Thursday, February 23, 2012

Throw Down: Winter Feast

Let's face it - the last bit of winter is usually the toughest. After the thrill or the angst of your particular Valentine's Day has past, February has a face only a mother could love. Cold, crusty, and painted in a dreary palette, it's no wonder she has a tough time getting a date.

You know who's great at commiserating with you about your Seasonal Affective Disorder? All of your awesome friends. Instead of hiding out under the covers by your lonesome, switch on that light therapy box your mom got you and start planning a feast to beat those blues. Take advantage of your friends' desire to nest, set your table by candlelight, and warm yourself in front of your oven as a four-course meal simmers to perfection.

Click here for a playlist of fun dinner music, and click here for a minute-by-minute cooking plan. You will be able to cook and plate a sumptuous feast singlehandedly if you give yourself enough time beforehand. If it seems overwhelming, feel free to delegate to a few of your besties, and this meal will be a snap.

The Menu

Designing the perfect menu is tricky. You want food to appear piping hot, but you want to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible while your guests are sitting at the table. This plan will allow you to do most of the cooking ahead of time, and then simply throw together or gently warm before eating. You also want to help your guests pace themselves so they savor every bite, from the first marinated olive to the last crumb of peanut butter popcorn. I like to print out little menues so people know what's in store, and I also like to plate the dishes myself - for portion control as much as for presentation.

The following menu was tailored for one friend who's trying to go easy on the lactose, another friend who can't eat gluten, and a third who's allergic to shellfish. I had no trouble ditching the gluten and the seafloor scavengers, and I was able to make all of the dairy optional. Spoiler alert: plenty of butter was harmed in the making of this meal - but luckily, many lactose-intolerants can handle butter, my friend included.

I should also mention one last dietary restriction; one guest was several months pregnant and avoiding alcohol. While there was plenty of wine and a fully stocked bar for people to indulge in, I made sure to have some really special drinky-drinks sans alcohol, so my friend wouldn't feel any less festive.

First course: Citrus-Marinated Olives and Sweet-Potato Fries
Paired with: Warm Apple Cider with Whiskey & Whipped Cream

There are a few advantages to starting a meal this way. We served this appetizer course informally in the living room. The Olives can sit there looking resplendent, ready to greet your first guests as they walk in the door, and the Apple Cider can sit quite happily in a slow cooker, even if you have some late arrivals. Letting your guests ladle their own cider and add Whiskey & Whipped Cream to taste gives them something to do while you quickly pop the fries in the oven. People will be warm and cozy in record time.

Second course: Very Veggie Beet Soup
Paired with: Moscow Mules

This soup recipe comes from the Greens Glorious Greens cookbook by Johnna Albi and Catherine Walthers. I have tried plenty of borsht recipes in my day, but this one is by far the biggest crowd-pleaser. It's loaded with dill and full of rich, earthy flavors - I have never served it without someone demanding the recipe. I love it with sour cream, but you can easily put it on the side and make it optional.

We rounded out this Russian-themed course with Moscow Mules. They're simple to make - just ginger beer, vodka, simple syrup and lime, plus a mint sprig if you want to get fancy - and if you leave out the vodka for the teetotalers, it's still plenty of fun.

Third course: Spinach Risotto with Arugula and Roasted Tomatoes; White Bean & Arugula Salad with Lemon Dill Vinaigrette; and Pork Sausage

The lucky thing about this course is that we cooked everything separately - when it turned out that two people were abstaining from pork, I was able to load them up with plenty of uncontaminated bean salad and risotto. There was plenty of shaved parm people could add to taste to the salad and the risotto - this particular risotto is so amazingly juicy and flavorful that the cheese is really an afterthought. You'll make risotto in the usual way, but while it's cooking you'll be roasting a whole pan of cherry tomatoes in oil - these get swirled in with the arugula at the last minute. Sheer bliss.

Fourth course: Susan's Peanut Butter Popcorn

It's tough to think of sweets that have neither flour nor dairy - happily, peanut butter popcorn does the job. It's gooey-delicious and satisfying - and after a giant meal like this one, one ramikin per person is about all you'll need.


  1. oh my god, that was an AMAZING meal... now I'm hungry!!!

  2. Spinach Risotto with Arugula and Roasted Tomatoes!!!

  3. How much do I wish I had some of that risotto Right. Now.