For many people the idea of entertaining brings up images of burnt souffles and bored guests. But planning a dinner party doesn’t have to be a disaster. Ellen Wright author of “Around the Table: Easy Menus For Cozy Entertaining at Home,” has recipes to make your next dinner party a smash. Check them out here:
THESE CRISPY LITTLE toasts go well with soups and salads when you want something a little more interesting than croutons. They are not difficult to make and keep well. No matter how many of these I prepare for a get-together, the basket is always empty.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1 loaf French bread, sliced 1/2 inch thick at an angle
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves (optional), for garnish
Preheat the oven to broil. Dip one side of each bread slice into the melted butter. Place the Parmesan cheese on a plate and dredge the buttered bread in the cheese. Put the bread cheese side up on a baking sheet. Broil until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Stand by the oven while doing this and don’t leave; the toasts will burn if left a second too long. Remove from the oven and garnish with the parsley, if using.
These toasts can be baked in a preheated 425F oven for about 10 minutes, instead of baking.
Italian bread also works well.
TOMATO ONION SOUP
I love this for a party and like to serve it in small demitasse cups along with the Parmesan Toasts (see previous recipe). It is also great to make in advance and keep frozen; it can be quickly reheated for last-minute meals. You can decorate it with a lemon slice; chopped fresh cilantro leaves, chives, or scallion greens; or even toasted pine nuts.
Makes 10 small servings
4 cups crushed tomatoes
1 cup beef broth
1 small onion, stuck with 2 cloves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons butter
3 tablespoons chopped scallions (white and green parts), for garnish
Place the tomatoes, broth, onion, basil, and pepper in a large saucepan. Stir together and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the baking soda (it counteracts the acid in the tomatoes) and sugar, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 40 minutes. Remove the onion and discard.
Using a fork, mash the flour and butter together into a paste on a small plate. Add to the soup, increase the heat to medium, and stir until the soup thickens, about 5 minutes.
Serve immediately, garnished with the chopped scallions.
The flour and butter paste used to thicken this soup is also known as beurre manié, or kneaded butter.
You can use canned whole tomatoes, but remember to break them up with your hands, cut out the blossom ends, and process in a blender or food processor until smooth.
This soup is also super served cold.
I love to pour this soup, hot or cold, from a pretty china or silver coffeepot with a long spout into different-patterned demitasse cups. People can sip the soup during cocktails as a taste of what’s to come.
You also may serve the soup as a first course in a proper bowl, but double the recipes if necessary..
GLAZED PORK LOIN WITH MUSTARD AND BROWN SUGAR
This is the most delicious braised pork because of the combination of ingredients: mustard, brown sugar, and prunes. The pork loin is larded with prosciutto, which gives it a terrific flavor. I learned this recipe 40 years ago from the classic French cookbook by Simone Beck, Simca’s Cuisine. Beck served it with Boston Lettuce Gratinée (page 24) because the combination is perfect, and I always do, too.
Makes 10 servings.
2 cups beef broth
18 medium-size pitted prunes
One 5- to 6-pound pork loin, boned, rolled, and tied (ask your butcher to do this)
1/4 pound prosciutto, cut into 3- to 4-inch-long x 1/2-inch-thick strips
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
2/3 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil
2/3 cup bourbon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried sage
4 sprigs fresh parsley
1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons cold water
1 bunch watercress, stems removed, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 375F. Heat 1 cup of the broth in a medium-size saucepan. Add the prunes, remove from the heat, and set aside. Using a sharp knife or long skewer, push the prosciutto strips into the center of the loin lengthwise. Do this from both ends, as they won’t go the whole length of the loin. When you slice the braised loin, you will have prosciutto in each slice.
Paint the pork loin with the mustard. Place the brown sugar on a plate and roll the loin in it to coat evenly.
In a Dutch oven over medium heat, heat the canola oil. Brown the meat on all sides, taking care not to let it scorch. Pour the bourbon over the meat. Using a long match and being watchful of hanging hair and loose sleeves, light the bourbon and let it burn out. Add the remaining 1 cup broth, cover, and place in the oven.
After 1 hour, turn the meat and season with salt and pepper. Wrap the thyme, sage, and parsley in a piece of cheesecloth to make a bouquet garni and add to the pot. Reduce the oven temperature to 350F, cover, and cook for 1 hour more. About 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time, add the prunes and their soaking liquid.
Transfer the pork loin and prunes to a warm platter and set aside. Strain the juices through a fine-mesh strainer and place in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the cornstarch mixture and cook, stirring, until thickened, 4 to 5 minutes.
Slice the pork loin and return to the platter with the prunes. Decorate the edges of the platter with the watercress. Make sure to include some of the watercress when serving the pork and prunes; it’s a cold and crunchy addition. Serve the gravy on the side.
Some butchers will lard the pork loin with the prosciutto for you; ask them to cut the ham into finger-szied strips. It’s a great help if they do.
Allow the meat to cook slowly. If you try to rush it using high heat, it will be tough.
BOSTON LETTUCE GRATINÉE
A vegetable dish that is hard to figure out turns into a conversation piece. No one seems to know what’s inside. Is it broccoli, zucchini, spinach? The lettuce gives it a light and refreshing taste. It goes well with any meat, and I think it’s a great luncheon dish because it is light, like a quiche. I learned to make it many years ago from Simone Beck’s Simca’s Cuisine. You can make this even easier by doing a lot of the prep the day before.
Makes 10 servings
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1 3/4 cups plain dry bread crumbs
8 to 10 small heads Boston lettuce
1/3 cup minced shallots
1 cup cold milk
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup grated Swiss cheese
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 375F. Using 2 tablespoons of the butter, grease the bottom and sides of a 1 1/2-quart mold. Line the bottom with waxed paper and grease it with 1 tablespoon butter. Dust the inside of the mold with 2 tablespoons of the bread crumbs and knock out the excess. Set aside.
Trim and wash the lettuce and separate the leaves. Drop the leaves into a pot of boiling water until they wilt, 3 to 4 seconds. Remove from the water using a slotted spoon, rinse under cold running water, and drain. Finely chop and set aside in a colander to drain completely. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight, if you wish.
In a medium-size saucepan over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until softened. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and melt. Add the chopped lettuce and cook until there is no liquid left in the pan, 10 to 15 minutes.
In a large bowl, soak the remaining bread crumbs in the milk for 3 to 4 minutes, then mash with a fork. Add the eggs, Swiss and Parmesan cheeses, cream, and lettuce mixture and fold together. Add the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the mixture into the mold, leaving a 1-inch space at the top. Place the mold in a larger pan with 2 inches of water. Set the pan in the oven and bake until golden brown and puffed, about 40 minutes. Make sure the gratinée is set-firm in the center and pulling away slightly from the sides of the pan.
Remove from the oven and let cool slightly. Unmold onto a warm serving plate. Spoon some sauce from the pork loin over the top and decorate with the parsley.
After rinsing the lettuce in cold water, I use my dish drainer to drain it.
The process of cooking the gratinée in another pan filled with water is called a bain-marie, or water bath. It is a gentle poaching process.
The way to divide and conquer this workload is to wilt and chop the lettuce, grate the cheese, and measure your ingredients the day before, then assemble the gratinée at the time of baking.
WHOLE BAKED ONIONS
This is one of the simplest and prettiest ways to dress up steak, chicken, fish, chops, or a roast. When onions are baked like this, they become as sweet as sugar and are a wonderful addition to any meal. This is one of those not-really-a-recipe recipes.
Makes 10 servings
10 medium-size to large yellow onions, unpeeled
10 tablespoons butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350F. Place the onions root end down and side by side (to help them support each other) in a baking pan. Bake until tender when pierced with a sharp knife, 40 to 45 minutes.
With a sharp serrated knife, make a 2-inch-deep X in the top of each onion and peel back the layers, like the petals of a flower. Insert 1 tablespoon of the butter, season with salt and pepper, and serve.
Use regular yellow onions with brown skins because they hold their shape better than sweet Vidalia or Walla Walla onions.
I place these gorgeous onion flowers around the pork loin on a large serving platter.
These also are great served on individual plates with a steak or chop.
MONTANA FLOOD CAKE
This pound cake recipe belongs to Ann Jordan, who has been my friend for more than 25 years. She says it is her mother’s recipe and “only the Lord knows where she got it.” It is the easiest and tastiest of all the cakes I’ve ever made. I once made it at my friend’s ranch in Montana when there was quite a flood and we couldn’t get to the store. I had everything but vanilla, so I substituted bourbon, and it was still great. I like to serve it with berries or sliced fruit in season. A little ice cream or whipped cream would not be a mistake.
Makes two 9 x 5-inch loaves; 12 servings
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons pure lemon extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
3 cups plus 3 tablespoons cake flour
Assorted berries or sliced fruit, optional
Ice cream or whipped cream, optional
Preheat the oven to 325F. Grease and flour two 9 x 5-inch loaf pans, knocking out any excess flour.
In a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on high speed, cream together the butter and sugar until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the extracts, then alternately add the heavy cream and cake flour. Beat the batter for 4 to 5 minutes.
Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake until the cakes pull away from the sides of the pans and a skewer inserted in the center of each comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Let cool slightly before slicing or wrapping (see Ellen’s Tips). Top with berries and ice cream if desired.
Be sure to beat the mixture longer than you think is necessary, to make a dense, even-textured cake. The length of time you beat it will make the difference between a velvety texture and an average one.
You can make this cake up to 2 days before you plan to serve it. I leave the loaves in the pans, then wrap and store them that way, slicing as needed. I think they stay moister that way.
If the cake is a few days old, I like to toast slices of it for breakfast and serve with butter and honey.
Excerpted from “Around the Table: Easy Menus For Cozy Entertaining at Home” by Ellen Wright and Tom Eckerle (Photographer). Copyright © 2003 by Ellen Wright and Tom Eckerle (Photographer). Published by Harvard Common Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.