FOODIE FILES

Dining out by staying in: Dinner parties remain in vogue

Posted Jan. 08, 2013, at 2:03 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 09, 2013, at 12:38 p.m.
Guests at a dinner party in Winterport last weekend sample foods from Quebec.
Guests at a dinner party in Winterport last weekend sample foods from Quebec.
Coquilles Saint Jacques, one of the dishes served at a Quebecois-themed dinner party in Winterport last week.
Coquilles Saint Jacques, one of the dishes served at a Quebecois-themed dinner party in Winterport last week.

Being a lover of food and wine is a noble pursuit. It can also be a very expensive pursuit. Eating at a different restaurant even just once a month can mean you’re dropping some serious dough.

Then again, you could just cook at home and avoid the cost, the crowd, and the parking, and entertain friends while you’re at it. Dinner parties — not the ones you might see on “Mad Men,” but the more casual, free-wheeling contemporary equivalent — are a great way to gain culinary skills and spend time with friends.

A group of 10 friends (five couples, to be exact) in the Bangor area have started their own “supper club,” as they call it. Once a month they pick a country or region, and that month’s host cooks entrees and the rest bring starter courses and dessert. Jeri Misler, one of the club’s members, said that after each meal concludes, the group selects a new country and cuisine to try at their next gathering.

“We spin a globe and put our finger down on it, and that’s where we go,” said Misler, who by day is the executive director of Husson University’s Gracie Theatre. “We’ve been pretty far. I love trying new things. That’s what’s fun about it — you get to explore.”

So far, the group has been to places as diverse as New Orleans, Japan, Poland, Italy, Iran, Spain and Ethiopia. They’ve had paella, naan, sushi, jambalaya, Persian stew and for January, they “visited” Quebec at the Winterport home of Mike and Nikki Knupp, and served everything from smoked steelhead trout to Coquilles St. Jacques. The kids hang out upstairs, the dogs forage for the occasional dropped morsel, and the adults wine and dine for hours.

“It’s the best weekend of the month,” said Mike Allen, another group member. “[My wife Shelley] and I spend the whole day just looking at the clock, waiting to go. It’s just so much fun.”

Though they’ve had a number of other friends ask if they can come for dinner, the group has had to politely decline — cooking for 10 is a pretty big commitment. Finding comfortable seating for a crowd in your own home can be a problem.

“We’d love to have more people, but at a point it just gets unmanageable,” said Misler. “You want to keep it dining room sized.”

For those who want to try their hand at hosting their own dinner parties, whether it’s a regular thing, or just a once in a while treat, the group has a few suggestions. First, keep it small. Second, don’t try to do everything yourself; have the host make an entree, and the guests each bring a side or dessert. Third, don’t be afraid to try something new.

“It forces you to try things you wouldn’t normally try,” said Mike Knupp. “I don’t know if I would have had Ethiopian food, but we did it.”

And finally, make sure you spend your time with people you enjoy.

“We find every excuse to drag it out as long as possible,” said Michelle Campbell, who attends with her husband, Sundance. “It’s a great excuse to spend time with fun people.”

Persian Chicken or Duck in Walnut Pomegranate Sauce (Fesenjan)

Serves 4 to 6

¼ cup lime juice

¼ cup butter or ¼ cup oil

2 ½-3 lbs chicken (cut up, bone-in) or 2 ½-3 lbs duck (cut up, bone-in)

2 onions, thinly sliced

2 cups walnuts, finely ground in a food processor

1 ½-2 cups chicken stock or 1 ½-2 cups water

⅔ cup pomegranate syrup (see notes in description if using juice)

2-3 tablespoons sugar

kosher salt, to taste

fresh ground pepper, to taste

Sprinkle meat with lime juice and allow to marinate for one to four hours. Over medium heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot heat ⅛ cup (2 Tablespoons) of the butter or oil until shimmering. Add the chicken/duck pieces a few at a time and brown on all sides. Remove to a plate.

Add onions and saute in remaining butter or oil until translucent. Stir in ground walnuts and saute for 30 seconds. Add stock or water and browned chicken/duck pieces. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer 20-30 minutes. Stir in the pomegranate juice, sugar, salt and pepper.

Taste and adjust seasoning. Sauce should have a balanced sweet-sour flavor; add sugar if it is too tart, lime or lemon if it is too sweet. Simmer another 15-20 minutes until the chicken/duck is tender, sauce is somewhat thickened and the walnuts begin to give off their oil. Serve with plain white rice.

Coquilles Saint Jacques

Serves 6-8

¼ cup melted butter

¼ cup flour

1 teaspoon prepared mustard

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

2 cups whole milk

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 minced shallot

½ cup brandy or ½ cup sherry wine or ½ cup white wine

4 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons chopped parsley (fine)

1 lb bay scallop

1 lb shrimp

½ package grated swiss cheese

½ cup breadcrumbs

On stove top melt ¼ cup butter in saucepan. Add flour, mustard, salt and pepper. Stir to bring together, slowly add milk. Cook slow, approximately 10 minutes, until it is thickened. Add Parmesan cheese. Continue cooking till smooth and flour has absorbed all the milk. It will be like velvet.

In another pan, saute shallots in butter and sherry, wine or brandy. Add seafood, parsley and barely cook two to three minutes. Remove from heat, add to sauce. Fill emptied six to eight scallop shells or six to eight individual small dishes or ramekins with mixture, top with cheese and breadcrumb and sprinkle paprika for color.

Bake in 400 degree oven just until cheese melts and crumbs brown. Serve at once.

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