Anyone who has ever thrown a party knows that knowing how to cook is not the same as knowing how to entertain. Circling the date on your calendar and sending out the Evite is just the start. After that, you’ve got to plan your menu, calculate serving sizes, pair beverages, and pace your preparation. No one wants to be the host who commits the eighth deadly sin of running out of food, but overdoing it is almost as fatal. After one infamous patio party I threw in my twenties, there remained such an excess of chicken that I had to freeze the leftovers. It took me months to finish off the chicken and years to live down the teasing from friends: “Do you have any of that chicken left?”
Fortunately, author Lee Svitak Dean, who is also the editor of the Star Tribune’s Taste section, knows how to both cook and entertain, and shares her insights in her cookbook “Come One, Come All: Easy Entertaining with Seasonal Menus” ($29.95, hardcover, 320 pages, Minnesota Historical Society Press). Organized in completed menus, eight per season, Come One, Come All features 150 recipes originally run in the Star Tribune Taste section. Some of the recipes have been updated, and 20 percent of them are completely new.
Dean leads with a charming introduction, describing her mother’s gift for making entertaining look easy, how she would transform their basement into a desert island, Gilligan’s Island-style, or their dining room table into a mini-football field. Writes Dean, “My mother knew the ingredients of a good party… plan ahead, make lists, do as much as possible in advance, clean up after yourself as you work, and don’t leave all the mess to the end. And have fun… The key, she knew, was the menu. Not that it had to be unusual or overly impressive. But the components had to work together.”
With that as the foundation for her book, Dean leads us through each of the four seasons, one menu at a time. She includes menus for standard occasions one might expect for such a book, including for an Afternoon Tea for six for Mothers Day, a Thanksgiving Feast for twelve, and a Holiday Cocktail Party for 20. But, Dean understands the soul of the Upper Midwesterner. For spring, she provides a Fresh Vegetarian Flavors menu for six that appeals to every Minnesotan’s appreciation for the first tips of green that force their way up through the still-thawing earth in spring, “A little warmth and a little sun do wonders for what has been dulled by under-use — or frozen into disuse — for too many months.” Her menu, she writes, “zaps the senses with flavor and fragrance: slim stalks of asparagus, fresh aromatic herbs, wild mushrooms in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and a tonic of maple-flavored cream.”
For one of her winter menus, Dean casts off the heavy expectation of root vegetables and stewed meats, and, instead offers a Flavors of Spain menu for six. “We need adventure. Think sun-dappled sea, bite-sized tapas nibbled with a glass of sherry. If that doesn’t melt your mood, concentrate on grapevines and flamenco dancers.”
Dean draws from global influences for her book, among them German, Austrian, and Hungarian (Oktoberfest Dinner); Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African (A Crossroads Dinner); and Southwestern (eponymously, Southwestern Dinner). Dean acknowledges that some menus, such as the Flavors of Spain, are for “those with a sense of adventure, for cooks who don’t mind dinner staring back at them [a reference to her recipe for fish stock]”, but also offers many options for her menus to be adapted to varied palates and tastes, such as including three sauces and three noodles for her Pasta Party for eight, spaghetti with meatballs on the comfort food end of the dining table, and farfalle Provencal on the adventurous end.
Dean also leverages contacts gained from her nearly three decades of writing about the local food scene to draw recipes from acclaimed local chefs and restaurants, such as from Kirk Bratrud of the recently closed and sorely missed Boathouse Restaurant in Superior, WI; Michelle Gayer of The Salty Tart; D’Amico; Cafe Latte; Ken Goff of Le Cordon Bleu and former chef of Dakota Bar and Grill; Alex Roberts of Brasa Rotisserie; and Raghavan Iyer.
The age-old mantra for successful entertaining is the vague “make what you can in advance,” but Dean gets specific. Her book is “set up for three levels of cooks: Those with a lot of time who don’t flinch at making everything from scratch, those who need to work ahead in order to ease party prep into a busy week, and those who prefer to use shortcuts, substituting store-bought items in a menu where only a few items need be home-cooked.”
For each menu, she provides a “make ahead” timetable, detailing which steps can be taken in advance: up to a week or more, two days, one day, two hours, and what preparation must be done at the last minute.
For her Dinner at the Lake menu for eight, for instance, Dean suggests you make the Fresh Tomato Soup weeks in advance and freeze. The Banana-Chocolate Ice Cream Pie can be prepared up to two weeks in advance. In fact, for every one of the six dishes on the menu, Dean offers at least one step that can be done eight hours or more in advance. The timetable isn’t comprehensive, though, so you’ll still need to be alert. For instance, although she provides instructions for thawing and reheating the tomato soup, it’s not mentioned in the timetable.
Each menu also contains a section called “shortcut savvy,” where Dean offers suggestions for items a harried or less experienced host one might purchase “premade”: For the Dinner at the Lake menu, consider buying preshredded broccoli slaw and cabbage, or bottled Italian vinaigrette. Buy prepared wild rice and prepared pie crust. Or, forget the pie crust, just go ahead and buy the ice cream pie prepared.
Dean provides a a beverage suggestion for each menu and also, for many of the menus, suggestions for scaling the number of portions up or down. Overall, the book is thoughtfully organized and indexed.
We tried several recipes from the book. From the Summer section we tried the Asian Noodles with Pea Pods and Peanut Dressing recipe (Fourth of July Picnic menu) and the Cabbage Salad with Spicy Lime Vinaigrette recipe (Sweet Corn Bliss menu). From the Fall section, we tried the Sesame Pork Roast and Roasted Green Beans (Slow-Cooked Pork Dinner menu) and the Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie (Thanksgiving Feast menu).
The directions are clear and easy to follow. For the Asian Noodles with Pea Pods and Peanut Dressing recipe, Dean helpfully explained how to remove the ends and strings from the pea pods, then blanch them, as well as suggesting that the soba noodles be tossed with vegetable oil to prevent sticking. While the peanut orange dressing gave the dish a pleasant, sweet flavor and the pea pods and cucumbers provided a satisfying crunch, the overall texture of the dish was simultaneously watery and clumpy, perhaps from the chunky peanut butter. As a stand-alone dish it could use some heat, a pinch of red pepper flakes, perhaps. However, since the dish is meant to be served as part of a menu that includes bold flavors, including Chicken Drumsticks with Ginger and Garlic, and Grilled Summer Vegetables with Curried Onion Chutney, it fulfills its role as a side salad quite nicely. And there’s no reason not too add a pinch of pepper if you want to, as Dean gives you that kind of license in the book’s introduction.
She writes, “…loosen up in the kitchen. Recipes should be viewed as guidelines, not commandments. …Think of seasonings as suggested guidelines, too. If you’re uncertain about the flavor of thyme in a recipe where it is specified, use less and then taste the result. Add more thyme slowly, always sampling between additions until you are satisfied, keeping in mind that even small additions of herbs can have a big impact.”
The Cabbage Salad with Spicy Lime Vinaigrette (from Chef Alex Roberts of Brasa Rotisserie) was a hit; a light take on coleslaw, with lime juice, sour cream, sugar, chilis, and shallots standing in for the classic mayonnaise. The recipe calls for chopped parsley, cilantro, and mint and toasted sesame seeds in addition to shredded cabbage, which made the dish a bright and refreshing, though, we might pull back on the amount of mint next time, starting with even half the suggested amount.
The Sesame Roast Pork, for which Dean provides instructions for cooking in a slow-cooker, or in a Dutch oven either stove top or in the oven, was simple to prepare and boldly flavored with soy sauce, ketchup, ginger, green onions, toasted sesame seeds, molasses, and curry powder. It was succulent and fall-apart tender without being mushy or leached of flavor, as some slow-cooker dishes can be. I thought the gravy was too salty, but my husband called the dish “The best thing I’ve eaten in a month.” I think that was his love of gravy talking. Gravy appears only rarely at Chez Writer.
The accompanying Roasted Green Beans, inspired by those served at 20.21 at the Walker Art Center, tossed in olive oil, then baked, were also simple, crisp and a nice complement to the heavier pork. My husband and I debated whether the green beans were sufficiently “puckered.” I wish that the book had photos to help one answer this sort of question.
The Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie (recipe below), which Dean says is a favorite in her family, was extraordinarily easy. In fact, the most difficult part was finding a flat section in my freezer. In her characteristically conversational and self-effacing tone, Dean writes in the instructions to her similar recipe for Banana-Chocolate Ice Cream Pie, “Place the filled pie pan in the freezer on a cookie sheet so that, if the shelf isn’t perfectly level, ice cream won’t drip onto the freezer floor. (No need to ask how I figured this out.)”
I’m not certain ice cream pie will be appealing in November, but, being a fan of all things pumpkin all times of year, I forged ahead with my out-of-season experimentation. The result was light and refreshing, although the texture was a touch crystalline, rather than completely creamy. Perhaps the Kemps Vanilla was not the best quality ice cream for this dish. Dean writes in the instructions to her Banana-Chocolate Ice Cream Pie Recipe, “Use good-quality ice cream.” Next time I’ll use Grand Ole Creamery’s vanilla ice cream.
Inspired by Dean’s Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie recipe, I tried a similar Blueberry Ice Cream Pie by swapping out the can of sweetened pumpkin puree for blueberries in light syrup (which I pureed right in the can with an immersion blender), and Kemps Low-Fat vanilla yogurt for the vanilla ice cream. It was refreshing, easy, and no-bake. The Dean family favorite is destined to become a Writer family favorite. We plan to experiment with it all summer long. I can’t wait to try Dean’s recipe for Banana-Chocolate Ice Cream Pie, which calls for a crust of crushed vanilla wafers. If the pie slices in my photos look a little misshapen, it’s because I didn’t let them chill in the freezer long enough. Dean doesn’t say how long to let the pies freeze, but seven hours isn’t enough; 12 works, but overnight is safest.
I’ll admit that I did not immediately warm to the idea of a cookbook that suggests, as shortcuts, that you “buy prepared soup” or “purchase bakery-made dessert.” It seemed like cheating, a little too Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade, perhaps, for a serious cook. But, after spending time with Dean’s recipes and stories of her experiences with and inspirations for them, I came to realize Come One, Come All is more than a mere cookbook; it is a book about entertaining with ease. Dean provides all of the information and, without judgment, lets you choose what works best.
Dean writes: “When it comes to cooking for a dinner party, I don’t pretend to be Martha Stewart. I know I don’t have time to make everything myself — and I don’t have to because there are plenty of skilled artisans who do a single task better than I ever can. I have no problem serving a crusty baguette that comes from someone else’s oven or a fancy layered dessert that I didn’t make because, after all, guests don’t really care who prepares a food. They simply want it to taste good.”
I watched as my husband gleefully packed our dinner leftovers — Sesame Roasted Pork, with gravy — into lunch-sized portions. He dolloped gravy into each Tupperware container with a flourish. Dean is right. People simply want their food to taste good.
Pumpkin Ice Cream Pie
Makes 3 (9-inch ) pies or 36 (3-inch ) pies
This recipe is a family favorite. It makes a lot of dessert very quickly, which is one reason I like it. The other is that the pumpkin ice cream offers a perfect finish for a heavy Thanksgiving meal; it has a lighter texture and color than the usual pumpkin pie. For individual portions, which look especially nice, either buy or make 3-inch graham-cracker crumb crusts. (The minipies are easily removed from their aluminum pans for more attractive serving.)
One 9-inch pie pan of filling equals 12 (3-inch) individual servings.
½ gallon vanilla ice cream
1 (15-ounce) can unsweetened pumpkin purée (see Note)
1 cup packed brown sugar (without any lumps)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
3 (9-inch) graham-cracker crumb crusts
Whipped cream, for garnish
Cinnamon sticks, for garnish
Let ice cream soften. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, thoroughly mix pumpkin purée, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, removing and discarding any lumps of brown sugar. Add softened ice cream and blend thoroughly. Pour ice cream into prepared crusts, allowing some crust to show for a pretty presentation. Freeze until ready to use, covering with plastic wrap once the pie is frozen throughout. If desired, garnish with whipped cream and broken pieces of cinnamon sticks.
Note: If you have only sweetened pumpkin purée on hand, omit the sugar and spices.
Recipe copyright by the Star Tribune Company and reprinted here with permission.
Many thanks to Heavy Table’s Copy Editor Emily Nystrom for her photography and recipe-testing support for this story, as well as for polishing my sentences (including, probably, this one).