Friday, January 11, 2013

Dinner Party Series: Winter

The best winter party I ever gave involved flip flops, bathing suits,  and sun screen. No, I was not lolling in the sunbelt. I was in the Time Zone and at the Freeze-Your-Beach-Balls-Off Latitude Where I Live, throwing a summer-themed party during a dreary winter in which it rained 40 days and 40 nights. Out went the invitations and in came the guests - towels over swimsuits, zinc on noses, beach balls at the ready. One guest even brought a surf board!

We huddled around our wood-burning fireplace, serving fire-grilled hot dogs and marshmallows on paper plates. With songs by the Beach Boys issuing from a ghetto blaster, we laughed ourselves silly. The rain couldn’t dampen our spirits on that memorable night!

Winter is a chilly affair in much of the Northern Hemisphere, but a gathering of friends is a sure way to warm the heart. Today, my parties are placid, paling beside those of my beloved friend, Helen. 

When Helen lent $20 to a couple who forgot to pay her back, she organized a creative dinner party around her friends’ omission. Helen invited her slow-paying pals to a formal, fancy-dress dinner party, while asking her other guests (who were in on the joke) to dress in their oldest, shabbiest clothes. 

Helen asked the friends in their finery to arrive an hour later than everyone else. When they rang the bell, the house was in complete darkness. Looking like a cast member from Les MisérablesHelen cracked open the door. Carrying an oil lantern and wearing an old shawl for warmth, she apologized for her attire and for the lack of lights by explaining that she’d lent $20 to someone who’d forgotten to reimburse her, with the result that she couldn’t pay her bills.

Her shabbily dressed guests emerged from the shadows, saying they’d so empathized with Helen that they’d dressed accordingly. The well-dressed couple soon got the message and coughed up the dough, knowing that they were the butt of a good-natured joke. What made this party succeed? Helen’s wonderful sense of humor. Have fun with your guests! Be playful!

Our friends Bob and Shirley have a great sense of fun! Last summer, they helped organize their neighborhood’s 31st annual block party, complete with Hawaiian entertainment. Life is what you make of it, Dollinks! 

Although we rarely have such lavish entertainment or theatrics, we enjoyed hosting a Winter Dinner Party earlier this week. I’ve posted the Dinner Party Guidelines and Tips that emerged from our dinner; you’ll find them in the blog below this one. Giving in to the temptation to watch a late-night movie rather than addressing menu plans the night before will certainly make the preparations more difficult, but unfortunately, that’s what I did before our Winter Dinner Party. Do as I say, not as I do, in my suggestion that you allow yourself ample time!

As regular readers know, I particularly love tablescaping - planning the colors and “feel” of the table. I should have set the table the night before, but didn’t, squeezing my preparation time a little tighter than I like on the day of the party.

I’ll walk through the menu for our Winter Dinner Party. With our guests expected around 5, I knew they’d be tired and hungry after fighting rush-hour traffic in winter’s darkness. Soon after they arrived and took a seat by the fire, Ron offered each a Champagne Cocktail. You’ll find the recipe in the Index under Beverages. The aromatic bitters the recipe requires are sometimes difficult to find, but persevere in your search.  Theyre an essential ingredient of this excellent drink.

I served several easy appys with a variety of crackers: Chunks of room-temperature cheddar and blue cheese, Kalamata Olive Aioli Dip, Lox Mousse (this excellent mousse serves a crowd, so I cut the recipe in half), and Firehouse Prawns. You’ll find those recipes indexed under Appetizers. The prawns were the only appetizer served hot, allowing for guests’ staggered arrival times. I basted and grilled them only after everyone arrived, though I’d skewered and refrigerated them well ahead of time. As soon as they were ready - about a minute, total time - I whisked them off the long bamboo skewers on which I’d grilled them to serve them in a little bowl with cocktail picks. In the meanwhile, the cold appetizers made perfect little nibbles.

I’d planned to serve a slightly complex chicken dish with a variety of vegetables including mashed potatoes. Ron peeled and I mashed the potatoes early in the afternoon, keeping them hot in a crock pot (slow cooker) set to “warm.” When my friend Nancy made the same scrumptious chicken dish on a bed of mashed potatoes, the result was sublime. At our house, it wasn’t to be, because I’d made a fatal mistake two hours before dinner. 

I’d forgotten that the chicken recipe I intended to make needed several hours’ marination (Nancys impressively showy Chicken Marbella is indexed under Main Dish: Poultry). Ron - truly my secret weapon and right arm - came to the rescue with his easy-to-make barbecue sauce (indexed under Sauces: Ron’s BBQ). I basted a pan of skinned, boneless chicken thighs with it, baking them uncovered at 375 deg. F. for 35-to-40 min. They emerged from the oven moist, flavorful, and nicely browned.

We started dinner around 6:15, roughly an hour after our guests arrived. About 20 min. before the chicken was done, Ron called everyone to the table for Rosalie’s Caesar Salad, indexed under Salads: Caesar. I’d chilled the Romaine lettuce in the fridge, prepared the croutons in advance (see Croutons: Nicole’s Special), and bought the coarsely grated Parmesan shavings this salad needs rather than grate the cheese myself. 

After the main course, we concluded the meal with one of my very favorite desserts, which I served in turquoise sundae dishes. You’ll find it indexed under Desserts: Grand Marnier Fruit Bowl.

By the way, neither the plates (which came from IKEA, years ago) nor the dessert dishes (which I found in a flea market) was expensive. Each item cost less than $3. When you find a bargain, buy it!

I wanted a warm, informal feeling for this dinner, so minimized the use of silver, serving both the chicken and vegetables (broccoli, carrots, and asparagus, drizzled with melted butter) on long, thin wooden trays. These are light and easy to pass around, don’t take as much table space as standard serving platters, and require no hot pads underneath them. I have two of these trays in different sizes, and have found them very functional over the years. 

Truth-telling time? I steamed the aitch out of the broccoli. It also looked like aitch, but I served it, anyway. My guests shrugged and didn’t complain - but next time, I’ll program my electric vegetable steamer to start a little later! Timing, as they say, is everything.

Don't forget to serve water - a basic with any meal

A simple center piece flanked by two smaller candles 
balances the length and breadth of the table

I ringed this center candle with acorns and twigs
to hint at the informal mood of the table 

With the placemat adding a casual touch, the table 
offered a largely monochromatic color scheme

A long, thin platter saves space. Chicken grippers are fun!

Serving potatoes in a tall bowl with 
a narrow base saves room at the table 
Maggi: Leaving room for seconds
Bonnie: Watching as Ron serves

The ill-starred broccoli: No one complained 

Robin: The conversation flowed like wine

Bob: Chuckling through the meal
Ron: Our genial host

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