Autumn’s Harvest & Great Friends, A Memorable Dinner Party!

Golden leaves reach for the clear blue sky

Something about the arrival of autumn stimulates my own creative energy in la cucina. Perhaps it is in the enticing autumn produce at the market, the spectacular ever-changing color of foliage throughout the neighborhood, the anticipation of the upcoming holidays, or a combination of all these things and more. Whatever the case, autumn is unquestionably a prime season for hosting dinner parties! Yes, there always tends to be an overload of planning, menu editing, decorating and shopping involved. But this just so happens to be an area where I shine, so I say bring it on!

Tall branches of colorful leaves render a spectacular tabletop

Tall branches of colorful leaves render a spectacular tabletop

I always find inspiration for tabletop decor in nature. The large branches in this setting were confiscated from the side of a road while on a run. (Sidebar: a video of me trying to get them home without mortally wounding myself could have been a YouTube treasure!)

I’m not one to be stuck in the kitchen when there’s a party in the house so I plan a menu that allows me to mingle with guests. The main dish is prepared a day prior to my dinner party, allowing me to spend the day of the event designing, decorating and placing final touches on what inevitably turns out to be a very memorable occasion with dear friends.

A menu I served recently included braised veal cheeks over pumpkin polenta and root vegetable ragu; butterleaf lettuce, pear, goat cheese and candied pecan salad drizzled with pomegranate vinaigrette; roasted green beans with caramelized shallots and toasted hazelnuts; dessert of cannoli’s (ordered and flown in from Modern Pastry, a delightful shop on Boston’s North End) served with pistachio gelato. A wickedly delicious meal and well worth the effort!

Disclaimer: When I’m creating a dinner party menu, calorie counting is taboo. This isn’t “low-cal” but it’s mighty delicious!

Braised Veal Cheeks over Creamy Cheese Pumpkin Polenta with Root Vegetable Ragout
(Serves 8 to 10)

1/2 cup plus 4 Tbsp. olive oil
18 veal cheeks or six (2”) veal shanks, about 3 lbs. total
1 onion cut into large dice
4 carrots cut into large dice
4 stalks celery cut into large dice
4 garlic cloves, crushed
3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
3-4 springs fresh parsley
4 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 cups red wine
3 quarts beef or veal stock
Pumpkin Polenta (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 325F. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a large frying pan over high heat and sear the veal for 1 minute on each side, making sure that they are well browned evenly on all sides. Transfer the veal to a large casserole dish.

In a stew pot over medium heat, cook the remaining 4 Tbsp. olive oil, vegetables, garlic and herbs until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Add the tomato paste to the pot and cook for 5 minutes.

Spoon the vegetables and tomato over the veal in the casserole dish. Remove any grease with a spoon, return the pot to heat and de-glaze it with the red wine, stirring to loosen any food particles. Add the stock and cook for 10 minutes over high heat to reduce.

Pour the contents of the pot over the veal, cover the casserole dish and roast for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, or until the meat is tender and can be pierced easily with a knife or skewer. Set the meat aside to cool in the liquid for at least 2 hours.

Carefully remove the meat and vegetables to a plate and strain the braising sauce. Place all the liquid in a heavy saucepan. Simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced to a rich, glossy sauce, about 25 minutes. Serve the liquid on the side.

Pumpkin Polenta

3-3/4 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 Tbsp. butter
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
2 garlic cloves, crushed and minced
1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup pureed pumpkin
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the milk, cream, butter, thyme, garlic and olive oil in a large saucepan and bring the mixture almost to a boil over medium heat.

Stir in pumpkin puree and whisk in the cornmeal in a steady stream until it is blended with no lumps. Continue to cook over low heat for 20-25 minutes, stirring constantly until the polenta is soft and smooth.

Just before serving, stir in the Parmesan cheese and season with salt and pepper to taste. (If you make the polenta in advance, leave covered at room temperature. To reheat the polenta, warm a little extra milk in a saucepan and gradually whisk into the cooled polenta. Heat through, then stir in cheese.) Serve the polenta topped with veal cheeks.

Garlic Roasted Green Beans with Bacon, Shallots & Hazelnuts

2 lb. green beans, trimmed
2 shallots, thinly sliced
6 cloves garlic, crushed
5 Tbsp. olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
4 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley leaves

Preheat oven to 425F. Toss together green beans, shallots, garlic, oil and salt and pepper in a medium roasting pan. Roast in the oven until the beans are cooked through and light golden brown (25-30 minutes), tossing occasionally to ensure even cooking. Meanwhile, toss the lemon zest, bacon, hazelnuts and parsley. Remove beans from the oven and transfer to a platter. Top with the hazelnut mixture.

Prepare the veal cheeks with ragu and the sauce the day prior then cool to room temperature, cover and refrigerate. Bring them back to room temperature the day of the party and reheat the cheeks in the oven until thoroughly heated, and slowly simmer the sauce until it just begins to bubble. The polenta, salad and green beans should be prepared the day of the party.

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