I’m a big fan of Mad Men, especially the show's portrayal of the Sixties. It’s not just that everyone seemed so cool and classy, but that everyone seemed to have had such great dinner parties. They started off with a cocktail, an elegantly lighted cigarette, fondue, crown roast, and chocolate mousse. Of course, this is probably far removed from the truth. But no matter.
|© 2014 Chris Terrell|
Is it just me, or has the dinner party fallen a bit out of favor in American culture? These days we are more likely to get together with friends at a restaurant or bar and order some pizza, watch a game, and call it quits. Nothing necessarily wrong with this, and it is in keeping with the relaxed nature of American culture in the early 21st Century. And besides, a dinner party—or any party for that matter—takes a lot of work. But then again, there’s a lot to be said for sitting down, sharing a meal, and having an adult conversation—no TV; no kids; and no iPhones. With all this in mind, I decided, after many years of having dinner parties for work events and for clients, to throw one just for fun and just for my friends.
Before I even got to the planning, the cleaning, the shopping, or the cooking, however, I had to find a date. This turned out to be the hardest part about the whole endeavor, something that almost made me throw up my hands and call the whole thing off! What was it? It was finding a date that worked for everyone! This took—and I’m not kidding—about eight months! “Can’t do that weekend, my son has a soccer tournament.” “Nope, the in-laws are in town.” “Out of town on business that night.” “Sorry, going to Davos.” (Ok, I made that one up.) However, I stuck with it, and finally we all agreed on June 21, 2014: Midsummer’s Eve.
Once I had the date nailed down, I then began to spend a fair amount of time thinking about the menu during my morning runs. Because the dinner would be held on Midsummer’s Eve, I thought I should keep the meal light, and I didn’t want to make anything new for the first time (see “Rule #2” below). I also decided to serve dinner in courses, not to be fancy, but for a very practical reason, namely, my dinner table simply isn’t big enough for all the food to be served at once.
I started with a simple salad—butter lettuce and radishes and a vinaigrette I don’t really follow a recipe for my dressings. I go with really good olive oil (Ravida), Dijon mustard, white wine vinegar, shallots, egg yolk, salt and pepper. (And please, don’t ever buy that stuff they sell in bottles at the grocery store—it’s not real salad dressing!)
Next, I served gazpacho. I used Ina Garten’s recipe, which has never done me wrong. Gazpacho is great in the summer and it can be made a day before. In fact, it is better after a day or two. Taste it before serving, because cold foods sometimes need more salt and pepper. Here’s her recipe:
Ina Garten's Gazpacho
2 hothouse cucumbers, halved and seeded, but not peeled
3 red bell peppers, cored and seeded
8 plum tomatoes
2 red onions
6 garlic cloves, minced
46 ounces tomato juice (6 cups)
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Roughly chop the cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and red onions into 1-inch cubes. Put each vegetable separately into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until it is coarsely chopped. Do not overprocess!
After each vegetable is processed, combine them in a large bowl and add the garlic, tomato juice, vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well and chill before serving. The longer gazpacho sits, the more the flavors develop.
Next came the main course: shallow poached halibut with sauce vierge. This recipe comes from Eric Ripert, a true god in the culinary firmament. The sauce can be made the day before, and the fish takes no time at all to cook. (You can use turbot too, which is a little cheaper than halibut.) Here’s the recipe:
Eric Ripert's Shallow Poached Halibut with Sauce Vierge
The Sauce Vierge
1 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon finely minced shallot
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 tablespoon minced tarragon
1 tablespoon minced basil
1 tablespoon chopped capers
1 tablespoon chopped Nicoise olives
Juice of half a lemon
4 ripe tomatoes sliced thinly, about 1/4 - inch
1/2 cup thinly sliced basil
4 (6-ounce) Halibut filets, sliced lengthwise into thirds, about 3/4- inch thick
2 cups water (more if needed)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
To make the sauce, place the extra virgin olive oil in a mixing bowl and add the shallot, parsley, tarragon, basil, capers and olives. Stir to combine the ingredients and transfer to a small container. The sauce can be made a couple hours ahead and kept at room temperature.
Make the plates just before cooking the fish by fanning the sliced tomatoes in a circle in the center of four plates and season lightly with salt and white pepper.
Place a large sauté pan on medium-low heat and add the water, the extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice, lightly season the liquid with salt and white pepper. Season the slices of halibut on both sides with salt and white pepper and place in a single layer in the warmed poaching liquid. The liquid should come about halfway up the fish, adjust if needed with more. Cook the fish for about 2-3 minutes, then flip the slices and cook on the other side until they are just warmed in the center.
With the fish, I served what was perhaps the most popular item of the night: creamed corn, a perfect summer dish. But this wasn’t just any creamed corn, but Thomas Keller’s recipe. I’ve written about this recipe before. It is the real deal. The best recipe for creamed corn out there. And while I don’t usually follow recipes to the letter, this one I do. In fact, Thomas Keller’s recipes are so precise they really leave little room for experimentation. But that’s OK, because his recipes are damn-near perfect. Here it is:
Thomas Keller's Creamed Corn from Ad Hoc at Home
6 ears of supersweet white or yellow con, shucked
1 large lime
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 to 1 cup heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
With a sharp chef's knife, cut vertically down each ear of corn to slice off the kernels.
Grate the zest of the lime, preferably with a Microplaner grater, set aside. Cut the lime in half.
Melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the corn, squeeze about 1 tablespoon lime juice, or to taste, over the corn, and season with salt. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until all the liquid has evaporated, concentrating the flavor, and the corn is beginning to sizzle, about 15-17 minutes.
Stir in 3/4 cup cream, the cayenne, and the lime zest. Continue to cook for 6 to 8 minutes, until the cream is absorbed by the corn. Add up to 1/4 a cup of more cream if desired for a creamier texture. Add salt to taste and stir in the chives.
Finally, there was dessert. This came from one of my favorite dessert cookbooks of all time, Short & Sweet by Melanie Barnard. All her recipes are simple, yet elegant. In fact, your guests will think you spent the better part of an afternoon working on it. Again, this is something that can be made ahead of time, about three or four hours before dinner.
Raspberries in Chantilly Cream
2 cups heavy cream, chilled
1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons raspberry liqueur, such as Frambois
4 cups fresh raspberries
Whip the cream with the jam, powdered sugar, and liqueur until it's thickened and forms very soft peaks. (The cream can be prepared up to 2 hours before serving and refrigerated.) Divide the cream among 4 shallow desert bowls. (Or martini glasses for a more dramatic effect.). Sprinkle the berries over the top of each desert. Serve immediately. (You can also put the raspberries in the bottom and the cream on top, if you want to have the entire desert completed beforehand.)
So what did I learn from this dinner party and the others that I’ve had in the past? I came up with ten “rules,” and while not exactly The Ten Commandments, they are certainly easier to follow.
1. Focus first and foremost on the menu. The menu takes careful planning. You must accommodate your guests’ tastes, preferences, and food allergies, but more importantly, you need to create a meal that doesn’t make you a slave of the kitchen. No one wants to go to a dinner party and see the back of the host’s or hostess’s head, frantically whisking the hollandaise sauce.
2. Don’t cook anything that you’ve never cooked before. You’re guests are not Guinea pigs!
3. Have a signature cocktail. This avoids the problem of making personalized drinks from the bar. Make it easy by having it pre-mixed and in a pitcher so that your guests need only add ice and pour.
4. Flowers. And flowers on the table. Nothing fancy, just simple arrangements.
5. Play music. I prefer mid-Century, West Coast jazz, like Paul Desmond.
6. Make a charcuterie platter.
7. Greet your guests at the door and see them to the door when they leave.
8. And most importantly, never apologize. (Though I admit that I violated this rule several times during the evening because I felt the halibut could have been seasoned more.
9. Keep it simple and casual.
10. Most importantly, have fun!
Well, there you have it. My Midsummer’s Eve dinner party. I know it sounds like a lot of work, and it was, but also entirely worth it when you see everyone laughing and having a good time. And besides, I got to enjoy the leftovers of that creamed corn for several days!