A dinner party is a creative challenge. It's not one single brilliant dish that counts, but the total presentation.
Candlelight always helps. And when you set the table, play up the season with clusters of brightly colored flowers and napkins. Even the rhythm of the meal is important: Don't rush it. You should aim for a leisurely pace. Serve the salad separately to space out the courses. And don't leave your guests lingering at the table for the whole meal. Let them finish off their dessert and coffee in the living room; great after-dinner conversation can take place once a change of scenery has occurred.
But the first thing you should do, long before the party begins, is make sure you can manage all aspects of the meal--the shopping, cooking, serving and clean-up. Be realistic. If you can't handle everything yourself, enlist some help.
The next step is to choose a main course. A full-bodied choice such as beef, lamb or game requires hearty accompaniments. Poultry, fish and seafood, depending on their preparation, tend to be lighter and more mild. Keep in mind the season and your guests' food preferences. The way the food looks on the plate is also important. Consider color and composition as you serve the food.
In the menu that follows, scallops assume center focus. The sweet-and-sour mustard glaze makes the scallops less mild than usual, but they still aren't as dominant as red meat. Spring rice with carrots, ginger and cilantro is a great complement both in taste and color, while sesame-buttered green onions add color to the plate. Slices of lemon are a refreshing garnish. A chilled dry rose, such as one from the Provence region of France, works especially well with this menu.
A bright-tasting cucumber salad creates a simple, upbeat introduction to the meal. Dessert is the easiest of all: raspberry gelato , smothered with sugared, sliced fresh strawberries and finished off with a little Champagne. Sip the remaining Champagne along with the gelato. Butter cookies or thinly sliced pound cake complete the dessert. If you like, serve chocolate truffles to cap off the meal with coffee.
Very little else needs to be done. Just enjoy the momentum of the evening along with the guests.
DINNER FOR SIX
Cucumber, Red Onion and Watercress Salad
Pan-Fried Scallops With Sweet-and-Sour Mustard Glaze
Spring Rice with Carrots and Fresh Ginger
Sesame-Buttered Whole Green Onions
Sauce of sliced strawberries and Champagne
Butter cookies or pound cake
Pickled cucumbers make this salad especially attractive because their texture is firm and they don't need to be seeded. The salad can be mixed ahead, refrigerated, drained at serving time and then mixed with a touch of oil to round out the flavor. The bitter watercress adds color and contrasts nicely with the cucumbers. Edible flowers make an excellent garnish.
CUCUMBER, RED ONION AND WATERCRESS SALAD
11 large (about 3 pounds) pickling cucumbers
2/3 cup (1/4-inch) diced red onion
3/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon safflower oil
Freshly ground white pepper
3 large bunches watercress, washed, crisped, stems removed
2 tablespoons snipped chives
Peel cucumbers, then score with fork. Thinly slice. (Best done with thin slicing disc of food processor.) Combine cucumber slices, red onion and vinegar in large bowl. Toss well. Cover and refrigerate 4 to 8 hours.
Drain cucumbers. Toss with safflower oil. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Arrange watercress leaves in wreath design on 6 serving plates. Arrange cucumbers in center. Garnish with chives. Makes 6 servings.
Note: Seasoned rice vinegar, available in Asian section of most supermarkets, is blend of mild rice vinegar with perfect balance of sugar, salt and water. If using plain rice vinegar, adjust salt, sugar and water to taste.
The cooking for this dish is best done at the last minute; it takes less than 10 minutes. If necessary, the scallops can be cooked in advance, kept at room temperature for up to an hour and reheated in the glaze. However, it's important to avoid overcooking the scallops.
PAN-FRIED SCALLOPS WITH SWEET-AND-SOUR MUSTARD GLAZE
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon safflower oil
1 3/4 pounds sea scallops
1/3 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
4 teaspoons honey
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Dash cayenne pepper
Shredded zest of 2 lemons
2 lemons, scored and thinly sliced
Heat butter and safflower oil until hot in 12-inch non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add scallops and brown on 1 side and saute until just opaque, about 3 minutes, depending on size. Remove scallops as cooked onto warm platter. Do not overcook.
Carefully add vinegar to skillet. Boil over high heat until reduced to 3 tablespoons, about 2 minutes.