Researching and hosting a one-hour special called “Entertaining Disaster” (aired at 4 pm December 28, 2009, on CBC Radio One), gave me food for thought.
The myriad of tales about doing things wrong when it comes to the dinner party thing – probably my favourite way of sharing good times with family and friends – made me think about how to do it right.
Here are my top dinner party tips gained from years of experience. Many of these – like most lessons in life – were learned the hard way. The menu that follows is also the result of much trial and error.
- The ideal number of guests (including two hosts) is definitely six – a number that is intimate without being potentially boring. Eight is workable but you risk the conversation breaking up into small groups.
- I like to invite people who don’t know each other. It’s a bit of a crap-shoot but mostly works out splendidly as there is more likelihood of new topics to be discussed and discoveries to be made than if guests are already friends. Even a clash of personalities or opinions can work out well.
- There are three types of munchies that I always serve before dinner with drinks. These are not filling and whet the appetite for dinner. Best of all, they require no work. They are: Unsalted roasted dry almonds (I buy them in a bulk food store where they are always fresh); Miss Vickie’s Original chips, and stuffed jumbo green olives (pits are a no-no at a dinner party).
- I am a strong believer in the buffet-style of serving. Plating food for each person does not leave guests free to choose what they like and in what amount. This applies to everything except soup.
- It is crucial that most of the meal be cooked ahead, preferably the day before so that you, the charming host, are available to be just that instead of slaving over a hot stove away from your guests. Soup is a good starter even if it involves extra dishes and should be garnished at the last minute. Best entrees are braised meat dishes that actually improve if made ahead. Mashed or baby boiled potatoes and mixed roast veggies also keep well once cooked. Forget flambeeing, serving steak, risotto or other dishes involving other a la minute techniques, for obvious reasons.
- I like to serve a couple of desserts – one should probably include chocolate. Making one dessert and buying another is a good idea. Ice cream and some kind of fruit sauce are both good garnishes. Again, we’re talking self-serve.
- Music is crucial to a soothing mood. It should be gentle and not intrusive but not of the Muzak genre. Bryan Ferry’s CD As Time Goes By is my all-time favourite. Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and some world music are also good.
- Dimmers and candle-light also create a cozy ambiance – the key factor, in my books, for a soothing evening full of warmth, good conversation and a feeling of well-being.
Here is a menu that includes three of my top dishes to serve at a soiree chez moi. They are fall/winter foods. Watch this space as warm weather arrives in 2010 for a menu designed for spring/summer.
From Barefoot Contessa at Home (Potter; $45) by Ina Garten. You must use flavourful peas. I recommend frozen President’s Choice Small Sweet Peas. I’ve served this hot, at room temperature and cold.
2 tbsp butter
2 cups chopped leek, white and green parts (1 large or 2 small leeks)
1 cup chopped onion
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock, preferably homemade
5 cups frozen small sweet peas
½ to 2/3 cup chopped fresh mint leaves, loosely packed
1 to 2 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ cup crème fraiche or plain yogurt
½ cup chopped fresh chives, optional
Heat butter over medium-low heat in large saucepan. Add leek and onion; cook 7 to 10 minutes or until onion is soft. Add stock. Increase heat to high; bring to a boil. Add peas. Reduce heat to low; simmer 3 to 5 minutes or until tender. (Frozen peas will only take 3 minutes.) Remove from heat; add mint, salt and pepper.
Puree soup in batches in blender or using hand blender. Serve with dollop of crème fraiche; sprinkle with chives, if using. Taste; adjust seasoning.
Makes about 6 servings.
I like the beef in big, irregular pieces and sometimes cut up a chuck roast for this. Cumbrae’s, 481 Church St., sells large-chunk, naturally-raised stewing beef. I like Imagine chicken or beef stock sold in cartons at most health stores and supermarkets.
3 lb/1.5 kg stewing beef, cut in big chunks
750 mL bottle full-bodied dry red wine
About 6 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, peeled, chopped
3 medium carrots, peeled, chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled, chopped
1 cup pitted prunes
1½ cups (half a 28-oz/796 mL can) plum tomatoes
1½ cups beef or chicken stock
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tbsp butter
1 lb/500 g mushrooms, thickly sliced
Two 10-oz/284 g bags pearl onions
1/3 cup beef or chicken stock, water or white wine
Chopped fresh parsley
A day ahead, place beef and wine in large bowl; let marinate in fridge at least 12 hours. Drain marinade into saucepan. Bring to boil; cook, uncovered, over medium-high heat about 5 minutes or until slightly reduced. Reserve.
Place beef on paper towel; pat dry. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 325F.
Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and carrots; cook, stirring at intervals, about 10 minutes or until golden brown. Add garlic; cook about 3 minutes more. Add reduced marinade; cook, scraping up browned bits from skillet, about 1 minute.
Add 1 tablespoon of oil to large dutch oven over high heat. Add about one-third of beef, making sure pieces are not crowded. Cook, turning once, until browned all over, about 5 minutes.
Transfer to bowl. Repeat, using 1 tablespoon of oil per batch, until all beef is browned. Return beef to dutch oven. Over high heat, add prunes, tomatoes, stock, thyme and carrot/onion mixture with its liquid. Bring to boil, scraping up browned bits from bottom.
Bake in oven, covered, about 2½ hours or until beef is tender but not falling apart. Using tongs, transfer beef to large bowl. Place large sieve over bowl. Pour in sauce, pressing it with spoon until no liquid remains; discard solids. Taste sauce; add salt and pepper if necessary.
Add 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and butter to large skillet over high heat. Add mushrooms. Cook, shaking at intervals, until browned, about 10 minutes. Add to beef mixture.
Add pearl onions to saucepan of boiling water. Cook over high heat about 2 minutes. Drain under cold water; peel.
Add remaining tablespoon each of olive oil and butter to large skillet over medium-high heat. Add pearl onions. Cook, stirring, about 12 minutes or until browned. Reduce heat to low; add stock, water or wine and cook 5 minutes more or until tender. Add to beef mixture. Reheat before serving. Garnish with parsley.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Along with pie, Tarte Tatin, baked apples and applesauce, this is my favourite apple dessert. I insist on using Northern Spys, available in late fall, but the addition of lemon juice and/or cranberries to Cortland, Mutsu or Royal Gala apples can achieve the tartness crucial to contrast with the sweet topping. The latter is from a recipe in Toronto chef Regan Daley’s In The Sweet Kitchen (Random House; $45). If using a sweeter apple, omit the granulated sugar.
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup old-fashioned or quick-cooking (not instant) rolled oats
¾ cup packed brown sugar
¾ cup cold butter, cut in pieces
2 tbsp granulated sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
6 or 7 tart apples, cored, peeled, sliced
1 to 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Preheat oven to 375F.
In large bowl, combine flour, rolled oats and brown sugar. Add butter. Using wire hand pastry blender or two knives, cut it in until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. With fingers, rub mixture to form a crumbly dough.
In small bowl, combine granulated sugar and cinnamon.
Lightly butter large, shallow ceramic, earthenware or glass baking dish. Arrange apple slices in dish. Sprinkle with lemon juice and sugar/cinnamon mixture. Spread evenly with topping mixture. Bake 40 to 50 min. or until browned on top and apples are soft.
Makes about 6 servings.