28 December 2008

Progresso Pronto

With the holidays just around the corner, we had to act fast to organize the neighborhood progressive dinner before Thanksgiving.  The e-vites went out on Sunday for dinner the following Saturday.  We decided to make it a 4- or 5-course meal, depending on how many neighbors were able to participate on such short notice.  Response was incredible, and by 
Wednesday we had 14 confirmed participants.

We settled on these courses:  appetizer, salad, soup, main, and dessert.  My next-door neighbor, Susan, and I volunteered to team up for the main course.  Other neighbors quickly volunteered for the other four courses.

Most people, self included, do not have a dinner table that seats 14 comfortably, so we had to improvise.  We removed the side chairs and coffee table from the living room, set up two 3-by-6-foot folding tables, and combined our dining chairs with Susan's to make it look presentable.  In fact, with the table cloths, colorful place settings, and Tom's impromptu holly centerpieces, it looked pretty darn elegant!

The evening started at 6:30 with cocktails and appetizers across the street at Dave and Erin's.  They served a nice variety of finger foods that were perfect to get the palate and conversations started.  We all sipped and snacked in the kitchen and adjoining breakfast area until it was time to move on.  Their island kitchen layout is ideal for this kind of entertaining -- everyone has something to lean on and a place to set their drinks while perusing the platters.

The next stop was at John and Debbie's for salad.  Debbie prepared a picture-perfect pile of fresh greens with just enough accessories to make it interesting.  Salad is more conducive to sitting, so our hosts set places at the formal dining table, the breakfast table, and the bar that separates the kitchen and breakfast area.

Next up was soup at Paul's house.  Paul is known as The Master of Soups on the block, so he was a shoe-in to host this course.  He served creamy mushroom soup in brown espresso cups -- a clever, yet functional, presentation and another good stand-up course for our small homes.

Then it was time to move back down the block to our house for the main course, beef Burgundy with garlic mashed potatoes and oven-roasted haricot verts.  Beef Burgundy is a decadent stew of beef (of course) and 3 different wines.  I adapted the recipe (see below) from The Artist in the Kitchen, the cookbook of the St. Louis Art Museum.  Our friend, Jacque, made the potatoes, and the oven-roasted green beans is one of my favorite quick-and-easy go-to side dishes.  All you do is blanch the beans, spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined half-sheet pan, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with chopped garlic, and bake at 400 for 5-10 minutes until they start to brown.

The evening ended down the block with dessert at Erin's house.  (Appetizer Erin and dessert Erin are different people.)  Erin served a delicious flan.  It may not have plated perfectly, but the flavor was fantastic.

Everyone agreed that the event was great, and the next one is already planned to coincide with Mardi Gras.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Beef Burgundy

This takes a while and involves a lot of steps, but each step is pretty simple and the finished product is MUCH more than the sum of its parts.

6- or 8-quart Dutch over or other oven-proof pan with lid
large holding bowl
medium holding bowl
small saucepan
cigarette lighter or match

8 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 pounds beef chuck or sirloin cubed into 1-inch pieces

1/4 cup brandy

12-15 small white onions, peeled (see note below)
1 pound mushrooms halved

4-6 tablespoons flour
2 beef bouillon cubes
2 teaspoons water
2 tablespoons tomato paste (see note below)

1 1/2 cups Burgundy
1/2 cup dry sherry
3/4 cup port
1 1/4 cups beef broth

salt and pepper to taste
1 bay leaf

NOTES:  To peel the little onions, score the bottom of each with a knife, making a small X.  Pour boiling water over the onions and let stand for 1 minute.  Immediately remove onions from the water so they do not get soggy or start to cook.  Once they are cool enough to touch, the outer skin will peel off easily.
You can buy tomato paste in a tube instead of the little can.  Then, you just squirt out however much you need and store the tube in the refrigerator until you need it again.

Heat oven to 350F.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the Dutch oven and brown the beef in batches, adding more butter as needed between batches.  Put the browned batches into the large holding bowl.  Return all browned beef to the Dutch oven.
(This step is the most fun.)  In the small saucepan, heat the brandy.  Ignite it and pour it over the beef while it is still flaming.  When the flames die, remove the beef and its juices to the large holding bowl.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in the Dutch oven.  Add the onions and mushrooms, cover, and cook over low heat until onions are light brown.  Remove the onions and mushrooms to the medium holding bowl.
Mash the bouillon cubes into the 2 teaspoons of water, making a paste.  In the Dutch oven, add the bouillon paste, tomato paste, and flour, stirring until well blended.  Stir in the Burgundy, sherry, port, and beef broth.  Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat.
Add the beef, pepper, and bay leaf.  Mix well.  Cover and bake for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Add the onions and mushrooms, stir, and bake for 30 minutes more.

11 December 2008

Prelude to a Progressive Dinner

Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, my friends and I would always traipse across the neighborhoods as if they were all our own yards.  Most of the modest houses in our 'hood had kids, so no one minded other kids "cutting through" the to get where they needed to go.  Most back yards didn't have fences and privacy didn't seem too important.  Our parents parked in front garages or carports, and everyone said "hey" (it's the South, after all) when coming or going.
After graduating from Georgia Tech and doing a brief stint in Detroit, I settled in Dallas, specifically "far north Dallas".  While I had the Dallas address (barely), I worked (still do, knock on wood) for a high-tech company in one of Dallas' technoburbs.  Everything was brand new, shiny, and SECRET.  Homes in new "neighborhoods" were built with rear garages accessed through a service alley.  Everyone had a 6- or 7-foot privacy fence surrounding a modest back yard.  The front yards were each newly planted with two 5- or 6-foot [tr]ash trees.  The only reason to go out the front door was to get the newspaper and mail.  (Why didn't they put those in the back, too?)  You were more likely to know your neighbors behind you than those across the street.  This isolation is not necessarily a bad thing; it's just a bit confining for someone who grew up in the east having free reign of the 'hood.
A year after arriving in Dallas, I met my significant other.  He had (and now we have) a home in an old east Dallas neighborhood with small houses that were built in the 1920's and 30's, an eclectic mix of Tudor, craftsman, and cottage styles.  Like our suburban neighbors to the north, we all have our private back-yard retreats.  But unlike them, we have front driveways, so we get to see everyone coming and going, and we get to say "hey" to each other all the time.  Everyone likes something a little different, but for me, I'll take "Hey!" over "Who?" every time.
To strengthen our close neighborhood ties, one of our neighbors suggested a progressive dinner party on our block.  Alas, food enters the picture.  [Stay tuned ...]