I've always loved entertaining, regardless of the time of year. However, late fall and the Holiday season inevitably brings out the party spirit in everyone. For about four (long) years now, I've wanted to host a "Harvest Party". After pouring over the glossy food and wine magazines portraying great friends gathered around a 20 person table in the middle of a vineyard, toasting the good life, I thought: "I want one!" I like to think we all deserve to celebrate harvest, whether our fingernails are stained purple or not. Lucky for my conscience, I had a winemaker friend who had just finished harvest. So I decided instead of Thanksgiving this year, I would host a harvest dinner. That way, I could braise lamb instead of roast a turkey. I invited 10 friends and told them we would celebrate by eating a grandiose, food magazine-enviable meal, while drinking the bounty of the season. Plus, I always like a good kitchen challenge.
The problem was, I didn't know where to start and I had very little guidance besides my imagination. I envisioned an absurdly long, beautiful wooden table filled with fresh cut flowers. And not just any flowers, but the rustic, charming ones that you feel horrible cutting from the garden but look so good. Another problem was, I didn't have a proper dining room, let alone a 30 foot wooden dining table and November is not wild flower season. So I went back to basics. I used the Rules of Entertaining 101- which I am excited to share with you in hopes that your next big dinner party is seamless.
I created a menu that was both comforting and autumnal, including ingredients of the season, but avoided Thanksgiving classics. I chose both local and exotic ingredients to keep it interesting and made a braising sauce with my friend's Syrah. I wanted to take advantage of our perfect little place on Earth called San Francisco, where persimmons and fresh goat cheese are readily available. I went in blindly with a ton of enthusiasm, and I came out with a huge ego and a stuffed belly. The very least I can do now, is offer you some tips I learned:
Part 1: Cocktails, Cheese, Appetizers and First Course.
Rule 1: Have a signature drink ready when guests arrive.
Not only does this ensure guests are immediately happy, but allows you, as a host to finish your last minute preparations in peace. It gives the illusion that everything is under control and you're 'thrilled' they were on time. (Which, as a side note, never happens with my friends, thankfully.) Plus, people feel sexy holding a classic cocktail. I went with a Blackberry & Cabernet Mojito. This drink was inspired by a cocktail that is on Cantina's drink menu made with cachasa. I happened to have a bottle of Bacardi (why does Bacardi always appear in my liquor cabinet, but I never buy it?) and a ton of mint left over from another dish- so Rule 1.5: use what you have in the house! The cocktail has a dramatic purple-red color that is festive without being a "pink drink" AND you can make it ahead of time and not have to worry about shaking each drink separately.
Rule 2: Put out cold appetizers to keep guests busy and happy while you're fretting over the fact that the main dish is still two hours away from being done.
Remember, appetizers don't have to be elaborate, they just have to taste good. I love cheese (perhaps this diatribe should be a separate post.) I like to serve it before the meal because, although I love the French, I never have room for cheese at the end of a meal. We are so lucky in San Francisco to have a truly amazing selection of artisanal cheeses. For this meal I went to Rainbow Grocery. Ahhh Rainbow, such a happy, happy place. I personally like to select three choices, each varying in texture and flavor. I went with a goat's milk aged gouda that was bright white and firm textured, a medium creamy, salty, local blue from Pt. Reyes and a very creamy, cow's milk triple cream from Australia. The triple cream was hands down, the favorite (and the one that is not in the picture...) It was a Seal Bay Triple Cream from King Island Dairy and it was sooo rich and gooey and true to its triple cream name. I am drooling. It tasted so good that you kind of felt you shouldn't be eating it.
Rule 3: Offer something unique, rare or out-of-the-ordinary to your guests. If people feel like they are getting something special, they'll inevitably be drawn to the dinner. The first time I had Chez Panisse's nettle souffle I was hooked. I had never had anything like it, and to this day, haven't been able to reproduce it at my house. My great French friends Pascal & Lilie, brought a "jar" of foie gras from their recent trip back to Paris to see the family. The darling little jar had one of those rustic pop tops like the old sealing bottles. There is simply no time for moral discussion when it is sitting on your table staring at you in all its creamy goodness. Some guests had never had foie gras at home. It was really special, and really delicious. It was paired with a perfect sweet wine from the Loire. This was the first wine to stump the group in its brown bag. It had beautiful acidity like a great Sauternes, but we were assured it was not. It had apricot and orange blossom bursting out of the glass, like a Muscat or Tokaji, but to no avail. The rich, oily texture belied the mineral backbone... of course, the Loire. How could I be so daft? It was a really pretty Coteaux du Layon made from botrytised Chenin Blanc.
Rule 4: Serve GREAT BREAD. There are plenty of bakeries that sell good fresh baguettes. Ask one of your guests to bring a couple over if you can't run out to get some. It is so worth it.
Rule 5: Make something that smells really good while guests are grazing.
After the cheese and foie gras course, I served bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo. This is a classic tapa in Spain and a perfect hot appetizer course. It makes your house smell like bacon, and you know how people are with bacon. You can stuff and roll them ahead of time and they look so irresistible on the plate. I've found in my trials that it can be tricky to get all sides crispy when you have long toothpicks holding them together. My brilliant sous chef came up with a great idea: use long kebab sticks to hold about 5 together and then just snip the wood in between each one... voila- perfect sized toothpicks.
Rule 6: If you are going to attempt to do a soup course, make the soup the night before. The soup will not only have better flavor, but you'll save yourself two hours prep time and a ton of dishes that day. I chose to make a carrot and roasted red pepper soup. Go the distance and pour the soup through the sieve. Yes, it takes extra time and it is messy, but the velvety, silky texture is what differentiates your dinner party soup from the hearty, chunky lunch version. Add a bit of creme fraiche or whipped heavy cream with cilantro on top for the final touch. I found these really cute edible flowers that I was so excited to add to the presentation. In the end, I forgot of course. I found the bright flavors of carrot and red pepper to be a really nice starter course.
Rule 7: This is just a personal rule, but I ask everyone to bring one fascinating or delicious bottle of wine, but they must bring it in a brown bag. I love brown-bagging. To taste a wine without already having a preconceived notion or bias really allows you and your guests to enjoy it. It's fun and playful to guess the wines. I asked each person to recommend which course their bottle be paired with. It was a smashing success. I couldn't have arranged a better pairing. Note the brown bag in the photo to the right ---> that was a Priorat. More details on the pairing in Part 2. And as for the beautiful gardenia in my hair? That was a gift from the nice flower shop man who said a hostess needed a flower in her hair if she was going to have such a big party. I wouldn't say I needed it, but it definitely made my night. I blamed any wrong brown-bag guesses on the fragrance from my flower...
Read Part 2: The main course, the wine pairings, the battles of the brown bag, the abandoned salad and the dessert.