So here we are. Round 3 of Project Food Blog. I am amazed and slightly stunned to be here -- thank you all for voting for me. For this go-around, we were challenged to "...hold a party for your friends and family. Whether you're an experienced host or an entertaining newbie, get creative and host a luxurious dinner party where your guests will discover new tastes...". A luxury dinner party? I've helped host a few parties here and there, mostly bridal showers or the "hey why don't we have a few friends over for dinner tonight" type shebang, but never any type of dinner party that could be considered luxurious. I think the most "luxurious" I've ever been was for Easter last year with my parents -- and only because that involved busting out the china and making more than a main dish and one side dish.
What had I ever eaten that was truly luxurious? Ah (insert light bulb ding here), the time Adam and I accompanied his parents and his sister to The American in Kansas City. It was the only time I've ever had a seven-course meal of delicious gourmet food, which actually ended up turning into 13 courses with all the extra palate cleansers and "oh the chef wanted you to try this" goodies. That was it. That defines a luxury dinner to me -- one of those meals that you have every once in a blue moon, filled with good food, good people, lots of laughs, and is a true experience.
Well, 13 courses is definitely out of my league, but what about seven? Seven courses? Am I serious? Did I forget the size of my kitchen? I have a problem though. Once I come up with an idea that I like, I can't let it go. I refuse to give up on it. I dig my heels in and figure out a way to make things work. Which is what happened here. Seven courses of decadent fall food -- simple ingredients that many of us had tasted before, but mixed and matched in ways we may not have experienced. Thus, The Seven-Course Fall Feast was born.
Now, a seven-course meal is no simple undertaking, mind you. But it is totally achievable and within your grasp. Here is my handy-dandy guide for hosting your own seven-course-oh-my-what-did-I-get-myself-into dinner party:
How to Host a Seven-Course Dinner Party
Where do I even begin? I was completely lost on this at first, there are so many possibilities! The best way to start is to pick a theme. This could be as simple as focusing your courses around an ethnic cuisine, a single ingredient (channel your inner Iron Chef), or an event (such as a particular holiday). What you are really after here, is a nice cohesive flow to the meal. I based my food selection on seasonal ingredients. A quick search using my best bud Google found me an awesome link to in-season ingredients with corresponding dishes that allowed those ingredients to shine.
The big key to choosing your specific dishes should be based around practicality. Unless you have your own army of sous chefs and dish washers (your guests do not count), you need to make sure it is actually feasible to serve your dish during the course of the dinner. Things that take a long time and need constant babysitting should be kept far far away from your party. Aim for things that can be completely made ahead of time and rewarmed (such as the Chestnut Fennel Soup), or things that can be prepped almost to completion or take only a few minutes to put together (such as the Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Brown Butter).
Most people recommend that you never try anything new on guests for a dinner party. I say throw that rule out the window. I had never made any of these dishes prior to this party, and they all turned out. BUT. But. But. If you decide to throw out this sacred rule, DON'T go outside your comfort zone and use ingredients and techniques you have never seen before. That's a bad idea and can quickly lead you to trouble. While I was aiming for flavor combinations I haven't had before, I was familiar with the general ingredients and how they are to be handled, such baking chicken and pork (for how long and how hot). This allows you to be risky and try new dishes, yet still have the confidence to pull them off.
What about wine pairing? If you're like Adam and I (i.e. little experience in the way of matching wines and foods) find someone to consult, even if it's the manager working at the wine store. Chances are they might know a thing or two about their products. We ended up mixing it up with a bubbly white with the appetizers, soup, and salad, a pumpkin beer with the gnocchi, a drier white for the chicken, a Catawba with the pork, and a nice hard apple cider to finish out the cheesecake.
The Guest List
Simply put, be realistic. I have a small apartment. As much as I would love to throw a huge party for 30 people, it just isn't going to happen. Not here anyways. When this challenge was first approached we were required to have a minimum of four guests. Kind of problematic for someone with a dinner table that you can barely squeeze 4 people around. Eventually the requirement was changed to include yourself, but I had already bucked up and decided to go for the gusto and have a total of eight people. That's right. I rented a table and moved some furniture around. Wait, didn't I just say to be realistic? Actually, I was. Renting a table worked out in my favor as it freed up the kitchen table for prepping the dishes during the meal. However, I do have the room to accommodate a table to fit 8 people, so it works out. But if you don't have the room, don't do it. It's not fun being crammed in like sardines and elbowing the person next to you just going for a bite of food.
Who to invite? Invite those people who you know are going to appreciate what you're doing. It's not worth it to go through all the work only to have people not willing to try your food or have other places to be. And if you have to narrow it down, pick those friends or family you know get along or personalities would mesh well. Not exactly a pleasant dinner when your guests don't like each other.
The Planning - Food
This little piece of the puzzle is absolutely crucial to pulling of a successful dinner of this nature. So far we've planned the menu and invited the guests, let's get back to the food. What do you need? Write out a list of ingredients with the amounts needed, tweaking the recipe as you see fit or increasing or decreasing ingredient amounts to match the number of guests. Keep in mind that a recipe that serves 8 main courses is more than enough for 8 guests - you will not be serving a full/normal portion size during a seven-course meal. Check what kind of cookware and dishes you will need during the party. Do you have enough frying pans? Do you have enough dinner plates? My goal was to not wash dishes during the meal, which may make for a messy kitchen, but far more time spent with guests (along with the fact they won't be jumping up to try and help you clean). I had to rent additional sets of dinner plates, salad plates, dessert plates, and wine glasses due to my refuse-to-clean mentality. Write down every single pot, pan, fork, glass, etc. that you will need for each course. Not only does this help you prep for the dinner, but also handy to refer to while in the middle of it. And while you're at it, print out those recipes so you're not fumbling last minute.
Printed recipes and ingredient lists
"To do" and "Dishes Needed" Lists
Prep prep prep. Make as much of the food in advance as possible. Obviously there are somethings you can't do, such as cutting fruit, but if it can be done, do it! Even if it's as simple as grating Parmesan for a garnish. Then label it. You don't want to be scrounging through the fridge wondering what's in what bowl or baggy. Actually, label everything. I even labeled the plates so I wouldn't have to make a game time decision on which style went with which dish. Even if you're not using different styles of dinnerware, this is useful when someone is helping, but doesn't know which dishes go with what. All you have to say is bring me the plates for the chicken. Done.
The Planning - Tablescape
While decorating your table is not required, it definitely adds that extra little wow factor and sets the tone for your meal. This can be as simple as tea lights in little glass holders, or a bouquet of flowers in the middle. Just make sure your guests can see over it, hide and go seek can come after dinner, not during.
Instead of going for your typical placemats and runners, try switching it up. I used 4 different prints of 12x12 scrapbook paper for "placemats" and ribbon for the runner. This allowed me more freedom to coordinate my table with the various oranges, reds, yellows, and blues rather than having everything match exactly. (And you can have really unique place settings for under a buck.)
Put your game face on. No, not that one. The happy, smiling, relaxed face that you welcome your guests with. Whether you are actually relaxed or not is one thing, but if stuff isn't going completely right (like burning your appetizers right before the guests arrive, not that I would do that or anything) simply smile anyways. Your guests will not be able to enjoy themselves as much if you are running around completely frazzled.
Prior to the dinner. Make up a timeline. When do you need to start rewarming the soup after the appetizers are served and how long does it take? How long does that chicken need in the oven and when do you need to start on the pork? It's little things that can catch up with you and send you far behind schedule if you're not prepared.
Clear the area. Seriously. Leave room for those dirty dishes, find a space to stack your clean plates (even if it's on an end table stuffed in your laundry room), don't forget about an area for plating and most importantly, leave room to be able to prep your food.
As for the big plating question -- how much to serve for each dish? I came across a recommendation for no more than 1/2 cup serving size for any appetizer, soup, or salad course which I found very fitting and appropriate. For the heavier meat-based dishes, I would serve about 1/2 to 3/4 of what the actual serving size would be. You don't want your plates overflowing or packed full of food. It not only fills your guests up, but is not quite as attractive as nice tight packed presentations with ample white space left on the plate.
And enjoy! Have fun with your feast of decadence. That's what it's all about right? Tons of planning and even more prep will help you get through this momentous feat with flying colors. It doesn't matter if you live in a small apartment with a tiny galley kitchen or a huge house with a kitchen I can only dream about getting messy. It's possible. And if I can do it, Lord knows so can you.
Note: Never fear, I will post the recipes for the various dishes in the upcoming days. Yes, they were really that fantastic that they need their own posts. So needy, I know.