With friends like these who needs...other friends?
After (another) long hiatus, Melissa and I recently hosted a dinner party. You all know my normal drill on this: we had a great dinner there was great wine blah blah blah.
I thought this time I'd try something a little differentthough not unheard of
. This is the dinner party from the cook's perspective. Forget my normal linear picture of our courses. This is more about how we plan one of these things.
Melissa and I came up with the idea for this meal at a Halloween party. Our friends Pam and Dave collect Pinot Noir from the Rochioli vineyard in the Russian River Valley, so we suggested that they and another friend Laura come over for dinner. They'd provide the wine, we'd provide the food. Regular readers will raise their eyebrows at this; I never relinquish that much control.
I often start planning the menu for a dinner party before we've set a date. This is my favorite part. At this point each dish exists solely as a concept, a model of perfection in my mind with no flawed reality to compare it to. "Perfect is something you never actually attain," says Thomas Keller to Anthony Bourdain in A Cook's Tour
, "It's something you search for. Once you reach it, it's not perfect. You've lost it. It's gone." It's a quote I recall often, along with Judy Rodgers's "Stop. Think. There must be a harder way."
Usually I plan six courses: appetizer, opener, main, cheese, dessert, mignardise. Sometimes I add an amuse
. Once I got to do ten courses.
The appetizers should be sitting out when guests arrive. Few things welcome a guest more than food on the table and a glass of wine at the ready. Your appetizers should allow people to graze at leisure but not stuff themselves. They are the buffer zone for latecomers or kitchen delays. Throughout the meal, I try and have a mix of fresh flavors vs. cooked flavors, fancy food vs. simpler fare.
I plan courses haphazardly based on what I feel like cooking. I jump between courses, scribble notes, leave courses unplanned until the last minute even as I sketch out others way in advance. For this dinner, I wanted to make beignets, and two nights before the party I envisioned them on a purée of dried nectarines rehydrated in Vin de Glaciere
. Where did this idea come from? Who knows. The concept for the dessert reminded me of a 1994 5 puttonyos Tokaji Aszù in our off-site wine storage
. I retrieved the bottle from West Oakland and I remembered that people often pair Tokaji with apricots and hazelnuts (for good reason; the combination works well). I made a mental note on the day before the party: finish with a Frangelico caramel sauce. It's a nice rush to concoct a dish at the last minute, but planning well has its advantages. I made the gravlax
and the beef stock the weekend before the party.
I use a bunch of cookbooks when I plan a menu, sometimes for inspiration, sometimes for recipes. No one will be shocked to learn that I often use The French Laundry Cookbook
and of course now I've added Bouchon
. The former provided the Appenzeller on carrot salad we had for our cheese course, the latter, glazed pearl onions on the appetizer platter. I often use The Zuni Café Cookbook
, which I love for its long essays about the simplest dishes. For this dinner, I used amuse-bouche
, which provided the inspiration for a simple rapini salad in a sea of good olive oil
. But my main resource isn't a cookbook. I've mentioned Culinary Artistry before
, and I still use it heavily. The book has lots of features, but my favorite is pages and pages of ingredients and compatible flavors. What goes well with cured salmon? Smoked salmon is close enough. Eggs, potatoes, onions, herbs. An appetizer platter suggested itself: gravlax with hard-boiled eggs, glazed pearl onions, steamed new potatoes tossed in a mustard vinaigrette, and Acme Herb Slab. All served with a Prosecco, the crisp and attractive sparkling wine from Northeast Italy that is the true base for a Bellini.
Usually I do trial runs of dishes. I didn't use to, and many of my friends suffered as guinea pigs. I wish I had done a test run for the mushroom terrine and smoked sausage on polenta
. The cold of the terrine was jarring against the warm polenta, and the chunky terrine wasn't solid enough to be served at room temp. Good idea, still needs some work. The rosemary-garlic pork loin with wild rice and hazelnut salad? Great dish, not my best plating. All these things can be fixed in trial runs.
The day before the party, I start shopping and Melissa starts cleaning (no one ever notices all the work she puts into these). I make my shopping list the night before, and head out to the stores. The Cheese Board for cheese, Ver Brugge
for meats. Kermit Lynch or Paul Marcus Wine for any extra wine (with some 200 bottles in my possession, I do try to use what's on hand, but sometimes you need a Banyuls...or a Prosecco). Market Hall for gourmet ingredients, Andronico's for general ingredients and produce. Shopping takes up the whole morning and often bleeds into the afternoon. The impending deadline forces me to finalize all the dishes that I haven't fully fleshed out. If there's any prep I can do the day before, I do it.
The night before the party, I make The List. The List is the key to our parties. On The List, I write down each dish and all its components. I write the time I'm planning to serve that course. I write the wine I'll serve with each course. Under each dish, I write all the steps that need to happen before that dish is complete. Some you'd expect: "make sauce for carrot salad". Others seem odd: "chill the wine" or "set the oven to 350." Each step has its own time entry. If I write that a step has to happen "at XXX" that XXX is either a time or
an event. This last part is key. Guests show up late and things take longer than you expect. If your List says "roast in at 7:00" because you're expecting to eat it at 8:00, your timing's off if everyone shows up half an hour late. If your item says "roast in when guests arrive" you get more flexibility. I might write "main out, cheese out of fridge" to make sure the cheese reaches a temperature that showcases its flavor. That temperature is not, by the way, freezing cold out of the refrigerator. The final item on The List is a tiny sketch of my plating idea for each dish. I forgot to look at this when I plated the cheese course and so I omitted the line of carrot powder I spent an hour making. The List is our Master.
(a funny site, by the way)
The day of, it's all about the prep. I try to take dishwashing breaks, but this gets harder as Zero Hour inches closer. Melissa sets the table and she and I wrangle about dishes and plates. "Do we actually need six different glasses?" is not an uncommon question. For this dinner, of course, we used our Pinot Noir glasses for three different courses.
The work doesn't get easier once the guests arrive. If anything, it's harder to keep focus on what happens next. Conversation and wine alike take their toll. I need signs above my oven that say "Season!" and "Wipe down the plates!" because sometimes in the last-minute rush I forget these crucial steps for flavor and presentation. Even at the table, I only partially participate in the conversation because one part of my mind is constantly revisiting the dishes still to come to make sure everything's all set.
Afterwards, I clean my pots. Melissa gets stuck with most of the cleaning the next day.
A couple months of planning, two solid days of work. Is it any wonder we don't do these more often?