Sunday, September 2, 2012

Dinner Party Series: End of Summer

Like a party that wraps up too soon, summer always ends too early. The leaves scatter and swirl and the sun slants flat on the horizon, so that everything shimmers with a pale golden light. These crisp days start with cardigans draped over our shoulders and end with an extra blanket on the bed. Yesterday, trudging beside one of the many marshes in the Time Zone and at the Latitude Where I Live, we watched two herons hunker into their downy coats, necks lowered against the chill, beady eyes intent on finding the prey that will now come less often. Each eventually flew off, fighting the wind, their scrawny frames resembling blown-out umbrellas.

In the early evening, we braved the cool breeze on our deck to have one more outdoor dinner party - a small and simple one, to be sure, but still an occasion to enjoy a visit from our youngest grand-daughter and her lovely mother. 

There was really nothing to the meal, which we fixed quite quickly - barbecued chicken, corn on the cob, a no-fuss potato salad, and a few small custard tarts topped with a sprinkle of berries. I’d hoped to make a mixed green salad, but the greens were a little too old and a little too wilted, so I substituted a bowl of cherry tomatoes, instead. 

This is the second of my occasional blogs called Dinner Parties. In it, I’ll tell you how we whipped this meal together so quickly while still having time for a long country walk.

Main Course:

Barbecued Chicken: We almost always have Ron’s BBQ Sauce in the refrigerator; if we don’t, it’s quick and easy to make. You’ll find it in the Index under Sauces. Ron basted skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs a total of 25 min. at about 400 deg. F. Grilling the basted chicken skin-side up for about 10 min., he basted it again, flipping it over for a further 10 minutes’ cooking. When the skin-side down chicken seemed cooked, he basted and turned it over one last time, for about 5 min. Your cooking time will vary with the cut of chicken used and with whether it does or doesn’t have a bone. Of barbecuing, Ron says: “It isn’t scientific. It’s visual. You can tell when something is cooked.” 

Corn on the Cob: If you think you know everything there is to know about corn on the cob, consult the Index for How to Shuck and Cook Corn an easier way! I’m half crazy about “Clean Ears Ken,” who is completely adorable as he demonstrates his nifty little trick for perfect, silk-free corn-shucking. Should you choose to barbecue your corn, the same post will tell you how.

Potato Salad: Because it’s quick and totally scrumptious, I made my recipe for Easy-Does-It Potato Salad, posted below this blog.

Cherry Tomatoes: Honey, if you don’t know how to plop cherry tomatoes into a bowl, you need more help than I can give you. Given extra time, I might have mixed a few tiny, fresh shrimp with a scant pinch of dill and a dab of mayo, sliced the tops off the tomatoes, hollowed out their centers, and stuffed them with the shrimp, but this was a family meal at which I didn’t even offer an appetizer. 


Custard Tarts: Here, I went all-out - with simplicity! Shortly before dinner, I baked a few commercially made tarts I had in the freezer for exactly this kind of quick dinner party. I filled the tarts with a commercially made custard (we’re talking “Bird’s Custard Powder,” available worldwide in the baking aisle of most grocery stores. For use in tarts, chill the prepared custard, Dollinks). I dropped a few blueberries and a couple of raspberries on each tart, et voilà! If you want to get fancy - which I did not - brush a light glaze over the berries (see the Index for Glaze: Fruit).

Guidelines and Tips:

Always keep something on hand for emergency entertaining - whether you’ve made it yourself or bought it. The ice cream, sherbet, and gelato recipes I blogged last week? Tucked away in the freezer, each is a fast and fancy dessert (see the Index for Frozen Treats). Those cans of smoked mussels in the cupboard? Served with crackers, they’re a great emergency appetizer. That brick of cream cheese in the fridge? Pour a little jalapeño jelly or cranberry sauce over it as a quick pre-dinner snack served with crackers.

Speaking of always ... Always have a bunch of fresh parsley and a whipping cream bomb in the fridge. You can fix any presentation problem - savory or sweet - with these. Just don’t mix them up, Dollinks.

Have a rough plan in mind before you start. If you’re missing a vital ingredient or what you’d planned doesn’t look fresh enough, substitute something else. Did you know you can plug whatever you have on hand (Random example: sugar + flour + raisins + ricotta) and the Internet will tell you what you can make with it? 

Know your “cooking personality.” If you work best alone, chase everyone out of the kitchen. If you could use a little help, assertively but kindly ask for it - but be very, very clear on who’s the “chef” and who’s the “sous-chef.” Sometimes Ron’s top banana in the kitchen, and sometimes, I am. Sort that out before you start. If your kitchen is too small for two or more cooks, each of you prepare a dish before making way for the other. 

What? Me worry? A sound philosophy!
Keep it light and keep it fun. Don’t stress yourself! A large sign in my kitchen says RELAX. It reminds me to do just that. Take breaks between the preparation of the dishes on your menu! 

Keep a “cheat sheet” in the kitchen drawer with each recipe’s bottom line: Time, temperature, and (for us forgetful folks) exactly where you’ve stored it - inside the barbecue, on top of the washing machine, on the second shelf at the back of the fridge, and so forth. Be sure to list every item on your menu. That way, you won’t forget that you’ve stashed the dinner rolls in the microwave.

Don’t make more than your fridge or freezer can hold (The meal was great, but the food poisoning wasn…). Likewise, don’t prepare more than your energy level allows. Remember that very young and very old guests tend to eat “less.” Don’t ever - ever! - urge a guest to eat or drink “more.” That can be offensive and embarrassing. 

Advance-prepare. While this meal didnt need it, its generally good advice.

I recently discovered that an electric camping cooler serves perfectly as a “second fridge,” as does a basic cooler with a block of ice. Conversely, I’ve discovered that a plug-in roaster oven can cook several casseroles, bake a cake, and even roast a turkey, effectively giving you a double oven. If you have the storage space and love to entertain, I recommend you buy a cooler and a roaster oven.

If your table is small, use a side table and/or small serving dishes. To compensate for our small deck table, I usually go vertical. Narrow-based, tall serving dishes hold a lot - but occupy very little space on your table. 

Buy the best kitchen equipment you can afford. A quality vegetable peeler that is contoured to the hand will make the job faster and easier! A quality can opener will last and last, whereas a cheap one will fall apart quickly and make can-opening a more difficult chore than it should be. A quality blender … you know where I’m going with all of this. Quality items cost more than the cheapies, but if your budget is small and the price is high, buy them gradually. If you don’t treat yourself, who will? 

Although a nicely set table is important to me, one of the best meals I’ve ever had used newspapers as tablecloths. Considering that we were eating fresh crab served with oven-fried potatoes and crisp white wine, I couldn’t imagine anything more appropriate! Our host provided plenty of paper napkins, finger bowls with hot water and a slice of lemon, and little metal buckets in which to drop the shells. The setting? A picnic table at the beach. She brought the hot water in a Thermos.

As you set your table, mentally walk through the meal and your guests’ needs. Salt and pepper, corn-cob holders, dessert forks or spoons, napkins, water glasses, hot pads for hot items, serving cutlery, a small tray for the milk and sugar needed for tea and coffee at the end of the meal … It’s easy to forget such items unless you consider each course and how you plan to serve it, whether family-style (where everything is passed around), plates dished up in the kitchen, or a buffet at which diners help themselves.

If you’ve got the money, I have three words of advice: Cater, cater, cater! But if you have a special recipe you just love making, satisfy your Inner Martha by preparing that one gorgeous dish on your fanciest plate or in your fanciest casserole. And for heaven’s sake, quietly brag to everyone that you made it yourself! 

If you don’t have the money, you can still have a catered meal. Bring on the home-delivered Chinese food, the pizza, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken! I’ve done that! They were among the most successful parties I’ve ever given!

I’ve done several other blogs on Dinner Party Guidelines and Tips. You'll find them in the Index under that heading.

Introduce a bit of whimsy for a relaxed, fun feel

Summer's light is fading: I used an Eiffel Tower table 
center because the tablecloth came from Provence

Nothing fancy: After 2-1/2-year-old Milla sawed through her
cob of corn, she proudly shouted: "I did it!"

Easy-Does-It Potato Salad: Note the shape of the serving dish

Barbecued Chicken: Ron's BBQ Sauce is superb!

Thumbs up: Milla gives my Custard Tarts her seal of approval 

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