Hi–Sandra here! As our SisterFeast blog continues to evolve, you’ll see that we love to host intimate dinner parties. When the weather cooperates, it’s nice to serve wine and apps on the deck and dessert on the porch. Typically, though, everyone lines up along the kitchen bar to enjoy appetizers as Jay pours and I put the finishing touches on the meal. For years, I’ve toyed with the idea of a pop-up restaurant–announce the menu and the date a week or two in advance, take reservations and let the fun begin. (I still hope to make that happen one day, but just haven’t pulled the trigger yet. Stay tuned!)
Linda’s Birthday Celebration Menu
Marcona Almonds • Stuffed Peppadews
Homemade Ricotta with Sour Cherry Spread
Orange-Herb Marinated Mediterranean Olives
Apricot Gorgonzola • Assorted Imported Crackers
Watercress Salad with Candied Clementines
Thin-Sliced Radishes •Rainbow Microgreens
Butterhead Lettuce • Sweet Pea Shoots
Applewood-Smoked Bacon-Wrapped Petite Filets
Herb Grilled Shrimp with Mango Salsa
Seared Asparagus with Lemon Butter
Steamed Fingerling Potatoes with Fresh Parsley
Homemade Rolls with Peach-Apricot Butter
Yellow Butter Cake with Chocolate Mocha Icing
Selection of Gelato and Ice Cream
So, here’s the scoop on how I [sort of] effortlessly prepared our elegant birthday celebration party…
Appetizers set the tone for the evening–a chance for everyone to gather and catch up over a glass (or two) of wine. I enjoy arranging an interesting and colorful mix of nuts, cheeses, spreads, grapes and olives on a big wooden slab. On this night, the apps included warmed, salted Marcona almonds; goat cheese-stuffed peppadews; homemade ricotta (see easy recipe from a previous post) with an imported sour cherry spread; orange-fennel marinated olives; apricot Gorgonzola; and an assortment of imported crackers and bread sticks. (Note: Cheeses are most flavorful served at room temperature.)
Here’s the recipe for my favorite olive medley…
Marinated Olives with Orange Zest
2 cups brine-cured, oil-packed mixed olives
1 fresh orange (zest half; quarter wedges of remaining half)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves
1 T. fennel seeds, crushed
1 bay leaf
1 small red chile, slivered lengthwise
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
zest from 1/2 orange
Heat a large (preferably cast iron) skillet; add olive oil and garlic; next, add olives and remaining ingredients, except for the orange juice. Heat until fragrant (15-20 minutes); remove from heat and add orange juice & zest. Allow olives to marinade for 1-2 hours prior to serving. If making in advance, refrigerate and gently warm prior to serving.
Don’t hesitate to improvise–you really can’t go wrong.
Interesting salads often include a variety of color, flavors, and textures. This night’s salad included watercress with candied clementines, thinly-sliced radishes, rainbow micro greens, butterhead lettuce and sweet pea shoots.
Gently boil 2 cups of water, adding 2 cups sugar. Stir occasionally until liquid is clear, place clementine segments, reduce heat and simmer gently for about an hour.
Cool, drain, reserving the simple syrup for cocktails. Chill the orange segments.
Note: If you’re in a hurry, just toss in fresh Clementine segments.
It’s fun to keep an interesting assortment of aged balsamic vinegar on hand to create your own unique vinaigrette, as the spirit moves you. All you do is follow the standard French vinaigrette recipe (Epicurious.com) as a guide, substituting white or red wine vinegar for a balsamic of choice. I sometimes add a touch of an interesting jam–this night I tossed in a heaping teaspoon of Croatian sour cherry preserves. (Orange marmalade would have made a nice addition, but I didn’t have it on hand.)
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
4 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil [or grapeseed oil]
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a small bowl, whisk together the shallots, vinegar, and 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt; let the mixture stand 10 minutes. Whisk in the mustard, then add the oil in a very slow, thin, steady stream, whisking constantly until the dressing is emulsified. Season with fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Note: The vinaigrette can be prepared ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container, up to one week.
Quick tip: If you don’t have shallots on hand, substitute a large clove of garlic.
Main Course 1:
Applewood-smoked bacon-wrapped petite filets
If you don’t have sous vide equipment, you might want to add this to your wish list. When you enjoy a delicious cut of meat in a fine-dining establishment, it’s a safe bet to assume it was prepared with a sous vide tool. Check out this quick primer on Anova’s sous vide “precision cooker.” Grill-master Jay preps the steaks by wrapping them with bacon (secured with a toothpick) and tops each with a sprig of rosemary, then individually vacuum seals them (VacMaster offers a nice option), before adding to the sous vide. Since most of our guests prefer their steaks medium-rare, we set the sous vide to 130 degrees to hold them in the tank until we’re ready to grill. Once dinner is nearly ready to be served, Jay gives the steaks a quick sear on the grill, then tops each with a dollop of garlic-herb butter and allows them rest for 10-15 minutes prior to serving.
1 stick unsalted butter, softened to room temperature (Don’t spare expense here, go with a really nice butter; if your market has butter imported from Normandy, buy it!)
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup finely chopped soft fresh herbs (such as flat-leaf parsley, thyme, chervil, dill, and tarragon)
Coarsely-ground kosher or sea salt
Freshly cracked black pepper (Ina Garten prefersTellicherry peppercorns)
Whip gently with a whisk, then dollop into a small serving bowl. Alternatively, it’s nice to make logs of this butter (pictured above) in advance to have on hand. Then you’re ready to serve herb butter on a moment’s notice. Serve with desired garnish.
For this meal, I thought it would be festive to have a “gift-wrapped” mushroom medley to serve each guest.
Simply chop your preferred assortment of mushrooms, add chopped fresh herbs of choice, coarse salt, cracked pepper and minced garlic; then, top with a drizzle of EVOO before wrapping up your parchment parcels with baking twine. (Note: I like to used unbleached products whenever possible.)
Place in baking dish and pop into a preheated 350-degree oven for 20-25 minutes before serving.
Grilled Herb Shrimp
It doesn’t take long to recognize the influence Ina Garten has on my culinary style. I recently saw her in person with a group of friends at a local Baltimore theater. She was beyond delightful in her natural delivery, easy but elegant style and charming affability. After a guided Q&A interview, she took questions from the audience as her fans queued up to express their admiration and ask her for opinions and advice. On this night, I was able to add her latest book, Cooking for Jeffrey, to my collection. I can’t wait to purchase her newly released The Complete Cooking for Two, now available.
With that prelude, it won’t be surprising that Ina’s recipe for Grilled Herb Shrimp in Barefoot Contessa Parties! (p. 138) was my guide for our seafood course. Though I typically only use recipes for rough guidance (except in the case of baked goods), I followed her recipe fairly closely.
With a delicious blend of sweet and spicy, Ina’s Mango Salsa is the perfect foil for the grilled shrimp. On the night of our party, I took a shortcut and purchased the mango salsa from Whole Foods, but I have made this recipe many times and love it. My unique little twist is to substitute pickled red onion* for the yellow onion and use pineapple juice in place of (or in addition to) the orange juice. (Note: Be sure to deseed your jalapenos before dicing; you might want to wear gloves–if not, remember not to rub your eyes!)
Hint: It’s nice to keep pickled red onions on hand to brighten up tacos, salads, salsas and other dishes. Simply choose your favorite pickling liquid recipe and quick-pickle the red onion while the liquid is hot. Cool and refrigerate–that’s all there is to it.
To serve, top with fresh torn mint leaves and chopped cilantro.
I frequently rely on grilled or roasted asparagus for a simple vegetable side dish. If grilling or roasting, begin by drizzling with EVOO and sprinkle with salt and freshly-cracked pepper. I typically add fresh lemon slices, whether grilling or roasting. I love the texture it adds to this dish. Speaking of texture, be sure to remove your asparagus from the heat when it becomes just barely tender with a bit of crunch.
Look for a colorful assortment of fingerling potatoes in your market. To prepare, simply pop them in your pre-heated steamer basket and cook until “just tender.” [Notice a theme here?!]. Place freshly-steamed potatoes in a bowl and lightly smash with butter, salt, and pepper to taste; toss in roughly chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley, reserving some whole sprigs for garnish.
Note: There are endless variations to this dish–add rosemary, parmesan–whatever you’re feeling for the meal at hand.
Homemade Dinner Rolls with Peach Apricot Butter
If you haven’t made fresh, homemade dinner rolls, you’re really missing something. These are always a favorite no matter the occasion. Simply choose a simple milk-based recipe like this one from Our Best Bites. I typically make a double batch and freeze the extra dough balls before the second rise; when you’re ready to bake, simply grease a baking pan, add your dough balls and let defrost, then rise until doubled; bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until nicely browned; removed from oven and brush with butter and sprinkle lightly with sea salt.
Flavored Butters with a Kiss of Sweetness
Keep an assortment of fine preserves or spreadable fruit compote in your pantry to easily “flavor up” your salad dressings and butter. This night, I added Sarabeth’s Peach Apricot spreadable fruit to the softened butter. The possibilities are endless–I often serve a sweet butter and an herb butter side-by-side for our guests to enjoy. Keep an assortment of fine preserves or spreadable fruit compote in your pantry to easily “flavor up” your salad dressings and butter.
Here’s the hastily plated meal–we couldn’t wait to dig in!
Yellow Layer Cake with Chocolate Mocha Icing
For the layer cake, I used a recipe from King Arthur’s flour. It’s a simple, classic yellow cake that’s always reliable. On this occasion, I doubled the recipe and baked four 8″ layers in advance and froze them individually once cooled. I used three of the layers to make a beautiful presentation when topped with mounds of frosting.
Chocolate Mocha Frosting
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
3 cups powdered sugar (add more to obtain the desired consistency, if necessary)
1/4 cup buttermilk
1½ cups good-quality cocoa powder (Scharffen Berger or Valrhona are excellent, but Ghiradelli is also really good and a bit less expensive)
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1½ teaspoons espresso powder
Whisk espresso powder into vanilla and set aside to dissolve.
In your mixer, whip butter until soft and fluffy, scraping bottom and sides as necessary.
On a slow speed, add in the powdered sugar one half-cup at a time, alternating with the buttermilk.
Whip for two minutes or so until desired consistency; then, add the espresso-vanilla mixture, mixing until smooth.
Note: Adjust consistency by adding confectioners sugar or a touch more buttermilk to achieve a light, fluffy frosting.
Partially defrosted cakes are easiest to frost, but if you didn’t make your layers ahead and freeze them, just work delicately with your fresh layers.
Gently carve the top of each layer to achieve flat, even layers. Put the desired amount of frosting on each layer as you stack them.
A flat-edged knife works best to smooth out your top layer and sides. Don’t be afraid to dip your knife in warm water to create a silky finish.
Note: If desired, add semi-sweet chocolate shavings to the top of the cake.
Serve with an assortment of complimentary gelato and ice cream. Enjoy!
So there you have it–a celebratory birthday dinner party for six (or more!). So you’re not tired out for the party, make what you can ahead of time–the mango salsa; cake layers and frosting; flavored butter selection; prep your veggies the day before. If you purchase your shrimp fresh (Gulf shrimp is best), peel & devein, then freeze it. Remove an hour or so in advance to defrost prior to grilling.
My secret to seemingly effortless entertaining is to do as much in advance as possible. For this meal, you can pre-prepare (or purchase) mango salsa (one day ahead); bake & freeze the cake layers (up to one week) and make the frosting a day ahead. You can also prepare your salad dressing and flavored butter in advance; prep your veggies the day before for even more time savings. If you purchase fresh (not previously frozen) shrimp (Gulf shrimp is best), peel & devein, then freeze ahead. Remove an hour or so in advance to defrost prior to grilling. By front-loading the work, you can be ready to greet your guests and enjoy the evening as much as they do.
Note: Before your guests arrive, be sure to light your candles and play enjoyable dinner music to set the mood.