February 23, 2012

Hosting a dinner party calmly

leftover polenta casserole with extra spinach
Does hosting dinner parties make you happy or a nervous wreck? For me, it's a little of both. I want to cook for a crowd, but the actual process often seems overwhelming, even when the recipes I'm considering aren't overly complex. First there's deciding what to serve, then the list-making and shopping for ingredients, and of course, more-careful-than-usual housecleaning. I'm always looking for ways to streamline the preparations and make the experience less stressful, but less-stressful  doesn't necessarily translate into less time-consuming. I prefer to stretch out and slow down the preparations, if time permits.

Last weekend I hosted a dinner for nine that was relatively relaxing to prepare, and very satisfying to eat. I spread the cooking over two days — preparing some foods on Saturday to be reheated Sunday so I wouldn't feel rushed. My husband was out of town until Sunday, so I had the kitchen to myself, and no set meals to worry about. I accepted offers from guests to bring food, and I used some store-bought prepared foods to make the cooking a little easier. Chickpeas were soaked on Friday then cooked overnight in the slow cooker. Late Saturday afternoon I prepared chola tikki and soup. For the soup, I cooked and puréed the veggies but didn't add any seasonings, because seasonings can loose their spark in the fridge overnight. I spent about four hours, on and off, cutting and cooking.

Late Sunday morning, I made the cabbage slaw so it could marinate. Also, English cucumber quick pickles, and green onion salsa. After assorted chores and setting the table, my husband and I went for a one hour walk. When we got back about 4 p.m., I made guacamole, pine nut crema, and got the polenta baking. I cut carrot sticks, filled dishes with olives and tomatoes, and warmed up and seasoned the soup. One of the guests was bringing cookies, so my husband made a fruit salad  to accompany them, and washed the mushrooms before I sliced them  for the polenta casserole. 

Just before the company arrived we set out h'ors d'oeuvres, and were able to relax with our guests until my last minute cooking of the mushroom and spinach topping for the casserole. I was so involved with the event that I completely forgot to take photos until one of the guests mentioned it, and I just managed to snap a few bad photos of the food as an afterthought. Too bad, because it was pretty. I made way too much as usual. Here's the menu and information about the recipes:

calamata olives (from my giant Costco jar), grape tomatoes in a bowl, carrot sticks, guacamole, crackers (Trader Joe's savory rice crackers), edamame hummus (Trader Joe's)

potato soup inspired by this one from oh ladycakes. My soup had  yukon gold potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery, onion, carrots and cauliflower. I puréed it smooth and creamy and added lots of lemon juice. It was seasoned with hickory smoked salt and fresh-ground black pepper, and drizzled with sriracha. (I use Shark brand sriracha from Thailand. It's a little sweeter than Rooster brand, and doesn't contain preservatives.) The soup in the picture is actually from microwaved leftovers I ate the next day, and contained leftover crema as well as sriracha. (I added the crema before heating, the sriracha, after.) It was beyond amazing with the crema.

Main course 
chola tikki from this recipe, made the day before the dinner. (I previously wrote about chola tikki, here.) I added coriander and turmeric to my chola tikki, and sautéed them on a cast iron griddle before refrigerating them. I made them about 2-inches in diameter and about 1/2-inch thick. The next day I heated them on a sheet pan in the oven for 15 minutes at 350˚F and they came out perfectly crisp and delicious. The tikki were served with the amazing green onion salsa from "Viva Vegan" by Terry Hope Romero. The salsa is very versatile and goes with many styles of food.

cabbage salad. A simple salad of shredded red and green cabbage, carrots, a bit of kale, and red onion mixed together with a unique dressing from the Gentrified Coleslaw recipe in "Celebrate Vegan" by Dynise Balcavage. There are a couple of unique, unexpected ingredients in the dressing that indeed elevate the salad to new heights. So good.

baked polenta casserole. The basic polenta is based on a recipe from "Passionate Vegetarian" by Crescent Dragonwagon. In this case I used 1 cup of coarse cornmeal, 4-1/2 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt. I baked this in a 10x13 ceramic casserole (measured on the bottom=9x11) that holds 2-3/4 quarts. I baked it 40 minutes at 350˚F, then removed it from the oven and gave it a stir, put it back and baked about 20 more minutes until it was thick and set. I removed it from the oven, spread a layer of Trader Joe's salt-free organic marinara sauce over the top, added a layer of pine nut crema*, and returned it to the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Meantime, I used the recipe for Spinach With Pine Nuts and Raisins from "The Urban Vegan," except dried cranberries instead of raisins and a LOT of thickly sliced baby bella mushrooms. I cooked the mushrooms first, then added the spinach at the last minute to wilt it before topping the polenta with the spinach and mushrooms and serving the casserole. Even as leftovers, which you see at the top of the page, this casserole was great. I made two of these but one would have been enough. Now we have lots of frozen casserole in the freezer.

quick pickles from cukes and roots. Brought by a guest, and delicious.

quick cucumber and red onion pickles. Made by me and very plain.

cookies from "Vegan Cookies Take Over the World," brought by a guest.
fruit salad.

*Pine Nut Crema is from Viva Vegan, and is amazing. I used a modified version that contained only pine nuts, almond milk, garlic, lime juice, oil, starch and salt, and is much thinner than the original, but I imagine the original version is fabulous. One of these days I'm going to make enchiladas with the real crema recipe.

Overall, I'd say the dinner turned out very well, and I wasn't stressed-out and exhausted. The cleanup was pretty easy since everything had been made in stages and dishes and pans cleaned as I went along. Managing the kitchen clutter goes a long way towards keeping things calm, and is especially helpful when kitchen space is limited. (It also helps a lot to have a kitchen slave who does your bidding.)


Budding ballerina
photo by Kate
On Saturday afternoon, before I started cooking, I took my granddaughter to her first ballet class. She's a very outgoing child, but new situations can throw her, and it took all her courage to let go of me and join the class. But she did it, and had a great time. This weekend when her mom takes her to class, she'll have a leotard, tights and shoes just like everyone else. :)


February flowers

It may be February, cold, rainy and gloomy, but flowers are blooming in my backyard!


  1. What a lovely looking dinner! You are getting really good at GF cooking.

    I love when the late February flowers start to arrive. Really makes up for the rain, well a little bit. Enjoy!

  2. This is a great post. Just reading it makes me want to attempt to throw another dinner party even though, like you, I'm a mix of excitement and anxiety over them.
    You seem to have them quite often, no? The soup looks gorgeous and the rest of the food sounds great too. I especially like the idea of the cabbage salad.
    Beautiful flower shots too. What a weird winter it has been.

  3. Lord, flowers in February. It's warm here, but not that warm! Lucky you! That green onion salsa is...totally...amazing. I absolutely love it, and you're right, you can serve it with practically everything. The rest of your dinner party food looks awesome as well. That soup! So artistic! Cooking for nine is a big deal for sure. The get-togethers I attend are usually family-based and decidedly a group effort or potluck, so it's rarely all me, though once in a while I do put on a little feast for three or four. In that case, I make them all drink wine in the kitchen and talk to me while I finish cooking. Torture, I know. It's a wonder I ever get any guests at all.

    P.S. Miss E is adorable as a ballerina. I'm the sweatpants type of gal as well. What a cutie!

  4. I'm new to your blog but had to comment on the flowers. I'm in south Texas and the same flowers are blooming here! I'm new to the vegan world and cooking for nine would be an adventure for me

  5. I am so inspired! I have to admit that cooking dinner parties does tend to stress me out, which defeats the point. I'll try to internalize these pointers.

  6. Bitt,
    Thank you. Cooking gluten-free is easy — baking without gluten is ... interesting.

    Thanks! I always want to have dinner parties, but I don't do it as often as I'd like because the anticipation is a little nerve-wracking to me. I want to start doing it more often. We'll see.

    The winter may have been weird, nut there are always flowers blooming here in February, and this is something I may never get used to. The grass is bright green, too. Now, that's weird.

    It's not that warm, though maybe 45˚F seems warm to some. And there's little sunshine, but the flowers don't seem to care.

    I agree about the green onion salsa — it's a startling recipe. It's so simple yet so versatile and delicious, and it goes with everything. Potlucks are the best, and I love them, but cooking can be fun, too, when it all works out. I would love to be in your kitchen watching you cook!

  7. Linda and Jim,
    Thanks for reading and commenting! It makes sense to me that flowers would be blooming in Texas, but here? I'll take blooming flowers any time, but I can't get used to seeing them in the winter after living in the Midwest for so long.

    I hope you are enjoying your new diet. The vegan community loves to share information and ideas, so always feel free to ask questions!

    I always picture you as a calm hostess, whereas I'm always a little harassed, and wondering if what I'm preparing will taste and look OK. :D Slowing down to relax and enjoy what I was doing, and serving some things I could make ahead, really helped this time!

  8. That dinner looks and sounds delicious! The hardest part by far for me when I'm cooking for people other than hubs and kids is what to make! You picked beautiful choices. And, I can tell you were relaxed by taking a walk beforehand. How nice. But, you know what would have been the perfect addition? ...humungous broccoli greens! (snicker)

  9. I can't believe you have flowers in February! They're all so pretty. *sigh* I'm really looking forward to spring.

    The food you served looks so amazing. I would love to be one of your dinner guests! I've never been the type to throw a dinner party and give you huge kudos for doing so. I think the stress would be too much for me.

    Your granddaughter is adorable. <3

  10. I love your zen approach to pacing the preparations of such an impressive spread, but when you use the words "husband" and "mushroom" in the same sentence, it still makes me cringe.

  11. Blessedmama,
    Oh, I agree about choosing what to make being the hardest part of cooking. It is for me, too. Maybe I'll just keep inviting different people and making the same thing, while keeping an eye out for that broccoli. :)

    I don't think I'll ever get used to the Feb. blooms. And you know how some plants are supposed to be "evergreen." Well, now I know what that means.

    I wish you could be one of the dinner guests, too, though I might be even more nervous cooking for a fellow food blogger.

    Hmmm. I had to go back to look for that sentence. Maybe I should have just said "kitchen slave" instead of husband.

  12. Wow, what a spread!! It all looks and sounds wonderful. I'm salivating over the polenta casserole...great idea, and the combo of sauces and toppings must just make it so tasty and satisfying.

    Good prep work makes a huge difference in putting a meal together gracefully. Sounds like you aced on that score!

    Your flowers are very pretty indeed; great pics! Our decorative cherry trees are in full bloom already. I have a feeling that spring is right around the corner.

  13. Rose,
    I highly recommend the polenta casserole. It was my favorite thing.

    I noticed some cherry trees in bloom recently and it seemed so out of context with the weather. I can't seem to remember what spring is like here. Maybe slightly warmer with rain as usual?

  14. First, I cannot believe those flowers!! It can't be *that* cold, I guess. ;-)

    The dinner looks amazing. You obviously handled it with aplomb! I think I'd swoon for that soup, too (and love sriracha now that I've finally discovered it!).

    Total side note: is there a way to set the number of characters/words in the captcha? So many blogs seem to have long involved words and the letters just look like squiggles to me. . . takes me 3 or 4 times to post a comment!

  15. Ricki,
    Is 45˚F cold? It feels cold.
    The dinner was good, if I do say so myself. :)

    About the captcha — Blogger seems to have changed them and they are driving me crazy, too. I hate trying to decipher them. Gah! Every time I turn it off, though, I get inundated with spam. I'd say Blogger catches 99% of the spam but sends me an email with each one, which drives me a little nuts. Anyway, I turned it off again and will see what happens. I also sent feedback to Google begging them to return to the old captcha, which was easy to read and type.

  16. Such beautiful flowers - I can't really imagine anything growing outside right now, but those pink ones are so especially pretty.

    Your dinner party looks great too - I'm definitely admiring that potato soup and the baked polenta casserole. Mmm.

    Hope your granddaughter enjoys future classes, I only took ballet as an adult, but it was a lot of fun. :)

  17. Your dinner party spread sounds amazing! Your guests were lucky indeed :-)


  18. MeShell,
    The pink ones are on our camellia tree in the backyard and are quite spectacular. They are so frilly and lush I can't believe it. We've only been in the house 6 months, so we don't really know what is planted here.

    I took ballet as an adult, too, and although I loved the classes, I was a ballet klutz.

    Thanks. I'm always relieved when a guest dinner turns out well. :)

  19. Sounds (and looks) like an awesome dinner party! I'm a bit of both when it comes to party planning too -- excited and nervous. I love the challenge of it, but then I think I take on too much.
    Beautiful flowers in your backyard as well.

  20. Eathealthy,
    Thanks! Some people can have a busy day, then manage to throw a dinner party at night. Not me. I have to put all my energy into the party prep and be very organized or I get really frazzled.

  21. I love your dinner parties. I'm a guest in spirit or a spirit guest, for that seance you always have during dessert. Everything looks scrumptious.
    My tiny phone booth apartment is always filled with people chowing down so I'm on the happy end of the spectrum of giving dinner parties. Your grandaughter is precious! and your flower photos are a sight to behold :)

  22. GiGi,
    I always set a place for you so I'm glad you attend in spirit form. I wish my house were as filled with chow-downers as yours, but maybe I'm more of a hermit. I'll try harder.

    The little munchkin is quite something, in my humble opinion. :)

  23. Hosting dinner parties makes me crazy. Even just bringing a dish to a party makes me crazy, because I'm usually cooking for people who enjoy eating things that contain bacon. And cheese. And a bunch of other junk.

    Anyway.. all of your dishes look absolutely, mouthwateringly delicious!!!!!! Job well done :)

  24. Ashlae,
    I'm not sure it makes me any less crazy when the company is all vegan. Then I'm worried that the expectations are so high. You know what I mean. Imagine a brunch for food bloggers.

  25. Yummy looking food! Planning ahead is the key to keeping yourself relax. I would be more nervous about who was coming then what I'm serving. :-) Such a cute little ballerina!

  26. I love the idea of throwing a dinner party, I love the planning, the preparation, the cooking, but the stress I’m not too fond of. I tend to stress more about the food then anything else, so while my husband is freaking out running around the house cleaning everything in sight, I’m fretting about whether everyone’s going to enjoy what we’ve made.
    I tried the pine nut crema for the first time a few weekends ago, it definitely has become a casserole staple for me now, so tasty! I love the variation in your dishes, everything sounds like a great choice for your dinner party, I’ve been planning to make a similar version of the potato soup, creama and sriracha sound like a lovely touch.

  27. Such a wonderful meal! I am envious of your guests! And I'm so impressed that you felt able to go for a one hour walk before they arrived!!! Wow! So cool and calm about the whole thing! I'd have been frenziedly cleaning the bathroom!

    I always pressure-cook my beans, but I'm thinking I might try the slow-cooker, overnight method now.

    Your wee grand-daughter is adorable. I remember my girl in a pink leotard and tights... :o)

    And lovely flower photos. It's great to see the flowers returning...


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