Project Food Blog Challenge #3: A Fall-Inspired Dinner Party

I’ve made it to Challenge #3, my friends. There are 200 terrific bloggers still in this contest at the moment. After this challenge, that number will get whittled down to 100: the pressure is on! If you’d like to vote for this entry, you can do so here. Again, a huge thanks for all of your support.

For this challenge, Foodbuzz asked us to host a luxury dinner party.

A luxury dinner party. Hmmm…..

I’m trusting that the word “luxury” is open to interpretation. Because while I do love throwing dinner parties and my food is always rather “luxurious”, I’ve got young kids, lots of pets, and live in a small town. Gatherings at my place aren’t about getting dressed up and eating on fancy dishware; my parties are about family and friends relaxing, having fun, and enjoying a terrific meal.

Foodbuzz didn’t give us much time to plan our luxury shindigs, so I called my mom and stepdad at 8 am and told them to come over that night for an end of summer/fall-inspired dinner party. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off, so I’m happy to report it turned out to be a lovely evening.

Despite the fact that dark clouds threatened rain all day, the temperature was just perfect and I was determined to eat outside.

I adorned the table with lavender sprigs and zinnias from my garden, and the centerpiece was one of my homegrown pumpkins (an heirloom Long Island cheese pumpkin, to be exact). Like I said, parties at my house are not very fancy…

…you can even wear your pajamas :)

The menu, though planned last minute, was perfect. We started with a salad of organic baby spinach and arugula, with heirloom cherry tomatoes and nasturtiums from my garden:

Then we had this fresh pasta with butternut squash, sage, pine nuts and bleu cheese:

Our main course was glazed local, grass-fed beef brisket (it was amazing and the recipe is below):

And for dessert, my mom baked this Chocolate Pumpkin Tart

…and these adorable cookies:

We all had a really great time.

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If you’re new to hosting dinner parties (or if you’re just a perfectionist type who always gets stressed out by this sort of thing), I put together a list of tips that you might find helpful:

1. Plan out your menu in advance. Figure out everything you want to make and create a shopping list. Look to your favorite magazines (in print or online) for guidance. I was inspired to make the menu for this party when I saw the Nigella Lawson fall party in this months Better Homes and Gardens Magazine. I suggest figuring out your menu and doing the shopping at least 1 day before your party, if possible. If you have no idea what dishes you want to serve, pick a theme. Choosing a type of cuisine (or a seasonal theme) is always a good bet.

2. Don’t get too adventurous. Unless you’re a complete free-spirit, never-get-stressed-in the-kitchen kind of person (or a really awesome cook), the day of your party is not the time to test out your recipe development skills. It’s also not the time to try a recipe from a blog you just stumbled upon for the first time (I assure you…there will be plenty of other opportunities to try recipes from that blog). You don’t want any surprises…you don’t want to make a recipe and find out that it doesn’t really work, or that it’s just not very good. If you see a recipe in a magazine or online and you are just dying to make it, make sure it’s simple- not something extremely complicated with a technique you might screw up because you’re stressed or short on time. The pasta dish I made for this party was a new recipe to me, but I was fairly certain it would work and be great because I adapted it from a Nigella Lawson recipe.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I gave up on needing to make everything for my parties long ago. Don’t you have enough to do if you’re cleaning the house, getting the table ready, and cooking a couple of dishes? I have no problem asking guests to help out by bringing wine, appetizers, or a dessert. If a guest likes to bake, then asking them to bring a home-baked dessert is perfect. For this meal, I called on my mom to make a seasonal dessert- something with pumpkin or apple- and she was thrilled to contribute. If your guest is not a baker, be very specific about what you’d like them to bring. I don’t know about you, but I get really bummed if someone brings a generic dessert from the supermarket to a party…avoid this by requesting a specific dessert from a specific bakery, if possible.

4. Do as much of the recipe preparation as you can ahead of time. Don’t choose a recipe that requires a lot of last-minute tending. There is really nothing less fun than standing at the grill babysitting a fussy beef tenderloin while everyone else is inside hanging out (I know because I’ve been there). It’s better to make things that are low maintenance, and that are fine served room temperature (the brisket for this meal was perfect in this regard because I was able to get it started early in the day, then it just rested until dinnertime). If your recipes require a lot of vegetable chopping or other similar prep work, try to get this done the day before your party.

5. Set the table in advance and keep the decorations simple. Use this time to inspect all of your plates and silverware to make sure they are clean. I don’t know about you, but in my house, it’s pretty much par for the course that everything needs to be run through the dishwasher before I have people over. I like to take care of all of this well before anyone arrives, again to minimize last-minute stress. When it comes to decorating the table, I look to nature for inspiration, and use items from my garden whenever possible. When in doubt, candles and/or a bouquet of flowers always make the table look lovely.

Please let me know if you have any tips that I simply must add to this list… I’d love to hear about your party planning/hosting secrets!

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Glazed Grass-Fed Brisket

adapted from Nigella Lawson's recipe for Texas Brisket in the October 2010 issue of Better Homes and Gardens Magazine

Ingredients

  • *2 large onions peeled and sliced
  • *one 4 1/2 pound brisket preferably local and grass-fed
  • *1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • *1/4 cup wheat-free tamari or soy sauce
  • *1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce I used Annie's brand which is all natural/vegan
  • *1/4 cup strong black coffee I mixed 1 teaspoon organic freeze-dried coffee with 1/4 cup water
  • *1/4 cup all natural barbeque sauce
  • *3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • *3 tablespoons favorite hot sauce

Instructions

  • 1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
  • 2. Scatter the onions on the bottom of a roasting pan that is just large enough to hold the brisket. Place the brisket on top of the onions (fat side up).
  • Place in a roasting pan and roast, uncovered, for 1 hour.
  • 3. Mix all of the the glaze ingredients together in a medium bowl and then pour over the brisket. Cover the brisket tightly with foil and place in the oven.
  • 4. Bake brisket for 3 1/2 hours, or until fork-tender.
  • 5. Remove roasting pan from oven and transfer brisket to a cutting board. Tent with foil.
  • 6. Make a gravy by blending the cooked onions and some of the liquid from the roasting pan. Set aside.
  • 7. Trim the fat, if desired, and slice meat thinly across the grain. Serve with the onion gravy.