Gluttons for punishment that we are, DPaul and I embarked upon another of our madcap dinner party concepts. We entertain relatively frequently, but maybe once a year we go balls-out and conspire to make something a little extra over-the-top. Last year, we did a big Iberian-themed fiesta; the year before, we celebrated the holidays with a carnilicious crown roast of pork. This year, we took the inadvertent pork theme to a whole new level.
The two of us are (luckily!) similarly wired. We have aligned sensibilities around the arc of a meal, and enjoy throwing ourselves into the creative process of planning events. We love devising menus, dreaming up table decorations, and taking a project manager's mind to the tasks that must be achieved leading up to the party. In this post, I'll give you a little visibility into the special madness that is our method to entertaining.
I present to you the menu:
Porcini gelée, brussels sprout, chestnut purée
The first question was, what to serve as the main protein? Any holiday meal must be anchored on something special, something that is outside the everyday. Ham and turkey were too obvious. We considered a standing rib roast, and then goose, but neither lit the spark for us. Then we remembered the boar. Ah, yes, how deliciously different.
We knew the structure we wanted -- amuse bouche, first course, main course, salad and dessert. All that remained was to put the pieces in place. Initially, I proposed the risotto for the first course, but DPaul liked the idea of presenting the meat atop the risotto. I was fine with that, so long as we flank it with lighter dishes before and after so as not to bust a gut. Soup was the obvious choice for the first course, and we commonly serve salad after the entrée, in the Italian style, anyway.
We wanted the meal to have rhythms, repeating elements that would tie the entire experience together. This would drive many of the choices we made: Chestnut purée in the amuse bouche would resonate with the nuttiness of the boar; pomegranates would play roles in both soup and salad; persimmons would show versatility in both raw and dried form. The flavors were to be fresh and seasonal. Each course was in context.
We broke out the tasks and put together a timeline. We wanted to test-run a few dishes, and definitely hoped to do as much ahead as possible. Early tasks included taking care of the tabletop and locking down kitchen help (see below). We test-drove the soup and the amuse bouche the previous weekend, making tactical changes as we went. We cooked elements ahead, like the porcini stock, the chestnut purée and the base for the borscht. By the day of the event, each course just required finishing touches, rather than building from scratch.
Oh, and? We totally cheated out on dessert. I mean, no amount of effort and good intention on our part could possibly result in superior product than Mission Pie and Mitchell's ice cream, so why try?
The problem with simply asking guests to bring wine is that you end up with a cacophony of different wines that may or may not have any relationship to the food. We wanted the wines to complement the meal, but also didn't want to break the bank on the meal, so we delegated. We gave each couple the task of pairing with a specific course. However, wanting to retain some element of surprise, we did not tip our hand on the entire menu to any of them. Each couple knew only their course, and no one but us knew the entire menu until they arrived.
This tactic works fabulously. Even people who are not wine savvy will enjoy visiting the wine merchant and talking to them about suitable pairings; the results never fail to please. Our friends Cam & Anita concocted a cocktail of crystallized ginger liqueur, sparkling wine and candied hibiscus blossom to kick the event off. The soup was paired with a California coast pinot noir; the boar with brunello di Montalcino; the salad with a white Burgundy and dessert with both Port and a lovely Tokaji.
Our first challenge was the table itself. This would be the first time we'd served 12, and our table really only seats eight comfortably. So off to Lowe's we went, where we purchased a 4' x 8' slab of particle board, and had it cut in half. That's when we discovered that you cannot fit a 4' x 4' piece of wood in our car. Oops! So, back in we went to have them cut down yet again to 2' x 4' pieces, and purchased piano hinges to reconstruct them. We then bought several yards of lovely camel-colored felt, and were off to the races. The end result is two, hinged 4' x 4' squares that sit aside each other to create a new tabletop.
Of course, we didn't have any table linens large enough for a 4' x 8' table. Luckily we had a gift certificate for Crate & Barrel, where we bought a lovely shimmery tablecloth, a silvery runner and grey napkins.
Using two square vases from the floral arrangements from our wedding, we created seasonal, edible centerpieces by filling them with fruit and nuts I got at the market: Pomegranates, persimmons, pears, kumquats, quince, mandarins, almonds and walnuts. The idea is that we could lazily nosh on them at the end of the meal ... as if anyone would be hungry by then. Guess what? Now we have mountains of fruit and nuts. Anyway, it looked nice.
A little help
This time around, we did two things we'd never done before: We rented the dishes, glassware and silverware; and we hired a kitchen helper. Renting the dishes from Abbey Rents is inexpensive and just takes a tremendous load off the hosts' shoulders. Even if we had matching service for five courses for 12, it would have been onerous to stay on top of the cleaning throughout the night, and still likely be left with stacks of dishes at the end of the meal. With rental dishes, you just scrape them clean and put them back in the crate; they take them away and wash them offsite.
As for our kitchen helper, I put a call out on Twitter; fellow food blogger Gudrun responded. One thing led to another, and she signed on to help us out. We got to delegate some of the heavy lifting, and she got to make a little holiday scratch and watch us get silly drunk. It's win-win.
Sure, these two things added to the final tally of our evening, but the net result is that we spent far more time interacting with our friends at the table, rather than squirreled away in the kitchen cooking, plating and cleaning. I wouldn't hesitate to do it all again.