When I was in college I had a boyfriend who tried in vain to teach me how to play chess. He did his best to be patient with me however, I simply would not stay still and focused; too interested in the mundane basic boring things (like what party at which fraternity house we were going to that night, what outfit was I wearing, where was my pre-game drink… the usual annoying college girl interests). Even my father tried and failed; I just wasn’t ready.
I was clueless. I was easily distracted. I was young.
It wasn’t until years later when I was older, and wiser, that I realized chess is not merely just a game (or a ploy to keep one’s girlfriend seated and quiet for a length of time). It is a skill which when learned, can be applied to the other game we play: Life. Or as our parents used to say, “playing well with others”.
It is not unfitting then, that my husband would be the one to teach me chess. I was in a different place in my life when in college, and I have noticed during the passing of just the last few years, a growth inside of me. An interest to expand upon what I already know but also, to learn what I had previously refused to. I let go of the idea that things like chess weren’t “cool” and that instead in fact, being smart, quiet, patient and taught something new, is one of the coolest things of all.
When planning this past weekend’s dinner party with some friends, I wanted to make sure there were layers to the evening. Some conversation… some friendly competition… I stacked the layers in menus that flanked the start of the evening: champagne.
My champagne glasses are Waterford coupe glasses and the crystal candle holders and crystal diamonds atop are from Oleg Cassini (he supplied the crystal for the White House during the Kennedy administration as well as designed all of Jackie clothes).
My chessboard is oversized with extra large pieces and makes it more fun to play.
Whenever I have guests over I put out drinks for people to grab. They can sip on something while they look around at the table, the food, or just catch up with one another. In this case, the coupe glasses added a bit more sparkle and were more fun than traditional flutes. I served pink champagne in them and nothing else (no typical strawberry; just kept it simple).
In the living room I placed a small round table and blue table cloth over it to hold the hors d’oeuvres. A blue and white ottoman to one side was the bar with all the wine and waters, and another smaller table to the other side held the napkins, plates and appetizer forks. Letting people have time to spend together before dinner, trying different foods and sipping something refreshing and ready sets the mood of the evening. To that point, I think it’d be great if restaurants gave us glasses of wine while we waited for our tables! Wouldn’t that be fantastic!
(Incase anyone is reading this, I really am advocating for that.)
The hors d’oeuvres were very simple to create and were mostly room-temperature which is very important if you want to spend any time with your guests and not in the kitchen. I prepared the cheese first by allowing the different cheeses to soften a bit and then slicing them so they were easier for everyone to grab. We had smoked gouda (a family favorite) and Herbs de Provence cheese (found at Whole Foods, mostly). Along with that on another platter were Bosc Pears, sliced. I think the combination of the pears with the cheese or the kielbasa is wonderful. The kielbasa is the same brand every time I offer it: Jenni-O Turkey Kielbasa. It has the best flavor, we feel, and is lower in calories, sodium and fat. I sliced the kielbasa and sweat it out on medium low with some olive oil before plating it in a silver covered vegetable dish to keep warm. It was my only semi-warm hors d’oeuvre. While kielbasa is already cooked when you purchase it, it tastes infinitely better heated up, allowing the juices to burst out and crisp the sausage.
While the kielbasa heated up, I defrosted the shrimp. My mother turned me onto shrimp from Argentina found at Trader Joe’s. She said it was the very best and I have to agree. They come plump and already deveined and peeled. They remain very tender after cooking and don’t need to be baby-sat as much as most shrimp. They are more forgiving and stay quite large as well. I defrosted four pieces per person to place over pesto, by putting them into a bowl with luke-warm water.
While they defrosted and the kielbasa was finishing, I started to prep my skewers. I purchased the mozzarella as small rounds already, making my job easier and added some fresh basil and roasted red peppers (also, already pre-sliced).
On a skewer, place your roasted red peppers, then a piece of fresh (washed prior) basil and finish with a mozzarella ball. Try to use skewers that have some design to them. These bamboo skewers are not hard to find; I found them at our grocery store. I drizzled olive oil over the completed skewers (the mozzarella cheese specifically) and then topped with the dried basil.
The kielbasa was taken off the stove and placed in a crockpot to keep warm and in the same pot, I cooked the shrimp. I wanted to use the smoky flavor that was left in the juices from the sausage to help bring another flavor to the shrimp. In the pan, with the smoky juices, add some more olive oil and minced garlic. Throw in your shrimp and top with tarragon, salt and pepper. Finish with some dried basil. Let them cook to a pink color, tossing them around in the juices so they stay plump (they will not get dry or shrink if you cook them this way).
When they were done, they also went into the crock-pot to stay warm until I plated it (I have a multi-attachment crock-pot that I love; it has been a lifesaver).
In a new pan, I started to sauté the snow peas. They come in a bag with plenty to feed four people however, I like to use kitchen shears and snip them down to about a fraction of their size, cook over some olive oil and dried basil. That was really all that they needed and only for a few minutes.
(They were so good; my mouth is watering just looking at that.) I knew I was going to add them to the quinoa that I wanted to flavor with rosemary, parmesan and a few pine nuts. I started to prep my flavors for that in another pot and when the quinoa was done, I mixed the two and placed them in another section of the crock-pot.
Pesto is one of my favorite things on the planet. I don’t know why… Maybe because it’s so versatile, maybe because it’s not acidic like marinara (though my friend did tell me over this dinner that her friend makes the best marinara and doesn’t give you heartburn!), maybe because it can be filled with so many things that are good for you and no one is the wiser. No matter, this is what I used to place the plump smoky sweet shrimp over.
In a blender, put a copious amount of spinach (this will be your main base, not the typical basil leaves), a handful (or two, you taste and decide) of cashews (not the usual pine nuts), some parmesan, smoked sea salt, black pepper (I also added a small amount of artichoke hearts to give it a slick mouth feel), and yes, some basil leaves. Finish with a healthy serving of olive oil before blending. I also have this recipe without the artichoke hearts and it’s very good:
Garlic and Tarragon Shrimp, Steamed Salmon with Polenta and Brussel Sprouts
The pesto can be left out at room temperature as you’ll be placing the warm shrimp over it.
I knew that I still needed to put out the rest of the hors d’oeuvres and decided to create the smoked salmon cucumbers next. Start a kind of assembly line to make these, peeling and cutting your cucumbers into slices about a quarter inch thick. Place one third of a wheel of Laughing Cow Cheese on each cucumber (three cucumbers per wheel) and then top with smoked salmon and finish with fresh dill. If you only have dried dill that would work as well.
There is something about this flavor combination that works so well. I have always gone to it when I want something decadent but easy. It may take a few bites to grow on your guests however, it usually does and will be a welcome addition to future gatherings.
The caviar needed to be kept for last as it needs to go over ice and you don’t want the ice to melt. I chose two types of caviar and placed the sour cream and blinis separately, along with some fresh dill.
In order to get the salmon wellingtons ready, I needed to defrost some pastry sheets. Each wellington is made from one half sheet so, I removed two sheets for the four of us and made sure the Wild Caught Sockeye Salmon had no skin on it (thanks to Joe; I hate that part of the prep!). In a small bowl, place mayo and dill (in this case I used dry dill but it doesn’t matter). You will do this to taste. Get your spinach leaves ready, ripping off any of the thick stems so they don’t pierce the pastry. Roll out your pastry to a larger thinner size after removing the paper sheets. And then slice down the middle, in half.
On each filet, place and smooth out your dill mayo, then layer with spinach.
Crack an egg and whisk with some water in another bowl and use the egg wash to help seal the edges of the wellingtons together after pulling the top of the pastry up and over to connect. Then, press firmly down with the tongs of a fork, finally using a small sharp knife to make slits in the top to let the steam out.
What the mayo does, is act as a cushion for the salmon against the heat of the oven. It makes sure to keep the salmon tender and not dry and flaky like the pastry will end up being. It also has a wonderful taste with the salmon. Dill and fish: one my favorite taste profiles.
Use the rest of the egg wash to coat the outside so they crisp up a golden brown.
Preheat the oven to 400 and bake for 20-25 minutes. Keep an eye on them however, as really, after 15 / 20 mins the salmon will be cooked and now you’re just looking for the right color of the pastry. Which in my opinion should be a toasty caramel color. Start checking them at 20 mins. I then kept them warm in the largest of the crock-pot sections.
(You will see when you cut into the wellingtons, how creamy the inside is with the dill mayo dressing and the outside stays flaky.)
The hors d’oeuvres were done and plated, the first and main courses were also done and being kept either at room temp or in the crock-pot. I was finished in about three hours and was able to enjoy my friends when they came instead of confining them with me in the kitchen or not being able to be with them at all while they talked and enjoyed.
It’s so important to be present for people.
It takes just a little bit of planning to achieve this, and it starts days in advance. I like to set the table(s) with all the dishes and glassware I plan to use. It gets me excited about the event as well as keeps me organized. I know how much space I’m working with and can plan for any decorations. I knew that I wanted to use a blue and white motif for this dinner. I decided to keep the china (Lenox) plain in pattern and left the Williams Sonoma ginger gar place card holders out as color, as well as used my cornflower blue napkins. The napkin rings were crystal and also by Oleg Cassini, and I kept the flowers fresh by purchasing them the night before and giving them plenty of plant food and spring water so they would rise to attention by the time I needed them to. I decided on white and off-white flowers. The glasses were Waterford and the small flights were from Coopers Hawk Winery to allow everyone to put their second glass of wine for dinner in them, and not have to get up. My dining room table is a four-top in this condo and doesn’t allow for different bottles all at once. Some people may have wanted red wine with the pesto and white with the wellingtons.
The crystal sorbet bowls are Waterford and the silverware is Napoleon Bee.
The water and wine was opened beforehand prior to people arriving so they could go straight for whatever drink they wanted after looking at the bar menu.
I placed the port and crystal glasses from Riedel on the counter separately from the bar.
The hors d’oeuvre table was just for food.
A separate table to the side held small square appetizer plates from CB2, little cocktail forks and monogrammed cocktail napkins from Williams Sonoma.
We have a rather large tv in each room of our condo; we are avid movie watchers. Because it’s just a condo, even something as innocuous as a television needs to have some interest to it. I have old dvds of recordings on a loop that I like to play in the background like moving art. In this case, behind the blue and white hors d’oeuvres setting, I chose bright green leaves on trees with the blue sky background. In the master with the chess set and the inevitable game, I chose flames from a roaring fire (mood lighting?).
Small spaces can still host a lot of fun if you decide they can. It’s all about using the space you have and being a bit creative. In this case, I chose three spaces to use so that even though I blocked off the second bedroom and bathroom from use, it still felt like we were moving around a bit. The living room for the hors d’oeuvres, the master for chess and the space off the kitchen for dinner. And then after more wine (and finally port and chocolate covered dates), it didn’t much matter how big the condo wasn’t or even how welcoming I tried to make it, it was the company I was keeping that was the best part of the evening.
And how cool it was to be at this stage in my life with people I admire, who can also appreciate a friendly little battle of chess.
Next time, whoever loses does the dishes 😉