Saturday, June 27, 2009

good friends and a good time

Last night, Mac and I had some friends over for dinner because I got it into my head to try some new recipes, and when I described my menu idea to Mac we decided it was too much food for just two people, so we got on the horn and invited some friends over. Also: inviting people over is a great incentive to clean your house, just in case you’re not one of those people who keeps the house spotless all the time. And we’re not.

The Party:
Me, Mac, Anna, Ted, Dre

The Menu:
Crostini with caramelized shallots and a garlic-white bean spread
Bibb salad
Linguine with heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese
Lemon Parmesan Chicken
Raspberries & Chocolate on vanilla bean ice cream
White wine and sparkling water (I think serving a non-alcoholic option that’s a little fancier, like sparkling water or Italian soda, is a nice, thoughtful touch for your friends who don’t or can’t drink alcohol.)

The Inspiration:
The menu was inspired by the June/July issue of Every Day with Rachael Ray, a recent episode of Giada at Home, a recent meal at Pizzeria Mozza, and my friend Alison who is a phenomenal cook. I picked up the magazine because it boasted 422 recipes & tips, including recipes for burgers and ice cream—great for someone who hosts a lot of barbecues and just discovered the joys of her fabulous homemade ice cream maker. As I was reading it, I kept coming back to this gorgeous picture of this linguine pasta dish, and it reminded me that I have TONS of whole wheat pasta in the cupboard that I can cook up. I enjoy all things Giada de Laurentiis anyway, and her Bibb Salad recipe looked super easy, refreshing and delicious, and I thought the fresh herbs in the salad and the fresh herbs in the pasta would pair together really well.

The chicken dish falls under the heading of “recipes I’ve had FOREVER and just wanted to try.” Probably the meal could have been fine with just the pasta and salad, but when I initially designed the menu I thought our friend Allistair would be joining us as well, in which case I knew that the three man-sized men at my table would need some protein on their plates. I thought chicken would go well with the pasta and salad, and I wanted something EASY, as in “chuck it in the oven and forget about it til the buzzer rings.” As soon as I remembered “Alison’s Chicken!!” I knew my menu was done.

As for dessert, I have learned the hard way that sometimes over-achievers like me have a tendency to bite off way more than we can chew (so to speak), and looking at the rest of the menu I already suspected it was all maybe a bit much. But like most humans I like sweet bite at the end of the meal. So I needed something I could just put in a bowl and serve, and couldn’t think of anything more delicious or simple than fresh, in-season raspberries accompanied with some dark chocolate. I added the ice cream at the last minute while at the store, because I didn’t want to risk having a pregnant friend at my house who needed ice cream and no ice cream in the freezer. Quelle horreur.

The results:
The crostini turned out delicious! I’m so pleased at my success at caramelizing the shallots (and onions I threw in the pan when I decided the shallots weren’t enough). My chef friend Glen had given me excellent advice on how to caramelize, and then I found a video on YouTube to remind me how it’s done. I decided to add a little bit of balsamic vinegar to my pan when they were done softening up & browning because I wanted a darker color, and the resulting flavor was AWESOME. The number one thing to know about caramelizing onions or shallots, is Low and Slow. You get the best results on medium-low heat over about 30 – 40 minutes—it’s not a quicky endeavor.

As for the rest of the crostini, here’s what I did: I sliced half of one of those long, skinny baguettes, arranged the ½ inch slices on a baking sheet and drizzled with olive oil before popping into a 375 degree oven for about 12 minutes to toast up. I then followed the directions for the white bean dip/spread in this recipe, which takes about 10 minutes from start to finish, then set the finished spread aside while I worked on my chicken, salad & pasta. About 15 minutes before people were expected to show up, I stopped what I was doing with my other dishes to assemble the crostini, which went: toast, a small pile of caramelized shallots, and a healthy shmear of white bean spread. I gave the first one to Mac to make sure it tasted okay, and after an enthusiastic thumbs up, went on to assemble the rest of them and put them out. That way, if my friends showed up and I was still cooking (which always happens) they’d have something to snack on while waiting for the main course. (Lesson learned for next time: use all shallots instead of shallots & onions, and a better bread for the toast.)

The salad was refreshing and amazing! I wasn’t sure what bits of fennel bulb to use or how big/small to slice it, so I think I need to see it done a few more times. I also only used HALF of Giada’s dressing. It turns out, a head of butter/bibb lettuce is not actually that much lettuce, so if I were doing this salad again for 4 – 6 people, I would use twice as much lettuce, same amount of fennel & herbs, and maybe still just half the dressing, or just enough to coat everything lightly. You just don’t need that much with all that basil, mint & fennel in your salad. Overall, this is a fantastic summer salad.

The chicken was PERFECT. ALISON. You are a culinary genius! We will be eating this again and again and again in this house. I wouldn't change a thing.

The pasta was also yummy, although I ended up making all kinds of changes as I went along. I used a 13 oz box of whole wheat linguine instead of a whole pound of pasta. I also couldn’t find heirloom tomatoes, but I did find smaller orange & yellow tomatoes to go with the red ones I found, so I still had all the fun colors I wanted. I also only used half the amount of goat cheese because I discovered at the last minute that’s all I had on hand, and you know what? Totally enough! Any more would be overpowering, I think. And all the herbs in the butter/white wine sauce were amazingly delicious, but you should know that they were kind of a pain to wash, prep, chop, etc. I ended up chopping herbs and tomatoes with my friends in the kitchen, which wasn’t the worst thing ever, but now that I know how time-consuming it is, I’ll do a bit more prep work in advance next time.

Dessert was divine, of course—fresh raspberries on vanilla bean ice cream with a little chocolate sauce—there’s no bad there. We ended up splitting a pint between five people, so it was just enough sweetness for everyone.

I think the timing of this evening worked out pretty well. I started caramelizing shallots around 5:45, our friends arrived around 7:20, and we sat down to eat around 7:45ish? I think? Once they showed up I lost track of time, which is the sign of good friends and a good time, I think. So we’ll say it was about two hours of prepping and cooking for a long, relaxed evening of good food and fun. Totally worth it. Also, I did not do all the preparations alone: Mac tidied up the kitchen, living room and dining room, and he also set the table, which was lovely.

For tunes I used my iTunes Genius to make a playlist for me, which is a super fast, easy way to create some ambiance without having to sweat over a playlist or selecting CDs, if you have the option. We’re fairly hi-tech in this joint, so we have the laptops connected to the stereo via airport, which means I can play my iTunes through the living room speakers. Last night I selected The Puppini Sisters’ cover of “Walk Like an Egyptian” as a starting point to generate a fun, jazzy and ultimately totally random playlist. At one point the iTunes Genius decided to go with Herbie Hancock, another it came up with Harry Belafonte—it was all over the map and totally fun.

I wouldn’t classify the whole evening as “easy entertaining,” though. More like “mostly easy” entertaining. A few changes and you’d have a much easier evening. Like, skip the chicken dish, and shred some lump crab from the deli or some pre-cooked (rotisserie?) chicken into the pasta to create a heartier entrĂ©e, serve the white bean dip with crackers & veggies, and do the salad with a bag of the lettuce of your choice as well—voila, you’ve just shaved an hour off your prep time. For a different menu, I would also serve the lemon parmesan chicken with my sister Matti’s Caesar Salad recipe, which is super easy and amazing, serve some bread with a little olive oil & vinegar as an appetizer, and again, you’re looking at about an hour of total prep/cooking time, and a totally delicious meal.

So.... my first dinner party recap. Feedback, questions?


XXX said...

Today is HOT and I like your dish

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad the chicken worked out so well. It is handy for entertaining, because you can just pop it in the oven and kind of forget about it. I baste every 15 minutes, but other than that, it's a hands-off dish.


Dinah said...

I basted it every 15 minutes as well. Which is to say I basted it twice during the cooking process. Seriously, very easy, flavorful dish!