DINNER PARTY TIPS, PART THREE: The Menu
In parts 1 & 2 we discussed strategy and tactics. Now, as promised, we present some actual dinner party menus and the reasoning behind them.
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Before we (finally!) get to some actual menus, let us sharpen our concept of a “dinner party” for our purposes here. For instance, we exclude holiday dinners like Thanksgiving and Christmas because 1) these are usually family dinners; and 2) the menus are often self-dictating. We similarly exclude special events like weddings and other ceremonies because, among other things, they involve factors far more important than the food. And we exclude business meetings and any other type of “meeting” where important decisions will be made…these would better be held in a private room in a public restaurant, or perhaps catered.
So what are we doing here? What exactly do we consider a “dinner party?”
We mean a gathering of unrelated adults in a private home, and therefore, under normal circumstances, dinner for no more than, say, twelve people; a dinner with multiple courses that thoughtfully complement each other; food that is either a little or a lot more special than everyday fare; and finally, an experience that makes you– the host or hostess– look knowledgeable, competent, and generous. Because if you do everything else right but fail at this final detail, you might as well hit an iceberg. But fear ye not– the universe is on your side, precisely because your home is NOT a restaurant. You see, we live in a time when you can buy much better ingredients than a restaurant would ever purchase, and, with a little know-how, turn them into much better food than a restaurant would ever serve.
Since it is now January, we’ll start this show in real time–
Menu #1– THE WINTER WARM-UP DINNER
The holidays are over, and now it’s the “dead of winter.” You live in a cold climate, but you and a circle of friends really hate winter and are starting to go a little stir-crazy. You’re the one with a fireplace and a big dining room, so you agree to host them and their partners for dinner. “Nothing fancy,” they warble in unison. “Don’t go to too much trouble.” Right… here’s how you utterly wow them.
Your invitees arrive at 6:00PM on a Saturday. You already have a plan in place for the coats, with someone appointed to lay them out in the nearest bedroom. With the TV off and your personal, well-chosen playlist wafting through the atmosphere, your guests gather in your living room for a Stand-Up Course featuring 2-3 platters of appetizers and open bottles of three delicious yet inexpensive wines they’ve never heard of.
A “Stand-Up Course?” Easy! No gathering ever had too much shrimp… just make sure it is wild-caught and American, even if you have to peel and de-vein it yourself. Please avoid the pre-cooked versions. Size 21-25# is perfect; any bigger gets really expensive, and any smaller makes you look cheap. For the sake of variety, consider offering alternatives to the standard cocktail sauce such as Rémoulade and/or Louis sauce. You’re on your own for the third platter– just remember that, in most of the civilized world, cheese is a dessert rather than an appetizer. And I’ll let you know when pâté comes back in style. I’m always happy to recommend my Smoked Trout & Horseradish Spread, which has reportedly been a hit in numerous households since its publication. Gravlax smacks loudly of the early ‘80’s, but it is still a fabulous appetizer. And a platter of Veggies & Hummus usually works, even if it borders on culinary virtue-signaling and edges awkwardly close to redundancy with your salad course.
(Pro-Tip: What do all these appetizer dishes have in common? None of them, save perhaps the hummus, come close to conflicting or competing with either the salad or the main course.)
Meanwhile, you’ve been putting the final touches on dinner. Your house smells glorious, thanks to the red wine pot roast that’s been pretty much making itself all afternoon. Your guests sit down, you say a few words of welcome, and then you and a helper serve the pre-plated salads– on plates small enough to become side dishes when the main course is served. Because your main course is devoid of visible vegetables, you include a twirl of roasted red and yellow peppers atop the greens, which you’ve tossed in your homemade vinaigrette (made with extra virgin olive oil) rather than some supermarket stuff in a bottle. You could also serve our Beet & Orange Salad, but only if you are certain that all the guests actually like beets. (I've served the greens alone with the beet salad topping and the peppers passed separately, and it worked nicely.)
As soon as the salad is served, you repair to the kitchen to individually plate the pot roast atop scoops of your favorite mashed potatoes. You place open wine bottles on the table, along with two sauce-boats filled with the luscious gravy that pretty much makes itself during the long braise.
Pot roast is a braise, i.e., a tough but flavorful cut chaperoned into luscious tenderness with a long simmer at 325º in either a designated braising pot or a Dutch oven. We give pot roast a full treatment in last year's essay, "The Big Bird Bowl."
When everyone is about half done nibbling at their salads, you and your designated helper serve the main course plates. Taking your cue, your guests push their miniature salad plates to the side to make space. Everyone fills their glasses and toasts your efforts, and then for the next few minutes you listen to moans of ecstasy as everyone marvels at the unexpected deliciousness of such a seemingly humble dish. Then you discreetly rise from the table to start coffee, and you let the pair of friends who volunteered to bring dessert do their thing… and you’re done!
WHY this dinner works– Well-made pot roast tastes much better than it looks, and it is very easy to prepare. (Maybe you dressed it up just a tad with petite diced tomatoes and chopped fresh parsley.) Furthermore, pot roast lends itself to feeding a large group. And you went the extra mile to source organic, 100% grass-fed chuck roast. You even made sure the red wine you served was noticeably better than it needed to be, and you did two things that made it taste even better– you opened and decanted it in the morning to let it breathe, and you served it a little cooler than room temperature by dunking the bottle in cold tap water for a spell.
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Menu #1A– A FANCIER VARIANT OF #1
Let’s say you run with a crowd for whom pot roast simply won’t do. (I generally avoid such people myself, but I grudgingly acknowledge their existence, as well as the need to impress them on occasion.) It may come as a surprise that the above menu can change from denim & flannel into satin & pearls with just one little switcheroo–
We replace the pot roast with roast tenderloin.
Because of its comparatively small diameter, beef tenderloin cooks much differently than does prime rib. Click HERE and HERE for two of many similar online roast tenderloin recipes. As you’ll see, they commonly recommend allowing the meat to warm up for a spell at room temperature, roasting at a high oven temperature (450º– 475ºF) and using a digital monitoring thermometer to nail the target interior temperature of 120º–125ºF for rare-to-medium-rare. You will also see links for a variety of fancy sauces, all of which work perfectly well, for beef tenderloin is a versatile if neutral background for a wide variety of distinctive flavors. My personal preference is red wine sauce, with or without the addition of sauteed fancy mushrooms. (HERE and HERE are two significantly different recipes.) My personal version is as follows–
Spring for a package of oxtails. Slowly roast them half to death on a bed of 4 chopped medium onions and 2 stalks each of celery and carrot, all smeared with a tablespoon or more of tomato paste and enough grape seed oil to get them browning nicely. Place their withered remains in a stockpot with enough water to cover along with at least half a bottle of $10 French red. Simmer until the oxtails disintegrate, strain, and then reduce by about a third. Refrigerate or freeze for a few hours, and then remove the fat cap that has risen to the top and solidified. Enhance with demi glace and such touches as soy, Worcestershire, Better than Bouillon, or whatever else strikes your fancy. Thicken with cornstarch or potato starch. Add sauteed mushrooms as desired.
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Braising is a very useful skill to master, particularly for making inexpensive ingredients burst with restaurant-grade flavors. It also lends itself to making large batches that package easily in plastic deli containers for easy mid-week meals and/or freezing.
Whether you make the pot roast or the tenderloin version, this menu is guaranteed to please. If you attempt this, please feel free to reach out for additional advice and also let us know how you did. We’ll be regularly posting seasonally appropriate menus as this year progresses.