Before we begin, we must give a huge thanks to all of the friends, family and readers who have voted us through the preceding two rounds of Project Food Blog. As soon as we found out that we’d advanced to round 3 of the competition, we immediately started planning an attack. Actually, we started planning a few days before the announcement…just to be safe. The challenge was to create a luxury dinner party that titillated the taste buds and explored new flavors and ingredients. We love to do both, so it would be nothing but an exciting challenge to say the least. We had also just glided into our favorite month of the entire year–October. Taking advantage of the season and its harvest would be the main goal. This dinner party would be the best way to highlight autumnal flavors with friends, which is right up our alley.
We decided to keep the party small with just a group of four. The menu that we had in mind would be pricier than most meals we normally prepare, so our goal was to be budget-oriented yet classy. A couple of days before the announcement of advancement, we had our menu finalized. We wanted to showcase a cornucopia of our favorite foods with light appetizers, a hearty main dish, two unique sides and a cool, creamy dessert. Although we are well into the fall according to the calendar, it has been unusually (and somewhat unbearably) hot here in Los Angeles. For that reason, we decided to keep the menu full of seasonal fruits and vegetables, so the entire eating experience would not be too heavy.
Most of our dinner parties are very casual and relaxed. This time, we had to interpret what luxury meant to us. Well, it means expensive, opulent, sumptuous. Although we love the assumed meaning of luxury, in reality the idea is very subjective. We decided to define it as it works for ourselves–foods that we do not eat on a daily basis presented in a chic fashion. Amir chose to host this time as he has the grill necessary for our appetizer and a wide, roomy dining table. In order to spruce up the presentation, we grabbed round place mats, striped cloth napkins and golden plate chargers to add a bit of fall splash to a black table. A low vase with fresh flowers and simple, floating tea lights sat in the middle of the table to attract the eye. Previously printed menu cards draped each place setting, so guests would know exactly what was for dinner.
If there is anything we know how to do, it’s have fun in the kitchen. The morning of the dinner proved to be full of foils and mishaps, including hard to find ingredients, a scratched car and having to drive all over town to grab decorations. We also printed our menus before making a last minute change to the occasion. We decided to wrap the seafood in proscuitto instead of bacon, which was a better plan anyways. Five hours before the start of the party, we tag teamed in the kitchen to cook sauces, roast veggies, churn gelati, bake crackers and croutons, marinate lamb and wrap seafood. As we worked, we turned up the music, poured a couple of glasses of wine and snacked our way through the process.
The final meal came together easily. Our seafood bites went straight from grill to plate with a drizzle of tangy sauce. As Foodbuzz Featured Publishers, we received a voucher for Nature’s Pride bread and decided to use it for a layered “trifle” salad. Lamb was carved and placed over a serving of blended cauliflower and fennel with sweetened, cumin-laced vegetables on the side. Finally, the dessert round of gelati and crisp, gingered crackers. Along the way, we kept glasses full of Sterling Vineyards Meritage 2006 and refreshing cucumber lime water. We nibbled, noshed, sipped and chatted our way through the evening until we couldn’t eat anymore.
Over time, we’ve learned a few things that have proved helpful for our dinner parties:
Plan your menu efficiently and cost-effectively. Base it around what’s in your pantry, fridge or freezer, then go from there. Play with techniques and ingredients you know will work or have worked before and use that as a foundation to explore new recipes. Some say that you should never test a brand new recipe for a dinner party, but if you start with methods and flavors that are familiar to you, it’s hard to go wrong.
Pre-prep is the key. We always spend a couple of days going over our menu, drafting recipes and assigning shopping trips. Anything that can be made one or two days ahead of time is done in advance, so we are not rushing on the day of the party. Plus, for certain foods like marinated meats, doughs and dressings, this extra time allows the flavors to marry.
Never feel boxed in to someone else’s rules. Our challenge was to create a luxurious dinner occasion featuring exotic flavors and new ingredients. Luxury and exoticism are relative based your interpretation of the words. We enjoy stepping outside of the box and rising to the challenge.
Be mindful of your guests. Most of our friends are unfamiliar with all of the foods that we enjoy eating. Sometimes they are hesitant to try new ingredients. We love to introduce them to fresh vegetables and herbs and show them new ways to work with foods, but we do not want to scare them with words they cannot pronounce. It’s best to push the comfort level of your guests as far as you can without intimidating them.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. As a host, you never want to spend the entire party in the kitchen. People came not only to eat, but to enjoy your presence. If someone asks to help, give them a job! Guests like to be involved, so have them set the table, light the candles, peel a carrot or pop ice into glasses. You can cut your to-do list in half and chat with your friends as you work.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Like Murphy’s Law suggests, something will go wrong. You will be missing an ingredient, your cake may not rise, your croutons may burn. Relax, breathe, sip your wine and move along. If you keep your cool, you’ll be able to think straight, come up with a back up plan and forge ahead.
If we could host a dinner party for friends every week, we would do it in a heart beat. It allows us to spend time with good people and share something that we enjoy. Each and every dinner feels like a mini celebration of life, love and all those other good things. All it takes is a little planning, and you can have a luxuriously delicious dinner party whenever you want. Bon appetit friends!
This is our third entry for the Project Food Blog competition. Voting opens Monday, October 4th through Thursday, October 7th. Please consider casting your vote for us again! We hope to show you what’s up our sleeves for the fourth challenge. Until then, enjoy these recipes from the party.
Mini Roasted Vegetable Panzanella “Trifles” – Serves 4
5 slices Nature’s Pride 100% Whole Wheat bread, 1/2” cubes
1 tablespoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 large butternut squash, cubed
1 red onion, diced
2 zucchini, sliced and quartered
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1 cup white mushrooms, quartered
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces anchovy fillets, drained
3 tablespoons rosemary
1 lemon, zest and juice
3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1. Melt the butter over medium high heat in a shallow pan along with the garlic powder. Once melted, add the bread and toss until coated in butter. Slide onto a baking sheet into a preheated oven at 400 degrees, and bake for 7-9 minutes or until golden brown. Flip once during baking. Remove from oven and set aside to cool completely.
2. Toss the vegetables in the salt and pepper and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Bake in the preheated oven at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until browned and soft.
3. As the vegetables roast, make the sauce. Place the remaining olive oil, anchovies, rosemary, lemon zest and juice, garlic and Greek yogurt in a food processor. Blend until smooth.
4. For individual servings, layer the salad starting with croutons, dressing then vegetables. Save a few croutons to top each trifle and drizzle with extra dressing if desired.
Proscuitto Wrapped Seafood Bites with Pomegranate Balsamic – Serves 4
12 small calamari rings
12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
12 bay scallops
1 persimmons, cut into 12 slices
6 strips proscuitto, halved lengthwise
12 large basil leaves
1/3 cup pomegranate molasses
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Toothpicks, soaked in water
1. Set the pomegranate molasses, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, olive oil and salt over medium heat in a shallow pan. Stir well and cook until the sauce reduces and thickens slightly, approximately 10-15 minutes.
2. On a flat surface, lay down a piece of proscuitto with basil on top. Put one piece of calamari and one shrimp on top, then roll up tightly. Place a scallop on top and spear through to close. Repeat with remaining seafood.
3. Set a gas grill to medium high heat. Once hot, lay the seafood bites on the grates and cook until the scallops are opaque, turning once.
4. Serve drizzled with the warm pomegranate balsamic sauce.
Dijon Crusted Rack of Lamb with Champagne Grape Reduction – Serves 8
32 ounces lamb racks
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
6 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
10 cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
2 cups champagne grapes
1/4 cup port wine
1/2 cup red wine
1. In a large bowl, whisk together the fennel seed, brown sugar, Dijon mustard, rosemary, salt and pepper. Set the lamb racks in the bowl and coat them completely with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate at least four hours or up to overnight.
2. When ready, heat a bit of olive oil in a shallow pan. Once hot, brown the lamb racks on both sides, then set into a roasting pan, interlocking the bones. (Save the pan used to sear the lamb.) Bake in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for 6-8 minutes, then turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake another 6-8 minutes for medium to medium well.
3. As the lamb cooks, swirl a bit more olive oil into the pan used to sear the lamb and set over medium high heat. Once sizzling, add the grapes and cook approximately 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and turn down the heat to medium. Mash the grapes with the back of a spoon to break them up. Pour in the wine and stir well. Cook the sauce until it reduces and thickens a bit and the grapes wilt, approximately 7-9 minutes.
4. Carefully remove the lamb, cover with foil and allow to rest in the pan for 5-10 minutes. Carve the lamb and serve with the grape reduction.
Brown Butter Cauliflower and Fennel Mash – Serves 6
1/2 large head cauliflower, florets only
1 bulb fennel, sliced
3 cloves garlic, whole
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup cream
6 ounces mascarpone
1/4 cup grated asiago cheese
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1. Toss the cauliflower, fennel and garlic with a bit of olive oil, white pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Roast in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until soft.
2. Set the butter into a shallow pan over medium low heat and cook, swirling often, until foamy and brown, approximately 3-5 minutes. Set aside.
3. Place the hot vegetables into a food processor and blend with the remaining salt, cream, mascarpone, asiago cheese and brown butter. Serve immediately.
Candied Carrots, Parsnips and Turnips – Serves 4
4 parsnips, bias cut into 1/2″ pieces
2 turnips, bias cut into 1/2″ pieces
4 carrots, bias cut into 1/2″ pieces
8 radishes, halved
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
Zest and juice of 1/2 orange
1 tablespoon bourbon
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1. Toss the parsnips, turnips, carrots and radish halves with the salt, pepper and olive oil. Roast in a preheated oven at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until soft.
2. As the veggies roast, stir the butter, brown sugar, orange zest and juice, bourbon, cinnamon and cumin together. Cook over medium high heat until the sugar is melted completely and the mixture bubbles slightly, approximately 5-7 minutes.
3. Stir the vegetables into the brown sugar mixture and toss well. Serve while hot.
Spiced Chocolate Gelato – Serves 8 (adapted from one of our favorites, Ina Garten)
7 ounces 72% dark chocolate, finely chopped
3/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Pinch of kosher salt
Zest of 1 orange
4 egg yolks
2 1/4 cups whole milk
1/3 cup half-and-half
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons Kahlua
1. Set the chocolate to melt in a double boiler or a heat-resistant pot set over another pot of simmering water.
2. In a food processor, blend the sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cayenne, salt and orange zest until well mixed.
3. Bring the milk, half-and-half, vanilla and Kahlua to a simmer in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add 1/2 cup of the sugar mixture and stir well, making sure the grains fully dissolve. Remove the pot from the flame and whisk in the melted chocolate. Set aside to cool slightly.
4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks with the remaining sugar with an electric mixer on high speed until the yolks are pale yellow, light and fluffy, approximately 3-5 minutes.
5. Pour in 1/3 of the liquid chocolate and slowly stir it into the eggs. Add the remaining chocolate and mix until smooth.
6. Pour the chocolate back into the sauce pan over medium low heat and cook until it reaches 170-175 degrees, but do not let it boil. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, approximately 40-60 minutes. Pour into a bowl, cover and chill at least four hours or up to overnight.
7. Once chilled, pour into the frozen base of an ice cream maker and churn 20-25 minutes or until it reaches your desired preference of consistency. Eat right away or freeze for 2-4 hours for easy scooping.
Pear Guava Gelato – Serves 8 (flipped around from MyRecipes)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
16 mint leaves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon thyme
6 large pears, peeled and chopped
Juice of 2 limes
2 cups guava nectar
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1. Mix the sugar and water together in a small pot over medium high heat until the sugar has dissolved. Add the mint and thyme and set aside to cool completely.
2. Place the pears, lime juice and infused simple syrup in a food processor, blending until smooth. Pour into a large mixing bowl and stir in the guava nectar and half-and-half. Cover and chill at least two hours or up to overnight.
3. Once chilled, pour the liquid into the frozen base of an ice cream maker and churn 20-25 minutes or until the consistency reaches your desired preference. Serve immediately or pop into the freezer for 2-4 hours to harden slightly for scooping.
Sugared Ginger Crackers – Approximately two dozen
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
Zest of 1/2 lemon
4 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 cup sugar
1. Cream the butter, ginger and lemon zest until light and fluffy, approximately 2-3 minutes. Add the vanilla and mix well.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, salt and ground ginger. Add to the butter mixture and stir until combined.
3. Divide the dough into two balls, wrap each one in plastic wrap, flatten with the palm of your hand and chill for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
4. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to approximately 1/4″ thick. Cut desired shapes with knife or cookie cutter. Press both sides of the cracker into the sugar, then lay each one on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 for 9-12 minutes or until golden brown.
Click HERE for the printable recipes.