Twelve Months of Parties: a Casual Family Dinner

My inspiration

The first of my Twelve Parties for 2012 is scheduled for this Sunday, January 15. The January party is a casual family dinner party. The family that I have invited for dinner is, like us, very into food. When they had us over for dinner a few months ago, they made us a beautiful meal with a baked Brie appetizer and a perfectly cooked prime rib. (Zuzu impressed our hosts by eating her weight in prime rib.) So, I knew that this occasion called for more than my usual family-friendly fare, like make-your-own tacos or chili. I wanted to make something that would be elegant and sophisticated for our adult guests, while still being kid-friendly enough for two third graders and two preschoolers.

When I want to make something elegant yet homey, I turn to French cuisine. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Francophile, so I may be biased. But, in my opinion, the French are the masters of food that feels fancy while actually being comforting and accessible. Among my favorite French cookbook these days are Around my French Table by the wonderful Dorie Greenspan and Quiches, Kugels and Couscous, a study of French-Jewish cuisine by Jewish cooking expert Joan Nathan. From these two books I put together a menu that feels worthy of company but appropriate for all ages:

Family Dinner Party

Caviar d”aubergine (eggplant caviar) with pita toasts
Chicken couscous
Breton galette with lemon curd and berries

Whenever I am entertaining, I look for two things: dishes that can be prepared ahead of time and one-pot dishes.  I also look for recipes that can be broken down into parts so that I can spread the work out over several days. That way, I never feel overburdened. In this menu, the dessert, can be broken down into different parts, the lemon curd and the dough, and both can be done several days ahead. The hors d”oeuvre, the eggplant caviar, is actually better if it is done ahead of time because that way the flavors have more time to develop. And the chicken couscous, while festive and ideal for a crowd, is totally a one-dish meal. In short, this menu meets all of my requirements.

I began preparing for the party the weekend before, by choosing the menu. That”s always the first step. Then I looked to see if there were any elements that could be done as far as a week ahead of time. Lemon curd can sit in your fridge for weeks with no ill effects, so I made that, using this recipe from my friend Marisa of the canning blog, Food in Jars. Then, during the week, I prepared my master shopping list for the party.  But I waited until Friday, two days before the dinner, to actually do the shopping. I wanted my vegetables to be fresh, not wilted. (I actually will probably pop by Whole Foods again Sunday morning to buy the berries for the dessert because berries are so very persishable. But that will be a ten-minute errand at worst.)

When I got home from the grocery shopping on Friday, I immediately started making chicken broth to use in the couscous. I feel sure that one could use canned chicken broth in the chicken couscous recipe and it would be fine. It just happens that I enjoy making homemade chicken stock, especially on cold snowy afternoons. Chicken stock also benefits by being made in advance because when you refrigerate the stock, the fat congeals on top. Then, before you use the stock, you can remove the congealed fat and be assured of having a flavorful, but not greasy broth. I also made the dough for the Breton galette on Friday because the recipe states that the dough can be made as early as three days in advance.

So, by Friday evening, my fridge was stocked with all the ingredients I would need for the couscous and the eggplant caviar. In addition, I had already prepared the lemon curd and the tart dough for the dessert. Not bad at all. My plan going forward would be: Saturday, during the day, make the eggplant caviar. Saturday evening, clean the house and tidy up. Sunday morning, bake the tart dough and purchase the berries. And Sunday afternoon, make the couscous. Should be easy, right?

My sleek new cake plate

Now, another important part of entertaining at home is the table. Whenever I am entertaining, as soon as I have decided on the menu, I not only make a grocery shopping list; I also make a list of any kitchen tools or serving pieces that I will need but that I don”t already own. As a general rule, I don”t advocate running out and buying a bunch of new serving dishes or kitchen tools every time you host a party. That would get expensive and who has that much space? But at the same time, a party is a great excuse to fill in any gaps in your kitchen or tableware.

For example, in the Breton galette recipe, Dorie Greenspan recommends serving the tart on a flat plate. But I didn”t have one. All of my platters are either oval, which isn”t the right shape, or round and curved. So, this dinner was a perfect excuse to go out and buy a pretty new cake plate. I stopped by my local when I was out running errands early in

the week, and for $10, I found a beautiful square ceramic platter in a cool contemporary design. While I was there, I couldn”t resist picking up a wide but shallow serving bowl that will be perfect for presenting the chicken couscous. The two pieces together cost just $25, and I know I will get a lot of use out of them. (In fact, I already used the cake plate to serve gingerbread to my book club on Thursday night.)  I was really impressed with all the different tableware on sale at Marshall”s, including some high-end wine glasses, and, of course, the prices were amazing.

I”m feeling good about my first party. But the proof is in the pudding! I will report back next week and let you all know how it goes. What about you? Is anyone else entertaining over the long weekend?

Full disclosure time: this post was sponsored in part by TJ Maxx/Marshalls. I was given a $25 store gift card to purchase items for my dinner party and write about them. All opinions expressed herein are my own.