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On Entertaining: Dinner Club 101

February 26, 2013

by Elizabeth


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I get the feeling that most young(ish) hostesses are intimidated by the Dinner Party. By adding the word “dinner” to the soirée, it’s no longer deemed acceptable to call party pizza a meal, or to throw together a dip and  grill some burgers. (Which is silly, because party pizza and burgers are delicious, and both have their place in casual entertaining.) And apparently everything else about a “dinner party” sounds stressful, too – setting the table, planning a full menu, getting your hair dry before guests arrive, and you know, actually cooking dinner. But I’m here to tell you that the dinner party doesn’t have to overwhelming. Last week I hosted my dinner club at my maison, and I thought I’d share some tips for easy weeknight “dinner party style” entertaining.

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1. Serve a main course that can be prepped ahead. If you’re only having a few people over, you could get away with pan-frying panko crusted chicken or sole meunière for 4, but any more than that and you’ll spend all evening at the stove. If you can’t prep the meal entirely the night before, at least choose something where you can prepare the separate components, then put it all together and cook the evening of. I served Artichoke Stuffed Shells with Lemon Ricotta Bechamel from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (which were utterly delicious by the way), which I made the night before and just put in the oven right when my guests arrived. Other ideas for a (mostly) make-ahead main are:

Mustard Roasted Fish

Enchiladas – any kind!

Flank Steak Spirals

Salmon with Creme Fraiche and Cornichons

Baked Shrimp Scampi

If it’s warm out – an assortment of heavy salads is a nice option, such as Panzanella, Soba Noodles, or Tahini Chicken. If it’s cold, go for soup and grilled cheese. Remember, your friends are most likely not coming over just to sample the fanciest culinary creation you can think of – they are at your maison to spend time together, laugh, and relax. Don’t stress everyone else out by pretending to be on Top Chef. Make it fun!

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2. Seek Balance in your Menu. If you’re making a time intensive main, serve an easy salad on the side. Make one warm or “special” appetizer, and put out some nuts or cheese to go with it. This time I made cheese straws, then served popcorn with truffle salt which was very simple. (Recipes below!)

In terms of flavor and variety, try to offer some vegetarian items, some with cheese, and some with meat – not too much of one thing. If you serve something rich and creamy, it’s nice to have a simple vegetable to go with it. Even if you love heat, not everything should be super spicy. You get the idea.

3. Accept Help. Most people (in my circle anyway) generally offer to bring something. I don’t typically plan my menu expecting help – but when it’s offered I will adjust to accept offerings. It is honestly too much on a weeknight to make appetizers, a main dish, sides, and dessert. Even if it’s something so small as veggies and crackers for the dip, or the entire dessert, it always helps. And people like to help! Let them. This will make you a more gracious and less frazzled hostess; you don’t have to prove you’re the next Martha Stewart to your friends.

Oh, and always let bring them wine – there can never be too much wine. Who cares if it doesn’t pair perfectly with every item on your menu?

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4. Do what makes you happy. It’s your house, your party, and everyone else can just deal with it. If you want to use your china on a Thursday, by all means go for it. If you can’t stand hand washing dishes, you should probably stick to the white everyday plates that you can throw in the dishwasher. If you want to serve fish even though the party falls on Cinco de Mayo, no one will care. If you want to eat on cute paper plates and sit on the couch, totally fine. If you want to order take out and hide the evidence, shhh it’s our little secret! I’ve found that people generally have very few expectations when going to someone’s house for dinner – they’re usually just pleased to be invited. So don’t feel like you have to spring for fresh flowers, serve a signature cocktail, and polish the silver. Unless you want to, then you certainly should!

Truffle Popcorn

Cook about 10 cups of popcorn using your preferred method (I prefer to do it on the stove, but microwave is fine). Sprinkle with 2-3 teaspoons of truffle salt, and a drizzle of melted butter or olive oil. Toss well to combine.

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Puff Pastry Cheese Straws, adapted from Ina Garten

2 sheets (1 box) frozen puff pastry (such as Pepperidge Farm), defrosted overnight in the refrigerator
Flour, for dusting
1 extra-large egg
1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1 cup finely grated Gruyère cheese (or other cheese of your choice, I used Fontina)
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves (or other herb or seasoning of your choice – I did half thyme, half smoked paprika)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

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Preheat oven to 375˙.

Roll out the first sheet of puff pastry on a floured surface to approximately 10 x 14 inches. Mix egg and water together. Brush pastry with egg wash, then sprinkle with half of cheese and half of herb seasoning. Season with salt and pepper. Gently press cheese and seasonings into pastry using your fingers or a rolling pin.

Using a sharp knife or pizza wheel, slice pastry into 1/2 inch wide strips. Gently twist, then place each one on a nonstick or parchment paper covered baking sheet. Repeat with remaining sheet of pastry. Bake for 15-18 minutes, until golden and puffy.

If you make the cheese straws ahead, reheat in the oven for 5 minutes before serving.

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