Friday, March 18, 2011

The Art of a Successful Dinner Party: Keep It Simple

The assembly line for delicious sirloin sandwiches
     I love entertaining. Or rather, I love the idea of entertaining. (By entertaining, I mean having friends and/or family over for dinner, not preforming circus tricks or my best Celine Dion impersonation.) I have a bad habit of getting exited, over planning my menu, overexerting myself, over scouring my house and just plain overdoing it. I get all these ideas and try too many things. I over complicate things. I choose dishes that I’ve never made before. Generally, I stress myself out and fail to put together anything really delicious or impressive.

     That being said, I think I’m getting better.

     Some tips on planning a menu:

     Keep it simple. Make dishes you know you can make, and not in your head, in practice. And nothing too time consuming. You want to be able to enjoy the company and occasion. You want your guests to be suitably impressed, but they’ll be more blown away that you can relax and hang out with them while serving a tasty spread, than they will be if you are clearly laboring on their behalf.

     Don’t make too many temperature specific items. It is hard to get everything together all at the same time, especially while talking and drinking wine. Serve some things that can be chilled or served at room temperature.

Antipasto complete with baby sweet peppers broiled in my oven
      Keep a plate of appetizers and wine ready when guests arrive. No guest likes to sit down and eat immediately after arriving, but usually some finger food will disappear, quickly. I like cheese plates or antipasto. Sometimes I have served more involved appetizers, such as egg rolls, but only when they can be made the day before. And many appetizers are just too filling. Either the meal or the appetizer ends up being mostly wasted. You want to opt for something light. Bread or crackers and cheese, or sliced vegetables and hummus work very well.

     Once again, keep it simple. This doesn’t refer to specific dishes, but to the whole menu. People don’t need or expect a five course smorgasbord when they come over. Just make a few yummy items.
In general, people are impressed if you make them something that tastes and looks good. You don’t have to pluck your own chicken or make water into wine.

What can I say?  I'm a sucker for decorations, especially fresh flowers
     Last week we had my boyfriend’s parents over for a late lunch/early dinner on a Sunday. Here is what we served:

Antipasto: sun dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, fresh mozzarella, roasted baby bell peppers and sliced focaccia bread
Salad: Sliced red tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, black pepper
Side: Sweet potato fries (although this is perhaps not an appropriate title as I baked them)
Sandwich: Marinated Sirloin with horse radish cream
Dessert: Panna cotta with balsamic strawberries courtesy of Ina Garten (although I used nonfat Greek yogurt, not whole fat)
Beverage: Wine, an unfortunately mediocre California pinot noir

Difficulty (for entire menu): Ant Icon 32x32pxAnt Icon 32x32px
Makes (of each dish): 4-5 servings
Time: Seriously about an hour…for everything

     I made the panna cotta the night before they came over, but I saved the strawberries and lemon zest for just before I served dessert.

Sweet potatoes ready to go into the oven
 Sweet Potato Fries


4 large sweet potatoes
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon paprika
2 sprigs fresh rosemary

     Start with these as they need time to bake. Preheat the oven to 350 and slice the potatoes thin and long, like traditional cut French fries. Then spread them out on a cookie sheet and drizzled the olive oil over the top, sprinkle the seasonings and simply place the intact rosemary over the top. Bake for 30-45 minutes, turning over/stirring about halfway through.

Tomato basil salad might be the easiest part of this meal, but make sure the tomatoes are ripe and in season
 Tomato Salad


4 fresh ripe tomatoes, sliced into medallions
1 cup fresh basil, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

     Lay tomato slices out on a plate or platter, top with basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature. It’s so easy and so good! Ah, tastes like summer…

Marinated Sirloin Sandwich with Horseradish Cream


1 lb. sirloin steak
1 large red bell pepper
3 cups arugula
½ red onion, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons horseradish
1 teaspoon sour cream
1 ½ loaves fresh baked focaccia bread (use the other half a loaf for the antipasto)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

     Marinate the steak in olive oil, balsamic, garlic, salt and pepper, set aside until ready to cook.

Delicious marinating sirloin
     Whisk horseradish, sour cream and a pinch of black pepper in a small dish, set aside. The amounts are flexible here, if it’s too spicy, you can add more sour cream, too mild, more horseradish. Other modifications include a little pinch of salt or paprika.

     Broil the red pepper. (I also bought a bag of small sweet peppers, yellow, red and orange from Santo’s Farm and broiled them at the same time. I served them as part of the antipasto.) You don’t oil or anything. Just place the peppers on a pan under the broiler. You will hear their skins begin to crackle and pop as they bubble and turn black. When you see and hear this, turn them over. When it happens again on the other side, they’re finished. Remove from broiler and allow to cool.

     When cooled, slice the large red bell pepper into long, thin, julienned pieces and set aside.

     Slice the focaccia into 3-4 inch sections, each cut in half as well, for sandwiches, and set aside.

     You may be wondering why so many items are being prepared and then “set aside.” The idea is that you’re setting up a sandwich assembly line. Eventually, you want to have bread, then horseradish cream, steak, peppers, onion and lastly, arugula laid out on your counter to make putting the sandwiches together easy.

     When you’re ready, when everything else - sweet potato fries, tomato salad, sandwich ingredients - is finished, cook your steak. I waited until my guests had arrived. We all sat at the table for a while enjoying the wine and antipasto. Then I cooked the steak. I wanted it to be a hot and cold steak sandwich, the meat to be a little bit warm.

     Heat a small amount of oil in a large frying pan at medium high. When the pan is really hot, drop the steak into it, allowing the extra marinade to drip over the meat. It should sizzle. Cook about 2-3 minutes on each side. You are searing it, it should crisp and blacken.

     After searing place steak on a sheet in the over (still at 350 from the sweet potatoes) for about 10-20 minutes depending on preference and thickness of your sirloin. Remove from heat and allow to rest for 5-10 minutes before slicing.

     Slice steak into ¼ inch thick long slices removing any fatty areas as you go. Leaving the fat on for cooking adds flavor, but for eating in a sandwich, it just makes the meat harder to bite through.

     Begin assembly by spreading horseradish cream on the inside of your sliced bread. Top with sliced steak, peppers, onion and arugula. Serve with sweet potato fries and tomato salad.

Ina Garten's panna cotta is a light and delicious way to end a casual meal like this, especially when made with nonfat yogurt
      I really enjoyed this meal. It was light and simple, but packed with flavor. And it gave me plenty of time for socializing and drinking wine, which was particularly pleasurable while the steak cooked, the smell of rich meat and caramelizing balsamic vinegar filling the kitchen and the accompanying sizzling sound. I hope you enjoy putting together your menu for a gathering as much as I did, be it based on this one or a completely new idea.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful and mouth-watering post and photos!!! Lovely flavors and colors, jumping off the "page" at me! Thank you, Evil Dictator of Taste!!!