How to Throw a Fall Dinner Party
Based on the title of this blog, you can probably tell that dinner parties are sort of my thing. Especially when they're held around the yellow table. I love this table for so many reasons–and not just because of all the memorable meals and conversations I've shared around it. I love its warm mustard color. I love the scratches and dents that give it personality. I love the story behind it. But one of the things I love most is its ability to expand. Normally we keep it as a cozy six-seater, but when we have larger groups, we can add leaves to expand it to fit 8, 10, or even 12 people. It's a table that can always fit one more. Which was the case a few weekends ago when we hosted a 10-person fall storytelling dinner, the first in what I hope will become a series of story-filled soirées.
When I throw dinner parties, I like mixing up the crowd a bit. I love to bring different friends together–some of Brandon's, some of mine, and some of ours–and watch the worlds collide. As important as the food and the ambiance are, it's the people that make a dinner party. Though I may recall a certain dish the next day (if it was really good), what will linger for weeks and months are stories told, laughter shared, and new friendships formed. One of these new friends is the fantastically talented Danish food photographer Signe Birck. She met my brother Davis last November (that's a story for another time...) and we recently connected in NYC. We were both passionate about similar things–me, food and writing, she, food and photography, so it was a natural fit for us to work together. I told her I was throwing a dinner party and that she should come–with her camera. She did, and the beautiful photographs on today's post (all except the video) are Signe's work. Thank you!!
People tell me all the time that they are intimidated to host a dinner party. They're not sure what to cook, worried about their lack of space, and afraid it will be a ton of work–so they end up going out to dinner (again). I want to demystify the process as much as possible on this blog, because honestly, having friends over and cooking for them is one of the most rewarding things in life. I've learned a couple of things from throwing dinner parties over the years and one of the most important tips I can pass along is this: PLAN AHEAD. I don't mean to start planning months in advance or anything, just try and do everything ahead that you can (cleaning, set-up, prep, cooking) so you can relax and enjoy your guests once they arrive.
With dinner parties, I'm a list-keeper. First, there's the menu. Then the shopping list. Then there's the to-do list (errands, cleaning, cooking, table, music, etc.), and finally the day of, the cooking prep list. I like to check things off and know where I stand in the process. I actually plan my dinner party menus based on the ability to make things in advance. If I can get the dessert done and the table set the night before, I already feel way ahead of the game. Also, don't be afraid to delegate! Spread the work around...nobody said you have to do everything just because you're hosting! Here's a little video (be nice...I'm no TV host!) taken just before the party, with a play-by-play of the menu, and some easy, stress-free entertaining tips:
Another few dinner party tips:
• Set the ambiance: light some candles, dim the lights (which helps disguise those areas you didn't have time to dust!), and have a great playlist going when guests arrive. I'm a sucker for jazz–Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Diana Krall, and St. Germain are all favorites of mine for dinner parties.
• Have drinks and snacks ready when guests arrive! This one is key. As long as everyone has something to sip, and something to nibble on, they are fine hanging out in the living room while I put the finishing touches on the meal. Lucky for me, we have an open kitchen that faces the living room, so I can still be part of the party while I'm cooking. And your hors d'oevres don't need to be elaborate–I usually put out some good olives, a couple of cheeses, and crackers. Or a good homemade dip and flatbread. Keep it simple!
• I'm a huge fan of one-pot dinners, especially in the fall and winter. Coq au Vin, Bouef Bourguignon, braised short ribs (basically anything cooked in red wine!!), or a big pot of soup can be made in advance and reheated when everyone arrives. And best of all, it can be dished out right from the pot, served with a green salad and some crusty bread to round things out.
• Get some cool vintage bottles to use for water on your table. I use old milk bottles and glass carafes (no need for them to match!) and keep them filled with water during a dinner party so I don't have to keep hopping up and down to refill water glasses.
• I love flowers, but I'm not a fan of tall arrangements on the table that block conversation. My mom gave me some of my great grandmother's cosmetics bottles and they make beautiful little vases. I'll put a single flower in each and line the table with these mismatched vintage arrangements. And I love to put one in the bathroom as well.
• Write your menu somewhere that everyone can see. I've got a chalkboard that hangs in the kitchen that I write the menu on, but sometimes it's fun to have hand-written menu cards at everyone's place.
Fall Dinner Party Menu
Herb & Dijon Crusted Pork Shoulder (recipe below)
Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Pumpkin Gingerbread Cake with Cinnamon Whipped Cream
HERB & DIJON CRUSTED PORK SHOULDER
Serves 10 to 12
1 (4- to 5- lb. boneless pork shoulder, sometimes called "pork butt")
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon apricot jam
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
Butterfly the pork so it is more or less the same thickness across.
In a mini-prep food processor (or in a smallish bowl), pulse (or whisk) to combine the rosemary, thyme, mustard, apricot jam, garlic, salt, and pepper.
Add the olive oil slowly, pulsing (or whisking) to combine. Rub the herb mixture all over the pork, then roll up the pork shoulder, tying with butcher's twine to secure.
Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate in the refrigerator for 2-3 hours.
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Let the pork come to room temperature before roasting.
Roast the pork skin-side up, in a roasting pan fitted with a rack for about 3 hours or until the meat is fork-tender (the internal temperature should be 180°F).
Let rest for 10-15 minutes, then remove twine and slice.
*This is the most tender, juicy, flavorful pork dish I have ever made–and at only $4.99/lb, it feeds a crowd inexpensively!
BALSAMIC ROASTED PEARS & RED ONIONS
Serves 10 to 12
4 Bosc pears, cut into eighths (skin on)
2 large red onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh thyme sprigs
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line two sheet trays with aluminum foil.
Toss the pears and onions in the Balsamic vinegar and olive oil until well coated, and season with salt and pepper.
Spread the mixture on the sheet trays and scatter 2-3 thyme springs (per pan) over the pears and onions.
Roast for 30 minutes or until tender. Let cool slightly before serving alongside the pork.
GUEST PHOTOS BY SIGNE BIRCK