Thanks to all of you who voted for Shiny Cooking in round 2 of Foodbuzz’s Project Food Blog challenge. I made it to round 3, whose theme was a “luxury dinner party.” Project Food Blog is now over, but still: wrap something warm about you while you continue reading, because winter is coming.
When the third challenge came up — and they all come up suddenly, by the way, the way everything we know about for ages does — to host a luxury dinner party, I was still undecided as to a theme. As I researched fancy-schmancy vegetarian main courses suitable for autumn that might use vegetables still growing in my garden, I came across a showstopper from the now-defunct Gourmet magazine: Pumpkin Stuffed with Vegetable Stew.
Wow. This I could work with. The stew fit perfectly with my itch to host a party consisting entirely of foods described in George R. R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). Here’s how the party all worked out, along with some totally serious and not snarky tips for throwing a successful dinner party. Yeah. Enjoy the snark-free ride while you can.
Tip #1: Have a Theme
Most often, you’ll be lucky enough to have a theme built into your party planning. I mean, nobody has ever felt the need to throw a Super Bowl party with a Rocky Horror theme. I totally would never, ever, do that. Normally, the party will be in response to a specific occasion: a birthday, a holiday, a landmark event. However, every once in a while you’ll find yourself the competitor in a blogging contest, just for a crazy example, or maybe you just get the itch to have a bunch of people over and get the cloth napkins out. It’s at those times that you need to sit down and pick out a theme. Having a theme helps focus your efforts, even if it’s just a cuisine or a color.
Unlimited possibilities are stifling. Limited possibilities with well-defined boundaries are freeing — you have your parameters, and whatever you choose within them will by definition be successful, because it meets your criteria for entering your sphere of consideration.
Tip #2: Love Your Lists
I love my lists and I cannot lie. Once I stumbled across that vegetable stew recipe, I knew that “Winter is coming” would be my dinner party theme, and that, by hook or by crook, I was damn well going to faithfully represent dishes served at meals and feasts in the books of the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. It’s a swords-and-horsies medieval sort of tale set in a world just like ours, it just happens to not be ours. In other words, it’s the sort of story I usually run far away from. Except. This one has characters. Martin takes every stereotype of the genre, every trope imaginable, introduces them, and then turns them on their head. Plus, intrigue and politics. And a badass 11-year old girl with a sword called Needle. In other words, these books are irresistible. And, while fantasy writers tend to become used to the sound of their own voice and begin to drone on boringly the longer their series get, Martin himself does not. I get bored in a lot of books, but not these. It’s good stuff.
And the series has lots of food in it. Sure, sometimes the food is at disastrous nuptials that go down in history as “The Red Wedding” but pshaw. A meal is a meal, even if you get accidentally disemboweled after.
The first list you need is your menu. You may find the angel of insanity tempting you, as it did me, with 3-day vegetable stew recipes served up in a whole roast pumpkin.
You may indulge this insanity. I give you permission to select one insane dish for your dinner party. However, you must also listen to the middle manager of sensibility and make sure the other dishes you select fall in the realm of probability with a decent p value.
Make lists for other things too. The guest list. The grocery list. The time list: What dishes can be made ahead of time? And how much — an hour, a day, a week ahead? Make sure not everything in your menu requires last-minute attention, unless you’ve gotten your hands on one of those handy new cloning machines, in which case you’ve probably already got several mini-mes running around and you certainly don’t need to be reading this.
You can see that I got a bit ahead of myself in these pictures: the table isn’t perfectly set how I’d like, and the kitchen counters are a mess. I made the error having two things to prepare at the last minute, in addition to the salad, and the decor suffered for it!
Tip #3: Make Use of
Slave Guest Labor
Your guests want your dinner party to be successful as much as you do. If they don’t, see about getting them a part as a villain on a soap opera and get them out of your hair. True, some of the guests you might want to pamper, but certainly at least a few you are inviting are close friends…and what are close friends for?
Working, that’s what. Put your helpful friends to work. Ask one to come early if they seem amenable. Have them do last-minute prep, like assembling salads, as Angie did with the salad of greens with apples and pine nuts. “Let” helpful guests set the table or fill serving dishes.
Here’s a special tip, straight from my vault: do try to have your dinner table in the kitchen, not in a dining room. Being so close to all the dishes, and the sink, will inspire your guests to hop to it and help straightaway with cleanup. Works for me!
the party: winter is coming
The main dish was a vegetable stew cooked inside a roasted pumpkin.
It should have been a stellar presentation.
But the pumpkin I chose was a bit lopsided.
And we had to put it back in the roaster before it chose to have stew babies all over the table. It held together after all, in the end, but I just know if I’d left it all naked on the table it would have burst open just to vex me.
So the table wasn’t quite as lovely as I’d hoped it would be, but that was made up for by the gushing over the stew. They really, really liked it. We had corn fritters too, but those went…kinda fast, too fast for photos.
That wine we’re drinking, by the way, is hippocras, an old-timey spiced wine called a digestive or digestif if you’re being fancy. I made it. I also roasted the vegetables for the homemade broth for the stew, and we made seitan from scratch — twice. I’m scared of it, but don’t tell anyone.
After the hummus with pita chips and kalamata olives as an appetizer (all specialties of the region of Dorne in the ASOIAF books) and salad, we had the one dish completely unrelated to anything in Martin’s Westeros: currant sorbet as a palate cleanser. I just couldn’t resist the idea of putting tiny bits of pretty pink sorbet in those teeny tiny flutes (see the first pic, up top). And then after the main course of vegetable stew and corn fritters, it was time to break out a classic Westeros dessert: lemon cakes frosted in sugar. I thought of following it to the letter with a glazed lemon pound cake, but decided to combine the books’ love of lemons and oats and make lemon-oat bars from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking.
Let’s have one last look at that luscious stew, shall we?
tip #4: Have Something for Guests to Do After Dinner
Angie and Bill had to book, but Becky stuck around and the three of us played Dominion. I won both games, because that’s the way I roll.
Dinner parties are great for one reason: they bring us together — for food and socialization. Even though they’re a lot of work — this is only the second “serious” dinner party I’ve thrown — I always seem to like them in the end. People love being fed and really, they’re easy to please. Although this one was stressful because so much is on the line (competition! ack!), I had a great time seeing my friends, making delicious food for them, and playing games with them. I hope my experience helps give you the confidence to throw a dinner party too!
If you enjoyed this post, please give me a vote in Project Food Blog and help me advance to round 4! Thank you and remember, valar morghulis.