Monday, February 28, 2011

birthday-worthy devil's chicken thighs

Another year, another birthday party for my husband.

Actually, scratch that. I didn't make a special dinner for him last year. Just this outrageous mess of a cake. I think we went out for barbecue instead. Probably a smart move, given that cake. Yikes.

The year before that, I made a greatest hits menu of Dan's favorite foods: short ribs, chicken liver pate, chocolate-hazelnut cake. It took a lot of cajoling to get that list out of him, something I didn't want to repeat again this year. After asking oh, two...or five times, "Is there anything special you want for your birthday?" and getting no feedback, I gave up and decided to figure it out myself. I live with the guy, I know what he likes.

Namely: chicken thighs. 

Friday, February 25, 2011

dinner party on facebook

Dearest readers,

For those of you who are Facebook-inclined, Dinner Party now has its own page. So click on over if you wish (bonus points for "liking" this site) and say hi!

Not entirely unrelated, Dinner Party will be getting a little facelift soon. Nothing drastic, just a nip and tuck, some fillers, Botox, permanent eyeliner, etc. (Kidding, kidding. Dinner Party is not old enough to need Botox.) So if there's anything specific you'd like to see more or less of here, or if you have any thoughts in general, please let me know in the comments section or on FB.

Happy weekend!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

greatest hits

When planning dinner party menus, I usually gravitate toward new and untested recipes. Partially because I have a huge backlog of dishes I want to try, and partially because it gives me more fodder for this here blog. So I tend to experiment when friends come over, and reserve my favorite recipes for weeknight dinners. But sometimes you just want something you know is going to come out perfectly, either because you're short on time, or want to really wow the people you're feeding. Or in my case last Friday, both. 
In an effort to reclaim my weekends a bit more, I've started having people over on Friday nights--which seemed crazy at first, but it's actually not a bad way to go. On one hand, you have to be a bit more organized and plan ahead. I tidied up the house the night before, cleaning the bathroom, and setting out plates and glasses. On the other hand, people are so ready to unwind on a Friday night that they won't expect an elaborate spread.

For a dinner with some work friends, I made a seriously no-brainer menu of my favorite recipes: a salad of winter citrus, olives, and fennel, the truly fabulous Zuni Cafe roasted chicken and bread salad, some roasted veggies, and my favorite cake: torta di pere. This wasn't a simple menu exactly, but it was something I knew I could easily execute after a long day of work and a few glasses of wine.

A greatest hits list is something good to have up your sleeve when these situations arise or when you have the dreaded 'what am I going to make for dinner' brain freeze. Which happens to the best of us. And there's something sort of wonderful about having an arsenal of recipes at your fingertips. It's like that one outfit that always makes you look awesome, or the go-to cocktail you can always order at a bar.

What are your greatest hit dishes when entertaining? Please share in the comments.

Greatest hits menu

Salad of winter citrus, olives, and fennel
Zuni Cafe roasted chicken and bread salad
Roasted carrots and parsnips
Chocolate pear cake with whipped cream

Monday, February 21, 2011

what's for dinner, jennifer hess?

Once you start reading food blogs, you'll find that a lot of what's out there is all kind of the same. When I came upon Last Night's Dinner sometime last year, it was like a breath of fresh air. Like a lot of bloggers, Jennifer Hess writes about what she cooks, both simple pasta dishes and more complicated fare like homemade duck proscuitto. She also takes beautiful photographs. But unlike many bloggers, she doesn't include recipes, choosing to make her site more of a culinary record of what was going on in her life. She also thinks that avoiding recipes might promote a freer, more instinctive way of cooking. Recipes are great--it's how I do most of my cooking--but sometimes when I look at Jennifer's site, I come away with a nugget of an idea about flavors or presentation that I might use down the road. And in some ways, those little tricks are what make us good cooks.

1. Name, occupation, and city
Jennifer Hess; desk jockey by day, home cook and food blogger by night; Providence, RI

2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?
It has been far too long for my liking. My husband and I are currently in a tiny carriage house that isn’t really set up for indoor entertaining, but we have shared some wonderful alfresco meals with our neighbors during the summer months in our shared yard. Very casual and fun, but I dream of the day we can have friends over for a proper sit-down dinner.

3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?

I really love having people over for brunch – its such a fun and relaxed way to entertain. I set out a spread of bagels and home-cured salmon with all the trimmings, yogurt and seasonal fruit, a pitcher of Bloody Marys, juices and chilled Cava, then serve one or two heartier dishes: a custardy breakfast bread pudding, a frittata or Spanish tortilla, or a sausage, fennel and potato hash. And of course, you can’t forget coffee and plenty of thick-cut bacon.

4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?

My husband Mike is a cocktail writer, so spirits are always in the mix, but when left to my own devices, I’m perfectly content with a nice glass of wine. For now, though, I’m off the sauce – we’re expecting a baby in September.
(Ed: Congrats!)

5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?

We have a large and varied music collection, so party tunes can range from old school soul to power pop, from Dylan to Cash or Sinatra, from swing to ska to classic punk.

6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner. What do you make?

Something classic and unfussy – roast chicken, creamy buttermilk mashed potatoes and pan gravy, or a simple pasta dish. Add a big green salad and plenty of wine, and you’re good to go.

7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?

I can be pretty Type-A in the kitchen, so if I’m taking on responsibility for a meal, I typically do it myself.

8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?

A well-curated pantry is a cook’s best friend. I’m absolutely okay with serving well-made store-bought items as part of a spread, especially when entertaining. As type-A as I can be in the kitchen, I’ve learned that trying to do it all is a recipe for disaster! That said, the majority of what comes out of our kitchen is homemade, especially now that Mike and I have started canning and fermenting (and since he has been making much of our bread).

9. What do you like to serve for dessert?

A cheese course. I’m not big on sweets, and I don’t like to bake, plus we have a killer cheese shop here (Farmstead in Wayland Square).

10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?

My grandma. She turns 90 in May, and she’s my biggest inspiration - the reason I started cooking. I’ve cooked with her but never for her, so it would be a real treat.

[Photo: Lauren Martin]

Friday, February 18, 2011

communal table

Everyone's talking about digital media these days, but there's another publishing trend I'm really excited about: the rise of small, independently published books and magazines. If you're into food and entertaining (and I think you are!) I highly recommend Communal Table, a new series of cookbooks about the experience of eating and gathering together. The first edition, "A Casual Setting," which is beautifully illustrated by Caroline Hwang (one half of the NumNum Chronicles), features stories and recipes from Cathy Erway, the Jewels of New York, Tom Mylan of Brooklyn's Meat Hook, and more. An added bonus, the proceeds from each book in the series will benefit a food nonprofit, starting with Philadelphia-based The Food Trust.

Happy weekend! 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

bittersweet chocolate-orange mousse

Chocolate mousse! Doesn't that just scream 1980's dinner party?

Like many other delicious yet passe desserts, I don't think chocolate mousse appears on many menus anymore. Which is a shame--it's wonderfully decadent, and downright edgy when you think about what's in it: raw eggs, booze, heavy cream chocolate. Wild stuff, that chocolate mousse.

I have to admit that it's not the kind of thing I normally serve because it does seem like something that someone's dinner party-throwing mother or very stylish aunt "who loves to entertain" would make. But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with it. The dinner parties of the 70's and 80s's have been on my mind lately after reading a very interesting piece over at Gourmet Live titled "Whatever Happened to the Dinner Party." (Answer: uh, it's right here.) 

The writer laments that she doesn't throw the type of carefully planned parties that her mother used to do. In fact, she doesn't entertain at all, or go to dinner parties at other people's homes. She writes, "I don’t think I have ever been invited to a meal at someone’s house where the table was laid with china, tablecloth and flowers, the hosts dressed up, the food prepared, the guest list a balance of new people and old friends." Huh. In the writer's world, people are too busy to cook, clean, set a table, host a group of guests. It's easier to go out for dinner or order in food, even if we don't enjoy it as much as we imagine we will. 

There's something romantic about the dinner parties of the past, whether you're thinking about a kitschy 1950s cocktail party or friends gathering around a fondue pot in the '70s. Maybe I'm wrong--clearly, I wasn't there--but there seemed to be a bit more care taken when it came to entertaining. On the positive side, our palates have evolved quite a bit since then. And we, meaning women, don't feel the pressure or burden of entertaining (In heels! And lipstick!) as much. There's a lot more freedom in general, which leads to less formality, which can lead to not bothering with any of it at all.

But I think there can be a happy medium. Why not do things your own way? Use your fanciest vintage tablecloth, or the cheapy one you bought at Ikea. Or don't eat around a table at all! Serve something appropriately seasonal and local, or go for the throwback dishes our mothers served. Like chocolate mousse. There may be fresher, cooler desserts in the world to serve, but there's something about chocolate mousse that evokes warm feelings of celebrations from a different time. It may sound corny, but I like the idea of embracing the entertaining traditions of the past, but doing it on my own terms.
Bittersweet chocolate orange mousse
Adapted from Gourmet magazine, via Smitten Kitchen. You can flavor chocolate mousse with lots of different liquors, but I like the classic combination of chocolate and orange. For a modern twist, I added a bit of blood orange zest to the mousse and on top. One note: this recipe, while extremely simple, requires dirtying many bowls and an electric mixer.
(Serves six to eight people)

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cacao), chopped
3/4 stick (3 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
3 large eggs, separated
2 Tbsp. orange liquor (or Cognac, or rum, or Chambord, or liquor of your choice)

2 Tbsp. orange zest, plus 1 Tbsp. extra for garnish
1 cup very cold heavy or whipping cream
1/8 tsp. salt
Sweetened whipped cream

Set a large bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water and melt the chocolate and butter in it, gently stirring it until smooth. Carefully remove the bowl from the heat and add the zest. (Or you can use your microwave, stirring at 30 seconds and every 15 seconds after until the mixture is smooth.)

In a small bowl, beat the yolks with an electric mixer for about three minutes, until they are thick enough to form a ribbon that takes a few seconds to dissolve. Whisk the yolks into the chocolate along with the liquor, then let the mixture cool to warm.

In another bowl, beat the cream with cleaned beaters until it just holds stiff peaks.  

In another bowl, beat the egg whites and salt with cleaned beaters until they just hold soft peaks.

Fold the whipped cream and beaten whites into the chocolate mixture, gently but thoroughly. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl to make sure you're not missing anything. Spoon the mixture into individual cups, ramekins, or glasses. Top with the extra whipped cream and garnish with orange zest. Refrigerate for at least three hours.

Monday, February 14, 2011

dinner parties for winter survival

When I moved up north seven years ago, I didn't know a thing about winter. I was fresh off the boat from Florida with only a bright blue ski jacket my dad bought me at Sports Authority. I did not own a pair of boots. I refused to wear a hat. Or socks. I scraped the snow off my car with a spatula. One winter, my car was buried under several feet of iced-over snow and somehow I thought I could dig it out by myself with a shovel borrowed from a nearby gas station. (Wrong.)

I've been here long enough to finally feel like I know how to get through this difficult season. Don't get me wrong--it's still hard, but now I don't cry every time I look out my window and see white. You need certain essentials: a down coat with a hood, Chapstick, slush-proof boots with good tread, thick gloves, hot showers, warming cups of milky tea, and fleece-lined slippers for around the house. Also, dinner parties. (You knew I was going to get to that at some point.) 

Animals and people hibernate during these dark, cold months for a reason. Most weekends, I'm totally happy to wrap myself in a blanket and watch Friday Night Lights on DVD for hours and hours, only leaving the couch to pee or refill my wine glass. I mean, what else is there to do? 

But in spite of my own laziness, I've learned that the best way to power through the winter is to email a bunch of friends, cook something warm and delicious, and socalize with those friends in the coziness of your own home. Sure, you could meet at a restaurant, but there's the whole business of being rushed through dinner, being able to talk to everyone around the table, and the inevitable annoyance of splitting a check six different ways. Even if you have a tiny apartment that's not made for entertaining (like I do), it's always going to be nicer at your house. 

Last weekend, I invited over two friends from high school with whom I've recently reconnected. Both are named Adrienne, coincidentally. (Saying I'm hanging out with "the Adriennes" makes me feel like I'm in an all-girl band.) One Adrienne is one of my oldest friends, dating back to Kindergarten, I think. I randomly sat next to her on the subway one night and it was as if no time had passed at all. 

The other Adrienne was more of an acquaintance. We sat in many of the same classes but hung out in different circles. Much like re-meeting my husband Dan, who I also went to high school with, we totally connected as adults. If you're lucky, distance and time can smooth out all of the weirdness of high school.

In my wildest dreams I would have never thought I'd be sharing a meal (in New York, no less) with these particular people: a long-time friend I had lost touch with, someone I knew only peripherally, and a guy I barely hardly knew at all, yet ended up marrying. And yet there we all were, eating shrimp linguine in my very own living room, beating winter at its own game.

Saturday night with the Adriennes
Olive focaccia (a twist on my favorite tomato-stopped focaccia)
Mixed greens with fennel, blood oranges, and pecorino
Linguine with shrimp and creamy roasted tomatoes
Bittersweet chocolate-orange mousse
Linguine with shrimp and creamy roasted tomatoes
From Food + Wine. The shrimp somehow took on the flavor of lobster in this pasta. Maybe it's the cream sauce?
(Serves 4 people) 

1 1/2 cups grape tomatoes
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. thyme leaves
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 box dried linguine
1 cup heavy cream  
1 lb. large shrimp peeled, deveined and halved lengthwise
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. lemon zest
1 Tbsp. coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley  

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. In a large ovenproof skillet (I used a cast iron pan), toss the tomatoes with the olive oil, thyme, and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Roast the tomatoes for about 25 minutes, until they start to brown and their skins split.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the linguine until al dente; drain. 

Remove the pan of roasted tomatoes from the oven and place it on the stovetop over medium heat. Add the cream to the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Cook over moderate heat, gently crushing the tomatoes, until the cream thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Add the shrimp and simmer over moderate heat until cooked through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the linguine to the skillet along with the lemon juice and toss over low heat until the pasta is coated, about 1 minute. Add the lemon zest and parsley and toss. Transfer the pasta to warm bowls and serve at once.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

crepes are for (dessert) lovers

I'm not big on Valentine's Day, but if you're looking for a special dessert to make for your special someone, I suggest a batch of crepes. You could even make a batch of crepes and call it dinner, depending on the fillings.

A few weekends ago, we had dinner at the home of our friends Colin and Anne. Colin does most of the cooking in their household and made us all a really lovely meal (more on that later). Anne, to her credit, does the dishes and keeps Colin in line. She has always said that she's not much for cooking, but at the end of the evening, she produced a tall stack of golden brown crepes with all sorts of delicious fillings: berry compote, Nutella, powdered sugar, whipped cream. "Did you make these?" I asked, incredulous. And she had, following an old Martha Stewart recipe. With a nonstick skillet it wasn't hard at all, she said.

We gorged ourselves on those crepes. I think I may have had four. It was the simplest thing, a thin pancake with sweet berries oozing out of each end, but it was exactly the perfect thing. It's the kind of dessert that lends itself to sitting on the floor crosslegged. You'll find yourself reaching over people to grab the powdered sugar, licking a stray schmear of Nutella off the back of your hand. It's messy, but in the best possible sense. With friends, or your family, or with your beloved, be sure to eat some crepes.

Monday, February 7, 2011

super fast, super delicious brunch

Sometimes I struggle to come up with menus, and sometimes the best ideas fall right into my lap. In the case of last weekend's brunch I got really lucky.

Recently I happened upon a link at The Kitchn for eggy, crispy, polenta with tomatoes and mushrooms, and couldn't bookmark it fast enough. The photo was fantastic, but doesn't that description sound so delicious? And then, as if on cue, Dan and I made brunch plans with some friends we don't see nearly enough. Instead of going out for overpriced eggs, they could come to our house and I'd make that very dish.

The whole trick of this recipe is that it calls for a tube of pre-cooked polenta. In the not-so-distant past, maybe I might have turned my nose up at those yellow tubes in the produce aisle at my grocery store. Polenta is so cheap and easy to whip up that buying it ready-made seemed sort of silly. 

But when it's Sunday morning and you're still in your pajamas even though brunch guests are on their way, pre-cooked polenta seems like the most brilliant invention ever. All you have to do is slice the log into rounds, dust with flour, and sear them off in a pan. Then you dress the crispy polenta up with whatever brunchy toppings your heart desires. It looks fancy but couldn't be easier to assemble. So points to The Kitchn for helping me get over another one of my snobby assumptions.

Topped with mushrooms, cheese, and poached eggs, this polenta dish was pretty much my ideal brunch. It's hearty enough to tide you over until dinner, but not so bloat-inducing that you have to sleep it off. A side of homemade sausage, and a little banana bread, and maybe a mimosa or two might be entirely unnecessary, but certainly didn't hurt.
Crispy polenta with mushrooms and poached eggs
Adapted from The Kitchn. This recipe was originally billed as being gluten-free, which it is, if you dust the polenta rounds with cornstarch instead of flour. If you are afraid of poaching eggs--I was too, before I discovered the method below--you can easily top your polenta with sunny side up eggs. The flexibility of this dish is really wonderful.
(Serves 4) 

For the polenta: 
1 18 oz. tube of cooked polenta 
2 Tbsp. flour, for dusting 
2 Tbsp. canola oil 

For the mushrooms:  
2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced thinly (I used baby portabellos)
3 long stalks fresh thyme, leaves only 
2 Tbsp. white wine, vermouth, or water
Salt and pepper

For the poached eggs (see method below):
4 eggs
White vinegar (1/2 Tbsp. per quart of water)
Salt (1 Tbsp. per quart of water)

Grated cheese (I used Gruyere, but any hard cheese will work)
Thyme springs

To cook the mushrooms, heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, add the thyme leaves and mushrooms and saute until the mushrooms are slightly brown. Add the wine (or whatever liquid you're using) to the pan and stir. Cook a few minutes, more until the mushrooms are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Clean the skillet so you can make the polenta.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees. Slice the tube of polenta into about 10 1/2-inch thick slices. Using a paper towel, pat each slice dry as thoroughly as you can. Lightly dust both sides of each slice with a sprinkle of flour.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. When it is quite hot but not smoking, carefully lay the polenta slices in the pan. Don't overfill the pan, you can do this in batches, if you need to. Cook the polenta for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, or until crispy. Remove the cooked slices onto a cookie sheet and keep them warm in the oven while you finish.

I recently discovered Harold McGee's method for poaching multiple eggs and it works. Fill a large stockpot with water. For each quart of water, add 1 tablespoon of salt and 1/2 tablespoon of white wine vinegar (I've used apple cider vinegar in a pinch as well). Bring the water to a gentle boil. Small bubbles should reach the surface. Crack each egg, one at a time, into a small bowl or teacup and slowly lower it into the water. The eggs will all sink to the bottom of the pot. Skim off any surface egg white debris. When the eggs are cooked, they will rise to the surface of the water. Mine took about five minutes. Use a slotted spoon to carefully lift them out.

To assemble the dish, serve each person 2 to 3 polenta rounds, and top each one with a generous spoonful of mushrooms, one poached egg, a grating of cheese, and a thyme sprig. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

link-o-rama, super bowl edition

Somehow it's February, and the Super Bowl is this weekend. How did that happen? Chances are, this momentous occasion may have slipped by you too and now you're rushing to throw a last-minute party. So if you're having people over to watch the game, or have been appointed to bring a dish to a party, here are some links for inspiration. As for me, I'm not into football and we're skipping the parties this year, but it's still a good excuse to make a big batch of chipotle peanuts.  

A wide array of Super Bowl snacks (dips, snack mixes, sandwiches, etc.) [via Bon Appetit 

An all-in-one Super Bowl party planner [via Epicurious]  

Six takes on the chicken wing (and two dips) [via Saveur]  

Make-ahead snacks (black pepper jerky, caramelized onion dip) [via Food & Wine]

Homemade Cheez-Its and if you're a Steelers fan, some Pittsburgh-centric menu ideas [via Good. Food. Stories]  

And from the Dinner Party archives:  
Ham and pickle pinwheels
Salami-wrapped Mean Beans
Sausage rolls
Pimento cheese
Chile-lime peanuts

Main dishes:

E Tyler Lindvall's chili for the people

Butter burgers
BLT pasta

Chocolate peanut butter squares

Peanut butter brownies

Peanut butter chocolate chip cookies

Mini frozen Key lime pies


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