Of all the communal celebrations centered on food and drink, I most love a dinner party — the chance to share great tastes and conversation with friends.
But despite the proliferation of TV cooking shows, far too few people feel up to the task. I’m here to tell you: that is utter nonsense! If you can read, you can host a memorable dinner party.
And I'll show you how with a few simple rules and recipes:
1. Use as many plates, glasses and as much silverware as possible. Don't fret if your china cabinet is bare. Check out the "China or Chinet" options in the photos at right.
2. Separate all dishes into a multiple-course tasting menu.
3. Choose a different matching wine for as many courses as appropriate.
4. Print a personalized descriptive menu including wine pairings to build anticipation.
My menu roadmap comes straight out of Julia Child. A special, memorable meal begins with an hors d’oeuvre followed by soup, entrée, salad, cheese, and dessert; that’s a six-course baseline. I hope you’ll tackle the four courses outlined here (for a vegetarian entree, serve seasoned grilled veggies brushed with olive oil). It’s OK to start slow; four courses in modest portions will do.
However, the sky’s the limit. You could begin with canapés and a flute of sparkling wine before moving to the table for the soup. I often do both fish and meat entrées separated by an intermezzo (or two) of sorbet. I love to sneak in one-bite “lagniappes” (a New Orleanian term for a little something extra) in Chinese soup spoons; these can be either savory or sweet, and may be inserted at any point during the evening. One example, for instance, is Pecorino Toscano dotted with aged balsamic. It’s perfect in tiny portions as a unexpected treat End your meal with “mignardises,” a variety of petit fours or special candies with coffee and/or tea, followed by after-dinner drinks.
The recipes I’ve chosen to share are some of my summer favorites. I’ve made each one dozens of times and they are foolproof. Better yet, while they might require significant prep time and the need to plan ahead, they are totally accessible to any skill level if the cook is willing to follow a recipe.
You will need to own or borrow a grill, a blender, and an electric mixer. A food processor certainly helps, but you can knead and chop by hand. If you don’t have a rolling pin, improvise. Use a bottle or thick glass. No decorative molds or desire to invest in Pyrex? Use disposable 4 oz. Gladware. A good chef’s knife is an essential tool for any cook, so I assume if you’re willing to take on a four-course menu, you’re serious enough to have an acceptable knife. If you don’t and want to get one, the best deal is the Victorinox Forschner Fibrox 8" Chef’s Knive with Blade Guard for $40 from Amazon, including shipping.
Most importantly, be creative and develop your own personal style. I’m expecting great things of you.
Two Melon Soup
1 ripe cantaloupe, seeded, with flesh cut into chunks
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 ripe honeydew (or 1/2 large), seeded, with flesh cut into chunks
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh mint, or to taste
Granulated sugar, as needed
Creme fraiche or sour cream, for garnish
Mint sprigs for garnish
Purée the cantaloupe and lemon juice in a blender until smooth. Transfer the purée to a container.
Rinse out the blender.
Purée the honeydew, lime juice and mint in the blender until smooth. You want similar amounts of each purée.
Taste each purée and balance the sweetness with sugar to taste, if necessary.
Cover both purées and refrigerate for at least 3 hours; you may do this a day ahead.
At serving time, stir each container and transfer the purées to separate measuring cups or pitchers with pouring spouts. With a cup in each hand, simultaneously pour equal amounts of each purée into individual serving bowls. Take care to keep the purées separate, with cantaloupe on one side and honeydew on the other.
Place a scoop of the garnish cream in a plastic sandwich bag and snip off 1/8” of the corner for piping. Squeeze out a zig-zag of cream on top of the soup for decoration. I start wide at the top and get narrower as I reach the bottom of the bowl.
Top with a small mint sprig and serve with care.
Garlic-Herb Flatbread with Roasted Tomatoes & Fennel-Onion Jam
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for grilling
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups water
1 package active dry yeast (NOT rapid rise)
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
3 cups bread flour
1/4 cup cornmeal, preferably coarse ground
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus additional for sprinkling
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small skillet; add garlic, herbs, and pepper and cook over low heat about five minutes until the garlic softens. Cool.
Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over 1/4 cup warm water and let it stand five minutes until it starts to swell.
Mix bread flour, cornmeal, and salt in a food processor. Add 1 cup tepid water and the herb oil to the yeast mixture.
With the machine running, gradually pour the liquid into the dry ingredients thru the feed tube; process until the dough pulls away from the sides and forms a rough ball. If the dough is too sticky or dry, add flour or water 1 tablespoon at a time. Let the dough rest for five minutes, then continue to process until the dough is smooth, about 35 seconds.
Dump the dough on a lightly floured counter and knead by hand for a few seconds to form a smooth round ball. Let the dough rise on the counter (or in a lightly oiled bowl) covered with a damp cloth until it doubles in size, roughly 2 hours.
Punch down the risen dough and divide it into eight equal pieces. Roll each piece into a smooth, round ball. Place one ball on a lightly floured surface covered with a damp cloth. Rest until it puffs slightly, about 30 minutes.
The remaining balls should be individually wrapped in plastic wrap and then placed in freezer bags for future use. Each one can be used for a flatbread starter or to create a 7 inch pizza on the grill.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough ball into a 7 inch square.
Preheat your gas grill to high. Brush the dough with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Grill, oil side down, covered, until dark brown grill marks appear, 60-90 seconds. Pop any bubbles that appear. Brush dough tops with oil, then flip with tongs. Grill until the bottoms are lightly brown, up to two minutes longer. Be careful not to let the dough burn. Flavor comes from the slightly caramelized char.
Store at room temperature, covered, for up to six hours.
Roasted grape tomatoes
16 bite-sized grape tomatoes
Fresh black pepper
Preheat oven to 375°.
Place the grape tomatoes in a roasting pan. Drizzle lightly with olive oil to coat and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Roast until the tomatoes are just tender and the skins begin to wrinkle, about 10 minutes.
The tomatoes should give to pressure, so that you may flatten them slightly with your finger when assembling the flatbread.
The tomatoes may be prepared and held at room temperature for up to six hours.
Caramelized fennel-onion jam
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for drizzling
1 large Vidalia onion (about 1 pound) halved and sliced thin
1 medium fennel bulb (about 1 pound), sliced thin
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon sugar (helps the mixture brown)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 oz. fresh Asiago (for grating)
Cook fennel and onions slowly with the butter and oil in a covered sauce pan for 15 minutes.
Uncover, raise the heat to moderate and stir in the sugar. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes stirring frequently, until the mixture is lightly golden.
Add garlic and sauté 2 minutes until the garlic softens.
Stir in thyme, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes; season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside. You may prepare this a day ahead and refrigerate.
Spread the grilled flatbread with a thin layer of caramelized fennel-onion jam and place on a cookie sheet.
Place the 16 roasted grape tomatoes in a grid 4 tomatoes wide by 4 tomatoes deep. Flatten each tomato slightly with your finger so it doesn’t roll. You want to be able to cut 16 small flatbread squares.
Using a rotary or box grater, coarsely grate fresh Asiago over the entire flatbread and drizzle with a little olive oil.
Broil until the cheese melts (about two minutes), cut into 16 squares and transfer with a spatula to a decorative platter to serve immediately.
Cedar Plank Salmon
1 salmon filet (I often buy the smallest fresh filet available at COSTCO)
1 lemon (for zest)
1/4 cup dry white wine, e.g. Sauvignon Blanc
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper
1 bunch fresh dill weed
1 cedar plank (min. 5.5” x 11”)
(NOTE: Cedar planks vary widely in size and cost. They are available at ACE Hardware and many home centers that stock grilling products. You may also order planks through Amazon; Grill Gourmet is a bargain brand — 12 planks for $25. The planks are not reusable, but the flavor is worth the investment.)
Submerge your cedar plank in warm water in the kitchen sink or a roasting pan for a minimum of 1 hour; use a mug full of water to keep the plank submerged.
Rinse the salmon under cold running water and dry the filet with paper towels. Place it skin side down in a pan and pour the juice of the lemon (about 1/4 cup) and the white wine over the filet. Grate the yellow lemon zest over the fish. Avoid the white pith; it is bitter. You may use a box or microplane rasp grater, but my favorite tool is the Oxo Good Grips lemon zester.
Sprinkle a tablespoon of kosher salt over the fillet; this may seem like a lot, but it's the right amount if distributed evenly. Cover the filet liberally with freshly ground pepper; I adjust my pepper mill for a coarse grind. Mince the fresh dill until you have 1/3 cup and sprinkle on the fish. Like the pepper, this will cover the entire filet liberally. Tilt the pan and spoon the lemon-wine liquid over the dill to wet it down so that it stays in place. Marinate for 30 minutes.
Twenty minutes into the marinating process, preheat your grill to high heat. When the 30-minute marination time is up, transfer the filet to the soaked cedar plank. If necessary, fold the filet to fit the plank and to create an even thickness. Make sure the filet does not overhang the wood. Hold the plank with fish over the sink. Spoon the marinade over the fish and let the excess run off the plank into the sink, being careful not to wash away the dill.
Turn your grill down to low; place the plank on the grill grid and close the cover.
Depending on your grill, the salmon will take 10-20 minutes. Check every 5 minutes for flareups and spray with water to put out the fire. You want smoke, not flame. If you have an instant-read thermometer, you are looking for a 125° reading in the thickest part of the fish. The fish should be moist and just past translucent. Check the temperature after 10 minutes and watch the fish closely; you do not want to overcook the filet.
For a multi-course menu such as the one we’re suggesting, especially if you are adding a salad and cheese course, cut the filet lengthwise down the middle before portioning out squares for plating.
Serve with wild rice-pecan pilaf (recipe below).
Mesquite-Smoked Beer-Can Chicken
1 whole chicken (about 3 1/2 pounds)
2 cups mesquite wood chips
1 12 oz. can beer (any beer will do; don’t waste craft beer on this recipe)
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
2 quarts cold water
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons curry powder
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water in a container just large enough to submerge the chicken. Add the chicken to the brine, cover and refrigerate for one hour. Remove the chicken from the solution, rinse inside and out under cold water and dry with paper towels.
Combine all dry-rub ingredients in a small bowl. Insert your finger under the skin to separate it from the breast meat. Rub the spices under the skin directly on as much meat as possible without creating any holes. Cover the entire chicken inside and out with spice rub, but avoid clumping. Your goal is just a thin layer (about 3 tablespoons total). You will have rub leftover; I keep it in an empty Bonne Maman jelly jar at room temperature for a month.
Soak the wood chips in water for an hour and drain. Center the chips on an 18 inch square of heavy duty aluminum foil. Fold all four sides over the chips to enclose them. Flip the package over and make six holes with a fork (approximately the size of a quarter) to let the smoke escape.
You will be cooking the chicken on indirect heat. Lift the grate and place the packet of wood chips directly over the primary burner on one side. Replace the grate. Turn all your burners onto high, cover the grill, and heat until the wood is smoking (about 10 minutes).
Open the beer can and drink about 1/4 cup as your reward. Punch two more holes into the top of the beer can using a church key type opener. Slide the chicken cavity over the beer so the drumsticks reach to the bottom of the can and the chicken stands upright using its two legs to complete a tripod. Tuck the wingtips behind the first joint so that they create a triangle and stay in place. At this point, the chicken should be freestanding. If it is not, make adjustments to the beer can and the legs and then set the bird aside at room temperature until the grill is ready.
Turn the primary burner down to medium and turn the other burner(s) off. Place the chicken on the cool side of the grill with one wing side facing the heat. Grill for 35 minutes. Using tongs and a wad of paper towels, rotate the bird 180° so that the other wing is facing the heat. Cover and cook an additional 25 to 40 minutes until an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 175°. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can make a slit with a paring knife where the leg joins the body to make sure the juices are running clear.
With a large wad of paper towels in each hand, move the chicken to a tray — making sure to keep the can upright. Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes. Using more paper towels, carefully lift the chicken off the can onto a platter or cutting board. Discard the remaining beer and recycle the can. Using a knife or poultry shears, cut the chicken in half between the breasts and on each side of the backbone, and then into pieces, splitting the breasts into two parts. I’ve learned from superstar chef, Thomas Keller, to eat roasted chicken with Maille Dijon mustard (it’s less acidic than Grey Poupon).
If you wish to grill two chickens, just use a second packet of wood chips and be sure to leave space between the birds for air circulation. Serve with wild rice-pecan pilaf (recipe below).
Wild Rice-Pecan Pilaf
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup wild rice (not a blend)
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium carrot, peeled and minced
1 stalk celery, minced
1/2 cup white button mushrooms, minced
1/2 cup toasted pecans, coarsely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Bring 2 quarts of water to a rapid boil in a medium saucepan; add the salt and wild rice and boil uncovered for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the grains pop open and the rice is tender. Wild rice retains texture and the grains should have resistance — do not overcook. The grains should be popped, not mushy. You may need to add additional water; be sure the rice is submerged.
Mince the carrots, celery, and mushrooms separately using a food processor (or knife). Pulse until the veggies are chopped evenly, do not use the “on” button. Place the carrots in a different bowl since they must be added first. The other veggies may be combined after chopping.
Toast pecans over medium heat in a dry frying pan. Stir or toss the pecans in the pan so that they toast evenly. Chop as above and add to the minced celery and mushrooms.
Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the carrots and sauté for two minutes.
Add the celery, mushrooms, and pecans. Sauté for two more minutes stirring frequently.
Add the wild rice and sauté until thoroughly combined and heated through. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Don’t be timid — salt is particularly important for this dish, but be sure to sprinkle in a little at a time because you can’t go back if you add too much salt. Keep tasting as you go. Pepper is a secondary flavor and as long as you cover the pilaf evenly by keeping your peppermill moving you should be fine.
Molded French Cream
1 cup (8 oz.) dairy sour cream
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 package (8 oz.) cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup superfine granulated sugar
1 envelope unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Brush eight 4 oz. decorative molds lightly with vegetable oil. Pyrex custard cups or 4 oz. disposable Gladware will work.
Combine the sour cream and heavy cream in a medium-size saucepan over low heat. If you can’t find superfine sugar, it’s okay to put regular granulated sugar into your food processor; just stop before you create confectioner’s sugar.
Beat the sugar into the warm cream mixture and stir until it dissolves.
Sprinkle gelatin over the water in a microwave-safe cup to soften. Heat the gelatin in the microwave until it dissolves. Microwaves vary greatly. Start with short bursts (20-30 seconds) at half power; your goal is just to dissolve the gelatin.
Stir the gelatin into the warm cream mixture and remove from heat.
Beat the cream cheese until soft in a medium-size bowl with an electric mixer. Stir in the cream mixture gradually with the vanilla, blending thoroughly.
Divide the mixture evenly into the prepared molds, tap the mold on the counter to bring any bubbles to the top. Place the molds on a cookie sheet and refrigerate 4 hours or until firm.
To unmold, dip molds into hot water for about 10 seconds, then invert and shake cream gently onto serving plates. Return to refrigerator until ready to serve.
Combine a mix of berries with some granulated sugar. Let them macerate for an hour until they release their juices. Most berries can be used whole but strawberries are best quartered. Any combination of berries will work but I prefer to use at least one red and one dark berry for contrast; my favorite combo is raspberries with blueberries.
Spoon berries and juice over the top of the cream and around the plate in a decorative manner.