Secrets to a Perfect Dinner Party

crostini, bruschetta, eggplant, olives, dinner party, entertain

BACON WEEK

So you want to throw a dinner party…

I had been wanting to gather friends for dinner parties for a few years. You can only post recipes and pictures of your creations for so long before a hangry mob requests samples. Tackling the Mealsharing dinner party with Leann taught several lessons. It also prepped me for the eventual showdown on Food Network. You may think it’s easy to just scale your recipes for more people. That works for some dishes. Others require increased planning and maybe even writing things down–something I have an extreme aversion to. For larger dinners it’s imperative to make checklists and think out the approach.

The Appetizers

Make anything that can be made in advance. This time around we had an electric knife to slice the bread evenly. We also had time to prep the bread and rub each slice with a clove of garlic before guests arrived. While I sliced the bread, my sous chef to the stars prepped the four different toppings. (I found the grilled eggplant superior to its oven-roasted counterpart). All the recipes for the toppings came from my grandma’s cousin in Sicily.

Having appetizers ready to go when people arrive buys you time to chat with your friends.

The Main Event

In the span of a few months I have gone from never making carbonara to making it on a weekly basis. It’s a simple and crowd-pleasing dish, especially for carb lovers. To offset the decadence of the dish, we had a salad to put something that won’t add 50 points to your LDL. In a rare moment I failed to photograph the salad.

While it is very fast to make carbonara, the downside is you can’t make it ahead. You can prep the cheese and eggs (best ratio for one pound of pasta is 3 egg yolks & 1 whole egg to 1/2 pound shredded parm), but that’s about all you can make ahead of time. You’ll need 10 minutes to devote to properly marry the piping hot pasta with the creamy egg/cheese/pepper combo.

During those 10 minutes you have to focus. It’s a simple process–drain the noodles, add to egg/cheese/pepper, toss–but you need to do it immediately after draining the pasta to use the heat to cook the raw eggs. After that it’s go time.

Dessert

dessert, tiramisu, espressoAfter buttons were undone and sighs of surrender, we had some limoncello and moved to more accommodating seating to stretch out. If anyone is still awake, feed them this closer to make sure they get home safely. Leann took charge of dessert and crushed it again with her homemade tiramisu.

Recap

  1. Make a list and attack it.
  2. Make anything ahead that can be.
  3. Share the responsibilities. Ask friends to bring wine, salad or a dessert.
  4. Wine and limoncello make everything better.
  5. Find a helper. I lucked out with my sous chef.
  6. Don’t forget to play some music.
  7. Keep it simple and have fun. The dinner party is more about spending time with friends than perfectly executed dishes.

Carbs in the Clouds | Mealsharing for the First Time

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I have cooked for family. I have cooked for dates. I have cooked for judges. But now it was time to cook for strangers.

A few weeks ago I met Jessica, one of the founders of Mealsharing.com, at a meeting for Chicago Food Bloggers. Sharing photos and stories on here is great, but I have been looking for a space for friends and strangers to sample my creations. Jessica said she knew people who would host if I was willing to cook. I emailed my friends to pick a date, then started planning the menu.

The Prep

I settled on crostini with four different toppings, a salad, carbonara alla bucatini and tiramisu. If you read this blog on a regular basis you know I rarely bake. My girlfriend offered her services to whip up tiramisu from scratch.

On mealsharing, you can specify where, how much guest should chip in and how many people you’d like to host. I figured 10 of my friends might come. Thursday night I only had one faithful friend who had registered. I considered rescheduling the dinner. On Friday, friends and strangers started claiming all the seats to sell out the event.

We hit a few stores to procure all the ingredients. For the crostini toppings I reached out to my grandma’s cousin Ciccio in Sicily for advice. He sent three suggestions for Crostini marsalesi: Patè di olive, Patè di tonno in scatola and Patè di pomodoro. I added roasted eggplant with roasted garlic to the lineup. I made all of these with my KitchenAid Chopper before heading to the city.

The Meal

Leann and I emerged victorious in the battle against rush hour traffic from the ‘burbs. We stopped at Mariano’s in the South Loop to get the final ingredients. Ben & Jerry’s was camped outside with free samples, which served as an energy booster after a long drive. Once at the space, Leann and I may have skipped around in amusement. The space Jessica set me up with was a common space for a condo building in the South Loop. It overlooked Soldier Field, Lake Michigan and had an unrivaled view of downtown’s skyscrapers. Leann and I unpacked our items, started prepping and wondering if they’d ever know if decided to never leave that rooftop paradise.

Guests started arriving shortly after 7:15. Scaling a recipe for 4 to serve 12 isn’t as simple as you would hope.

I know why they called it a miracle when Jesus fed all the guests at Cana. He was smart to limit the menu to loaves and fishes.

Leann and my friends jumped in as sous chef to help me get the food out. The crostini and salad bought me time to assemble the carbonara. There was a bit of a delay between courses, but thankfully no one rushed the kitchen. After the carbonara was done, everyone left the kitchen to enjoy wine, food and conversation.

The Dessert

Not long after plating myself carbonara and crostini most of the food was finished! Always a good sign. We sat for a bit letting the food digest. Then it was time for the jewel of the meal: Leann’s homemade tiramisu. My friend Miguel, who was carb loading before two triathlons this weekend, snapped a pic of tiramisu with Chicago’s skyline as the backdrop. Then one of the guests began getting every last bit of tiramisu out of the pan. It was too good to let any go to waste.

Recap

Huge thanks to Jessica and Jay for allowing me to share my love of cooking with friends and strangers in a ridiculously awesome space. I was a bit ambitious in aiming to make all the food on the menu. A salad, main and dessert would be more feasible. A make-ahead dish would also enable more interaction with my friends and guests. Carbonara doesn’t reheat well, so I was in the kitchen most of the night.

Next time I will simplify the menu and limit the number of guests to four. Overall, it was a great experience and sharpened my kitchen skills. Plus it confirmed I have some great close friends who trekked out and helped me make this dinner in the clouds a reality.

Underground dinners may be all the rage for foodies, but I like my food with a view.

Chasing Carbonara | Attempt 2

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If at first you don’t succeed making a dish, try, try again.

Since returning from Roma I’ve been chasing that perfect carbonara. It’s a diabolically simple dish with only a few ingredients. The first attempt was good but not as creamy as the plate I devoured in Trastevere. Last week at a restaurant in the ‘burbs I tried another carbonara dish. It wasn’t as good as my first effort. So I had two choices: go back to Roma or try to make it myself.

Sadly, my bank account doesn’t yet afford me the chance to haphazardly chase pasta dishes around the globe. I could however go to Trader Joes and get some cheese and thick-cut apple wood bacon.

Revisions since last time:
-Parmesan instead of pecorino.
-3 yolks and 1 whole egg.
-Heavily salt pasta water.
-If you think you’ve added enough freshly ground pepper, you haven’t. Add more.
-Use more bacon.
-Sprinkle in a few red pepper flakes.
-Remember to add minced garlic to cooked bacon and oil.

The sauce’s texture was bellissimo. The fettuccine noodles were al dente.

Short of looking out on the Tiber or Colloseo, this dish has been conquered.

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Spaghetti Carbonara | First Attempt

pasta, spaghetti, carbonara, bacon, dinner, italian

Spaghetti Carbonara. Creamy. Salty. Perfectly cooked pasta. It was a thing of beauty when I ate it in Trastevere, outside of Roma. So, good that my latest quest is to master it. Or come as close as I can to the inspiration dish. To the internet to read up on different recipes and tips! After reading Mario’s recipe, America’s Test Kitchen’s recipe and the array of takes on The Kitchn, I settled on the “foolproof” option from Chris Kimball and Co. With basket in hand I wandered the three aisles at Trader Joes. I grabbed pecorino and organic spaghetti from whole durum semolina. All the recipes stressed the importance of quality ingredients, especially when there are only four. I wasn’t pleased with the bacon offerings and lack of pancetta, so I walked to TJ’s unknown sister: Aldi. They had thick cut applewood bacon and some salad fixins. Last night’s dinner was of the traveling variety. I hadn’t spent bro time with my buddy in a while and I wanted to test run this dish before serving it for the masses. So I cooked at his place. He had cage free, organic eggs. 20140617-124515-45915128.jpg

They were so fresh the package gave the name of the chicken.

I fully expected one of the eggs to hatch. Step one is to fry up the bacon/pancetta. The quantity of bacon strips was cut off by the printer, so I guessed that the number was a 3. Turns out it was an 8. So my creation was lighter on the salty greatness. 20140617-124514-45914782.jpg While the bacon cooked, I shredded the cheese to combine with the eggs. I also started the half pot of water to boil for the spaghetti. 20140617-124515-45915453.jpg This dish comes down to timing. None of the steps are that time consuming or difficult. ATK’s procedure is a good one to follow as a starting point.

  • Start the bacon.
  • Then the water.
  • Mix the cheese, eggs, salt & pepper.
  • Place pasta in salted water once boiling.
  • Use a spoon to remove the bacon and place on a paper towel to drain some of the fat. Save the fat! (I want a t-shirt that says that.)
  • Reserve a cup of pasta water before draining.
  • Drain pasta.
  • Quickly dump hot spaghetti into egg/cheese/bacon fat/seasoning mixture.
  • Add bacon to bowl.
  • Toss.
  • FEAST!

This dish wasn’t as good as the Italian inspiration dish, but I have some thoughts on the next batch: two whole eggs, two yolks. That may create a texture closer to the original. Or maybe I should just go back for another taste. 20140617-124516-45916255.jpg

Sins against Italy – Carbonara

20131124-183313.jpgThe temperature in Chicago this morning was in the single digits. This isn’t OK. After I returned from California a few months ago, I realized that living in Chicago is a choice. I’ve deemed it a bad choice.

Nevertheless, cold weather is good for a few things:

  • Selling clothes
  • Killing off germs
  • Exposing people’s true self. Everyone’s nice when it’s 78 and sunny, but few people are nice in an arctic tundra.
  • Justifying eating more carbs

To the dismay of my female friends, I’ve yet–and hopefully never–to have any issues with carbs and gaining weight. I credit my Italian ancestry for this evolutionary advantage.

Tonight’s dinner was my first attempt at the Italian classic, pasta carbonara. I rarely have bacon in the house, so almost every dish I’ve made this past week has included a few strips. You may be asking yourself, “Why does he still have bacon left?” Valid question, but you’re the one talking to yourself.

This is often described as one of the easiest dishes in the Italian cookbook. None of the techniques required are difficult, nor does this take a lot of time. But it does require cheese–Parmesan or Pecorino. I had neither in the house and it’s too damn cold to go out again. Thusly, committing one of the gravest of sins for an Italian. I fear that if my ancestors saw the cheese-less atrocity tonight, they’ll curse me with pots of water that will never boil.

Here’s the rundown:

Serves 2-4, depending if anyone is hangry.

  • 1lb pasta, typically spaghetti or farfalle. I had rigatoni and campanelle
  • 2-4 strips of bacon, cut into squares (this is why I still have bacon)
  • handful or two of frozen peas
  • 4-6 kale leaves (cleaning out the fridge)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 cup of shredded cheese. Other recipes call for cheese and cream/milk
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2-3 tbsp of bread crumbs
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • Salt/pepper
  1. Cook the pasta as directed.
  2. In a frying pan, cook the bacon. Once it’s getting crispy, use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon and place onto a paper towel. Bikini season may seem far away, but so will your toes if you eat a quart of bacon fat.
  3. Add the kale and garlic to the frying pan/bacon grease. Let cook on low for 3 minutes.
  4. The pasta should be done by now (~10 minutes). Drain it and save a half cup of pasta water.
  5. In a large mixing bowl, separate the egg yolks from the rest of the eggs. I’ll have to post a video of this at some point too. There are also lil gadgets you can use. Or you can use your manos. Beat the yolks with the cheese. Add the drained pasta to the yolks/cheese. Add the bacon and kale. Top with some bread crumbs and salt/pepper.
  6. Take a pic and post on instagram with the #bachelorbasics.