When I host a sit-down dinner, most of my friends expect: 1) to be recruited to the kitchen to help with last-minute preparations or 2) to watch me tossing things to and fro in the kitchen while they eat and drink. I think it is part of the joy of cooking — to make it a relaxing group experience.
However, my husband disagrees. He says, when you invite people to your house for the first time, it is better to have things ready ahead of time so you can spend time with your guests — instead of in the kitchen. Not everyone wants to cook, he says. (Is this possible??).
This was the situation for me last week. I was serving a dinner for eight and had invited all newcomers to our dinner table. So, I followed my husband’s instructions (I do that occasionally) and selected a menu that allowed me to do all but heat-and-serve when my guests arrived. And I even finished setting the table before anyone graced our doorstep.
As usual, the menu included dishes from a random selection of countries. Sometimes I like to pick a country and work a menu around that, but often it is more fun to just mix and match:
Do-Ahead Dinner for Eight Menu
Hot-Smoked Candied Salmon, Chevre, Red Onions and Pickled Cucumbers (U.S.)
Parsnip, Onion and Tomato Tart Served with Mixed Greens and Sherry Vinaigrette (France)
Creamy Sweet Potato and Chipotle Soup (Mexico)
Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives (Morocco)
Israeli Couscous with Parsley and Pine Nuts (Israel)
Spiced Carrot Salad (Morocco)
Gloria’s Flan (Mexico)
All the dishes on this menu were prepared ahead (day before or day of) and were ready to go when guests arrived. This, of course, requires a bit of constraint in menu choices. For example, I really wanted to serve my Seared Scallops with Braised Bok Choy and Black Bean Sauce as the first course. However, there is absolutely no way to serve good seared scallops unless they are done at service time. So that was out. My next idea was one of my favorite tarts — parsnip. It meets many of my entertaining criteria mentioned in a previous post, particularly that it is attractive and do-ahead. If you serve it with a side salad with vinaigrette, it is not only colorful, but it supplements the menu with a small salad. And it is made with parsnips! How can you not love parsnips — sultry, sweet and buttery.
If parsnips are not part of your regular repertoire, you should consider adding them in. They look a bit like an anemic carrot, perhaps because they spend so much of the cold season under the ground and starved for sunshine. They develop their unusual flavors in the soil in the cold temperatures and are best picked well after the first frost. They are usually larger than a carrot and also tougher. That is why, unlike carrots, it is important to remove the hard and tough core in the wide end of the parsnip.
The parsnip tart is a traditional thin, straight-sided tart, so eight servings/tart are not big, but they are very generous when part of a menu this size. So, feel free to plan even smaller portions, cutting up to 10-12 slices/tart. I keep other menu portions small as well when serving so many courses. For example, the soup can be served in cups and saucers, for a whimsical look and a less-filling portion. Otherwise, you will run the risk of getting to the end of dinner without room for dessert — in this case, my friend Gloria’s delicious flan. Now that would be a tragedy of epic proportions!
Parsnip, Onion and Tomato Tart with Fresh Tarragon
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC
Serving Size: 8 -12
1 Pie crust, ready made or homemade
1 lb. Parsnips
2 tablespoon Butter, for parsnips
1 Onions, about 8 ounces
2 teaspoons Sugar
2 tablespoons Butter, for onions
1 cup half and half
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
2 teaspoons tarragon, fresh, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 ounces Gruyère, freshly grated
8 each Tomatoes, cherry or campari
1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Roll out crust on work surface. Dust with flour. Arrange dough, flour side down, in 11-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Press dough into pan – sides and bottom.
2. Pierce dough all over with fork. Bake until set or just beginning to turn golden, about 10-12 minutes. Cool on rack. Reduce oven temperature to 375°F.
3. Peel parsnips, and remove the tough core from the large end. Slice into pieces about 1 inch. Place in a saucepan with water to cover and bring to a boil. Simmer until chunks are soft. Mash with a ricer (this is a masher with small holes so you can force the parsnips through the holes). Add first 2 tablespoons of butter.
4. Slice onions and shallots in half and then in thin slices. Melt remaining butter in a large fry pan and cook onions and shallots until beginning to brown. Add the sugar and fry until a deep golden brown. Let cool slightly and then spread into bottom of cooked tart crust.
5. Mix half and half, eggs, and parmesan cheese. Chop fresh tarragon and add to egg mixture along with salt and pepper. Add parsnips to egg mixture and blend until thick and uniform.
6. Spread egg mix over onions in crust. Sprinkle Gruyère (you may also substitute additional parmesan here) on top. Place tomatoes, cut in half, cut side up around edges. If tomatoes are larger than cherries or small campari tomatoes, slice rather than cut in half as tomatoes should be on the top of the tart and not all the way through.
7. Bake at 375 F for 35-40 minutes. Time will vary depending on the type of pan used and your oven.
Note: I think the choice of cheeses in this recipe is important. Both Gruyère and parmesan have earthy flavors that complement, but do not overwhelm the parsnips.
If you are serving this tart with a side-salad garnish, you can also prepare the salad ahead. Within a few hours of dinner, wash and briefly soak greens in cold water (to crisp), spin to remove water, add some vegetables for color (like carrot) and toss in a bowl. Cover your bowl with a damp towel to keep crisp and moist and place in the refrigerator. Have your dressing ready. At service time, grab your salad bowl, toss with dressing and mound onto plates. Add a slice of your tart, serve, and you are ready to sit down with your guests.