by Gabriel Rosenthal & Steven DeSalvo, Wine & Food Pros
Home-cooked food, bottle after bottle of great wine, and a cocktail or three, all with great company—who doesn’t love a memorable dinner party? But there are a lot of moving parts to an evening like this, and your life-as-host will be much easier if you get organized ahead of time. In this week’s blog, we offer you an open-ended template to give you some guidance, along with some pro tips & tricks, for structuring the perfect evening of eating, drinking, and revelry.
The basic structure of an ideal dinner party is broken up into four stages: pre-dinner, the main course(s), dessert, and after dinner drinks. Each step has a specific purpose that ties together the entire experience so that your guests can eat and drink like royalty and not have to be rolled out of your home. By following this ‘map,’ your dinner party can be as simple or extravagant as you please, filled with special bottles of wine, unusual beers, and outstanding cocktails—and all without too much effort. Let us do the thinking for you!
1) Pre-dinner (guests arrive)
In Italy, before a large meal, they enjoy an aperitivo, an often bitter drink that excites the palate and relaxes the stomach. This prepares the body for the variety of food it is about to consume. The “arrival” part of our evening is inspired directly by the aperitivo. Keep it light! Our best piece of advice for this stage of the dinner party is to stick to finger foods that you can leave out for guests to pick at. It’s an extremely welcoming feeling to be served a drink and bite of food upon arrival. However, it’s important to avoid filling up your guests before the main event. Furthermore, acid, herbs and bitterness will help accomplish the goal of “waking up” the palate for your main event. For the beverage, give an Americano a try, especially because the recipe is dead simple: in a rocks or high ball glass, combine one ounce each of Casa Mariol ‘Vermut Negre’ and Cappelletti ‘Il Specialino’ over ice, then top off with soda water. The drink is light, fresh, sweet, bitter, fizzy and quite literally the perfect pre-meal beverage.
2) The main course(s)
This is perhaps where the majority of your energy should be directed, but depending on the size of your crowd you many want to scale up or down the extravagance of your menu choices. If you’re expecting more than 15 people, we recommend serving your dishes family style. Opt for mains and sides you can prepare in large portions—perhaps even ahead of time—and serve on platters to be passed around the table. We like to put the most energy toward the pairings for this section of the meal to ensure an unforgettable experience tasting new, exciting wines with delicious food. One of our favorite strategies is to pair a white and a red wine with the same dish—the key is to look for two wines with a shared flavor/textural/aromatic characteristic. Try serving both a classic white Burgundy and a light, fresh red from the Jura with a fish dish. We’d recommend Vincent Latour Bourgogne Blanc and Domaine Rolet Arbois ‘Vieilles Vignes’.) For richer dishes, experiment with a complex off-dry Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, such as those of Domaine Huet, alongside a light, juicy natural red with some structure, such as the Subject to Change ‘Wild Child’ Carignan.
We believe dessert and beverage pairings to be one of the most misunderstood aspects of the food and wine world. Ever wonder why that wedding cake made your champagne taste like you were sucking on a lemon? (Simple: sweet foods amplify bitter, astringent qualities in wine—and mute the fruity, sweet flavors.) Thankfully, it’s easy to pull off a perfect combination: all you have to do is make sure your wine/beer/spirit/cocktail is as sweet as or sweeter than the food. In keeping with our theme of variety, we like to go for contrast between main course and dessert. If you’re serving a richer entree, do a lighter, perhaps fruity dessert. If you went with something more fresh and subtle, feel free to bust out your favorite chocolate recipes. If you are an oenophile through and through, pair wines like Doisy-Vedrines Sauternes or Royal Tokaji Late Harvest with your refreshing, semi-savory, or creamy desserts and Port or Sherry with your richer desserts. But instead, why not throw your guests a curveball? Try pairing your dessert with beer! Dark beers like stouts and porters have rich, roasted notes that pair beautifully with more intensely flavored desserts featuring chocolate and caramel and a small, two-to-four ounce pour is extremely satisfying towards the end of a meal. For a really special treat, snag a bottle of Maine Beer Co.’s ‘Mean Old Tom’ Stout, aged on natural vanilla beans. Please take care to ensure that you reduce the portion size of both food and drink at this point in order to avoid tiring out and over-filling your guests.
4) After dinner drinks
Once the meal is over, we like to invite our guests back into a more casual seating space where they can stretch their legs, loosen belts, and sigh with contentment. Naturally, we can’t end refreshments here. This is where the digestif really shines. Often served in France and Italy, the after-dinner drink is usually subtle, aromatic, and gentle on your guests very full stomachs. The classics are always amazing here—brandies like Cognac, Armagnac, Grappa, and Calvados are natural choices, as is a bittersweet Amaro that helps to soothe the stomach. However, the unsung hero—and the best choice to intrigue and impress your guests—is an eau-de-vie. Also a brandy, eau-de-vie generally refers to a spirit distilled from fruit other than grapes, such as apricot, cherry, or raspberry. These are not liqueurs; instead, they are dry hard spirits distilled to capture the purest ‘essence’ of a particular fruit. In fact, eau-de-vie translates to ‘water of life,’ so valued is this particular digestif in French and Austrian culture. Eau-de-vie is enjoyed throughout Europe to aid digestion and soothe stomach aches but primarily drunk for its pure deliciousness. Frankly, this is the ultimate dinner party secret weapon: a tiny pour, sipped slowly with the slightest chill, is sure to leave any guest feeling regal and satisfied. (It’s also quite relaxing during a nice summer evening on the porch…) One of the greatest producers of eau-de-vie is Hans Reisetbauer, whose Cherry brandy is quite exceptional—we’re also fans of Blume Marillen, a quite affordable option distilled from fresh apricots.
If you thought this was interesting, please allow a disclaimer: these suggestions are merely part of one strategy for throwing an incredible dinner party. We’ve included a link to a few more ideas compiled by a handful of our favorite chefs, food writers, and thinkers. At the end of the day, this is about having fun, celebrating the people you love, and putting smiles on faces and whatever works best for you is better than any advice we can give.
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