Malcolm and I have several shared hobbies, and cooking and entertaining is at the top of the list of things we like to do together. It is even more enjoyable now that we are retired and have time to immerse ourselves in the process. When we were younger, we could knock out a five or even six course dinner party in one day and still have energy to enjoy our guests. Those days have passed, but we still love to cook and entertain. Our retirementally evolved approach to serving an elegant meal without being overwhelmed with details and exhaustion is pretty straight forward.
- Choose a tried and true main dish that can be prepped early
- Make a shopping list
- Print hard copies of menus or have them handy on a laptop
- Create a time line of when to do what
- Divide responsibilities, but be flexible
- Make sure you have everything on hand that you will need
- Prepare side dishes ahead, or prep them for cooking one day in advance
- Wash, dry and store salad greens one or two days before
- Make salad dressing days ahead
- Chop, dice and store ingredients that require a lot of prep time
- Set the table several days in advance, including folding napkins
- Locate serving platters, bowls, pitchers etc. that you will use
- Purchase wines that compliment the food and have at least 1 bottle per 2 people
- Choose a dessert that can be made one or two days ahead
At this stage of life, the key to keeping things fun, is to plan a menu that includes some items that can be made ahead, like soup and dessert, and a few things that can be easily prepared in front of your guests, without a lot of mess. We typically start two or three days ahead with our kitchen prep work and by the night of the dinner, the kitchen will be well organized, including a time-line to keep us on task.
Set the Table
I always set the table a couple of days in advance, including all of the glasses that we will need for the evening. If I am using fresh flowers as a centerpiece, I will arrange those a few days ahead also. This centerpiece is made of two bunches of miniature roses that I picked up at the market for about $10.
What’s For Dinner
On this night, we served a deconstructed Caesar Salad, a duo of Yellow Pepper and Tomato soup, with Beef Wellington as the main course. On the plate with the Wellington was whipped potatoes and shaved Brussels Sprouts. I forgot to take a photo of the soup, but it is a staple recipe that we make often, so I’ll share it another time.
We made the soup one day ahead and warmed it just before serving. The salad (romaine leaves) were washed and prepared the day before, and stored wrapped in paper towels to keep them crisp in the refrigerator. I stacked the leaves and drizzled each with homemade Caesar dressing and shaved Parmesan cheese just before serving.
Malcolm assembled the partially cooked, individual Beef Wellingtons the day before and let them stand covered in the refrigerator overnight. He brought them to room temperature prior to finishing in the oven while we were having our second course.
The Brussels sprouts were washed, sliced thin and stored in a zip-lock baggie for a couple of days. I sauteed a small amount of pancetta in a pan and tossed in the sprouts with a little bit of water, salt and pepper to steam for about ten minutes while one of our guest sipped her wine with me in the kitchen.
The whipped potatoes were made several hours ahead, reheated and whipped again just before plating.
Neatness of the plate depends on how much wine I’ve had, so I get no points for presentation on this one.
Serve a Show Stopper Dessert
The star of the evening is always dessert. It is Malcolm’s favorite thing to make and he pulls out all the stops to make it extraordinary. This is the recipe I am going to share with you because recipes for everything else on the menu can be easily located on the internet. This recipe was originally published in Gourmet Magazine in 1989. It has since disappeared from the archives, but there are a couple of copy-cat recipes still floating around. The one we found botched it pretty badly, so we have revised it, hopefully to its original form as best we can.
Nectarine Mousse Cake
This cake is fairly involved and takes approximately four hours to complete, so you might want to make sure you have some very special friends or family around to share it with.
If by now you are thinking that we are a crazy couple of coconuts, you are not alone. We fully recognize that what is fun for us may be drudgery for others. As a foot note, we entertain like this about 8-10 times per year for close friends and family.
We also like to make tacos, meatballs, and homemade pizza at impromptu gatherings. We are not the least bit fussy about what friends serve to us and are just happy for a return invitation. This is a hobby that we love and for as long as we are able, we will continue to be a couple of crazy coconuts in the kitchen.