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Monday, December 28, 2009

How to Make Dinner for Twelve

The very idea of preparing dinner for a large group is so intimidating that most of us never try it, preferring to invite friends and family in smaller groups. But a big dinner party can be fun for everyone once the shopping and chopping are done—more conversation, more laughter, more tall tales, more compliments for the cook.

Guest blogger David Wray has come up with a menu, shopping list, and plan of attack that break this fearsome prospect down into manageable parts:

Menu for Twelve

Chicken with two or three sauces (mushroom, chimichurri, balsamic reduction)
Green salad
Corn salad (summer)
Roast potatoes (rest of the year)


Three or four packages of skinless, boneless chicken breasts. Each package should have three breasts. I look for packages weighing 1.25 to 1.5 pounds, so a total of four to six pounds of chicken (depending on the size of your guests and of their appetites)

Two pounds of green beans or broccoli

Salad fixings: a couple of types of lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, avocado, red pepper, and whatever else you like in your salad

Ten ears cooked corn or eight medium-size potatoes

For the sauces:

One bunch parsley
Small amount of fresh rosemary
One package of three portobello mushroom caps
Four large shallots
Three or four cloves of garlic
Red wine
Balsamic vinegar
Worcestershire sauce
One lemon
Red wine vinegar
Olive oil
Cube or two of chicken bouillon
Bleu cheese
Half pint heavy cream
Garlic powder
Salt and pepper

It takes one person an hour and a half to two hours of pretty steady work to prepare the meal, so the advance work should come long before. The chicken can be trimmed and paillarded the night or afternoon before dinner, and the mushroom sauce can also be made whenever it's convenient, since it will be zapped in the microwave before it's served. Then on the evening of the dinner I start with the things that don't involve the stove. I make the chimichurri first so the flavors will blend, then the corn salad for the same reason before preparing the vegetable, which can then sit in its pot until the last minute when it gets steamed.

My friends' daughter always asks me what time we'll have dinner. I always say 8:00. That's a running joke, because I never quite make it, usually getting stuff to the table 10 or 15 minutes late. But nobody complains.

What scares people about making a big meal is that they don't realize there is a margin of error. You don't want to undercook the chicken or the potatoes, but it doesn't matter if either is a little overcooked. The sauces provide moisture for the chicken, and the potatoes will just be a little crisper.

Advance Preparation

Mushroom sauce:

1. Cut the portobello caps into a half-inch dice and coarsely chop one of the shallots.
2. Sauté together in a smallish frying pan with two or three tablespoons of butter.
3. When the shallot is translucent and the mushrooms have darkened and are giving up their juice, add one third to half a cup red wine, a dash or four of Worcestershire sauce, juice from half a lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Simmer until most of the liquid has disappeared.
5. Put in a bowl and cover until dinner time, then microwave to reheat.

Chimichurri sauce:

1. Mince garlic and put in a bowl with three tablespoons of olive oil.
2. Mince parsley and add to bowl.
3. Add a tablespoon of red wine vinegar or juice from other half of lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Stir ingredients together. Sauce should be a sort of slurry—liquid but not too much so. Taste and add olive oil or vinegar as needed.
5. Cover and refrigerate, but bring sauce out several hours before dinner so it can return to room temperature.

You can also paillard the chicken in advance. Trim off any remaining fat or cartilage from the chicken breasts. Then holding each breast firmly against a cutting board, run your knife parallel to the board to cut the breast in half, yielding two thinner pieces of meat. The advantage of this is twofold: the meat cooks more quickly, and guests with smaller appetites can help themselves to a single piece while the trenchermen in the crowd can go for more. No one has to look around from someone to share a too-large piece with.

Corn Salad (summer)
1. Hold the cooked ears of corn vertically and cut the kernels off, then scrape the edge of your knife along the cobs to get the remaining milk and corn germ and place in serving bowl.
2. Add four tomatoes cut into small pieces, half a diced red onion, and salt and pepper to taste. Do not refrigerate. You're done.

Roast Potatoes (rest of year)
Scrub the potatoes and cut into bite-size pieces. Cover in water in a pot that will hold them, and bring to a boil. Cook until just tender, seven or eight minutes, then drain and set aside uncovered.

Enlist a guest to prepare the green beans or broccoli for steaming, but don't turn on the burner. I like beans cut into bite-size pieces so I don't drag butter across my chin when I eat them. Not an issue with broccoli because you can cut it as you eat it.

Once You're Ready to Really Get Cooking . . .

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. To the pot of potatoes add two tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary (if you like—I find the flavor a tad too pronounced and turpentiney). Stir to coat potatoes in oil, then spread them on a baking sheet and place in oven. You want to roast them at high heat for only about 20 minutes. They've already been boiled. The objective—which can be achieved—is a potato that is crunchy on the outside, but tender on the inside. That can be lost if the potatoes are in the oven for too long. They'll still be tasty and edible but . . .

Sauté the chicken in batches in butter in a large frying pan over medium heat, adding butter as necessary. You can train yourself to tell doneness by touch: when the chicken is raw, it feels flabby. As it cooks, it firms up. The chicken is done when there is just a little bit of spring left to the touch. As each batch of chicken is done, remove to a warm platter and cover. Meanwhile, chop remaining three shallots.
When you start your last batch of chicken, turn on the burner under the pot containing the steamer and the green beans or broccoli. Turn the burner off a minute or two after you see steam coming from the pot. The vegetable will continue to cook. Check now and again to see if the vegetable is done. Beans and broccoli are both finished when easily pierced with the point of a knife. Don't overcook. When either is done, uncover the pot. It doesn't matter if the vegetable cools off a bit, because the broccoli will be served with a warm sauce and the beans will be reheated.

If you are serving the broccoli, put the half pint of heavy cream in a small saucepan and add two tablespoons of bleu cheese, two tablespoons of coarsely chopped walnuts and a few grinds of pepper. Simmer, taste, and add more cheese or walnuts as you see fit. The sauce should be thick but still liquid.

When all the chicken is cooked, sautee the diced shallots in the frying pan until translucent, then add half a cup of water to the pan to deglaze. Throw in a bouillon cube or two, grind in some fresh pepper and add two or three tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and any juices that have accumulated on the platter of cooked chicken. Do not add salt. My box of bouillon cubes says that each serving provides 53 percent of your daily sodium requirement. Reduce until much but not
all of the liquid is gone, and put the sauce in bowl.

If you are serving green beans, quickly rinse out and dry the frying pan. Add three tablespoons butter, the beans, salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste. Stir or shake to coat and reheat the beans.

Enlist a guest to make the green salad with whatever ingredients you have on hand. The dressing is up to you.

Put everything in serving dishes, sit down, and dig in. Pass the sauces separately. The bleu cheese and walnut is for the broccoli; the mushroom, chimichurri, and balsamic reduction are for the chicken.

Dessert? I'm not a baker, so I hope one of the guests has offered to bring something. If not, they get store-bought ice cream and cookies.

All this may sound complicated, but I usually do most of it by myself in two hours or less (someone always volunteers to make the green salad). If there is leftover cooked chicken, I've discovered that it freezes quite well for a week or so. If you wrap the individual pieces in tinfoil, they can be popped into a toaster oven and reheated in 15 or 20 minutes at 375 degrees. Then shred for chicken salad or chicken tacos or whatever you like. Or serve whole with or without one of the sauces.

(Between the sauces and the side dishes, this menu contains plenty of options and protein for vegetarians. We plan to try it soon, grateful that David has already figured out the details for us.— R & T)

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