Saturday, 27 June 2009

A Relaxed Dinner Party for a Summer Evening

I love having folks round for dinner, but when it is hot out, the idea of slaving in the kitchen really does not appeal. So how do you make the occasion special without baking yourself as well as the food? We had friends round for dinner on Thursday and the menu I chose meant that not only could I serve a meal that impressed, but we could all stay cool and enjoy it.

Most people really do not enjoy eating heavy food in the summer anyway so as a start, I decided to reduce the number of courses we were going to have. Normally, a special dinner in England will include four courses – starter (entrée), main course, dessert and then cheese and biscuits. As I figure a main course is pretty much indispensible and in this family we all love dessert and cheese, it was a pretty easy choice to eliminate the starter.

In order to keep the house, and me, cool, calm and collected, I needed to use the oven as little as possible. That’s pretty hard when you are having a dinner party. I decided that a dinner salad was an easy and delicious solution to this problem. My favorite salad of the moment is my Strawberry and Macadamia Nut Salad, but as it does not really involve much protein (except maybe the nuts), I figured I might have to tweak it a bit to make it a bit more substantial. This was quite easy once I started to think about it. A lot of the dinner salads I make use chicken breasts, and this was the perfect meat to add to strawberries, macadamias and a dressing that had a balsamic vinegar base. I figured if I cooked the chicken early in the morning, it would not be such a warm job, and I could then chill it and slice it later. Just to “tweak” the flavour of the salad a bit I decided to add some thinly sliced sweet red onion. It was a good idea. Of course, if you are vegetarian, you could just leave out the chicken and use more nuts.

Chicken, Strawberry and Macadamia Nut Salad

To serve five to six people, you need:-

5 or 6 cooked , cooled and chilled chicken breasts
(I used an extra couple of tablespoons of the balsamic vinegar dressing listed below to marinate the chicken, but this is entirely optional.)
five to six cups mixed salad leaves
(I used a bag of mixed salad and added about a cup of torn iceberg lettuce)
about 25 – 30 strawberries, washed, drained and sliced
(each strawberry should be sliced in three to four slices)
One half a small sweet red onion, peeled and sliced in very thin rounds
2 generous handfuls of macadamia nuts
5 - 6 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar salad dressing
(If you can’t find ready-made salad dressing in the grocery store, make your own by shaking together 4 tablespoons olive oil with 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 1 teaspoon of white sugar. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a few days.)

Toss the salad leaves, half the sliced strawberries, half the onion and half the macadamia nuts in a large salad bowl with the salad dressing. Divide between five or six large salad or dinner plates. Slice each chicken breast in five to six slices and place a chicken breast on each plate Divide the rest of the strawberry slices, nuts and onion between them. Serve a little extra salad dressing on the side if you like. Again, if you can’t get ready made, just double the recipe I’ve given you for homemade.

So that was the main course sorted out, but what to serve for dessert? Well, fruit salad is always an easy and delicious summer choice, but as we had salad as our main course, I thought we could afford to indulge a little. I still wanted to keep things light though, so I decided to go with my Raspberry Almond Tart. As I was able to bake it in the morning while it was still cool outside, I didn’t have to use the oven much in the warm evening!

Raspberry Almond Tart

For the crust:-

125 grams cold butter, diced in small cubes
200 grams plain (all-purpose) flour
50 grams ground almonds
2 tablespoons caster or granulated (white) sugar
(vanilla sugar is lovely if you have it)
2 - 3 tablespoons milk

For the filling:-

2 - 3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

40 grams butter, melted
100 grams white sugar
90 grams ground almonds
10 grams plain flour
1 egg, plus one egg yolk, lightly beaten together
3 tablespoons half fat crème fraîche
1 tablespoon Amaretto liqueur
1 teaspoon almond flavouring
1 cup fresh raspberries, washed and well drained

For the topping:-
1/4 cup flaked almonds
1 - 2 tablespoons white sugar

To make the filling, blend together the butter, flour, ground almonds and sugar until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. You can do this in a mixer or food processor or with a pastry cutter. Now gradually add the milk, tablespoon by tablespoon, until the mixture just begins to cling together and you can form it into a ball. (You may not need the whole 3 tablespoons of milk.)

Dust your hands with a little flour and press the mixture into a fairly deep 10 inch (25 centimeter) round pie plate, working the pastry up the sides until you have formed a proper crust. (There is nothing to stop you rolling this pastry out if you want to, but I’m not a big fan of rolling pastry out, so I simply press it into the pan.)

Place the raspberry jam in a microwaveable bowl and very carefully on a low heat setting microwave the jam for about thirty seconds or until it is of an almost pourable consistency. Using a pastry brush, brush the jam over the bottom of the crust, covering it completely. Set the pastry case aside.

Blend together all the remaining filling ingredients except the raspberries until smooth. At this point you have a choice. You can very carefully fold the raspberries into the filling mixture and then very carefully pour the filling into the pie plate OR you can pour half the filling mixture into the pastry case, arrange the raspberries over top, and then pour the remaining filling mixture over the raspberries. The latter is the fiddly, time consuming option but it gives much better results as the first option can cause the raspberries to fall to pieces leaving the resulting tart delicious, but not very pretty to look at.

Mix together the flaked almonds and sugar and sprinkle them over top of the tart. Bake at 160 C (fan oven - 350 F normal oven) for about twenty minutes and then turn the oven back to about 150 C (300 F) and cook for another five to fifteen minutes, depending on your oven. The filling should be well set when the tart is cooked and it should be a lovely golden colour. You have to really watch this tart to make sure it does not over brown. I also always turn the pie plate half way through cooking to ensure it browns evenly.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool before serving.

After that, all we needed was a selection of cheese and biscuits to enjoy with our port in the garden after dinner.

The dinner went very well, and it was one of the easiest dinner parties I have ever served. We started the evening with a choice of Champagne or Kir Royale (blackcurrant liqueur (Cassis) topped up with Champagne) in the garden. We came back into the dining room for the dinner salad, which was delicious served with warm dinner rolls. (I enlisted the help of the Pillsbury Dough Boy so I only had to keep the oven on for about fifteen minutes.) I served a choice of either white or red wine with this. The white was a 2008 Italian Lugana wine called Cà dei Frati and the red was a year 2000 Côtes de Castillon called Johanna from the “Vieux Chateau Champs de Mars”. We enjoyed our Raspberry Almond Tart with good organic vanilla ice cream by Green and Blacks and a glass of the yummy 2007 Brown Brothers Orange Muscat and Flora dessert wine.

I remembered to get the cheese out of the fridge about fifteen minutes before I served it (normally I would say a half hour, but it really was hot!). We had a delicious Cornish Brie (a contradiction in terms as strictly speaking Brie has to be French, but the folks from Cornwall kind of turn a blind eye to that, and they do make lovely cheese), an Oxford Blue and some Cerne Abbas, a delicious artisanal cheese. I always buy my cheese from Greys Cheese Company in Pangbourne, Berkshire, a wonderful little shop. I get a lot of my wine there too. It’s worth looking for small shops and producers as the quality and selection is so much better than in supermarkets. I served Warre’s Optima Port (a ten year old tawny port) with the cheese and also the remainder of the red wine for those who, like me, are not that keen on Port.

It was a wonderful evening and this menu was such a success. It’s a great one for a lovely summer evening and you can easily increase of decrease quantities depending on the number of guests. Here’s to lots of relaxed summer entertaining – for you, as well as your guests!

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