Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Throw Down: Harvest Feast

The weather is starting to get deliciously crisp, grapes are sweetening on the vine, your local package store has massive displays of pumpkin beer. Now is a perfect time to be thankful for all the good things you've got, and gather your loved ones for an early harvest feast - before the price of berries goes through the roof.

Click here for a playlist of dinner music, and click here for your minute-by-minute cooking plan. This plan is ambitious, but it *is* possible to pull it off gracefully. If it seems overwhelming, consider splitting these tasks with a friend or loved one - what looked impossible will suddenly seem easy. But for now just sit back and imagine the deliciousness.

The Menu
Designing the ultimate menu is tough. In the last 130 years or so, we've gotten out of practice with the pacing required for a multi-course meal. We've also gotten out of the habit of having a team of servants living below-stairs, sending up roasted pheasant via dumbwaiter. But don't despair - in this day and age it is still possible to serve up a sumptuous feast of legendary proportions, and do it singlehandedly.

First course: Crostini with boursin cheese and blackberry jam
Elegant and easy, that's my motto! A loaf of french bread can be thinly sliced in advance, laid on on a cookie sheet with a generous drizzle of oil and then popped under the broiler as the first guests arrive. After about two minutes per side, each piece gets a quick smear of boursin and another of jam. If you're still finishing up in the kitchen, ask a handy friend to uncork a bottle of wine for you and leave your friends to relax and mingle.

Soup course: Corn chowder with sea scallops and paprika
This looks ever-so impressive, and is nearly foolproof. The chowder can be made in advance and then can hang out on a light simmer. Scallops are really, really difficult to screw up. Melt some butter in a pan, throw in the scallops, flip them once. The bigger the scallop, the lower the flame. You want them to be beginning to delicately brown when you start to flip them. The process takes about 3-4 minutes per side, and they don't need babysitting. When the time comes, each person gets a big ladle of soup, 1-3 scallops (again, depending on size), and a quick dash of cayenne for color. Totally impressive, incredibly simple.

Salad course: Mixed greens with raspberry vinaigrette, pine nuts, shaved parmesan and raspberries
The only thing standing in the way of a perfect salad is how quickly pine nuts can burn in a toaster. It's important to brown your pignoli BEFORE you are totally stressed out and multi-tasking. Once your pine nuts are in order, this salad is a snap to make. For a rush job like this, I am completely in favor of bags of pre-washed greens. You can make your own dressing, or just buy a raspberry vinaigrette you like. Moments before the salad course, toss greens and dressing in a big bowl, use some tongs to quickly plate them, toss out pinches of nuts, pinches of raspberries, and three quick shaves of parmesan on each plate and you are DONE.

Main course: Chicken parmesan; Beet risotto with broiled radicchio and fontina; Baked cauliflower
Chicken parm is your friend - the chicken can be breaded and fried up well before go time and placed in a baking pan in the fridge. As soon as your guests are happily munching on bruschetta, cover the chicken pieces with pre-sliced mozzarella, pour in a jar of your favorite tomato sauce, and pop it in the oven along with a pan of cauliflower. Which, by the way, will be a totally decadent, melt-in-your-mouth vegetable side, requiring only heat, butter, olive oil and seasoned breadcrumbs.
The risotto is the belle of the ball, and requires the most attention in the form of constant stirring for about half an hour. It's likely that you'll be finishing her up during the appetizer course, but that's no problem. Risotto needs at least 10 minutes to settle, and it'll keep its heat for a good bit of time after that.

Dessert: Spice-infused hot chocolate with toasted marshmallows and a graham cracker rim; Fresh-baked peanut butter cookies
Even if you've been plating small portions this whole time, your guests will need time to digest and settle in - about the same amount of time that it takes for a pre-sheeted batch of peanut butter cookies to bake, and for you to pop into the kitchen and heat up a batch of hot chocolate. If people are completely stuffed, you can give them little cookie bags for the road - but the spiced chocolate & peanut butter combination is pretty unbeatable.

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