Dinner Parties—No

Dinner Parties aren’t a kitchen foot-race, way to impress friends, something undertaken as marital duty, a stage to display family silver or repay social debits, a freakish tilt toward culinary kung-fu menu-of-the-month ordeals, or a red badge of courage as you’re buried under mountainous dishes, battered pots, burned kitchen towels and splattered cloths.

Dinner Parties—Yes

Dinner Parties celebrate life, deepen friendships, stimulate storytelling, encourage “We-versus-I” behavior, intensify all the senses, provide a perfect stage for making new friends, become a welcomed refuge from the disheartening cascade of international events and high-pressure day-to-day living foretelling oncoming illness and the loss of old friends, and so they’re a momentary pause as we linger around the table, our little band, celebrating the brightness of being together.

A Note on Menu Planning

A few years ago, an investment banker from Boulder spent a week at my Napa Valley cooking school. He had fallen madly in love with cooking and cooked every night for his wife and three daughters. But menu planning was his Achilles heel. “Timing is a big problem.” “Sometimes everything tastes similar.” “There’s always so much food left over.” Here is my answer to him:

The more dishes that can be served cold or at room temperature, the fewer the timing problems. This is especially helpful when choosing appetizers.

The most exciting menus feature diverse flavors, textures and colors. If curry is used to season an appetizer, it shouldn’t be used elsewhere. If shrimp is featured as the entrée, then resist temptations to serve your famous Chilled Jumbo Shrimp Appetizer. I’m a ginger fanatic, but it doesn’t show much imagination using this multiple times in a menu.

Meat as the entrée solves many timing problems. Meat coming off the barbecue or out of the oven can be left at room temperature for up to 30 minutes. Placed on hot dinner plates and garnished with a sauce, dinner guests will perceive the meat as “piping hot.” Meat can wait for the carrots or the asparagus or the risotto, but never the other way around. So play it safe. Choose a meat entrée and err on having it done a little early.

Timing is what makes fish so tricky to serve as an entrée. Fish requires perfect cooking and immediate service. If serving fish as the entrée, choose side dishes that can be kept warm or served at room temperature such as rice pilaf with grilled vegetables.

Restaurant chefs are great at multitasking. My nephew, John McDonald, could crack 4 eggs simultaneously while flipping an omelet with the other hand. But for the rest of us having to complete two last-minute cooking tasks at the same time can lead to a massive brain seizure. Plan the entrée and its surrounding dishes with culinary brain seizures in mind.

In the early years of my cooking, I always second-guessed the serving size recommended by cookbooks. Inevitably, I had “way more” food and was “way more” tired from prepping unnecessarily large amounts. On some occasions when cooking a dinner party for 8, I’d have enough food to serve all of Santa Barbara. Don’t doubt the recommended serving size provided in this book. These recipes are based on 35 years of giving dinner parties. Just trust me!

Two Appetizer Recipes

Marinated Goat Cheese with Garlic and Basil

(serves 8)

It’s the infused oil that gives this goat cheese an intense and exciting flavor. The marinated goat cheese is also very good used as a filling for the center stalks of celery or inside Belgium endive cups. In terms of technique, since goat cheese tears easily, cut the goat cheese with dental floss rather than a knife.

  • 12 1-ounce logs of soft goat cheese, about 1 inch in diameter, chilled
  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon whole pepper corns, “tricolor” mixture
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1/3 cup slivered fresh basil or mint leaves, or cilantro springs
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange skin
  • 30 of your favorite crackers or Belgium endive leaves

Using dental floss, cut the goat cheese into 1/2-inch thick slices. Place slices in a single layer in a Pyrex pie plate or baking dish. In a small saucepan, combine the oil and peppercorns. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, basil and orange. Place the saucepan over medium-high heat and cook until the peppercorns begin to “pop,” about 2 minutes. Immediately stir in the garlic mixture. After 5 seconds of stirring, pour the hot oil mixture over the cheese. Can be completed to this point up to 48 hours before serving with all food refrigerated.

To serve: When the cheese is chilled, transfer the cheese to a decorative plate. Pour the oil over the top. Serve at room temperature or chilled with crackers or Belgium endive leaves.

Baby Red Potatoes Stuffed with Cheese and Garlic

(serves 8)

One of the most gifted chefs in Napa Valley is Kelley Novak, and this is her recipe. It is an utterly delicious way to begin a dinner party. Kelley uses Asiago cheese, but you can substitute any hard, flavor-packed cheese, such as cheddar, pecorino, dry jack or Reggiano parmesano.

  • 20 tiny red potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup aged Asiago cheese, grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons minced chives

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Rub potatoes with olive oil and roast in the oven until tender when prodded with a fork, about 40 minutes. In a bowl, combine the garlic, mayonnaise, cheese, cayenne and chives. Mix well. When potatoes have cooled to room temperature, using a paring knife, cut a hole in the top of each potato and remove about 1/3 of the potato. Fill the hollow with the garlic-cheese mixture. Can be done to this point up to 24 hours before serving with all food refrigerated.

To serve: Bake in a 350-degree oven until browned on top, about 12 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.