Food from the Hart

Posts Tagged ‘budget-friendly’

Dining Alfresco! Summertime Picnic Guide

In Features on May 18, 2011 at 12:24 pm

It’s May. And while it might not feel like it now, summer is right around the corner.  If you’re like me than you are itching to grab a blanket, some friends, good eats and celebrate being outside.  This isn’t always an easy feat in a city full of concrete.  Lacking significant backyards urbanites flock to the grassy oasis of Central Park.  As the weather heats up, forget having a party inside and throw a picnic party! It’s a great way to celebrate a romantic mid-day lunch or a boozy afternoon of frisbee with friends.  Regardless of the occasion, this is your ultimate guide to bringing you big party from a small space to the great outdoors.

Best Picnic Spots for Any Occasion

Romantic Party for Two

Shakespeare Garden

Located on the West side at 79th Street, the Shakespeare Garden is an often overlooked area of Central Park.  This lovely hideaway is bursting with beautiful plants and flowers that pay homage to Shakespeare and his many famous plays. The smell of rosemary will dance off your nose as you wander the winding flora filled paths.  There are several secluded nooks and small grassy knolls, perfect for an afternoon tryst for two.

Great for the Group

Sheep Meadow

15 acres of open grass make this an ideal spot for hosting a picnic party.  Located right off the 66th Street transverse in the center of the park, it’s easily accessible for East and Westsiders alike. Even better, the restrooms are right next door!  Word to the wise, bring your blanket and set up camp early, Sheep Meadow is always crowded on those perfect New York days.

Bring the Games

The Great Lawn

The Great Lawn, great for many reasons! First, it’s smack in the middle of the park between 79th and 85th Street.  Impossible to miss for even novice park explorers. This 55 acre green oasis leaves plenty of room to host everything an ultimate Frisbee game to tag football. For a more organize day of sporting fun, the Lawn has eight regulation sized baseball diamonds. The diamonds can be reserved for a fee.  For reservation information go to the Athletic Permits page of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation page.

Iconic NYC

Cherry Hill

Overlooking the Lake and the iconic Bow Bridge, Cherry Hill is nestled west of Bethesda at 72nd Street.  The hill got its’ name from the wonderful Cherry Blossoms that bloom every spring. Cherry Hill also features the Cherry Hill Fountain, another spot featured in many movies and television shows. No matter where you pop-a-squat you can be sure you’re taking in a piece of New York some only see on the big screen.

In a World of its Own

The Conservatory Garden

There aren’t many places in New York where you can truly get away from it all. The Conservatory Garden is a place you can.  It’s the only formal garden in Central Park and features three individually curated gardens; English, French and Italian. Located off 5th Ave at 105th Street, the garden is quiet with a number of secluded spots, perfect for a peaceful afternoon of al fresco dining.

Essential Tips for Successful Picnicking

Two for One – To keep your butt and food dry, try laying out trash bags under the blanket, when you’re done, simple lift the blanket and use the trash bags for garbage.

No Glass Allowed– Bring glass to a picnic is often just asking for trouble. Opt for cans of beer or boxes of wine instead.  I’m not suggesting gas station white Zinfandel, there are plenty of quality boxed wines on the market now.  Here are a few of my favorites, I promise they won’t disappoint.

Blackbox Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles ($22, 3 liters)

French Rabbit Pinot Noir Vin de Pays d’Orc 2006 ($10, 1 liter)

Three Thieves Bandit Pinot Grigio 2006 ($9, 1 liter)

Set the Mood– Okay, you’re outside, how much more mood do you need? I would answer, you can always make a party more festive with a little music and soft light.  Bring along an I-pod and cordless speakers, if you don’t have one, ask a friend.  Music, even in the park can make all the difference. If you’re hosting a late-afternoon / evening shindig, consider bring battery operated tea candles for a little extra ambiance.

Keep it Clean– There’s nothing worse than being in the great outdoors with sticky, dirty hands after eating.  I suggest stocking up on wet wipes or for a greener option, pack a wet towel or dishcloth in a ziploc bag.  You’ll be happy and so will your guests!

Cold is Key– Lots of water is a picnic must, especially on a hot day.  Purchase bottled water the night before and throw in the freezer before you go to sleep. Make sure to empty out a little water before putting them in the freezer.  Use the frozen bottles as ice packs to keep your food cold and as an added bonus you’ll actually have cold water to serve guests. This little trick also cuts down on the amount of stuff you have to carry!

Must Haves– There’s no doubt, picnicking can be a pain.  The planning, organizing and schlepping is enough to give anyone a headache. Here’s a list of frequently forgotten picnic necessities.

  • Wine / bottle opener (if you’re not convinced about the box!)
  • Napkins
  • Glasses
  • Knife
  • Flatware
  • Plates
  • Water
  • Wet towel or wet wipes
  • Trash bags
  • Cutting board
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
Get the Gear

The market place is flooded with a plethora of picnic supplies.  You can find everything from all-in-one picnic baskets on wheels to collapsible chairs.  Here are some of my favorite website to get the latest in picnicking gear.

Everything Picnic,

Picnic Fun,

Picnic Baskets,

Picnic Food Favs

I could go on for days about good picnic food (I’m clearly a huge fan of dining in nature).  Of course your menu will depend on what type of picnic party you’re hosting. An intimate sunset for two, baseball game for 20, impromptu afternoon for six, each occasion calls for a different spin.

Regardless of the event, anything you bring to a picnic must be easy to eat, easy to transport, require little onsite prep and not temperature sensitive. Be creative with your menus!  To help get your juices flowing, here are some of my personal picnic classics! Remember, never hesitate to take the stress out of cooking and go pot luck!

Make a Meal of It

Perfect Oven Fried Picnic Chicken

Old-Fashion Coleslaw

Fingerling Potato Salad

Mint and Lime Infused Watermelon Slices

No Silverware Required 

Greek Salad Pitas

Turkey Club Wraps

Chips and Salsa

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Nosh Fest

Charcuterie Platter

Assorted Cheese and Bread Basket

Fresh Fruit

Chocolate Brownies


Tip of the Day: Condiment Jar Vases

In Tips on April 15, 2011 at 12:16 pm
Next time you finish a jar of mustard or bottle of vinegar don’t toss them.  Throw them in the dishwasher for a quick bath and reuse as flower vases.  Simply peel off the labels the best you can and wrap with brown, white or colored tissue paper.  Tie with a piece of twine or string.  Fill up with water and arrange flowers inside.  It’s a great way to save money and the earth!  Not to mention, the different sizes and shapes give a wonderful rustic look on any table. Happy partying!

Caprese Pasta

In Recipes on March 27, 2011 at 11:21 am

Yield: 5-6 servings main course

Cooking Time: 45 minutes

This is one of my favorite things to make in spring and summer.  There’s something so delicious about fresh tomatoes and garlic together in a light olive oil dressing.  This is a great recipe to experiment with using different ingredients.  Try with heirloom tomatoes or parmesan instead of mozzarella.  No matter what you use, this makes a healthy and easy dinner elegant enough to serve to guests.

1 box Whole Wheat spaghetti

3 pints cherry or grape tomatoes

12 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

Olive Oil

Kosher salt and pepper

Red pepper flakes

1 pound fresh buffalo mozzarella, diced

1/2 cup fresh basil, torn into smaller pieces


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Wash tomatoes and dry well.  Place tomatoes and garlic in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet.  Season liberally with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.  Drizzle olive oil over the tomatoes. Bake in oven on 400 for 15 minutes.  Then turn down the oven heat to 325 degrees and cook the tomatoes for an additional 30 minutes.

Cook pasta according to package instructions.

Remove tomatoes from oven and pour in a large mixing bowl.  Use the back of a fork to carefully break all the tomatoes into pieces.  Add cooked pasta and toss.  Garnish with mozzarella cheese and basil.  Serve.

Tip of the Day: Sweet Centerpieces

In Tips on March 8, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Cookies, candy, chocolate, and fruit all make wonderful, whimsical, and delicious centerpieces.  Using edible decor is a super easy way to create a beautiful table that will take your guests by surprise.  And using dessert as a centerpiece saves time and money!  It doesn’t get better than that! Here are a few DIY suggestions, but experiment, the possibilities are endless.

Cookies and Meringues

Stack homemade or store-bought meringues, cookies, amaretti, candy, or chocolate on tiered or regular plates in the center of your table.  Too add some extra visual interest, scatter tea candles and flowers around the plates of sweets. At the end of dinner pass the plates around for your guests to enjoy.

Lollipop Flower Pots

Lollipops are fun, colorful and make great “flower” centerpieces.  Gather a metal buckets or flower pots and shove a piece of flower foam in the bottom of each. Stick the lollipops into the foam so each lollipop is a different height.  Fill in the space between the foam and the top of the pot with loose candy like jelly beans or gum drops.  *Photo Courtesy of Rachel Ray

Jars of Candy

Use the color palette of your table decor as a guide and fill apothecary jars with candy that matches.  Take it one step further and give your guests cellophane bags to fill with the wonderful confectionary treats they can take home.

Bowl of Fruit

Nothing is easier or more elegant than this.  Use a large wooden, glass or ceramic bowl and fill a single kind of fruit.  For instance, if you are having a fall brunch, use apples or pears.  For a summer garden party, try lemons or limes. * Photo Courtesy of Real Simple Magazine

Tip of the Day: Champagne Toasts

In Tips on March 3, 2011 at 10:50 am

There is something wonderful about starting an evening with a Champagne toast.  It’s fun, festive and puts everyone in the celebratory mood – even all you are celebrating is being together.

Even if you don’t want to splurge for Dom Perignon Rose you can raise a glass of bubbly in an affordable way.  Two great alternatives to Champagne are Cava (sparkler for Spain) or Prosecco (bubbles from Italy).

Here are some of my favorites:

Cristalino Brut Cava NV, $9.99

Marques de Gelida Brut Exclusive Reserva Cava, $12.99

NV Zardetto Prosecco Brut, $13.99

NV Althea – Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, $16.99

Tip of the Day: Leftover Wine from a Party?

In Tips on February 24, 2011 at 11:21 am

No one likes to waste a good bottle of wine.  But after a party you often end up with a half bottle or two.  Instead of leaving it on your counter with the cork in it, turn it into something wonderful.

Dump the wine into a saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat until it has reduced by 3/4.  This should cook out most of the alcohol leaving a rich wine flavor.  Cool the liquid and pour into an ice-cube tray.  Freeze.

Use the cubes to intensify flavor in sauces and soups.  Or for a savory treat, reheat in a saucepan, add some sugar and a vanilla bean and serve over vanilla ice cream.  The possibilities are endless!

Oven Fried Chicken Fingers

In Recipes on February 12, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Yield: 8 Servings

Cooking Time: 30 Minutes

These taste just like classic Chicken Fingers without all the calories.  They are perfect for a casual cocktail party or a children’s dinner.  Try with a honey mustard, chipotle mayo or simple ketchup.  I promise they won’t disappoint!

1 1/2 pounds chicken breast tenders, about 16-18 pieces

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup flour

2/3 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

Non-stick cooking spray


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Prepare a sheet pan by covering with parchment paper. Set aside.

Wash the chicken tenders and pat them dry with a paper towel.  Using three bowls, add the flour to one, buttermilk to one and mix the panko, bread crumbs, cayenne, paprika and pepper in the the other.  This will become your assembly line to make the chicken.

Salt the chicken liberally. Dredge the chicken in the flour so it is fully coated. Tap the chicken on the side of the bowl to remove any excess flour.

Give the chicken a bath in the buttermilk and move chicken to the breadcrumb mixture and coat fully. Transfer finished chicken to the prepared sheet pan.  Spray each piece of chicken liberally with the non-sticky spray on both sides.

Bake for 4 minutes and then turn the chicken and bake for an additional 4 minutes.

Tip of the Day: Instant Buffet

In Tips on January 24, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Having a bash but no room for a buffet? Try using sheet pans and place them face down on top of your stove.  You instantly gain counter space and a great place to keep your dishes warm while your guests enjoy.

Tip of the Day: Folding Trash Cans?

In Tips on January 9, 2011 at 12:09 am

Small kitchens usually mean little or no space for a big trash cans. So what do you do when you have a party? These pop up trash cans are inexpensive space savers and great to have at your next bash. Place one in a visible area and save yourself time on the clean up.  When the party’s over, fold this guy up and slide it in a closet.

To Purchase check out:, $6.00

Tip of the Day: Reuse Wine Bottles

In Tips on January 6, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Next time you have a finish a bottle of wine instead of chucking it recycle it!  Wash it out and use it for table water at your next party or turn it into a shabby chic candle holder.  Both are great ways to stay “green” and impress you guests! 

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