If you were trying to impress, what would your dinner party menu look like?
- The Oracle Aug 8, 2014 01:48 PM
I've been asked to come up with (and potentially execute) a dinner party menu for a friend of mine who is hosting three other couples for dinner (a total of 10 for dinner). One of the couples is well-travelled and has a penchant for food and wine. Money isn't an issue for them and they have dined at just about every global and local bucket list place you can possibly think of. They are also very gracious and would appreciate anything served. That said - I would love to knock their socks off (if it was even possible!).
I'm running blind, as I don't know their food preferences (and I've inquired and no one seemed to know), and there are no food restrictions/allergies.
I realize that 'to impress' is subjective, but if you were trying to put together a menu to impress, what would your dinner menu look like? Any and all recipes and tips are appreciated.
Also - I know the rule of thumb is to do what you already do well - but for whatever reason, this menu has me scattered in every direction! TIA!
While you're preparing the other dishes that may be more time consuming, here's a rich and easy Potato-and-Blue-Cheese-Gratin that practically fixes itself.
It took mine closer to an hour to soften the potatoes nicely, but it's a delicious - and impressive dish.
Well, this was a very interesting exercise in fantasy. While I've been to a few cities in Western Europe, I am by no means a world traveler. Also, I have never been to a Michelin-starred restaurant, don't do molecular gastronomy and have never eaten a sous vide preparation. So I'm probably more easy to impress than others here.
That said, I really did enjoy thinking through this menu; what I'm looking at is a strong emphasis on seasonality. Only the desserts are actual recipes seen online; the others are just sketches.
Summer corn chowder made with corn stock and garnished with crème fraîche, corn kenels, red bell pepper.
Salad of mixed soft tender lettuces with fresh peaches and Vidalia onion, peach vinaigrette.
Rack of lamb with fingerling potatoes.
One of these two desserts: Lemon Custard, Blueberry & Shortbread Verrines, or Blueberry Cassis Fool.
Here’s the menu I prepared for my parents’ 50th anniversary:
Scrambled eggs in the shell topped with caviar
Lobster in pastry pockets
Saddle of lamb
Fresh peas in potato string baskets
This was quite a few years ago. Looking at it now, I’d lighten it up considerably. But maybe there's something there to use as inspiration?
re: The Oracle
In that case, keep it to no more than 3 courses plus dessert and have all but the first be totally done before you sit down -- keeping your guests twiddling while you're frantically working in the kitchen isn't usually impressive. Stews, roasts, braises, etc. Or a dish that works well at room temp as well as hot. Smoke roasted salmon is remarkably flexible that way.
I intend to make most of it and will be partaking as well. I may have some cooking help as well. The kitchen I'll be using is well equipped. re: Skills - I'd say better than average, but no formal culinary training (unless you count decades of experimenting in my home kitchen). :)
an interesting ceviche (maybe with a tropical fruit base) and habanero
fish course with wasabi beurre blanc
Iberico "secreto" pork skirt steak (sous vide, then sear to finish)
Whatever you do land on for the main serve individual portions- like ramikens of garlic shrimp, or a version of a wellington individually wrapped, or baked stuffed quail - whatever it is there's something childish and delightful about the individualized presentation.
This week in Los Angeles I'd make:
Tomato Consomme with a few tiny shrimp as garnish (Raymond LeBlanc- dead simple and glorious) in my double handled soup cups
rabbit sausage and frisse salad with hazelnuts and hazelnut dressing, mashed potatoes (Zuni cafe recipe)
cheese tray from the good place
plum crostata with cornmeal crust with whipped cream enriched with creme fraiche
Huge menus cooked at home drag, drag, drag and usually result in a frazzled cook and host. This is mostly made in advance and not to hot or heavy.
I completely agree with the starter of tomato consomme or cold tomato soup -- heirlooms are peaking (or a bit past, but still there) and made amazing soup this year. Lots of great make-ahead recipes that can have a nice garnish of small shrimp or just a drizzle of oil or cream. And then grill something like tequila and lime marinated tri-tip with cherry tomato relish (that's a recipe from Gourmet, I think), and fresh corn off the cob. Make it easy on yourself. The parties that impress are the ones where people have a great time, and the hosts are having fun too.
No point me suggesting anything specific, Oracle.
I have no idea what particular cooking skills you have, what ingredients are in season wherever you are in the world or, even, what are the friend's likes and dislikes (or yours).
So a general suggestion or two - all of which will be blindingly obvious. Don't try and serve restaurant lookalike food (unless you happen to be a chef). Do serve seasonal food. Decide on whatever main course first and then fit other courses around it. And, whatever else you decide, don't do more than one thing that needs last minute finishing (unless folk are going to be happy to wait while you finish each course). And, even then, be wary about doing even one thing that needs last minute cooking - ten portions in a domestic set-up is not easy.
Now, it's fair to say that we have never prepared a meal intended to impress and would be absolutely horrified if a friend asked us to do that. I doubt if I would be at all confident that I could do it but, if I was going to attempt it, I would have something of a theme - say, all three courses being Spanish dishes or whatever. It's about the ease of one course flowing into the next.
What most impresses me when I'm dining at someone's home is a well thought out and well executed meal with seasonal ingredients and lovely wines to match......with a hostess/host who is not stressed and enjoying the meal along with the guests. Top ingredients are key. Nothing wrong with a course a crab legs served with melted butter and a mustard sauce.....along with champagne. Simple and elegant. Also a bit of whimsey doesn't hurt. I once did a seafood dinner party with a fun "tablescape." I had seviche as an appetizer to start....along with a smoked trout dip and cocktails. Moved to the dining room for shrimp cocktails and then mussels. The table had a beach theme.....with all sorts of fun decorations. Big bowls with floating fish candles. Shells. And those plastic buckets that kids use in the sand......those were for the mussel and crab shells. (also did crab legs) Everyone had a CD (yes, a CD in those days) of beach party music to take home as a gift. It was one of the best parties I've given. Everyone relaxed and had such a good time. Think I need to do that again.
what is your friend's motive for wanting to "impress" rather than just share hospitality with his/her guests? i have cooked for friends who have won james beard awards and they would rather NOT have you doing backflips and cartwheels. the foie gras you make at home is not going to be as good as that from a michelin place, nor will many other "luxury" dishes since you will not be able to source those same ingredients and probably do not have the skillset of a seasoned professional chef.
what do the other people attending the dinner enjoy? what does your friend like? what do you like to cook (presuming you wind up getting co-opted for that)? what will be seasonal and best at your market?
most important to me for a harmonious meal is flow. flavors from one course should meld and lead for the one to follow. nothing should beat you over the head or clobber the palate.
will you have help? a single home cook trying to plate for 10 with multiple courses might not be the way to go here. mounds of food on lovely platters from which guests serve themselves seems more welcoming and less contrived. don't bollocks yourself up with many little last minute details. stuff will get forgotten and/or timing will be delayed. how many virtual plates do you want to be spinning in the air simultaneously?
a beautifully set table, flowers, unscented candles, nice linens all help too. :)
I'm the one putting the 'impress' into the equation. No one in the group is expecting Michelin star plating or luxury ingredients.
I'm definitely resonating with the seasonal theme, and a well set table will definitely be part of it. There's enough kitchen space and helping hands to plate courses... Thanks for your thoughts about flow and the melding of flavors - that is going to be my focus, as the menu is devised.
It depends what type of guests you have... modern "foodies" tend to prefer flash, trendy new ingredients used in a slightly new way, expensive items, molecular techniques, ect while old school "gastronomes" tend to appreciate seasonality, authenticity, classic techniques and references to iconic chefs/restaurants. I come from a pretty old school family but I have many foody friends so I've seen both ways.
Here's what I would tend to do:
"Trou normand" (norman hole?)
What I remember being popular from what I tried
Soupe à l'oignon (French onion soup)
Its old school but Julia Child's french onion soup really worked well with my group (I'd serve it in individual portion instead of her suggestion of using a big pot). A well made cream of seasonal ingredients also works very well here
Champignons farcis (stuffed mushrooms).
Also from julia child, the stuffed mushrooms deliver a good bang for a minimal effort, are very classic and greatly enjoyable:
Andives au bleu (endives with blue cheese).
Here I'd put something fresh, something green to clash a bit. A bit of bitterness might not hurt either. Asparagus in butter, endives with blue cheese, roasted Brussels sprouts with almond... (recipes just an idea)
Porc éffiloché et ses légumes racines sur purée de pommes de terres façon Robuchon (Pulled pork with its root vegetables on a bed of Robuchon potato puree).
Here I like roasted or braised dishes. Something that takes a ton of time to cook, has a big payoff but is not so labor intensive. My best success here was a slow cooked pulled pork. Once completed it can be kept hot in its sauce or in the oven without problem. I presented it in a lettuce wrap. You can also time roots vegetables to slow cook with the pulled pork. I made a house asian inspired barbecue sauce with the pork drippings.
You can serve it over a Robuchon potato purée. Robuchon, apart being a legend of french cooking, is part of a generation of french chef (with the Troisgros brothers and Bocuse, amongst other) where everything could be solved with the addition of either cream or butter. His purée was a low brow nod to his childhood and is a staple at his restaurant, l'Atelier. This purée is a killer and not for the faint of heart but for impressing people who are not aware of how much fat is in the dish its perfect! It also gives a good point of references to gastronomes aware of the dish.
If you want something higher brow than pulled pork (which is a US stable after all), you might want to try Julia Child's authentic boeuf bourguignon (it will pair well with potatoes) or her Coq au vin. (do it with local wines if you can! serve it with the same wine it was cooked in!)
Pulled pork: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ0H0...
Boeuf bourguignon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zA2ys...
Coq au vin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLnKO...
Robuchon mashed potatoes http://greenmarketrecipes.com/vegetab...
Granité au Vin de Tokaj (Tokaj wine granité).
The trou normand's goal is to make a pause and let people digest a bit. Normally its a sorbet with calvados but I like to make a granité with a liquor instead. Use an Ice Wine, Ice Cider, Sauternes, Tokaj, Constance Wine or Beerenauslese / Trockenbeerenauslese, something with a high sugar content and some alcohol, put it in a pot, a pan or a plastic container and stir the mix every hour until it looks like shaven ice. Some people dilute the wine in water and add some sugar but I found it just distracted from the purity of the ingredient... the raw wine tasted just plain better. I didn't do it but you might want to add a splash of calvados before presentation. (I presented the granité in a porto glass which spent the day in a freezer.)
Sélection de fromage (cheese selection)
Here you might want to serve a selection of three cheeses with bread or crackers (bonus point if you made your own bread!). Local cheese are usually appreciated.
Tarte à la lime key avec sa meringue italienne (Key Lime pie with its Italian Meringue)
Here you have two options... either you make something visually impressive that takes a lot of prep time or you serve something that tastes great with little preparation time and that has a nice element included.
I like key lime pie for this. My recipe is so easy you'll feel a bit guilty making it. If you can find fresh key limes in your area you'll have a good curve ball to present the desert (here is an authentic key lime pie home made with fresh ingredients). My recipe has condensed milk but it is authentic as the story goes that key lime pie was invented as a way to use condensed milk in desserts (fresh milk didn't find its way often in the florida keys apparently).
If you don't have fresh key limes you can try a spin on cheesecake. My bailey's cheesecake has long been a favorite and is easy to make. If you feel that bailey's cheesecake is overplayed you can replace the bailey's with any creamy liquor around 20% alcohol.
If you want to go for the big showy dessert you might try a Gateau St.Honoré or a Paris-Brest. Chou pastry can be a bit hard to execute.
Another pretty showy dessert is a gateau Marjolaine from Fernand Point's Pyramide.
Key lime pie: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...
Italian meringue topping for Key lime pie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4jZd...
Bailey's cheesecake: http://www.cooks.com/recipe/yr8qy9yc/...
Gateau Marjolaine: http://cookingannie.hubpages.com/hub/...
It looks like a lot but:
1) You could prep your a lot of your soup and dessert the day before
2) Your main dish is slow cooking so you let it work for you.
3) You just have to remember to mix the granité
4) You can do a lot of the bread prep work and bake it "à la minute"
5) You can buy the cheese ahead
So basically, you have your potage to finish or heat, your appetizers to prepare and your potato purée to execute day of. You can bake the bread at the last minute. The hardest I see is getting the timing right and maybe testing some of the recipes beforehand to make sure you have the right approach,
Ha! Thanks! We are lucky in Quebec to have a lot of good producers (I'm pretty proud of our cheese website! http://fromagesduquebec.qc.ca/en/), great local markets and restaurants that really believe in using locally sourced ingredients and re-interpreting old techniques/recipes.
I would recommend the bus or the plane over the train because its unfortunately more expensive and long (although the new york - montreal train vistas are really nice).
As for the time of dinner,I do make a "test kitchen" with a friend once every few months where we try recipes we wouldn't make in a normal week but we are refusing people because of lack of space! (My kitchen table can't accommodate more than 10 and I'm not sure I would want to cook for 10-20 people anyways!)
impress: the act of making an impression or mark
The meals I have been most impressed by (by memory wise) are kind of all over the map. The one common thread I see is a love of ingredients and a sort of "hand-crafted-ness".
The Christmas goose my grandmother raised, my grandfather killed and butchered and my mother roasted.
The tortillas formed by my grandmother and warmed on a charcoal grill. I still remember (mind-taste?) the warm, salty, melted butter dripping down my forearms...
The coq au vin made by a friend in Dijon.
The Tom Kha Gai made by another friend in another place and time.
The stone-claw crabs I'd caught that morning, boiled and served on the dock with fresh corn on the cob and cold beer.
etc etc etc
I see a lot of great (no doubt) "fancy" menu ideas here. But I wonder how many would be truly "impressive".
As hotoynoodle implied, the setting is almost as important as the food.
If there's lobster tail anywhere in the meal and chocolate in the dessert, I'm beyond happy. No leafy-green salads for me, thanks -- too messy to eat (which is saying a lot, since I'm OK with lobster...)
Do these couples know each other? Are all of them "into" wine? Take care to have interesting N/A beverage(s) for each course, too.
Get the most wonderful local ingredient you can. I don't know where you live, but on the West Coast you want fresh Dungenes crabs, served cracked with tools and with some stuff to dip in (mayo, ketchup, lemon, horseradish, Tabasco-everybody mixes it for himself) razor clams simply fried (a very rare treat now), served with old fashioned tartar sauce. A great big pile of asparagus, if that's in season, roasted with olive oil and a little sea salt. The idea of some kind of gourmet experience is silly. You think you can equal the stuff they have eaten in restaurants around the world? Forget it. Fresh, Delicious, Local, Simply cooked.
I love making paella for a crowd. It always looks beautiful, tastes great, and really doesn't need much accompaniment beyond a crusty bread and perhaps a salad.
There are essential differences between restaurant fine cooking and fine home cooking. The big one is that restaurants can and do prepare sauces that can take days and many sub sauces to make. Doing this for many people and many meals makes sense. It is really not practical for a single meal. I think elaborate dishes should be left to those chefs. For me, the best home cooking consists of the finest local ingredients prepared simply and well. Two of my out of the park hits served for dinners meant to impress was a grilled fresh whole salmon (not farmed) with a good salad and fresh home-made bread. I did a creme brulee for dessert. Another dinner centerpiece was a thick sirloin, so tasty that I kept slicing of little pieces to eat raw. That also was cooked on the grill. With meat that tasty there was no way not to have it be wonderful. The advantage of these meals is that it was the shopping that took the effort. The local supermarket was NOT the supplier. I had a chance to relax between the shopping and fixing the dinner. Preparation was simple and I got to enjoy the company enjoying my meal.Of course, the wines and cocktails were carefully selected and served.
Really. being yourself and being comfortable just being yourself is the most important ingredient.
Trying to impress someone always, without fail, comes off as trying to impress someone. Some people have a career trying to impress other people, a very sad way to live a life.
If and when you ever meet Geno0, you can be assured I am what I am. And you will eat my world famous lasagna, or ribs or whatever. You will eat what I am good at and what I am proud of, nothing less.
My go-to would center around braised short ribs. So easy to make these for a 10+ group. You can make them a day or two in advance and they will be better! If you can pull off good garlic mashed potatoes, it will be a triumph! Everyone just says OMG! SO GOOD! And it frees you up for other ideas for the other courses.
I would move the emphasis away from fancy techniques, or really expensive ingredients, because you're not going to be able to top what they've eaten elsewhere.
I would go for something that emphasizes whatever is local and fresh where you are, and given the time of year, there should be good options.
For example, if I were in my home town, I'd go with fresh sockeye salmon, either grilled or, if I can get my hands on the right sized fish, stuffed and barbecued whole with my Dad's special stuffing recipe. Roasted new potatoes with butter and herbs, fresh butter lettuce salad with vinegar cream dressing, a salad of local, vine ripened tomatoes, roasted corn salad made with local sweet corn. A light, summery white wine or a good local pale ale to accompany it. For dessert, homemade wild blackberry pie with vanilla ice cream, coffee and tea.
I definitely would agree with you on staying away from unfamiliar techniques and ingredients. Nor am I looking to match the culinary skills of top chefs. I guess my goal of the evening is for people to leave with a feeling of: Wow, that was a great, enjoyable meal that a lot of love went into....
I love your ideas and the fresh, local, seasonal themes are definitely coming across loud and clear in the thread.
Any chance you'd care to share your Dad's special stuffing recipe?
UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for all the input. The dinner ended up getting cancelled (well, it changed from a home-cooked dinner to dinner out), but the exercise in thinking this through was helpful!