Posts tagged “dinner party

Throwing a Wedding shower

A few weeks ago I got a call from my mom, and she told me that my aunt wanted to throw a shower for my brother’s fiance.  My aunt wanted me to cater it. A couple of days after that I received an email from my aunt.  Of course I had a number of questions.  When? Where? Did she have any ideas as far as menu? How many people? Any dietary restrictions?  She really didn’t have any solid ideas, but she had decided that she would rather deal with the social aspects of throwing the party, and enjoy it rather than having to worry about the food.  I can understand that, and I am certainly willing to help out.  I’ve been cooking for a living for over 6 years, and for some reason most of my family members are surprised when I do things like this.

When I first started cooking I was doing cold foods.  That is the general progression that you follow.  Dishes, salads/sandwiches, hot line.  In my case, I ended up on the sauté station.  Depending on the size of a kitchen there may be more or fewer stations.   Doing cold foods meant that I made a lot of hors d’oeuvres  as well as salads.  At that time we had dinner service for our members, and every night we would come up with a complimentary appetizer for our guests.  That was was pretty much whatever we wanted to give them, and I kind of took it as challenge to do something interesting with it as often as possible.  This often involved me walking the coolers and grabbing something, and making something up on the spot.  Other times we would make a few extra hors d’oeuvres for a party and use them.

So, back to the party… I was more or less given free reign as far as food went, and I figured I would try to give people some things that were pretty safe, and also give them at least something that might be a bit of a challenge to them.  The only real dietary restrictions came from Amy (who doesn’t really eat red meat, but likes bacon), and my sister and I who are gluten-free.  Obviously, I wanted to be able to taste the food I was making so gluten-free was a goal, but I also wanted to make sure that my sister could eat whatever she wanted. The other side of the gluten-free goal was to make it so that if you didn’t need to know you would have NO idea whatsoever that you were eating gluten-free food. It turned out that there was also a mushroom allergy, but that was easy to deal with. (That person just had to avoid the stuffed mushrooms.)

My first step was to come up with a few things that pretty much everyone would be happy to eat.  I decided that I wanted to make sure that even if people had already had something like what I was making they would not have had it exactly like I was going to make it.

For the people who were were really afraid I figured a crudités platter, hummus, pita chips, and some ranch dip would be a good place to start. I also wanted to give them a nice cheese platter, and some fruit.  Between those two almost everyone will be happy. For the people who were just a little more adventurous I had a honeydew and cantaloupe that I skewered with a little bit of Coppa Romana that I picked up at at Salume Beddu, and then drizzled it with a little balsamic vinegar.

From there I wanted to get a little more adventurous.  I decided that I would make some stuffed mushrooms, and go back to my days making complimentary appetizers.  They are simple, and quite tasty, but a lot of people don’t like the texture of mushrooms.  I also had an idea to combine  some local chèvre and a fig jam on a cracker.  I ran across Thomas Keller‘s fig jam recipe from his book Ad Hoc at Home, and it seemed like it would be perfect.

Whenever you go someplace to cook there is always a bit of an element of chance as far as equipment, and presentation goes, but if you’re told that things are there that you know you will need,  figure it will be there, and be prepared to improvise if need be.  In this case I was pretty sure that there would be no real problems as far as serving platters and kitchen equipment went.  I always bring my own knives, and cutting boards.  It just makes things easier if I don’t have to worry that the person doesn’t have a decent knife!

imageSome of the things I made are pretty simple, and self-explanatory.  The cheese and fruit, melon cubes, and crudite you won’t have a problem doing at the drop of a hat.  So, I’ll tell you about the other three!

My stuffed mushrooms have been a hit every time I have made them.  What people don’t always realize is that they are very easy to make.

Crimini mushrooms (They are sold as “Baby bella” here. They are really small  portobello mushrooms.)

Cream cheese 8oz block

half an onion finely diced

pancetta finely diced 2 oz (I also got this at Salume Beddu. It was made from pigs that were fed acorns!!)

Garlic 3 cloves minced

Worcestershire sauce

First, wash the mushrooms, remove the stems, and mince them.  Hang onto the caps, because you’ll be stuffing them in a bit.

In a skillet render the pancetta over medium heat. Once the fat has more or less dissolved and the meat has crisped up a bit add the onions and garlic that you minced, and turn up the heat.  Saute these until the onions are clear, then add the minced mushroom stems, and add a little salt.  Cook the mushrooms until they are brown, and tender.  Remove from the heat, and let cool for a few minutes.   Beat the cream cheese in your mixer. I use the paddle attachment on my mixer, but if you don’t have a paddle, use what you have.  Then add the mushroom mixture, and mix to combine well.  Season with a little Worcestershire Sauce, to taste.  Spoon the filling into the mushroom caps, and bake them on a cookie sheet for about 10 minutes at 350F.  Obviously, if you want a vegetarian version leave out the pancetta, and use a little canola oil.


Now, lets tackle the fig jam and chèvre. Obviously, this  one I had to start early.  I had done a bit of searching for a fig jam, and ran across the recipe from Ad Hoc at Home by Thomas Keller.  This is not a book I own,  but it is certainly on my list of things to get. Quite a few people have made this and blogged about it.

It really is very simple, but takes a bit of time and care.
2 pounds of figs stems removed, and roughly chopped (fresh if possible, soak dried ones in hot water to rehydrate them)
1½ cups sugar
½ cup balsamic vinegar
1 tsp black peppercorns in a sachet
fresh lemon juice
Combine the figs, sugar, vinegar, and peppercorns in a saucepan with your candy thermometer in the pan. Simmer until the temperature reaches between 215 and 220, then stir in the lemon juice. Spoon into a container, and refrigerate.
I had decided to combine the fig jam with a nice local chèvre. Fortunately there are apparently plenty of good farmers in the area making raising goats and making cheese! A while back Amy and I threw a Halloween party, and learned about Nut Thins crackers. They’re made from rice and almonds, and are very tasty! I spread a little of the cheese on the crackers, and spooned a little of the jam on top. It was a great combination of sweet, and savory!

imageMy final appetizer was probably the biggest challenge for many of the guests at the party, and also in some ways for me. Tuna tartar on a sushi rice round should be no problem for people who eat sushi, but not all of my family eats sushi.

Since sushi rice is a bit time consuming to prepare you should start the rice early. First, soak the rice. Place the rice in a bowl and cover with cold water, and allow it to sit until the rice is white. Then drain, and rinse a few times until the water is no longer milky. Allow to drain, and then place the rice in a pot and cover with water. The measurement is not as exact as for other types of rice. In this case you want to cover by the depth of one knuckle. Stick your finger in the pot, and pour in water. You’ll get it! Bring the water up to a boil, and then turn it down to a simmer. Simmer covered for 10 minutes. Then turn off the heat, and allow it to sit for at least another 10 minutes. At that point you need to season the rice. There are a few ways you can do that. You can buy seasoned rice vinegar, or you can use unseasoned vinegar, and add a little bit of sugar and salt to it. That is what I do, because then I can use the vinegar for whatever else I want. The easiest way to season the rice is to combine a small amount of vinegar with sugar and salt. Then sprinkle the rice with the mixture, and mix it in. Once you have the rice seasoned spread it in thin layer on a cookie sheet to cool. I used my Silpat for this because it is very non-stick, and sushi rice is very sticky! Once it was cool I used a round cookie cutter to cut circles about 1 1/2 inch across. In a very hot skillet I lightly browned the rice cakes, and set them aside.

Next I turned my attention to the tuna. I purchased some very nice sushi grade tuna from a local fish market. They sliced the fish into steaks about ¾ inches thick for me. I minced some ginger, and finely sliced some green onions, and combined that with the fish which I cut into small dice. Then, I seasoned it with gluten-free soy sauce. Obviously, tasting this as you go is very important. Very little soy sauce is needed to season this mixture. You should never be afraid to taste things that you are cooking. That is one thing that I learned early on in my career in a kitchen. You may not like what you are tasting, but it is not hard to ask yourself things like “Is there enough salt?” or “Does this taste the way it should?” These are not subjective. You can tell if something is properly made even if you don’t care to eat it. This can be a challenge, but if it is gluten-free why not taste it?
When I was ready to assemble this appetizer I simply spooned the tuna mixture onto the rice cakes, and put them on the serving platters.


Throwing a party can be a challenge, but it can also be a lot of fun. All it takes is a bit of planning, and preparation. If you know what you want to do, and plan exactly when everything needs to be done it is easy to do. If you go in without a plan it can be quite nerve-wracking! Create things that you want to eat, and if you’re not sure, try it first. Make it once so that you aren’t trying a new recipe or technique on unwitting guinea pigs! Above all give yourself plenty of time, and have fun with things!


Dinner for Amy’s Birthday

Amy wanted to have some people over for dinner for her birthday.  This was really not a big deal.  Turns out we had seven for dinner. Our original menu was Poulet Basquaise with saffron risotto, a salad with the sherry vinaigrette that I made a while back, and then she was making an English Fool.  Sorry, I didn’t get a chance to take any pictures.


The English Fool was a very easy thing indeed to make.  It is essentially fruit in a syrup folded into whipped cream.  We decided, because we had some very local pears, to poach them in port, and fold that into the whipped cream!   Port poached pears are exactly what they sound like, and make an amazing gluten-free dessert by themselves!  If you want to try them, all you need to do is peel a a few pears, one per person.  Leave the stem in, and maybe a little bit of the top with the peel on.  Set them in a sauce pan.  Then pour a full bottle of port in with them, add about a cup of sugar, a couple of cinnamon sticks, a little allspice.  Bring it to a boil, and then simmer until the pears are tender.  Take the pears out of the pan, then return to a boil, and reduce it to thick syrup.  This is your sauce, serve it with ice cream or creme anglaise, and you are going to be amazed.  In this case I cubed the pears before they went into the pot.  Otherwise it worked the same.  After dinner Amy whipped the cream, and folded the pears, and the syrup into the cream.  It was very good.

The main course was a bit more time consuming, but fairly easy since I have done it a couple of times already.  First prep all of the veggies.  I had always thought that there was plenty of the veggies in the original recipe, and I didn’t even add any more this time.  As far as quantity goes, the only change I made was to cook a second chicken.  We bought whole birds to save a little money, and it also tends to get you a nicer bird.  Parts can come from birds that didn’t hold up well during processing or for whatever reason weren’t in as good of shape.  I’m not going to get into the politics of eating meat, but if you think about it as a producer you want as little waste as possible, and you’ll sell what you can.

The only thing that I did differently was that rather than searing the chicken in the pot, and letting it simmer with the veggies to finish I put the chicken on a sheet tray and finished it in the oven.  This allowed me to make sure that the chicken was all cooked through, and also cook the veggies.  I thought about doing it all in the same pot, but when I tried there was just not enough room.


That experiment is what caused a slight change in menu.  Like I said before I had planned on saffron risotto.  What we had was a saffron rice pilaf. I turned the wrong pot off when I was transferring the chicken to a sheet tray, and ended up burning the last of the arborio rice we had.  Amy had some normal long grain rice, but since I already had a pot with chicken broth and saffron I decided to switch rices.  I quickly cleaned the pot, and started over.  Pilaf is a method of cooking rice, but you could also use it for other things as well.  Just like with risotto you toast the rice in a little oil, add some onions, and then just pour in all of your liquid.  Bring it to a boil, cover, turn down the heat, and let it cook for 10 minutes on low, and then turn off the heat, and let the rice sit for 10 more minutes.  This gives you rice that is separate grains, and not sticky. It is also a bit simpler to do than risotto!


While guests were arriving we threw together a little cheese plate.  Amy loves dairy in general, and cheese is a special favorite.  We had a Tillamook cheddar, some Jarlsberg, and smoked gouda, some sliced apples, and everyone was happy to munch while dinner was coming together.  I also found a couple of nicer cheeses for Amy.  I got her a piece of Petit Basque, and a small piece of a cloth bound cheddar.  Petite Basque is a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese which I had tried at work, and really liked.  Amy and I really like sharp cheddar, and the one I got for her is certainly sharp!  It is a mature cheese, and is somewhat crumbly, and has some a bit of graininess caused by calcium lactate crystals which form during the aging process.  Very nice!


Everyone had a great time, and enjoyed the food quite a bit.   Happy Birthday Amy!

Prep Concepts

Tonight I thought I would talk about some basic concepts that are very helpful when you are cooking for a group.  Think about the nightmare that is Thanksgiving/Easter.  The big problem that most people have is getting overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead of them.  What you need is a plan.  Write your plan down, and if you need to, break down each item into individual steps.  Lets say you want to have some people over for dinner, a dinner party, and you found some nice trout.  You can sometimes find some fingerling potatoes at the grocery store or at a farmer’s market, and right now asparagus are in season, so that would make a nice dinner, right?  Rather than a heavy sauce, a small pat of a compound butter on your trout.  Sounds pretty good to me!  Start dinner with a salad, and maybe finish with crème brûlée.  Now, this wouldn’t be too bad to do for you and one other person, but make it ten, and it gets a little more intimidating.

The day before your party, make your  crème brûlée, and cool them in the fridge (Make sure they are cold, and then cover them so they don’t pick up funny flavors in the fridge.).  You’ll finish them later, so don’t burn the sugar yet, or you’ll ruin them.  Make your compound butter.  In this case, whip a stick of butter, add a little lemon juice, lemon zest, chopped parsley, and you’re set!  If need be, thaw the trout.  Make a vinaigrette for your salad.  It’s not hard, and will be gluten-free as well. (As we all know this is not always easy to accomplish with store bought dressings.)

Early in the day, sear your trout, and leave them on a cookie sheet in the fridge until its time for dinner.  Season them with salt and pepper.  Start them skin side up in the skillet, and you will serve them skin side down.  You want to make sure the skillet is hot, and I do mean hot, the oil should be smoking before the trout even touches it.  This is a little scary, but do NOT screw with the trout!  When it is ready to be flipped over it will tell you.  It will actually release from the skillet.  Gently shake the pan, if the fish moves it is ready to be flipped.  Not until it slides.  Flip it gently away from you, and wait.  It will release again.  Put it on the cookie sheet skin side down, and make sure that you have sprayed the sheet with non-stick spray.  Place the trout in the fridge, and cool them off.

Just before your guests start to show, sprinkle sugar on the crème brûlée, and using the broiler in your oven or a torch caramelize the sugar.  Carefully, there are several ways this can go wrong!  You don’t want to heat the custard under the sugar, since this will ruin it, and you also don’t want to get burned, or catch anything on fire!  Leave these out. Once this step is done, they will sit out, if they are refrigerated the sugar will liquefy.

Now, as you can see, all you have left is the asparagus, and the potatoes.  The potatoes will take some time, so about an hour before you want to serve season them how you want, salt, pepper, herbs, etc.  Spread them on a sheet tray and put them in the oven at 350F.  Check them from time to time.  Depending on your oven, the potatoes, etc., they will take somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 to 45 minutes.

How long will it take you to eat your salad?  Ten minutes?  That is about how long it will take the trout to cook.  So, before you sit down to eat yours, pop the trout in the oven with the potatoes that should be almost tender right now.

You can pretty easily steam asparagus, in about five to seven minutes.  As soon as you get back into the kitchen from eating your salad, pop your already cut asparagus into your steamer basket in your pot of boiling water, and put the lid on.  Plate your potatoes, and fish, and about the time you get all ten done, grab your asparagus out of the pot, place them artfully on the plate, and then top the fish with the pat of the butter.

Sure, it will take a bit of paying attention, but this would be a great success, and you would still be able to enjoy the dinner with your friends!   You might even be able to recruit a helper to clear plates, and carry the next course out to the table with you.

This is just an example, but my point is that you want to plan everything out, to the last detail.  Every step, timing, every item that you need.  If you have time to do it, you could even do a run through.  Even if it is just for you and one other person you will be able to to get a better idea of how long things will take, and have a chance to adjust timing, or scrap a dish that doesn’t work, and replace it with something else.  Maybe you would decide that there’s not enough space in your oven to roast the potatoes, and all of the trout.   So you could replace it with wild rice, or if that is not in the budget, try risotto, or rice pilaf.  You really don’t want to try out a recipe on guests, unless they know that is what they signed up for!

Ok, so I kind of went off on a tangent there, sorry.  The other thing I wanted to kind of touch on was something that is not obvious until you are faced with a large amount of prep to finish.  To use an example from something I have already written about, the onion soup I posted about.  You have several items that you will be handling the same way.  So, for each onion, cut off the ends, then cut them in half, peel all of them, and then slice all of them.  Strangely this will end up saving you time over doing each one from start to finish.  I’m not really sure why this is, but from what I have seen it is the case.  The larger the task you have the more obvious it will be.  It is a good habit to get into regardless.