Dinner Party Philosophy
I really enjoy throwing dinner parties - it’s an opportunity to make some fancy things, and experiment with some flavor combinations and culture combinations that aren’t seen often. When cooking a normal meal, I think most have standard combinations - peas, mashed potatoes, and steak. Or perhaps substitute some grilled/roasted asparagus for the peas. For Chinese entrees, they’re usually paired with Chinese side dishes, such as marinated cucumber or grilled green beans with garlic. Korean dishes are frequently paired with kimchi or other pickled veggies or banchan. It’s interesting to think about dish pairings independently from the shackles of a standard meal, it requires experience and skill in a way that I find hard to describe. Here are a few recent menus that I’ve made that deviate from a standard template:
- Grilled cheese on shokupan, with elote soup
- Squid ink pasta with shrimp, scallops, lemon, and parsley
- Crepes suzette with whipped cream.
See detailed recipes and photos in another post!
Obviously none of these dishes might normally be paired together - and the first, grilled cheese with elote soup is an unusual combination and typically not thought of as a fancy meal. However, taking some extra care by using shokupan, which can be baked fresh and has a chewier crumb and crispier griddled exterior, elevates the grilled cheese significantly. Grilled cheese is normally paired with tomato soup, but in this case I elected to pair it with elote soup, which is a blended corn soup flavored with chicken broth, red pepper flakes, white pepper, and some warming spices - light touches of cinnamon and nutmeg, finished with a drizzle of chili oil and sage browned butter.
The elote soup compliments the squid ink pasta better than tomato soup, because it’s less acidic and warmer (thanks to the heat from chilis as well as the warming spices). This highlights the lemon and herbiness of the parsley, giving the pasta more dimensionality and depth. In addition to that, the grilled cheese’s texture contrasts with the al dente pasta and seafood, while the oil from both the grilled cheese and the drizzles on the soup gets cut through entirely by the acidity of the lemon.
The citrus note is followed through in the crepes suzette, but by oranges instead of lemons, so the acidity is almost nonexistant. The whipped cream provides a cool, light texture to finish what is otherwise a relatively heavy dinner. It also provides an opportunity for a slightly higher level of visual presentation with the neatly-folded crepes and supremed orange slices, compared to the simply-presented soup and the jumble of black pasta.
One other thing I considered is how much prep I could do so that I could bring each dish together in minimal time - I was part of this dinner party after all, so I couldn’t spend too much time prepping the next course while people were eating the first course. I pre-made the elote soup, and had the shrimp and scallops fully prepped beforehand as well. I prepped the grilled cheese live (grilled cheese probably loses at least 50% of its quality within 10 minutes of waiting, it absolutely needs to be served straight from the griddle). Obviously, grilled cheese is pretty quick to make. The pasta was slower to make, but could mostly be put together without active work - at the beginning of the first course I put some salted water on to boil, and about halfway through I added the pasta. After the first course, I simply had to sautee the shrimp and scallops, drain the pasta, and throw together with lemon and parsley. After two back-to-back heavy dishes, I assumed correctly that most people would be ready for a bit of a break and to stand up and walk around a bit, which was the perfect time to prep the crepes suzette. Crepes suzette is an excellent dish to make live for an audience - crepes cook very quickly, supreming oranges shows off knife skills pretty well, and of course flambeing the caramel/orange juice mixture at the end is a huge crowd pleaser.
- Hummus, with pita chips, bell peppers, and carrots
- Tom Yum soup with shrimp
- Cream puffs filled with pastry cream and topped with chocolate ganache.
See detailed recipes and photos in another post!
I’m about to make this one, so I suppose I don’t know how well it’s worked, but I’m fairly sure it’ll turn out well - fingers crossed!
Edit: yep, turned out great! The Tom Yum soup wasn’t as good as the first time I made it, but everything else was excellent.
Again, none of these dishes would normally be presented together - hummus is Middle Eastern, Tom Yum soup is Thai, and cream puffs are French. Let me explain why I think they’ll go well together - this meal is centered around the Tom Yum soup, so we’ll take that as a fixed point and discuss how I decided to add hummus to one end and cream puffs to the other.
One interesting thing about Thai cuisine is the usage of peanuts as a crumble in many savory dishes. That’s relatively unusual, so I was looking to keep that theme - I chose hummus to fill that role, because tahinni and peanut butter have surprisingly similar flavor profiles. Additionally, the thickness of the hummus should highlight the clarity of the Tom Yum soup’s broth, texturally and visually. For this particular dinner party, most of the people I’m inviting don’t know each other at all, so I think hummus and dipping snacks, since it’s a finger food, will provide a more casual atmosphere for socialization at the beginning of the meal.
On the other side, I think cream puffs will provide some much-needed intense sweetness after two quite savory dishes, as well as a textural contrast with the hard shells and velvety pastry cream and ganache, as compared to the acidic soup. The pastry cream’s cool temperature will also be a welcome finish after the hot soup, temperature-wise. There are also no strong flavors in the cream puffs that would clash with the strong flavors of the soup: acidity from tomatoes, ginger, lemongrass, shrimp stock, and Thai basil.
Again, I’ve considered the prep time associated with each dish - the hummus, soup, and cream puff shells can all be made beforehand, with just some quick veggie prep for the bell peppers and carrots, pan-frying the shrimp before adding to the soup, and finally the pastry cream and ganache are both quick to prepare.
Another interesting thing I’ve tried involves subsitutes to standard menus with slight variations. For example, my Thanksgiving menu this year had a few substitutions for the standard formula:
- Swapped turkey for chicken. I’ve also swapped for duck in the past, and in both cases it’s generally a tastier bird and smaller for a smaller group of people. Obviously the dish itself is almost equivalent.
- Swapped cranberry sauce for caramelized onions and golden chanterelle mushrooms. Cranberry sauce and extremely-well-caramelized onions are both sweet and jelly-like, so they fill very similar roles there. However, the onions obviously carry some more savory note than the cranberry sauce. The mushrooms added a depth of flavor as well as some earthiness, which replaced part of the role filled by gravy, which was an element I chose to eliminate, both to simplify the meal, and because one of the guests was gluten-free, and gravy contains gluten from the flour in the roux.
- Swapped pecan pie for almond bars. This allowed me to make them gluten-free, while still being a nut-based dessert with a slightly jelly-like texture and a flaky, buttery crust.
One final trick I use for dinner parties to ensure success while keeping it interesting is to have the majority of the meal composed of dishes I’ve made before and am confident will turn out well, with one dish more experimental or that I’d be trying for the first time. For Menu 1, the pasta was a new recipe for me. For Menu 2, the cream puffs will also be a new recipe, and for Thanksgiving, the caramelized onions were an experimental dish that I didn’t have any recipe for. By having mostly known-good dishes, I’m assured that the dinner party will be successful, while adding in a new dish ensure that it’s still interesting for me to prep, and of course, I get to expand my repertoire for the future. I hope to host about one dinner party a month while the weather’s nice this year. I think the next one might be a larger pizza party - less about combining things in interesting ways, and more about taking advantage of the roof to host a larger party while the weather’s nice.
Thanks for reading!