Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Menu Planning

Is there anything more fun than planning your next dinner party?* Well, except for actually cooking for the dinner party and then having the dinner party, I mean. (I will, for once, not be so perverse as to pretend that cleaning up after your dinner party is anywhere near as much fun, unless, of course, you have the option of turning to your mate and saying, "Have fun cleaning this up. I'm going upstairs to eat bon bons and read French novels," but I am not quite so fortunate as that.) As I have probably mentioned before, I love nothing more than to cook by the seat of my pants, but that doesn't mean that before I toss out all my plans and go with what looks good at the market that day, I don't sit around and make menus and shopping lists and timetables. Sometimes, I even use bits of the lists, etc. when I'm putting together the actual dinner party.

We're having some friends over this Saturday evening, and in this case I may plan a bit more than usual because a) I've been working a lot and won't necessarily have a ton of time to throw everything together and b) I am likely to be dealing with some dietary restrictions. The guest list is not entirely certain at this point (I dream of being organized enough to decide that I'm having a dinner party weeks in advance; but then I wake up), but one of the confirmed guests has a recent history with gall bladder problems, so I need to be sure that he has some options that don't have a lot of fat in them. Another possible guest is a vegetarian (my clueless, albeit lovable, partner first told me that Possible Guest was a "strict vegetarian," which caused me to blanch a bit before I realized that V. probably doesn't have a clue about what that might mean, and when I said, "You mean he's a vegan?" V. said "a what?" and I said, "Does he eat eggs or dairy?" and V. said, "Well, I've seen him eat cheese, and he probably eats eggs," all of which leads me to assume that when V. says PG is a "strict vegetarian," what he really means is a leather daddy who doesn't eat meat, which I find somewhat self-contradictory, but chacun à son goût, I reckon, as long as he doesn't try to tell me how to set the table), which raises its own set of concerns.

Vegetarian cooking (provided that it's not vegan cooking) is pretty easy to do well, and low-fat cooking is something I've plenty of experience with, and, in fact, earlier this year I had a friend over to dinner about a week before he was to leave the country for an extended stay to attempt to resolve his heart problems (he was only 39 at the time, and my gall-bladder-challenged friend is only 35; aren't your serious health problems supposed to start when you're 50 or so?), and there is a good deal of overlap between vegetarian and low-fat cooking since, after all, when was the last time you saw a bottle of celery oil at the supermarket? But I really do not want to have to cook only food that is both meatless and low in fat, so I will likely go with an inductive rather than a deductive meal. Or to speak more plainly (as if it were not already too late), I will make a larger number of good things and ensure that there are at least several good things that each guest can eat.

Given that basic structure, the idea that first leapt to mind was a polenta party. I am sure you know this already, but the way it works is that you give everyone a plate, dump a bunch of polenta on it, and then pass a bunch of different toppings from which they can select what they like. (Michael Chiarello doesn't use plates; instead, he takes a giant board or marble or something and just pours one giant pile of polenta on it and then marks off a section for each guest, but the man is clearly a dangerous anarchist.) In a perfect world, I would make my polenta with chicken stock, but I can certainly make a fine polenta without it, and I have never put more than a little olive oil or cream or butter in my polenta.

Polenta has a nice yellow color, and you want some other nice colors to go along with it. Some red peppers that you have charred on a gas flame and then left to sit in a bowl or paper bag for a while and then removed the skin and then sliced and then cooked with a small amount of olive oil and some red wine work very well. Some sauteed spinach is also pretty and tasty in this context. I will likely also cook some boneless, skinless chicken breasts briefly before finishing them in one or another of my mole recipes (I will also pass some mole that has never touched the flesh of innocent animals, as my vegetarian friends would say; I accept that vegetarians are morally superior, but I always say that my forebears didn't scratch and claw their way to the top of the evolutionary heap just so that I could turn around and not eat the animals that lost out: it would be ingratitude of the highest order), and perhaps prepare either some nice brown caramelized onions or a nice white creamy soubise. The advantage of the soubise is that you could line up your red peppers, your soubise, and your spinach side-by-side and pretend that you're ingesting the Italian flag. Well, that, and it tastes really good.

I would normally have a separate first course served à table, but I am going for a less formal atmosphere, so I will likely just have some snacks that people can munch on while standing around before dinner. My tapenade and some lima bean notreallyhummos are strong contenders at this point, but I will likely change my mind a few times between now and Saturday. No matter what the starters or the main course, however, I will almost certainly make some of my sangria.

I am pretty well set on dessert. The pear trees in the back yard are loaded, and I think that some of the pears are ripe or very nearly ripe. Even if they're not, I'm going to make poached pears in red wine, and I'm going to serve some biscotti with them. I have not entirely determined the biscotti recipe, but it will likely be my standard pistachio biscotti recipe with the addition of some dried fruit. Guests can dunk the biscotti either in coffee or in the syrup that is made from the pear poaching liquid and that accompanies the pears and in neither case will they have been exposed to either meat or undue amounts of fats. The consciences and gall bladders of all can enjoy the untroubled sleep of the virtuous.

*If you are one of those unfortunate souls who are filled with dread at the mere thought of planning for and cooking a dinner party, I beg you not to bother. You and your friends will be better served if you either congregate at a comfortable restaurant or if you leave the food preparation to some sort of professional (caterer, take-out restaurant, or pizza delivery boy). Your guests want to see you more than they want to eat great food; if they didn't, they'd just turn down your invitation and go to a restaurant. The last thing they want is to spend the evening in the company of someone who has been driven around the bend by trying to make the biscuits and the meat arrive at the table at the same time. At the same time, they don't really care if the biscuits arrive ten minutes before or after the meat, so chill out if you can, and if you can't, just don't cook. Okay?


Anonymous lindy said...

How many people are you inviting (asks Ms. Neb-Nose)?

I like 5-8 best for dinner, because of the possibilities for a general conversation. On the other hand, this year I skipped my usual Boxing Day invite-the-world afternoon tea, coffee, wine and goodies party, and found I missed it.

A Boxing Day (Dec.26) party is a good holiday party date in the US, as nobody else picks it, so most people can come. It would be no good in the UK.or Canada, of course.

1:22 PM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

I reckon there will be five or six of us, which should make for a pleasant evening. I would be happy serving dinner to twelve, from a cooking point of view, but they would not all fit in our dining room.

I think the Boxing Day party is a terrific idea. I do not always have the day off work, but it looks like our office is closed on the 26th this year, so I will mention it to V.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Chanelbaby said...

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7:22 AM  
Anonymous anapestic said...

Thank you so much for the kind words, chanelbaby. I could easily dispute your contention that I'm one of the best writers on the net, but my mother always told me that it was impolite to contradict a guest, so I won't.

10:43 AM  

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