Outside of the chaos of managing big wine cellars with tens of thousands of bottles and armies of sommeliers (OMG the mega regular who is flying in for dinner ordered three bottles of the 1985 vintage for his most important anniversary tonight and we only have two left!), operating huge 13,000 square foot restaurants (OMG we have 600 reservations on the books tonight and 3 servers called out sick and we can’t find anyone to cover!) and traveling the country to preach the great wine gospel (OMG none of the samples for today’s tv appearance made it and we have one hour to find the nearest wine store before airing live!!), a girl has got to find some fun with friends outside of work whenever possible.
My many jobs over the years have always involved days and nights filled with entertaining hundreds of strangers with a ready friendly wave, a permanently plastered on perma-grin, a life-altering wine recommendation and sometimes serving wines that will alter their lives but not mine, and food that I wouldn’t choose to cook (no shade, but I just like to eat with a lot less butter, bacon, sugar and salt these days than the majority of restaurant chefs use. And you wondered why everything is so delicious at your favorite restaurant?). So, when I am off of the clock, there is nothing that makes me happier than surrounding myself with the familiar and beloved faces of family and friends, making the food that I do love to cook and sharing the wines that will alter all minds at the table, mine included.
I am a Chicago native and an ex-pat of Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Manhattan and I have always loved to throw a party at home more than going out to one. There is no place like home in Chicago and I can say that with certainty as I have left and come back four times! I have owned and rented many homes in the cities that I mentioned, but home is currently a small studio in a building overlooking the lake. The new tiny kitchen includes: a half size refrigerator and a half size freezer, no dishwasher (though my dream is to renovate and add an “Astiankuivauskappi” aka a Finnish dish drying cabinet – no more drying with a dish towel!), a small electric stove top and a not so full-size oven. If I can cook and serve a multi-course tasting menu with paired wines out of this kitchen to my food-obsessed friends sitting at my prized possession: my dining table for sixteen guests, then anyone can.
Since my Rice University off-campus college days, in my circles of friends, I have been known for my on-point and “lavish” dinner parties. I love to cram the table and my apartment full to brimming with my favorite people, music, laughter and the best conversation. Sharing my home, my favorite wines and cooking is tonic for my soul. Friends have even told me that they always plan ahead to call out sick for the day following one of my parties because they never want to leave early and miss one moment nor one dish nor one wine served. Ha! Every part of these parties feels decadent. But I do it without breaking the bank because even though my friends and I have champagne tastes, I am on a prosecco budget. And what they don’t realize is that as baller as they feel at my dinner parties, I always use easy, budget-friendly tricks to make the parties elegant and dressed-to-impress. One of the keys to success in this is a great grocery store with everything that I need. You can tell them about Mariano’s, but shhhhhhh don’t tell them about the budget part ;).
Pop-Up Friday Night Dinner is a frequent occurrence at my place. Here is how it usually happens. A group text with my three friends who have been trying to get together for weeks finally settles on a time, a date and a restaurant but then J has to cancel because of a deadline, then L cancels because she catches a big, important case, and then my work travel plans change and I have to cancel, too. But miraculously, everyone is available on Friday night. This Friday night. Tonight! Too late to re-book at the newest hot spot we wanted to try and I don’t know the maître d’ there enough well yet to get squeezed in. So, I offer to host at my place and quickly count how many hours I have left to put together a fun dinner party to impress my friends who have Michelin-star experience and tastes. And immediately after shooting off the text, I also do a quick mental inventory of the current contents of my half size freezer and refrigerator. Last Friday afternoon I found: two Honeycrisp apples, a small to-go container from a steakhouse filled with garlicky, sautéed button mushrooms, a bag of already washed spinach that I had meant to use with egg whites for breakfast and two mini cauliflower pizza crusts that I had made a few days before from a Cooking Light Magazine recipe. And two bottles of wine. Of course.
The dinner party theme and menu came to me as I am trying a low carb and gluten-free diet right now and I LOVE pizza and I was off to the races and to Mariano’s! I decided to take advantage of the nice weather to ride my bike to the store on Clybourn (before the first Chicago snow) and the plan was to get everything together and back to my apartment within an hour while getting my cardio in. Multi-tasking! And then to be ready for my first guest in an additional hour’s time. I planned to do all of this without resorting to using a grocery delivery service (which I do when I am really crunched for time). Have you tried ClickList? It’s an amazing timesaver. Order on the app at the start of your work day and your grocery list will be shopped for you! Coming to your store soon.
One hour after I set out on my bike, I returned to my kitchen and set the timer to another sixty minutes and got to work with my favorite motivational tunes blasting in the background. I included my strategic to do list at the end of this post. At the end of one hour, and just as I lit the candles at the table, my first friend, L, knocked on my door. I popped open the first bottle of champagne, poured glasses for both of us and I was ready to enjoy my dinner party. And we had the best, most delicious time. You know that you threw a beautiful dinner party when your friends and guests are cleaning every plate, drinking every drop and instagramming every moment ;).
Here are the specs for the FRIDAY NIGHT POP-UP DINNER with FRIENDS for You + 3 Friends
SHOPPING LIST (do you always make your shopping list based on how you like to move around your favorite grocery store i.e. produce first, then meat and deli, then interior aisles? #OCDlife. and it all fit into the wicker shopping basket on my bicycle!)
- One bunch RADISHES as a French Onion Dip vessel and to snack on with champagne as my friends arrive. Pop of color!
- One head CAULIFLOWER this made six personal pizza crusts and we all ended up sharing each other’s creations masterpieces
- One RED ONION
- One head RADDICHIO
- CRÈME FRAÎCHE to make my signature “Fancy” French Onion Dip which I pretty much have at every party AND as a pizza topping (think tarte flambée that delicious French version of pizza with bacon and onions). I always have a small container of this delicious stuff around. It bumps up everything. I also always have packets of LIPTON’s ONION SOUP MIX in my pantry….
- One package FRESH MOZZARELLA
- One package grated PECORINO ROMANO
- Two links of Mariano’s ITALIAN TURKEY SAUSAGE
- One can of TOMATO SAUCE to make a quick “homemade” sauce
- (whatever else you love on a pizza! Broccoli Rabe, Peppers, Pineapple, Bacon – the world is your oyster. Ohhhhhh clams would have been epic, too!)
BONUS ITEM: FLOWERS
my college roommate taught me that mom/friends will not notice (or at least spend less time noticing how clean or not clean your room/apartment is if you have beautiful fresh flowers on the table. I bought two packages of white hydrangeas and threw them into a simple glass vase, lit a few votive candles and they made my apartment looked like a million bucks even though I didn’t have time to clean before my friends arrived.
ALREADY IN MY PANTRY:
- Olive oil
- Sherry Vinegar
- Red Pepper Flakes
- Lipton’s or Knorr’s French Onion Soup Mix
- Anchovies in Oil
- Black Truffles in Oil
- Oregano (on my windowsill)
- Thyme (on my windowsill)
- Leftover sautéed mushrooms
- Wine (the brilliant thing, is there isn’t a wine that won’t be great with this meal. Chardonnay with pizza, Merlot with pizza, Vinho Verde with pizza – who cares! It’s Friday night!)
- I had an random apple cake that I had made in the freezer and I defrosted it for the party, but that is for next time!
- Unpack the grocery basket and wash the vegetables and leave to dry in a colander
- Transfer half of the crème fraiche in to the serving bowl you will be using for the FANCY FRENCH ONION DIP and add the soup mix to taste. More mix = saltier dip. Stir some in and taste. Add more if you like. Refrigerate. Garnish with an herb later if you have some handy. Or not.
- Follow your selected CAULIFLOWER PIZZA CRUST recipe. I like this one, except that I used whole eggs instead of egg whites because I was too in the weeds to separate the eggs and didn’t want to have leftover yolks: http://www.cookinglight.com/microsites/cauliflower-pizza-crust-recipe/
- While the cauliflower is in the oven or microwaving prepare the other toppings and arrange the ingredients in cute bowls or on plates in your kitchen for your friends to make their own:
TURKEY ITALIAN SAUSAGE – I removed the casing, made little freeform clumps/meatballs and pre-cooked them in a non-stick skillet, browned on both sides over medium heat
RED ONION – Slice half into thin slices, the other half I chopped and sautéed with garlic and added to the canned tomato sauce with some oregano from my window sill plant and red pepper flakes from the pantry. Voilà instant “I-have-been-working-on-this-homemade-pizza-sauce-all-day-don’t-you-see-it-bubbling-on-my-stove?” cred.
SPINACH – I sautéed it with some garlic. Leave the stems on. You don’t even need to chop it. Whole leaves with stems look cooler on the pizza.
HERBS – I like to snip fresh herbs and display the long stems in water in short glasses – helps keep them fresh. And your friends can clip leaves right onto their pizzas. AND you can try and root the remaining stems and plant them later!
MOZZARELLA – reserve the amount needed for the crust recipe and slice or grate the rest to be used as toppings
- Finish the crust recipe and bake.
RADDICHIO – I cut this into quarters, brushed the sides with olive oil and “grilled” on high on my grill pan on the stove for just a minute or two until there were nice char grill marks. Delicious as is or mix up a quick mustard vinaigrette (mustard, olive oil, sherry vinegar, maybe some shallots, if you want) to spoon over and never mind using this on the pizzas. Just serve as a warm vegetable dish.
- Set out the whole radish bunch with the dip.
- Light the candles, cue your Friday night play list on iTunes or Spotify or Pandora and/or fire up the Jam Box.
- Greet your friends and pour them drinks asap.
- Catch up on your weeks and nosh on the “canapés” and make your pizzas.
- Clink glasses, laugh, eat, drink, repeat until the week’s stresses melt away!