The Cooking Chronicles: An Evening of Food and Wine

Since beginning this (food) blog last year, my interest in the culinary arts has not been contained to cooking and eating out alone. Due to repetitive exposure to Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten’s entertaining strategies, I had embraced the notion of hosting my own dinner party for some time. I had purchased paper invitations on sale at the end of last year, but didn’t yet have a large enough repetoire of recipes under my belt to really build a menu from. Over the last six months, however, I’ve experimented with enough dishes to put together a coherent meal, from appetizer to dessert. And though I knew June would be a busy month, I also acknowledged that if I didn’t throw the party before I left for Europe, it would likely not happen at all, at least not in the immediate future.

So the planning began about three weeks earlier, with “save the date” e-mails to four of my friends (plus Mack, who had agreed to host the party at his house). A week after that, I mailed out the invitations, following rather formal conventions gleaned from the web, including, for example, in place of the standard “RSVP,” the phrase “Favour of reply is requested.” As well, to mark this as a special occasion, I specified a semiformal dress code (in my post-party research, I stumbled upon a great website that offers free, printable invitation templates, most with a whimsical theme – worth checking out if you’re in a creative pinch).

As for the menu, as I am of the belief that I was Italian in a previous life, planned to cook several of Giada’s recipes. I was really interested in making individual servings of dishes wherever possible, not only to make the food easier to serve, but for presentation purposes. And with the dessert, for example, its ‘make-in-advance’ nature is perfect for such an occasion.

Panna Cotta with Fresh Bertries

So on Sunday, at Mack’s house, with the vinaigrette and panna cotta made the day before, we got to work cleaning, decorating, and preparing the majority of the food. With careful planning and a well-stocked fridge, it wasn’t as taxing as I had anticipated.

Table set-up

Toasting the almonds for the salad was a straightforward procedure, and really brought out the flavour of the nuts. Also, I cheated this time around in using canned orange pieces, but I promise to learn how to segment an orange next time. We did have a bit of trouble with moulding the parmesan frico cups at first, but with Mack’s “ingenious” idea of using a plastic water bottle in place of a glass, we were able to move on to the tomatoes.

Mixed Greens with a Citrus Vinaigrette served in a Parmesan Frico Cup

The inclusion of a splash of tomato juice and decrease in the amount of breadcrumbs (as observed on my first try) made a noticeable difference to the spinach-stuffed tomatoes – the side as a whole was more moist and tasted better.

Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes (before baking)

Individual gratin dishes (from Dollarama!) made the penne with four cheeses easy to serve, and though we didn’t miss the gorgonzola we left out, it probably would have thickened the sauce just that little bit. I did, however, like the hint of tomato mixed in with the cream (and yes, Mack even offered each of the guests “fresh ground pepper” to go with their pasta).

Penne with Four Cheeses

As for the “fire-raising” moment of the night – in hindsight, I should have warmed the focaccia round with the tomatoes in the 375 degree oven and not alongside the pasta in the 500 degree oven. My apologies to my friends who were too polite to not consume burnt bread…

Overall, the timing of the dishes worked out quite well. A wonder what planning ahead can do when setting up a multiple-course meal. Also, Mack’s wine picks did much to set a more mature tone to the evening – a Naked Grape Chardonnay and a bottle of White Zinfandel. I didn’t get to try the Zinfandel myself, but from what I heard, it accompanied our pasta nicely. Lastly, though the table was a bit small for six people, meaning that we had to serve each person individually instead of utilizing a shared platter, it may have been better as each of the guests then felt taken care of.

Ready for dessert!

I had planned for an early 5:30pm start to accommodate one of the guests, so the sun was still quite bright when we began to eat. As the night progressed, however, there was a moment while we were having dessert, close to dusk, candles flickering, with jazz playing softly in the background that I really appreciated the moment and the small accomplishment that (Mack and) I had completed.

Mini Linzer Cookies with Organic Strawberry Jam

But to give credit where credit’s due – I could not have pulled this off without Mack’s help – not only gracious enough to lend me his home, but a hand in everything from music selection to table setting to food to clean up.

Whew!

I found that cooking for six was manageable, with perhaps eight being the upper limit to maintain sanity. I would do it again, but in a different form – backyard BBQ bash, dessert night, wine and cheese evening – but likely not for a while. I’m happy to check off “throw a dinner party” off my list of 43 Things.

Group shot

The Cooking Chronicles: Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes

As a practice run before my (fingers crossed) dinner party this month, I decided to make Giada’s Herb Stuffed Tomatoes for my Mum’s birthday potluck this weekend.

Guided by many user comments that indicated that parsely was too strong, I substituted the recommended spinach instead. But who knew spinach was so hard to wash? Besides that challenge, I found the task of hollowing out the tomatoes more time-consuming than anticipated, and likely ended up with less pulp simply due to my ill-experience.
The final product was all right – the dish was presentable, but I received mixed reviews on the amount of provolone I included. As well, the breadcrumbs made the filling a tad dry, so I’d be sure to pour in some of the excess tomato juice (seeds strained out, of course) next time.

Not a bad vegetable side dish, but one I’ll have to play around with a few more times to get right.

Spinach Stuffed Tomatoes

The Cooking Chronicles: Panna Cotta with Fresh Berries

Hands down my favorite back pocket, make-in-advance dessert, Giada De Laurentiis’ Panna Cotta with Fresh Berries is a saving grace when striving for easy elegance. I started experimenting with it last summer, and have been cooking up batches ever since.

Needing a red-and-white themed dish for a potluck at work in celebration of Anna’s new status as a Canadian citizen, I thought individual servings of panna cotta served with raspberries would be perfect. Using disposable plastic wine glasses purchased at a dollar store, I allowed the mixture to cool overnight in the fridge. Though transporting the glasses to work on the bus was a bit of a challenge, they remained thankfully in tact come lunch time.
Great with raspberries, blueberries, and even sliced strawberries or kiwi, this is a no-fail recipe that I will be making for years to come.
Panna Cotta with Raspberries

The Cooking Chronicles: Frittata with Fontina, Green Pepper, Mushroom, Tomato, and Sausage

To befit the end of Gilmore Girls, I planned on making a diner-style dinner to precede the viewing of the finale. My original intention was to recreate Ina Garten’s Turkey Meatloaf, but after being confronted with the very uneconomical pricing of ground turkey breast, I decided on the more wallet-friendly Frittata.

Dickson and I decided to substitute and add several ingredients to the recipe – green peppers for asparagus, and for a more hearty base, mushrooms and cooked sausage. The instructions really aren’t that difficult, except perhaps making sure there is enough oil and butter present to prevent the egg from sticking to the skillet (we initially had excess grease from the fried sausage, so discarded some, but likely should have kept more in the pan). After dotting the diced fontina on top, then broiling the frittata for a few minutes, the dish was done.
Served with a salad, the frittata was not only satisfying, but made for a wonderfully plated meal(the green peppers and cherry tomatoes peeking out provided fabulous color). Super-easy, fast, and delicious, this versatile recipe would work for a filling brunch, lunch, or dinner course.
In the frying pan
Plated

Mini Frittatas

Although I’ve dabbled in baking here and there, my experience creating appetizers and entrĂ©es have been limited. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for fast and easy recipes, particularly from my favorite TV chefs. Yesterday, I decided to replicate a frittata recipe I saw on an episode of Giada De Laurentiis’ Everyday Italian. Below is a picture of the result:


(So few product were captured because I ate the majority of them before the shot was taken…)

In my opinion, the recipe is foolproof, and you can substitute whatever you have on hand for the filling. In this case, I used mushrooms and turkey breast slices, though I admit a little greenery wouldn’t hurt the presentation. Another tip: if you fill the muffin tins about 3/4 full, the frittatas come out perfectly concave. This recipe would make a great appetizer, brunch item, or afterschool snack. I encourage you to try this out and share your favorite filling combinations!