Who doesn't love to throw a party ? I know I do, it's such a great excuse to combine what I love to do with the people I love. And when I saw this challenge I was very happy and also a little stressed. The window of preparation and execution was going to be very narrow for me. I knew I couldn't wait to see if I made it to Round 3 or else the dinner party would turn into take out from my favorite Metropolitan Market. Nothing wrong with that-you could build a beautiful five course dinner with their take out and no one would be the wiser! However this is a CHALLENGE. For my tips on planning and preparation see my notes at the end of this post.
When deciding what type of dinner party I wanted to have, I didn't hesitate for a moment- Provence and the foods of Provence. If you know me you know I love Provence. I left my heart there on our first visit in 2004.
It was during that trip that we stayed in St. Remy-de-Provence for a week. I loved the countryside, the sunflowers, the trees, the lavender and open market. And being a former art major I was enamored with the history surrounding Vincent Van Gogh and that area of Provence. When we arrived we quickly dropped off our suitcases at the Inn. Then we headed out to wander . Usually when we arrive somewhere new, we spend the first day wandering..We ended up on the same pathway that Vincent Van Gogh wandered when he lived and painted in that area of Provence. I was mesmerized by the fact that the olive trees and fields I was looking at were the same ones he had painted.
I was standing in the middle of small little path on the edge of the forest which surrounds Glanum , an ancient Roman village, when a warm, dry wind blew through the olive trees. I know this may sound silly but I felt caressed by that wind and in my heart I knew in that moment, that sometime in another life I had walked this very same path I was standing on . No I haven't been drinking too much Eau de Vie ! Yes I'm a hopeless romantic and quite proud of it !
Now you have a little understanding of why I love Provence. And because Provence holds a special place in my heart and because the food of Provence is the Food of Farmer's markets and gardens, I knew it would be perfect for my dinner. I also wanted to take advantage of what could be some our last sunny days and dine out in the garden.
I took a few liberties when preparing the menu but I think when dining in Provence there is a whimsy which accompanies the meal. And besides it's more about the people sharing the meal and the love that goes into the meal.
What we consider the cocktail party before dinner , in France it is L'Aperitif. A friendly ritual involving cocktails with guests. "Aperitif" designates both the drink and that convivial moment before a meal. My L'Aperitif began with a champagne toast to my wonderful guests for the evening, Debbie,Jorge,Curt, Julie, and my sweetheart. We then enjoyed a selection of Provencal olives, pickled cippolini,apricot nut crostini,sweet pickled peppers,cornichons,Lecake aux olives et au reblochonons, fig and olive tapenade,goose liver pate, Baker's Foie-a chicken liver pate with cognac butter; a tomato and olive oil tapenade with garlic toasted crostini, and bread sticks. We drank and laughed and ate delicious little bites. While everyone was enjoying themselves, I snuck away for a few minutes to sear the lamb and place it into the oven and set the soup on warm and promptly re-joined my guests. My plan was to enjoy this dinner party as much as them while spending as little time in the kitchen !
After a few more champagne toasts and few more little bites we sat down for our Dinner in Provence. Surrounded by the garden and twinkling lights and the music emanating from the backyard of my neighbor-thank goodness we have the same taste in music !
The menu came together beautifully, the butternut squash soup with chestnuts and whipped cream is definitely a keeper. The roasted lamb with fresh tomatoes and roasted potatoes -perfect!
And the Pear Cake-heaven is the only way to describe it-moist with a slight sugar and Pear Eau de vie crust,, and layer after layer of thinly sliced pears-my mouth is watering just describing it!
I served Le cake aux olives et au reblochon with the soup-the peppery seasoned bread complimented the sweetness of the soup. The salad dressed with anchovies,a fruity extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs was light and satisfying.
Oh my gosh -the cheese selection never made it to the table ! But no one noticed. We were sharing stories,laughing and enjoying the evening so much I forgot to set it out. I think I was so focused on tasting that incredible pear cake I forgot all about the cheese platter ! To my French friends, I beg your forgiveness . J and I will enjoy it Sunday night with some wine and fresh bread as we remember this perfect evening with much fondness.
And what a perfect evening-the weather spirits, the garden spirits,the spirits from Provence all came together that evening for me. How blessed I felt sitting there with my family and friends,lights twinkling around us,the sound of the fountain gurgling in the background, wine flowing, candles flickering in gentle breezes that blew through the garden. We all felt transported to a garden in Provence, if just for an evening. No matter what your menu, no matter what your surrounding-as long as you have put your heart into it and are sharing your meal with people you care for and love, it will be a success. Bon Appetit.
Party Planning ala Seattle Pastry Girl:
My first rule for party planning is always:
PLAN ON VERY LIMITED TIME IN THE KITCHEN ONCE THE GUESTS ARRIVE
I have a very small kitchen, a tiny prep area, non existent counter space and no beautiful island that guests could mill around with wine in hand while munching on appetizers, while I cook. I would love to have a kitchen that invites guests participation. But since I don't have one, I adjust and work with what I have. Thus my Rule #1.
That rule drives my menu preparation hand in hand with the season and what is available at the local farmer's market. When planning my menu, my next rule is :
PLAN YOUR MENU SO THAT YOU CAN PREP AND PREPARE THE MAJORITY OF WHAT YOU ARE SERVING ANYWHERE FROM 1 WEEK TO 1 DAY BEFORE.
You don't want to have to wake up at 3 in the morning to bake that cake only to have it burn. This rule frees you up on the day of the party so that you can deal with those last minute emergencies and not feel tired,rushed and harried when your guests do arrive.
And that brings me to a huge stress reliever when planning dinner parties. And guess what ? It's my third rule !
ORGANIZE, ORGANIZE , ORGANIZE.
From writing out your menu, to breaking out your grocery shopping list by produce,meats,etc.; to creating a time line for preparation-basically your party to do list ! Rule #3 eliminates that speeding run to the grocery store because you forget to get the chickpeas.Spontaneity is fun when someone calls at 4pm and says let's get together for dinner. But when you have a week to prepare-take advantage of the time. Create your time line and your grocery list. Your organization and preparation will enable you to enjoy your dinner and loved ones much more if you aren't stressing over dinner.
And finally NO MORE RULES-enjoy. Any type of dinner planning or party planning shouldn't cause unnecessary stress. After all your guests are your friends and loved ones. They already love your cooking and how you do the fabulous things you do . The fact that you take the extra time to prepare a dinner like this just lets them know how much you care about them ! Enjoy yourself ! You know how creative and talented you are. Take the bows when they oh and ah over the dinner-no false modesty here. And leave the dishes for the next day.
PS Tomorrow's post will contain some fabulous recipes from this party !