After mulling it over for the last couple of months, I finally had a proper dinner party this past weekend. My only regret is that I didn’t have one sooner! Every aspect was great- the prep work and cooking leading up to it was thoroughly enjoyable, the party was immensely fun, and the happy looks on the guests faces were truly rewarding. The fact that I now have some tasty leftovers in my fridge is just the icing on the cake.
J being out of town for a month has resulted in my not cooking much, so that was the final motivation I needed to get off my butt and throw a party. I have many coworkers with whom I’d like to socialize more and thought a dinner party would be a nice way to spend some quality time with my friends. With a vegetarian in the bunch, meat and seafood were out which posed a welcomed challenge. I sifted through my gigantic cookbook collection, looked at endless old issues of Gourmet, Bon Appetite and Food & Wine but came back to the one cookbook that has never let me down. Yep- you guessed it- Sunday Suppers at Lucques. Yes, I know…food bloggers the world over have gushed over Goin’s popular book but there is a good reason why. The flavor combinations don’t just work- they shine. The steps are explained in a clear and concise manner and you see WHY certain techniques are used. The results are delicious, in large part due to the fact that the recipes are categorized by season so you know the ingredients you are using are the best at that time of year (for example, you won’t find any tomato recipes in the Winter Menu section!).
After trips to both the Pasadena and South Pasadena Farmer’s Markets, I was ready to start cooking. For hors ‘d oeuvres, I decided on Endive Cups with Goat Cheese, Orange Segments, Candied Pecans and Balsamic Glaze. It’s something I’ve been making for awhile now, and seeing the cara cara oranges at the market sealed the deal. I also picked up two perfectly white heads of cauliflower for a Pureed Roasted Cauliflower Soup I’d planned as a started. For the main course, I opted for the Wild Mushroom Tart with Gruyere, Young Onions and Herb Salad and the Baby Roasted Beets with Horseradish Crème Fraiche as a side. I also added an old staple of mine- a simple salad of puy lentils, red onions, parsley and a light vinaigrette to finish up the dish. Of course, what’s a dinner party without a sweet ending? I once again pulled from the Lucques book and decided on the Hazelnut Brown Butter Cake with Sautéed Pears. I mean- I’ve never met a brown butter cake I didn’t like…in fact, I’ve never met a brown butter ANYTHING I didn’t like….and it all felt so wintery.
I started the day before so that I could actually enjoy hanging out with my guests on the night of the party. Another great thing about the Lucques book is that it tells you everything you can do in advance for each recipe. On Saturday, I roasted the beets, made the horseradish crème fraiche, the vinaigrette, the cake and the lentils….and had a blast. Maybe “blast” isn’t the right word for it….but it’s times like those that I think of how much I love to cook. I know this sounds cheesy, but as I was peeling the beautiful, deep purple/maroon beets, I was thinking about how you hardly ever see a color in all its glory like that- bleeding all over your fingers, as bright and gorgeous as can be. As I’m thinking this, my nose picks up the heady scent of toasted hazelnuts and brown butter wafting from the oven and think of how nothing could possibly smell better. Cooking gives you all kinds of wonderful, sensory experiences. I can’t think of a better way to spend a cold Saturday than to putter around the kitchen, peeling this, baking that…..so yes, you can label me a Big Nerd but I truly enjoyed every minute.
The next day was spent doing some final prep and cleaning the house. At around 7:00 pm, my guests arrived and we uncorked what would be the first of six (hey- there were six of us, after all….well, M is pregnant and didn’t have any but still….) bottles of wine. After munching on the endive cups, we moved to the dining table and began with the soup course. The combination of roasted cauliflower, roasted garlic, sautéed white onions, thyme and vegetable stock all pureed together was a hit- although it was my first time making the soup (I sort of just made it up) but I’m a huge roasted cauliflower fan so I wasn’t rolling the dice too much. After we cleared away the bowls, it was time for the main course.
How did it all turn out? Well, you can’t go wrong with roasted baby beets- they’re just beautiful to look at, sweet and wonderfully tender. The horseradish crème fraiche was a nice compliment to the sweetness. The lentils were good as well. But the real star was Goin’s mushroom tart. Wow. I suppose anything that starts with puff pastry can’t be bad, but it really knocked my socks off. Underneath the gorgeous mushrooms lies a thin layer of gruyere, and underneath that is a layer of fresh, whole milk ricotta mixed with an egg and crème fraiche. Bake it all in the oven, toss some fresh tarragon, chives and parsley on top and drizzle with some truffled olive oil (my added touch since my boss gave me a nice bottle from Italy last year) and you get, well, a slice of heaven. I’ll definitely have to make this again.
We retired once again to the living room to start a rousing game of Scrabble. Unfortunately, my team lost but after that much wine, who cares?! We definitely needed something to soak up the vine so dessert was served. Another winner here- the brown butter cake was amazing, and soaked in the caramelized pear juices, it was divine. The cake takes a bit of a light hand to make, but the end result is truly worth it. The pears, on the other hand, are absolutely simple and can be made in advance (thanks Yoony- for answering my questions on that one!). You simply heat some butter and vanilla seeds (plus the pod) in a pan, add the pears and let them sauté until they’re golden brown. It would be perfect over a big bowl of vanilla ice cream….or even on its own. Another keeper.
To end the night, I stole an idea from one of my favorite restaurants- Grace. J and I had Valentine’s Day dinner there one year, and they presented us with a “Morning After” box- filled with mini versions of various Grace pastries to be enjoyed the next morning. I thought it was so clever to have the guest extend the dining experience until the next morning like that, so I made some lemon raspberry muffins and put two of them, plus a mini pack of Kona coffee, into little bags and gave them out as the guests left to go home.
All in all, it was a wonderful evening. I am hoping that I’ll be able to host more dinner parties in the future…it’d been a long time and I guess I forgot how much I enjoyed them. There’s something so satisfying about rolling up your sleeves and diving into the cooking process- I want to make sure I keep it up! It’s so easy to get lazy about cooking sometimes….but then you remember why you fell in love with it in the first place and you make a resolution to do it more often. I definitely will!
Thanks to all of my friends that came, and here’s to more dinner parties in the future!