Saturday, April 14, 2007

Dinner Party 101 (or How to Cook a Multi-Course Meal and Actually Enjoy It)

I am on occasion asked by guests how much time I actually take to prepare the multi-course dinner they are eating. I assume the question, often a tad guilt-tinged, is prompted by uncomfortable imaginings of hard labour whilst enslaved to a hot stove. The truth is, it couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, I may have started days in advance, but only because I prefer to steal the odd hour here and there to do what can be done beforehand, and more importantly, in a pleasurable and leisurely fashion, rather than be on my feet all day on the day itself and have to panic about the impending arrival of hungry folk.

I'm no hostess with the mostest, but having figured out a few things over the years has made entertaining a much less harried, and by virtue of infinitely more enjoyable, process. These days, when planning a meal such as the one here (which took place in our truffle rush), I always try to keep the following with regards to menu structure and content - much of which will seem rather obvious, but I am more absent-minded than most - in mind:

Have all the necessary serving ware at hand
By which I mean all the extra stuff needed to plate a dish beyond laying the table. For instance, I don't use egg cups all that often, so I made it a point to unearth them from the dusty recesses of my highest shelf to save the last minute rootle (not to mention washing and drying) before serving the White Truffle Oil-Infused Custards with Black Truffle Ragout and Truffle Chip from Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook.

Pick dishes that can be effortlessly finished à la minute
This particularly applies to dishes served at the beginning of a meal, when appetites are at their sharpest and a quick succession of small good things works best to keep them piqued. For the Foie Gras Brûlée from Michel Richard's Happy in the Kitchen, the mixture of foie gras with eggs and cream (which is cooked in a water bath in a low oven and results in an exquisitely velvety and soft texture) can be made a day in advance and chilled; to serve, simply sprinkle with sugar, blowtorch, and brush with hazelnut oil and balsamic vinegar.

Think high-low
High-impact, low-effort dishes. Coincidentally, most easily the case with luxe spins on the humble, comforting and familiar. I really fancied the soup + sandwich idea behind the 'Shroomwich, also from Happy in the Kitchen.

I topped the thick soup (more a dipping sauce really, made from an intense mushroom jus and cream, slowly reduced till thick) with a cap of milk foam. And to dip it with, brioche slices sandwiched with salted butter and truffle shavings (these dainty fingers are best prepped 24 hours in advance and stored in an airtight container in the fridge so the truffle scent gets a chance to really permeate the fat) - these were inspired very much by
Procacci’s panini tartufati, those divine truffle sandwiches that have become a veritable Florentine institution.

Break a complex dish down into bite-sized components and you'll crunch through it in no time
Complex, or multi-component dishes, are by their very nature time-consuming, even for the most able of multi-taskers. The most painless way to tackle them is to break up the work over several brief bursts. In the case of this truffled take on Vincisgrassi, a rich lasagne-like dish I absolutely adore, rather than make the pasta sheets, besciamella and porcini sauce in one long haul trip, I spread it over the course of three short spells. In fact, the assembly of the layers could (and should) also be done ahead of time, allowing the flavours to sit and mingle, then all that needs to be done, the oven takes care of.

It's all about fastidious mise en place
Not being the speediest of cooks, I live by this...Anything and everything that doesn't suffer from and/or improves with being done ahead of time should be done ahead of time. In fact, there are many dishes that virtually make themselves once every element is prepped in advance - in other words, finishing the dish becomes a simple matter of assembly/plating. A terrific example is carpaccio; this Otoro Carpaccio with White Truffle Oil Aioli is a delicious variant on the more classic beefy number.

Keep to one high-effort dish requiring plenty of last minute attention
One painstaking dish in a menu is plenty painstaking for the evening- this is one lesson I've taken a long time to learn. Honestly, nobody - least of all your guests - expects you to kill yourself over each and every course, particularly if the line-up is not a short one. If the wait for the high-effort dish in question will be long-ish, momentum-wise it makes most sense to save it for the end of the meal - not just for sheer dramatic value, but because at that juncture, most would be reasonably sated and would actually appreciate a longer-than-usual break between courses. To this end, I find that risotto fits the bill perfectly. Above, Risotto Carbonara with Black and White Truffles from Eric Ripert's A Return to Cooking - risotto cooked in black truffle juice, topped with a raw egg yolk, smothered with white truffle shavings and finished with a bacon cream sauce.

Small is beautiful
A lesson I'm still learning - in three-or-more course meals, portion size is important. The cook's natural tendency, in a bid to share as much as possible whatever abundance of culinary riches she may have in possession, is to over-estimate how much it is humanly possible to comfortably consume. Much better than having diners leave feeling like geese fattened for liver, is to control portions in a manner that leaves them still wanting a little bit more.


Blogger Grethel said...

Your pictures are so cute!

1:17 am, April 14, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had that dish at French Laundry - and when I first saw your photo, my immediate reaction was "OMG - thats Keller's dish!" Just totally in awe the beauty you bring out in your photographs. I'll be a regular visitor!

5:45 am, April 14, 2007  
Blogger Anita said...

Dear J,
Your dinner guests are certainly the luckiest people around! And kudos to you for accumulating (and sharing) a wealth of dinner-streamlining tips - I confess from all I've read on your blog I cannot imagine you as anything other than an effortlessly gracious and generous hostess!

8:55 am, April 14, 2007  
Blogger Anne said...


You. Are. Amazing. Such grace and no pressure, but few have such talents!

1:25 pm, April 14, 2007  
Blogger Kajal@aapplemint said...

Oh my god your food simply looks delicious.everytime i visit i cant help but kick myself...when will i match that kinda stuff !keep up the great work.

10:54 pm, April 14, 2007  
Blogger Linda said...

well if anyone knows how to throw a dinner party - it's most certainly YOU!

5:22 am, April 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are great tips J! I recently prepared Michel Richard's foie gras brulee recently and I do agree this dish make a phenomenal first course.

9:22 am, April 17, 2007  
Blogger Chubbypanda said...

You make it sound so easy. However, I know you must have had years of effort and practice before you were able to coordinate your meals so gracefully. Thank you for these tips. I'll definitely use them, although I think there are few home cooks capable of creating dinners such as your's. Your skills are amazing, particularly since you were self-taught.

9:53 am, April 19, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Saw your blog featured on prime time morning... well done! Yours is truly a spectacular blog...

9:57 pm, April 19, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you must be a most lovely person - warm, joyous, certainly passionate about what thrills you, and, most fortunately for us your readers, totally unselfish. I stumbled upon your blog two days ago and have since been hooked on it. The ironing is piling and the dusting can wait ... Just want to say Thank You Very Much for your time and wonderful tips and techniques. Please keep writing about and photographing your creations. I've learned much from you, even though it's been only two days!

7:06 pm, April 23, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

J, this is fantastic. Not only am I going to keep several of these exquisite dishes in mind for future entertaining, I am going to print out this list and tape it to my refrigerator! These pearls of dinner-party wisdom are priceless. I only hope someday I'll be able to see how you pull it all off in person!

12:12 am, April 28, 2007  
Blogger Julie said...

Can I just sit at your knee, master? Truly, I'm in awe of your talents (culinary and photographic...)

9:42 am, April 28, 2007  
Blogger Brigitte said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:54 am, May 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must say that's some great food photography!

10:04 am, May 18, 2007  
Blogger Brigitte said...

Everything sounds and looks so wonderful. I love to host a lot of friends as well. And I love to plan and prepare the menu for our large family gatherings. I love to prepare many different dishes, most of them in tiny bitesizes. Sometimes as single dishes following each other in a menu but more often as a buffet.
I'd love to prepare something with fresh truffles but here in Singapore I've found only canned black summer truffles at Thos SB and Isetan Scotts. Where do you get yours from?

9:34 am, May 25, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your dinner guests are lucky people! Especially for that dinner...I was drooling with every photo and description! :)

Thanks for sharing all your entertaining tips!

3:21 pm, June 01, 2007  
Blogger Shirls said...

Hi your dishes looke wonderful. Where can I buy fresh truffles here in Singapore?


4:26 pm, July 17, 2007  

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