By Sandy Hu
My friend from Alaska, Mary Deming Barber, was coming to San Francisco for a conference and I was looking forward to inviting her to dinner. Problem was, I myself was returning from another conference in St. Louis the night before our get-together. So, rather than cook for Mary, I invited her and four of her friends attending the conference to cook dinner with me.
I’d never done this before, but having such a large, open kitchen, it had always been my dream to host a cook-together party. I thought it would be really fun, a great icebreaker among new friends and less work. (Two of the three turned out to be true – guess which?)
Planning the Menu
I wanted recipes that would be easy to execute and not messy in the kitchen. Of course I turned to the Special Fork recipe database and looked for recipes rated difficulty 1 (the easiest). You can search the Special Fork recipe database by level of difficulty using the advanced search function.
To start with, I wanted to greet my guests with something to nibble on so they wouldn’t go hungry while making their dinner.
- Herb Garlic Cheese Spread is a delicious, super-simple recipe I got from Holly Chute, Executive Chef of the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, a perfect starter.
- I also made Pomegranate Yogurt Dip. If you don’t know how to seed a pomegranate, check out our Special Fork video.
Next, our first course:
- Arugula, Fennel and Raisin Salad with Warm Goat Cheese has a difficulty rating of 2, mostly because there are several parts to it: preparing the greens, the goat cheese and the dressing. But it’s a cinch for two people. If you don’t have a slicer to slice the fennel thinly or someone who is good with a knife, you might want to skip the fennel and just use the arugula or baby greens. This makes so much salad that you could cut the amount of greens in half or serve the remainder as a side salad. Here’s a video demo.
Our main course:
- This one’s nice and easy: Salmon en Papillote. Just top salmon with kalamata olives, shallots and other ingredients, wrap in parchment paper and bake. The parchment packets keep the salmon moist and juicy. This recipe makes 1 serving so you can quadruple it or use any other multiplier, based on your number of guests. Of course we used wild Alaska salmon.
- An appealing warm dessert, Blueberry Apple Crisp is easy and scrumptious and best served warm with vanilla ice cream. Here’s the how-to video.
Everyone’s idea of “easy” is different, based on cooking experience and skill level, so if you choose these recipes for your own cook-it-yourself dinner party, read the recipes first and make sure they work for you.
Time is relative. Expect that everything will take longer that the estimated times because guests are new to your kitchen and are encountering a new recipe.
Think about the equipment you will need and the timing for each dish. I have two ovens so we were able to bake the crisp while the salmon cooked. If you don’t, you’ll have to put the crisp in the oven when you sit down to dinner and plan on good dinnertime conversation over 50 minutes until dessert is ready. Or use the interim to wash the dishes and clean the kitchen as a team.
If you’ve created a free account on Special Fork, you can put your recipes into a recipe box for easy access. You can make a shopping list and either shop using your smartphone, or if you’re visiting Special Fork from a computer, print out the shopping list. You can also email the shopping list to yourself or someone else. In my case, I planned the menu in St. Louis and emailed the shopping list to Steve who did the shopping for me before I arrived home.
In my work, I get a lot of free aprons so I had plenty to offer my guests. If you don’t have extra aprons, ask guests to bring their own.
Before the guests arrive, review each recipe and gather the ingredients at separate work stations. I used sheet pans as trays to contain the ingredients for each recipe. Of course, you’ll leave the perishables in the fridge until guests are ready to cook. Have a separate tray for common ingredients – olive oil, salt, pepper – that more than one team will be using.
Print out the recipes. While the recipes in the Special Fork database appear as three sections (introduction, ingredients and method), you can hit print from any section and it will print the entire recipe. I put the recipes in plastic protector sheets and set them at each work station.
Set the table in advance so you’re ready to eat as soon the first dish is done.
Dividing the Teams
I had two people working on the first course, two on dessert and one on the salmon. Mary, who did the salmon, was in charge of prepping all the ingredients; then each person made her own packet. Since this was everyone’s first time making a parchment packet, I showed them our Special Fork video on my iPad before they began.
While I also had readymade parchment bags on hand for anyone who might be all thumbs, my guests were quite adept and made their packets beautifully. Each packet was signed with a Sharpie so each person could retrieve her very own creation after the packets were baked.
I served as the roving team member, making sure everyone had what they needed. Steve, who wasn’t part of the dinner party, did the dishes as the cooks worked. If there is a non-cook in your group, that person might want to volunteer to do the dishes (if you aren’t fortunate enough to have a “Steve,” like me). Cleaning up as you go is a big help, so that there’s not a mountain of dirty dishes to deal with afterwards.
All together, it was a fun evening and there was a lovely, communal spirit, sitting down to a dinner where everyone had contributed to the cooking. This dinner party takes some planning and while ours went off without a hitch, you’ll want to try it with friends who will be accommodating, in case you have an unexpected glitch that throws your timing off.
Verdict: Fun? Check! Icebreaker? Check! Less work? Not so much. Would I do it again? I’m already planning for the next event.
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