The Cheap-Ass Gourmet Cooks Dinner for Twenty
This past weekend we had a dinner party for twenty people and we decided to make it a sit-down dinner, providing and preparing from scratch all of the food.
This was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. We’ve had parties in the past where we’ve feed 70-80 people, but those have been open-house style gigs and open-house style gigs are a very different (and easier) animal. With an open house you put out food whenever it’s ready, you don’t worry too much about how much you’ve made, and you basically let the masses fend for themselves. If everyone that evening gets a taste of your cochinita pibil, fine. If the early-arriving guests can’t help themselves and plough through it all before the late-arrivers, then that’s fine too. Additionally, if someone made other plans for the latter part of the evening and have to leave before the chicken mole is out of the oven and served, well, them’s the breaks.
A sit down dinner, though — that’s a different story. You have to coordinate everything to be ready to be served at the same time, and you have to have enough of everything for everyone. In addition, you have to choose between threading the needle of everyone’s various dietary restrictions or being willing to serve some dishes that not everyone will be able to eat. Before this weekend, the most I’ve ever cooked for in this fashion has been ten people. As we were getting ready last week twenty guests felt not just twice as tricky as ten, but somehow exponentially more difficult.
What’s more, we decided that we wouldn’t serve anything that everyone at our table couldn’t taste if they wished to try it. Since several guests were Jewish this meant no pork or shellfish, obviously, but the biggest challenge actually came from a gentleman who, it turned out, is highly allergic to garlic. Garlic is one of those ingredients whose ubiquitousness you don’t really comprehend until you need to make an entire menu without a trace of it. It’s so near-universal, in fact, that what I ultimately had to do was choose the dishes I wanted to serve and then, if they contained any garlic, rework the recipes with different ingredients from the ground up in a way that didn’t lose the essence of the original dish.
We also decided to offer a large variety of different dishes. That way if a guest wasn’t wild about fish, there would be some lamb to compensate — and if they did’t like either there was always the steak or the chicken. If they liked all of those things, they could approach the meal as a kind of giant tasting menu. Because the weather here has been rather spectacularly sunny lately and we knew we were going to eat outside, we went with a islands-menu theme that was heavy on grilled meats, tropical fruits, and — of course — rum.
It was, without a question of a doubt, the most ambitious thing in the kitchen I have ever attempted by a very wide margin. And with two notable exceptions — the fish and the grilled bananas — I have to say that I think it came off rather perfectly.
I’ve decided to make a post out of the menu — a series of posts, actually. One reason for this is that I feel like I earned the right to crow, of course. Another is that I’m considering having the next Leaguefest in Portland, and if so I’m toying with the idea of letting everyone save money on the dinner they would have bought in a fancy restaurant and instead recreating this meal for y’all.
But I also want to put these revamped recipes down somewhere and encourage readers to try them. They’re all easy, they’re all quite different from things most people probably make with similar ingredients, and they’re all perfect for summer patio eating. And so over the next few weeks I’ll be putting up recipe-posts for those menu items that I felt were particularly amazing. I’ll start tomorrow with the recipe for jerk chicken with banana-mango ketchup.
For now, though, I’ll just post the menu and do a wee victory dance, as well as one giant big-ass exhale.
Tod’s Island Dinner Party Menu
Avant le Repas
- Crudités with Mango-Yogurt Dip
- Grilled Vegetable Gazpacho
- Island-Style Deviled Eggs
- Guacamole with Corn Chips
- Sangria Clara
- Fresh Daiquiris on Ice
- Jerk Chicken with Banana Mango Ketchup
- Whole-Spiced Skirt Steak with Smokey Eggplant Chutney
- Grilled halibut with Stone Fruit Salsa
- Grilled Peach & Lamb Salad with Fresh-Mint Yogurt
- Coconut Rice
- Spicy Black-eyed Peas with Kale and Peppers
- Mango, Papaya, and Pineapple, Dressed with Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
- Chilled Bottles of Moscato, Pinot Noir Rosé, and (hey, this is Portland after all) un-chilled bottles of Pinot Noir
Aprés un Repas
- Grilled Bananas Brushed with Butter & Molasses
- Coconut Ice Cream
- Knittingniki’s Impossibly Good Brownies with Roasted Coconut
- Various Desert Wines & Digestifs
 If you’re curious, each of those errors was entirely the fault of the chef.
In the case of the fish, when we make this dish for ourselves we normally grill whole, thick filets. With this dinner I decided to cube the fish and put it on small skewers so that it would be easier to serve. Sadly, I miscalculated the amount of time I should grill the skewers and the fish ended up being overdone, not at all the moist and flakey dish we normally have.
In the case of the bananas, I made a mistake by grilling them right before we served dinner and letting them sit in a warming oven. By the time we served desert, they had gotten overly mushy, and the butter and molasses had had enough time to seep in and take away much of the taste of the banana, which is supposed to be the dominant flavor. Had I to do it over, I’d have still grilled them early, but I’d have put them in the fridge and served them cool.
Live and learn.
 Okay, okay… I might have actually bought the corn chips from the store.