DAZZLING DINNERS: Recipes, Decor and More
You are inviting people to dinner. You want them to adore the food, have great conversation and lots of fun. You want to excite their minds as well as their palates. After they leave, you want them to rave about the party to everyone they know. You need a dazzling dinner.
Dazzling dinner are not necessarily formal or elegant, and they certainly are not conventional. Dazzling dinners are distinctive and exceptional. They have themes that capture the imagination and are played out in delightful decor and fabulous food. Dazzling dinners are fun to think about, fun to carry out, and great fun for your guests. If you like food, or entertaining, or stepping out of the box, you will adore doing a dazzling dinner. It will be entertainment for your guests and recreation for you. Twelve chapters set out the Dazzling Dinner Plans, one inspired by each month of the year. Everything you need to know and do for a super-special evening is detailed in each Plan.
Sweet Potato "Goldfish"
"Seafood & Citrus Dinner"
"A Caribbean Columbus Day Dinner"
"A Fat Tuesday Celebration
SPRING INTO SUMMER
Inspiration: Summer Solstice, around June 21
Good cooks eagerly await the arrival of the fresh foods of late spring and early summer. Your guests will understand why.
Filled with clear air, sunshine and soft warmth, June brings the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. We celebrate the season as a time of blossoming and growth, romance and roses, weddings and honeymoons. For lovers of good food, this time is heaven. The first harvest of young herbs, baby vegetables and sweet berries is in. Tender in the mouth, sweet and gentle in flavor, these first, fresh foods perfectly distill the essence of the summer solstice, the end of spring’s beginnings and the start of summer’s fulfillment.
The menu takes full advantage of the season by featuring baby vegetables and early fruits, each dish highlighting one young herb. To bring out the glory of herbs and deepen your guests’ appreciation of them, serve each guest a sprig of each herb with its dish. Urge them to smell and taste it and compare it to the flavor of the herb in the finished dish. Your guests will love the experience, especially with less familiar herbs such as sorrel, marjoram, chocolate mint and rose geranium. The eleven herbs in the menu provide a range of tastes from the astringent, piney flavor of rosemary to the zippy sourness of sorrel to the sweetness of chocolate mint. Each recipe describes the characteristics of its herb. All will be available at a good farm market or nursery.
For this most romantic of months, the conception behind each dish is like that of the ideal marriage, vitality and joy from a union of two distinctive but complementary partners. The herb is not meant to blend with or alter the taste of the main ingredient. Rather, as in pairing wine with cheese, each main ingredient is matched to an herb so that each enhances the taste of the other.
To highlight the character of both the herb and its partner, use very simple preparations. All components should be very fresh, cooking times minimal and the herb added at the end of cooking. In the herbal infusions used for the dessert sauces, the herbs stay in hot liquid for a relatively long period but the cook takes the liquid from the heat the instant the herb is immersed and the herb should be freshly cut just before immersion.
In using herbs, cut or chop them just before use. Especially when young, herbs are delicate and lose flavor rapidly. To obtain sprigs for your guests to sample, leave the top portion for a sprig and strip the remaining leaves from the stem to use in the prepared dish. It is a good idea to assemble the sprigs for all the dishes an hour or so before guests arrive. You can put each set of herbs on a separate dish and pass them or place a sprig on the dish served to each guest.
Fresh herbs are so flavorful that many lovers of good food keep pots of herbs indoors for year-round pleasure. With the exception of sorrel, all herbs used in this menu are easily cultivated indoors in a sunny place. If you haven’t one already, start your own indoor herb garden and encourage your guests to do the same by giving them pots of herbs as a favor.
The menu also features honey, in an appetizer, the entrée and dessert, because of its symbolic value and relation to the solstice. For Pagans, the most propitious time to marry was in June, ideally on the day of the summer solstice. Honey symbolized the sweetness of love and marriage. For centuries, the favored drink at weddings was mead, an alcoholic concoction made from fermented honey. After the festivities, happy couples departed on their honeymoon, named for the honey moon, the first full moon in June. That date was said to be the best time to gather honey because, at that time, honey is young and fresh, like new growth and newlyweds.
Like people everywhere in any time, dine on the first fruits of the earth and
CELEBRATE THE SEASON!
Appropriate for: Anytime from late spring to midsummer, when you wish to charm your guests with the best from the farms.
SPRING INTO SUMMER
Celebrating the Solstice and First Harvest
With the summer solstice comes the first harvest of young herbs, baby vegetables and ripe berries. These first fresh foods perfectly distill the essence of the summer solstice, the end of spring’s beginnings and the start of summer’s fulfillment. In celebration, each dish features one early harvest food paired with one spring herb in a simple preparation to make the most of their tender sweetness.
Passion Fruit Juice with Rosemary
Fresh Litchi Wrapped in Prosciutto with Basil Leaf
Baby Beets to Dip in Crème Fraîche with Chives and Sorrel
Triple Crème Cheese on Grilled Baguette with Thyme Honey and Thyme
Baby Garlic and Shallot Soup with Oregano
Grilled Pork Chops with Orange Blossom Honey and Sage
Baby Red-Skinned Potatoes with Marjoram
Sugar Snap Peas with Spring Onion and Mint
Radishes with Sweet Lettuce and Tarragon
Shortcake Two Ways
With Strawberries and Chocolate-Mint Whipped Cream
With Cherries and Rose Geranium/Honey Yogurt
BACKING UP THE THEME
Basic: Print the menu shown above. A pale yellow paper will show off the green print nicely. For a special flourish roll and tie with green ribbon.
Ornamental: Print the Basic Menu on 8½x11 light green card stock. Fold horizontally with the print inside, with one edge slightly longer than the other. Using double-sided tape, attach one sprig of three different herbs on the short side. With the same tape, attach an attractive green patterned ribbon to run the width of the card stock and over the stems.
Symbols. Flowers, especially roses (as June is the month of roses); new growth and young things; weddings and honeymoons; honey and sweets.
Color. Light green, pink and other pastel colors. When selecting roses, choose colors other than red (pink, white, yellow). Seasonal flowers will always blend properly.
Table decor. Express the season with informal place settings and pastel colors. Use roses or other flowers lavishly. Remember to choose flowers without a strong fragrance that might interfere with tasting the food. Most commercially grown roses will qualify. Tie a colorful ribbon around each napkin and affix a small, fresh flower. Set each place with one or more blossoms in water in a small bowl. A sake cup would be ideal, or use a demitasse, liqueur glass or shot glass. Over the rest of the table, scatter more blossoms or petals, little birds or bees or anything that speaks to you of spring and the promise of summer.
Other decor. Wear clothes that suggest the season with lightweight, pastel-colored fabrics, perhaps with leaf or flower designs. At the entrance to your home, place a pot of a fragrant herb such as rosemary or basil. When guests arrive, shake or stroke the leaves for a burst of herbal perfume to grab your guests’ attention and focus them on the evening’s theme. Move pretty potted plants from other rooms to the living and dining areas. Bud vases with single roses can be placed strategically to occasionally capture a guest’s attention and reinforce the theme.
Music. There are songs for every season and plenty of compositions meant to evoke spring and summer. A set ranging from classical (e.g., "Spring and Summer" from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons) to show tunes (e.g., "Summertime" from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) to popular music ("Roll Out Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer" by Nat King Cole; ("Summer in the City" by The Lovin’ Spoonfuls; "In the Summertime" by Mungo Jerry; "Summer Lovin’" from the musical Grease) could be interesting, or try a set of songs for lovers.
Favor. You will certainly do your guests a favor if you give them small pots of herbs that they can keep indoors at a sunny window. Then all year round they can snip small amounts to perk up their cooking. Alternatives include a beautifully wrapped chocolate rose or a jar of special honey.
Note for favor: If you enjoyed the taste of fresh herbs at dinner, you may want to enjoy them year round. These will grow nicely in a sunny window. Enjoy their fragrance whenever you want by brushing or shaking their leaves. To enjoy their taste, clip the tops of the stems, being careful to leave enough leaves below to allow continued growth.
Opening Cocktail. A passion fruit cocktail is perfect for the month of romance and weddings. With or without the vodka, it is refreshing and just lush enough to justify its name. The sweetness of the fruit is balanced with the spiciness of ginger ale and the tang of lime juice. The sprig of rosemary adds an astringent, piney note. Ask guests to rub the rosemary, smell it and drop it in their drink.
For each 8-ounce serving: Mix together 3 ounces chilled passion fruit juice, 3 ounces cold ginger ale, a good splash of fresh lime juice and 2 ounces of vodka. Pour into tall glasses filled with ice. With each glass, present 1 sprig of rosemary.
Soup. Use the same wine used in the soup. We recommend a Sauvignon Blanc.
Entree. Serve a chilled, crisp French rosé. These wines are perfect for summer and their color is delightful.
After Dinner. The complex tones of a German, late harvest Reisling (labeled auslese, beerenauslese, or trockenbeerenauslese) will echo the sweet and tart, spicy and floral notes of the desserts. Or, try a tisane, an herbal tea made by infusing an herb (use what appeals to you) in water. Bring water to a boil, immerse a good amount of the herb in the water, take off heat and let steep for about 5 minutes.
BABY BEETS TO DIP IN CRÈME FRAÎCHE WITH SORREL AND CHIVES
Sweet beets and sour sorrel are a winning combination with onion-y chives. Baby beets are sweeter and more delicate in flavor compared to mature beets, with no bitter or woody undertones. Sorrel, sometimes called sour grass, is a rarely used but interesting herb. It has a sour, sprightly taste with added grassy notes that is quite distinct from either lemon or vinegar. If sorrel is not available, replace it with lemon thyme and a teaspoon of grated lemon zest. Serves 8.
Up to 1 day in advance: Roast beets, peel and refrigerate.
Up to 8 hours in advance: Make dip and quarter beets.
8 baby beets (1 inch or slightly more in diameter), unpeeled, green tops trimmed to 1 inch, preferably a mix of red, yellow and striped,
4 ounces crème fraîche
4 teaspoons finely chopped sorrel leaves
Salt and pepper
4 teaspoons chives, chopped
Whole sorrel leaves
Chive flowers, if available
Roast beets. Preheat oven to 375°F. Put beets in a small roasting pan and add enough water just to cover. Cover pan tightly with aluminum foil. Cook for 45–50 minutes, until a fork easily pierces the beet. When cool enough to handle, rub off skins. Cut each beet into quarters.
Make dip. With a spoon, mix together crème fraîche, sorrel leaves, salt and pepper until smooth. Stir in chives.
Have the dip cold and the beets at room temperature. Fill a small bowl with dip and a plate with beet quarters. Place a sorrel leaf in center of dip. If you have chive flowers, place several amongst the beet quarters. Pass a separate plate with whole sorrel leaves.
FRESH LITCHI WRAPPED IN PROSCIUTTO WITH BASIL
Devotees of Asian markets eagerly await the arrival of fresh litchi in May and await even more eagerly the peak season in June. Litchis are quite sweet with floral notes, complexity and sprightliness that are lost when the fruit is canned. The common combination of prosciutto with fruit gets a new twist with fragrant litchi and a hint of licorice and spice from the basil leaf. Serves 8.
Yield: 32 small packets
Up to 1 day ahead: Prepare litchis; wrap in plastic and refrigerate.
Up to 4 hours ahead: Complete dish; cover with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature.
16 fresh litchi, peeled
64 small basil leaves, preferably Thai or spicy globe basil
¼ pound prosciutto di Parma, thinly sliced and cut into strips 3-4 inches in length
Peel litchis, then slice in half and remove pits.
Pat dry. Put 2 small basil leaves or ¼ large leaf into the hollow of each litchi half. Wrap a strip of prosciutto around litchi.
Present in circular or rectangular pattern and place basil leaves around the perimeter or radiating out from the center of the plate as decoration.
TRIPLE-CRÈME CHEESE ON TOASTED BAGUETTE WITH THYME HONEY AND THYME
Triple-crème cheeses have at least 75% milk fat. Smooth and rich, slightly sweet and meltingly creamy, these cheeses are often paired with sweet fruit for dessert. Here, honey supplies sweetness while the herbal taste of thyme supplies balance. Serves 8.
Up to 4 hours in advance: Toast baguette slices; cool; cover with foil until ready to use.
1 baguette, preferably artisanal, cut into 24 slices about ½-inch thick
Extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup thyme honey
4 teaspoons chopped thyme leaves
½ pound triple-crème cheese such as Explorateur, not too ripe
Toast baguette slices. Brush one side of baguette slices with olive oil and very lightly toast under the broiler.
Finish. Warm honey in pan and lightly drizzle it over the un-toasted side. Sprinkle a small amount of thyme leaves on top and spread with a thin layer of cheese. Place under broiler briefly, just until cheese is warmed and beginning to melt. Serve immediately
Place baguette slices on warm plate and garnish with thyme sprigs. If you have a small mock bee (e.g., a porcelain replica or a piece of jewelry), place it on the plate.
BABY GARLIC AND SHALLOT SOUP WITH OREGANO
Use the youngest garlic and shallots you can find for a sweet, delicate flavor a world removed from that of tough, harsh winter garlic. Oregano adds a distinctly pungent, herbal note complemented by the grassiness of the Sauvignon Blanc. Serves 8.
Up to 1 day in advance: Prepare garlic cloves; cover tightly and refrigerate.
Up to 2 hours in advance: Make soup; puree, but do not reheat; keep at room temperature.
1 cup young garlic cloves (about 6 ounces), unpeeled
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup young shallots, peeled and chopped
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 cup white wine, preferably a crisp Sauvignon Blanc
2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
4 ounces mascarpone cheese
Prepare garlic. Bring 3 cups of water to boil, add garlic and boil for 10 minutes. Drain. Reserve.
Make soup. Over medium-low heat in a 5-quart pot, slowly cook together, for 5 minutes, the olive oil, butter and shallots. Add stock, wine, oregano leaves, reserved garlic cloves, salt and pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes. In batches, puree or process until smooth. Before serving, reheat just until soup reaches a simmer.
Place soup into warmed soup bowls and garnish with a dollop (a scant tablespoon) of mascarpone topped with a sprig of oregano.
GRILLED PORK CHOPS WITH ORANGE-BLOSSOM HONEY AND SAGE
The sweetness of the honey is balanced with pungent sage and heat from chili peppers. Serves 8.
Up to 1 day in advance: Prepare marinade; place in non-reactive container and refrigerate.
Up to 8 and at least 4 hours in advance: Marinate pork chops.
½ cup orange-blossom or other light honey
½ cup light green, fruity, extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons white wine vinegar
3 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup chopped fresh sage leaves
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded, deveined and minced
Salt and pepper to taste
8 loin pork chops, 1½ inches thick
16 sprigs of sage, taken from the top of the sage stem
Make marinade. Process all ingredients except pork chops and place in non-reactive bowl.
Marinate pork chops 4-8 hours before grilling. Place chops in non-reactive bowl (glass or porcelain) with marinade and coat all over. Cover and refrigerate.
Reserve marinade after removing chops. Grill chops. Turn frequently, basting with marinade, until cooked through (about 10-12 minutes).
Place chops on serving platter with sage sprigs fanned out at two sides of the platter.
BABY RED-SKINNED POTATOES WITH MARJORAM
Drizzled with butter and sprinkled with fresh chives, dill or parsley, new potatoes make a classic summer dish. Here, we use marjoram. It resembles its close cousin oregano in appearance, texture and flavor but is a bit sweet and a bit spicy, pairing perfectly with potatoes and butter. Its delicate flavor rapidly dissipates with heat, so add it to the cooked potatoes. The red, white and green of the dish make a colorful combo. Serves 8.
2 pounds baby red-skinned potatoes (1½ inches or less in diameter),unpeeled
6 tablespoons butter, melted
3 tablespoons fresh marjoram leaves, chopped just before use
Salt to taste
16 fresh marjoram sprigs
Gently rinse and rub potatoes to free them of any dirt, being careful not to break the skin. Place in steamer over boiling water and cook until tender but not mushy, about 15 minutes if potatoes are quite small. Cut in half and place in serving bowl. Pour melted butter over and sprinkle with chopped marjoram leaves and salt. Gently stir to coat. Serve immediately.
Place marjoram sprigs in center of bowl or on separate plate. Serve each guest two sprigs of marjoram.
SUGAR-SNAP PEAS WITH SPRING ONIONS AND MINT
Fresh peas certainly signal the onset of summer. Their spring-green casings open to reveal a row of miniature orbs colored in summer’s emerald green. Very sweet with impressive crunch, sugar snaps are the jewel in the crown of the pea family. We cannot achieve a better combination for them than the traditional onion and mint. If all ingredients are very fresh and young, the tastes are transporting. Serves 8.
Up to 2 hours in advance: Unzip the peas.
2 pounds fresh sugar snap peas, unzipped
3 quarts of water
1 teaspoons salt
2 drops of white vinegar
Large bowl of ice water
3 tablespoons butter
¾ cup spring onions, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
¼ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped just before use
8 or more mint leaves
8 (or 16 if they are small) pea shoots, with flowers if available (optional)
Prepare peas. Bring water to boil over high heat. Add the vinegar and the peas and boil for 1 minute. Drain peas and plunge into ice water.
Finish dish. Over medium-low heat, gently sauté the spring onions in the butter for 1 minute. Add peas and sauté another minute. Add chopped mint leaves, stir gently and serve.
Serve in bowl topped with mint leaves and, if you have them, pea shoots and flowers.
Place 1 chop on the upper portion of the plate. Top it with 2 sprigs of sage. Below, arrange the potatoes and peas to resemble eggs in a nest. Place peas in a hollow circle and fill with potatoes. Lay 2 sprigs of marjoram beside the potatoes near the rim of the plate. Place 1 or 2 mint sprigs to the side of the peas, near the rim. If using pea shoots/flowers, place between elements on the plate.
RADISHES WITH SWEET LETTUCE AND TARRAGON
Radishes are usually used to add a peppery note to salads. When late spring brings radishes with not a hint of harshness, underscore their refined taste by showcasing them in flower-like cups of sweet lettuce. A sprinkling of sprouts adds color and an additional dimension to taste and texture. Fine-tune this culinary composition with tarragon leaves for a note of licorice and with raspberry vinegar for a sweet-sour harmony that hints of summer fruit. An adorable radish mouse accents the dish’s concept. Serves 8.
Up to 8 hours in advance: Separate lettuce leaves; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Prepare the radish mice; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Up to 2 hours in advance: Slice radishes; cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Make vinaigrette. Serves 8.
1-2 heads Boston, butter or other sweet lettuce
2-3 bunches of young radishes, preferably of different colors, sliced thin
1 ounce radish or other sprouts
¼ cup fresh tarragon leaves, chopped just before use
8 medium-large radishes
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
Salt to taste
8 sprigs tarragon
Separate lettuce leaves from the lettuce heads.
Position each radish so that the root end goes upward to suggest the mouse’s tail. Trim the leafy stem at the front of the radish to resemble a mouse’s pointed nose.
For eyes, make 2 small holes with a knife where the eyes would be; insert 2 cloves, stem side in.
Cut a slice, about 1/8-inch thick, from the bottom of the radish. This will stabilize the “mouse” on the plate and serve as “ears.” Cut the slice in half; trim the straight, cut end as needed to get the right size “ears.” Make two small slits with a sharp knife on the top front of the radish where ears would be. Insert the “ears” into the slits, with the white side to the front.
Make vinaigrette. Whisk oil, vinegar and salt together.
Toss radishes, sprouts and tarragon leaves with vinaigrette just before serving.
In an individual shallow bowl or on a plate, place a few lettuce leaves to form a cup. Fill the cup with the radishes in vinaigrette and add radish sprouts. Stand a sprig of tarragon upright in the center of the salad. Place the radish mouse to the side.
SHORTCAKE TWO WAYS
For a splendid end, serve that staple of June menus, shortcake with fruit. Deliver dazzle and diversity by serving the shortcake in two ways: with two different fruits matched to two different toppings, each involving an infusion of a “dessert” herb. For the shortcake, make or buy good biscuits, or, if you prefer, a sponge cake. Serves 8.
With Strawberries and Chocolate-Mint Whipped Cream
How do you like your strawberries? Popular answers are: “With shortcake and whipped cream.” “With sugar and fresh mint.” “Chocolate-covered.” This is a recipe to satisfy one and all, using cream infused with chocolate mint, a type of spearmint that tastes and smells of chocolate along with its mint taste. The combination is guaranteed to intrigue and delight your guests.
Up to 1 day in advance: Infuse cream; cover tightly with several layers of plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Up to 2 hours and at least 1 hour in advance: Prepare strawberries.
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup chocolate-mint leaves
1 quart ripe strawberries, hulled
¼ cup sugar or less, depending on sweetness of berries plus 2 tablespoons sugar
Infuse cream. Heat cream over medium flame. Just before it boils, rub chocolate-mint leaves between fingers to release their aromatic oils. When cream boils, stir in chocolate-mint leaves, take off heat, cover and let stand for 30 minutes. Strain out the leaves, pressing down hard to release all the liquid from the leaves. Cover and chill.
Prepare strawberries. Halve or quarter strawberries, depending on size, and place in bowl. Stir in ¼ cup (or less) sugar and stir gently. Do not refrigerate. Stir twice over the next hour.
Whip cream. Beat cream until it begins to thicken. Add 2 tablespoons sugar and continue beating until cream holds soft peaks.
With Cherries and Rose Geranium/Honey Yogurt
The combination of honey and yogurt is common in Near Eastern desserts. Here, rose geranium adds interest, flavor and complexity to the honey. Rose geranium is one of many scented geraniums. Of course, it smells like a rose. It is a delightful and rewarding herb that, like other geraniums, takes nicely to indoor living. It produces pretty purple flowers intermittently in spring and summer and even occasionally in the winter. Brush its leaves as you pass by to savor its rich perfume. It’s like having a rose bush in your home.
Up to 2 days in advance: Infuse honey.
Up to 2 hours and at least 1 hour in advance: Prepare cherries.
¼ cup honey
¼ cup rose-geranium leaves, rubbed between fingers just before use
1 pound ripe cherries, preferably Queen Anne
2 tablespoons light brown sugar, preferably turbinado or light brown
1¼ cups whole milk yogurt, preferably goat’s milk
8 sprigs rose-geranium leaves
Infuse honey. Bring honey to simmer, add rose-geranium leaves, take off heat, cover and let stand for 30 minutes. Strain out the leaves, pressing hard to release all the liquid. Cover tightly and chill.
Prepare cherries. Slice in half and remove stone. Sprinkle sugar over cherries, cover and refrigerate.
Mix honey and yogurt together.
On each individual plate, place two biscuit halves. Spoon strawberries and their juice over one biscuit half and top with a generous portion of chocolate-mint whipped cream. Garnish with chocolate-mint sprig. Spoon cherries and their juice over the other biscuit half and top with a generous portion of honey yogurt. Garnish with sprig of rose geranium.