I was recently invited to dinner at the home of a friend who was aiming to create some social alchemy. She invited eight women to dinner to connect, share, relax, enjoy a festive meal and pause after a long, busy week.
The hostess, J., an artist, teacher, mother, gardener, environmentalist, hiker, traveler, avid reader and all-around Renaissance woman, sought to bring together friends from different parts of her life that she thought would find each other interesting.
At a minimum, she hoped that we would all get along, have a lively conversation and enjoy a meal together. At most, she hoped we would connect and potentially find some synergy, collaboration opportunities and spark some new friendships.
To ensure a steady flow of conversation, J. drafted questions on vintage post cards, which also served as the table centerpiece. Guests were asked to draw a card, read and answer the question, and then open the topic to the rest of us.
Questions ranged from the serious (“Can people change, and if so what drives them to do so?”) to the frivolous (“Describe your favorite pair of shoes for fashion and for comfort”) to the fantastic (“If you could rise to the top of any career without having to start at the entry level, what would you do?”). It was a great ice-breaking mechanism, and enabled conversation to flow without being forced. When there was a lag — rare among nine extroverted women — we drew another card.
J. described the menu as “chick food” — light, vegetarian, simple and able to be served at room temperature to save the cook from missing the conversation while doing last-minute prep. It involved both Italian and French flourishes, and the overall vibe was relaxed, healthy, simple and, of course, delicious.
The appetizers were arranged on the coffee table when guests arrived; they involved a minimum of fuss and maximum of flavor.
French Radish Canapes
Makes about two dozen
These deceptively simple bites are pretty and unique. Don’t spare the salt; it makes all the difference in bringing together the flavors.
¼ cup premium salted butter, softened (such as Plugra or Kerrygold)
1 cup shredded radishes (breakfast radishes are traditional with this preparation, but any variety that you prefer is fine)
Kosher salt to top canapés
Toast rounds or crostini
In a small bowl, mix the shredded
radishes with softened butter.
Spread thinly on toasts and sprinkle generously with salt.
Makes 1 cup
This was served with sliced cucumbers, but it would be lovely with any crudité. J went to a special spice purveyor to get freshly blended curry powder, which was flavorful, complex and delicious. If you do not have a supplier of this type available, you can use jarred, grocery store curry; you just may need to use more to ramp up the flavor.
⅓ cup mayonnaise
⅔ cup sour cream or Greek yogurt
1½ teaspoons best quality curry powder (or more to taste)
¼ teaspoon salt (or more to taste)
Chopped fresh parsley to garnish before serving
Mix all the ingredients and refrigerate for an hour to allow the flavors to meld.
The main course was served buffet style; guests helped themselves and then took seats around a beautiful table set with antique china, vintage etched glasses and artfully mismatched silverware. In addition to the dishes described below, J. served roasted carrots and a green salad.
Makes about 1 dozen mini pizzas
These are supremely versatile, and a great option for gluten-free diners. The version here is vegetarian friendly and can easily be made vegan by omitting the cheese. But feel free to branch out —
consider pesto and fresh mozzarella, turkey sausage and broccoli rabe, margarita, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta. The only limitations are your pantry and your imagination.
1 log store-bought polenta, sliced in ¼-inch discs
¾ cup good-quality marinara sauce
¾ cup caramelized red onion (see note)
½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped and toasted
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat your oven to 350 degrees.
Place the polenta discs on a rimmed cookie sheet. Spoon a bit of marinara sauce, some red onion and a sprinkle of walnuts on each disc. Top with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.
Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Note: To caramelize onions, slice the red onion and place in a skillet with oil. Cook on very low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and sweet.
Serves four to six
J. used a high-quality jarred pesto for this recipe, and it worked well. The unique element to the dish was the addition of sunflower seeds — I was a bit skeptical, associating them with bird food, baseball players and trail mix, but they brought a welcome crunch and complementary nuttiness.
1 pound fresh gnocchi
¾ cup pesto, either best-quality store-bought or homemade
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds
¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Cook the pasta according to the package to al dente in salted water; reserve ½ cup of cooking water before draining.
Drain the pasta well, and toss with pesto, adding some of the cooking water a little at a time to distribute the sauce. (You may not need all of it.)
Toss the sunflower seeds and Parmesan cheese over the gnocchi and serve warm or at room temperature.
Keri White is a Philadelphia-based food writer.