Hosting an Extraordinary French Dinner Party...
and Impressing Your Dinner Guests!
Not every dinner party needs to involve an elaborate meal, but once in a while you really want to take your guests' breath away. Maybe it's your first time cooking for the in-laws or you're celebrating a birthday or engagement. Whatever the reason, french cuisine is associated with sophistication and elegance and is a great way to impress your guests. This lens will take you through all of the elements of a perfect french dinner party.
A typical french dinner includes several courses:
The French typically start a dinner party in the living room, rather than heading straight to the table. A bottle of champagne will be opened and a few canapÃ©s passed around. It's a great way to set the mood for your evening!
I recommend buying a bottle of prosecco or cava if you don’t want to splash out on champagne. You will save a lot of money and your guests probably won’t notice the difference.
Typical canapÃ©s include mini-quiches, smoked salmon served with crÃ¨me fraiche and blinis, slices of foie gras served on baguette and, of course, the ubiquitous bowl of olives and plate of thinly sliced saucisson (a tasty cured sausage).
Marinated olives are much tastier than regular olives. You can usually buy them already marinated, or you could make them yourself.
- Fennel Seeds
- Fresh Rosemary
- Garlic Cloves
- Olive Oil
- This "recipe" isn't overly specific because I don't tend to measure spices and herbs. If you're planning to prepare your own marinated olives, you probably already have a good sense of how strongly flavored you like your dishes to be.
- Toast the fennel seeds in a small, ungreased pan over medium heat until they start to smell and turn brown. Be sure to move the pan around so the seeds don't burn. Pour into a bowl. Add the olives, olive oil and fresh rosemary.
- Crush the garlic cloves and add to the bowl. Squeeze a bit of lemon juice into the bowl and grate a bit of the rind over the bowl as well.
- Stir and leave to marinade for at least an hour. Before serving, drain the olives and remove the garlic and rosemary.
As opposed to what you might order in a restaurant, the appetizer course in a French home usually consists of a simple salad. Just mix lettuce (preferably not iceberg) with a french vinaigrette. To make the vinaigrette, mix together some finely diced shallots, about a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and salt. Let them sit for a few minutes and then add a teaspoon of dijon mustard. Blend well. Add approximately 3 tablespoons of olive oil and stir.
If you want to serve something other than a salad, you could serve a terrine or, if you don't mind cooking while your guests are there, a few sautÃ©ed scallops.
Oh, and don't forget to have sliced bread (baguette, of course!) on the table from the start.
While you could prepare your own terrine, you must do so at least 24 hours in advance. To be honest, I feel pretty comfortable tackling complicated recipes, but it just doesn't seem worth it to me when I could buy something from a specialty shop and save myself the hassle.
The main course should be the most impressive part of your meal, but that doesn't mean you have to slave over the stove while your guests are enjoying their aperitif and appetizers. Choose a dish that can be left to bake in the oven or simmer on the stove top for at least an hour. That way you can get all of the prep work finished before your guests arrive and will only have to remove the food from the heat and serve it.
I like to make a duck bourguignon in the cooler months and a whole fish in the summer when I host a special dinner party. I find that these dishes are both a little unexpected and tend to get rave reviews.
This recipe is adapted from Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon Recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and from Epicurious.com's recipe for Red-Wine-Braised Duck.
- 6 duck legs
- 6 ounces pancetta
- 1 large onion
- 1 -2 large carrots
- 2 garlic cloves
- 2 bay leaves
- 8 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 3 cups of red wine (make sure it is of a quality that you wouldn't mind drinking)
- 2 -3 cups of chicken stock
- 1 lb of mushrooms
- sautÃ©ed in butter
- Heat a large casserole dish and add the pancetta. Cook until the fat begins to turn crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and save for later.
- Season the duck legs with salt and pepper and add to the pot, skin side down. Cook until the skin becomes brown and crispy, about 10-15 minutes and then turn over and brown the skinless side, about 5 minutes. Remove the duck legs.
- Brown the onion and carrots in the remaining bacon and duck fat. Remove the vegetables and pour out the fat. Return the casserole to the heat and add a small amount of wine to deglaze the pot. Return the vegetables, duck legs and bacon to the pot. Add the rest of the wine, the chicken stock, garlic bay leaf and thyme. Simmer for approximately 2 hours or until the meat is falling off of the duck legs.
- While the duck is cooking, sautÃ© the mushrooms in butter. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
- Just before serving, remove the duck legs from the pot and place in a new dish. Cover with the mushrooms.
- Mix together with your hands one TBS of softened butter and one TBS of flour. Once the flour is incorporated into the butter, drop small pieces of the compound into the pot and whisk well. Once the sauce is at the thickness you desire, pour it over the duck legs and mushrooms. Serve with rice.
Baked Sea Bass Provencale
If you visit a fishmonger, then you should be able to buy a whole fish large enough to feed all of your guests. Make sure the fish is gutted and de-scaled and have the head and tail left on - it makes for a much more impressive presentation! You should also ask your fishmonger to score the fish and to estimate the cooking time for you (this depends on the size of the fish).
You don't need to use sea bass if it's unavailable or you don't like it. Any large white fish will work.
- whole sea bass (tell your fishmonger how many people are coming to dinner and they'll select the correct size fish)
- 1 lemon
- 2 onions
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 12 large tomatoes
- 1 cup of green olives
- 3 anchovy fillets
- diced and crushed into a paste
- 6 fresh rosemary sprigs
- 6 fresh thyme sprigs
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 TBS butter
- 2 TBS olive oil
- 0.5 cups of white wine
- Preheat your oven to 350Â°F.
- Add the butter and olive oil to a pan over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, add the onion and cook until it becomes soft and a bit translucent. Add the garlic and anchovies and cook for another minute or two. Add the tomatoes and olives and season with salt and pepper. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened.
- Add the vegetables to a roasting dish. Place the fish on top of the vegetables. Rub salt and pepper into the fish. Arrange slices of the lemon along the inside of the fish and the scores you had the fishmonger make. Scatter the rosemary and thyme inside the fish and over the vegetables. Pour the wine on top of the vegetables.
- When your guests arrive, place the fish in the oven. It will probably take around 30 minutes to cook, but timing depends on the size of the fish. You will know the fish is ready when it becomes white and flaky.
- Serve with rice.
A french dinner party wouldn't be complete without a cheese course! If you want to be really authentic, you should select a minimum of three different cheeses with varying textures and flavors. I like to serve a goat cheese, a pungent soft cheese and a blue cheese, my favorites being a young ChÃ¨vre, runny Saint-Marcellin and Roquefort. Cheese should always be served at room temperature, so be sure to take it out of the fridge when your guests arrive so it's ready to eat by the time you've reached the cheese course.
You should give your guests a clean plate for the cheese course, along with a new knife. Present the cheese on a board or plate, with a separate serving knife for each cheese. Serve with baguette and top up the wine glasses.
I like to serve something involving fruit for dessert. After several (delicious) courses, facing a rich chocolate mousse can feel a bit overwhelming! One of my favorite desserts is fresh figs with a dollop of crÃ¨me fraiche. Simply add a bit of sugar or honey to the crÃ¨me fraiche, a bit of lemon or orange zest and some almonds or pistachios, adjust to your own taste. Slice the figs in half and top with a spoonful of the crÃ¨me fraiche mixture. Light and delicious.
If you're looking to serve something a bit more substantial or identifiably French, a fruit tart is a great option.
Strawberry Rhubarb Tart
Recipe adapted from the Rhubarb Custard Pie recipe in Good Food magazine, April 2003.
- 1.5 cups of rhubarb
- 0.66 cups of strawberries
- 0.5 cups of sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 TBS flour
- 1.25 cups single cream
- 7 TBS butter
- 0.5 cups of sugar
- 0.5 cups of oats
- nutmeg and cinnamon
- Preheat the oven to 350Â°F.
- Pre-bake the pastry crust until it's pale golden (you could buy pastry dough from the grocery store or make it yourself using the recipe below).
- Cut the rhubarb and strawberries into small pieces. Heat them in a small pot with half of the sugar, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Immediately pour the fruit and any juices into a bowl.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolk, vanilla, remaining sugar and the flour. Gradually whisk in the cream with one or two TBS of the juice from the fruit.
- Arrange the fruit over the pre-baked pastry. Then pour the cream mixture on top. Bake the tart for 20 minutes or until the custard is very lightly set and there is a thin skin on top.
- Mix together the topping ingredients and spoon evenly over the tart. Return to the oven and bake for another 15 minutes or until the topping is golden and the custard is set.
Adapted from the Sweet Pastry Crust recipe on Joy of Baking.
- 1.5 cups of flour
- 0.5 cups of butter
- 0.25 cups of sugar
- 1 large egg
- lightly beaten
- 1 tsp almond extract
- dash of salt
- Whisk together the flour with the salt. In a separate bowl, beat the butter until it is smooth and easy to stir. Stir in the sugar and beat until well combined. Add the egg and beat until it is just incorporated. Add the flour mixture and stir just until it forms a ball. Flatten the pastry into a disk, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until firm.
- Once the pastry has chilled, press it into a tart pan using your hands. Prick the bottom and side of the crust with a fork (this will help prevent the pastry from puffing up too much) and then return it to the fridge or freezer to chill again.
- Pre-bake the pastry crust until it's a light golden brown. If you have baking beans (either of the ceramic variety or real dried beans), cover the pastry with parchment paper and place the beans on top.
- Seal the crust with an apricot glaze - simply melt a bit of apricot jam until it becomes a liquid and then brush that over the crust.
In France, coffee is served after dessert, rather than with dessert. Everyone will be invited to return to the living room and will be offered a cup of espresso. Personally, I like my coffee with lots of milk, which isn't really available outside of breakfast hours in France. I'm usually offered a "tisane," or herbal tea, as an alternative to coffee.
Sometimes chocolates or macarons are offered with the coffee course, but this is optional.
The finishing touch to a french dinner party is the digestif, a strong liquor or spirit. Historically, it was thought that drinking a digestif would aid in the digestion of a rich meal. This has been disproven scientifically, but the tradition of an after-dinner digestif remains.
If you would like to serve a digestif at your french dinner party, try offering your guests a small glass of cognac or genepi.
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What's your favorite dinner party menu?