Chicago Dinner Party

A few weeks ago we visited our daughter and son-in-law, Abbie and Punky Buhr, at their new home in Chicago (Abbie not pictured as usual b/c she is taking the photo). They have a great place in the neighborhood of Old Town that happens to be about five times the size of any of their previous New York apartments. Old Town is also the home of Second City, which is right by Abbie’s place. Two doors down from Abbie’s place is a wonderful and popular bar, Margie’s Still, which was John Belushi’s and Dan Akroyd’s favorite late hour hang-out after performing at Second City.

zooWe had a really cool visit to the Lincoln Park Zoo, with a personal tour of the gorilla house by Abbie’s new friend Jill, who is an animal trainer. The zoo is free and part of the park, and you just get to walk right in. The apes were so cute, also, big and a little scary, but it’s incredible to watch Jill work with them. Jill introduced us to a 450 pound papa gorilla who could touch the top of his head with his hand and bend over for inspection, upon command.

On Saturday, we had a dinner party at Abbie and Punky’s. The menu was a Cheese Plate Appetizer, Goat Cheese Tarts, and Lobster Mac and Cheese, accompanied by a Spinach Arugula Salad with Sweet Sherry Vinaigrette. For dessert we had an Ice Cream Sundae Bar. We finally got to use some of those great wedding gifts to serve all the food. This sounds like a lot, but this is a menu that can be put together quickly and some of it can easily be prepared ahead of time.

Cheese Plate
cheeseplatePlating is the most important aspect of the cheese plate. Try to group the items together to give the plate more emphasis. We chose three cheeses; it’s good to try different textures and flavors and use an odd number of cheese like three or five. A soft cheese such as a brie is one good choice, and a stronger cheese, such as a blue cheese, and then add one other type, like a farm cheddar, for some variety. Many markets and grocery stores have cheese departments that can assist with a good selection. I like to add some fruit, such as berries or grapes, maybe some nuts and crackers, or a baguette sliced up. Fresh herbs also make a beautiful garnish, e.g., rosemary sprigs.

Next, I think it’s always fun to have one hot appetizer. We chose to try something new, Goat Cheese Tartlets with a port wine reduction. They are really tasty and pretty simple to prepare. I adapted this recipe from a new show on the Cooking Channel, French Food at Home.

Goat Cheese Tarts
1 cup ruby port
1 cup sugar
10-15 figs
1 sheet of puff pastry
1 log of goat cheese
1/4 c heavy cream
Toasted walnuts
1/2 tsp chopped rosemary
Salt and pepper

1. In a saucepan bring the port and sugar to a slow boil until the sugar dissolves. Reduce this mixture until the port begins to thicken, then add the figs. Continue to reduce until the port is thickened to the consistency of a syrup. Remove the figs after 10 minutes, but continue to reduce the port if needed.
2. Cut the pastry into rounds the desired size of the tarts using a pastry cutter or use a glass and a sharp knife. If you are using frozen puff pastry allow it to thaw about 15 minutes and gently lay it out flat. Place the pastry rounds on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and lay a second baking sheet on top of it, bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. If the rounds have not browned enough, take off the sheet and bake a few minutes longer.
3. Mix the softened cheese and cream, along with minced rosemary, and season with salt and pepper
4. Spread the goat cheese on the tarts and arrange figs on top. Scatter with the nuts. Heat in the oven until the cheese is warm. Sprinkle the port sauce on top and serve.

Lobster Mac and Cheese
1 lb. pasta
6 tbs. butter
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 c red onion, chopped
1/4 c flour
2 c whole milk
2 c heavy cream
2 c sharp shredded cheddar cheese
2 c shredded Gruyere cheese
1 tbs dijon
dash cayenne pepper
S and P
3 lobster tails
Panko (Japanese) bread crumbs

1. Cook pasta according to directions on the box. Any type of pasta that you like will work, we used cellentani (aka Cavatappi). Season the water well.
2. In a large sauce pan, melt the butter, add the garlic and onion and cook until the onion is softened. Whisk in the flour and continue to cook for a minute. Pour in the milk and cream and bring to a boil, whisking frequently until the sauce begins to simmer and thickens.
3. Turn off heat and stir in the cheese, Dijon, cayenne and seasoning. Fold this into the pasta in the baking dish.
4. To cook the lobster, boil seasoned water and place in lobster tails, cook for 6 minutes. Remove from the water, cool them and cut the back of the shell with cooking shears, pull out the cooked lobster meat. Cut the lobster into bite size pieces and incorporate into the dish.
5. Combine panko bread crumbs and 1 tbs. melted butter. Add in chopped herbs for some extra color if you have some. Sprinkle on top of the dish. Bake at 375 degrees about 30 minutes until sauce is bubbling and crust is browned.

Sweet Sherry Vinaigrette
(Credit: Chef Thomas at The Breaker’s Flagler Steak House Restaurant)
4 egg yolks
1 c vegetable oil
1/4 c sherry vinegar
1/4 c honey

In a blender, Mix the egg yolks, Slowly add the oil in a stream to make an emulsion. Turn speed of blender down and add Vinegar and honey. Season with Salt and pepper.

Arugula and Spinach Salad
In a large bowl, mix spinach, arugula, crumbled goat cheese, toasted walnuts and toss with the Sherry Vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper.

We were almost too full for dessert, but we prepared an Ice Cream Sundae Bar, which basically only required you to purchase the necessary items and display them in bowls.
Ice cream
Crumbled heath bars
M & M’s
Chocolate sauce
Whipped cream

I’ll leave you with a few shots of the men-
(note that none of them are helping out with the party.)