Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A dinner party

When I arrived at the office the last work day before Christmas, I came in and saw my desk heaped with gifts. It took me by surprise, as it had been so long since I had worked in an office. It hadn't even occurred to me that we would exchange presents, and I  had nothing planned. But it came to me quickly: I would have everyone over for a dinner party. I thought an evening together, away from the ringing phones and stress of the job, would allow us to remember the privilege it is to have such fantastic co-workers. It was just what we all needed.


A cheese board to nibble on as we waited for everyone to arrive and for the soup to finish.
Soup: French onion 
Salad: A variation on this salad (I served it with bottled dressing and no avocado)
Dessert: Gelato with a pirouette cookie and a raspberry on top

Once I decided on French onion soup (which involves making a complex broth, caramelizing onions, which translates into a lot of time), I chose to simplify the rest. I bought salad dressing when it was taking too long to find the ingredients for the salad dressing in my recipe, I made a sheet pan dinner that could cook all together while we were having soup and salad. All I needed to do was get up briefly and remove the pork, put it under a foil tent, and let the beans and potatoes finish cooking. Our dessert was as simple as scooping ice cream, grabbing a boxed cookie, and adding a fruit garnish. 

My boss brought a fun gift that kept the conversation going after the meal was over:

Sample questions we discussed: 

What is the fastest you have ever driven?
What is one sport you don't care about at all?
What is the best speech you have ever heard?

Lots of laughs, plenty of new insights into my co-workers. I look forward to having this as part of future dinner parties.

My keys to dinner party sanity (especially one, like this one, that is during the work week):

1) Accept help. 

My youngest son has been eager to earn money while he is home on break from school, so I hired him to deep clean the bathroom, make sure the floors and rugs were clean in the great room, and to tidy up the front door deck area.

My co-worker Sarah came early to help with last minute prep.  She also stayed until all the dishes were done at the end of the night. My house was spotless and sparkling when I went to bed. 

2)  Think through what needs to happen when. Don't serve things that will require that you be away from the party for long stretches. Your guests would rather visit with you than see you as a blur in front of the stove. A sheet pan dinner is a perfect solution.

3)  Set things up ahead of time -- and go ahead and use all the pretty things. I put out the china and the silver. I used the crystal goblets. I put out the linen napkins. Simple elegance (the "simple" part can be translated in the top photograph as "wrinkles."  I love beautiful things, but I am happy to have it be less than perfect. It helps put people at ease.)

4) Start the evening with an empty dishwasher and an empty dish rack. Clean up as you clear each course. I put the soup bowls in to soak, thanks to all that baked on Swiss cheese goodness.

5)  Remember that a dinner party is not to impress anyone. It is to put everyone at ease and to help them relax and recuperate.  As author Shauna Niequest says:

“I’m not talking about cooking as performance, or entertaining as a complicated choreography of competition and showing off. I’m talking about feeding someone with honesty and intimacy and love, about making your home a place where people are fiercely protected, even if just for a few hours, from the crush and cruelty of the day.” 

6) Candles and twinkle lights make any set up feel like a party.

7)  Music can be a good icebreaker. I will often start an evening with my George Winston Pandora station, letting it go quiet when the conversation gets lively.

FINAL ADVICE (as cliche as it might be): JUST DO IT.  You won't regret it.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A wedding reception menu

I was asked by my dear friend Lisa if I would be willing to provide food for the California reception for her daughter Kate who was getting married in Chicago.  It was a tricky time of year (December 22nd), but after a few days of thinking about it, I agreed. Lisa is a gem, and I wanted to bless her and her family.

Now the greatest thing about providing food for a gathering at Lisa's is that she is not a micromanager. She chooses people she trusts, and she lets them go. I had a budget, I knew the food needed to be finger food, but other than that I was free to choose. Very fun!!  She did not ask me what I was serving until I arrived at her house the morning of the 22nd. She really is trusting!

I'm not sure how anyone planned these kinds of events before the internet, and I am well aware of how much Pinterest came to my rescue. I spent a few relaxed evenings obsessing over possible menu items. Finally, just a few weeks before the event, I had the menu plan.

Here is what I was working with:

100 ish people
Not a ton of room to work in the on-site kitchen
She was hoping to stay under $1400 for all the food and drink (I was not doing desserts or drinks)

Here is what I came up with:

This recipe was the inspiration for this entree, but I ended up cutting all sorts of corners. I bought pre-made meatballs at the Grocery Outlet (they were even "Italian Style") and bottled hoisin sauce. I put that in a crock pot and called it done. They were DELICIOUS. Sprinkled with sesame seeds, served with toothpicks.

I changed the chicken salad recipe a little, adding grapes instead of the cranberries and apples. Again: DELICIOUS.

Ham and cheese sliders: followed the recipe. I will make these over and over. I cannot emphasize how incredibly easy and tasty they are. We premade them, wrapped them in foil, and then just kept heating up new batches until they were all gone. Lisa has a lot of football players and their families in her circle of friends. Those boys were very happy with piles of sliders.

Pork tacos with lime slaw
By far the biggest hit. This was the recipe, I believe, that caused two people to ask for my (non-existent) catering business card. The flavors are so good. I served leftovers at church the next Saturday and our friend Greg said it was the best taco he had ever had.

Cheese tray
Grapes, a hard cheese, a goat cheese, brie, pickles, nuts, bread and crackers. Beautiful to look at, flavorful to taste, easy to assemble.

Cut veggies in cups with ranch dressing at the bottom of the cup (didn't start getting eaten until everything else was gone. Poor veggies.)

This post from Reluctant Entertainer was the inspiration for this tray. I did not include tortellini. We used fresh mozzarella, salami, sliced turkey, pepperoncini, cherry tomatoes on eight-inch skewers and drizzled them with balsamic glaze. Again, they were easy, they were beautiful in their display and so delicious. We put a basil plant in the center to finish off the design.

The tray is the larger one in this picture from Pier One (fortunately I have a friend who works there and was able to use her 40% discount. Not an inexpensive purchase, but I know I will use it over and over.) I did line it with parchment paper, as it is not a food-safe surface.

I purchased skewers, ziploc bags, foil and food.  The final cost:  $500 for 110 or so people.  There was just enough left over for a few meals for Lisa's family. All in all: a great success.  I did my shopping at Grocery Outlet and at WinCo.

A few notes: I did make an orzo salad and a green salad, but I realized as I was doing the final preparations that they were totally unnecessary. I was right. I deducted the cost for those items from my bill, and brought them home to enjoy. I think I was just nervous about amounts, but we were spot on with how much we served.

For the prep:

I had two friends who came and chopped and sliced for me the night before, plus my son Brennan came along and emptied the trash, the dishwasher, and swept up my messes as we went along. While they did those things, I put the pork on to cook, made chicken salad, and packed the boxes for travel. I could not have done this without their help.

The day of the event I had help from one friend of Lisa's who was incredible. She powered through prep and I ended up having an hour to put my feet up before the event began. My husband was our server, while the two of us just kept prepping and putting things out from 6:00 - 9:00. John had so much fun serving, he is suggesting we do this when we retire. That makes me smile.

May the marriage of Kate and Adam be as joyful, as beautiful, as full of love as the evening of December 22nd. It was an unforgettable night to be a part of.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Friday, September 6, 2013

Kitchen Vignettes on PBS


 photo credit:  Kitchen Vignettes.  Isn't that incredibly beautiful?

With great thanks to Carol, I now know about Kitchen Vignettes on PBS.

Strawberry Basil Tart? Cherry Tomato Galette? Very cool music and quick moving video? Yes, yes, and yes, please!

I'm hooked.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

25 years of teaching celebrated

Our dinner party last Tuesday was in celebration of three men and their careers.  My husband and two of his co-workers have been teaching for our school district for twenty-five years each.  And they love their jobs and their students.  Amazing!  A great reason to celebrate.

It was a four-course event that I cooked for and one of the other wives hosted.  Taking a dinner party on the road is both fun and challenging;you have to be organized enough to have everything you need, but you don't have to clean the bathroom.  It was a great choice for this party.

First Course

(My version included roasted peppers.  I also added a dollop of cream, two homemade crackers (recipe below), and finished with fresh grated parmesan and bits of fresh basil.)

Easy (really, they are!) Parmesan Basil Crackers

Second Course

Winter Salad with Roasted Beets and Citrus Reduction Dressing

(One of my favorite salads.  So simple.  Great flavors.  Full disclosure:  not one of my husband's favorites.)

Third Course

Roast Stuffed Pork Loin with Port Sauce

(My version used the directions for the pork and the stuffing, but I replaced the cherries with figs and made a port and fig sauce.)

Roasted zucchini, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, mushrooms on the side.

(Drizzle with oil, generously season with salt and pepper, and roast at 400 degrees until done.)

Fourth Course

Peach halves, sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg, and put under the broiler until hot and bubbly, but not burned.  We served it with whipping cream, a handful of blueberries, and then a bit more nutmeg and cinnamon.  Would be just as good with ice cream.

It was a great meal and terrific evening of reminiscing!