Monday, December 5, 2011

Foolproof Fall Dinner for Six

Photo Courtesy of Martha Stewart
What better way to hold off the fast-approaching winter doldrums than with a festive gathering of friends that celebrates the season's bounty? For me, fall dinner parties are just the best. The ingredients are fresh and wholesome, and even the simplest menu can spotlight them with style.

Consider using autumn's freshest produce as jumping off point for your menu (pumpkins, apples, squash and pears) and the dinner will practically plan itself.

But as it often happens in Neurotic Kitchen, my dinner plan was fraught with difficulty due to the dietary restrictions and preferences of my very eclectic friends. My guests would include:

three omnivores
a non fish-eater
a non meat-eating pescatarian
and a guest with a dangerous nut allergy

Nothing can be easy, right?

The solution that saved my sanity was a largely meat-free meal - but it had to be one satisfying enough to please three strapping, carnivorous men who would grumble at the mere sight of vegetarian fare. I decided I'd sneak in my meats and fishes during cocktail hour, so that everyone could pick and choose what they liked at that time, after which a four-course dinner would be served. If dinner was tasty enough, nobody would miss the meat. 

But first, let's talk about the decor. Decorating is a big part of what I love about hosting. I view the meal as an experience, and one that can only be enhanced by lovely surroundings. Fall parties are easy to make elegant and festive. Just use natural elements indicative of the season such as small white or orange pumpkins, brightly colored gourds, a few candles, and one or two bouquets of flowers from the corner deli. Choose bunches in fall colors like yellow, burnt orange or red. They need not be pricey to look nice.
My Fall Centerpiece - White Pumpkins, Wheat, and Natural Orange Flowers, NK

Foolproof Fall Menu Outline:
Cocktail Hour with 3 Different Hors D'Oeuvres:
(1 meat, 1 fish, 1 vegetarian)
**Each of my guests would be able to eat at least two varieties
Soup Course
Salad Course
Main Course

Since I always like to enjoy my parties, my menu had to be largely make-ahead and ready to serve. With a bit of research, I came up with a pain-free menu plan sure to please:

Hors D'Oeuvres/Cocktail Hour:
Crab Salad on Cucumber Chips (for the non-meat-eating fish-eater and the omnivores)
My favorite recipe is courtesy of Food Network Kitchens, and I've tried a bunch. You can go lighter on the mayo and sour cream and it comes just as delicious. You can prepare this the morning of and refrigerate. Just before the party, slice up your cucumber "chips" and spoon a dollop of the tasty crab on top. It is always a hit and works in any season. 
Click Here for the Recipe

Prosciutto-Wrapped Fresh Figs (for the omnivores and non-fish-eating meat-lover)  
Procedure: Simply buy the best thinly-sliced prosciutto you can afford, (imported is worth the splurge but domestic is just fine) and wrap half a slice around fresh figs which have been sliced in half. 

Ina Garten's Sharp Cheddar and Mango Chutney Sandwiches on Mini Brioche Buns 
(fit for everyone- Phew!)
These cute little sandwiches are whimsical, simple, and flavorful. They really spotlight a great cheddar. You can cut them in half if you prefer, as they can be quite filling. I like the addition of a decorative toothpick both to enhance the presentation and keep the sandwich together. This dish stays well at room temperature covered in plastic wrap. Using a good quality cheddar is key to the recipe. 
Click Here for the Recipe

Now for Dinner:
Photo Courtesy of Martha Stewart
Butternut Squash and Apple Soup
This soup is easily prepared days in advance and frozen. It pays to spend money on ready-cubed squash if you can, because butternut is notoriously tough to chop. Whenever I attempt to chop it myself, I inevitably end up with a waxy orange film on me, a condition I've dubbed "Squash Hand." When it comes time to puree the squash, an immersion or stick blender makes this recipe that much easier. Optionally serve your soup with store-bought pumpkin or other sweet/savory scones.

Salad of Field Greens, Asian Pear, and Boucheron 
Boucheron is an amazingly rich and tasty goat cheese, but you can use any variety of goat as long as you chill it a bit before so that it crumbles properly. Boucheron has a gluier texture and milder taste, so chill it for sure. It is totally worth the money. It will come to room temperature on the plate and be just divine. 

Like all salads, this can be prepared an hour or two in advance, refrigerated, and dressed right before serving. Procedure: Use a store-bought field greens mix, slice up some Asian pears or whatever variety is firm yet ripe, and then dress with your favorite homemade vinaigrette just before serving. Finish with a sprinkle of goat cheese and optional walnuts. now for The Perfect Dressing - This dressing from the White House Executive Chef has plenty of fall appeal and can be made in advance. Click Here for the Recipe

Ina Garten's Tagliarelle with Truffle Butter  A simple pasta course with major wow-factor. Cook this "a la minute" while guests enjoy their salads - it takes under 7 minutes if you prep and measure ingredients in advance. This recipe is beyond delicious and decadent, but it balances so well with the lighter components of the menu. If you cannot find Tagliarelle, any long egg pasta will do. Egg pastas are incredibly quick-cooking as well. 
Click Here for the Recipe

Tagliarelle with Truffle Butter - Photo courtesy of Food Network

Brownie a la Mode - This easy dessert can never be considered a cop-out because it's so well loved. A day before, whip up brownies from an upscale mix (I prefer Ghirardelli or Barefoot Contessa Brand Outrageous Brownie Mix) and before serving, add a nice quality vanilla ice cream and microwaveable chocolate sauce. I'm partial to Stonewall Kitchen chocolate sauce. It's great to serve this in a large goblet or footed dessert plate. Or a one will complain. Who doesn't love a brownie sundae?

If you have extra time, researching a few beer and wine pairings for each course elevates the meal considerably. How do I do this? I usually look up similar recipes on Food and Wine's website. They always recommend a pairing so it's any easy way to simplify a sometimes intimidating process! Example: Our Squash and Apple Soup paired perfectly with a drier hard apple cider. We served Original Sin brand.

So that's our meal! Easy and painless. It was a big hit with our friends. 
It's such a foolproof yet elegant menu that I just had to share it. So eat up and enjoy the waning days of fall because winter is sneaking right up on us!


  1. This menu worked incredibly! Thank you so much. I will be sure to re-use it next year. It's definitely well balanced and I was able to spend time with my guests instead of hiding out in my kitchen.

    1. Just seeing this comment now. I am so glad. Thank you for reading and cooking with us! Best, Sam

  2. I am totally making this!! I was panicking at the thought of my upcoming dinner party because, like you, I have several vegetarian guests. Phew! Thanks so much - this seems totally doable. -Annie

    1. Hi Annie, I am happy to hear you've found this helpful. With all the great fall produce available, it's hard to go wrong - PS you may like my upcoming pumpkin orzo which should be posted next week.