About a month ago, two of my favorite people in the whole world ran off to a funky little motel in the Catskills and secretly eloped. (This place looks seriously cool! You can check out some of the wedding photos on the Roxbury facebook page.)
I was ecstatic when I heard the news. And then, almost instantly, my mind went into dinner party mode. If there were ever a perfect reason to throw a dinner party, this was it.
Don’t you just love the idea of a dinner party?? Good food, plentiful drinks, amazing company… I love every bit of it; planning the menu and decor, preparing the meal, presenting each course, coming up with a few special touches… It’s something that I wish we could do more frequently.
But with three little kids (including a teething four-month-old, who’s fully convinced that sleep is for suckers), it’s hard enough to get a simple macaroni and cheese dinner on the table on any given day of the week. The thought of preparing an elegant, five-course plated dinner for ten is a bit overwhelming even to consider. It can be done though. It just requires a little careful planning.
A carefully crafted menu is the most essential component of any successful dinner party (aside from your guest list, that is). For our feast, I wanted to use fresh, seasonal foods which would bridge the transition from summer to fall. In order to spread the preparation throughout the week and keep things as simple as possible during the party, I wanted to serve dishes which could be easily reheated without any loss of quality. And then the big thing… I wanted to be able to sit down to enjoy each course with my guests. I mean, who wants to spend the whole time in the kitchen while your guests are laughing at the table (and threatening to eat the cupcakes prematurely)?? My goal was to create a menu where each course could be effortlessly completed and served within ten minutes of the previous course.
Here’s what I came up with…
Sunrise Champagne Cocktail
Shrimp Cocktail Bruschetta on Toasted Baguette
Heirloom Tomato and Goat Cheese Tart in a Pine Nut Crust with Balsamic Reduction
Seared Scallops over Sweet Potato Bisque with Applewood-Smoked Bacon
Braised Beef Short Ribs in a Fig and Red Wine Reduction
Creamy Brie Mashed Potatoes
Pumpkin and Nutella Wedding Cupcakes with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
Aside from the anti-sleep demonstration, which my four-month-old staged throughout the entire party, the dinner went off without a hitch. Preparation between the courses was a cinch and everyone enjoyed the meal.
Interested in hosting your own simple and elegant dinner party? Here are a few little tips:
Start with a signature drink; something fun, unique, and fitting for the event. We were celebrating a wedding and what wedding celebration is complete without champagne?? My Sunrise Champagne Cocktail is a simple twist on a classic Bellini. Fill champagne glasses a little more than halfway with champagne. Top with passionfruit juice. Finally, drop about 1/2 teaspoon of grenadine into the glass. The grenadine will fall to the bottom and disperse, creating a beautiful layered color effect…an effect which happened to match the layered colors of the bride’s wedding dress. Coincidence? I think not.
As guests arrive and mingle, have some little hors d’oeuvres available. Keep ‘em light though. You don’t want your guests to overfill their bellies before dinner. And, you don’t want to be busy in the kitchen fussing over snacks as your guests are arriving, so keep it easy. The shrimp cocktail bruschetta I served during our party is an ideal option. It takes the concept of a tomato bruschetta on toasted baguette and combines it with chunks of fresh shrimp and the flavors of cocktail sauce. Simply arrange on a platter and set out for your guests to enjoy. You’ll be free to greet your guests and enjoy a cocktail as you focus on preparing the first plated dinner course.
For the first plated course, serve something cool or at room temperature. It will make it easier to get things started. I served the heirloom tomato and goat cheese tart I recently shared with you. You can prepare and freeze the crust a week or more ahead of time. It takes only a few minutes to finish the tart on the day of your party. Pop it in the oven just as your guests begin arriving. It will make your house smell delicious and will be ready in perfect time for the first course. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature with a drizzle of balsamic reduction.
Serve a soup as part of your second course. They’re easily reheated and offer a ton of options depending on the season. I served my seared scallops over sweet potato bisque with applewood smoked bacon. The bisque can be completely prepared a few days ahead of time. Refrigerate the bacon pieces and freeze the bisque to keep it fresh. During the party, you’ll only need to quickly sear the scallops and reheat the bisque and bacon before serving. Within 5 or 6 minutes, the second course will be ready to serve.
The main course should typically be the heaviest item on the menu. Try to plan something which gives you flexible timing. I served braised beef short ribs in a fig and red wine reduction. This dish is an ideal main course, since it actually does best when prepared a day ahead of time and can be reheated and held until you’re ready to serve. Preparing a day before allows the sauce to chill, making it easier to remove the excess fat which will rise to the surface. You can then adjust the seasoning of your sauce and slowly reheat the short ribs, keeping them hot and ready in the oven until it’s time to serve.
To keep things easy during the party, do whatever little preparations you can ahead of time. On the side of the short ribs, I serve creamy brie mashed potatoes, which can be fully prepared a day ahead of time, and roasted asparagus, which take only a few minutes in the oven. Get your asparagus ready for roasting by washing, cutting, and arranging on a baking sheet earlier in the day. Before roasting, toss in a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then simply pop them into the oven.
For dessert, serve something which can be made ahead of time and requires little or no preparation during the party. I served pumpkin-nutella cupcakes with cream cheese frosting. They made a beautiful centerpiece on the table and were ready to eat when the time came. This meant that I could sit back and relax once the short ribs were served…Well, I would have been able to sit back and relax if the aforementioned anti-sleep demonstration weren’t still underway. Alas, what can you do?? He’s lucky he’s so stinkin’ cute!
Recipes for the short ribs, creamy brie mashed potatoes, and cupcakes will be coming up soon! For now, let me whet your appetite with this simple and delicious shrimp cocktail bruschetta!
Shrimp Cocktail Bruschetta
- 6-8 plum tomatoes, seeds removed and finely chopped
- 2 cups shrimp, deveined, cooked, and chopped
- 3 green onions, chopped
- 3 teaspoons prepared horseradish
- 1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- Tabasco, to taste
- 1 French Baguette, sliced
- Olive Oil
Combine tomatoes, shrimp, green onions, horseradish, lemon juice, worcestershire sauce, salt, and tabasco. Adjust seasoning as desired. Refrigerate until serving. Brush the slices of baguette with olive oil. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake in a 375 degrees oven until lightly toasted. Serve shrimp bruschetta topping with toasted baguette slices.