In the realm of entertaining, there is no greater risk-reward than the sit-down dinner party.
It’s a chance for the table that usually hosts homework and cereal bowls to take a turn at fine dining, and often means special guests. Maybe the boss is coming over. Or the new in-laws. In any case, it’s a chance to impress.
With that comes a mix of excitement and terror.
The first thing we might think of when trying to impress is a big steak. But for a dinner party, steaks are an inherently flawed entree. First, they have to be cooked at the last second, meaning the host isn’t with the guests. And then somebody has to keep track of who wants well-done and who wants rare and who wants somewhere in-between.
Here is a foolproof plan that lets you make the hardest parts of dinner as many as three days in advance of the party. Braise short ribs in a rich sauce of wine and vegetables and serve it over a risotto. When guests arrive, you’ll have little to do but stir the rice, assemble plates and accept compliments. And for dessert? Get a hand from store-bought pound cake and a secret weapon, Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread.
The sit-down-dinner party menu
- Poached Pear Salad
- Braised Short Ribs with Risotto Milanese and Pickled Red Onions
- Nutella Cream Pound Cake with Berries
Food and drink
For a sit-down dinner, timing is everything. Here’s a timeline to keep you on track.
-- Two or three days before party: Shop. Braise short ribs. Make pickled onions.
-- Day before the party: Poach pears and make dressing for salad. Melt Nutella and cream together for the dessert sauce so it can chill overnight.
-- Early the day of the party: Whip the Nutella cream.
-- One to two hours before guests arrive: Reheat short ribs on stove. Simmer chicken stock and saffron for risotto. Plate salads and refrigerate them (hold off on dressing).
-- Just before guests arrive: Start the risotto. When it’s ready, move off the heat. Meanwhile, slice and toast the pound cake. Turn off oven, but leave cake in to keep it warm.
-- After everyone is there: Serve salads. As salad plates are cleared, plate risotto and short ribs and serve. Plate desserts and serve. Relax. Success.
-- People love to ask what they can bring. For the sit-down dinner party, tell them it’s all under control.
-- Don’t know much about wine? Go to a wine store or specialty market and tell them what you will serve or cook. Specialty stores will have someone there who is dying to share what they know about wine. With food, Riesling is a safe white, pinot noir a safe red. They go with almost anything.
-- Good rule: Only cook with a wine you are willing to drink. Corollary: When you are cooking with wine, that’s the wine that goes with the dish.
-- Make sure the evening starts with an empty sink and dishwasher. As courses are cleared, load plates into dishwasher to prevent stacking.
-- Risotto’s reputation suggests it needs constant attention for 20 to 25 minutes of continuous stirring. That’s overstated. You can stir it every couple of minutes while doing something else nearby.
-- Then again, there will be a guest who comes into the kitchen wanting to “help.” He or she can stir the risotto continuously.
-- Is there a vegetarian on the guest list? Replace the chicken stock in the risotto with either vegetable or mushroom stock for everyone. Saute an assortment of mushrooms in butter with thyme. Put that on top of the risotto for the vegetarians. It’s not impossible the meat eaters will want some mushrooms, too, so be prepared.
-- The pickled onions seem like a small garnish, but they’re a crucial detail. They add a cool, crisp, bright note to the warm, comforting, unctuous short ribs. It takes about 3 minutes of work and they’ll keep in the fridge for a month.
-- Saffron is a bit of a splurge, but it has a big payoff. It gives the risotto a remarkable golden color, it has an unmistakable flavor and when the stock is simmering as guests arrive, it will fill the kitchen with a floral aroma.
-- Store-bought pound cake saves time for dessert. Once it’s doctored with berries and cream, no one will know. But feel free to make your own.
-- The dessert is infinitely variable. Instead of the Nutella cream, you can make any sort of mousse, pudding or fruit curd that you like. And substitute any berry that you like, one that is on sale or one that looks remarkably fresh.
-- Envision what courses will go on what plates. Will you need more? Get them out and wash them if they haven’t been used for a while.
-- Make sure you have enough silverware. Don’t worry about Miss Manners-approved place settings, but do provide fresh forks for each course. They don’t have to match. Unless, of course, you’ve invited a finicky group.
Poached Pear Salad
For poached pears:
- 1 bottle port wine, or other red wine
- Zest from 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup lemon juice
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 10 cloves
- 4 Bosc pears
For salad dressing:
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup apple-cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 pound frisee, or other salad greens
- 6 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
- 6 ounces pecan pieces, or other nuts
In a medium saucepan, combine wine, zest, juice, sugar and spices. Over medium-high heat, bring to a boil. Meanwhile, cut pears in half from top to bottom. Using melon baller or small spoon, remove and discard the seeds.
Put the pears in the wine and lower heat to low. Simmer for 25 minutes. Remove pears from wine and refrigerate them. Strain any solid bits from wine and return the wine to pan. Bring to boil and reduce by 2/3, about 30 to 45 minutes.
Make the dressing by mixing 1 cup of the wine reduction with the oil, vinegar and salt.
To assemble salad, divide the greens among the plates. Slice each pear half thinly and fan a half a pear on each plate over greens. Top with cheese, nuts and dressing.
Makes 8 servings.
Braised Short Ribs with Risotto Milanese and Pickled Red Onions
For the short ribs:
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 8 beef short ribs, about 5 to 6 inches long, 10 to 12 ounces each
- 4 stalks celery, chopped
- 4 carrots, cleaned and chopped
- 8 ounces (about half a head) fennel, chopped, fronds reserved
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 bottle (750 milliliters) red wine, such as zinfandel
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
- 4 anchovy fillets, or about 2 tablespoons anchovy paste
- 1 bunch of thyme, tied with kitchen twine
- Risotto Milanese (see recipe)
- Pickled Red Onions (see recipe)
Heat enough olive oil to cover bottom of large skillet and place over high heat. Liberally salt and pepper the short ribs. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pan, brown the short ribs, about 5 minutes per side. Remove ribs from skillet and set aside.
In same skillet, add celery, carrot, fennel and onion. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté until vegetables soften, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Add garlic and sauté another 1 or 2 minutes.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
Transfer vegetables to a large, heavy pot or roasting pan. Nestle ribs in vegetables and add wine, stock, tomato paste, anchovies and thyme.
On the stove, bring the mixture to a boil. When it reaches a boil, cover the pot or pan with a tight-fitting lid or aluminum foil and move into the oven. Braise for 2 hours. Remove the cover and braise for 1 more hour.
Remove from oven and remove ribs and thyme bundle from pot. Keep bone intact if possible, but it may fall off. That’s OK. Just clean cartilage off the meat. With an immersion blender, puree the vegetables and braising liquid until smooth.
To assemble entreé, scoop about 1 cup of risotto onto each plate. Top each with a short rib. Coat the meat with some of the braising liquid. Garnish with some of the pickled onion and a few leaves of the reserved fennel fronds.
Makes 8 servings.
- 6 cups chicken stock
- Pinch of saffron
- Olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely diced
- 3 cups rice, arborio or carnaroli
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons butter
In a large saucepan, heat chicken stock and saffron.
In a large skillet, heat enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Sauté onion until soft. Add rice and sauté until rice is coated with oil. Add wine and stir until pan is dry again and rice has absorbed liquid. Add about a cup of hot stock and stir until pan is dry again.
Repeat until all the stock is incorporated. This should take 20 to 25 minutes. Taste. If rice isn’t cooked through, add water 1/2 cup at a time until it is. Add cheese and butter and stir until they’ve melted into the rice.
Season with salt to taste.
Makes 8 servings.
Pickled Red Onion
- 3/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 red onion, sliced very thin
Mix vinegar, salt and sugar. Put onion in a resalable plastic bag and pour in vinegar mixture. If mixture doesn’t cover onions, add water until it does. Let stand in refrigerator for at least three hours and up to a week.
Makes about 1 cup.
Nutella Cream Pound Cake with Berries
- 2 cups whipping cream
- 1 cup Nutella spread
- 16 large strawberries, sliced
- 2 store-bought pound cakes
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, warm cream and Nutella. Whisk until incorporated. Move to a container, cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours. With an electric mixer on high, whip cream mixture until peaks form.
Slice each cake diagonally into four pieces. Under a broiler, toast briefly until lightly browned. Cut each slice diagonally to form triangles.
To plate, put a small pool of the cream on each plate. Place one triangle of cake on the cream. Scatter slices of berries over the cake and prop a second triangle up on the first.
Makes 8 servings.