Thanks to all of your votes and support, I officially advanced to Project Food Blog challenge #3! This meant, though, that I needed to cook a “luxury dinner party” for family or friends. I began planning almost immediately after I finished Challenge #2, and also almost immediately encountered my first obstacle: finding guests!
Most of my family and friends live between 30 and 45 minutes away, so getting anyone to commit to coming over more than 24 hours in advance was just not happening. On Tuesday, I finally had 2 other guests confirmed, and another on Wednesday. I was going to resort to putting our dog and cats in hats and seating them at the table so I could participate in the challenge, so it was great to have human guests confirmed.
I had a couple of menu ideas milling around in my head, but I couldn’t quite nail anything down yet.
Which brings me to…
Step One for any dinner party planning: consider guests’ likes, dislikes, allergies, and aversions before solidifying a menu. I have friends and family with aversions to things like garlic, goat cheese, mixing fruit and savory foods, peppers, mushrooms… my menu would greatly change depending on who was coming over. Once our guests were confirmed, I began solidifying my menu.
Since this was a blogging challenge, I wanted to highlight three distinct phases of my cooking thus far: The Before in which I celebrate my inherent knowledge to combine a variety of flavors to create something delicious. The During in which I take a variety of flavors and combine them into an adventurous and challenging dish. And finally, The After in which I learned to go outside my comfort zone of cooking and take a foray into baking. I usually do keep a theme of some sort, and the theme of this party was not only “Mara’s Cooking Adventures” but also “Simple Italian Elegance”.
Step Two is one of my favorites: ASK FOR HELP! I emailed my friend Amy for help with a ravioli dough recipe. I asked coworkers for tools, I incessantly asked other bloggers and friends for opinions on menus (a HUGE thank you to miss VeggieGirl for being my sounding board!) I looked to my favorite bloggers for recipes and techniques.
Step Three of my dinner party planning is to make a list. I’m not a list maker by nature, but when it comes to cooking for a group whether its 4 or 14 people, making lists help me organize my thoughts. I also find, oddly enough, that writing said list by hand in a fun color helps me think.
From the left, I listed out my shopping list by course, then by section in the grocery store. Then, I have a two- day schedule of cooking, organizing, and cleaning. The bottom features extra errands or things to pick up. After work Friday, I went to my favorite grocery store, got everything I still needed, and headed home. I’d shopped the night before for new table settings because, well, I wanted an excuse for new table settings!
Dinner prep began immediately when I got home on Friday. Beans got soaking, spinach got thawing, rustic bread dough was mixed and set to rise in the refrigerator, and the ravioli dough was made. Then, I cooked the beans, made the ravioli filling, and assembled the ravioli. (A mixture of 3 cups cooked white beans; 1 small box of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained; 3 cloves garlic, crushed; 1/4 c. shredded parmesan; 6 large leaves of basil, chopped).
I used the same recipe for the ravioli as I did for the orechiette here.
A key point to party prepping, at least for me, is to keep my schedule flexible. Pre-preparing a lot of the dishes allowed my schedule on Saturday to be open enough to allow for cleaning, table-setting, and letting the oven repair guy in. That’s right, after two more weeks of waiting, our oven was finally getting fixed! Within an hour of arriving, the oven was in working order! It was such a relief!
Step Four, my truly favorite part: COOK!!!! I wanted to get the rustic bread baked so that I could have the oven free for the cupcakes, roasted pears, and roasted tomatoes closer to the time we were going to eat. I set the oven for 400, and set my dutch oven full of bread dough in the oven. Soon, the table was set with little Italian touches: bottles of S. Pellegrino, Italian wine, and even the pattern on the tablecloth was called “Tuscan” something.
I made the buttercream for my cupcakes. I started the cake batter.
And then I noticed something odd.
It didn’t smell like bread in the house. It definitely smelled weird, and not like baking bread.
And then it happened.
There was a loud POP, then the smell of fireworks, and then smoke.
The oven was dead. DEAD. The digital display wasn’t working, which meant something was really wrong.
I was one dish into cooking my dinner party and the oven AND stove were dead. What’s a blogger to do? Well, panic, cry, scream, throw things, cry some more, scream some more, and call the oven repair people. Then do some more of the same while on the phone with them. The repair guy came back and looked at the oven. Apparently the new ignitor was too much for the old oven and it melted the wires underneath it. Awesome.
Adam thought quickly and called his friends that were supposed to be coming over and asked if we could instead, bring the food to them and allow me to use their kitchen and oven. Of course they agreed, so we packed up everything, and I threw my plans to the wind.
Three trips to the car, a stop at Starbucks, and 45 minutes later, we arrived at Steve and Carol’s house and I started baking. Luxury, instead of being new flavors, techniques, and food experiences became something completely different. I had the luxury of a working kitchen, and tolerant friends who let me mess up their space. Sometimes luxury means expensive ingredients and sometimes it just means being able to do what you truly love to do.
While the bread baked, I put together the goat cheese and pear appetizer. (OMG a picture of me cooking!) I used 3 bartlett pears, hollowed out in the center; 1/2 c. goat cheese mixed with fresh chopped chives, fresh thyme, and black pepper; 3 thin slices of pancetta wrapped around each one. They were baked at 375* for about 30 minutes.
I had lots of company while cooking too
Soon, the bread was done
Cupcakes were baked,
tomatoes were roasted, and the ravioli were cooked. And while it wasn’t what I’d originally envisioned, dinner was served.
Roasted pears filled with herbed goat cheese (chevre) and wrapped in pancetta:
White bean, spinach, garlic and basil ravioli atop roasted tomatoes with balsamic reduction, olive oil, and pecorino cheese:
Glasses of pinot grigio from a lovely blue bottle… and then
Cannoli cupcakes: orange-spiked cake, ricotta pistachio filling, and a vanilla Swiss meringue buttercream
The cake recipe was this one, with the addition of 2 Tbsp. orange zest and 2 Tbsp. orange juice.
The frosting was this Swiss meringue buttercream, and the filling was 2 c. whole milk ricotta, chopped pistachio nuts, 1/4 c. sugar, and 1 tsp. vanilla.
I was spent, exhausted, beat… as if cooking a challenging meal wasn’t enough, I was emotionally exhausted from the “oven exploding incident.” Before I could blink, Steve and Carol were busy doing all the dishes. That’s the part of throwing dinner parties that I loathe: THE DISHES.
I’ve been known to leave dishes for days and just cook around them after a party. I was beyond appreciative to Steve and Carol for letting us use their kitchen, and just as grateful that they did the dishes. I was planning on cleaning up after myself, but they insisted. We of course left them the leftovers of the savory food, and as many cupcakes as they wanted.
I nearly fell asleep in the car on the way home, truly satisfied that I’d pulled off a great meal. Everyone was happy with the food, and as usual with our friends, we had a blast just talking and goofing around.
It was wonderful to be the person responsible for introducing
my guests everyone to new flavors, ingredients, and flavor combinations. Steve and Carol had never had goat cheese, let alone a pear stuffed with goat cheese. Everything went off without a hitch…except of course the whole oven-exploding-bringing-the-party-to-a-different-house thing.
For a dinner party, my advice is simple: PLAN, PREPARE, and PRE-COOK! PLAN: Make lists, make more lists, shop at places that you know will have your ingredients. PREPARE: Lay out your ingredients and cooking utensils, clean your cooking space, get all your recipes together. PRE-COOK: Prepare anything in advance that you can so the day of your party isn’t completely overwhelming.
And the most important thing: Be flexible so that when even your best laid plans fall through for one reason or another, you can still make your party happen. Oh, and have fun!
I know this isn’t the most traditional of dinner parties, but I did my best to roll with the punches and still pull off a great dinner. Voting on Challenge 3 begins tomorrow at 8 a.m. CDT!