[This is my entry for America’s Test Kitchen’s Food and Friends contest. You can see my guest post over at America’s Test Kitchen Feed!]
When I was an university student, throwing dinner party for friends was a simple matter of picking a Saturday without impending assignment deadlines, word of mouth invite to a few good friends, and a phone call to our favourite takeout restaurant. We did not have the fanciest food nor the swankiest decor but we always had a great time. Since those carefree days, I have immersed myself in many issues of glossy lifestyle magazines and countless cookbooks. My dinner parties have also evolved. Days of careful preparation creates elaborate multi-course menu with everything made from scratch. A militant schedule ensures every last detail gets taken care of. And of course a very stressful hostess who cannot enjoy the company of friends because of too much distraction in the kitchen. One can say I lost my way.
Hosting America’s Test Kitchen Food & Friends dinner party was exactly the lesson I needed to combine the best of both worlds. How could I turn down the promise of delicious meal from a carefully crafted menu while setting me free from too much time in the kitchen so I can once again enjoy my own party? I chose the Provencal Bistro Menu from the Menu Cookbook because of its combination of familiar dishes and new experiences. Classic French bistro dishes are well within my comfort zone. Meanwhile, chicken liver pâté is a store-bought staple that never occurs to me to make from scratch. The Game Plan assures me of a reasonable schedule with many make-ahead courses. I had a good feeling about this menu right from the start.
First thing first, invites! There are all kinds of advice on how to invite the right mix of people if you want to host a successful dinner party. Oh puh-lease! After a busy summer of inline speed skating races all over North America, all I want is to hang out with friends I didn’t get to see since winter. We all share a common love of good food. Although we keep up with each other’s food adventures through words and photos, it simply cannot replace the experience of sharing a meal together. I looked forward to welcoming my friends to my home.
Saffron Rouille and Chocolate Pots de Crème were the first dishes I checked off my list two days before the party. The rouille is similar to making mayonnaise with the addition of saffron, garlic, and some soaked bread pieces to help with emulsification. I never get tired of watching the simple combination of oil, egg yolks, and lemon juice whipping up to such voluptuous texture. The characteristic saffron hue only added to the allure of the rouille. The stove-top chocolate pots de crème recipe was simplified to rid of the fussy bain marie. I only wish I knew of this shortcut sooner to save me from much agony of lifting heavy roasting pans full of boiling water from the oven!
Once I got the easy dishes out of the way, I approached the Chicken Liver Pâté with trepidation. My biggest concern was overcooking the liver. Thankfully the directions of the recipe were clear and precise in typical America’s Test Kitchen fashion. The liver were seared and gently poached in butter and vermouth to rosy perfection. Not willing to leave well-enough alone, I decided to seal the pâté with some melted apple sage jelly to avoid discolouration. I smiled at my resourcefulness, outsmarting the team at Test Kitchen! Little did I know the mistake I made.
The big day arrived and I couldn’t stop checking the menu and the recipes. Once I washed, cut, and measured my ingredients for Chicken Bouillabaise and the Heirloom Lettuce Salad with Pears & Fennel, I felt unusually idle. Surely there were more things I needed to do, right? After re-reading the directions for the tenth time, I finally gave up and busied myself with setting the table, laying out the bar, filling vases with fresh flowers, and lighting candles all over the house. Oh the anticipation!
Exactly two hours before my friends arrived, I started browning the chicken pieces. I knew it would be a lengthy process so I set both my Dutch oven and sauté pan to work. It took me about an hour to brown everything. Good thing I didn’t leave it until the last minute. The chicken went into the oven soon after my friends rang the doorbell.
There were no shortage of cameras among our group as many of us met through food and photography. I was more than happy to leave the photography to my friends while I put the finishing touches to dinner. Our first course was Chicken Liver Pâté served with cornichons, baguette, and toasted homemade pain d'épices. Remember my apple jelly seal? Well, the pectin broke down and the pâté was swimming in syrup! So much for my smart idea. Nonetheless, the complementary sweetness of apple and warm spices in the toasty pain d'épices were tasty foil to the rich smooth pâté. Rather than disappointment at a failed experiment, friends and I wondered with genuine curiosity about the science behind how the pectin broke down. The evening was off to a good start.
I checked on the chicken but they were far from done despite reaching the recommended cooking time. I decided a little change of plan wouldn’t hurt. I collected the pears from our place settings and served them with our salad of Heirloom Lettuce with Pears & Fennel. We enjoyed the lilting taste of minty lemon vinaigrette. I thought it was pretty clever to get the pears to work double-duty!
It took multiple probes with the instant read thermometer but the chicken was finally close to done. One of my friends asked me what temperature I was aiming for and I replied back with “well, that depends on everyone’s comfort level”. Conversation quickly turned to meat doneness when cooking for a crowd. As food lovers, all of us abhor at the notion of overcooked tough leathery chews. We are no strangers to cooking for a group but when even one single person is uncomfortable with meat on the rare side, we tend to cook the meat a little more done than we would like and bury our teensy bit of disappointment in the kitchen. We agree that it is more important for everyone to enjoy the food but that doesn’t mean we don’t rejoice when given carte blanche to cook exactly the way we want to.
The Chicken Bouillabaise with Saffron Rouille was worth the wait. A quick blast under the broiler rendered the skin crispy and golden brown. The chicken were tender from braising in the fragrant saffron Pernod tomato broth. The potatoes, fennels, and leeks gave just enough body for the broth to be a hearty sip. Of course, I love to sop up every last drop of the broth with baguette toast slathered with rich saffron rouille. Let table manner take a holiday!
One small complaint is that the portion for the recipes aim for appetites much bigger than ours and we are a bunch of hearty eaters. With all the other dishes supplementing the main course, we would be quite happy with just one piece of chicken per person. Despite our bellies were about to burst, we soldiered on to dessert and cheese. After all, it’s Chocolate Pots de Crème garnished with billowy whipped cream! Everyone sprung into action to clear the table, brew the tea, plate the dessert, and set out the cheese course. But the award of most hard fought cup of coffee went to Zeek. He roasted a small batch of coffee beans just before the party. As soon as he opened the vacuum-sealed container, the aroma of coffee filled our senses. Unfortunately, my kitchen has absolutely nothing to grind the beans! We put our heads together and exhausted all possible options. Grinder? No. Mortar and pestle? No. Food processor? Not powerful enough. We wanted to give up but the promise of freshly brewed coffee was too tempting to ignore. Finally, Zeek asked me for a couple of heavy resealable plastic bags, a tea towel, a meat tenderizer, and this was what happened:
That’s right, he smashed the beans to smithereens by hand! We joked how this kind of resourcefulness reminded us of our poor student days when our kitchens were minimally equipped. With our aromatic cups of coffee and tea by our side, we dug in to dessert. The hint of espresso quietly deepened the chocolate taste. I served each pots de crème with a couple pieces of almond thins. The best part? Beneath its glamour is an easy-to-prepare and easy-to-serve dessert that is even easier to like. It is a great addition to the repertoire of any dinner party hostess.
What was most special about this party was how much I got to enjoy the evening and the company of good friends. I was relaxed, chatty, and truly part of the conversation around the dinner table. There were some running back and forth to the kitchen but for the most part, the heavy lifting were all done before the guests arrived. This is as much due to good planning as a menu that is not overly ambitious. The food was delicious, the cooking was fun, but the company was the best. Hosting a dinner party is not about having everything running perfectly just so. It's about laughing together when things don’t go smoothly and enjoying every moment when they do. Thank you America’s Test Kitchen for another useful publication. I look forward to hosting more dinner parties with the help of the Menu Cookbook!
Provencal Bistro Dinner
Chicken Liver Pâté with Cornichon & Toasted Pain d’Epices
Chicken Bouillabaise with Saffron Rouille
Heirloom Lettuce Salad with Pears & Fennel
Chocolate Pots de Crème