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An Impressive Dinner, Without the Stress

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Learn a chef’s make-ahead tricks; then enjoy great food—and company—at your next party

When Fine Cooking called and asked if I could design a dinner menu that felt special and yet was simple to execute, I said, “You have your girl.” Amazingly enough, simple execution is what makes restaurant cooking possible. We do so much ahead—partially cooking ingredients, making sauces, preparing garnishes—that serving dinner to 250 people is a walk in the park. And when you apply the restaurant do-ahead principles, entertaining at home can be as carefree.

But being ready is everything. I’ve worked out a timeline (see below) that guides you through all the advance prep and means that the actual execution of each course will only take you away from your guests for ten minutes or less.

I selected the dishes for this menu in response to this time of year, when winter is fading and we couldn’t be more ready for something green. The asparagus salad is fresh and alive, and the ginger and grapefruit really waken the palate. To show off the salad, you can arrange the components, which are stunning, on a sideboard in your dining room and then plate and serve it from there. The salmon follows, with a great balance between sweet, tart, and bitter, and once it’s prepped, it only needs fifteen minutes in the oven. And the orange cake (my mother’s recipe) is fresh with the fully ripe and sweet flavor of early spring oranges. Since the cake is completely made ahead, all you need to do to serve dessert is put on a pot of tea.

Menu Timeline

The more you do ahead, the more relaxed you’ll be when it’s dinnertime

Several days or one week ahead:

  • Make the ginger-lime glaze for the salad.
  • Make the Asian vinaigrette for the salad.

The day before:

  • Make the filling for the cake and chill.
  • Make the cake layers; wrap in plastic.
  • Toast the pine nuts; macerate the raisins.
  • Roast the garlic cloves.
  • Make the marinade; divide, put salmon in half.
  • Make the lemon oil.

In the morning:

  • Make the frosting and assemble the cake.
  • Slice the oranges for the cake garnish.
  • Section the grapefruit for the salad.
  • Clean the greens and refrigerate.
  • Peel and parboil the asparagus for the salad.
  • Toast the sesame seeds; slice the scallions.
  • Set the table.

One hour to 30-minutes before serving:

  • Put the grapefruit slices in the ginger glaze.
  • Slice and roast the potatoes; leave on a baking sheet.
  • Bring the salmon to room temperature.
  • Arrange the ingredients for the greens near the stove.

To serve:

  • Dress and arrange the asparagus-grapefruit salad.
  • Put the salmon over the potatoes and roast.
  • Warm the dinner plates.
  • Sauté the greens; plate them, the potatoes and salmon; drizzle with the lemon oil.
  • Cut and serve the cake.

Shopping List

Fresh Produce:

  • 36 large or 42 medium spears asparagus
  • 2 pounds medium red or yellow potatoes (or 1 pound each)
  • About 20 oz. arugula, or 2 10-oz. bags of spinach
  • 4-5 large pink grapefruit
  • 4 small or 3 large limes
  • 9 medium or 7 large oranges
  • 1-2 small oranges (for garnish)
  • 5 lemons
  • 3 scallions
  • About 7 oz. fresh ginger
  • 1 small bunch fresh cilantro
  • 1 small bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 small bunch fresh thyme
  • 1 small bunch fresh mint

Meat, Eggs & Poultry:

  • 6 portions skinless salmon fillet (6 oz. each)
  • 5 large eggs

Other Groceries:

  • 1 jar sesame seeds
  • 1 package pine nuts
  • 1 package raisins (optional)
  • 1 bottle of port (optional)
  • 1 bottle tarragon vinegar
  • 1 bottle of fish sauce (also called nuac mam)
  • 1 bottle toasted sesame oil
  • 1 bottle peanut oil

Pantry Staples:

  • 1-2 heads garlic
  • About 3 cups olive oil
  • About 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • About 3 cups granulated sugar
  • 4-1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 2-1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • About 20 Tbs. salted butter
  • 1/3 cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 Tbs. honey
  • Salt

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