I held on to summer until its last possible gasp, and here we are, leaves falling and reluctantly pulling out sweaters. School is underway, and the start of a new year always feels bittersweet to me. Snapping the first day of second grade photo, I felt a pang for the disappearing baby cheeks and big teeth pushing their way through. Each year of childhood is like a nesting doll giving way to a bigger, more aware person.
To distract myself from the speed in which children grow, I scrambled to take advantage of one of the last warm-ish evenings and pulled together a casual dinner party for a few friends. Entertaining during the age of covid requires a touch more thoughtfulness. We lit the fire pit, encouraged everyone to pack a sweater, and I made individual gratins for each guest. One of many pearls of wisdom bestowed upon me by my Aunt Blanche, a gifted Southern entertainer, is that no one really remembers what you made for dinner. Her point is to make as much of the food ahead of time as possible, and then get on with enjoying your guests and making sure they feel welcome and comfortable (read: make cocktails).
I think “entertaining” or hosting parties, no matter how big or small, has become stressful for a lot of us, even pre-covid (I know, the memories are waning). I love Martha Stewart with all my heart, but I blame her a bit for making American hosts the land over feel like everything has to be so damn perfect. What with the china and matching napkin rings and exacting fricassée and quivering soufflés.
While actually falling in love with my husband, I also fell in love with his French upbringing and lifestyle. On the many occasions he brought me to his family home in France, he would invite guests for supper – often. I was thinking, “aren’t we supposed to be on vacation? Isn’t this throwing a stressful wrench in our day?” But there is a sort of formula he and the rest of these civilized folk follow. First, have apéritif. There is nothing complicated about opening a bottle of rosé and slicing a little saucisson sec. Pick up a roasted chicken from the market, make a salad, and delegate dessert to one of the guests. Voilá. It was all so chic and simple because everyone knew the point was to be together! Of course, hanging out in the South of France adds a touch to the ambience, but I digress.
The point here is: don’t overthink it. Your guests don’t want to see you sweat. Pour a cocktail, crank on a little Coltrane, put out some salty nuts while supper is roasting away in your oven, and chill the heck out. If cooking really is not your jam, then order Chinese take out and toss the evidence (containers) and serve it on your best platters. Life is short – enjoy your friends.
Early Fall Dinner Party for 8
Step 1: Appetizer
Goat Cheese Stuffed Figs
Barely adapted from a recipe by Mark Bittman
Prep time: 10-15 minutes
2 ounces soft goat cheese
12 figs, washed and patted dry
good balsamic vinegar
small handful of fresh chives, finely chopped, optional
Use a small spoon and your fingers to roll the goat cheese into 24 1/2 teaspoon size balls. (This is not a science, they do not need to be perfect.)
Cut the figs in half and press a goat cheese ball into the center of each fig. Drizzle the balsamic vinegar lightly over the figs. Sprinkle with fresh chives, if desired. Serve within an hour.
Step 2: The Main Event
Ina’s Scallop Gratins
Recipe by the Queen of Make Ahead Entertaining: Ina Garten. The original recipe is for 6, but adapted easily for 8 guests.
Prep time: 30 minutes, Cooking time: 15 minutes
8 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 large garlic cloves, minced
3 medium shallots, minced
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto di Parma, minced (optional)
4 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish
2 tablespoons Pernod or Pastis
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup panko
8 tablespoons dry white wine
2 1/2 pounds fresh bay scallops or sea scallops
Lemon, for garnish
Special equipment: 8 individual gratin dishes, about 6 inches round or oval (I found mine super cheap ages ago at Fish’s Eddy in NYC, so this does not need to be a pricey splurge.)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place gratin dishes on a large sheet pan, 2 sheet pans if you need more space.
To make the topping, place the butter in a bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (confession: I was to lazy to pull out the mixer and mixed by hand in a medium size mixing bowl.) With the mixer on low speed, add the garlic, shallot, prosciutto, parsley, lemon juice, Pernod/ Pastis, salt and pepper until combined. With the mixer still on low, add the olive oil slowly as though making mayonnaise, until combined. Fold in the panko with a rubber spatula, and set aside.
Place 1 tablespoon of the wine in the bottom of each gratin dish. Pat the scallops dry. If you are using sea scallops, cut the in half, and then evenly distribute them among the gratin dishes. Spoon the garlic butter evenly over the top of the scallops. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the topping is golden and sizzling an the scallops are barely done. If you want the top crustier (you do) place the dishes under the broiler for 2 minutes until browned. Finish with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.
Friend delegation tip: ask someone to bring crusty baguette to sop up this delicious butter sauce. Extra credit if someone brings a fresh salad to go along with the gratins.
Step 3: Dessert
Maialino’s Orange Olive Oil Cake
Recipe by Geoffrey Koo, Pastry chef at Maialino New York
Prep time: 20 minutes, Bake time 1 hour
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups milk
4 tablespoons Grand Marnier
1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
Zest of 2 oranges
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray and line a 9″ round pan with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, olive oil, milk, Grand Marnier, orange juice, and zest.
In a separate medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients slowly, whisking just until blended. Be careful not to overmix.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan.
Bake at 350 degrees for one hour or until a cake tester comes out clean.
Cool completely and dust with powdered sugar if you like.
Since chilly days are imminent, I am seeking a new favorite show to watch after devouring both The Chair and Mare of Easttown. I also recently finished the tech industry memoir, Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener. This book took me twice as long to read as it probably should have because I had to keep re-reading paragraphs describing techie stuff, but don’t let that deter you. I found it to be a very current and relevant social observation, and it was all the better being told from a female perspective. I feel a little smarter having read it.
Enjoy sweater weather, and hopefully a supper at home, hosted by you!
Older letters can be found HERE.