I was put to shame by a total stranger recently. If I'm asked to cook dinner for 12 single-handedly, I tend to declare myself overworked. Yet at a recent diplomatic party I attended, two dozen guests were welcomed by the hostess with, as far as I could see, only the help of her two young children. Not only was the service smooth, the food was delicious.
For convenience, the first course, a salad, was on the table when we sat down. In this menu I suggest a seasonal cold and hot combination of your favorite plain green salad with vinaigrette, topped with hot turnovers of goat cheese flavored with herbs and garlic. First cousin to calzone, this turnover recipe uses pastry instead of bread dough, so baking can be done a day or two ahead. If you have problems finding goat cheese, fresh feta or ricotta cheeses can be substituted.
The main course at dinner was a stroke of organizational genius, in my opinion. Hot plates were distributed, then the children appeared with trays of intriguing papillotes --gondola-shaped foil packages containing fish baked with vegetables and herbs. Flavors had blended enticingly during cooking, and the aroma as each guest opened the papillote was a feast in itself.
Selecting Fish, Vegetables
Well-flavored meaty fish such as pompano, snapper, sea bass, cod or haddock are best for this dish. Swordfish or tuna steaks would be good too, but cooking time must be increased by three to five minutes because of their dense texture.
For vegetables, pick the best in the market, being sure to include tomatoes and carrots for color. Potatoes go in to absorb cooking juices. This is a good place to display trendy miniature squash or zucchini when they are available. All the vegetables are precooked so they simply reheat in the papillote, whereas the fish cooks just to the point where it flakes without any transparent center.
Dessert--a chocolate roll--can be made well ahead. Rich and moist, the ganache filling of chocolate and cream is spiked with pieces of fresh orange. The only tricky part is to lightly bake the chocolate batter so it is not too dry to be rolled while still warm in a dish towel.
When the cake is cooled and unrolled for filling, it may crack a bit. Just press it back into shape and, after chilling in the refrigerator, it will slice perfectly. As for the trimmings, I suspect they found a happy home with the hostess' young helpers.
PLAN-AHEAD GOURMET DINNER FOR 12 Goat Cheese Turnovers Papillotes of Fish With Baby Vegetables Chocolate-Orange Roll Suggested wine: Dry fruity white such as a domestic Pinot Blanc, a French Sylvaner from Alsace or an Italian Pinot Grigio Most of this menu is prepared two days ahead with a little more to do in the morning or the afternoon of the party. The evening schedule is light, leaving time to pour drinks and greet guests.
Up to two days ahead, bake the cheese turnovers. Store in an airtight container. Make the chocolate rolls, fill, then refrigerate.
Up to six hours ahead, wash the salad greens. Prepare the fish papillotes, then refrigerate. Set the table. Chill the wine.
Up to two hours before serving, slice the chocolate rolls, set on plates and refrigerate.
About 15 minutes before serving, heat the turnovers. Just before serving, warm turnovers. About 15 minutes before serving, bake papillotes.
GOAT CHEESE TURNOVERS
Pastry for double- and single-crust pies
3/4 pound soft goat cheese
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped chives, optional
1 clove garlic, crushed, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt
Chill pastry dough 15 minutes. Grease 2 baking sheets.
Crumble cheese into bowl. Beat 2 eggs, then beat into cheese to make smooth mixture. Beat in parsley, chives and garlic and season to taste with pepper. (Filling also can be mixed in food processor.)
Roll out pastry 1/8 inch thick. Cut out 4-inch rounds using cookie cutter. Combine remaining egg with salt and brush edges of dough with glaze. Place 1 teaspoon filling in center. Fold over dough to make semicircles. Press edges well to seal. Brush turnovers with glaze. Snip top 2 or 3 times with scissors so steam can escape. Set on baking sheets. Chill until firm, at least 15 minutes.
Bake at 400 degrees until browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Turnovers can be baked up to 2 days ahead and stored in airtight container.
To serve, warm turnovers in 300-degree oven 10 minutes. Arrange bed of salad greens on 12 individual plates. Set 2 hot turnovers on top of each. Serve immediately. Makes 24 (4-inch) turnovers, 12 servings.
PAPILLOTES OF FISH WITH BABY VEGETABLES
5 pounds fish fillets (swordfish, pompano, snapper or cod)
1 pound carrots
3 pounds potatoes
3 bunches green onions
1 1/2 pounds zucchini
1 pound cherry tomatoes
12 sprigs thyme, oregano or other herb
Cut 12 ovals of foil, each measuring 16x12 inches. Brush foil with butter. Cut fish into 12 equal pieces. Set 1 piece in center of each piece of foil. Chill while preparing vegetables.