That is a lie. I sweated this dinner, a lot. When my husband mistakenly (on purpose) offered a four-course wine dinner for three couples as part of a silent auction for our local hospital and someone bought it for hundred of dollars, I nearly spit out my morning coffee.
In our small town, my husband is known for our wine cellar and so I’m sure the allure of very special wines was the draw. I suggested we offer a more low key wine pairing where I would serve four small plates that went with the wines he selected. Somehow he made that into a full four-course gourmet wine dinner and now we had to produce.
A month out — What kind of theme could we thread through the event? What could be made ahead since I do have a full-time day job? What was in season? What was almost a sure thing since failure was not an option? We had recently tried some interesting Sicilian wines, so I looked for recipes around that. I thought about inexpensive ingredients and maximum flavor. I found great recipes. Then one weekend before the event, I decided I didn’t like all Sicilian wines he had available.
I had frozen some fabulous Virginia blue crab into crab cakes a few weeks before so the idea of a Southern menu began to take shape. My mom’s people were from Virginia and we hope to retire to our cottage on the Rappahannock River. I’ve had lots of practice cooking Southern. Done. Now I turned to what was in season and what could be made ahead.
Corn pudding is always a huge hit. Ham biscuits with that special country flavor came to mind. Sweet potatoes would work. The meat was a sticking point. Given this was supposedly a gourmet event, pulled pork wouldn’t do. We flirted with hangar steak and settled on that old stand-by, beef tenderloin. If you can afford it, it is always great and hard to ruin (although once we did cook a lovely piece of meat gray). Another reason, my husband buys, seasons and cooks the tenderloin. One more thing I didn’t have to think about except to remind him to buy it. This time he had forgotten until the day before the party.
Thinking about how the plate would compose, corn pudding got tossed out as too shapeless and was replaced with sautéed sweet corn. I had some fresh corn that needed to be cut off the cob and frozen. Perfect. I needed a green, so asparagus for its shape and color (and taste) came in the mix.
I had some prosciutto so the asparagus became bundles wrapped in prosciutto and broiled. The corn sauté got some red peppers. I could see the plate in my mind.
A week ahead — we sat down and talked through the courses and the wines. I also polished the silver and ironed the napkins. I also counted out dishware and assigned plates, and forks to every course. My husband would be in charge of sufficient wine glasses for every wine.
The cocktail course –We wanted to start with something fun so a mint julep martini came to mind. Never mind we never made one before but that’s half the fun of entertaining. With the martini one had to have cheese wafers, an old southern stand-by, comprised of butter, sharp cheddar cheese, flour and a dash of cayenne. Ham biscuits are easy to make ahead. Virginia peanuts always work.
First course – Virginia blue crab cakes with a tasty cocktail sauce. A little lettuce and slices of lemon finished the plate. Wine: 2013 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay
Main course – Tenderloin with horseradish sauce, whipped sweet potatoes, sautéed corn, and roasted asparagus. A word about the sweet potatoes. When I went to buy these I was seduced by something called a purple sweet potato. Wow, I thought to myself, wouldn’t that look great on my plate? Imagine my surprise when I cut into the roasted potatoes and they were a greenish white in color. Oh well, at least they tasted divine, whipped with cream, butter, and local maple syrup. Another dish you can make a few days ahead. Wine: 2006 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon
Cheese course — We wanted to serve another wine so we decided on a cheese course. This was an expensive decision because you need good cheeses for a stand-alone plate. We want to the best cheese place we know, Zingerman’s and splurged on three cheese, Fiore Sardo, a raw sheep’s milk cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a raw cow milk’s cheese and Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk, an organic cow milk cheese. Wine: NV Pierre Moncuit Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Champagne
Dessert – My go to dessert is the Barefoot Contessa’s chocolate ganache cake. You might ask why? It is chocolate, of course, and my husband knows how to make it and it keeps for a week in the fridge. Any more questions? We had some fresh raspberries that would hopefully last until the big day. Wine: The Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Madeira; The Lee Family Stratford Hall Special Reserve
Coffee and liquors would be the finale, right before we rolled our guests down our front stairs and sent them home.
Night before – Picking up the house, polished more silver, made the sweet potatoes and set the table. My husband had thoughtfully bought me a bouquet of flowers, probably because he knew I was still miffed at his first mistake, the dinner rather than the tasting. Did I tell you he then put the wine pairing for another four couples into another charity auction and so that is next. Arghhhhh.
At a dinner table, you really have to restrain your artistic flower arranging tendencies so that people aren’t peering across the table through a jungle of flowers. I had just enough with some hydrangeas from my yard to make two low, silver bowls of fresh flowers. The silver candlesticks, bowls of flowers, white tablecloth and gold chargers did make for a lovely table.
Day of the party – Did I mention lists? I make lots of lists when I entertain. List for the grocery store. Lists of when I do what, lists of the menu. These serve as my guide when I have just about lost my mind getting ready for an event and have had to run back to the store for the fifth time because something wasn’t on the list. I love to cross things off the list.
I needed to ice the cake, and make the biscuits. We usually use prepared small rolls but me, the over achiever, wanted to make fresh biscuits. Baking is really not my thing as evidenced by the trial run of biscuits I made the week before. My friend lovingly suggested we use them for small Frisbees. I thought hockey pucks. Now I was going to use a prepared mix, which would at least rise into something resembling a biscuit.
While multi-tasking, I managed to burn the biscuits. Voila — open-faced ham biscuits were born. Iced the cake, baked the cheese cookies while my husband made the base for the Mint Julep martinis, simple syrup and fresh mint. Took the frozen corn and crab cakes out to defrost. Peeled the asparagus and wrapped in prosciutto.
Two hours before – this is when I draw a hot bath and read a book for 30 minutes. Without these few minutes for myself, I find it hard to be charming or even polite.
One hour before – check the list. The wily wino, a.k.a. my husband, forgot to take the meat out of the refrigerator. The tenderloin needs to come to room temperature before it’s cooked – I have no idea why. Fill water glasses. Everything is staged and ready to go. Heat the oven to 500 and pop the meat in just as the guests pull up in the driveway.
This is when having two people is really critical. For this party, my daughter’s best friend agreed to help us with the serving and cleanup. Hallelujah. I won’t face tomorrow morning with an enormous pile of dirty dishes.
My bon vivant mate escorted our guests to the wine cellar for the drinks course while I start frying the crab cakes in unsalted butter. After the guests have marinated for about 45 minutes in their mint juleps, I summoned them up for the first course. The meat was resting in its foil house, sweet potatoes were in the microwave, and asparagus was roasting. We were ready for the dinner to begin in earnest.