to master Michelin-worthy bites—and what to sip alongside them.
Upgrade your ice for gorgeous drinks
Martha Stewart's favorite shape of ice cube for cocktails is round, and she uses her sphere ice cube mold to freeze everything from juice to raspberry sorbet. Even though this kitchen device may seem like something you wouldn't break out too often, she uses it on a daily basis. A simple ice mold will do the trick, but if you really want to go all-out and splurge for your at-home bar, this copper, $759 sphere ice-making machine will definitely make a statement at your next soirée. Stewart acknowledges the price is staggeringly high—but worth it: "It's ridiculous. Put it on your registry .. it's much more expensive than I thought. All the good bars have that."
Mix up classic cocktails
For your next aperitivo, replace the usual Negroni mix of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari with rum, Suze, and Cocchi—plus a splash of simple syrup and a lemon peel garnish to top it off—for a White Negroni. Not only is it a great summer sipper, restaurateur and Food Network personality chef Geoffrey Zakarian finds it to be a perfect pairing during a meal, especially with dishes like classic linguine with clams.
Make sure to have bottles of S.Pellegrino sparkling natural mineral water chilling before your guests arrive, so it will be ready to pair with food. To elevate the table-setting, set out your favorite stemless wine glasses for the sparkling water.
Go big with a magnum of champagne
There's nothing more ceremonial than popping a bottle of bubbly to toast a special event like a wedding, but sparkling wine doesn't need to be saved for fine dining or fancy occasions. In fact, something as simple as salty popcorn pairs perfectly with bright, effervescent sparkling wines. And, while you're at it, why not go big with a magnum? As wine expert and author Leslie Sbrocco says, "A magnum is the perfect amount of sparkling wine for two people—if one of them isn't drinking."
Make store-bought look Michelin-starred
Thomas Keller shares the recipe for his signature salmon cornets (tiny cone-shaped tuiles topped with crème fraîche and fresh salmon) in The French Laundry Cookbook, but if you want to recreate these hors d'oeuvres without messing with a cornet mold, treat the tuiles like crackers and leave them flat before topping with store-bought smoked salmon or the spread of your choice.
Keep brown butter in the fridge to serve with just about everything
L.A.-based French chef Ludo Lefebvre follows the philosophy that you can never have too much butter. The French kitchen is based on butter, after all, but one sauce worth adding to your repertoire is brown butter, since "everything is good with brown butter," as the chef says. You can drizzle it on fish, mix it into chocolate chip cookies, or make brown butter potato gnocchi. The best part? You can make a big batch and keep it fresh in the fridge for a week. Brown butter isn't difficult to make—it all comes down to timing. The trick is to stop before the milk solids start to burn, and Lefebvre's solution to avoid solids from blackening is to stick the saucepan in an ice bath immediately after removing it from the heat.
Get creative with caviar
Caviar is decadent enough to be savored solo—and preferably off a mother-of-pearl spoon—but for a dinner party, you can get creative and stray outside traditional (and expected) pairings like smoked seafood. For example, at a past Food & Wine Classic, Walter Manzke of LA's République topped pork belly with caviar and Matsuhisa served caviar on a tempura-fried shiso leaf.
Consider unexpected wine regions
When shopping for a bottle under $10, Chicago-based winemaker and consultant Brian Duncan says he looks to reds from Spain and South America, like a Carmenère from Chile. "I also like Cabernet and Merlot from there—the Bordeaux varietals do beautifully," he says. "They really, really are the greatest values, and I'm always looking for wines that drink beyond their price."
Serve a show-stopping protein
The amount of work it takes to remove the tiny morsels of claw meat makes the concept of serving crab seem daunting. But Atlanta-based restaurateur and Top Chef judge Hugh Acheson has a secret for a simple, crab sauté that can be prepped in a mere 10 minutes. "This dish is really fast because, usually, you're buying pre-steamed crab. You can cook raw crab, but you can make this with Dungeness crab that's been pre-steamed," he explains. All you need is a couple handfuls of crab and fresh herbs like mint, which Acheson calls "underrated."
Acheson is also an advocate of sous vide lobster. Of course, you can cook lobster tails in boiling water with butter and lemon, but he prefers using a sous vide precision cooker, since it gives the meat a "very mellow braise." Simply blanche the lobster tails, throw them in a pot of ice water (to stop the cooking process), add the lobster meat with butter and tarragon into a bag, and submerge in a water bath to cook for 20 to 25 minutes. The no-fail style of cooking is great for pricier meats and seafood, since there's no risk of overcooking, and you can sous vide everything from poached eggs to pork shoulder.
For cookouts, craft your own rub
Chef and grill master Tim Love's trick to help brown meat is to rub it with a bit of sugar, and finish it over low heat so the sugar doesn't char. For a deconstructed version of a Mexican mole sauce, coat pork chops with a rub of cocoa and chile powders before grilling for a dish that's sure to be a hit at your next outdoor dinner party.
Make prep easier with time-saving gadgets
Girl & the Goat chef Stephanie Izard finds a lot of kitchen gadgets to be unnecessary, but there's one she can't live without, especially in the summer. "A cherry pitter—it's pretty sweet. If you're going to eat cherries for the season, it's definitely worthwhile," she says. While it eases the process of pitting cherries for summer salads and pies, it also works with olives, too.