Cooking for A Dinner Party, Part II
Last week we spoke plainly about the realities of hosting dinner parties for which you do all the cooking. Based on some of the feedback, I'm not the only one who gets a bit overwhelmed by cooking for company. But there are some city cook-tested strategies that seem to work. I particularly liked this one:
"Find a good balance between recipes that end with the phrase 'serve immediately' and those that contain my favorite words, 'can be made in advance.' I strive to have as little last minute cooking tasks as possible…. My ultimate goal is to be sitting on the couch sipping a cocktail waiting for the guests to arrive."
I haven't yet managed to achieve that degree of zen and am instead more like another city cook who finds and repeats a well-tested menu that can be mostly prepped in advance:
"I thought I was the only one who felt like going to bed when the doorbell rang for the first guests. 'You all have a nice time, but I'm beat.' My current favorite dinner-party main dish, however, is fish poached in olive oil from Epicurious, because it goes in the oven when guests arrive and takes no further work. I serve it with black rice and haricots verts."
Below is a link to that recipe, which originally appeared in Gourmet magazine -- and if you've never had fish poached in oil, you will be surprised how non-oily it is.
I, too, love black rice, sometimes called "forbidden rice," because it is nutty and exotic and as with the haricots verts, can be cooked in advance and re-heated just before serving. This is also a meal that will be special to guests because there are unexpected flavors and a certain luxury to the ingredients, yet the meal doesn't have to cost a lot.
Besides being appetizing, this menu lets you spend time with your guests. If you have a typical city kitchen, there's no room for guests to join you as you finish the cooking so try to choose dishes that can be mostly made in advance, like soups, stews and braises, and finished just before serving. Alternatively, for the foods that must be cooked just before serving, set up the production -- the "mise en place" -- with everything cut, prepped and ready so that you can be efficient when back in the kitchen. This is especially important when making company-pleasing but big production dishes like pizza, risotto, or stir-fries.
When in the dual role of hostess and cook, it's okay to have pauses between courses. You can serve a starter and then as everyone is finishing, excuse yourself to go back to the kitchen to do the final work on the next.
We've come up with a few ideas for putting together menus for company, including lots of recipes -- many of which are from The City Cook so search our site for them. The point here isn't to be literal, although you certainly could -- and I've made and served every menu here, minus the margaritas. Instead it's to illustrate how menus can balance the food as well as the work.
Menus For Cooking For Company
Menu #1: Here everything can be made in advance and served at room temperature, although the baked apricots will be nicer if served warm.
- Mushroom, Celery and Parmesan Salad; serve with good bread that can stay on the table through the whole meal.
- Poached Salmon with Goat Cheese Sauce
- Green Beans with Cherry Tomatoes (serve at room temperature)
- Baked Apricots with melted vanilla ice cream (tastes the same as Crème Anglaise -- just buy a pint of good vanilla ice cream and let it sit on the counter during dinner and by dessert time it will be melted)
Menu #2: Some menus can be front-loaded, meaning you begin with a fancier and more substantial first course that's followed by a one-dish entree. Leave out the salmon roe if it isn't appealing or you want to save some costs. You could also substitute a piece of smoked salmon or bluefish.
- Tiny Potato Pancakes with Beet Salad, Salmon Roe and Sour Cream
- Farfalle With Mixed Mushrooms
- Broccoli Rabe
- Bakery-Bought Brownies with Coffee Ice Cream and Hot Fudge Sauce
Menu #3: Tacos are a classic Mexican dish that can be a big treat for company if every element is made from scratch. I'm not suggesting one of those grocery store kits and a pound of ground chuck -- instead I'm thinking of tacos filled with pork carnitas or chicken with chorizo, both recipes in a new cookbook called, of course, Tacos, by Mark Miller (Ten Speed Press, paperback with color photos, $21.95). You can make the fillings -- and your own tortillas -- in advance and it can be fun to do the assembly at the table. Along with the tacos you could serve traditional sides like green rice and slaw, start with margaritas and end with frozen fruit bars. This is not a dish to be served anywhere but at a table with everyone seated because it will need lots of plates and eating with our hands.
Menu #4: There's something particularly satisfying about steak and salad. Also, think how often you and your friends order a perfectly tossed salad in a restaurant to begin a meal and you'll know this menu, which includes a classic salad named for the three colors in the Italian flag, will be well received. If you're cooking for beef eaters, this less expensive cut of steak can easily serve six and it has a rich, hearty flavor. Everything can be prepped in advance and you can broil the steak after your guests arrive, letting it rest while you serve the salad.
- Insalata Tri Colore
- Sliced London Broil
- Roasted Cherry Tomatoes
- Fresh Pineapple and Butter Cookies (baked in advance or bakery-bought)
Menu #5: Sometimes we want to cook dishes that require us back in the kitchen to finish and produce the best flavor. In this case I've paired two dishes -- a baked fish and a risotto -- that need about the same amount of time to cook. Begin with a cold soup and then leave your guests with a lively topic for conversation as you go back to the kitchen for 20 minutes to bake the fish and stir the risotto.
- Cold Asparagus Soup (serve with big Parmesan-dusted croutons)
- Baked Red Snapper with Artichokes and Tomatoes
- Lemon Risotto (create the base in advance and add the stock and do all the stirring in the 20 minutes that the fish bakes while your guests drink more wine)
- Coconut Sorbet with Sliced Fresh Mango
Menu #6: Since most city cooks lack outdoor cooking, we're handicapped when it comes to making barbeque. But we can still do slow-cooked pork ribs either in our ovens or in a slow cooker. Make one with a pungent sauce that can stand up to a salad dressed with quick-pickled red onions and finish with something lemon that will be refreshing. Instead of wine, serve a locally brewed beer.
- Escarole With Red Onion Salad
- Pork Ribs (made in the slow cooker)
- Rice Salad
- Lemon Bars (home-made or bakery bought) with raspberry coulis
Menu #7: I do know one person who insists she doesn't care for Italian food but I think she is a rarity. Nearly everyone counts it as a favorite cuisine and this menu, which I've served often, is always a hit. It combines a generous antipasto with either pasta or pizza.
- Italian Antipasto Platter (all store-bought from an Italian deli including salami, prosciutto, slices of fresh mozzarella, local tomatoes, olives, roasted artichoke hearts -- put everything on your biggest platter and let everyone serve themselves), a little pitcher of excellent olive oil and a loaf of artisanal bread, e.g., a Pugliese or ciabatta
- Home-Made Pizza (make your own or buy dough at the market or from a local pizza shop; see our article about making city pizza) -- OR --
- Rigatoni alla Grecia
- Watermelon Sorbet (make your own and add chocolate chips that will look like watermelon seeds)
If your guests ask to bring something, wine is always good -- but tell them what you're serving. An alternative is to give them the dessert assignment, but again be specific so your menu will continue to be in your control. As we head into summer and the too-hot-to-cook months we'll update this list with some seasonal ideas. In the meantime, don't let small space, tight budgets and performance anxiety keep you from asking friends to come to dinner.
The pleasure of one another's company is what matters most. And of course, the food.