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Dazzle Your Dinner-Party Friends With Bread

A tabletop laden with various delicious salads and some roasted potatoes and spreads, with a cartoon logo.
Photo by Libby Watson

Welcome to Perfectly Fine Dinner Party Club, a cooking and hosting column from Libby Watson, who likes to throw dinner parties but is normal about it.

First, thanks to all those who emailed in about their beef bourguignon experiences after my last column. In particular, thank you to Karen and her husband:

I made both the salad and the beef! The salad was excellent (the cream—who would have thought!) I used plain Greek yogurt with some honey and lemon since I didn't have exactly what you suggested and then made a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Everyone loved it! I ended up doing a mashed sweet potato with goat cheese and pistachios as our potato side.

As for the beef bourguignon it was very easy to put together and nice that I didn't have to worry about it once it was in the oven. I skipped the mushrooms (I like them but my husband doesn't) but that was an easy adjustment! It definitely felt fancy for the amount of work it was and both of our guests kept complimenting the dinner. We even had enough for leftovers and they were just as good if not better the next day!

Wow. Wow! What an honor. A reminder that I am desperate to be contacted at if you do make these dinners after I write about them. I crave validation and you, the reader, can give it to me.

Los Angeles is hurtling through another wonderful spring, long past the time for Hot Goo Meals, and I wanted to do something completely different from the last edition. Where beef bourguignon is a thick and comforting stew, a heavyweight who demands your attention, this round’s meal is an assortment of darling little treasures. An ensemble cast, if you will.

Still, even an ensemble cast has its Meryl Streeps or its Al Pacinos. I am going to recommend two recipes that I think you really should do, at least for it to count as A Perfectly Fine Dinner Party Club event. Everything else is more flexible and replaceable. It can be fine-tuned to the amount of time you have and the amount of work you can be arsed to do. I bought the dips from the farmers market, for example; if you want the dips to shine more, you could make them yourself. Just make sure you tell everyone you did, so that you get adequate credit.

The first must-make is a Chef John recipe, for what he calls Turkish chicken. It’s always a hit whenever I’ve made it. Do not get mad at me if it’s not really Turkish. Get mad at Chef John if you must.

But first, I want to talk about the even more vital part of this meal: Bread.

Bread is pretty much the only thing I need to eat. It’s also, as a cooking project, right in the sweet spot where easy meets impressive: Just intimidating enough that most people don’t attempt it, but secretly straightforward enough that you actually could do it, I bet. Bon Appetit’s “Shockingly Easy No-Knead Focaccia” is the perfect candidate for a first bread, because it really is that. It’s a good option for a dinner party, too, because you do the mixing the night before, and you barely have to do anything to it at all. Instead of the garlic butter, I copied what I had seen at a restaurant and sprinkled the dough with black and white sesame seeds before baking, and just look how beautiful. (Next time I will add more seeds.)

A lovely focaccia loaf, sliced, with black and white sesame seeds on top.
Libby Watson

Perhaps it was because everyone was hungry and it was the first thing I served, but my guests went fucking nuts for this bread. They could not shut up about how good it was. It was gone very quickly, and I wished I had made two. Amaze your friends with the magic of flour, water, salt, yeast, and enough olive oil to feed an Italian village for a month.

Here is a list of what I prepared:

Bought: Hummus, tzatziki, baba ghanoush, and some really good, posh pita chips that were fried with herbs and lemon. (I highly recommend this upgrade over Stacey’s, which are fine but nothing like these. This is a local merchant but I saw similar stuff at Jon’s, a local supermarket with a lot of international foods.) Also some olives that were way too spicy for me.


And here is how to do it yourself.

THE NIGHT BEFORE: Mix your focaccia. If you anticipate more than, say, seven mouths to feed, consider making two; the timing is generous enough that you could bung one in the fridge while the other cooks. Study the helpful GIFs on Bon Appetit’s site, but it’s very straightforward: Mix everything together in a bowl (you shouldn’t need to do the yeast-foaming stage, honestly, but it can’t hurt). Get the biggest bowl you have, put oil in it, put dough on top. Pop in fridge. Job done.

At this stage, I’d also recommend making your pastry for the galette. You can buy puff pastry if you don't want to make it, or use the crust recipe included in the galette recipe linked above, or your favorite flaky pie dough. I used Claire Saffitz’s flaky pie dough recipe because it’s what I always make and I love her Claire please email me please I want to talk about how our cats look alike. Please.

If you are going to make your own ice cream, make the base at this stage too. Now, I am certainly not going to say that you need to make your own ice cream for this. A good grocery store vanilla would be lovely—I like Tillamook—but I couldn’t resist pairing the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors of the main course with a honey ice cream. Mine was not perfect because I had forgotten to freeze the ice cream machine bowl far enough ahead of time and I added too much honey, so it turned out a bit softer than it should have been. And for God’s sake, remember to freeze the bowl in advance, more than 18 hours, at least 24 if not 48. The ice cream recipe is a regular custard-based one, but I probably wouldn’t choose this occasion to learn ice cream if you haven’t done it already.

If you want to, you could also dice your Shirazi salad ingredients, cube your chicken, and make salad dressings. Or you could pat yourself on the back for a night’s work well done and go to bed.

The next day, the first thing you’ll want to do is start marinating your chicken. If you are an insufferable snob, you might be tempted to wrinkle your nose at the ketchup in the marinade. Don’t do that. It doesn’t make the chicken taste of ketchup, it just makes it taste good. (Chef John’s whole thing is putting the recipe in the blog and the method in a YouTube video, so watch that for his instructions.) Stir the chicken around in its sumptuous goo, and make sure every inch is coated and turned.

Put that in the fridge, covered with cling wrap, and get to work dicing and slicing other things. Here’s my mid-cook work station:

A countertop with several bowls of ingredients, cutting boards, a Y-zester and halved lemon, a knife, and various other kitchen implements.
Libby Watson

Now is the time for me to tell you about how I fucked up the sugar snap pea thing.

My friend Jorey is an exceptional cook, with a sort of precision and dedication to perfect-tasting food that I can’t match. Where Jorey goes for the exact right ingredient, I go, "Fuck it, that’ll do." I asked him for the recipe for a sugar snap pea salad he had made us a few weeks ago, and he sent me three separate recipes from the cookbook for Bavel, a Los Angeles restaurant: One for “Super Stock,” which is vegetable stock with extra aromatics; one for mushroom vinegar dressing, and one for bulgur wheat. You make the super stock, use that to cook the bulgur wheat, and then dress peas and wheat with the dressing.

The Super Stock part went well: I used a regular Trader Joe’s carton of vegetable stock with some of the ingredients Jorey recommended as shortcuts, and while I didn’t have everything I needed, the stock unmistakably came out of its boil heartier and better. Unfortunately, I did over-salt it during this and the bulgur wheat cook, so I had to rinse some of the goodness off to make it edible. I am for sure going to make bulgur wheat in this style in the future, though.

The dressing is where I really fucked up. I had a guest who is allergic to cloves, so I couldn’t use the recommended garam masala in the dressing (Jorey said not to bother with the mushroom part and just make dressing with golden balsamic, which I don’t have, so I used sherry vinegar). Why, I thought, I can simply make an approximation myself! I was planning on trying a dukkah-type thing with some toasted pistachios and spices, so I simply ground up some toasted fennel seed and cumin, and used that. I didn’t realize I had added like four times as much fennel seed as I should have, and it mostly made the thing taste of aniseed, to me at least. But it was too late, and I was too frantic, and I just plowed on, pretending it tasted good and spending too long trying to clean out the spice grinder.

Here’s what you should do instead. Make bulgur wheat; cook it in some good stock if you have some, or approximate Super Stock by boiling up some vegetable stock with a little fresh ginger, lime zest, bay leaves, parsley, and fish sauce if you have it (I did not). Let the bulgur wheat cool.

Trim off a very tiny part of each snap pea, just the weird stringy appendage, and ready a bowl of ice water in the sink. Blanch the snap peas for NO MORE THAN TWO MINUTES in a pot of boiling water; as soon as they turn bright green, drain them and dump them in the ice water, making sure they get cold as quickly as possible. Drain them, and set them aside. We will return to the snap peas and their dressing shortly.

About three to four hours from serving time, get your focaccia out and do what Bon Appetit tells you to do: Plop it in the oiled and buttered baking sheet or pan (I used a 13x9 pan so that it would come out thick), and let it relax. If you’re making ice cream, you can churn it now.

If you didn’t dice your Shirazi salad stuff last night, do that now. I used cherry tomatoes because it’s not tomato season and only cherry tomatoes reliably taste of something the rest of the year. I also used shallot instead of red onion because it was what I had, and I used fresh mint because I didn’t have dried. Mix the dressing and set it aside until you’re ready to serve.

I used my mandoline, with great terror, to shave thin rounds of carrots for what seemed like hours, for the carrot salad. For this recipe, you salt the shaved carrots and let them sit for a bit, so that they soften. The thinner the carrots, the quicker this will happen. Do NOT use a mandoline unless you are very good at not slicing your fingers, because it is way too easy to do that. [Editor's note: A good practice is to look at the vegetable in your hand, and not at the slices coming out of the mandoline, and to slow down as your fingers get closer to the blade.] I do recommend getting posh carrots if you can—mine were from the farmers market—because regular carrots can trick you by being completely awful.

I did an unbelievably messy and bad job of cutting the citrus for the carrot salad. If Sumo oranges were still in season, I’d have used those, because they are so simple to dice. Alas, I had to use a grapefruit and a cara cara orange. They were tasty but Jesus, how does anyone cut a citrus fruit into chunks without losing half of it and spending forever peeling bits of white string off? I hope you know, because I sure don’t.

Save and squeeze whatever juice you can for the dressing, which comes together quickly. At this stage, add half your dressing to the carrots and let it chill out until you’re ready to add the rest right before serving. Just before serving, I crumbled a huge amount of feta on top, because I thought that would work well, and it did.

When you’re about an hour from serving, you can char the carrot salad's dates on a cast iron skillet. I think I let mine cook a little too long, because they were very soft and hard to “tear” into pieces, so take care not to do that.

Preheat the oven to 450 for your focaccia. I didn’t do a great job of spreading it to fit the pan, and it ended up kind of tall in the middle, and no one cared. No one called me Libby Tall Focaccia Ass. Don’t be afraid to poke the dough really really hard. Sprinkle the top with salt and black and white sesame seeds before putting it in the oven.

Potatoes time. I bought a bag of mixed purple and regular little guys, and chopped the bigger ones in half or quarters so that they were all roughly the same small size. Toss them in oil in a bowl, salt generously, and spread them out on a baking sheet. I am sorry to report I can’t remember how long I roasted them for, but I left myself plenty of time; they keep warm in the oven just fine and there’s nothing worse than a hard potato. I would guess approximately half an hour to 45 minutes at 450 for them to get nice and roasty. Once they’re done, turn off the oven and let them hang out. When they come out, toss them with some chopped parsley, if you like.

At this point, I was starting to get a little bit harried. A bit of your classic Hosting A Dinner Party Madness. I began to realize I had done too much, and my husband had gently said, "Is there anything you maybe don’t have to do?" I said "No of course not, it’s too late for that!!!" He graciously stepped in like the level-headed, mentally non-ill person he is, slicing bread and cutting peas and cleaning up as I went. Good bloke.

It’s time to do the disgusting job of threading the gooey chicken chunks onto the skewers. I wear nitrile gloves for this. Bear in mind you can really pack them on there. I had about two pounds of chicken and used maybe three or four metal skewers.

If you have a grill, heat it up. (Thank you Pat for doing this while I fretted.) The chicken tastes much better grilled, but you can also do it under the broiler; I’ve found it’s helpful if you can set it on a rack to let the liquid that comes off during cooking drain, or you can carefully drain the liquid once or twice during cooking.

The grill I have access to is an unbelievably gnarly communal grill at my apartment building, which I don’t believe has ever been cleaned. I tried doing it last weekend and I ruined a pair of sweatpants and made basically no difference. The chicken thus stuck to the grill terribly, leaving behind some quite large chunks, but most of it was fine. Thighs can really take a beating, so you can err on the side of overdone. I always test with a thermometer simply because I have one.

Skewers of grilled boneless, skinless chicken thigh, looking delicious.
Libby Watson

The cooked chicken can rest now. I dressed my Shirazi salad in a too-big bowl, dressed my carrots in the mixing bowl they were sitting in, and put the potatoes in a wee dish.

Toss your sliced snap peas in your dressing with the bulgur wheat—I would recommend a simple lemon vinaigrette, or honestly any leftover dressing from either the Shirazi salad or the carrots. In a bowl, mix some labneh with a LOT of herbs—I used parsley and mint, but if you like dill, use a ton of that. I did not have anywhere near as much herb as I needed, sadly, so it was a bit bland. I added some herbs to the salad itself as well. Jorey recommends some Meyer lemon zest, or regular if that’s what you have, too. Squeeze a bit of lemon in the labneh and add a generous dash of salt, then spread it over the bottom of a bowl and add the peas ‘n’ wheat. If you made a dukkah-like thing, sprinkle it over the top. And doesn’t it look nice? In pictures, no one can tell your dressing tastes like a Licorice Allsort.

Snap pea and bulgur wheat salad with labneh and dukkah, in a bowl, on a glass tabletop.
Libby Watson

And there you have it: Dinner. We ate on the roof by the dirty grill, and I absorbed compliments like a needy sponge.

Various foods in serving dishes on a glass tabletop: Snap pea salad, shiraz salad, carrot and citrus salad, roasted potatoes, olives, and spreads.
Libby Watson

For dessert, the galette. It is my favorite thing to do at a dinner party, to apologetically tell a room full of stuffed guests who obviously want to go home to bed that I have, unfortunately, prepared dessert, but I’ll just need to cook it now, and it’ll be about another 45 minutes. (One day I will give you a recipe where you actually prepare the whole thing in advance, for people who are not stupid.) I rolled out the pastry—and just look how big these pieces of butter are, absolute units of butter.

Rolled-out pastry dough, with what really are some absolute units of butter studded here and there throughout it.
Libby Watson

Toss your berries with whatever the NYT says, lemon juice and sugar and cornstarch I think, and fold the pastry over in as ‘rustic’ a way as you like. I did the recommended three cups of berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries) and found it wasn’t quite as much as usual, so be generous with the fruit. I’ve made galettes where the pastry barely reaches over the fruit, and enjoyed those more.

Brush the top with egg wash and sprinkle some sugar. I’ve literally never made a galette that didn’t leak, and it’s never mattered. You lift it off the parchment and the cooked-down syrup part stays behind, in my experience.

And here it is. A weird little pie.

A gorgeous berry galette on a cutting board.
Libby Watson

I served it with my too-soft ice cream, with many apologies, and everyone told me to shut the fuck up because it was obviously fine. We watched some Escape to the Country and two of my guests started playing the One Piece card game at the dining table. It was the perfect hang.

If you made it all the way here, I do hope you make a version of this meal, and tell me what you think at Until next time, and remember: When in doubt, simply serve as much bread as you can.

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