It’s my son’s birthday so we’re having a few over to celebrate the occasion in a fun super-casual way.  I love entertaining, but I hate having to tend to cooking while there are people that are around that I want to socialize with!  This menu allows me to prepare most everything in advance, therefore I can enjoy myself and make sure that my guests are enjoying themselves as well.

Here’s what I came up with:




FORBIDDEN RICE with Sweet Potatoes and Mandarin Oranges
ORZO with Feta and Roasted Vegetables Salad
TEXAS SHEET CAKE (aka Birthday Cake)
(Adapted from Martha Stewart Living)

I’ve been wanting to try this recipe for awhile, so I thought “why not have it for Ross’ birthday?”  I love anything that’s salty AND sweet, and I adore toffee, so it should be the perfect snack mix!  It’s super easy to make and keep on hand in airtight containers.2 cups toasted whole-wheat cereal squares (such as Chex) – just toss on a cookie sheet for ~ 5 minutes at 350 degrees F
3/4 cup pretzel sticks
1 cup whole raw almonds
1 cup roasted unsalted peanuts
1/3 cup toffee bits (like Heath Bars)
3/4 stick unsalted butter
5 sprigs thyme
1 TBSP packed dark-brown sugar
1 TBSP dry mustard
1/2 tsp coarse salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine the toasted cereal, pretzels, almonds, peanuts, and toffee bits.

Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring until golden brown, about 5 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in thyme. (Butter will splatter.) Stir in brown sugar, mustard, and salt.

Add to cereal mixture and toss until evenly coated.

Spread in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet.

Bake, stirring halfway through, until nuts are toasted and toffee begins to melt, about 15 minutes. Let cool and discard thyme. Store in an airtight container.

(Adapted from Southern Food and Fun)

2 cups watercress (or other frisee)
4 cups arugula
2 cups mixed baby greens
2-3 scallions, chopped
3-4 TBSP fresh herbs: such as – tarragon parsley, cilantro, dill, thyme, coarsely chopped
2 TBSP toasted pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup cheese (such as pecorino romano, Parmesan)
Lemon vinaigrette (see below)
Salt and pepper

Mix lettuces and a few herbs together in a large bowl. Add scallions, pumpkin seeds and cheese. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and add a little freshly ground black pepper.

Toss lightly with vinaigrette.


1/3 cup lemon juice
1-2 TBSP dijon mustard
2-3 tsp sugar
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 TBSP chopped shallot
Salt and pepper to taste

Fill container (like a mason jar) 1/3 with lemon juice or vinegar. Add a large dollop of Dijon mustard ~ 1 TBSP. Add 2-3 teaspoons of granulated sugar. Add shallot, a pinch of salt, and a little freshly ground black pepper.

Cover tightly and shake vigorously.
Remove cover and add extra virgin olive oil to almost fill the remaining 2/3 of container.

Cover and shake again.
Taste and add more sugar, salt, or pepper as needed.

Vinaigrette will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Allow to come to room temperature before using or pop container in the microwave for a few seconds.


(Adapted from simply recipes)

Love this cut of meat!  My husband and I recently returned from a trip to Pebble Beach, CA where tri-tips are common cuts of beef that are often on menus there, and it reminded me how much I enjoy it.

It’s sometimes a bit hard to find, but if you ask your butcher in advance, he/she should be able to get one or two for you.  It’s a fabulously flavorful cut that drinks up flavor and is perfect for grilling.  Depending on what else you are serving alongside the steak, one tri tip should feed 6-8 people.

Santa Maria Rub (enough for a 4 pound roast)
1 TBSP Kosher salt
1 TBSP finely ground black pepper
1 TBSP garlic powder
1 TBSP onion powder
1 tsp cayenne
1 TBSP dried oregano
1 tsp dry rosemary (or fresh, finely minced)
1/2 tsp dry sage

Mix the rub ingredients together in a bowl.

Place the roast in a roasting pan or a baking pan with edges.

Sprinkle the rub on the meat on all sides, and massage the rub into the meat.


Cover and let sit at room temp for an hour.

Prepare your grill for hot direct heat on one side, and indirect heat on the other. (By the way, if you are working with a wood-fired grill, Santa Maria BBQ traditionally uses red oak wood.) Sear the roast on all sides, 3-4 minutes per side. Carefully watch the roast during this process as one side of the roast is typically quite fatty and as the fat heats up it can drip down and cause flare-ups. Keep moving the tri-tip away from the flame if flare-ups occur.

Once the tri-tip is seared on all sides, move it away from direct heat and place it fat-side up on the grill rack. If you are using a gas grill with a top rack, I recommend placing the roast on that rack, with an aluminum tray on the bottom rack underneath to catch the fat drippings. If you are grilling on charcoal or wood, you may want to turn the roast over every few minutes, for more even heating. Try to maintain a grill temperature of 250°F to 300°F.

Cover the grill and cook until the temperature of the interior of the tri-tip reaches 120°F for a rare roast, 130°F for medium-rare and 140°F for medium. At this point the meat will take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to cook, depending on how hot your grill is, how well done you want it, and the size of the cut. Note that the interior temperature will continue to rise at least 5°F after you take the roast off the heat.

Once the roast reaches temperature, remove it from the grill and let it rest, loosely tented with foil, for 10 minutes. Slice against the grain and serve.


(Adapted from Ina Garten)

For the Salad:
1 small eggplant, peeled and 3/4-inch diced
1 red bell pepper, 1-inch diced
1 yellow bell pepper, 1-inch diced
1 red onion, peeled and 1-inch diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup good olive oil
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 cups dry orzo or rice-shaped pasta

For the dressing:
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper


To assemble:
4 scallions, minced
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
3/4 pound fresh feta, crumbled
15 fresh basil leaves, cut into julienne


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Toss the eggplant, bell peppers, onion, and garlic with the olive oil, salt, and pepper on a large sheet pan.

Roast for 40 minutes, until browned, turning once with a spatula.

Meanwhile, cook the orzo in boiling salted water for 8 to 9 minutes, until tender. Drain and transfer to a large serving bowl. Add the roasted vegetables to the pasta, scraping all the liquid and seasonings from the roasting pan into the pasta bowl.

For the dressing, combine the lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Pour on the pasta and vegetables.

Let cool to room temperature, then add the scallions, pine nuts, feta, and basil. Taste and see if you need to adjust the seasonings, and serve at room temperature.   ***Can be refrigerated at this point up to 3 days.

(Adapted from Epicurious)

3/4 cup Chinese black rice
1 1/2 cups water
3/4 tsp salt
2 TBSP vegetable oil
1 bunch scallions, chopped (3/4 cup)
1 TBSP minced peeled fresh ginger
1 large sweet potato or 2 small, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice

1 can mandarin oranges, drained
Optional garnish: chopped scallion

Rinse rice in a sieve under cold water.

Bring rice, water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a 1 1/2- to 2-quart heavy saucepan.

Add caption

Then reduce heat to low and cook rice, covered, until tender and most of water is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Let rice stand, covered, off heat 10 minutes.

While rice cooks, heat oil in a 12-inch heavy nonstick skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and sauté scallions, ginger, and sweet potato, stirring, until coated well, about 2 minutes.

Reduce heat to moderate and add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste, then cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until potato is just tender, about 12 minutes.

Add rice, and oranges and toss gently to combine, then serve.

***If making in advance, toss all together EXCEPT the oranges – add those just before serving at room temperature.

(Adapted from Culinary Hill)
culinary hill

For the Salad Dressing:
2 TBSP canola oil
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1 1/2 TBSP low sodium soy sauce
1 TBSP fresh ginger, grated
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil

For the Salad:
4 cups cooked chicken shredded or diced (I’m using chicken from one rotisserie chicken)
1 pound Napa cabbage, cored and finely shredded
2 cups red cabbage, cored and finely shredded
1 cup shredded carrots
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, minced
1 cup chow mein noodles
2 TBSP sesame seeds for garnish, optional

To make the dressing:

In a small jar with a tight-fitting lid, combine oil, vinegar, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, ginger, and sesame oil.

Shake vigorously until combined.

Enjoy immediately or, refrigerate for up to 4 days.

To make the salad:

In a large bowl, combine the chicken, cabbage, carrots, scallions, and cilantro.

Shake the dressing to recombine and pour over the salad.

Toss until evenly coated. Sprinkle with chow mein noodles and sesame seeds, if using, and serve.


THE perfect birthday sheet cake! I’ve made this sheet cake for so many years, but I always end up going back to it several times a year.  It’s pretty foolproof, but more importantly, my son loves it.

2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup coffee, strong brewed
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup butter
2 TBSP cocoa
1/4 cup milk
3-1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

Photo Credit: Cate Bogue

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F and lightly grease an 11 X 17 inch baking pan. In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour and 2 cups sugar.


In a heavy saucepan, combine 1 stick butter, 1/2 cup shortening, 1 cup coffee and 1/4 cup cocoa.  Stir and heat to boiling.

Pour boiling mixture over flour and sugar in the bowl and stir.

Add the 1/2 cup buttermilk, 2 eggs, 1 tsp baking soda and 1 tsp vanilla.  Mix well with a spoon or mixer.

Pour into a greased 11×17 or 9×13 pan.  Bake at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes or until it tests done.


While the cake bakes, prepare the frosting.  In a saucepan, combine the 1 stick butter, 2 TBSP cocoa and 1/4 cup milk.


Heat to boiling, stirring.  Mix in the 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar and 1 tsp vanilla until smooth.


Pour warm frosting over the cake as soon as you take it out of the oven.  Cool and then cut into ~ 48 bars.  Freezes well.

A few pics from last year’s birthday at THE 
fabulous Atlanta restaurant,