Recipes, Décor 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.
A dazzling dinner emphasizes entertainment. It makes people say, “WOW!” Dazzling dinners 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 décor 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.
The Introduction for this book describes the why and how of the dinner plans. The 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. There is a cook’s introduction, an eye-catching souvenir menu for your guests, recipes, wine recommendations for each course and suggestions for enhancing the evening, from interesting ways of greeting guests to table décor and background music to favors for departing guests.
There is a time for casual dinner entertaining and a time for a polished, thoroughly impressive party. Dazzling Dinners equips you to do either in a WOW! way. For those very special occasions, each Dinner Plan lays out a fabulous feast of five courses and ten different dishes. For not quite so special an occasion, simply reduce the number of courses and dishes. Any party, dinner or other gathering will harvest cheers when you show off one or two of the visually amusing dishes that populate most of the Dinner Plans. And why not bring a bit of dazzle into everyday meals? Pick a recipe for tomorrow’s dinner that is pure delight and just plain fun.
Whatever the occasion, the Dazzling Dinner Plans are designed to knock out the guests, not the cook. Recipes are easy to medium in difficulty and complexity. They include preparation notes that tell you how far in advance you can prepare the dish and whether you can freeze it. Suggestions for table and room decor are detailed and straightforward. Dazzling dinners are definitely doable. We know. We, the authors, are amateur cooks with no formal training in the culinary arts and we work in totally unrelated professions. But we love food and fun. We cooked up this book after years of entertaining each other with dazzling dinners.
INTRODUCTION: ABOUT DAZZLING DINNERS
The “WHY” and some helpful hints for “HOW”
Great dinners, like great books or music, entertain by means of themes. Themes tie everything together, making for meaningful, full and satisfying experiences. Each Dazzling Dinner Plan is designed to entertain, to surprise and delight, through carefully crafted, creative and clever development of a theme. The Dinner Plans follow three rules: each feature of the dinner, whether décor or food, must (1) elaborate the dinner’s theme, (2) be uncommon (for surprise) and (3) be uncommonly good (for delight). Every dish reflects the theme by matching its appearance and ingredients to the theme. Table settings, decorative details and background music underscore the theme.
The dinner titles in the Table of Contents show the emphasis on fun themes that captivate because they are either unique or they are familiar but uniquely developed. Guaranteed, your guests have never encountered the tours de force of gastronomic gags in “!Loof Lirpa (April Fool!)” or , for October, Caribbean flavors in Italian preparations. Dazzling Dinners makes the most of common seasonal themes by exploiting their ambiance. Both January and July use a winter theme to different effect. “All Wrapped Up,” evokes warmth and coziness to ward off winter’s chill. But that chill is welcome in July. “A Cool Menu for a Hot Summer” features an icy décor and cool tastes in fanciful foods formed in the shape of winter symbols. Regardless of theme, the dishes in the dinner plan for each month complement the season, employing seasonal ingredients and seasonal preparations.
Each theme is keyed to one month of the year, but all lend themselves to other occasions as well. All Dinner Plans include specific suggestions for when to use them.
THE DINNER PLANS: What’s in Them and Why
This section tells you about the theme and how it relates to the dishes you’ll be serving. It helps you establish the appropriate atmosphere and gives you conversational gambits.
Each has a title keyed to the dinner’s theme along with catchy names and descriptions of the dishes.
Backing Up the Theme
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, i.e., details add up. Not to worry – this section describes, in specific detail, how to stage your party, from a dramatic entry to your home to a stunningly wrapped take-home favor that guests receive as they depart. “Backing Up the Theme” covers the following topics.
Souvenir Menus. A visually stunning, take-home menu jumpstarts your dinner with a BANG! It marks your dinner as a special event. It establishes a mood of excitement and celebration, coloring guests’ reaction to the entire evening. The menu is a surprise, something expected at a wedding but not at a dinner party in the home.
Imagine the impact: It’s a March party and Lent is looming. As you greet guests, you give each a feathered Mardi Gras mask on top of a folded piece of gold or cream paper. Inside, they see the evening’s menu in vivid purple or green print with intriguing title and enticing descriptions of the dinner’s dishes. Never, ever have they had an evening begin like this! While quite impressive, these take-home menus are made of easy-to-find, inexpensive materials and are fairly easy to make. Your guests will love to take them home and show them off.
Symbols. Using symbols of the theme in dishes and decorations is the best way to cook up delight and amusement. The dishes and suggested décor make extensive use of symbols but this section spells them out so that you can easily adapt and elaborate details as you wish.
Color. Particular themes suggest certain colors and color combinations. The Dinner Plans employ them liberally in food and decorations. Detailing color schemes helps you decide what items in your cabinets to incorporate in décor.
Table Décor. A beautiful table always delights guests. A strikingly set table that reflects your theme doubles the impact. The suggestions in this section emphasize décor that is distinct and dramatic, yet uncomplicated. For example, wide, sparkling ribbon down and across the table “wraps” it as a present for the December dinner, “Presents A’Plenty.”
Flower arrangements are traditional centerpieces. The better to dazzle, we suggest eye-catching alternatives to the often expensive but humdrum arrangements from a florist: e.g., an ice luminary for January’s “All Wrapped Up” and a replica of an Oscar statue (available in party and movie stores) for “An Academy Award Dinner.”
Cautionary notes: Make sure that centerpieces are short or quite tall and thin so that they don’t impede guests’ view of each other. And beware flowers or candles with a strong fragrance that can interfere with the taste of food.
Other Décor. Each Dinner Plan describes special details of décor to enhance the evening from start to finish. Each has suggestions for dramatic ways to greet guests and theme-related embellishments for living and dining rooms. Overhead lighting and candles are key elements in setting the atmosphere. In general, subdued overheads are best. Candles are captivating. But be careful. Don’t let their drips ruin a surface and, to save the eyes of your guests, let them be tall or short but never at eye level.
Music. Background music reinforces the theme and sets mood. We suggest, as appropriate, either specific songs or types of music.
Favor. Send your guests home with a simple but stunningly wrapped favor that they can enjoy the next day and that will remind them of their dazzling dinner. This section describes the favor, its wrapping and includes a clever and amusing note.
THE DAZZLING DISHES: What They Are Like and Why
Food is center-stage at a dinner party, so it must elicit “oohs” and “aahs” when you present the dishes and “bravos” as guests eat.
Guests love dishes with fanciful forms and they inhabit most Dinner Plans. Some dishes are simple forms such as the “goldfish” and “seahorse” in the August Chapter, “Seafood and Citrus.” Some dishes correspond to scenes, such as the tongue-in-cheek “shark-fin” soup (see cover of Dazzling Dinners on home page) and the entrée for February’s “An Academy Award Dinner.” It represents the lovers on a Hawaiian beach in the Oscar-winning movie, From Here to Eternity. While spectacular to see, these forms and scenes are quite easy to make.
Color is always crucial – for beauty, ambiance and symbolism. All dishes play to these effects. For example, bright, rich colors predominate in “Presents A’Plenty” and red, white and blue in “The Course of an Election.”
A dazzling dinner makes every dish distinctive and delectable. New and great tastes are the hallmark. They please our tongues, excite our imaginations, and create conversation. There are four ways to achieve such tastes: employ uncommonly good ingredients, use uncommon ingredients, make uncommon use of common ingredients, or use uncommon combinations.
Uncommonly good ingredients. Great ingredients make a difference that guests get. They fill your mouth with rich, bright and satisfying flavor. Happily, top-quality ingredients are often the healthy choice and not necessarily more expensive if you shop wisely.
Produce. Fresh is best. Many vegetables, fruit and herbs lose flavor and vitamins after harvest. Buy them at farm markets or specialty groceries, which usually have fresher, higher-quality produce at a better price than supermarkets where “fresh” can mean a week or even a month old.
Spices. They’ll make dishes sing or fall flat. Freshness is again key. Buy whole seeds (anise, cardamom, etc.) in small amounts and replace annually. Many recipes call for first toasting and then grinding the spice to develop full flavor and eliminate the harsh notes found in raw spices. Usually, Asian groceries and on-line stores have better prices than supermarkets.
Meat and fish. The tastiest meat, sad to say, is neither the cheap nor the healthy choice. Prime cuts are tastier, costlier and have more fat. Meat that is dry-aged, rather than wet-aged in plastic, is much, much richer and fuller in flavor and much more expensive. Wild-caught, rather than farmed, fish typically taste better, are healthier but more expensive. For grilling meat or fish, the best flavor is achieved with natural charcoal rather than processed charcoal or gas grilling.
Other ingredients. Homemade items such as soup stock or mayonnaise are superior to and less expensive than processed products. However, for many other ingredients, as cost goes up, so does flavor. Within reason, and for special occasions, we prefer superior ingredients, even when more costly. It’s part of what makes a special occasion special.
Uncommon ingredients. When a recipe calls for an unusual ingredient, it is because that ingredient will produce an unusual and delicious taste not attainable otherwise. For example, lavender (used in April’s “!Loof Lirpa” and September’s “Grandma’s Food – NOT!”) lends sweetness and a mild astringency to food as well as a bonus, its unique and delightful fragrance. Kaffir lime leaves (see the August chapter "Seafood and Citrus” and July”s, “A Cool Menu for a Hot Summer”) are intensely fragrant with a lime flavor that borders on the ethereal. Such ingredients may not be in your neighborhood stores but can be found in a specialty food store, Near Eastern or Asian grocery or through the Internet.
Does it make sense to buy a special, expensive ingredient for just one occasion? Of course. Use special purchases to explore culinary possibilities, to develop your culinary talents, and to bring a little dazzle into everyday cooking. Ingredients such as lavender and kaffir lime are versatile, take well to freezing and will add interest and pizzazz to meats, vegetables and desserts. Use Internet recipes to guide your explorations.
Uncommon use of common ingredients and uncommon combinations. These two arrows in the quiver of taste surprises contribute greatly to the fun and festive spirit of dazzling dinners. To illustrate: Imagine their amazement when, for dessert, you deliver to the table a pizza box with a pizza inside! And their awe on discovering that this luscious pie really is a pizza, a crust with tomato sauce and cheese. But the crust is sweet, not savory; the tomato sauce has been sweetened with strawberries and the cheese slathered on top is sweetened mascarpone with white chocolate. It’s the perfect dessert for April Fool’s Day (see “!Loof Lirpa”) - or any time you want a fun-filled, smashing end to your party.
The recipes list substitutions for very expensive and hard-to-find ingredients. For more information on substitutions, there are many helpful sites on the Internet. These sites provide a banquet of ingredients with their equivalents.
THE SEQUENCE OF COURSES: What and Why
For maximum impact, our dazzling dinners start sensationally, end exceptionally, make the middle marvelous and tone things down in between. The sequence is: awesome appetizers; interesting but simple soup; impressive, three-part entrée; refreshing, simple salad; stupendous dessert. Why? Psychologically, first and last things have greatest force and are best remembered. Middles impress less, unless outstanding. But, a bit of respite from high impacts is welcome.
Start Sensationally. First impressions set a climate of excitement or triteness, a mood of enthusiasm or boredom. Set the stage at your home’s entry and greet guests with a captivating cocktail. Both provide visual excitement and get conversations going. Next, hand them the attention grabbing, souvenir menu to intrigue and foster more conversation. Then serve, with fanfare, not one, not two, but three visually stunning and terrific tasting appetizers.
End Exceptionally. The finale has great influence on how the whole is perceived and remembered. Therefore, a dazzling dinner ends as it began, with a BANG! Serve one dessert with extraordinary appearance and taste and a second, complementary, dessert that is light and refreshing. Underscore your message of sweet endings with a final treat, an extravagantly wrapped, take-home favor.
Make the Middle Marvelous. The entrée must be a stand-out, both because people expect it to be the star player and it’s in the middle. So, make it conspicuously different. The Dinner Plans use uncommon meat or seafood (e.g., an American bison roast for November’s “The Course of an Election”) or sensational seasoning of more common fare (e.g., the meatloaf in September’s “Grandma’s Food – NOT!”) or unusual presentations (e.g.,February’s “An Academy Award Dinner”).
Tone It Down In-Between. Rests are restorative. Too much stimulation can be off-putting and even lessen the impact of additional stimulation. Incorporate rests and simple dishes, light soup and refreshing salad, between the high impact courses. Guests, who are beginning to feel full, and hosts, who need a break, will be grateful.
Why So Many Courses? For special occasions, there is no better way to make your guests feel valued and indulged. The many dishes and courses in a full Dinner Plan make a lavish feast that will spark your guests’ admiration and give you the joy of achieving the extraordinary. For less special occasions or if you are pressed for time, follow the suggestions below.
WAYS TO USE THE DAZZLING DINNER PLANS
Whether you do a complete Dinner Plan or select parts of one depends on the nature of the occasion and the practicalities in your life. Depending on how much you want to do, this section suggests what is best to include for maximum WOW!
Doing a complete dinner plan making all dishes and details of décor
Most likely, you will “do it all” only for very special occasions when you wish to go over the top, the sort of dinner many of us will do just once or twice a year when we want to fully pamper and impress our guests.
Doing all 5 courses but purchasing some food and trimming details of décor
Probably, the occasion is quite special so you wish to make it a full feast with at least some distinctive décor. When purchasing substitute dishes, look for ones that fit the theme – not always easy, of course. However, seasonal dishes are always appropriate and they are easy to find. For greatest impact, we suggest the following:
Souvenir menus. Do them. They always impress and can be made well in advance.
Décor. Match the suggested table setting as much as possible. If you add just one other detail of décor, make it the suggestion for the entry to your home.
Appetizers. Make one from the Dinner Plan and supplement it with three or four other foods: a purchased appetizer dish, cheeses, olives, nuts, bread straws, etc.
Soup. Most soups can be at least partially prepared well in advance and frozen. Often, a suitable substitute can be purchased.
Entrée. Make the part that is most captivating, generally the meat or fish. Make simple versions of the side dishes or purchase substitutes.
Salad. Most Dinner Plans have simple salads that are a cinch to make. Otherwise, use a combination of lettuces with a simple but fresh vinaigrette made just before serving. Top with some shavings of Parmesan or other hard cheese.
Desserts. For exceptional endings, desserts should be splendid characterizations of the theme. While most can be made at least a day ahead, desserts tend to be labor intensive. So substitute if you must, but try to keep the theme. For example, ask a bakery to do a ribbon decoration on one of their cakes for January’s “All Wrapped Up,” a cake with cool-looking white frosting is fine for July’s “A Cool Menu for a Hot Summer.”
Favor. A favor always delights and makes guests feel very special. If the Dinner Plan includes a homemade favor, substitute some good-quality candy and wrap it beautifully in theme-related colors. You can, of course, do so days in advance.
For a Less Elaborate Feast
Make an ordinary dinner party out-of-the-ordinary with some themed décor and themed dishes, but fewer of them. Make one appetizer supplemented by cheese, olives, etc. Do either soup or salad but not both. Reduce the entrée to two, rather than three, dishes. Make or purchase one dessert, perhaps supplemented with chocolates, nuts or fruit. Prepare a favor only if you feel it is appropriate.
For Cocktail or Other Parties
It’s easy to put WOW! into any party. Select dishes most suitable for your occasion. Add in some with fun forms, for guests love a whiff of whimsy. You can change the appearance or the ingredients to suit your needs and particular party. For example, the appetizer “cake” for April Fool’s Day can be transformed into an appetizer birthday “cake” by adding birthday-cake candles. The “goldfish” in August’s “Seafood and Citrus” can be shaped like a pumpkin for a Fall party or like a flower for a Spring or Summer party. You can make a seahorse (“Seafood and Citrus”) from the mushroom pate of the December dinner, “Presents A”Plenty,” rather than from an eggplant salad.
For an Everyday Dinner
Just for fun, introduce a dazzling dish when no one is expecting it. They’ll love you for it. And don’t think that your teenager doesn’t like it, just because he groans, “Oh, Mom (or Dad) – that’s so weird!” He knows you did something special for him.
HELPFUL HINTS FOR “HOW TO”
You want to enjoy the fun along with your guests. You don’t want to be stressed and exhausted. Most dinner parties involve extra work and expense and chances are, the more special the dinner, the more of both. As hosts with full-time jobs and families, we’ve learned there are four ways to minimize stress. First, allocate your time carefully; do as much as possible in advance. Second, share the preparation with others. Third, cut down as necessary on how much you prepare. Fourth, focus on how DAZZLING! the dinner will be and how much FUN! it will be for you and your guests.
Allocating Your Time
Plan well and well in advance, perhaps a month or more if it is a special occasion. Plan with strict attention to what can be done with the time available. Start early and spread it out as much as possible. Prepare the following well in advance.
Shopping list. Include food, decorations and favor (if using). If you need to order something, do it early. Pick up non-fresh ingredients early and set aside time to shop for fresh ingredients on the day before or the day of your party.
Souvenir menu. Make them early. It will be one important task out of the way and you will be inspired by their great looks.
Décor. Assemble the elements early. You don’t want to discover at the last minute that the tablecloth has some spots. Set out early as much of the décor as you can. For example, set the dining room table days in advance, if not in everyday use, and cover with a sheet of plastic.
Music. Gather appropriate pieces from your collection or download them.
Prepare food in advance. Do not crowd preparations into the big day itself. Each recipe specifies what can be done in advance. Work as far ahead as possible. Last, but not least, allow at least 30 minutes just before the party with nothing to do. That will give you a bit of time to relax and a bit of time to take care of the one or two things that you forgot or could use just a little extra time to perfect.
A timely suggestion. Sunday evening is a great time for a dazzling dinner. You will probably have more spare time to prepare over the weekend and it may be easier to co-opt the services of your partner or family members. Not least, your guests will appreciate a fabulous and festive dinner as a break from the normal Sunday evening of electronic entertainment.
Sharing the Preparation
Chances are your grandmother and great aunts (and often their spouses) worked together on holiday meals such as Easter or Passover, Hanukah or Christmas. For many of us, the warmth and happiness of a holiday kitchen is one of our best childhood memories. Continue the tradition with friends or family in preparing your dazzling-dinner feast. Working together is amazingly gratifying. Relationships strengthen, talents (culinary and other) get a workout, new experiences occur, and all have the satisfaction of achieving the extraordinary. Just follow two rules: Join with others who like dining as entertainment and focus on fun.
Cooking clubs. Especially if you love food and entertaining, form a cooking club and share the fun, money, time and effort of producing full-feast dazzling dinners that you and your friends will adore. It’s how we, the authors, came to concoct this book.
A cooking club is a group of two or more people who get together on a more or less regular basis to share preparing and eating food. Cooking clubs can serve several purposes: for casual get-togethers, to learn about food and cooking, to explore novel foods and preparations, or as entertainment. Meet only as often as all members find comfortable. Absolutely avoid competition; work with each other. Treat imperfections and even disasters as part of the fun and applaud each other’s achievements loudly and frequently.
Focus on FUN!
Dazzling dinners are all about fun. Even if you’re not a totally enthusiastic cook, you can make the preparation fun. Focus on the party, not on the chore you’re doing. Keep a positive attitude; think how appealing these dazzling dishes are. Imagine how surprised, delighted, and impressed your guests will be. Especially with repetitious tasks such as chopping or peeling or stuffing, watch TV or a DVD or play your favorite music. Engage other family members in the joy of cooking.
Always reward yourself for completing a good job. If there is chocolate left after finishing the cake – eat it – and lick the frosting left in the bowl, too. Treat yourself to your own special treat the day after the dinner, whether it is another chunk of chocolate, a massage or chilling out with a new DVD. You’ve done a super job indulging others. Now indulge yourself.