De-frump Your Dinner Party: Be a Hipper Host With Cool Ideas on Menus, Table Decor, and Cocktails

April 7, 2011


You’re invited to a dinner party! Um, hooray? Except maybe root canals and performance reviews, few other invitations inspire quite the same flashes of trepidation. Will the food be edible? The other guests tolerable? Will it be like the board game “Clue” brought to life — except you or the host dies of boredom or food poisoning, not a mishap with a candlestick?

Done right, a dinner party offers memorable food, drink and conversation. “Throwing one is like producing ‘MTV Cribs,’ ‘Top Chef’ and ‘Martha Stewart’ at the same time,” says Bryon Brown, the chef for Artisa Kitchen, a nomadic supper club hosted at galleries, and this spring’s “pop-up” restaurant-cum-dinner show Sensorium.

Likewise, he says a night-gone-dull can mean “social suicide.” Guests might envy Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet — at least their soiree saw some action.

At Sensorium, Brown stages dinners with dishes paired with visual or performing arts. The Number 68 Project throws underground, “curated” parties focused on chef-prepared food and smart conversation.

Wannabe guests apply for invites and, if picked, pay $155 to chow down with D.C. luminaries including yogis, DJs and NPR correspondents.

But what if you possess neither a staff of chefs and performers nor a Rolodex of folks priming for their New Yorker profiles? For starters, skip the seven-course, table-clothed banquet. (Remember “frumpy” and “formal” start with the same letter. Both end with “F,” too — failure.)

Instead, modern hosts follow a new set of rules: breezy attitude, careful preparation, unfussy foods. And a clever theme never hurts.


Columbia Heights’ Kendel Orienstein, 32, started a club of eight pals that meets for regular potlucks. The locale changes monthly, with the host doing the entrée. Recent parties: a Valentine’s Day soiree (everyone brought a red, spicy or sweet dish) and a March Madness bash (guests did a signature dish of a Sweet 16 team’s home state).
Another time, the crew held a color-themed dinner party. Each guest drew ROYGBIV colors to determine what hue dish to bring. Like Rainbow Brite sans talking horse, the meal featured a pink shrimp appetizer, green asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, red beet risotto, orange squash soup, purple cupcakes, red wine and blue shots of Hypnotiq.

“We cook things we wouldn’t normally cook,” Orientstein says. “It’s creative.”

The best part: “Having a potluck party takes the burden off the hosts,” says group member Halie Werge, 33, a Capitol Hill resident who works in retail property management. “We go around the table and tell about how each dish meets the theme. That makes us all more invested.”

Spring Locavore Feast
Source: Lydia Ellison Howerton & Sarah Lagrotteria, Apples and Onions

Set the scene: Show off your grown-around-here savvy with an ode to spring in D.C. that features the region’s bounty — from herbs and produce to Virginia country ham and wine. OK, so cherry blossom branches aren’t there for you to pluck at your whimsy to use as fresh decor. But Whole Foods sells them ($8), and farmers markets sell bunches of daffodils for your entryway or dining table. Add white votive candles and — voila! You might as well start accepting reservations.

Extra credit for do-gooders: Donate a cherry blossom tree in each guest’s name ($5.95 via Nationalcherryblossomfestival.org), and place an info card at each place setting.

» Blossom Fizz
Ingredients
6 Chilled Champagne flutes or coupes
6 Sugar cubes
Bitters
Rose water
1 Chilled bottle of Virginia sparkling white wine (Try Thibaut-Janisson’s sparkling Chardonnay. The Charlottesville wine was served at the Obamas’ first state dinner and is sold at Dean & Deluca and D.C.-area wine and spirits shops for about $23 a bottle.)

Serves 6
Place one sugar cube in each chilled Champagne glass, and douse the cube with bitters (two to three dashes) and a drop or two of rose water. Fill with chilled sparkling white wine and enjoy immediately.

Back to the Futurists
Source: Carmen Wong, Banished? Productions

Set the scene: Host a dinner party inspired by your fave art style or even a current exhibit, be it a Renoir “Boating Party” brunch with floppy hats and lots of wine or a Jackson Pollock free-for-all with painting projects and messy food.

In this case, go avant-garde in the vein of the Italian futurists, early 20th-century artists such as Filippo Marinetti who heralded all things new, industrial and nationalistic. According to Marinetti’s 1909 “Futurist Cookbook,” the perfect meal “requires originality and harmony in the table setting” and “absolute originality in the food.”

For a table centerpiece, Wong suggests a row of “Carrot + Trousers = Professor” figurines — cobbled together out of carrots and vegetables — à la the classic futurist recipe. Skip candles (too romantic!); try sleek metal flashlights.

Serve Campari cocktails and Italian wines with Arancini — fried risotto balls. Try a menu of polenta or risotto (considered patriotic since it promoted the Italian rice industry) and Chicken Fiat, a futurist recipe in which steel ball bearings are jammed under the skin of a roasted chicken.

Futurist desserts often assumed the shape of breasts, so take a scoop of almond-flavored ice cream and garnish it with a fresh strawberry at the center.

Breakfast for Dinner
Source: Doug Anderson, Seasons Restaurant

Set the scene: Forget Jumbo Slice. Anderson appeals to night owls and stages a late-night Denny’s diner chez you. Think post-rock-show breakfast buffet — though you can also break out the pancakes and omelets at 7 p.m. “Breakfast is comforting and filling,” he says. “And serving breakfast at dinner is certainly something people would talk about.”

Play up the rise-and-shine theme with simple, “sunny” decor ideas. Try spreading bright yellow tablecloths, setting out a hodgepodge of plates and napkins, and cranking a playlist of up-tempo oldies (think “Knock Three Times,” “Tutti Frutti” and anything by the Beach Boys). Sip simple, retro cocktails such as mimosas, screwdrivers or Cape Codders (two parts vodka to three parts cranberry juice).

» Pepper Jack and Sausage Poppers
Ingredients
1 Pound pepper jack cheese
1 Pound breakfast sausage (bulk)
3 Eggs, whipped
Flour
Panko bread crumbs
Salt
With a melon ball scoop, make ½-inch balls of the pepper jack cheese.
Mold 1.5 ounces sausage meat around the cheese until you form a meatball.
Roll the balls in flour, then egg wash and finish in the panko.
Fry in a table-top fryer set at 360 F and dust with a little salt.

Sauce
1 cup Creole mustard
1 tbsp Bourbon
Whip above together.

Breakfast for Dinner Recipes

» Cheddar biscuits
-1 lb. 4 oz cake flour
-1 lb.. 4 oz bread flour
1 oz sugar
½ oz salt
2.5 oz baking powder
1 lb. butter
24 oz buttermilk
9 oz grated aged cheddar
Mix dry/fold in butter until mealy. Add butter milk and cheese, roll and punch Brush top with pure egg yolk
Bake 400 degrees for about 20 min.

» Sausage gravy for biscuits
8 oz bulk sausage
½ tsp chopped fresh sage
½ cup flour
1 cup milk
1 tbsp butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Brown sausage meat with butter. Add flour and cook for 5 minutes Slowly add the milk and cook till thickened.
Stir in seasonings and sage

» Breakfast spring rolls
Spring roll wrapper (8 each, 6×6 size)
1 cup cooked diced bacon
2 cups soft scrambled eggs
1 ½ cups crumbled goat cheese
1 tbsp chopped chives
1 tbsp cornstarch
A little water
Table top fryer set at 360 degrees
Lay out the wrappers. Fill each one with a little egg, cheese, chive and bacon
Like a little package fold the ends over and roll tight. Seal the end of the spring roll with the water and starch mixture Cover and chill till needed. Fry till golden brown

» Red bell pepper ketchup
4 ripe Roma tomatoes
3 stemmed and seeded red bell peppers
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 1/2 cup sugar in the raw
½ tsp cayenne pepper
salt
Add vinegar and sugar together and cook down till half reduced.
Seed the tomatoes and dice them as well as the pepper and add them to the reduction. Cook till tender (about 30 minutes).
Add salt and cayenne and blend till smooth serve chilled

» Locovore Spring Feast
Crostini with Minted Fresh Pea Purée and Virginia Ham

Serves 6 as appetizer
2 cups freshly shelled sweet peas (can substitute frozen peas if needed)
1 small clove of garlic, peeled
1/2 cup ricotta
½ teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil (plus more for brushing on crostini)
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint leaves (plus more for garnish)
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 French baguette, sliced 1/2-inch thick on a bias
12 paper-thin Virginia Country Ham shavings for topping

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium heat. Add the peas and clove of garlic cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain.

Pulse the peas and garlic in a food processor until chunky. Add the ricotta and lemon zest and pulse to combine. While the processor is running, pour in the oil and lemon juice in a slow steady stream. Transfer the puree to a serving bowl, then stir in the mint and season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Place bread rounds on a baking sheet and brush lightly with olive oil. Toast in the oven until light golden, about 5 to 7 minutes. Spread the pea puree over the toasts, top with more fresh mint and shavings of Virginia Country Ham.

» Baked Salmon with Salsa Provençale
Serves 6
1-1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in quarters
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Zest of 1 lemon plus 1 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
6 (6-ounce) salmon fillets
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil plus more for drizzling over salmon
¼ cup capers
1/2 cup Niçoise olives, pitted and chopped
3 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.

In a small bowl, stir together the tomatoes, 1 teaspoon salt and the lemon juice. Set aside to macerate for a few minutes while you prepare the salmon.

Place salmon fillets on a lined baking sheet. Generously salt and pepper each fillet and top with a drizzle of olive oil. Roast in oven until just cooked through, about 13 minutes.

While salmon roasts, combine the remaining ingredients (2 tablespoons olive oil through parsley) with the macerated tomatoes. Stir to combine and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Remove salmon from oven. Let rest for a few minutes then serve each fillet topped with the Provençale salsa.

» Couscous with Mint and Pine Nuts
Serves 6
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1 box Far East brand couscous
Extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Toast the pine nuts in the oven on a lined baking sheet for 10-15 minutes until lightly toasted and fragrant. Set aside to cool while you make the couscous.

Cook the couscous according to the package directions, adding a healthy dash of olive oil and salt to the cooking water.

Once the couscous is cooked through, fluff it with a fork and toss with lemon juice, a teaspoon of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving toss in the fresh mint and pine nuts reserving a few of each to sprinkle on top of the platter or bowl for garnish

» Radicchio Salad with Lemon Yogurt Dressing
Serves 6
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (we use Fage brand Greek yogurt)
1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/4 cup avocado or canola oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, finely minced
Fine sea salt
2 small heads radicchio, leaves torn into bite-sized pieces

Whisk the first 5 ingredients in small bowl. Season dressing to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Toss in serving bowl with torn radicchio. Serve immediately.

» Strawberries Marinated in Balsamic Vinaigrette
Serves 6
1 pound fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and slice in half
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
Freshly ground black pepper, top taste

An hour or two before serving, gently toss the berries with the vinegar and sugar in a serving bowl. Let sit, covered, at room temp until ready to serve, up to 3 hours. Top with a few gentle grinds of black pepper just before serving. Serve with store-bought amaretti (Italian almond macaroons) or meringues.

Written by Express contributor Katie Knorovsky
Photos by Marge Ely

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