When my friends Stefanie and Ari got engaged I knew I wanted to throw them a celebratory dinner party. Of course coordinating the schedules of 4 busy people meant we had to wait a couple of months and do it on a Friday. I didn’t want to sacrifice a delicious and special occasion meal just because I didn’t have all day to cook. I do a lot of make ahead meals (just check out all the tags to that effect) but for this dinner to work EVERYTHING had to be made ahead or make in 3 minutes flat. I did creep out of work a little early to make sure everything was perfect but it turned out to be unessecary. If I didn’t have such curious kitties I would have even set the table the night before but no one really wants cat fur in their polenta so I just made sure everything was clean and set aside so it was easy to throw together.
Since the theme was Italian I used this fun olive themed tablecloth and napkins (shhh, they are French!). I love the graphic nature of these large olive oil containers I get at A Litteri so once they are empty I use a can opener to take off the top, rinse them out and repurpose as a vase. This also works really well with large cans of tomatoes. My little mini Chianti bottles as salt and pepper shakers from our trip to Italy made another appearance as well. We opened a bottle of Brunello we had brought back from that trip to make it extra special. It turned out to be a wonderful stress free night celebrating great friends with lots of wine and laughter – exactly what I wish for Stef and Ari in their lives together!
A Make Ahead Dinner Party Menu
The easiest and most delicious way to start any meal hands down. Buy the best ingredients ahead of time and then all you have to do is put them out. I decided against a typical cheese board and instead took two types of cheeses and jazzed them up myself. First I took some beautiful ricotta I bought at Righteous Cheese (who now ship nationwide!) and mixed it with meyer lemon zest, salt and pepper. That was all it took to make store bought cheese a totally delicious spread, served with RC’s awesome rosemary crackers.
Next I drained little bocchini mozzarella (those balls of mozzarella cheese you can find at the supermarket stored in brine) and tossed them with high quality olive oil, salt, fennel seeds and crushed red pepper flakes. To round everything out I bought some mixed olives, pistachios and sliced some Olli calabrese salamini. They are little baby salamis made by this amazing place in VA (you can find them lots of places in the DC area but I have also seen them in other areas at Whole Foods and even Costco – check their website for the place closest to you). Plunk some grapes in the middle and you have a nice selection for your guests to pick on before the big meal – all in less than 10 minutes.
The star of the night was for sure this osso bucco that I posted last month. A special occasion dish perfect for this dinner party – I made it several days before and just popped the whole pot into the fridge once it had cooled. The night of the party I just reheated it over low heat, covered, for about 30 minutes. Stefanie told me Ari was crazy for bone marrow so of course I also bought some rosemary dinner rolls from Lyon Bakery in Union Market so he had bread to slather the marrow on. I just tossed them in a 350 degree oven as we ate the antipasto and served them warm.
For some green on the table I opted for the super quick sauteed spinach. Takes no more than five minutes to wilt the several mountains of spinach you will need and then tossed with raisins and pine nuts they are supremely Italian. There are many versions of this dish, I used one from an old cookbook but this one by Martha is pretty much the same.
I make the spinach while the bread was warming but you could also sautee it all in advance and then just warm over low heat right before eating if you cannot spare that 5 minutes!
Make Ahead Polenta
You think you can’t make polenta ahead of time? You think you need to stand over it and stir and stir while your guests look on??? No longer – I have this great tip gleaned from Cooks Illustrated, cook the polenta with extra liquid and you can make it ahead. Basically for every ounce of dried polenta you use, cook it in a cup of water (ie I cooked 4 ounces of polenta in 4 cups of milk and water. Cook for about 20 minutes just as you would normal polenta until it’s no longer raw and pour it into a baking pan. It will be pretty soupy but that’s fine. Chill it overnight, top with parmesan cheese and bake in a 450 degree oven for 30 minutes you get a creamy cheesey polenta with zero hassle.
I used this amazing truffle polenta we still had on hand from our Italy trip but you could flavor it with herbs or garlic or just leave it plain. Either way it will be delicious and creamy and the perfect accompaniment to the osso bucco with all that delicious sauce.
This dessert actually MUST be made in advance so all the booze and marscapone can meld with the lady fingers to create a decadent dessert. Unfortunately, the version that I made for this dinner party was a bit of a bust so I won’t be recommending that recipe but there are only about a zillion out there. This one from Epicurious has very good reviews and really any decent Italian cookbook should have one. Or better yet – just buy one! Serve with some espresso and maybe an after dinner drink and the party will be complete. By my estimation you will spend about 30 minutes reheating things and 5 minutes with actual hands on cooking which will give you lots of time to enjoy your guests any night of the week.
Sources: Table linens from Creme de La Creme; water glasses by Duralex; Aspen Dinner plates by Crate and Barrel; Tour wine glasses by Crate and Barrel; Ceramic Woven Bread Basket by William Sonoma; polenta and tiramisu baking dishes by Le Creuset; antipasti items from Righteous Cheese in Union Market; bread from Lyon Bakery in Union Market.