Our entertaining maven holds forth on why, when the dinner is fancy, tried-and-true recipes are the way to go.
If you have ever taken a whirl around Kansas City’s bustling charity-event circuit—and if you haven’t, your name simply hasn’t yet found its way onto certain databases—you doubtless are familiar with the concept of the Fancy Dinner Auction Item. A dinner party is donated by a merry team of accomplices—a cook or two and a host with an alluring dining room or garden—to raise funds for a charity benefit. The dinner is presented in glittering descriptors on a bid sheet during the auction/open-bar portion of the event. Guests, fueled by cocktails, largesse and rivalry, commence to bidding on the item. The competition gets downright cutthroat as the price soars higher and higher. By evening’s end, the dinner’s purchase price can add a tidy sum to the event’s bottom line.
I have donated a number of such dinners to causes, always in collaboration with a friend or two. At some point during the process, we swear we will never do it again because it’s exhausting, what with the menu-planning, the list-making, the grocery, liquor and Costco runs, the cooking, table-setting, flower-arranging, dish-washing and the pressure of giving these nice people something akin to their money’s worth. But in the end we always pull it off, and we feel like badasses. We’ve given people a good night for a good cause. We’ve shared an experience that deepens our friendship. And yes, of course we will do it again.
A couple of show-offs
The Insufferable Food Snob Don Loncasty, his partner Charles Bruffy (he of the slew of Grammy Awards) and I donated a dinner for eight, auctioned at a recent gala. A generous couple bought it and invited six friends. The Donald and I were hellbent on dazzling them with our prodigious culinary skills.
Our menu, the product of an exhaustive and at one point combative email correspondence, was summer elegance itself. Cocktail hour would be launched with mojitos made from freshly squeezed citrus, accompanied by grilled shrimp with homemade Green Goddess dressing (from Ina Garten) and fried walnuts (Beyond Parsley), always a monster hit.
Our first course: a trusted favorite of The Donald’s, chilled cucumber soup from The Joy of Cooking. Another Donald standby comprised the entrée, roasted beef tenderloin with mushroom and bleu cheese sauce from Colorado Collage. (For Fancy Dinners, auctioned or otherwise, a beef tenderloin, also known as a filet of beef, is always a strong choice. It screams extravagance, it’s almost impossible to muck up, and people rave and rave about it.)
With the side dishes, we would really show off. We selected Creamy Lemon Rice, a perennial favorite of mine, also from Beyond Parsley. Let’s do something distinctive for the green vegetable, we said. Something old-school and complicated. I don’t know which one of us honed in first on céleri braisé (yes! braised celery!) from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but we agreed it was perfect. So what if we haven’t made it before. It’s Julia. And Julia would never steer us wrong.
What were we thinking?
What made us think we could get away with using an unvetted recipe in our Fancy Dinner? The celeri braisé proved itself, in Donald’s words, “a time-consuming detail-intensive nightmare.” Who knew it would take us many, many precious minutes to butcher-twine the stalks into little bundles? Who knew it would be such a timesuck to unearth a braising pan large enough to hold them? Who knew the whole undertaking would set us woefully, irreparably behind schedule? Not us, because we hadn’t tried the recipe. Suddenly it was 5:30, then 6; the guests were arriving in an hour, and we still had so much to do. We were squeezing lemon juice for the mojitos when the doorbell rang.
A triumph, in spite of the celery
Of course, the evening turned out to be a smashing, mirth-filled success, the type of dinner party where people linger companionably around the table long after we cleared dessert (summer berries nestled in Pavlova shells, drizzled with zabaglione sauce). The guests were delighted with the meal. They didn’t seem to notice that the problematic celery (after all that work!) was stringy. They didn’t know that Don and I had realized after we’d served the soup that we had done nothing, nothing, to prep the Creamy Lemon Rice, and that the Creamy Lemon Orzo on their plate was an inspired substitute. Well, they might have known because we’d emailed the menu to the host couple, but if they knew, they probably didn’t care and in any case were too nice to say anything. All credit goes to the host couple for assembling an interesting, convivial group, always the most important element in a fun dinner party.
We learned two lessons that night. First, never ever try a new recipe out in a Fancy Dinner that people have paid to eat. And secondly: there is the dinner you planned in your head and there is the dinner that actually happens. Your guests will never know (or care) about the difference.
I will happily send you any of the recipes we used (except for the celery; don’t ask for the celery). Email me!
“Oh my god,” said The Donald, after we served the first course, “We forgot the g.d. Creamy Lemon Rice. We should have started it 40 minutes ago!”
We ransacked the pantry for something we could substitute. There it was: orzo! And so a new recipe was born, substituting fast-cooking orzo for slow-cooking rice. One bite and we knew we had a hit on our hands.
1 1-pound package orzo
Grated zest of 2 lemons
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup heavy cream or to taste
Freshly ground pepper
Prepare orzo according to package directions. Drain and return to pan. Stir in lemon juice, lemon zest, cream, salt and pepper. Serve warm.
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