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Interactive Italian Dinner -- Again

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I've been doing this for so many years, it's hard to come up with different menus. However, this is my preliminary menu for an interactive dinner party for my office. This is an event that is primarily for our summer clerks, but we have lots of lawyers and their spouses here, too. EVERYONE must get involved in the cooking or plating of at least one of the dishes. It's this sense of teamwork that makes this a lot more fun than your traditional dinner party.

Oh, there will be 30 people crammed into our house for this event -- Yikes.

I've liberally stolen ideas from Charlie Trotter, Mario Batali and others. I'd like some comments and suggestions about this menu. I think I may have to re-do the salad, as I don't have a local source for duck prosciutto (and I don't want regular prosciutto). Help me come up with an Italian-ish salad that I can do instead. Let me know if you can think of any other things I'm missing. Oh, and if my Italian is off, I don't care!


Grilled Pesto Shrimp

Rosemary Foccacia

2003 Campi Flegrei Falanghina (Campania)

2004 Campi Flegrei Piedirosso Per e Palummo (Campania)


Fregola and Clams in Tomato Broth

2002 Pira Dolcetto Fornaci (Piemonte)


Mixed Green Salad with Duck Prosciutto, Roasted Fig and Balsamico Dressing

2004 Anselmi San Vincenzo (Veneto)


Slow-Roasted, Thyme-Infused Wild Salmon with a Sangiovese & Mushroom Risotto

2001 Torre Sangiovese di Romagna Riserva (Emilia-Romagna)


Tenderloin of Beef with Gorgonzola Butter, Sauteed Rapini & Pancetta

1999 Bolsignano Brunello di Montalcino (Toscana)


Chocolate and Valpolicella Crema

NV Botter Prosecco (Friuli-Venezia-Giulia)

Dean McCord


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Looks incredible, Dean!

A couple of suggestions:

Everyone loves shrimp, so that's a wonderful way to start. Of course I've a little predisposed to think of Sicilian dishes these days, but I do think it might be fun to serve shrimp in a way that would be different for your guests such as a kind of croquette (too Southern US?) that is flavored with cumin, fresh mint, onion, garlic and lemon, then skewered and grilled....or another shrimp dish, a bit more hearty, that is prepared with tomatoes, capers, pine nuts and golden raisins. If you do this, I'd keep the tomatoes out of the fregula and clams to avoid redundancy. It is difficult to imagine summer without pesto, but IMHO it has become too much of an all-purpose sauce in this country even though I agree that the assertiveness and richness of shrimp can withstand the power of basil, garlic and olive oil.

You asked about salads. Sicily again: shaved fennel, orange slices, mint, red onion and black cured olives. I associate this with seafood, especially, and think it would make a great transition from your three courses of fish, served right before (or after, traditionally, I suppose) the rich tenderloin. (Are you planning to grill the beef? Everything else seems so summery, it might be good to retain that seasonal quality with a light, herby preparation.) I like the idea of saving the roasted figs :wub: until dessert, though they do go perfectly with ham and I am not so sure they complement your chocolate crema.

This sounds like a wonderful tradition.

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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I had planned on doing a quick grilling of the shrimp, and I LOVE the first Sicilian suggestion. Consider it done.

Yes, I'll be grilling the tenderloins. We have a fairly new butcher in the area, and I'm paying way too much money for flavorless beef, but it's what the people want. They're truly prime cuts, dry aged for only 14 days (tenderloins don't need a ton of dry aging). The portions for this dish will be small.

Right now, I'm not entirely sure the figs will be ready next week, so the salad may have to be changed completely. One thing to remember is that when you have 30 people, you have to dumb down the flavors a bit. Only about a third of the guests would be considered to have a passion for assertive flavors, so I have to be careful with fennel, onion and olives. Sounds like a great salad to me, but I'm quite confident that I'd get a bunch of plates returned that had barely been touched.

Dean McCord


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Ciao! I remember reading about last summer's event...what fun! At least for me, I just reading about it. :cool:

My 2 or 3 cents:

Shrimp with pesto: You've got a bunch of sous chefs. Try this...cut the top half off of the shell, then carefully put a layer of pesto between the shrimp body and the lower shell. Only grill the bottom shelled half. Don't flip the shrimp. Unless they are giant honkers, the shrimp meat will cook thru pretty quickly. Its a little bit labor intensive, but it tastes great. For a finish/garnish, dust with orange peel.

The fennel orange salad is really good....maybe as a little side dish?

And just a wise ass question: where in Italy can you get a salmon?? :laugh:

Have a wonderful time!! Your gorgeous kitchen will look even better when its full of happy people...even if there are 30 of them.

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And just a wise ass question: where in Italy can you get a salmon??  :laugh:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I knew someone would catch that, but I've seen salmon on lots of Italian menus!

As far as the salad is concerned, I may do the fennel but "water it down" a bit with romaine. Could be interesting.

Dean McCord


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A great sounding meal with a good deal of work to go along with it.

It will pay off in the end.

For a salad course, with stay in the relm of cured meat as a focus, you could do a Bresaola and arugula (rocket) salad with fresh lemon juice and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.

There is also the classic bread salad-Panzanella. Heavy with the basil and simple with the ingrediants would make this a tasty and fresh course. If you feel that the bread would fill too many up at this point in the meal and would rather stay with greens, think of braising.

The Tuscans cook Calvo-nero, the dark kale, with garlic and olive oil then top grilled slices of bread to make a great Bruschetta (odmitting the bread in this case and using polenta or eating as is.) If you feel this would be too messy and uninterising for the guests think of Banga Cauda.

Bagna Cauda is from Piemonte in North Western Italy. It is a garlic and anchovy dip for the freshest veggies that is traditionally made for large groups. The flavor is deep but not harmful, and it is incredable how great it accentuates the crispness of the vegetables.

Other possibilities could be: A great Mozzarella cheese with local tomatoes and olive oil, A chilled orzo (I hope it doesn't conflict with the risotto) 'salad' with cherry tomatoes, ricotta salata, basil lemon juice and olive oil, A nice goat cheese spinach salad tossed in a citrus vinagrette with toasted almonds and roasted peppers.

I hope some of these suggestions can help or inspire you to create your own mid course magic.

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Thanks for all the great suggestions, Bard. And to think this was your first eGullet post -- well, I'm flattered.

I'm gravitating towards a simpler, citrus-based salad. Shaving parmesan reggiano on the salad is always a nice touch -- folks at this dinner do care as much (if not more) about presentation as taste.

Dean McCord


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Sorry, I don't want to sound rude but to me this menu is very american.

As an italian I would do

Warm shrimp salad with parsley, lemon and good oil (maybe boring)

Fregola con le arselle and the traditional recipe need tomatoes

No duck salad please, and if, after the fish and something more simple, just to clean the palate

As for fish, tuna is so much more italian then salmon and in any case pasta or rice will never been serverd as side dish.

The meat dish seems so winter time to me. Some grill lamb

with a gratin of potatoes or with a peperonata

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No insult taken. If I were doing the dinner for my food-loving friends, I could be much more adventurous. But as I said above, I do have to dumb down the menu quite a bit. Moreover, a lot of the dishes have to be the type that are cooked in fairly short order.

Anyhow, the duck prosciutto salad is pretty much out. As for the fish, well, I've found a cooking technique that works particularly well for salmon, and it's plentiful and reasonably priced right now. And yes, lamb would be lighter and better, but this crowd wants at least one beef course.

As far as the fregola with clams is concerned, it will have tomatoes, but I'm just lightening it up a bit. Not at all the classic dish, but a more summery version.

Too American? Guilty as charged, but I don't have that much room for authenticity. Plus, we Americans are prone to bastardize classic dishes, eh?

Dean McCord


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Sounds great. Everything. A few thoughts from me, given the responses from others. First, a broad point: Italian food in my mind is, first and foremost, about cooking with local seasonal ingredients.

So, pesto yes! (We just made our first fresh batches last week, and we slathered bread all weekend.) That means, too, that I disagree with Franci perhaps. Yes, tuna is more Italian; salmon is more local and more fresh this time of year in America. Good choice I'd say. I do like Franci's idea for the shrimp, however. Perhaps you could infuse that "boring" oil with some lively peppers? Or, glaze the shrimp with honey infused with lemon-peppers? Just a thought.

Vegetables! Broccoli rabe is way gone or too early. Our chard is still hangin out, use that. Well, use yours. If I were coming, I'd ask that you plug some more vegetables into the scene. I like mixed green salad always, but why add the meat? It doesn't need it. It does sound cool. I'm not vegetarian, but you can get great, tasty greens right now. Skip the duck, and I would lighten the dressing. Again, this is not to criticize the roasted fig balsamic -- which sounds amazing - but it's summer. Lighter might be better. I'm with whomever suggested fennel, orange, olives. Marinate the fennel in a sugar-vinegar wash to soften it; they'll love it.

Get fresh tomatoes for whatever you do with them. They're on. Green beans are on. Squash are on (grill zukes and dash with that reduced balsamic you have. That'llbe a different flavor of summer.) Arugula might still be on in your neck of the woods.

Beef people! Oh well. You could use this as an excuse to show them there's more to life!

Overall this is an amazing feat you do. I remember last year's menu and it still gives me shivers of delight.

Good luck with it all. It sounds like you have a lot of fun with it. And, besides, you have plenty of wine on site to wash away any real cares.


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The meal was a great success. I ended up doing the Sicilian-spiced shrimp, which was a big hit.

The fregula and clams was fantastic. I made a light, summery tomato soup as the base (using only local heirlooms), added the clams and fregula, and finished with basil and EVOO. Very simple, very clean, very fresh.

The salad was very good: fennel, arugula, mint, oranges and a meyer lemon dressing with local goat cheese crumbled on top.

The salmon was excellent and a very pretty dish. I served it with the sangiovese risotto, an amazing chicken stock reduction and grilled asparagus.

The beef tenderloin actually had some flavor, and the gorgonzola butter added a bit of oomph to it. I ended up serving it with tons of zucchini from my next-door neighbor's garden, which I quicly sauteed with pancetta.

The crema was very rich, very decadent, and very popular. I served it with an espresso-walnut lace cookie that I made earlier in the day.

Thanks for everyone's help. Until next year . . . .

Dean McCord


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Wow. Sounds fantastic and, more important, fun. I remember you mentioned that soem folks had less discerning tastes than others (I could be misstating it exactly). I'm wondering about the feedback you received from some of the less adventurous. This sounds great. Did they think so and were you surprised by anyone or anything?

And, you better not wait an entire year to come up with another great meal!


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One of the problems with a crowd of this size is that there will always be folks who don't like seafood or red meat or shellfish or blue cheese. There are even people who don't like chocolate. However, I cannot worry about idiosyncracies of every guest. On the whole, the people raved about the meal.

I enjoy doing this -- a lot. I could do this much more frequently than once a year, but I don't have the budget to do so! Being able to rent dishes, chairs and tables gives me the ability to feed 29 fairly easily. Plus, by getting the guests involved in the preparation, plating, and serving, we can get a lot of food out in a fairly short amount of time.

And don't worry, I try to have a decent dinner party at least once a month. Heck, I'm cooking for some chef friends in a couple of weeks!

Dean McCord


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