Now that the stage is set, it’s time for the main actors. The key here is to pick a menu that can be prepped in advance. For an intimate dinner party of 8-10 guests, the right amount of planning can set you up to easily provide a beautiful spread of a few hors d’oeuvres followed by a three course meal. If you don’t feel like making everything yourself, you can always purchase a few items to help cut down on the cooking time.
Secret fact about hors d’oeuvres:they don’t need to be complicated! Think of them more as something to get the taste buds excited. Anything wrapped in prosciutto and cheese is a winner. Think fresh figs & goat cheese, asparagus and boursin or apples and camembert. I love Palmer’s gruyere cheese puffs and wild mushroom risotto bites, which you can purchase frozen then reheat and serve for that fresh-from-the-oven warmth.
Traditionally for the first course, I offer either soup or salad. Dress up your soup by ladling it into individual ramekins topped off with store-bought puff pastry brushed with an egg wash. These can be made the day before and stored in your fridge. The day of, preheat your oven to 425° and bake the ramekins for 20-25 minutes or until pastry is puffed and golden brown. If you prefer salad, save time by pre-plating this course one hour before guests arrive, remember to start with your dressing on the bottom, then pile the greens and other ingredients on top to prevent the dreaded soggy salad. Store in the fridge until serving.
For the main course, my winter staple is almost always something braised; think short ribs, osso bucco or pork shanks. The great thing about braising is you can make your dish 1-2 days in advance and it actually makes it taste better. The day of the party, you can keep it warm on the stove until you’re ready to serve. Plus, braising cuts are usually less expensive than the leaner cuts like tenderloin or chops and you don’t have to worry about over cooking them!
There are lots of options for side dishes that can be made in advance as well. Two personal favorites are potato parsnip purée with a hint of truffle and sautéed shredded brussels sprout with bacon and cranberries. Cook both items the night before and place them in pretty baking dishes to simply reheat and serve on the day.
By the time dessert comes around I’m usually a few glasses of wine into the evening so the key is something as delicious as it is easy to plate! Sometimes I’m feeling ambitious and will make cinnamon raisin bread pudding or apple crisp that simply needs to be heated and topped with a big scoop of ice cream. Often though, I’ll opt instead for purchasing a dessert in advance. This was precisely the inspiration behind Palmer’s Bakery individual pear almond tarts and chocolate flourless cake, which I usually serve with whipped cream and raspberries.
Guaranteed your guests will leave satisfied. You’ll be basking in the rejuvenating warmth of good food and friendship at least long enough to get to February…
Until next time, Happy Eating!