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

IMG_4626

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.

Wedding Season 2014

Magic soup

I love weddings. I prefer weddings that I’m invited to, but I’m not picky.

Wedding season is in full swing as summer in Chicago meanders onward. 2014 started with zero weddings on my calendar to explosive growth of three. The first of the year was for friends of my girlfriend in a land called Tinley Park. I had never ventured (and got out of the car) anywhere south of 55th street near University of Chicago in Hyde Park. This was in the 170s ballpark south. Foolishly, I forgot to pack snacks and Kevlar for the drive.

I made it to the church in time to see the couple become a couple in the eyes of the Church. The priest had a few slip ups, but not to the magnitude of Rowan Atkinson.

In his sermon he quoted the writer “anonymous” and When Harry Met Sally. One out of two isn’t half bad. Before heading to the cocktail hour and reception, we enjoyed some shots of Fireball at one of Leann’s friend’s casa. There were speeches, dancing, drinking, then more white people dancing at the country club.

The following day started with donuts, Tylenol and Vitamin Water before cruising into the city to catch some of the Air and Water show.

I returned home late Saturday night and started today making chicken rice soup for my mom who caught a cold. I roasted a whole chicken with carrots and onion, before giving it a long, hot bath in chicken stock and water. To jazz mine up, I also roasted poblanos, tomatillos and a jalepeno to make salsa verde. Adding salsa verde gives regular chicken soup a bright zip that will knock out any cold bug this side of 170th.