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Posted: 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012

Fancy and fabulous: All you need is planning and prep to throw an elegant dinner party



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Fancy and fabulous: All you need is planning and prep to throw an elegant dinner party photo
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Fancy and fabulous: All you need is planning and prep to throw an elegant dinner party photo
Our fancy dinner party menu starts with Cranberry Apple and Port Tartin served with Wisconsin Aged Gouda. Key to pulling off an elegant evening is thorough planning for each course, including which dishes you will use (break out the good stuff).
Fancy and fabulous: All you need is planning and prep to throw an elegant dinner party photo
Andrea Abel served White Fish En Papillote with Lemon and Herbs as a main course at a recent intimate dinner party for 10.

By Andrea Abel

On a recent Saturday night, I hosted a dinner party. A REAL dinner party complete with candlelight, flowers, crystal, china and linens. No buffet or family-style serving. No potluck or asking folks to bring a salad or dessert. I even hired my teenage daughter, Anna, to pass hors d’oeuvres, plate and serve the courses, and load the dishwasher while we dined and enjoyed the company and conversation.

My friend was having a milestone birthday. As a gift, a friend and I hosted the intimate evening for 10. You know what? It wasn’t that much work, and the rewards were well worth the few hours of prep. The evening was leisurely and the food, of course, fabulous. Unlike a celebration at a restaurant, we could hear one another across the table and not feel rushed. We lingered for hours — spacing out the courses. I was relaxed and could fully experience the evening. Best of all, at the end, I was energized, not exhausted.

The actual preparation time really didn’t take much longer than a more casual evening, just a bit of careful planning and timing. For this menu, I relied on recipes and entertaining tips from Janice W. Thomas, chef and owner at Savory Spoon Cooking School and Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese shops in Door County, Wis. Thomas suggested as an appetizer Cranberry Apple Port Tartin served with an Aged Marieke Gouda cheese, followed by Apple and Fennel Soup, Warm Cabbage Salad, White Fish En Papillote with Lemon and Herbs, and Apple Clafoutis with Nutmeg Cream. She and I prepared most of these dishes together when I attended her cooking school a few years back (www.savoryspoon.com).

The holidays are the perfect time to showcase Wisconsin’s agricultural bounty of artisan cheese, Montmorency dried cherries, cranberries, apples and maple syrup. Wisconsin is well-known for cheese and is the nation’s leading cheese producer, accounting for 25 percent of total production. But less known is that the state tops the charts in cranberry production and is fourth in tart cherry and maple syrup crops. The deep red cranberries and cherries and bright green apples make for a festive table. For a more Texas-centric flare, December is prime time to showcase the state’s citrus and pecan crops. Use a glass bowl or vase brimming with a jumble of brilliant tangerines and the earthy look of in-the-shell pecans for a celebratory centerpiece.

When selecting the menu, Thomas says, “Have fun and have dishes that can be put together fairly easily and at the last minute.” She likes to create a convivial atmosphere with a bit of the unexpected, using menu items for decorations. “Apples figure prominently in the menu. So, why not use an apple with a slit in it to hold the placecard. Or, if you are having a flower arrangement, you can fill your vase with red and green apples (or fresh cranberries) and still have the flowers on top,” Thomas says.

Using different style dishes for each course is another idea. “Serve soup in a demitasse cup (or tea cups) as a starter instead of a large soup bowl. This is fun and not too filling,” she adds.

My goal is to get as much as possible done ahead of time and avoid last-minute surprises. A few days before, I read and re-read the recipes while I make shopping lists. I am big on Excel spreadsheets and checklists to keep organized. I use the spreadsheet to list out each course and last-minute prep instructions. It’s also nice to be able to go back and see what I’ve served in the past.

Think through table decorations, serving pieces, dishes for each course and garnishes. Set the table the night before or early in the morning. Then set out dishes and serving pieces. Use sticky notes to indicate which dish goes with which course. Label each garnish, too.

Thomas suggests chopping and prepping in the morning, “Be your own sous chef.” Relaxation and focus are a must. “Turn on your favorite music while you cook, and don’t answer the phone! It’s very stressful to answer the phone when you are getting into cooking,” says Thomas.

Think of garnishes as a way to add flavor or texture dimensions to a dish or to let guests know what they are eating, she says. For the Warm Cabbage Salad, mound a few dried cherries and whole toasted hazelnuts over the salad and top with a strip of bacon. Thomas also likes pairing raw and cooked ingredients — “I love having cooked something and raw something.” For the dessert, finely diced apples tossed in brandy sprinkled on the whipped cream adds crispness to the clafoutis.

So, I challenge you. Host a holiday dinner party. You and your friends will love it.


Shopping list

Where to find Wisconsin artisan cheeses:

Locally: Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Central Market, Whole Foods

Online: Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese, www.schoolhouseartisancheese.com

Wisconsin Dried Cherries and Cranberries

Online: Orchard Country, www.orchardcountry.com

Cranberry Apple and Port Tartin

1 box puff pastry, use only one piece

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

12 ounces fresh cranberries

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1 cup honey

1/2 cup maple syrup

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. coriander

1/4 cup port wine

3/4 cup white wine

1 large tart apple, peeled, cored and chopped into a 1/4 inch dice

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and cook until softened, about 4 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except the apple. Simmer for 40-50 minutes until thick and cranberries are softened. Remove from heat and add diced apple. Cool.

Cut puff pastry with a cookie cutter slightly larger than your muffin tin opening. Place in freezer until ready to use.

Brush muffin tins with melted butter. Place a heaping tablespoon of thick chutney at the bottom of muffin tin and top with puff pastry. Bake for 20-25 minutes. For best results, minimize the amount of time the oven door is open. This will reduce the oven temperature rendering the puff pastry soggy instead of flaky.

Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely for at least 5 minutes. Loosen edges and invert onto a large sheet pan. Let rest for 5 minutes to allow the chutney to loosen completely. Store remaining chutney in a glass jar in the refrigerator.

Serve at room temperature with a slice of Marieke aged Gouda. Serves 6 as appetizer with extra chutney.

— Janice Thomas, Savory Spoon Cooking School

Apple and Fennel Soup

3 medium size apples (Door County Honey Crisp or Cortland)

1 medium size fennel bulb, core and stems removed and diced

1 medium shallot, sliced

2 small inner stems celery with leaves, chopped

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock

½ cup dry white wine

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Juice of 1 lemon

1 2/3 cups heavy cream

1 tsp. Dijon mustard

2 Tbsp. domestic sturgeon caviar or crème fraiche (recipe follows)

Peel and core 2-1/2 apples, cut into quarters and place in 3-quart saucepan with fennel, shallot, celery, stock, wine, salt and pepper. Simmer 20 minutes until all are tender.

Core and finely dice remaining half apple, toss with half the lemon juice, cover tightly or seal in a bowl and set aside.

Puree contents of saucepan in a blender; return to pot. Whisk in remaining lemon juice, cream and mustard. Bring to a simmer, check seasonings and serve, with diced apples and caviar or crème fraiche. Soup can be prepared ahead and gently rewarmed. Yield: 6 servings or more as a first course.

— Janice Thomas, Savory Spoon Cooking School

Crème Fraiche

1 cup heavy cream

1-2 Tbsp. buttermilk

Let rest in a glass bowl on the counter overnight. It will be set in the morning or a bit later if the house is cold. If resting on a cold countertop, place bowl on a towel.

Warm Cabbage Salad

1 head Savoy cabbage

1/4 lb. bacon, chopped, plus extra strips for garnish

1 Tbsp. whole grain mustard

2 Tbsp. sherry wine vinegar

1/4 cup hazelnut oil

1/3 pound crumbled Wisconsin Buttermilk Blue Cheese

1/2 cup roasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped, reserving some whole for garnish

3 Tbsp. chopped, dried Door County Cherries, plus extra for garnish

Cut Savoy cabbage in half and rinse well. Cut into thin (julienne) slices. Use only the tender frilly leaves and avoid the tough stem. Should have about 8 cups. Set aside.

Dice bacon into 1/2 inch cubes. Cook bacon in a skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove bacon to drain on a paper towel and reserve drippings.

Whisk together the mustard and vinegar in a small bowl. Slowly drizzle in the oil while whisking. Set aside dressing.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons bacon drippings over medium-high heat. Add the cabbage and toss to coat. Add the bacon and continue to toss until the cabbage is wilted.

Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons dressing over the wilted cabbage. Toss well. Divide among 4 salad plates. Sprinkle with crumbled blue cheese, hazelnuts and dried cherries. Make a garnish of dried cherries, whole hazelnuts, and a strip of bacon.

Serve warm. Serves 4.

— Janice Thomas, Savory Spoon Cooking School

White Fish En Papillote with Lemon and Herbs

4 (6-ounce) whitefish fillets, about 3/4-inch thick (if whitefish is unavailable, substitute sole or tilapia. If using a thicker fish, like halibut, increase cooking time to 13-15 minutes total.)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 (1/4-inch-thick) lemon slices or one whole lemon, sliced

2 Yukon gold potatoes, washed and sliced thin

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced

2 medium zucchini, sliced thin

4 sprigs of fresh herbs (dill, thyme, tarragon, oregano, chives)

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into bits

Put a rack in the middle of oven and preheat oven to 500 degrees.

Cut four 12- by 15-inch sheets of parchment paper (or foil). Fold each sheet crosswise in half to crease, cut into heart-shaped pieces then unfold.

Season fish with salt and pepper and place 3-4 potato slices and 1 fillet to right crease of each sheet.

Top each fillet with an onion slice, 3-4 zucchini slices, herb sprig, 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes, and half tablespoon. butter. Working with one package at a time, fold left half of parchment over fillet. Starting at one corner of crease, fold edge of parchment over in triangles (each fold should overlap previous one), following a semicircular path around fillet, smoothing out folds as you go. Tuck under last fold to seal papillote completely. For a decorative presentation, use kitchen string to tie in a rosemary sprig.

Put papillotes on a baking sheet and bake for 9 minutes. Place each packet on a dinner plate, cut open parchment, and serve.

The packets can be arranged ahead of time and brought to room temperature before baking.

Thomas’ Favorite Additions: Add Kalamata or other brine-cured black olives, pitted and thinly sliced. Layer the ingredients on top of a chard leaf. Alternate zucchini with yellow squash slices for color. Serves 4.

— Janice Thomas, Savory Spoon Cooking School

Apple Clafoutis with Nutmeg Cream

Batter:

3 large eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 tsp. vanilla

6 Tbsp. melted butter

2/3 cup flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 cup sugar

Combine eggs, milk, vanilla and melted butter in a blender. Add flour, salt and sugar and blend until smooth.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Apples:

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1/3 cup sugar

5 cups peeled apples, cut into eighths or about the size of a fresh cherry (Granny Smith, Courtland or Johnagold)

3 Tbsp. brandy

1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon combined with 2 Tbsp. sugar

1 cup heavy whipping cream

Freshly grated nutmeg

Melt half the butter in a sauté pan over medium high heat and add half the sugar and half the apples and sauté until golden and caramelized. Apples should maintain shape and not overcook. Do not overcrowd or apples will not caramelize properly. Place in a bowl and repeat with the second batch of apples. Return the first batch to the sauté pan and add the brandy. Cook for 1 minute. Adjust for sweetness. Save the apple juice for syrup.

Place 1 tablespoon butter in a 10-inch pie pan and place in the oven for 1 minute or until melted. Remove from the oven and pour in half the batter. With a slotted spoon, place the sautéed apples on the batter and top with remaining batter. Top with cinnamon-sugar. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until golden. Let rest at least 3-4 minutes before serving.

Serve warm or at room temperature, cut into wedges and topped with nutmeg whipped cream. Garnish with additional freshly grated nutmeg. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

— Janice Thomas, Savory Spoon Cooking School

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