Have Some Fun – It’s Mardi Gras

Trying to fight the winter blues? What this challenging winter calls for is some fun, and nothing is more fun in February than a Mardi Gras party.

Mardi Gras has French roots. The first known Mardi Gras was celebrated in Louisiana by early French settlers in 1699. Throughout Louisiana’s history, political and social unrest and even war did not stop Mardi Gras celebrations. It later became known as Carnival and became a legal holiday in Louisiana in 1875.

With Mardi Gras’s French heritage, we thought it would be appropriate to pair this cuisine with French wines. Let’s see what works.

Wine Basics

The classic Mardi Gras dish is Jambalaya. With this hearty and spicy dish in mind, I chose Vouvray and Alsatian whites to pair with this dish. My concern was to find French white wines with sufficient body and fruitiness to stand up to this bold dish. Both work well and are worth a try.

Vouvray is an appellation or region of the Loire Valley of France. It is located on the western side of the country, between Paris to the north and Bordeaux to the south, and is along the Atlantic coast. Loire Valley is internationally famous for its whites made from Chenin Blanc grapes. Chenin Blanc wine can be complex, round and balanced, and offers wonderful acidity. This acidity makes this a very food friendly wine. This age-worthy wine is known for its pear, melon and apple notes.

In contrast, the Alsatian region of France is located in the northeast corner of the country on the border with Germany and makes, almost exclusively, white wines. The most important grapes are riesling, pinot gris, gewürztraminer and pinot blanc. Alsatian whites are famous for their acidity and bold fruit flavors, and are generally fermented in stainless steel tanks (so the true fruit flavors come through). I prefer the complexity, aging potential and bold flavors of riesling and gewürztraminer wines Both food friendly whites have lean, mineral characteristics. Riesling is also known for its peach and citrus notes while gewürztraminer offers honeysuckle, litchi nuts and gingerbread flavors.

Food Pairing
When developing your Mardi Gras menu, start with a pot of jambalaya on the stove. We recommend that you do not over spice this dish, as your guests can season to taste. Other dishes to consider include steamed crawfish, red beans and rice, sweet potato casserole, po’ boy sandwiches, a Mardi Gras tossed salad (for fun, add purple cabbage, shredded carrots and golden raisins to green lettuce, for a salad with classic Mardi Gras colors) and top this menu off with a King cake or the classic Bananas Foster.

There are two terms that you will find with Jambalaya – Cajun and Creole. Creole style Jambalaya is commonly called red jambalaya (because it contains tomatoes) and is more typical of what you will find in a restaurant. Cajun Jambalaya is more prevalent in the southern parts of Louisiana and is a brown color because of the lack of tomatoes. Both versions of Jambalaya include the “trinity” of vegetables – green pepper, onions and celery and are simple, tasty and traditional.

Easy Cajun Jambalaya with Fried Okra Garnish

1 ½ lbs Chicken – boneless breasts or thighs
Creole Seasoning
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 Cup Onion, diced
1 Cup Green Pepper, diced
1 Cup Celery, diced
1 lb Smoked or Andouille Sausage – sliced
2 cans French Onion Soup (10 ½ oz cans, undiluted)
1 can Chicken Broth (14 ½ oz)
1 can Beef Broth (14 ½ oz)
½ Tbsp Creole Seasoning
1 ½ cups Long Grain White Rice – uncooked
Hot Sauce – on the side

Optional Garnish

½ lb Fresh Okra – sliced in ¼” rounds
Cornmeal
Oil for frying

Season raw chicken with Creole seasoning. In a Dutch oven or large pot, sear chicken until golden brown but not completely cooked through. Remove from pot and let cool. Add a little additional oil to the pot if necessary. Sauté the vegetables until onions are translucent but not brown. Cut the chicken into bite size pieces. Add the chicken, sausage, all the liquid and the Creole seasoning to the pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add the rice. Simmer uncovered for approximately 40 minutes or until the rice is cooked. For optional garnish, put okra in a large zip lock bag and add enough cornmeal to dust. Fry until crispy. Place fried okra on top of individual bowls of jambalaya.

To add some finishing touches, find some beads, masks and decorations in green, purple and golden colors. Have fun and let the good times roll.

Wine Picks (with suggested retail prices)*

Chateau Moncoutour Vouvray $14

Domaine des Aubuigieres $15

(Bernard Fouquet’s Vouvray)
Trimbach Riesling $18

Lorentz Gewurztraminer Reserve $19

Wine of the Month

2006 Chateau Moncontour Vouvray

Suggested retail price $14

This Vouvray is becoming more available and is recommended by local wine merchants as a good value wine. This Loire Valley white is made from Chenin Blanc grapes and offers mineral, lime and floral notes. While the 2006 vintage is not yet rated, the Wine Spectator gave a recent vintage 87 points.

Arranging Meetings and Conferences – Choosing the Right Venue

Booking a meeting venue or arranging a conference can often fall to receptionists, secretaries and PA’s, who may have little experience in events planning. There are many aspects to planning conferences and events, from finding the right venue, booking caterers, arranging accommodation, parking, PA systems and much more. It can seem a little overwhelming when you have the responsibility of ensuring that the event goes smoothly, and when you may get the blame if it doesn’t go to plan!

Confirming Delegate Numbers

How many delegates are expected at the event? If your company has run similar events previously, have a look at the average turnout to these past events. You will inevitably have some cancellations and no-shows, but depending on the type of event, the turnout could be 50% or even less.

As an events planner in a Leeds city centre hotel, I have organised many legal seminars for solicitors. These events run regularly and keep lawyers up-to-date with changes in the law. Events are free to attend and held on weekday evenings. Occasionally, the number of delegates who turn up to the event is less than half those who have booked – particularly during the winter when evenings are dark, cold and wet! Try to work out how many people you think will actually turn up – there is nothing worse than a room full of empty chairs or a table piled high with food for a handful of attendees.

Of course, for other types of events, attendance will be much higher. If delegates have paid for tickets to the event, for example, or if the event is an awards ceremony, a rare or specialist event.

Location

Once you have an idea of numbers, think about the ideal location. If you are organising a meeting for colleagues who all work in the same office, then a nearby hotel that they can all walk to would be ideal. However, if people are going to be travelling from around the country to your event, a location close to a train station, or near a motorway junction and with plenty of parking, would be more suitable.

Budget

The price of meetings venues can vary wildly, so ensure you have a budget before contacting any potential venues. If you are arranging catering, it is likely that this will be charged on a per-head basis. Meeting rooms may also be hired out by the hour, day or half-day. A day delegate rate (DDR) may be offered, and should include everything from room hire to catering and refreshments and sometimes an overnight stay.

Don’t forget, prices are often negotiable – particularly if your event is coming up soon. Any venue would prefer to have a discounted conference booked in rather than nothing at all.

Some days of the week are more popular than others, and if you choose a less popular day you may get a better deal. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are the most popular days for corporate events and meetings. If you are able to hold your event on a Monday or Friday, it may work out cheaper. However, there is a reason why these days are less popular, and you may get a lower turnout to your event if you choose a less convenient day. School holidays are also a quieter time for most meetings venues. Again, you may have a lower turnout if people are away on holiday or have booked time off work to take care of children.

Booking Agents

Most large cities will have booking agents who can send your enquiry to several different events at once and send you a summary of the prices and availability. This is a good way to save time if you are arranging an event in a city you do not know; or if you are simply overwhelmed with choices. Try contacting the tourist board or local council office to get in touch with agents. You can let them know the details of your event, the date and budget without having to repeat yourself to many venues over and over again.

Catering

This will often be taken care of by your chosen venue, who may have chefs or good relationships with local caterers. Think about when there will be breaks during the event, and what refreshments should be available. It’s a good idea to make sure water is on hand at all times. You may also be surprised at how many cups of tea and coffee delegates can go through at a day conference! Let the venue know the timings of your breaks, so they can make sure that tea, coffee, biscuits, cakes, bacon sandwiches – or whatever you choose – is ready and waiting.

Equipment

Provide your venue with a list of equipment required prior to the event. Venues may not have a supply of flipcharts, projectors or a PA system on site and might order the appropriate equipment from an external supplier. Ensure you have the pricing details for additional equipment too, as it may not be covered by the room hire charge or day delegate rate.

Final Preparations

It is a good idea to communicate with the venue the day before the event, to ensure that they are clear about your requirements, the number of expected attendees and the timings of the event. If it is going to rain, is there a set place for coats and umbrellas? Is there somewhere for delegates to wait comfortably if they arrive early, and will they be able to get a cup of tea? It is much easier to iron out any issues the day before than when you are surrounded by hungry/thirsty/squashed delegates!

Weddings – How to Save Money on Your Wedding Day

With the average wedding budget running between £17,000.00 and £25,000.00 (yes it looks more if you put the 0’s in) what can you do to save money on your wedding without compromising your day.

Generally the most expensive parts of the day are:

  • The Church – usually costs around £500.00. Church decoration can cost anything up to £5,000.00 (believe me – I produced the video for the wedding)
  • The Reception – the sky is the limit but at least £35.00 a head for the meal, £20.00 a head for the drinks plus another £25.00 a head for the evening buffet. That could be at least £80.00 for every guest – £800.00 for ten, £8,000.00 for 100.
  • The dress can cost £500.00 to £2,500.00 and more.
  • Bridesmaids outfits – usually at least £100.00 each.
  • The cake could be £500.00 to £1,500.00.
  • Photography normally costs £1500.00 to £3,000.00.
  • Wedding cars again can cost from £500.00 to £1,500.00
  • Stationary and postage for invitations at least £150.00

You are already well on the way to spending £17.250.00. Could that be the deposit on a fairly nice house?

So how can you save money on what should be the greatest day of your lives?

Talk to people – many suppliers will offer you special prices for “Off Peak” weddings – usually weekdays, Sundays or from October to April.

Ask for help to save money, get help from friends and family, search out any musician friends and ask them to perform, find a well spoken, confident friend who can be your toast master or master of ceremonies. Most of us know someone who is good with makeup, hairstyling, design, crafts and so on. Ask for help, most people will be more than happy to be a real part of your special day. Have a “DIY” party for your friends to help you with invitation, flowers, table decorations, favours and so on but be sure to give them some delicious snacks and drinks as a thank you.

Music. Contact your local college and ask if they have anyone who would perform at your wedding.

Make the most of EBAY and the Wonderful World Wide Web. Check out OXFAM where you could find a new or ex catwalk dress for as little as 30% of the retail price.

Church. Talk to the vicar at your church, if you are a regular church goer explain that you are on a really tight budget but want to get married in the Church and ask for his help. Do you really need the Bells?, or even a choir – find out about using a music CD, do you need a copyright or PRS licence or has the Church already got one?

Save on Church decoration by timing your day to coincide with a religious holiday or flower festival when the church will already be decorated.

Unless you have a good reason for getting married in Church consider using a Registry Office, wedding venue, Pub, Hotel, village hall and so on. Many farmers have diversified into offering facilities ranging from a field, to a designer venue with room for your reception, marquee, converted barns and so on.

Why not do the “Legal Bit” at a registry office and have a civil celebrant to conduct a relaxed and beautiful celebration of your marriage at home if you have space or at some other venue, field, tent, barn, marquee etc.

Reception. Trim your guest list, and then trim it again. You don’t need to feel pressured to invite cousins, colleagues from work or distant relatives. If you don’t invite anyone from a particular group none of them will feel left out. Don’t let your friends bring their children or feel pressured to let single friends bring a date. Every time you add a name you could be adding £50 to £100 or even more to the cost (that’s a cool £1000.00 for 10 people).

If your wedding and reception are in a hotel ask for a substantial discount on the room rate for guests.

Talk to your caterer, be honest and don’t be afraid to ask whether a buffet would be cheaper than a sit down meal, find out which are the least expensive entrees, nibbles and canapés. Ask if you can supply your own booze, find out if just beer and wine would be cheaper than a full bar.

Most of the major supermarkets produce “party platters” with a selection of canapés, snacks and nibbles. The Dress. Shop around, check out the Internet. Look for designer dress sample sales – if your size 6, 8 or 10 you could find an absolute bargain but the sales only happen once a year. If you buy second hand be sure that the dress has been properly cleaned and is really goo quality you should save up to 80% on the new price. Oxfam has a specialist shop for wedding dresses some of which are new, ask them for details. Consider buying a beautiful suit or outfit that you can wear again. The so called traditional White Wedding Dress is a Victorian invention along with all those expensive designer Christmas, birthday, get well soon and wedding invitation cards that we needlessly spend so much on.

Bridesmaids outfits. Will they but there own? Something that they might wear again for a party etc. Do you know anyone who could make the outfits, especially for little bridesmaids, or flower girls.

Invitations. Save postage and printing costs by keeping them simple, print your own using one of the excellent DIY design packages available on line, leave out the RSVP card and ask guests to reply by phone or e-mail.

The Cake. Can someone make a cake or decorate a shop bought cake for you. M and S and several other stores produce really lovely wedding cakes which you can decorate with fresh fruit, flowers, chocolate etc. Why not hire a cake stand and buy some “designer cup cakes” – again check out the web for suppliers.

Having said all of this you should consider those things where you really need professional help –

Large flower arrangements and centrepieces (do you really need them?). Really?

Bride and Bridesmaid bouquets as photographers we see far too many fall apart on the day, usually because the flowers have just been stuck into oasis foam without wiring.

Your wedding Dress – see above.

Your wedding cake – again see above.

Catering – see above.

Photography – Obviously as I make my living from wedding photography I think that everyone should have a professional wedding photographer. I genuinely hear all sorts of horror stories about the pictures that “didn’t come out”, blurred, dodgy backgrounds, so if you want more information check out my other blogs.