How often does one dinner party combine: 1) three courses at three different houses, totaling about 15 hors d'oeuvres, 20 main courses and five desserts, 2) a "walking tour" of Capitol Hill, 3) black-tie attire, 4) dancing, and, 5) 13 hosts? Such was the multidisciplinary approach of a bunch of Capitol Hill single cooks who celebrated the holiday season last weekend with their annual progressive potluck dinner party.
A progressive dinner -- where each advancing course is served at a different house -- is nothing new. And neither is a potluck dinner. But for single cooks, combining the two concepts may be ideal when minimizing work and maximizing food -- as well as fun -- are the priorities of the evening.
"More festive, not as intense," concluded Michael Spekter, host of the wine-and-hors d'oeuvres segment of the party, as he jostled his way through his jammed town house kitchen. "A team effort, like a football game," said "ad hoc" host Colet Ritter.
Not only does a progressive potluck dinner take the pressure off cooking an entire meal (allowing you to concentrate on your specialty instead), but it bypasses the problem of a tiny dining room table (buffet-style standing only) and prevents partygoers from making too much of a mess at any one place (they're not there long enough to do heavy-duty damage). Courses can range anywhere from two to five, and locations can be scattered anywhere in the metropolitan area (although driving around the Beltway for a curried cheese ball may not be everyone's idea of a good time.)
Fortunately, members of this Capitol Hill party live within walking distance of each other, so that each course wasn't more than two or three blocks away.
The group's efforts began with a planning meeting with representatives from the three host houses. A guest list was devised and the invitations developed. More than 50 people were expected. Cocktails from 7 to 8:30 p.m., entrees from 8:30 to 10 p.m. and dessert and "apres di ner" from 10 p.m. to ?. Flexibility was advised.
The invitation -- homemade, with little footsteps leading to each course time and party location -- requested that guests r.s.v.p. to the host of their choice, indicating what dish they planned on contributing.
The orchestration was efficient, so that contributions did not overlap: The collection of appetizers, main courses and desserts was diverse. At Spekter's town house, appetizers ranged from shrimp (from Armenia, insisted attorney Michael Kaydouh) and salmon mousse to hummus and pa te'. As the guests continued to arrive, so did the food.
By 9:15, guests had filtered out of party number one. Linda McManes, head honcho of the dinner and cohost of party No. 2, had slipped out a half hour earlier to reheat the entrees, several of which had been brought earlier in the day, others which had been prepared by McManes herself.
Meanwhile, host Spekter left the mess in his town house untouched. In fact, he didn't clean up until the next morning; he turned the disheveled downstairs into a huge refrigerator by lowering the heat. (As for returning the serving plates to their respective owners, Spekter said he would hold a yard sale instead.)
Similar to the situation at Spekter's, anarchy reigned in the kitchen at McManes' group house. Wearing pendulous rhinestone earrings, McManes stirred a white sauce on the stove and tended to six or more entrees reheating in the oven, as guests in tuxedos or black lace filtered in and out, socializing and nibbling.
Homey casseroles with chicken or pasta seemed to dominate the entree table, and then there were the obligatory spinach salad and quiche. The few dishes that required a knife or a bib didn't sell well.
En route to party No. 3, partygoers walked the Capitol Hill streets, some sporting pie plates and cake pans. The guests were getting progressively full and the party was getting progressively more spirited. Stephen Allis, bank consultant and cohost of the dessert party, eloquently recited the recipe for his banana rum cake, a comical interlude considering that Allis had actually purchased it at Eastern Market.
Is a progressive dinner better than a regular dinner party, guest Bob Mannon was asked. "I don't know, I've never been to a regular dinner party," he deadpanned.
As for cleanup, McManes said that the following night, a group of 10 or so of the guests had progressive dinner, part two: progressive leftovers. Here are a few of the dishes the single cooks started out with: ALEIDA XIQUES' ARTICHOKE SPREAD (10 to 12 servings)
14-ounce can artichokes packed in water, drained
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 large cloves garlic
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Paprika for sprinkling
French bread for serving
Place artichokes, mayonnaise, parmesan and garlic in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Process until smooth.
Pour into a 9-inch pie plate, smooth spread and sprinkle with lemon juice and paprika. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve hot with french bread. ANDY WITHERELL'S LAYERED GUACAMOLE DIP (10 to 12 servings)
16-ounce can refried beans
1 large ripe avocado, mashed and mixed with a dash of hot pepper sauce, worcestershire sauce and a squeeze of lemon
1 pint sour cream
2 cups picante sauce
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese or monterrey jack
Tortilla chips for serving
Spread refried beans on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. Spread guacamole evenly on top of beans, then top with sour cream, picante sauce and sprinkle with cheese. Serve cold with tortilla chips. PEGGY DUXBURY'S WILD RICE CASSEROLE (8 servings)
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
3 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 cup uncooked wild rice, soaked in cold water for 1 hour
2 cups diced, uncooked chicken
2 tablespoons chives
1/2 cup whipping cream
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon sherry
1/2 cup grated parmesan
In a large saucepan, saute' mushrooms in butter. Add 1 1/2 cups of the chicken broth, rice, chicken, chives, cream, parsley and sherry. Stir to combine.
Place in an ungreased 2-quart casserole and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Stir in remaining cup chicken broth and cook another hour, or until liquid is mostly evaporated. Sprinkle with grated parmesan and serve. COLET RITTER'S SPINACH SALAD (8 servings)
FOR THE SALAD:
1 1/2 pounds spinach
2 oranges, peeled and sectioned
1/4 cup chopped red onion
2 tomatoes, quartered
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
3/4 cup cashews
FOR THE DRESSING:
6 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place salad ingredients in a large bowl. Combine dressing ingredients, shake and toss with salad. Refrigerate remaining dressing. LINDA MCMANES' CRE ME DE MENTHE CHEESECAKE (10 to 12 servings)
FOR THE CRUST:
8 1/2-ounce package chocolate cookie wafers (about 2 cups, crumbled)
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
FOR THE FILLING:
4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 ounces good-quality bittersweet chocolate
1/4 cup cre me de menthe
FOR SOUR CREAM TOPPING:
1 pint sour cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cre me de menthe
In a food processor or blender, process cookies into crumbs. Melt butter and stir into crumbs. Press crumbs onto the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan. Chill in the freezer for 2 hours.
With an electric beater, cream together cream cheese, sugar, eggs and lemon juice until smooth. Melt chocolate over a double boiler. Add cre me de menthe. Pour into cream mixture and combine until blended. Pour entire mixture into a springform pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes.
To make topping, combine all ingredients together. Spread onto hot cheesecake and bake for another 10 minutes. Chill overnight.