Dinner Party 101: Let the Feast Begin

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Editor’s note: Since we post plenty of news about restaurants on this blog, we thought it would be fun to introduce a feature that addresses the food experience at home. Meet Molly Irwin, a recent graduate of the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Boston (and the magazine’s first dining-focused intern). If you have your own thoughts on the subject of dinner parties, please join in the conversation.—B.A.

Before I went to culinary school, I knew one thing only about hosting dinner parties—that they were excruciatingly stressful. I inherited this concept from my mother, who was sent into a frenzy at the mere thought of hosting a dinner party at our house. I remember one instance in particular when she spent hours the night before, frantically re-organizing her kitchen cabinets. She feared that a fellow housewife would take a peek into her cupboards and judge her for the month-old crumbs and pot-and-pan chaos inside of them.

I also observed one other significant flaw to hosting a dinner party. It seemed that everyone had fun but the host or hostess, who inevitably got stuck in the kitchen the whole evening while her guests sat in the dining room, blissfully unaware of the slave over the stove perspiring through her little black dress.

My purpose with this Dinner Parties 101 series is to provide helpful tips and innovative recipes that simplify and de-stress the dinner party. In the depths of a difficult economy, dinner parties are making a comeback. And good ol’ fashioned camaraderie at your own home with a memorable meal can be as enjoyable as any restaurant (often more so, in my opinion).

Five Basic Tips to Hosting a Successful Dinner Party:

1) Make lists. Over the holidays I attended an engagement party and found myself more interested in the catering staff than in my fellow guests. As the party and food service slowed, I asked the chef what advice she had for an aspiring caterer. She gave me one word: lists. While this may seem like a given, lists help provide structure and organization so that there are no unpleasant surprises five minutes before guests come through the door. A few days in advance, make a list of everything you need, including table linens, centerpieces, cocktail options, and, of course, food. Making a detailed list helps avoid glitches such as pulling out a stained placemat an hour before the party starts, or discovering that the cream you were planning to use in your soup expired three weeks ago.

2) Choose dishes that can be largely prepared ahead of time. Avoid “high maintenance” dishes that require constant attention the minute your guests arrive.

3) Serve a first course. While it may seem more complicated to throw a multi-course meal, a first course actually allows you to space out the meal at your leisure. If your main course takes slightly longer to cook and serve than expected, your guests will hardly notice the lapse if they’ve just enjoyed a soup or salad to curb their hunger. The first course should ideally be something that you can completely prepare ahead of time and that takes only a few minutes to plate and serve.

4) Never try a new recipe for the first time. There are always things to be learned the first time you make a dish: what flavors need tweaking, the temperature of your oven, the time that it’s cooked, etc.

5) Remember the real purpose of the evening. Food is a way to bring people together in order to strengthen new relationships and solidify old ones. Yes, everyone enjoys a good meal. But if your green beans are too crunchy and your pork tenderloin is slightly overcooked, your friends won’t send you to the chopping block to answer to Tom Colicchio.

Here are two appetizers to get your dinner party flowing: roasted sweet onion and cabrales blue cheese crostini, and pancetta crisps with goat cheese and pear. Pair with a Chianti Classico or another red wine that isn’t too heavy in body but will stand up well to the robust flavors.

Roasted Sweet Onion and Cabrales Blue Cheese Crostini ?
Makes about 20 Crostini rounds

Ingredients:
2 Baguettes, sliced into 1 inch pieces (discard ends)
4 large Vidalia onions, sliced crosswise into slices
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
5 oz Cabrales blue cheese, crumbled (can substitute gorgonzola)
3 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar
2 tablespoons flat leafed Italian parsley, finely chopped
1/3 cup fresh chives, finely chopped

Directions:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a half-sheet pan with ½ tablespoon of the olive oil and arrange onion in a single layer. Drizzle ¼ a cup of the oil over the onions and season with salt and pepper. Roast onions until soft and brown on edges, turning every 15 minutes (about 50-60 minutes).

Meanwhile, brush slices of bread lightly with remaining olive oil and toast in oven until they reach desired crispness (bread should still be a little soft in the center).

When onions are cooked, transfer to platter and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Allow onions to cool to room temperature. Just before serving, sprinkle in the cheese and vinegar and serve on baguette slices. Do not put onion topping on crostini until ready to serve or bread will get soggy.

To finish, put in a low (300 degree) oven to warm up and then sprinkle with chopped parsley and chives.

Pancetta Crisps with Goat Cheese and Pear
Courtesy of www.bonappetit.com
Makes 16

Ingredients:?
16 thin slices pancetta?16 teaspoons soft fresh goat cheese (from 5-ounce log)?2 very ripe small pears, halved, cored, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices?Fresh thyme leaves (can substitute rosemary)

Directions:
Preheat oven to 450°F. Place pancetta slices in single layer on large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with pepper. Bake until golden, about 10 minutes. Using spatula, slide pancetta crisps onto platter. Top each with 1 teaspoon of goat cheese and 1 pear slice. Sprinkle with thyme and serve.

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