Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Part I: Be a Guest at Your Own Dinner Party


That’s right, you're coming to your next dinner party. No more hiding out in the kitchen sweating and cursing between courses, falling all over yourself to make things perfect. The only person who even approaches perfection is Martha Stewart and we all know about the army of secret little helpers she employs. The truth is, it’s surprisingly easy to have a relatively stress-free dinner party, without dealing with outrageously expensive caterers and to-go gourmet take out. Just remember, food is your friend and shortcuts and not only welcome, they are mandatory.

First of all, you want to do as much in advance as you can and you should begin with a clean house. Hire people, bribe your children, beg your significant other. It doesn’t matter how it gets done, it just needs to be done before you begin cooking the day of the event. Why? Because as soon as you start to cook, the magic pair of eyes in the back of your head will notice the mound of cat hair swaying in the corner above the air vent, the streaks of toothpaste in the bathroom sink, not to mention the dust covering all visible items in your dwelling. You don’t have to sanitize the whole place, just give it the appearance of being clean. The alcohol you will be serving will make up for any cleaning oversights.

Next, you want to set the table. Get it done, get it out of the way. It seems like an innocuous detail; however, if you do it early, you will usually discover (with plenty of time to take action) that the linen napkins from the last dinner party still need to be washed. Or that someone in the family stuck one of the good plates under the African Violets to catch the extra water. Once the table is set you can begin.

But wait! You need a menu. Have you asked your guests if they have any weird food issues? I’m not speaking of eating disorders, you will be serving as a chef, not a psychiatrist. Ask your guests if they have any food allergies or strong dislikes, and most importantly are they omnivore, carnivore or "veggievore". It’s best if you can coordinate like-minded eaters for the same evening, but alas you could be charged with food discrimination. We just won’t go there. In this Part I of the dinner party series, a carnivore menu will be presented (that will serve 6). Should you have to invite veggie folk to partake before Part II comes out, there will be plenty of non-animal choices in this menu, you just might want to double the amounts.

Let’s begin with appetizers and hors d’oeuvres. The terminology is your choice. The definition of an appetizer is "a food or drink that stimulates the appetite and is usually served before a meal". The dictionary sites an hors d’oeuvre as "any of various savory foods usually served as appetizers." Redundant yes, but its all in the accent - it depends on the mood you’re going for and the following suggestions fall under both categories.

We’ll start with some nuts. Not nuts out of a jar or can. This is a dinner party, not a fraternity party. It’s easy. This recipe can be made a few days ahead, just keep the nuts in an airtight container or jar and out of the reach of anyone you live with because they are devilishly delicious. I suggest doubling it for the aforementioned reason.

Savory & Spicy Nuts

* 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
* 1 tsp thyme (dried)
* 1 tsp salt
* 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
* 2 cups assorted nuts - preferably almonds, walnuts, pecans

Preheat oven to 350° F

Whisk together oil, salt and spices in a large bowl. Add the nuts and toss in the oil mixture. Spread nuts on a cookie sheet covered with a piece of parchment paper - spread them out well. Cook 10 minutes, rotate nuts and cook 5 - 10 minutes more until they are golden brown. Pull them out quickly or the nuts will burn. Let cool and store in airtight jar or container.

You’ll want to serve something wet with these nuts (besides the wine or hard liquor you’ve already pushed upon your guests as soon as they walk through the door). By wet, I mean a contrast to the savory and crunchy nuts. One option would be bowls of herbed olives and bowls of ripe green and red grapes. The grapes are easy and cut through the salt of the olives and the nuts. The olives can also be made a few days in advance. I must take a moment to confess that the olive recipe comes from Martha Stewart. I know how some of you feel about her, but you have to admit most of her recipes are terrific -except for the ones that require you to fly first class to Zimbabwe to retrieve a freshly laid ostrich egg for a beluga and truffle oil omelette. This recipe is adapted from her book Martha Stewart’s Hors D’Oeuvres Handbook which is long on food pornography (over 200 pages of sumptuous photos) and short on easy recipes. The book of hers to get is Martha Stewart’s Healthy Quick Cook. It is one of my standbys. Each recipe is only about six inches long with no more than five steps. It’s laid out by season with full menus that really make sense - an excellent reference for dinner party menus that are easy and healthy and delicious. But, I digress.

Spicy Olives

* 1 lb green and black olives (any variety will do as long as they are of good quality)
* 1 tsp white wine vinegar
* 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
* 2 TBS chopped sun dried tomatoes
* 4 cloves garlic, crushed
* 1 tsp oregano, dried ( or 3 TBS fresh)

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and coat thoroughly. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate overnight up to two days. Serve at room temperature.

I like to begin the dinner part of my dinner parties with soup. In any season, it’s a great way to start a meal. Since we’re in summer, I’m going to offer up one of my favorite cold soup recipes that involve utilizing all those tomatoes you have lying around from your or your neighbor's garden. You can also make gazpacho or vichyssoise. As long as it’s cold and can be made a day or so in advance. Even if you make this first thing in the morning, all it has to do is sit in the refrigerator and wait for you like an obedient pet.

Curried Tomato Soup

* 10 medium sized ripe tomatoes (any variety except for cherry will do), cored removed and cut into chunks
* 1 1/2 cup plain yogurt
* 2 tsp curry powder
* 1/8 tsp cayenne (or to taste) - optional
* 2 cups cilantro, chopped fine (fresh basil works just as nicely)
* Salt to taste

In a food processor or blender, purée the tomatoes and then strain through a fine sieve into a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir well to combine. Cover and leave in refrigerator up to one day. Serve cold.

The main course does not have to be a nail biter, but it has to be delicious and impressive (yet no bones should be broken in the process). Since we’re approaching the end of summer, I always opt for grilling around this time, for two reasons. First and most importantly, is the issue of cleanup. The less dishes the better and there is no easier way to make lots of food with a minimal amount of mess. The steak marinates in a Ziploc bag overnight and that’s it. The second reason is breathing space. People always tend to congregate around the food preparation area, and if its outside, you’ll have space to clear soup bowls and finish up dessert or clean out the catbox like you were supposed to do that morning. The following main course is all done on the grill: Soy Marinated Flank Steak, Grilled Parmesan Polenta, Grilled Summer Vegetables. Begin by grilling the polenta and vegetables and keep them warm in the oven (which you will need to have on for the Fruit Crisp) and finish with the steak.

Grilled Parmesan Polenta

* 4 cups water or stock
* 1 cup polenta (aka medium grind cornmeal)
* 1 tsp salt
* 1/4 - 1/2 grated Parmesan cheese
* 2 TBS extra virgin olive oil

Boil water on high heat with salt - bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and add polenta, stirring constantly with a whisk or spoon until all liquid is gone - this should take 10 to 15 minutes. Turn off heat and stir in cheese and oil. Season with pepper and more salt if necessary. Before it cools too much, spread the polenta in a thin and even layer on a clean baking sheet or into a slightly oiled pie plate. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or at least until it is firm. Before you are ready to grill, cut into nice size pieces, spray with a small amount of oil and then grill until heated all the way through. Keep warm in a 250° F oven.

Grilled Summer Vegetables

* 5 Peppers - Orange, Red or Yellow
* 1 large Eggplants
* 3 zucchini
* 2 summer Squash (the yellow ones)
* 1 cup fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, chives, Italian parsley - whichever you can find)

You can use any vegetable you’d like - the object is to cut them into large enough pieces to thread through a skewer so they don’t fall through the grill. About 3" chunks work nicely. Thread each skewer (if you’re using wood, soak in water for about an hour before you grill so they don’t go up in flames) with the same vegetable. We are not making kebabs folks so you don’t have to coordinate colors. Brush each skewer with a small amount of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill until the vegetables are cooked through but not charred. Transfer to a bowl and keep warm in the oven with the polenta. Toss with the fresh herbs before serving.

Soy Marinated Flank Steak

* 2 - 2 1/2 lb flank steak
* 1/4 cup soy sauce (or Tamari or Shoyu)
* 2 TBS dry Sherry
* 3 garlic cloves, chopped fine.

Place the steak in a zip lock bag. Add remaining ingredients. Seal well. Marinate overnight or at least up to 6 hours, turning the bag over a few times to insure complete saturation of the meat. Grill approximately 4-6 minutes per side, depending on preferences. Let steak sit a few minutes. Cut into thin slices, going across the grain.

While everyone is singing your praises and proclaiming you the ultimate food God or Goddess, you modestly slip into the kitchen to finish the prep for dessert. The fruit crisp can be made in the morning or early afternoon before everyone arrives, but it only takes about 15 minutes if you want to show off in front of your friends. It is best served with vanilla ice-cream or vanilla frozen yogurt, which you can buy unless you have your own ice-cream making machine and love spending vast amounts of time in your kitchen.

Fruit Crisp

* 2 cups assorted fresh berries (Raspberries, blueberries, blackberries work best - strawberries tend to get mushy), washed and dried
* 3 large nectarines, sliced
* 3 large peaches, sliced
* 1/4 cup maple syrup
* 2 Tbs lemon juice
* 1 cup oatmeal
* 6 Tbs sugar
* 3 Tbs Flour
* 3/4 cup pecans, walnuts, almonds (in any combination), chopped
* pinch salt
* 3 Tbs cold butter, cut into pieces
* 1 pint vanilla yogurt or ice cream
* fresh mint

Preheat oven to 400° F

Combine fruit in large bowl. Stir in maple syrup and lemon juice. Transfer to baking dish. In another bowl combine oatmeal, sugar, flower, nuts and salt. Cut butter into mixture (using two steak or butter knives) until it resembles course crumbs. Spoon the oatmeal mixture on top of the fruit. Bake for 10 minutes then reduce heat to 350° F for 20 to 25 minutes until the fruit is bubbling and topping is crisp. Serve with vanilla ice cream or yogurt and fresh sprigs of mint.

Eureka. It’s over. It was fabulous. It was easy. You didn’t spend half the evening dripping sweat into a big pot of whatever. The more you do ahead of time the less you’ll have to do during dinner.

You’ll actually be able to sit down and enjoy your company and enjoy the food. What a concept.