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Friday-Night Pasta Party

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My husband and I often want to play host when we have too much going on to spend hours in the kitchen. Our solution is a Friday night gathering. Because I have little or no time during the day to cook, I choose dishes that are quick to prepare with ingredients that I can easily pick up at the supermarket, including sweet and briny steamed mussels and a hearty sausage pasta. And instead of baking a lavish dessert, I’ll put out cheeses paired with something sweet. Such dishes can taste just as good as the ones you work on all day (and often even better, because you’re not sick of tinkering with them by the time you sit down to eat). The result is the best of all worlds: a great dinner that doesn’t break your back, and friends who arrive happy, simply because you’ve saved them from having to cook.

Menu Timeline

A stress-free 90-minute game plan

1-1/2 hours before guests arrive:

  • Set the table and put on some music.
  • Open a bottle of white wine to use in the mussels and the pasta. Pour yourself a small glass.
  • Chop the garlic for the mussels and the pasta. Slice the shallots for the mussels. Chop the onion for the pasta.
  • Thinly slice the onion for the salad; marinate it in the vinegar.

1 hour before guests arrive:

  • Make the pasta sauce up to the step of adding the tomatoes and olives, then take the pan off the heat.
  • Clean the mussels and snip off any beards; refrigerate.
  • Wash, dry, and chop the parsley for the mussels and the pasta, keeping them separate.
  • Dice the mangos and make the vinaigrette for the salad.
  • Wash and dry the greens, put them in a serving bowl, and refrigerate.

15 minutes before guests arrive:

  • Fill a large pot with well-salted water for the pasta.
  • Finish making the pasta sauce; keep warm on the stove.
  • Set out the cured meats if you’ve bought them to supplement the mussels.

As your guests arrive:

  • Pour some drinks.
  • Take the dessert cheeses out of the fridge to let them come to room temperature.
  • Heat the pasta cooking water. Slice the bread for the mussels.

When the guests are all there:

  • Cook and serve the mussels.
  • Boil the pasta, toss with the sauce (reheating as necessary), and serve.
  • Toss the salad and serve.
  • After dinner, assemble the cheese platter.

Shopping List

Fresh Produce

  • 8 to 10 oz. baby greens or mesclun
  • 2 medium-size ripe mangos
  • 4 shallots
  • 1 small red onion
  • 1 bulb garlic
  • 1 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley

Meat, Seafood & Dairy

  • 3-1/2 to 4 lb. mussels
  • 1-1/4 lb. hot Italian sausage
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Assorted cheeses, such as Manchego, blue cheese, and fresh ricotta (see cheese course)
  • 1 Tbs. unsalted butter

Other Groceries

  • 2 cups crisp, herbal, dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
  • 1 crusty baguette (serve with both the mussels and the cheese course)
  • 1 cup pitted Kalamata olives, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup oil packed sun-dried tomato halves
  • 1 lb. dried farfalle or fusilli
  • Spanish membrillo (quince paste—optional; see cheese course)
  • Fig jam (optional; see cheese course)
  • Honey and/or bittersweet chocolate (optional; see cheese course)

Pantry Staples

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup red-wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbs. plain seasoned rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbs. canola or grapeseed oil
  • 1/4 tsp. red chile flakes

A Cheese Course is an Easy Finale- Instead of serving a sweet dessert, I like to put together a selection of cheeses and a few sweet accompaniments. For example, I usually present a wedge of Spanish Manchego on a small cutting board, alongside that country’s famous membrillo (quince paste, available at www.tienda.com), which comes in a soft slab and is sliced rather than spread. I also set out a hunk of good blue cheese and perhaps a small bowl filled with fig jam. I like to add a more overtly sweet offering too: Try spreading some good-quality fresh ricotta on small slices of toasted baguette. Over the ricotta, drizzle a tiny bit of honey, grind a little fresh black pepper, and sprinkle a little grated dark chocolate.


Drink Suggestions- A casual Friday night menu calls for equally unfussy and easy-drinking wines. For starters, a crisp, unoaked white wine with herbal notes is a good match for the mussels. Try the 2004 Canyon Road Sauvignon Blanc ($8) or the 2003 Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Big House White ($10), both from California. A fruity red wine with moderate tannins and bright acidity is the right call for the pasta, and the same wine will also go well with the cheeses. Look for the 2003 Feudo Monaci Salice Salentino ($9) or the 2003 Da Vinci Chianti ($10), both from Italy. —Tim Gaiser


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