Friday, April 10, 2009

Easter Dinner: The Little Extras

I've been hosting Easter dinner for both my wife's family and my family for the last few years. It's really the only time I get to pull out all the stops on a real "dinner party" and I really enjoy it.

Even if you're not into the dinner party thing, if you find yourself having to host one for a group of friends or family members, there are some little things that you can do to put an "extra touch" on the event without a whole lot of work. Pardon me for having a "Martha moment" as you read-on.

Whipped Compound Butter - This is a fancy name for "butter mixed with 'other stuff'." If you have an electric mixer, it's easy to do. Leave a stick or two of butter out for an hour or so to soften it. Put it into your mixing bowl, add your extra finely chopped ingredients (herbs, garlic, etc.) and mix till thoroughly combined. Scoop it out with a small ice scream scoop or a spoon and put it in a custard dish on the table. If you're handy with a pastry bag (I am not), you can even pipe it out into a nifty design. This can be made a day or two ahead and stored, covered with plastic in the fridge. My favorite additive? Honey. Nothing tastes better than honey butter on warm crusty bread or biscuits. For breakfast or brunch, try adding a chunky jam.

Linen Napkins - Something that really makes an elegant table is to use cloth napkins--even if you don't have fine china. Not only do they make the table look great, but guests love to have something substantial to keep themselves clean while eating. However, don't go out and spend $3-$5 per napkin at the home goods store. Instead, check-out your local wholesale club (Sam's, BJ's, Costco, etc.). Sometimes, you can get a package of six restaurant grade plain white napkins for about a dollar per napkin. White goes with just about anything and, if you find that you can't get one clean, you can always bleach it.

Offer an Interesting Beverage - Get yourself an inexpensive glass or clear plastic pitcher (try discount "box" stores like Target or Walmart) and fill it with a colorful home-made beverage like freshly brewed iced tea, fruit punch, or "virgin" margarita mix and float some ice and fresh citris slices in it. If it's something that can be spiked, put out the bottle of alcohol with a small jigger or shot glass for measuring and let your guests help themselves. If there are kids around, let them use sturdy inexpensive wine glasses--they'll get a real kick out of it.

Carve The Roast Beast - If you're serving a large piece of meat such as a beef or pork roast or a whole turkey, carve it in the kitchen and arrange it on a platter for serving. Pour a small amount of thin gravy or jus over it to keep it moist and hot and cover with foil if you're not going to serve it right away. While a crispy brown roast turkey on an oak board looks impressive, it's really difficult to try to carve it at a cluttered table. And, if you have a lot of guests, they're going to end-up with cold food from the wait while you carve. This way, the platter can be passed around quickly and nobody has to pick through bones (unless they choose a leg).

Fancy-up Your Mashed Potatoes - Everyone loves mashed potatoes, but they can be made even more impressive for a special occasion with very little work. Try using red bliss potatoes and cooking and mashing them with the skins on for a chunkier texture. Or, try using half sweet potatoes or half carrots mixed with your mashed white potatoes. Instead of milk, try buttermilk (which is low fat), sour cream, or cream cheese for a tangy twist. Roasted garlic is always a hit too.

Vary The Veggies - Try roasting your veggies instead of steaming them for a delicious change (asparagus, carrots, and sweet potato cubes work very well). Just place them on a sheet pan and coat them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast at 350 degrees, turning every so often till they're tender and slightly caramelized. If you're using frozen veggies like corn, green beans, or peas, try sweating some onions in a large skillet. Add a lot of butter (1/3 to 1/2 a stick) and melt. Then, add the veggies and cook, stirring till warm and coated. This easy "sauce" tastes great.

That's probably enough tips for now. Have a great holiday everyone!

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