Project Food Blog #3: For the Love of Chocolate: A Luxury Dinner Party

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Voting for Round 3 of Project Food Blog is officially open!  Please take the time to cast your vote here, or use the widget in the left sidebar.  Thanks for getting me this far, and thanks in advance for your vote!  – Kimberly

Project Food Blog Challenge: Host a luxurious dinner party where your guests will discover new tastes and exotic flavors.

Poor Girl’s Challenge: Do the above on an extremely limited budget, after having just gotten laid off. 
Hmm…  Luxury on a nano-budget?  This was going to be some serious fun.

Pure bliss…

Planning my first dinner party…
Now, I do have a confession to make before I launch into the recap of the meal I presented to my guests: Until this weekend, I had never hosted a dinner party.  

Of course, it wasn’t the first time I’d cooked for others.  By the time I was 8 or 9 years old I was kicking my parents out of the kitchen and creating elaborate meals for them, complete with the proper garnishes and accoutrements, serving my dishes with the same fanfare I’d seen at 5-star dining establishments.  In college, I would cook for friends and boyfriends in a similar fashion, shoving some wine and well thought-out appetizers in their faces while I holed up in my kitchen and created something that would please their tastes, but also invite them to try something new.

Savory Dark Chocolate-Chipotle Sauce, deconstructed

But cooking for 2 or 3 is one thing; it’s an entirely different endeavor to prepare an elegant dinner for a party of five. Especially when: A) one lives in an apartment that’s approximately the size of a large walnut, and B) one is faced with zero new income opportunities to help fund the project.  To be able to pull this off properly I knew I had to plan carefully and way in advance.  After tossing around a few ideas, I decided my best bet would be to plan my meal around a central ingredient.  This would allow the meal to have a cohesive theme while keeping costs low by not buying too many different ingredients.

As this was to be a “luxurious” dinner party and my bank account is nowhere near approaching that term, I knew I’d have to choose between a gorgeous table setting or sensational food.  Since a dinner party isn’t really a dinner party without the dinner, I decided to keep the decorations minimal yet tasteful, and focused instead on the luxury of the food itself.  And the most luxurious ingredient in my cooking vocabulary is chocolate.  

The holy trinity of chocolate…

Now, I understand there are some folks out there who don’t think too much of chocolate, and I weep for them quietly on the inside.  However, most people I’ve met are huge chocolate fans, so I knew this main ingredient would please my guests in one way or another.  Ever the student, I felt this particular menu would also help me adhere to the specifics of the assignment: to introduce my guests to new tastes and exotic flavors. Since the average person only thinks of chocolate in sweet dessert or beverage fashion, my goal Friday night was to change that dramatically.  I capitalized on my insomnia and spent hours researching chocolate from all angles, then set about creating a menu that would highlight all three chocolate colors and flavors: white, dark, and milk.  Afterwards I made a shopping list of items I didn’t already have at home (again, to keep costs down), with approximate prices written in so that I knew what kind of final bill I’d be facing.

The Chocolate Sauce Trio: Savory Dark Chocolate-Chipotle Sauce; White Chocolate Hollandaise with Fresh Herbs;
Dark Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette

With the help of a solid menu, mad frugal shopping skills, a well-stocked spice pantry, and a gift card from one of my loyal readers, I set out to get my main ingredients from the one place I could count on to provide me with the selection and prices I needed for this feat: Trader Joe’s.  A couple thousand logistical issues later, I started preparing the bases of the meal in my thumbtack sized kitchen.  The dinner itself was to be served at my friend Catherine’s house, which is far roomier than my humble little abode, but because I’m not familiar with her kitchen I thought it best to do most of my mad kitchen scientist experiments in my own tiny place.  Several hours, a lot of stirring, and a well-deserved primping session later (note to self: when hosting a dinner party, be sure the hostess is at least as presentable as the food), I ended up at Catherine’s to host my very first dinner party.
The Meal…
Because I am just like my dad in that I’m a control freak in the kitchen, there was only so much I would allow Catherine to help me with for this dinner.  Not that I dislike group cooking projects; it’s just that when I’m the one running the show, I want to be the one, well… running the show.  This was my first real dinner party, darnit!  I wanted to spoil my guests, not have them pitch in (they can do that for my next party).  Catherine was an awesome assistant in that regard, letting me ask where her bowls and gadgets were but allowing me to handle the rest.  Once all of my guests had arrived, wine was served and the dinner began.

We started with an amuse bouche of jumbo prawns with white chocolate hollandaise sauce and fresh herbs.  The sweetness of the white chocolate was ever-so-slight, but combined with the other savory flavors and the aromatic properties of the herbs, it gently enhanced the natural sweetness of the prawns.  At first I was a bit nervous seeing the skeptical expressions on my guests’ faces, but once they took the first bite, skepticism turned to food bliss and I was asked to please bring out more shrimp, the rest of the sauce, and get back into the kitchen to finish the dessert.  Great.  Now I was being bossed around by my guests.  Still it was good to know that four very confused, skeptical friends were already hooked on the appetizer and wanted more.

Amuse Bouche: Jumbo Prawns with White Chocolate Hollandaise

Next was a salad of mixed greens with spiced pecans, crumbled goat cheese and dark chocolate-balsamic vinaigrette.  Through my research on the savory side of chocolate, I learned that chefs from all over the world use chocolate in some of their savory dishes (not just those in Mexico who make sensational mole), and found some pretty interesting recipes from which to glean inspiration.  I was particularly drawn to a recipe for a cacao nib dressing, but having no access to cacao nibs, I went for an intriguing chocolate-balsamic dressing instead.  After putting my own touches into it, I was more than pleased with the result.

Mixed Greens, Spiced Pecans and Goat Cheese with Dark Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette

Since the dressing was meant to be the star of the salad, I kept the other ingredients minimal but chose them with their particular flavors and textures in mind.  Drizzled sparingly onto the delicate greens, the dressing itself tasted elegant and mysterious, with the bitterness of the dark chocolate lending further complexity to the acetic flavors of the balsamic.  The crunch and spicy sweetness of the candied pecans added an interesting texture, while the smoothness of the goat cheese rounded out the flavors of the salad perfectly.  With mmm’s and oooh’s escaping from my guests’ lips as they ate, I knew I had another winner.

Rich tackles his salad with gusto…

The main course of pork loin medallions with roasted fingerling potatoes and baby sweet peppers was served with a savory-spicy-sweet chocolate sauce of my own creation.  Not quite mole, not quite barbeque sauce, my savory dark chocolate-chipotle sauce was by far everyone’s favorite sauce of the evening.  Gleaning inspiration from countless mole recipes and a few random savory chocolate sauces I’d come across, I created a thick, rich sauce that was just bursting with complex flavors.  It complemented the tender pork and tiny roasted potatoes beautifully, and the baby sweet peppers added a burst of sweet flavor to the entire dish. “You should bottle this!” said my friend Rich at one point.  And I’m seriously considering it!

An elegant main course: Pork Loin Medallions, Fingerling Potatoes and Baby Sweet Peppers
with Savory Dark Chocolate-Chipotle Sauce
So good I had to show this one twice…

We finished the meal with a decadent milk chocolate-amaretto mousse with homemade whipped cream and cocoa dusted almonds.  I’d actually planned to serve two desserts (the other being a white chocolate cheesecake that I still plan to post at some point), but time was of the essence so I chose to keep things simple.  It was the right choice, too.  Sometimes simplicity is best, and this amaretto spiked mousse rounded off the entire meal to perfection.  It was sweet but not overly so, and the texture was pure airy lightness.

Milk Chocolate-Amaretto Mousse


Now, I’m not going to lie to you: the best part of the evening for me wasn’t the white chocolate hollandaise, the dark chocolate balsamic vinaigrette, the incredible dark chocolate chipotle sauce or even the sweet little mousse.  It wasn’t the tender perfection of the pork roast or the way each course was uniquely different and highlighted the best of such an amazing ingredient.  It was hearing my guests truly enjoy the dishes that I created from scratch with much labor and love.  From the immediate reactions of “Mmmm…” and “Wow, this is ****ing phenomenal!” to more in-depth discussions dissecting each nuance of the complex flavors they’d been presented with, it made my heart soar to hear people enjoy what I’d prepared.  The best compliment of the night was hearing Richard, a friend of mine for many years and the only one of my guests who’d tried my cooking in the past, tell me how much I’ve improved as a cook.  “I’ve watched you grow,” he said with sincerity in his voice and genuine admiration in his eyes.  “I’m totally impressed.”

Dishes cleared, the guests enjoy their mousse.  Mine sits all alone, just waiting to be eaten, but pictures must always come first…

It might not have been the most luxurious in terms of setting & decor, but the most important part – the food – was pure decadent luxury.  Though I had some frazzled moments, I think I managed to pull off my first real dinner party with a fair amount of skill.  And despite the fact that I was running the show, I still found plenty of time to sit down and interact with my guests, aside from introducing each dish, which I felt was a necessary part of the actual meal.  Nothing more off-putting at a dinner party than never having a chance to interact with the host!  Even if I was yelling at Rich from the kitchen while I plated the main course, I was there to hang out as much as I was there to cook.

This third challenge for Project Food Blog really allowed me to stretch my proverbial wings and whip out all my skills, both as a chef and as a budget food blogger.  I’ve been writing about making fabulous food on a nano-budget for two years, and it was wonderful to find out I could throw a magnificent, sumptuous dinner party on that same shoestring budget.  All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and can’t wait for the day that I can do this with a slightly larger budget to play with; my mind is already reeling with thousands of ideas for other dinner parties!

The tired but proud chef in her blinged-out apron…

I’d like to thank Catherine for being such a gracious co-hostess and lending me her house, her kitchen, and her stoneware for this challenge.  I definitely couldn’t have done it without her!  I’d also like to thank the rest of my guests – my old friend, Rich, my next door neighbor, Monika, and her friend, Drea – for coming over to enjoy this incredible meal.  From the fabulous wine to the lively conversation we all shared, the evening was truly delightful.  I hope we can do it again soon!

Since this is already such a lengthy post, I will save the recipes for future posts throughout the month of October.  And for those of you who are wondering about the cost, I am happy to report that my luxury dinner  for 5 cost just around $16 per person.  Not bad, Poor Girl, not bad at all!

If you enjoyed this post, please be sure to take the time to vote for me starting at 6am Pacific Time on Monday, October 4th.  As usual, a special post with the link to my voting page will also be posted.  Thank you so much for your support in getting me this far, and thanks for reading!

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