Dinner Parties 101: The Challenge, Part Two


(Click here to read Part I of Molly’s challenge to cook a four-course meal for $100 in her extra-tiny kitchen.)

At 2 p.m., I started my four-hour cooking marathon the way I was taught in school—by assembling my mise en place. The French term for “putting in place” means that you gather all ingredients and cooking tools and assemble them in the order you’ll be using them. This concept worked beautifully when I had sprawling stainless steel countertops and a kitchen equipped with every gadget and cooking tool needed. But when you have three feet of counter space, the majority of which is taken up by the microwave and coffee pot, organization becomes quite the challenge. I utilized every inch of kitchen space as I chopped, grated, and partially cooked all the menu items.

Everything was going as planned until about 5 p.m. when I realized that I needed to make the dessert so that the Key lime pie would have time to set before dinner. I assumed that the dessert would be the easiest thing to prepare on the whole menu. There were only four ingredients involved, and I’ve made the full key-lime pie recipe several times—but never in the individual glasses before. In my initial Dinner Party 101 post, one of my tips was to never serve something at a dinner party that you haven’t made before. I now know that I should have listened to my own advice. I mixed the condensed milk and Key lime juice and then stumbled across my pitfall: raw eggs. I had completely forgotten that the recipe uses two egg yolks and requires fifteen minutes in the oven. I knew I couldn’t put the glasses in the oven but I also didn’t have a graham cracker pie shell lying around and didn’t have time to think of a new dessert.

I’ll admit that I briefly thought of taking my chances with salmonella poisoning and serving the pie without cooking it. It was then the motto of Project Runway’s Tim Gunn echoed in my head: Make it work! I put the Key lime filling in a Teflon coated frying pan, praying that I wouldn’t end up with a Key lime-flavored scrambled egg mixture. I constantly stirred and allowed the mixture to come to a low bubble. I then let it cool slightly and poured it into the glasses. Crisis averted, yes. But I also spent 45 minutes solving a predicament I hadn’t anticipated, leaving me just an hour and 15 fifteen minutes to pull everything together and get dressed.

Regardless, after a furious rush, I felt prepared as I made a final mental checklist. I went through my four courses and set up individual food stations in my kitchen. In each station, I grouped any remaining ingredients I needed, pre-measured and ready to go. I also included any serving utensils and the correct stack of plates. I’ve learned that with everything compartmentalized, it takes all the thinking out of the final preparation and makes tasks flow more efficiently after guests have arrived.

At 7 p.m. as planned, the goat cheese appetizer and wine were set out and guests filtered in. At quarter of eight, I returned to the kitchen to dress and plate the salad (salad dressing should always be left to the last minute, lest your greens be soggy and wilted). With the salad plates on the table and everyone seated, I put both the salmon and asparagus in the oven and chucked my orzo into the already-boiling water. All three took only about 7 minutes to cook, leaving another 7 minutes to assemble it all. With my food stations in place, the timing of the meal ran flawlessly and I was beyond pleased at the course of the night.

My smugness was premature. I didn’t fill my guests in on the dessert predicament and basked as they ohhed and ahhed at how pretty the key-lime filled martini glasses were. By this time, my hostess anxiety was gone and I couldn’t wait for a big bite of graham crackery, Key limey goodness. Instead, I felt a hard-as-rock layer at the bottom of the glass. It seems that the graham cracker crumb mixture fused with the glass when it was chilled.

My advice for when a dish—or the whole meal for that matter—goes terribly wrong? Humility. Laugh at yourself, fess up, and let it go.

Regardless of the botched dessert, my friends were thrilled to receive a home-cooked meal that didn’t come out of a Lean Cuisine box. It was a rare night that we didn’t have to wait for a table, worry about how quickly the bill was adding up, or deal with dividing the check at the end of the night. Overall, the evening was personal, relaxed, and a refreshing alternative to our usual restaurant outings. If only I had a dishwasher at the end of it all.

Recipes from the dinner party:

Herbed goat cheese crostini, drizzled with honey, served with Spiced Walnuts

Herbed goat cheese:

2 teaspoons of finely chopped rosemary
4 ounces plain goat cheese, at room temperature

One French baguette, cut into thin slices, brushed with olive oil and toasted in a 350-degree oven for 8 minutes, or until crisp.

Mix rosemary and goat cheese, either by hand or in a food processor. Mound goat cheese mixture on a sheet of tin foil and roll into log. Chill for minimum of 1 hour. Unroll and bring to room temperature before serving. Drizzle entire log with fresh honey and serve with toasted French bread rounds and spiced walnuts.

Spiced walnuts:
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups raw walnuts

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil and coat lightly with cooking spray. Tear another sheet of foil the same size, coat with cooking spray, and set aside for later use. 

Pour walnuts on baking sheet. In a microwave-safe dish, combine honey, 2 tablespoons butter, chili powder and cinnamon. Microwave for 60 to 90 seconds, stirring occasionally, until butter is melted. Pour honey mixture over nuts and stir until all are coated. Bake for 10 minutes, stirring every five minutes. Remove from oven and pour onto reserved piece of foil, spreading nuts into a single layer to cool. 

Balsamic-glazed pear salad with spiced walnuts and fresh Parmesan shavings

Spiced walnuts (see recipe above)
5 oz Parmesan, shaved into this slices with a vegetable peeler and paring knife

Balsamic-glazed pears
2 ripe Bartlette pears
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon honey
Core pears and cut into thin slices. In large frying pan, heat vinegar, butter and honey over medium heat 2 to 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until reduced by half, about 2 tablespoons. Add pear slices and continue cooking for 3-4 minutes, turning once.

Balsamic vinaigrette

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard??
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
1 garlic cloves, finely minced??
1 small shallots, finely minced??
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste??
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Whisk together first 7 ingredients until blended. Gradually whisk in olive oil.

Combine mixed greens and vinaigrette and top with sliced pears, chopped walnuts and fresh Parmesan cheese shavings.

Salmon with avocado-cilantro cream sauce and tangy tomato chutney

Because of the nature of avocados, the sauce will turn brown over time. It will last up to two hours in an airtight container, but I still recommend preparing it as close to service time as possible.

Avocado-cilantro cream sauce:

Three ripe avocados
1/4 cup half and half
1 large bunch of fresh cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper
Juice from 1/2 fresh lime

Halve avocados and remove the peel. In a food processor combine all ingredients and store sauce in an airtight container until ready to use.

Tangy tomato relish:
1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1 container of Capri tomatoes (about 20 tomatoes per container)
2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 teaspoon sugar
Freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt

Chop tomatoes into quarters (or smaller if desired). Mix with red onion, red wine vinegar, olive oil, sugar, salt and pepper and let sit for 1-2 hours. Drain liquid from relish before using with salmon.


6 salmon fillets (about 1/2 pound per person, on average)
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons olive oil

Mix Dijon mustard and olive oil and allow salmon to marinate for a minimum of one hour. Sear fillets on top of the stove in a lightly oiled frying pan (about 2 minutes on each side). Finish in a 350 degrees oven for about 7 minutes (if you have a meat thermometer, the internal temperature should reach 140 degrees).

To plate the entree, place the salmon over a mound of lemon-pepper orzo, drizzle with avocado-cilantro cream, and divide spears of asparagus among the plates.

Lemon-pepper orzo
3 cups chicken stock
3 cups water
2 cups orzo
2 lemons, juiced
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon lemon zest

In a medium pot, bring the chicken stock and water to a boil. Add orzo and cook for 6-8 minutes until tender. Remove from heat, drain the orzo, and stir in the remaining ingredients. Season with salt and pepper if necessary and serve. Serves 6 to 8.

Simple garlic-roasted asparagus

This is a ridiculously easy dish and has become my vegetable go-to. It’s simple, elegant, and a good accompaniment if your main entree has a lot going on.

1 bunch of fresh asparagus
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 clove of finely minced garlic
1 teaspoons salt
1/2  teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Blanch asparagus by putting in a shallow pan of rapidly boiling, salty water. Boil until asparagus are tender but still have a slight crunch, about 3-4 minutes. Remove and refrigerate until ready to use. Just before service, toss the blanched asparagus with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of melted butter, and finely minced garlic. Season with Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook on baking sheet, in a 350 oven, just until warm (about 5 minutes).

Nellie & Joe’s Key Lime Pie

A few years ago I discovered Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice (available at Publix). It’s more expensive than other brands, but the flavor is closer to genuine Key lime and makes for an easy and delicious dessert. Since my individual key lime pies flopped, I’ve included the recipe for the full pie instead.

9″ graham cracker pie crust
14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks (whites not used)
½ cup Nellie & Joe’s Key West Lime Juice (or juice squeezed from the more typical Persian limes)

Combine milk, egg yolks and lime juice. Blend until smooth. Pour filling into pie crust and bake at 350º for 15 minutes. Allow to stand 10 minutes before refrigerating. Just before serving, top with freshly whipped cream, or meringue, and garnish with lime slices.