A Modern Girl’s Dinner Party 101

By Robin Swanson

Robin's dinner party guests sit down for a home-cooked meal.Let me start this with a substantial disclaimer:  I’m in no position to tell anyone how to throw a dinner party.  

I’ve hosted plenty of dinner parties over the years because I like good wine and good company – and I’ve learned that good wine should be served with good food.   That said, I’m the girl who has blackened your risotto and still put it on your plate (sorry Meghan and Chris), overcooked a vegetable to the point it was unrecognizable and served it anyways (sorry Jen and Ryan), allowed your husband to take over my pathetic efforts, do all the cooking at my house and “flambé” (I’m supposed to do what?) the Marsala (thanks Courtney and Matt), or served up an entire plate of green things on a date (you’re a trooper, Michael) – who knew spinach ravioli, pesto chicken and green beans would look so vomitous all together? 

And yet, these people and many more who have experienced equally horrifying dining experiences Chez Swanson keep coming back.

I partially credit my pretty rockin’ wine collection – I’ve learned that if you don’t know how to cook, just serve the wine early and often and your guests will be much more forgiving.  But I think the real reason people still come back to my lab experiments/dinner parties is that everyone gets to be a part of the process.  Maybe they pity me, or maybe they’re just hoping for something edible by the end of the night, but at my dinner parties, everyone seems to coalesce around the kitchen – and inevitably, a meal magically prepares itself all around me.

So, when I committed to throwing a dinner party implementing the lessons I learned after taking a class on olive oil at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, I invited a bevy of understanding girlfriends to my place on a Friday night and hoped for the best.  

I started by e-mailing Chef Dionisio from A Healthy Kitchen (LINK) to ask for the simplest recipe possible to cook a pasta and shrimp dish.  He sent me back the following recipe:

The pasta was surprisingly tangy!Cook one pound of pasta-tagliatelle.

Sauté some chopped garlic in a generous amount of olive oil until just fragrant.  Add a pinch of red chili flakes.

Add the cleaned shrimp and cook for 2 minutes until pink. 

Add a splash of white wine and cook for 15 seconds.

Add 2 T. butter and fresh parsley chopped at the end. Add salt and pepper.  

Add in hot pasta to the pan and toss with the sauce. Drizzle more oil before serving. Taste and re-season if needed.

Seems easy enough – right?  Maybe for some…

Due to my convictions that food should be locally grown, sustainable and humanely raised, I purchased everything at the Co-op.   That means the shrimp were au naturel – veins and all -and there’s nothing grosser or more tedious than de-veining a shrimp.  Luckily, my friend Andrea didn’t share my gag-reflex for the de-veining process and jumped right in to finish the daunting task that I had started.

That gave me time to put out the appetizer of bread and Katz “oilio nuovo” for tasting.  Did I mention that my friend Meagan had already conveniently sliced the bread pieces after expressing doubt in my abilities to complete said task without losing a finger nub?Dagny mixes olive oil into the roasted beets.

In the meantime, I had two items baking in my oven – a giant butternut squash (for two hours) and a bunch of red and gold beets (for an hour and a half).   The beets were going to be served as our first course – a “roasted beet salad” with mixed greens, goat cheese and almond slices.  This needed to cool fairly quickly, and given our limited counter-space, Dagny gave me the brilliant idea to make the most of our unusually cool weather and chill the beets on my patio.   In 20 minutes time, it worked like a charm – the patio beets were chilled to perfection.  

As Dagny peeled and chopped the beets, I wandered back over to the oven, where Lisa was reading Chef D’s directions to Andrea as she slowly stirred the chopped garlic into the olive oil and Meagan tasted the boiling pasta to see if it was fully cooked.   The situation appeared to be under control, which gave me just enough time to cut up the baked butternut squash.

Presentation is everything!And voila, before we knew it, we had a meal.  I’m impressed with anyone who manages to throw a dinner party without putting their guests into indentured servitude, and I’m sure there are those who are horrified by my non-traditional idea of “hosting.”  But despite my best intentions, and the fact that I’ve never actually asked a guest for help with cooking, I honestly don’t know how to do it any other way.   Given the fact that every scrap of our meal was consumed (along with more than a few bottles of wine), over hours of fabulous conversation with great friends, I’m pretty sure my table wouldn’t go empty if I decided to throw yet another dinner party.

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