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The Dish on Dazzling Dinners


Staging Fun-Filled, Impressive, Themed Dinners From Invitations to Favors

With Guidelines for Recipes and Suggestions for Simplification 


Whether you wish to mark a special occasion or please cherished guests, or when you need to impress or just for personal pleasure, THE DISH ON DAZZLING DINNERS is your guide.

There are 24 dinner plans that dazzle, two for each month, each with an intriguing theme carried throughout all elements of the dinner. Specific instructions cover the major features of a dinner party: clever invitations, informative Host’s Introduction, beguiling ways to greet guests, a visually striking souvenir menu, room and table décor, mood music, and charming take-home favors. Instead of recipes, THE DISH makes theme related suggestions for each dish so that you can use the Internet or your own expertise to tailor the tastes to your liking. In short, here is your guide to superlative dinner entertainment.



Roasted Beet Soup

February: "KISS! Keep it Sumptuous and Sensual" (Valentine's Day)


Pancakes with Eggs, Sunny Side Up

 April: "Loof Lipra (April Fool)"


German Chocolate Torte ("Grand Hotel" - Best Picture 1933

February: An Academy Award 




Inspiration: Fall classes start


Keep Your Guests Guessing with Culinary Charades


Remember the first day back? The little quiz about where you went on vacation? BORING! But one September, that first day was FUN! We played charades. Miss Wall, English teacher nonpareil, had us act out the title of a book we had read over the summer. Different! Engaging! Hilarious!


For a dinner that’s different, engaging and bound to be hilarious, play Food Charades. In September, make it “back to school” by having guests guess facts (aka trivia) about the food they are eating. Here’s how to play Food Charades. Obtain an interesting fact about a particular food. Prepare a dish with that food so that it visually represents the fact about the food. In succession, have each guest try to guess the fact. After each guess, provide feedback. Ham it up as you gesture or say whether the guess is on the right track, way off, getting closer or farther away, needs more information, etc. Give gold stars for correct answers.


The Recipe Guidelines below include, for each dish, a piece of trivia – elevated to the term “fact” to suggest the “educational” theme – and instructions for representing the fact. All dishes feature ingredients and preparations that speak to the season, midway between summer’s light and cooling tastes and the hefty, deep flavors of autumn that warm us when it’s cold.


It’s time for everyone to put on their thinking caps and

Guess Before You Ingest!

Appropriate for: Anytime you want your guests to have a lot of fun.



aka Menu for Culinary Charades


CHAMPAGNE and PEAR - It’s about pears.



FIGS with MASCARPONE and CHIVES – It’s about figs.

MUSHROOM PATÈ – It’s about mushrooms.

BAKED CLAMS – It’s about clams.



CELERY and APPLE SOUP  - It's about celery.


MAIN -it's all about pigs and big bucks.









ALMOND CAKE – It’s about almonds.





Invitations. Place an image of a yellow school bus or a blackboard with chalk on the outside of a blank card or your email. The Internet has many amusing images to copy.

Note for invitation. The kids are back in school. Let’s celebrate with a “Back to School” dinner party. Sharpen your pencils, take your notebook out, put on your new clothes and sneakers and get ready for some “classy” food.


Entrance decor. Display on your front door an amusing “Back to School” poster. Many are available for purchase online or take a few minutes to make one of your own.


Greeting guests. For a suitable start to your “Back to School” dinner, greet your guests as a teacher (think school marm) might greet students on the first day of school. Welcome them back and joke a bit about returning to classes after summer vacation. Give each “student” a name tag. Once all guests have arrived, tap on a piece of wood furniture with a ruler and, in your best school marm manner, ask everyone to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Then hand out menus (see below) and let the Food Charades begin.


Souvenir menus. Print the menu inside a blue book (the old ones used for essay exams) or on lined notebook paper or whatever you have that says “school.” 


Room decor. If feasible, arrange living room furniture to resemble a classroom. Use school paraphernalia such as a stack of pencils, rulers, some notebooks, yearbooks, etc. for decorations.


Table decor. Capture that first back-to-school moment with a centerpiece of apples for the teacher, pens and some small notebooks  or books. If your back-to-school days were anything like mine, add, as would the school prankster, a grasshopper or similar insect. Place settings can be plain but if you would like to stick a small pen or pencil into a napkin ring or place it above the plate, that’s fine.


Mood music. Use school songs, sports cheers and chants. Include pop music such as Sam Cooke’s "Don’t Know Much About History."


Favor. Prepare dough for your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, but leave out the chips. Make large cookies. Before baking, use mini chocolate chips to write “MA” on each cookie. 

Note for favor. On the outside of the envelope write: “Guess - - It’s about the cookie. Answer is inside.” Place a piece of paper or card inside the envelope with this message: “Chocolate chip cookies were invented in Massachusetts.”


With suggestions for plating and complementary beverages


CHAMPAGNE and PEAR - It’s about pears.

Food Fact: The pear is a member of the rose family.

There are many cocktails that use pear in one form or another. A simple and elegant one is Champagne with Pear William or other pear brandy or liqueur. More creative concoctions are easy to find on the Internet.

Preparation. Spear a slice of pear and a small edible rose on a toothpick to decorate the cocktail glass. A Seckel pear is the perfect size. If you cannot find edible roses, use glue or double-sided tape to attach a small rose (real or not) to the outside of the glass. 


MUSHROOM PÂTÉ - It's about  mushrooms.


Food Fact: Mushrooms have been used to make vivid dyes in all colors of the spectrum.

Preparation. Make a mushroom pâté. One favorite includes several kinds of mushroom, sautéed onions, bacon bits, dill and then add sour cream or cream cheese. 

Plating. Place the pâté on a platter. For a nice touch, form the shape of a mushroom. Around the edge of the platter place at least 5 or 6 button mushrooms, each in a different bright color. Using food dyes, soak each mushroom in a different color. If one of the mushrooms is not taking up the dye when soaked in room-temperature water, use hot water.

FIGS with MASCARPONE and CHIVES – It’s about figs.

Food Fact: The fig is a flower, sort of. Fig trees have no blossoms on their branches. The blossom is inside of the fruit! Many tiny flowers produce the crunchy little edible seeds that give figs their unique texture.

Preparation. Mix mascarpone with short (about 1/4 inch) lengths of chives. Cut black figs in half and mound on all but one the mixture of mascarpone and chives. For distinct color, you may wish to sprinkle a few additional chive lengths on the top of each mound of mascarpone.

Plating. The fact involves a flower so the dish must have a flower pattern. The flower’s center is a fig half with small flowers in its center to illustrate that figs have their flowers inside. Place the unstuffed fig half in the center of a platter, skin side down. Place one or more edible flowers in its center. Tiny herb blossoms would be perfect but a small bloom such as a nasturtium will work. If you cannot find small edible flowers, use small flowers such as baby’s breath but caution the guests that that part of the flower is not edible. Arrange the mascarpone-stuffed halves to radiate out from the center fig. Place a long slice of green pepper to resemble a stem. Show your guests the platter with its flower pattern. Get them to start guessing what the fact about figs is before you serve the fig halves. Your guests will probably easily guess that a fig is a flower, but go for the full fact, that the flowers are inside the fruit.

BAKED CLAMS – It’s about clams.

Food fact: The giant clam can weigh more than 400 pounds. In case you are wondering, these clams are found in the warm waters around eastern Indonesia and the Great Barrier Reef.

Preparation. Cook clams, reserving the shells. Chop. Use a stuffing with non-Western flavoring to suggest that the fact is about an exotic clam. Briefly sauté garlic and ginger in peanut oil. Mix with the chopped clams, chopped scallions, panko crumbs and enough clam juice to hold the mixture together.

Plating. Arrange baked clams on a platter to form this: > 400. Use scallions to form the “greater than” sign.


CELERY and APPLE SOUP  - It's about celery.

Food Fact: Celery has “zero” calories. Digesting celery uses more calories than the celery contains. 

Preparation. Make a celery soup. We like one with sautéed shallots, celery stalks and celery root, peeled tart apples, a dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc for its vegetal flavors and vegetable stock. Finely chop celery leaves for the garnish.

Plating. Put soup in individual bowls. Use the finely chopped celery leaves to form a “0” on top. The soup is off-white, the leaves pale green, and the result – lovely.

Complementary beverage. Serve the wine used for the soup.

 MAIN- It’s about pigs and big bucks.





Food Fact: Wall Street, according to some sources, got its name because it ran along a wall built to keep pigs out of fields. The visual clue will show pork (standing in for pigs) behind a “wall” of small potatoes that separates the pigs from a cobblestone street (white squash). Hundred dollar bills suggest the big bucks of Wall Street.


    Roast Pork: We suggest a boneless pork loin rubbed with crushed fennel seeds and garlic before roasting.

    Squash: Use white winter squash or white root vegetables (a combination of parsnips and parsley root works well). Bake or boil, then mix with butter, roasted garlic paste and a bit of orange zest.

  Potatoes: Choose brown-skinned fingerling potatoes. You may find it convenient to make the “wall” in advance and use other, freshly prepared potatoes to serve. Spoon rosemary-infused butter over the potatoes when you serve them. 

You may prepare the “street” (squash) and “wall” (potatoes) in advance and warm the platter in the oven as the pork roast rests after it is done.

Plating the main

Use a large oval or rectangular platter.

(1) For the street: Spoon the squash along a long side of the platter, forming it to resemble a street. Use a knife to make marks to resemble cobblestones. After washing them, roll up two clean dollar bills and place at both ends of the “street.” The clue will be stronger if you use large denomination bills. Two hundred-dollar bills will impress. Or use Monopoly money.

(2) Make a “wall” paralleling the “street” with a row of fingerling potatoes stacked 2 or 3 high. To make sure the potatoes stay stacked together, level the potatoes by taking a thin slice from the sides that abut each other. Use a toothpick to secure together adjacent potatoes.

(3) The pork roast represents the pigs. Place it on the other side of the “wall.”

(4) Have your guests look carefully at the arrangement and ask them to guess while you slice the roast and plate the guests’ dishes.

Complementary beverage

A medium-bodied red such as a Pinot Noir is a good choice although some prefer white wine with roast pork, perhaps a Grüner Veltliner.




Food Fact: Beets are a “good mood” food. They contain betaine and tryptophan, substances that promote relaxation and a sense of well being.

Preparation. For a nice mix of bitter, sweet, sour and savory tastes, use greens such as arugula or endive and add small chunks of Fuji or other sweet apple, blue cheese (Stilton would be our choice), toasted walnuts and a balsamic vinaigrette. Roast large beets.

Plating. Spread individual salad plates with the mixture of greens. Make a round happy face from a slice of roasted beet. Use the cheese to make eyes and a thin, peeled, crescent-shaped slice of apple for the mouth.


ALMOND CAKE – It’s about almonds.

Food Fact: California produces 75% of the world’s supply of almonds. A related fact: California is the only U.S. state that produces almonds.

Preparation. We favor the simple, not-too-sweet Spanish versions of almond cake with zesty citrus flavor.

Plating. Decorate the top of the cake with CA 75. Use chopped, toasted almonds, sprinkles or a colored frosting. You may wish to coat the cake with powdered sugar or a light glaze or frosting before applying CA 75.



Food Fact: About 70% of the world’s grapes are used to produce wine. 

Preparation. Choose large purple, seedless grapes. Split them almost in half with a sharp knife. Mix together brie and brandy. Put a small amount of this mixture between the two halves and press lightly so that a line of cheese shows between the two halves. For the decoration, boil down grape juice until it has a syrupy consistency.

Plating. Use grape syrup to form “70” on a platter. The syrup, like wine, is a liquefied version of the fruit. Arrange the stuffed grapes around the “70.” 

Complementary beverage

Serve the brandy that you combined with the cheese. 



Cocktail. It’s simple enough to do. 


Appetizers. The stuffed figs are simple to prepare and the dish is eye-catching.


Soup or Salad. Both are about equal in ease of preparation. The soup can be prepared well in advance and frozen.


Main. The pork roast and squash are simple preparations that do not require a lot of prep time. Setting up the potatoes to make a “wall” will take time. Instead, buy a long baguette and slice it, crust in front, to form the “wall”.


Desserts. Go for the almond cake. If you cannot bake or buy one, purchase a cake with a plain or glazed topping. Cover the top with toasted, chopped almonds and top that with CA 75 in a contrasting color.


Favor. Buy large chocolate chip cookies. Use melted chocolate - white or dark-or sprinkles to write MA on them.

Note for favor. On the outside of an envelope write: “Guess - - It’s about the cookie. Answer is inside.” Place a piece of paper or card inside the envelope with this message: “Chocolate chip cookies were invented in Massachusetts.”


Foods of the Fifties, Refashioned

Inspiration: Grandparents’ Day, the first Sunday after Labor Day


Grandma might think she knows what these dishes are, but she’ll be blown away

by their sensational new tastes.


To Grandmother’s house we go. Do you remember? The big hug when we arrived, the smells of sweet things baking, and the beeline we made for the kitchen – right to the plate of freshly baked cookies. After playing our hearts out all afternoon (while Grandma was cooking), we washed up and, starved, dashed expectantly to the table. First up - a big bowl of Grandma’s thick and hearty potato soup, filled with flavor. We loved her meatloaf. Our forks broke it into fascinatingly irregular, soft chunks that filled our mouths with juicy, savory tastes. We always wanted more, but Grandma cautioned us to leave room for dessert. Right! No way would we miss our very favorite dessert, homemade chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. Finally, sleepy-eyed, we hugged Grandma goodbye, filled to bursting with Grandma’s love and food.


No wonder we honor our grandparents with Grandparents’ Day. Fittingly, it falls in September, the season of fruition and fulfillment. Celebrate grandparents and the season with a light-hearted salute, a dinner of Grandma’s favorite foods - NOT! Should Grandma be present, she’ll think she knows what these dishes are, but she’ll be blown away by their sensational new tastes. Each dish is disguised as its 1950’s version, but the flavors are something else. Your 21stst-century guests might be familiar with many of the tastes, but they, too, will be blown away by the uncommon combinations guaranteed to intrigue and gratify.


Grandma might have served the originals at a dinner party when she wanted to show off her skills in cookery. Many were excellent and remain favorites today; others fell into culinary disgrace. Dinner starts with three appetizers that were quite popular in the ’50’s, but shortly developed a reputation as foul fare. Stuffed celery was deemed too dull, chicken livers dreadfully unhealthy and pigs-in-a-blanket both dull and deadly. The versions here deliver fascinating flavors and healthier components.


The rest of the dinner presents dishes that remain well loved, although modern chefs typically tweak them. In refashioning these favorite foods, we make liberal use of spices unfamiliar to Grandma and we use, in ways unfamiliar to her, herbs that she knew well. For example, flaunting ’50s fashion, thyme, a savory flavoring ingredient, appears in whipped cream toppings. The topping is salted for a soup and sweetened for a dessert. To tease Grandma further, lavender, her favorite for sachets but NOT! for seasoning, lends its complex, sweet and astringent notes to the body of both the soup and the dessert.


Don’t forget to follow Grandma’s motto for dinners, special or not, …


Appropriate for: While especially appropriate in September, this dinner lends itself to year-round entertaining and will be especially appreciated by guests who can be a bit nostalgic about the ’50’s.




Grandma’s Food – NOT! Foods of the ’50’s Refashioned



California Sherry

(Spanish Amontillado)



Celery Stuffed with Cream Cheese

(Celery Stuffed with Smoked Trout)


Chopped Liver

(Wild Mushroom Paté) 



(Mini Chorizo in Herbal Phyllo)



Potato Soup

(With Parsnips, Lavender and Thyme)




(Curried Meatloaf with Pomegranate Sauce)


Stuffed Baked Potatoes

(With Coconut Curry)


Green Beans with Almonds

(Haricots Verts with Water Chestnuts)



Waldorf Salad

(Asian Pears and Fennel in Spicy Mayonnaise)



Chocolate Cake

(With Lavender and Thyme)


Vanilla Ice Cream

(Vanilla Panna Cotta)


Invitations. Send a card or letter or email with old-fashioned images and elegant script.

Text for invitation. Grandparents are great! We’re celebrating them with a refashioned dinner of fifties food. Please do us the favor of your company.


Entrance decor. Hang an old-fashioned wreath on your front door. Apple pie potpourri in a vintage bowl will bring back old memories. 


Greeting guests. Wear the clothes that Grandma (Grandpa) might have worn when she (he) had the grandkids over for the day: an apron for the hostess, gingham if possible or plain or frilly white; suspenders are a must for the host. Got granny glasses? 


Souvenir menus. Imagine Grandma’s frilly apron with scalloped edge. Choose a paper with one blank side and one patterned side that looks like something she might have worn. Print the text for the menu on the blank side of the patterned paper, leaving wide margins. Fold the paper in half horizontally. For the apron’s strings at Grandma’s waist, glue a thin, frilly ribbon in a coordinating color, leaving about 6 inches of both apron strings trailing from the paper’s edge.  

Note: For a simpler menu, print it on cream-colored paper, roll and tie it with a lacy ribbon.


Room decor. Display any heirlooms, memorabilia of your grandparents, old family photographs, antiques, and photographs from the ’50’s or before. 


Table decor. If you have heirloom table linens or dinnerware, trot them out. As much as possible, create an “old-fashioned” look. A lace tablecloth or one with conventional embroidery will set the scene perfectly. Use coordinating or plain white napkins. White dinner plates and crystal/glassware in conventional designs are best.


Mood music. Use popular music from the ’50’s. Include romantic songs (Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, Pat Boone, The Andrews Sisters), cool jazz (Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday) and early rock and roll (Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Bobby Darin, Paul Anka, Jerry Lee Lewis).


Favor. Grandma’s was the place to go for homemade cookies and we couldn’t get enough of the ones with chocolate chips, the classic Toll House recipe. Grandma always gave us a bunch to take home and enjoy the next day. 

Preparation. Make a thinner, crisper version. For a touch of sophistication and a bit of surprise, substitute chocolate-covered espresso beans for chocolate chips. Wrap 4 or 5 cookies for each guest in wax or parchment paper. Place them in a small pastel-colored cardboard box. Wrap the box in paper and ribbon of a design to Grandma’s taste. 

Note for favor. Grandma loved us and we loved her and her chocolate-chip cookies. Of course, she sent us home with some. We hope you enjoy these stylishly slender, crunchy and crispy, chocolate-chip-NOT! cookies as much as we enjoyed Grandma’s.


With suggestions for plating and complementary beverages



Lots of Grandmas thought it quite elegant to serve sherry with hors d’oeuvres. However, many bought cheap California sherry, a far cry from a fine Spanish one. Americans today rarely serve sherry, perhaps because Grandma’s California sherry achieved a justly deserved reputation as ghastly. It will be educational to many of your guests, and fun for all, to compare Grandma’s sherry with a truly good one. Serve both. Spend as much as your budget permits on a fine Spanish sherry and buy a cheap one from California. Spanish sherries come in different styles: in order of quality and cost - fino (pale, dry), amontillado (richer, darker) and, if money is absolutely not an issue, oloroso (dark, very rich).

Presentation. Present the Spanish sherry first, preferably in sherry glasses, pouring about 3-4 ounces in each glass. Allow your guests to savor the wine and start to wonder why they don’t drink sherry more often. Show them why. Pour a small glass of the California sherry and explain how Grandma ruined a good thing.




Celery Stuffed with Smoked Trout

Celery stuffed with ho-hum cream cheese was a favorite of the ’50’s hostess at dinner and card parties. You’ll find nothing stuffy about this stuffing of smoked trout tarted up with lots of lemon and capers.

Preparation. Cut celery stalks into sections of about 1 1/2 inches long. Prepare a filling of smoked trout or other smoked fish, a spicy mayonnaise or yogurt with Near East spices, capers, and lemon juice and zest.

Plating. Grandma probably used a white serving plate, perhaps with celery leaves as garnish.  Follow her lead.



Wild Mushroom Paté

Jewish grandmothers were famous for their rich and richly flavored dish of chicken liver, chicken fat, lots of onion and hard-boiled eggs. Give your guests a healthier lookalike that is just as rich in flavor with a bit of crunch for a touch of the uncommon.

Preparation. Make a paté with wild mushrooms. We love ones made by sautéing the mushrooms in butter with shallots, white wine and sour cream. For the crunch, toast pine nuts, lightly crush and add to the mushroom mixture.

Plating. Place the bowl with the mushroom mixture in the center of a serving platter. Surround with small pickles and toasted French bread or crackers.



Mini Chorizos in Herbal Phyllo

From Grandma’s table to elegant parties, pigs-in-a-blanket are a popular appetizer. Grandma’s surprise: these little piggies are spicy chorizos blanketed in phyllo dough seasoned with commonly used Spanish herbs. Add a Spanish touch to the traditional mustard accompaniment.


1. Scatter fine-chopped oregano, thyme and parsley evenly over phyllo pastry sheets and pat down into the dough. Cut the sheets into strips, each 1x4 inches. Buy chorizos, the minis if you can find them or cut a full-size one into two or three pieces. Roll one strip of pastry around each chorizo. Place on baking sheet, seam side down. Using a brush, lightly apply egg wash over top of each roll. Bake until pastry is golden brown.

2. For the mustard accompaniment, use a good brown one; add chopped fresh thyme and some sherry.

Plating. A platter of bland color will be quite “grandmotherish.” But, if you have (or can beg, borrow, or steal) a Fiestaware platter or dinner plate, it will be perfect for this dish. Fiestaware’s bright colors, so evocative of the vibrancy we associate with Spain, were immensely popular in the ’50s and are periodically reintroduced to the public. Place the bowl with mustard dip in the center. Place chorizos and thyme sprigs around the dipping bowl.  


Potato Soup with Parsnips, Lavender and Thyme

Grandma’s basic potato soup used potatoes and onions in chicken stock or milk, often canned, evaporated milk. She might have added some celery or carrot. For company, she made the soup richer, adding cream to the soup and garnishing it with a bit of shredded American or Cheddar cheese, a sprig of an herb, or some bacon bits. Parsnips are a great addition to potatoes, whether in soup or mashed. The same goes for culinary lavender and thyme; here, they substitute for the carrot and celery Grandma might have used for aromatics. Use shallots rather than onion. White wine and a trace of tangy Parmesan cheese will add interest and appeal. Since this is a company dinner, a dollop of cream goes on top, but, in contemporary fashion, make it herb-flavored.


1.  For the soup: We sauté the shallots and herbs in butter, then add to soup made with a good (preferably homemade) chicken stock, chopped potatoes and parsnips (about 2:1), a fair amount of white wine (we’ve used wine  in 1:2 and 2:3 ratios with stock) and a good chunk of Parmesan cheese rind.

2.  For the garnish: Infuse heavy cream with fresh thyme. Chill and whip just before use with a bit of salt.

Plating. Soup bowls in white or bisque will accentuate the visual blandness of the soup, making the surprise of its taste stand out. Ladle the soup into the bowl and top with a generous dollop of whipped cream. You might top that with a sprig or a few buds of lavender.

Complementary beverage. We suggest you use a chardonnay to make the soup and to accompany it.




Curried Meatloaf with Pomegranate Reduction

Grandma’s best was juicy and topped with tangy tomato. For a 21st-century version, make it burst with uncommon flavor and textural surprise, courtesy of East Indian spices and raisins. Go over the top with the topping, a pomegranate reduction that provides POW! power - more tangy and complex than Grandma’s tomato topping.

Preparation. You will find plenty of recipes for curried meatloaf. We advise following one that uses fresh ground spices for the curry rather than a commercial curry powder. There is a world of difference, especially when the spices are briefly heated or sautéd in butter until fragrant. For the topping, a simple pomegranate reduction with some ginger, garlic and perhaps a touch of soy, is all you need. Use boiled down pomegranate juice or, easier, pomegranate molasses.



With Coconut Curry

Grandma loved what she called twice-baked potatoes. She would have stuffed them with onions or peas or bits of ham, but she invariably used butter, cream and a topping of melted American cheese. Asian flavors would be alien to her, and her acquaintance with Parmesan cheese was likely limited to the almost tasteless pre-grated variety from a jar. A coconut curry will create a concoction just as creamy as Grandma’s but with a lot more oomph. Crunchy Parmesan makes a picture-perfect cover.

Preparation. Prepare a coconut curry thick enough to mix well with baked potatoes. Cut off the top third of each baked potato, discard and scoop out the potato from its shell into a bowl. Mix thoroughly with the coconut curry. Use a spoon; do not use a food processor. Spoon the mixture back into the shells. Just before serving, sprinkle a generous amount of Parmesan cheese over the potatoes. Bake until potatoes are thoroughly heated and cheese is beginning to melt. Briefly run the potatoes under the broiler until cheese has a bit of brown.



Haricots Verts with Water Chestnuts

For company dinners, Grandma served her green beans with soft, sautéed onions and crunchy, slivered almonds, a delicious dish still popular today. On seeing the version here, Grandma would think, “So very French!” while admiring the buttery sheen of the elegantly thin haricots verts. She’d never guess that the dish sports Asian flavors, with ginger for zing and crunch from Chinese water chestnuts.

Preparation. In butter, sauté shallots, some grated ginger and a bit of garlic. Slice water chestnuts to resemble slivered almonds. Use fresh ones, if possible, rather than canned. Gently warm them. Pour the sautéed mixture over steamed or boiled haricots verts. Mix in the sliced water chestnuts.

Main plating

Place a slice of meatloaf to one side of the plate. Align the green beans in the center and place the stuffed potato to the other side.

Complementary beverage

With spices a central feature in the meat and potatoes, pour a medium-body red such as a Shiraz or Pinot Noir.



Asian Pears and Fennel in Spicy Mayonnaise

Named for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel where it first appeared at the end of the 19th century, the salad was very popular through the ’50’s and, with modern variations, still appears regularly in recipe collections. Its success is due to the contrast of sweet and tangy tastes and to the wonderful contrasts in texture. There is the soft, rich, mouth feel of mayonnaise combined with crisp apple, even crisper celery, crunchy nuts and soft but chewy lettuce. This Asian-inspired version keeps those contrasts and adds spiciness. 

Preparation. The basic ingredients: lettuce, peeled and chopped Asian pears, chopped fennel, spicy nuts and a spicy mayonnaise. Use a curly red lettuce for color contrast to the white pears and fennel.

Plating. Place lettuce on individual salad plates so that the red, curly edges face outward. Mix the mayonnaise with the pear/fennel mixture and put it onto the center of the plate. Sprinkle the nuts over.



With Lavender and Thyme


Chocolate cake is the quintessential “grandma dessert.” But make one that is decidedly different with inventive, contemporary flavor. That suggests dark chocolate. Culinary lavender will add complexity to the cake with sweet and astringent notes; thyme will introduce an unexpected herbal note to the frosting. With pleasing contrasts in color and texture, cake and frosting compose a symphonic taste treat. Guests will cry “ENCORE!”

Preparation. Make a dark chocolate layer cake incorporating a generous amount of culinary lavender. For frosting, use heavy cream infused with thyme before whipping it with a modicum of sugar. 



Vanilla Panna Cotta

Naturally, Grandma served vanilla ice cream with her chocolate cake. As the main ingredient of panna cotta is sweetened cream, it is a close relative of ice cream. Make it with a vanilla bean for maximum flavor and a great look. The little, dark flecks in the white cream pair perfectly with the chocolate cake.

Preparation. Make a rich and thick panna cotta with heavy cream. We like one that uses some sour cream as well to enhance the complexity of the dish. Add vanilla beans and chill in a serving dish.

Plating the desserts

 Use a cake stand, preferably “old-fashioned” or one decorated with dainty flowers or other grandmotherly pattern. Show off the cake. Place a generous slice of cake on individual dessert plates and then put two small scoops of panna cotta beside the cake.

Complementary beverage

Repeat a comparison of California and Spanish sherries with a sweet sherry. Grandma would have used an inexpensive cream sherry. Contrast such a wine with a good Spanish cream sherry, either a pale (made from fino) or medium (made from amontillado). Sweet sherries from Spain are sometimes labeled “Pedro Ximénez” for the grape used.


The contrast will probably also show why so many Americans have been turned off by sweet dessert wines in general. The inexpensive California wine will be flatly sweet, without character. The good Spanish wine will be rich and complex and will dance in the mouth.



Cocktail. What’s hard about serving two different sherries to illustrate quite a lot about good and not-so-good wines?


Appetizers. The easiest to make is that quintessentially Grandma appetizer, stuffed celery.


Soup or Salad. Salad is simpler.


Main. Skip the baked potato or substitute rice, perhaps a spicy one obtained from an Indian restaurant.


Desserts. Use a boxed dark chocolate cake mix and add lavender. For the frosting, you can infuse the cream with thyme a day ahead. Some specialty groceries carry panna cotta but it can be made two days ahead.


Favor. Buy soft chocolate-chip cookies and press an espresso bean into each.

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