A Slice of My Life – A Dinner Party

January 28, 2013

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
Eggplant Parmesan
Buttered Orzo
Blasted Broccoli
No-Knead Bread
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.

Baked eggplant.

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.

The best.

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?


  1. lovely post! your creativity is inspiring…

    do you have a non-stick crepe pan? I love mine:)

    Comment by Toni — January 28, 2013 @ 3:39 pm

  2. Forget a class… I think you could/should do an entire cookbook on this concept! (And if you were still in Seattle I’d be at your class in heartbeat).

    Comment by Erin — January 28, 2013 @ 5:17 pm

  3. Such a great post. Curious to know if you’ve read Jamie’s Meals in Minutes — for each meal, he writes and entire menu, and then writes out the steps for prepping each component. This intrigued me, but I’ve had the book over a year and still haven’t cooked from it — your instructions were much clearer! If you teach such a class, please come do in Seattle!!!

    Comment by Deb — January 28, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

  4. THANK YOU!!!! This is a cherished post! I love to host people for dinner and yet the planning and 100% from scratch goal can tear through our lives (I know my husband thinks so!). I agree with the above post – perfect idea for a cookbook! And especially for vegetarians because it can be hard to distinguish the mains from the sides, etc. Really – thank you for sharing this and I might just fly to Oakland for a class!

    Comment by Pam — January 28, 2013 @ 8:01 pm

  5. Fantastic! Can’t wait to try this dinner party menu! I would feel much more confident taking it on with these instructions and with so much done in advance. I’m getting better but often I give myself too many last minute complicated thugs for each course then regret it because I can’t enjoy my guests enough. I would DEFINITELY take this class if you offered it! We miss you in Seattle!

    Comment by Nancy Manzo — January 28, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

  6. This is a fantastic post!! I love having people over for dinner but the planning, especially narrowing down a menu, is overwhelming. I so enjoyed getting to see how you organise and prepare Dana. I don’t live in the US, but if I did I’d be at your class in a heartbeat. Btw, so impressed by your bread! I’ve tried no knead bread twice and while it was quite nice, it didn’t look nearly as light and fluffy as yours.

    Comment by Anna — January 29, 2013 @ 1:41 am

  7. If I lived closer I would certainly come join you! I find the prospect of someday (hopefully soon when the.boy. moves in) hosting dinner parties to be so exciting. This post was chock full of good advice!

    Comment by Joanne — January 29, 2013 @ 1:55 am

  8. Please do share the Eggplant Parmesan recipe! One of my favorite dishes but I try to avoid the greasy fried kind. I tried a roasted version a few years ago that was good but not great.

    Comment by Erin — January 29, 2013 @ 8:51 pm

  9. Was a wonderful dinner as always. I would just like to note that there are not as many home-baked cookies in the cookie jar as there usually is. . . :)

    Comment by Randy — January 29, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

  10. Great post! I usually decide on part of the menu for a dinner party, procrasinate on the rest and then end up scrambling on the day of because I didn’t plan out the entire thing. A little discipline or at least a written menu would certainly help. I think a dinner party class would go over very well when the right spot turns up to teach it!

    Comment by Luann — January 29, 2013 @ 9:19 pm

  11. Very funny, honey. I know you suffer greatly in our marriage. :)

    Comment by dana — January 29, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

  12. Yes!!!! Teach it and I will come! I live on the other side of the bay … and wouldn’t cherish traveling to Oakland in the evening (i.e. a weekend afternoon would be fabulous!) … but to meet you and learn from you would be such an honor! Please do it! The wonderful folks in Seattle had you long enough … we need you to teach us here, in your new home. :-)

    Comment by Julie J — January 30, 2013 @ 3:02 am

  13. I would absolutely come to one of your classes!!! I found your blog through a dear friend of mine who is a friend of yours from Seattle. I live not to far from where you are now. Love your blog and hope you have a class soon!

    Comment by Lisa — February 1, 2013 @ 5:32 am

  14. Hi Dana,

    What a helpful post…love reading about other peoples’ methods of maintaining sanity. I just wondered what your take on using Parmesan, as a vegetarian, was. I’m a veggie too, and I don’t know about in the States but in the UK, 99% of real Parmesan you can get is not veggie…but there’s really nothing else like it for flavour and it’s included in so many dished labeled veggie. I use it anyway and try not to feel too bad about it…while feeling quite bad about it. Have never really heard anyone else’s view on it so was just interested.

    Comment by Holly — February 1, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

  15. Holly, this is a very good and VERY loaded question. I’m surprised it has not come up before now. Cheese is a very tricky thing for vegetarians. Most cheese, including Parmesan, is made with animal rennet. Rennet is usually made from the stomachs of calves – definitely not something I want to eat if I think about it too carefully. I have to admit, cheese is one of the few areas where I just pretend I don’t actually know what animal rennet is. I am not a big cheese person, I don’t eat it all that often. Parmesan is probably the one I eat most often. In the States, all the Tilamook Cheddar cheeses are made with vegetarian rennet, so that is what I serve my kids. I know it is possible to buy Parmesan-like cheese that is made with vegetarian rennet but it does not taste the same. A good cheese counter can help you navigate which cheeses are good choices for stricter-than-myself vegetarians.

    Comment by dana — February 1, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

  16. Having dinner at your house would be a dream come true! Miss you my friend! xo

    Comment by Maria — February 1, 2013 @ 5:49 pm

  17. […] :: The planner in me (I love lists!) is fascinated by Dana’s take on dinner party planning. […]

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  18. Dropping in from shutterbean. I love this! I’d so totally attend a class (I’m in the East Bay!)

    Comment by Becky — February 1, 2013 @ 10:52 pm

  19. This helps calm my dinner party brain greatly. Thank you! Keen to try that eggplant recipe, have the book myself so off to look it up!
    Heidi xo

    Comment by Heidi - Apples Under My Bed — February 2, 2013 @ 3:00 am

  20. This is such an informative post. I love that you showed the entire process even the little mishaps – that inevitably always happen. At least they do with me. :) I need to have more dinner parties. You and Julie are the best at this. Learning from the pros.

    Comment by Ashley — February 2, 2013 @ 3:33 am

  21. Thanks Dana…those are my thoughts exactly, I always buy other cheese based on whether they’re vegetarian or not but pretty much do the same as you when it comes to Parmesan. I have tried the ‘veegie-version’ but like you say, it does NOT taste the same and is very hard to get hold of in my neck of the woods. Thank you for your thoughts.

    Comment by Holly — February 2, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

  22. One of these days I want to come to one of your awesome dinner parties :)
    Hope to see you again soon.

    Comment by Kristen — February 3, 2013 @ 12:35 am

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