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Plan a dinner party for 6 this weekend. Dinner parties are a lovely way to entertain friends and family but the preparation and serving can cause the host to feel very overwhelmed sometimes, to the point where it can be hard to enjoy the occasion.

Here are some ideas to ensure that your dinner party runs smoothly and is relatively stress-free.

Planning will reduce a large amount of the stress. Use lists to detail shopping needs and when you will prepare the menu items. It is also a very good idea to keep a record of your dinner party menus to make it easier to know what to do, as well as what to avoid. I keep all my dinner menus according to the time of year in a file on my computer.

Asking too many people is asking for trouble; you won’t have time to talk to them all and you will find it hard to prepare for a large group of people. I like 6 for dinner.

Set the table well in advance with any decorations you want to include.

Avoid making a menu that requires everything to be prepared and served immediately, or you will never leave the kitchen. Keep in mind which dishes can be prepared in advance. Desserts that can be made the day ahead are ideal, as are elements of the main course that can be prepared hours earlier and simply reheated.

During preparation time, clean up as you go, so you don’t have a pile of dishes to wash at the end.

Leave time to take a leisurely bath and get dressed.  If you do the preparation work ahead, everything will run smoothly and you can enjoy the rest of the evening with peace of mind.

Here is my game plan for the menu below:

  • Chop all vegetables and garnishes the day before and store in plastic bags.
  • Make the soup a day or two before the dinner party. Reheat before serving time and add the garnishes just before serving.
  • Bake the cake the day before, frost and store in the refrigerator.

On the morning of the dinner:

  • Assemble the potato casserole and refrigerate it. Take it out of the refrigerator about an hour before baking. Remember, it needs about 1 1/2 hours to bake.
  • Pound the chicken and place it in the plastic bag and refrigerate until you need to marinate it.
  • Make the garlic oil and cook the spinach. Leave in the pot and reheat before serving.
  • Assemble non refrigerated ingredients and pots on the counter to be ready to go as it gets closer to cooking time.
  • Make croutons for the soup and set aside.

At dinner time

  • 1 ½ hours before you plan to serve the main course, bake the potato casserole.
  • Remove the cake from the refrigerator.
  • Remove the potato casserole from the oven and let it rest, while you prepare the chicken.
  • After you and your guests are finished with the first course, cook the chicken and mushrooms, heat the spinach while you finish the sauce for the chicken and bring everything to the table.
  • Serve the cake and coffee.
  • A perfect evening.

First Course

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Creamy Asparagus Soup

Serves: 6

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 lbs asparagus
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • Water
  • 2 medium white potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Garnish

  • 2 slices country bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
  • 6 tablespoons finely chopped red bell pepper
  • 6 oz cooked crabmeat
  • 2 tablespoons slivered fresh basil

Directions

Wash asparagus, cut off bottom 2 inches and discard. Peel lower half of the asparagus spears, then cut into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.

Heat 3 teaspoons of oil in a large saucepan on medium-high. Add garlic and onion and cook for about 5 minutes, until onion begins to turn translucent.

Mix in flour and cook for 2 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

Then, gradually add broth and 1 cup water, continue to stir and bring to a boil, about 5 more minutes.

Add potatoes and asparagus. Bring broth down to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook for 20 minutes, or until the asparagus is tender. Remove the pot from the heat and purée mixture with a hand immersion blender or in a regular blender for 20 to 30 seconds. While the pot is off the heat, blend in milk, salt and black pepper. Reheat gently before serving.

Heat remaining oil in a small sauté pan on medium-high. Add bread and toss until lightly brown, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

To serve, spoon 1 cup of soup into each of 6 bowls. In the center of each, place 1 tablespoon of croutons, 1 tablespoon red bell pepper, 1 oz crabmeat and 1 teaspoon basil. Serve immediately.

Main Course

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Chicken with Porcini and Red Wine Sauce

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt, divided
  • 3/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper,divided
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
  • 2 medium shallots, minced
  • 1 lb white button mushrooms, trimmed and sliced 1/4-inch-thick
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh chives
  • 5 tablespoons dried porcini mushroom pieces, rinsed to remove any dirt
  • 3/4 cup fruity red wine (such as Merlot)
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
  • Spinach with Lemon and Garlic Oil, recipe below

Directions

Place chicken breasts in a large zip-top plastic bag and, using the smooth side of a meat mallet, lightly pound each breast to 1/4-inch thickness.

Add lemon juice, seal bag and marinate chicken at room temperature for 15 minutes.

In a small saucepan, cover porcini mushrooms with 1/3 cup boiling water and let rest while you prepare the other ingredients.

Heat a skillet over medium-high and add half the oil.

Remove chicken from the bag, discarding excess lemon juice. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Add chicken to the pan and cook, turning once, about 5 minutes each side. Transfer to a plate, cover tightly with foil and let rest.

Heat remaining oil in the same skillet, add shallots and sauté for 2 minutes.

Add white mushrooms and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Sauté until mushrooms are softened and have released most of their juices, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in chives. Return chicken to the pan and heat briefly.

Add wine and honey to the saucepan with the undrained porcini mushrooms and bring to a boil over medium-high. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until liquid is reduced by about two-thirds, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter. Season with remaining salt and pepper.

Place spinach on serving plates and top with chicken and mushrooms. Drizzle sauce over each serving.

Note: Spinach may served separately, if you wish.

Spinach with Lemon and Garlic Olive Oil

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 10 garlic cloves, cut in half
  • 2 dried red chilies broken in half
  • Kosher salt
  • Thick strips of zest from 1 lemon
  • 3 pounds fresh spinach, cleaned, thick stems discarded
  • Freshly ground pepper

Directions

In a small saucepan, stir together the olive oil, garlic, chilies and 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir in the lemon zest. Bring the oil to a gentle simmer over low heat and cook until the garlic begins to brown slightly, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the oil infuse for 1 hour. Discard the garlic, chiles and lemon zest.

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the spinach until bright green, 15 seconds. Drain the spinach in a colander, pressing down to remove all the water. Pat dry with paper towels. Wipe out the pot with a paper towel to remove any water drops.

In the same pot add the garlic oil and spinach and stir until is hot, about 2 minutes. Transfer the spinach to a serving bowl and  season with salt and pepper.

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Potato and Fennel Gratin

6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • Olive oil cooking spray
  • 4 lbs russet (baking) potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced to about 1/8-inch
  • 1 bulb fennel, halved, cored and thinly sliced to about 1/8-inch
  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper, divided

Directions

Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a large measuring cup, combine half-and-half and broth and set aside.

Mist a 2 quart casserole dish with cooking spray. Add half the potatoes, arranging them in even overlapping rows (it may be more than 1 layer).

Add fennel in an even layer, then sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Arrange remaining potatoes evenly on top of the fennel.

Pour half-and-half mixture over top of the potatoes. Use a spatula to press potatoes down into the liquid. Top with remaining salt and pepper.

Bake for 30 minutes. Use a spatula to press the potatoes down into the liquid. Continue baking until liquid is absorbed, potatoes are cooked through and the top is golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes.

Let rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Dessert Course

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Spice Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

12 servings

Ingredients

  • Coking spray
  • 1  3/4 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
  • 3/4 cup almond flour
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup safflower oil

Frosting

  • 1 cup cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon maple extract

Directions

Position oven rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325˚F.

Mist a 13×9 inch baking pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together pastry flour, almond flour, baking powder, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, salt and cloves. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, lightly beat eggs. Add brown sugar, milk and oil and beat on medium speed until light and frothy, about 3 minutes.

Add flour mixture in 3 additions and beat each time on low-speed, until just incorporated.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and spread batter evenly.

Bake until edges are golden brown and a toothpick comes out clean, about 25 to 28 minutes. Cool cake on a wire rack. Unfrosted cake may be kept in an airtight container at room temperature overnight.

For the frosting:

In an electric mixer beat cream cheese on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add honey and maple extract and beat on medium-high until combined, about 1 minute, scraping down sides of bowl as needed.

Spread frosting evenly over the top of the cake. Sprinkle the frosting with the remaining cinnamon.

Frosted cake may be refrigerated in an airtight container overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.

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'Tea minus one hour thirty minutes and ten seconds.'

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