For much of my culinary career, I prepared elaborate dishes, often with more garnishes than there were components: Seared Sea Scallop Appetizers were garnished with (1) balsamic sauce, (2) arugula salad with cherry tomatoes, (3) fried capers, and (4) fried parsley leaves. It was a running joke in my kitchen when a server would try and take a seemingly complete plate to the diners… “Wait wait, not yet” as I placed more garnishes. All the different garnishes offer color and flavor contrasts.
Now when I entertain at home, I try to simplify as much as possible. I’d rather spend time with my guests than embellishing a dish with layers of flavors. I prepare each dish in advance thinking about interesting flavors, colors and textures that complement the other dishes.
The other night I hosted colleagues at my house. Since I knew we’d be talking business it was especially important that everything be prepared in advance. I had to balance the fact that they all knew I used to cook professionally, so they were expecting an impressive meal.
Hors d’œuvres – Instead of preparing labour intensive canapés, I served a trio of dips: Homemade ricotta with garden fresh basil, green goddess dip with tarragon, parsley, scallion and arugula (also from the garden) and smoked chicken salad. For scooping and dipping, I laid out carrots, cucumbers and crostini. All could be assembled in advance and set out when the guests arrived.
For the main meal, I opted for simple, quintessential spring. I brushed salmon with the green goddess and roasted it, roasted new potatoes with fresh thyme and lemon zest, steamed fresh shelled peas with butter and mint, sautéed morels with sherry and thyme, and roasted asparagus and fiddleheads with garlic and olive oil.
Everything was cooked in advance. By cooking during the relaxed hours before the guests arrived, each vegetable received proper attention: all were bright green and well-seasoned. The salmon roasted to a perfect medium rare. Too often with last minute cooking, we get hurried and forget to taste for seasoning. For this dinner, I threw all the sheet pans the food was resting on into the oven. The salmon cooked a little more to medium and the vegetables warmed through while maintaining their color.
Lucky for me, one of the guests offered to bring dessert -- the quintessential spring strawberry-rhubarb pie. With a beautiful lattice top this epitomizes elegant, do-ahead dishes.