Dinner Party: Late Winter Feast
Cookbook author Anna Watson Carl is something of an entertaining genius—she knows better than to try to make chocolate pudding cakes, a citrus salad, and sausage ragu all in one day. Here, she shares her best cooking and entertaining tips for the party she'd throw just as the cooler months are coming to a close.
I like to cook and entertain year-round, but there’s something especially appealing to me about a winter dinner party; I love gathering friends around the table on a cold night for a cozy, home-cooked meal. Recently, I took advantage of the still-chilly evenings to team up with two friends for a wine-pairing dinner featuring dishes from my cookbook, The Yellow Table: A Celebration of Everyday Gatherings. Lindsay Hoopes of Hoopes Vineyard provided wines from her Napa Valley winery, Erin Hazelton opened up her beautiful home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and we invited TK friends over to feast on a menu of robust, comforting dishes: a bright winter citrus and arugula salad with mint, pistachios, and ricotta salata; a rich sausage ragù served over creamy Parmesan polenta; and bittersweet chocolate pudding cakes with Grand Marnier whipped cream.
Whenever I’m entertaining, I like the food to be simple, seasonal, and—most of all—easy to make ahead, so that I can actually spend time with my guests. Through many years of trial and error, I’ve learned that the key to throwing a stress-free dinner party is threefold: create a plan, do as much food prep in advance as possible, and don’t try to do it all yourself—get your guests involved!
I’ve created a game plan below so you can easily recreate this menu at home. The key is to do a little bit every day, rather than killing yourself on the day of your party. Though it’s written as though you’re making everything, feel free to divide up the menu and ask your friends to each make and bring a dish. You could make the main course (ragù, polenta, and broccoli rabe), and get everyone else to bring the rest. Or, if you prefer to make all the food, ask each of your guests to bring wine or flowers. Dividing up the work makes the party more enjoyable for everyone.
The Game Plan:
Two days before the party, do the shopping: buy the groceries, wine, and any other things you need (candles, cocktail napkins, place cards, etc.).
One day before, start cooking: you can make the sausage ragù (it’s actually better made a day in advance); the batter for the bittersweet chocolate pudding cakes (pour into the ramekins and cover with plastic wrap); and the fig-olive tapenade. Cover everything and store it in the refrigerator. Roast the pine nuts and the pistachios and store them at room temperature. Peel and slice the oranges for the salad and chill. Blanch the broccoli rabe, drain, pat dry, and chill.
For the flowers, I like sticking to something simple, seasonal, and focusing on one or two colors. Though Lindsay picked up some beautiful arrangements for this dinner, I usually just see what looks good at my local bodega for $10 or under, and cut them down to fit one or two small vases. (You want to keep the flowers low enough to be able to see across the table!)
The morning of the party, set the table and make sure the house is picked up! Bake the crostini, let them cool completely, and store them in a sealed Ziploc bag at room temperature.
Two hours before guests arrive, finish the food prep: thinly slice the garlic for the broccoli rabe, thinly slice the red onions for the salad, and marinate them in white Balsamic vinegar. Cover tightly and chill. Make the Grand Marnier whipped cream and store it in a sealed container in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Now go get yourself ready.
One hour before, bake the bittersweet chocolate cakes and let sit out at room temperature until ready to serve. Assemble the crostini and set out on platters. Set out pre-party wine glasses. Place the ragù back in a pot on the stove and let simmer until ready to serve. (Added bonus: your house will smell amazing when people arrive!)
A helpful tip: Have the ingredients that you’re going to need for assembling the remaining dishes (salad, polenta, broccoli rabe) measured out in little ramekins or bowls, along with the appropriate serving dishes, pots, etc. That way when you go to assemble the salads or sauté the rabe, everything is ready to go.
Once guests arrive, everyone can hang out with a glass of wine and some crostini, while you plate the salads and finish up the rabe and polenta. Enlist a couple friends to stir the polenta, sauté the broccoli rabe, and help you bring the plated salads over to the table. Make sure there is water and wine on the table as well.
Once the salads are on the table, everyone can sit. Post salad course, I like to plate the polenta and ragù, with the broccoli rabe passed on a platter family style. Alternately, you could serve the main course buffet-style. For the desserts, reheat the cakes for a couple minutes and garnish with the Grand Marnier whipped cream, and chocolate shavings.