Last week I had some girlfriends over for a special holiday dinner. It was a fabulous group, all previous or current Sugar girls, but whenever you gather females together, you’ve got to deal with an interesting mix of diets. One was a vegetarian, another a pescaterian, and another a flexitarian that makes exceptions for meat only when it’s something extraordinarily decadent, like foie gras imported from France. Thus, it took some time to come up with a perfect menu, however I was up to the challenge.
Although entertaining experts say you should never try out a new item at a dinner party, I think this rule is meant to be broken. I love trying out new dishes at dinner parties as it makes the cooking and planning more exciting. It allows the hostess to experience the dish for the first time with her guests, something that I love to do, too. I also believe in serving as many dishes that everyone can eat as possible. The last thing I want is for a vegetarian friend to think I’m not respectful of her dietary needs. All of the dishes I served were vegetarian friendly, except for one of the appetizers, which was a shellfish dish.
During the holidays I like to start with an assortment of assembled and baked nibbles. For the assembled appetizers, there was a bowl of olives, another one with rosemary chipotle mixed nuts (I modified Ina Garten’s recipe by using honey instead of maple syrup, tangerine juice instead of orange juice, and I added a teaspoon of Spanish paprika), and a wooden board with two types of cheese. One of the girls brought the cheese and I was very impressed with her selections: a creamy melt-in-your mouth brilliant-savarin with truffles and seahive, a local cheddar-style hard cheese that’s wildly nutty and floral. There were crackers for the cheese.
For the baked appetizers, I offered shrimp scampi, which everyone picked up and ate with their fingers — this recipe is seriously finger-licking good! I also modified an uncomplicated roasted mushroom recipe from Alex Guarnaschelli. The thing that made these mushrooms exceptional was the unexpected addition of hazelnuts; they provided a welcome buttery crunch to the dish. The mushrooms were served on a big platter and guests were invited to spoon them onto crostini.
At the table, we had a wonderful green salad that one of the girls made with beets, goat cheese, pine nuts, and a tangy balsamic vinaigrette. The main course was creamy butternut squash rigatoni. They serve this entree at one of my favorite pizza places, Ragazza on Divisidero. I’ve made this baked pasta a couple times now and absolutely love it because it’s vegetarian, filling, and can be prepared a couple days in advance.
For dessert I made a chocolate tart. At a recent cookie swap, I baked some incredibly disappointing chocolate cookies, and because I didn’t want to throw the whole batch away, I decided to turn them into a crust for a tart. I’m glad I did because the tart was to die for! I topped it with a drizzle of homemade dulce de leche and a dollop of caramel whipped cream. It was super chocolatey, but not overly rich.
To drink we started with bubbles and then moved onto Bolivian Malbec, which I brought back from my trip. It was shockingly good with amazing depth and deep burgundy color. The decor was classic Christmas with twinkling lights, red napkins, and good China. It ended up being a perfect night!