Normally, the idea of throwing a dinner party wouldn’t faze me one bit. Being homebodies by nature, The Boy and I have found that our favourite way to connect with friends is to have them over for a fabulous meal, and we do it often. So when I first looked at the third challenge, I figured it would be a cakewalk.
...and then I looked at my calendar, and realised I wasn’t going to be home. Instead, I'd be nearly halfway across the country, spending a week in Vancouver with The Boy and the in-laws for a big family reunion.
What saved my bacon is that my in-laws rented a townhouse for all of us, which meant I had both a kitchen and dining room at my disposal. A little smaller than I'm used to and with very limited supplies, admittedly... but a perfectly useable kitchen and dining room nonetheless.
Even better, the townhouse was a short walk away from Vancouver’s famous Granville Island Market, which is home to hundreds of vendors selling everything under the sun – there’s homemade charcuterie, fresh fish, artisan bakeries, every fruit and vegetable you could dream, of, exotic spices. Needless to say, I decided right away that the market would be the inspiration for my dinner party.
In the spirit of family reunions, we were joined by four relatives - The Boy’s parents, Anne and Erwin, along with his aunt and uncle, Sandra and Stan, who had travelled from California for the big gathering.
Once we’d decided on guests, The Boy and I sat down to plan our meal. For the main course, salmon was pretty much a no-brainer, considering we were on the West Coast in the middle of salmon season. Even better, it fit in perfectly with the food preferences among the group - Erwin doesn’t eat pork or seafood and can't mix meat with dairy in a single meal, while Sandra and Stan avoid red meat.
Working with the salmon as our star attraction, we then planned out some simple dishes to round out the meal and highlight the bounty at the market. The idea was to buy absolutely everything we needed from the market, and to rely mostly on local seasonal produce like apples, plums, parsnips and red peppers.
I have to say, this is probably the most fun I've ever had shopping for a dinner party. We meandered through the market, picking up supplies as we went... apples and plums from local orchards, a dozen farm-fresh eggs, baking supplies and exotic spices from the bulk store, bright yellow and orange striped ravioli stuffed with sweet yam and chestnut, an assortment of olives, crusty sourdough baguettes, and last but not least, a whole Coho salmon with gleaming silver skin and bright coral-orange flesh, which the fishmonger graciously filleted for us on the spot.
With the shopping done, we headed back to our home-away-from-home to cook. It was a little bit tricky, to say the least - working in a borrowed kitchen is like wearing someone else's shoes, in that it feels totally unlike what you're used to, and you can't quite find your normal rhythm (or anything else, for that matter). Thankfully, by the time our guests returned from a day trip to Whistler, we'd gotten everything done thanks to my trusty to-do list and The Boy's assistance as sous-chef.
We served up small bowls of olives with bread to distract the guests while I warmed the soup and put the fish in the oven to bake, and then got things started with an Apple-Parsnip Soup seasoned with ras-el-hanout, a classic Moroccan spice blend, which we topped with blue cheese crostini and swirls of creme fraiche.
Then came the main course, Dukkah-Crusted Salmon, two whole fillets of wild Coho salmon baked with a crust of nuts, sesame seeds and spices, accompanied by bright-coloured ravioli triangles topped with a smoky-sweet Romesco Sauce and a bowl of tender-crisp Green Beans Almondine. We paired the course with a bottle of 2008 Mission Hill Reserve Chardonnay, a crisp white with buttery, citrusy notes that was just the right complement for the cumin-scented dukkah.
For the grand finale, we served up wedges of still-warm Clafoutis aux Prunes, a combination of tart blue plums in a sweet vanilla-speckled crepe batter, finished with a light dusting of icing sugar. Together with a pot of hot tea, it made for the perfect ending to our elegant-but-rustic fall meal.
So, did we live up to the idea of a "luxury dinner party"? Probably not in the strictest of senses, but for a landlubber like me, being able eat fresh-caught West Coast salmon is a luxury in and of itself. Besides, who needs fancy dishes and a tablescape when you've got a view like this?
Best of all, we were able to bring together family from far-flung places for an wonderful evening. We ate, we drank, we laughed, and then we ate some more. As the last bite of dessert disappeared from Stan's plate, a chorus of happy sighs circled the table, and weary diners with full stomachs shuffled over to the living room for a post-prandial nap. That, by anyone's definition, is a fine dinner party indeed.
I'd love to give you all the recipes for this party (and I will, eventually). However, this post is already montrously huge as it is, so I'll leave you with a recipe for the piece de resistance: Dukkah-Crusted Salmon. If using individually-portioned fillets for a smaller group, plan on 2-3 tbsp of dukkah per fillet and adjust the remaining ingredients accordingly.
1 whole salmon, filleted, pin-bones removed
Salt and pepper
¾ cup dukkah
¼ cup olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
Preheat oven to 425F.
Arrange the salmon, skin side down, in a lightly oiled baking dish (you could also use a baking sheet if you don't have any baking dishes large enough for this purpose). Generously sprinkle with salt and pepper.
In a small bowl, combine the dukkah, olive oil and lemon juice to make a thick paste. Using the back of a spoon, spread a thin layer of the dukkah paste onto the salmon, covering it as evenly as possible.
Bake the salmon in preheated oven for 12-15 minutes, or until the edges flake easily when tested with a fork. Tent loosely with tinfoil and let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving.