And now for something completely different. Rather than show you the ins and outs of my week, I thought I would take you through one of my dinner parties. Randy and I both really like to entertain and having people over for dinner is a great way to solidify budding friendships. We had another kindergarten family over on Saturday night, one with whom we can see becoming fast friends. Spencer has informed me, on several occasions, that their daughter is going to marry him, that she chose him over another boy using the “eenie meenie mine-y mo” technique. So, if we are in for a lifetime of knowing these folks, we had better get started.
The first step for me, always, is deciding on a menu. I have a food notebook where I write down the menu of each party I do, whether it is just a casual dinner for four at our house, or a big party that I cater, or a class that I teach. I split the menu out into tasks that can be done ahead of time and list those tasks out by day. I don’t always take this step, sometimes thinking that the menu is simple enough that I don’t need to make that kind of list, but things go much smoother in my kitchen when I write things down. If I am catering, I also make a list of things I need to bring, one side of the page is food and the other is equipment.
Now, this might sound awfully organized. I need to assure you that I am not a particularly organized person. Years of working as a personal chef with very young children and very limited time, forced me to find ways to keep on top of what needed to be done. I got to be an expert at picking recipes apart for things that could be done ahead of time, a quality that has served me well as I prepped for classes I was teaching, or just for dinner parties at home. I am not a list maker in other parts of my life but I find the act of sitting down and writing things out, calms the chaos in my cooking mind. Try it.
At any given time, I usually have a dish swirling around in my head that I want to try. Appetizers, main dishes, desserts, side dishes, and breads have all taken up residence in that part of my brain. When it comes time to plan a menu, I zero in on that one dish that has been nagging at me, and build the rest of the menu around it. If I try to start 100% from scratch, building a menu becomes a task with too many choices and no focus. I have 150+ cookbooks, 20+ years of food magazines, blogs I read, not to mention my own site and inspiration from restaurant dishes I have eaten and produce at the farmers’ markets. With that incredible abundance, I can get lost easily. Lately the dish that has been speaking to me to try is the Eggplant Parmesan from Jamie’s Italy (Jamie Oliver, that is). With that one decision made, the rest of the menu came together easily for me. I always make buttered orzo when I make Eggplant Parmesan, and blasted broccoli seemed like it would go well. For the salad, I wanted to have arugula with roasted grapes, blue cheese, and fried shallots with a vinegar-y dressing. I made this salad (a Dana Treat original) for a party that I catered recently but didn’t actually taste it myself. I found dessert inspiration in the Sunday Suppers at Lucques book, a never-ending source of treasures. Lemon Crèpes with Hazelnut Cream sounded like a perfect challenge for me. I had one disastrous experience with crèpes many years ago – a vegan recipe – and have been scared of making them since. So yes, I picked a dinner party for people I don’t know all that well as the time to tackle a cooking fear.
You see, I don’t believe in that adage that you should only make tried and true recipes for company. I think having guests is a great time to make a special recipe you have been wanting to try, even if it is outside your comfort zone. I probably wouldn’t make every single menu item a challenge, but I like having a special occasion as an excuse to try something new. I trust myself, I am a good cook and baker. I can follow a recipe to the letter when need be. I know I’m not going to screw up royally. And when it comes to dessert, there are (almost) always homemade cookies in the cookie jar so even if things go sideways, we will have a treat to enjoy.
So, the menu was:
Arugula with Roasted Grapes, Blue Cheese, and Fried Shallots
Lemon Crèpes with Hazelnut Cream and Prune Armagnac Ice Cream
Here is how I broke it down:
Grapes, salad dressing, (over) fried shallots.
2 days before. Roasted the grapes and made the salad dressing. Made the base for the ice cream. Set out slices of bread to dry for the breadcrumbs. Toasted the hazelnuts for the crepes.
No-Knead Bread dough. (This was after an 18 hour rise.)
The day before. Made the tomato sauce for the eggplant. Mixed together the dough for bread. Grated the Parmesan cheese for the eggplant. Mixed together the crepe batter and made the hazelnut cream. Cut the broccoli into the size pieces I wanted. Turned the bread slices into breadcrumbs in my food processor.
The morning of. Fried the shallots. Than I realized that I had taken them too dark and not drained them well enough, so they were a little black and a little soggy. I threw them out. Toasted some walnuts instead and chopped them up. Sliced up the eggplants and baked them, and then just left them out at room temperature stacked on the baking sheet to cool. Finished making the ice cream. Chopped the garlic for the broccoli.
Assembling the Eggplant Parmesan.
Ready to go in the oven.
Crèpes. The first five were awful. Then I got the hang of it.
Filled and topped with hazelnut cream.
A few hours ahead. Assembled the Eggplant Parmesan. Made the crepes, allowed them to cool, then filled them and topped them with the hazelnut cream. Left them out at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap. Finished making the bread. Set out the broccoli on a baking sheet. Took the grapes and salad dressing out of the refrigerator so they weren’t too cold.
Once everyone was here, there wasn’t a whole lot to do, which is how I like it. The Eggplant Parmesan and the broccoli needed time in the oven, bread needed to be sliced, salad needed to be tossed. Nothing that kept me especially tied to the kitchen. All in all, the dinner was as lovely as the company. The star for me was the Eggplant Parmesan. I have been making a different recipe for years that delighted me for a while then made me mad when it came out of the oven all soupy. I feel sure that Jamie’s recipe will never make me mad. The sauce has some zing (thanks to a tiny bit of wine vinegar), the eggplant is not greasy (baked instead of fried), the nutty flavor of the Parmesan really came through, and the crunch on the top was a wonderful texture change from the rest of the dish. And it was not soupy at all. I promise to share the recipe if you promise not to mind that the photo is not the best.
Baked and devoured.
Baked for a bit, topped with hazelnut browned butter and a scoop of Prune Armagnac Ice Cream. I wanted to be over the moon about these but I wasn’t. Still, a fun dessert to make and very impressive to serve. Plus I am over my crèpe fear!
I’ve long thought about teaching a dinner party class. Where we would cook a menu similar to this and I would share my wisdom about making it do-able. Assuming I someday find a spot in which to teach, what do you think? Would you come join me?