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The Art of the Dinner Party

Cast Aside Your Preconceived Notions: Dinner Parties are Making a Comeback
by Ashley Hardaway

Like snow-covered kittens, meringue and full-sequined dresses, dinner parties often sound better than they actually are. When planned well, they can go off flawlessly, allowing a host infinite time with his or her guests. When planned poorly, the results can be grim at best, as seen in countless films. Perhaps that’s why people seem so keen to avoid hosting them: years of exposure to films that end with the cook crying over an undercooked turkey.

For this holiday season, let your optimism shine and actually use those eight place settings you have. Far more inexpensive than buying individual gifts, and much more memorable, dinner parties are a great way to say “thank you” to your friends and reconnect during the craziness of the holiday season. They shouldn’t be relegated to our nostalgic memories of the 1950s: dinner parties are hip, modern, and terribly enviable when done right.

Now, with all of Pensacola’s great gourmet stores offering everything you could possibly need, there’s no reason to think you can’t do it. Whether you’re a do-it-yourself-er or a first-timer, we’ve got you covered.

For Those Who Like to Take All the Credit:
Two Weeks Out: Create invitations using Facebook or Evite and ask for RSVPs a week before the event. It’s probably best to keep the number hovering around 12. Any more folks and you may run into what could quickly become house party territory, which has it moments—but sadly, none in dinner party land.

One Week Out: After getting a final head count, make sure you have enough dishes to cover everyone attending (water glasses, wine and/or beer glasses, plates, bowls, spoons, forks, knives). If you don’t have enough, Waterfront Rescue Mission makes a great, inexpensive place to gather the necessary objects. Mix and match to make a funky, eclectic table setting. Recycle old wine bottles to use as candlestick holders and find wicker baskets that you can line with a cloth napkin to hold bread and extra silverware. If you don’t have enough seating, consider borrowing a wooden pew or two from a church (I’ve seen it done), or cover sturdy metal trashcans that you place upside down with colorful cloth and hope for the best. Oftentimes the most memorable of dinner party settings are simply a mélange of whatever could be thrown together.

Three Days Before: Head to Richey’s East or The Wine Bar to purchase some wine or beer for your party. Even if what you’re cooking will primarily go well with one type of wine, it’s best to go ahead and buy both red and white. While at The Wine Bar, buy an assortment of cheeses to spruce up your cheese plate or head over to Four Winds International Food Market to peruse their selection. Any small assortment of soft and hard cheeses will do well. Also, make a point to visit the Port City Farmer’s Market to pick up fresh and local produce on Saturday morning, or East Hill Produce Market any day of the week.

The Day Before: Make the Creamy Pumpkin Soup and place in the refrigerator. Bake Chocolate Stout Beer Brownies, allow them to cool, and then cut into squares. Buy bread from the grocery store and set the table.

The Day Of: Two hours before the party, start the Roasted Apples and Pork Loin. While the dish is in the oven, make the cheese tray and pop open some wine. When the dish is ready, take it out of the oven and allow it to rest, lightly covered with foil. Light some candles and dim the lights. Come back to the kitchen, make the sauce and place it on the serving platter. Keep it in low-oven at 150 degrees Fahrenheit until guests arrive.
When guests begin to arrive, put the soup on medium-high to heat. Allow guests to help out by pouring wine or cutting bread. When the soup is heated through, transfer to a big bowl and bring to the table. Allow guests to serve themselves. When the soup course is finished, clear the table of bowls and bring out the platter of Roasted Pork and Apples. When that course is done, allow guests to help clear plates while you heat up the brownie squares in the microwave. Top with ice cream and serve.

Finally, bask in the fact that you have happy, full guests that had a host who was able to enjoy the party with them.

For Those Who Don’t Mind  Sharing the Glory:

Nancy’s Haute Affairs
555 Scenic Highway
434-0112
nancyshauteaffairs.com
Offering full-service catering as well as GourmetToGo, Nancy’s is already the go-to place for the holiday season. This place is an amazing year-round help for all things involving event planning. Pop in to pick up some of their delicious sides and be sure to tour the store to browse through their delicious bottles of sauces, imported oils, fresh churned butters, and fabulous cheeses.

Cajun Specialty Meats
690 E. Heinberg St.
469-9400
cajunspecialtymeats.com
Break away from the traditional repetitive holiday fare and inject a bit of pizzazz into your gathering. Cajun Specialty Meats takes care of the hard work for you—all you have to do is cook, or reheat, their products and dinner is done. From Stuffed Chicken with Crawfish Etouffee to sausages and Turduckens, it’s hard to go wrong at this place. Peruse their freezer section for a fabulous array of sides like jambalaya and gumbo, or pick up something hot and fresh from their deli case. Hell, just come here an hour before your party and re-plate everything and voila: best host ever.

Portabello Market
400 S. Jefferson St.
439-6564
portabellomarket.com
Offering their classic Holiday Dinner Menu for $15 per guest (minimum 20 orders) with favorites like Honey Glazed Ham, Cranberry Chutney and Sweet Potato Pie, Portabello Market has practically taken care of everything for you. You can pick and choose from their amazing assortment of side dishes, like Parmesan Crab Dip and Corn Pudding, and make your own main. Also available for non-holiday catering, you can work with them to create a menu to your liking for any function—so a Mexican-themed dinner in December is possible. Go crazy.

Soiree Catering and Events
196 N. Palafox St.
438-2003
soireecateringandevents.com
Soiree can take care of everything for you, from flatware and glasses, to beverages and food. Offering a holiday menu that starts at $15 per person, patrons can choose from three entree options, from Rotisserie-Style Prime Rib, to an array of sides like Sage Gratin Potatoes. Their pumpkin brownies are so good that you’ll find yourself claiming they’re your own recipe. Call early to book your holiday feast as their calendar is filling up quickly.

Bust out those “Mad Men” DVDs and start getting inspired: dinner parties are back.

Rules for Hosting a Dinner Party:
1) Keep the number to a minimum. Don’t overburden yourself with cooking for 40.
2) Keep the menu simple. If you’re going to be in the kitchen all night, what’s the point?
3) If you’re using caterers, book your menu in advance. Holiday season is a busy time and many times they are fully booked the week before.
4) Don’t be afraid to let guests help. By giving them things to do, such as cut bread or pour water, the guests will be moving around, and you can avoid having them sit for 45 minutes while waiting on you.
5) Introduce your friends to each other if they have never met.

Creamy Pumpkin Soup
(Best when made in advance)
Serves 8

Ingredients
2 medium onions, chopped
4 tbsp. butter or margarine
4 (14.5 ounces) cans chicken broth
4 cups sliced peeled potatoes
4 cups canned cooked pumpkin
4 cups milk
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper
2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (or 1 tsp. cinnamon, ½ tsp. ground ginger, ½ tsp. ground clove)
2 cups sour cream

Preparation
In a large saucepan, sauté the onion in butter until tender and translucent. Add chicken broth, potatoes and pumpkin; cook until the potatoes are tender—about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Puree half of the mixture at a time in a blender or food processor until smooth and then return to the pan. Add the milk, nutmeg, salt and pepper and heat through.

Roasted Pork Loin with Apples and Vegetables
(So hearty you don’t even have to make a side)
Serves 8

Ingredients
4 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 (4 lb.) boneless center cut pork loin, trimmed and tied
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 medium onions, thickly sliced
6 carrots, thickly sliced
5 stalks celery, thickly sliced
6 cloves garlic, smashed
6 sprigs fresh thyme
6 sprigs fresh rosemary
8 tbsp. cold unsalted butter
5 apples, such as Cortland or Rome, peeled, cored and cut into 8 slices
4 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 cups apple cider
4 tbsp. whole grain mustard

Preparation
In a large ovenproof skillet or Dutch oven, heat vegetable oil over high heat. Season the pork loin generously with salt and pepper and then sear until golden brown on all sides—about two to three minutes per side. When finished searing, transfer the minute to a place.

In the same skillet, add the onions, carrots, celery, herb sprigs, garlic, and 4 tablespoons of butter. Cook until vegetables are brown, about eight minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the apples, stir and then push mixture to the side to make room for the pork loin. Set pork loin in the center of the skillet. Place in the pre-heated, 400-degree Fahrenheit oven and roast until the internal temperature has reached 140-150 degrees, which will take about 25-30 minutes.
When the dish is finished, transfer the pork to a cutting board and cover it loosely with foil (don’t cut into it just yet). Arrange the vegetables on your serving platter and discard the herb sprigs. Return skillet to high heat and add the vinegar, scraping the bottom of the skillet with a wooden spoon to remove the flavored bits. Allow to reduce until thickened by more than half. Remove from heat and stir in mustard, and then stir in butter.
Remove strings from pork loin and slice into ½-inch thick pieces. Place atop the vegetables. Drizzle sauce on top.

Beer Brownies
(Chocolate and beer: it’s sure to be a hit)
Serves 10

Ingredients
3 ½ ounces, 1 bar, dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cocoa)
8 tbsp. butter
4 eggs, room temperature
¾ cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar, loose, not packed
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup flour
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup malty beer (stout or porter works well)
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup walnuts, chopped and slightly toasted
¼ cup almonds
For Serving:
Ice cream, any flavor

Preparation
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, and cocoa powder. Meanwhile, melt the chocolate and butter in a double boiler. Add the beer and stir to combine, then let cool. Beat together the eggs and sugar until thick and shiny (I finally succumbed and busted out my Kitchenaid). Continue beating on low. Add 1/3 of dry flour mixture and mix until combined. Add half of the chocolate/butter mixture. Continue this rotation until dry and wet ingredients are fully mixed. Add vanilla. Stop mixer and fold in the chips and walnuts. Pour into a buttered and floured 9×13-inch pan and sprinkle the almonds on top. Bake for 40-45 minutes. Practice your self-control.