It is a funny thing, isn’t it?
After all, one man’s seared foie gras is likely another man’s ballpark-dog-with-everything. When asked by Project Food Blog’s Challenge #3 to approach a luxury meal for a dinner party, I decided after some thought that what matters most is the way it makes everyone in the room feel, the elevation from everyday meal status to something higher. Using ingredients you wouldn’t normally use, spending amounts of time you wouldn’t normally spend, all these things contribute to the creation of a truly special meal.
Coco Chanel once declared, famously, that ‘luxury must be comfortable, or else it is not luxury.’ Ol' CC might not have been facing down the prospect of hosting a dinner party, but it's a wise approach. She was talking about ladies’ fashion, of course, and urging women of the early-to-mid 20th century to shed the outdated notions of modern corsets and other binding fashions and step into stylish clothes that truly fit their bodies and their lifestyles. Still, it’s one of my favorite quotes about luxury in general.
After all, what’s a $1,000 dollar meal with white tablecloth service if you don’t enjoy it? What’s luxury if it doesn’t fit your lifestyle?
Around here, chez Orange & Salt, we are emphatically not white tablecloth service people. If you come for a meal in this household, be prepared to put your elbows up on the scarred wooden table, drink from our recycled-glass glassware, and maybe even share footspace with a dog or two. You will, however, be treated like absolute royalty in terms of what comes to you from my kitchen on your plate. Hours will have been spent behind the scenes in a happy, steamy kitchen, crafting each course. Good music emanating from somewhere in the background. People are laughing, eating. Everyone sighing, relaxed, pouring a little more wine and anticipating the next round of plates. You can leave your tie at home.
Sounds like serious luxury to me.
First piece of advice when planning a dinner party of any kind? Have a clear idea in mind of the kind of event you want, and plan your guest list accordingly—sounds a bit simple, but it’s true, and an often-overlooked part of planning. Some folks wouldn't dream of hosting a dinner event without a centerpiece and adorable decorations on the table; I wouldn't dream of having anyone over without some really excellent music playing in the background (another quick dinner party tip: think internet radio! There are a few services that are offered completely free, and will keep a constant soundtrack of the music of your choice playing in the background for hours--because no one should have to fumble around with CDs while she's also trying to sort out her Romesco sauce!) If it should turn out you are a white tablecloth kind of person after all, that’s wonderful. Make sure to invite a group of people who love white tablecloth dining. For my event, I invited a handful of some of my best food friends, the ones I like to think of as my Adventurous Eaters Club. These guys make complicated soups, desserts, and homemade bacon at the drop of a hat, and we're all used to sitting down to dinner together. I knew I could feed them anything, even baby octopus, and no one would so much as blink an eye.
(Click menu to enlarge)
Second piece of advice when planning a dinner party of any kind? Plan the menu, silly. Oh, I know this seems as though it should be obvious, but I really mean it. Do you want to highlight seasonal dishes? Regional cuisine? And how much work do you actually want to do? The commonly held wisdom I was always given on dinner parties is that everything should be more or less ready to go when guests arrive so that you, the gracious hostess, may spend the maximum amount of time sitting down with your guests and presumably charming them all (if you figure out how to actually do this, by the way, please share the secret with me). I knew I wanted to do some serious cooking, and because our kitchen and dining room flow openly right into one another, I felt comfortable 'breaking' this classic rule to spend more time in the kitchen. I'm personally more comfortable holding court from the kitchen than from the table, anyway, chatting with a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, a dishtowel wrapped around my waist, calling out to the dining room and occasionally delivering steaming hot plates of treats to the gathered guests. Your mileage on this, it goes without saying, will vary. But know yourself.
For this challenge, I opted to go with a Spanish-influenced menu. I’ve never been to Spain, as the classic song goes, but I’ve always loved the dishes, the ingredients, the photos, the food stories and everything else I’ve ever seen relating to their culture. One of my favorite ideas to borrow from Spanish culture is tapas: the serving and sharing of a variety of ‘tiny bites’ courses on many plates, usually with wine. A tapas course seemed the perfect way to kick off my Spanish meal, and I knew I’d have to have one at this casual but luxurious meal, centered around close friends sitting down together and sharing.
It was a great reason to buy up a pile of tiny whole anchovies and lightly dredge in flour and quick-fry them, as I've seen done before but never tried. It's a classic Mediterranean snack, and I'm happy to report that they are delicious. Crispy, paprika-seasoned chickpeas, also a major tapas revelation--they're tiny and easy to share, but they won't last long! Everyone loved these.
Following this was a course of baby octopus simmered in rich, almond-and-tomato-based Romesco sauce and served over a golden bed of crispy roasted potatoes, then a sweet, tangy salad of shaved fennel and carrot, and a dish of braised chicken thighs (heavily adapted from of of the Great Thomas Keller's recipes from the Ad Hoc at Home cookbook) smothered in onions, fennel and olives. The octopus was amazingly tender (recipes for all these courses will be posted separately here on Orange & Salt), a treat for anyone who's ever suffered through a plate of rubbery tentacles, and the sauce was wonderfully nutty and rich. The raw fennel followed by braised fennel thing is a little trick I like to pull every now and again--it's really nice to have two versions of something so close together to contrast the flavors & textures between the raw and the cooked.
And then the dessert, oh my goodness......the dessert! Airy golden brown pillows of pastry, still warm and slightly chewy at the center and scented with cinnamon, soaked with honey, oozily melting together with a scoop of sweet vanilla ice cream and topped with ground pistachios. I think it goes without saying that I'll be making this one again sometime soon. Thank you, Spain, for the inspiration for this wonderful, wonderful meal. I thank you, and my guests thank you. Another borrowed Spanish idea to keep handy, by the way, is the late, late dinner......useful when things don't go quite as planned. When you forget some vital piece of prepwork and dinner is delayed an extra hour (not that this has ever happened to me, of course), you can just tell everyone you're eating at ten o'clock because it's the authentic Spanish way! Better living through cultural awareness.
Dinner parties are tricky, I’ll just throw that out there. In the case of this one, everything seemed to come together at the same time……..but not exactly in that hoped-for, ‘every dish is perfectly timed’ way. It went something more like this: my last-minute grocery shopping, needing to pick my husband up from the train station, still be home to greet early arrivals, and somehow finely dice the onion and the garlic and prep the chicken, well, they all seemed to need to happen simultaneously. What’s a hostess to do? What can you do, except get through it, put on a smile, get someone to pour you a nice glass of red wine, and keep stirring the octopus. Accept help when it's offered! Have someone set out the olive plate for you, designate someone to shred the carrots for you, and just keep going. And when it's all over, leave the dishes, kick off your shoes, and make sure to cozy up with a nice portion of the dessert plate.
Even Coco Chanel couldn't resist luxury like that.