Enjoying your own dinner party can be a challenge. Cook, serve, refill, clear, repeat. It's work. Not to mention the cleaning and decorating beforehand. Before this year's holiday season, take a breath and relax. According to Food Network chef and author Ina Garten, the answer to party planning is to "keep it really simple."
Well-known as the Barefoot Contessa, Garten's formula is to "invite really good friends, and don't try to impress them. Just make everybody feel comfortable with a good cocktail, very homey food and good conversation. The most important thing for a successful party is that the host and hostess are having a good time."
Garten tries not to make more than two or three items for a dinner party. Consider buying a delicious dessert from the bakery, she says. And focus on "assembling" rather than "making" a few of the other items, such as a simple appetizer of roasted figs and prosciutto.
Menu planning is key. Serve things that can be prepared ahead of time and served staggered in courses, she says. For example, Garten might make a dessert panna cotta the day before a party and then, a few hours before dinner, make an orzo with roasted vegetables side dish, which, she says, "is best after resting a couple of hours and is served at room temperature." That way, the meat dish is the only hot thing on the table. Easy.
Garten's new cookbook, "Barefoot Contessa, How Easy Is That? Fabulous Recipes & Easy Tips," features 100 tips to make dinner parties fun, festive and easy. Here are two favorites for the holidays.
CREAMY PARMESAN POLENTA ("This is my idea of heaven," Garten says. "It's like cream of wheat cereal but with flavor. I love to serve it with pan-roasted chicken sausages. It's the side dish that becomes the star of the meal.")
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade (recipe follows)
2 teaspoons minced garlic (2 cloves)
1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone-ground (see note)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving
1/4 cup cr?me fra?che
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter
Heat the chicken stock in a large saucepan. Add the garlic, and cook over medium-high heat until the stock comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and very slowly whisk in the cornmeal, whisking constantly to make sure there are no lumps. Add the salt and pepper, and simmer over very low heat, stirring almost constantly with a wooden spoon for 10 minutes, or until thick. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan thoroughly while you're stirring. Off the heat, stir in the Parmesan, cr?me fra?che and butter. Taste for seasonings, and serve hot with extra Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top.
To reheat the polenta, place the cold mixture in a pot with extra chicken stock or water, and reheat slowly over low heat, stirring until smooth.
"I use Quaker yellow cornmeal or Indian Head stone-ground cornmeal," Garten says. "If you have a choice, use 'medium' rather than 'coarse' or 'fine.'"
ROASTED FIGS WITH CARAMEL SAUCE ("The sweetness of figs is so good balanced with the burnt sugar taste of the caramel and the crunch of toasted almonds," Garten says. "It's a simple dessert, but the flavor is definitely impressive.")
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
24 to 30 large black figs
6 tablespoons toasted almonds
Mix 1/3 cup of water and the sugar in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook without stirring over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to medium, and boil uncovered for 5 to 7 minutes, until the sugar turns a warm chestnut brown (about 350 F on a candy thermometer), gently swirling the pan to stir the mixture. Be careful; the melted sugar is extremely hot! Watch the mixture constantly at the end, as it will go from caramel to burnt very quickly. Turn off the heat. Stand back to avoid splattering, and slowly add the cream and vanilla. The cream will bubble violently, and the caramel will solidify; don't worry. Simmer over low heat, stirring constantly, until the caramel dissolves and the sauce is smooth, about 2 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature, at least 4 hours. It will thicken as it sits.
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Place a wire baking rack on a sheet pan.
Cut the hard stem off each fig, and cut each one in half through the stem. Place all the halves cut-side up on the baking rack. Roast the figs for 10 minutes, until they're tender.
When the figs are done, heat the caramel sauce (in a microwave is OK) just until it's warm. Place the warm figs in dessert bowls. Drizzle each serving with about 1 tablespoon of caramel sauce, and sprinkle with the toasted almonds. Serve warm.