My stepson Ryan was visiting from his home in California and asked if we could host a dinner party at our house for his friends who lived here. We said, “Of course! What should we make?”
Ryan and his girlfriend Hallie are consummate travelers and adventuresome eaters as well. We have admired the photos they have sent us of their meals both on the road and when they entertain. They have a lot of friends and wanted to throw a dinner party on a more epic scale. Having it at our place would allow them to hold a larger gathering than they usually can squeeze into Hallie’s house in Traverse City. Besides, what are parents for?
For me, half the fun of giving a dinner party is the planning process. So many possibilities! I thought about their friends and knew a few of them did not eat meat. I also knew Ryan was hoping for a special meal. I offered to make a koulibiac for the main course, thinking Ryan would complete the rest of the menu.
Koulibiac is a Russian dish, like a beef wellington, but with fish. We had lake trout fillets in our freezer, from a charter fishing expedition we took with Ryan out of Leland that summer (thank you Wes and Pier Pressure!) In this dish, the fish and layers of rice, spinach, cabbage, and mushrooms are wrapped in puff pastry and baked. When it is sliced, it reveals beautiful rows of the vegetables, with the pink hued fish in the center.
When discussing this option with Ryan, he immediately proposed the idea of a Russian dinner. What else could we make? He and Hallie were into cheese and charcuterie boards and researched a Russian version, zakuski. Somehow, as only kids can do, they left us to come up with the rest of the meal. (Which was fine by me but hey, wasn’t this your dinner party?) Chilled borscht, acorn squash wedges to accompany the koulibiac, and a raw apple, fennel and celery salad would round out the meal.
My husband Eric placed himself in charge of decorations. Our friend Mike owns flags from just about any nation in the world. He lent us a modern Russian flag and an old Soviet Union one. Eric procured a Russian military hat, a black rotary dial phone, and found an old briefcase and keyboard in our basement. More on this later.
There would be 12 for dinner, and the guests, except for me and Eric, were young people in their 30s. We moved our long table from the garage to the enclosed front porch, placed the flags on either end of the room, and set the table with old candelabras, white linen napkins and silverware. There were baby carrots suspended in water in clear glasses, along with gourds, pears, and vases holding a variety of colorful dahlias. The table was rich and full, as we imagined a Russian dinner, a la northern Michigan style, to be.
The party would start, however, in our backyard, with cocktails and the zakuski board. This gave impetus to more crazy decorating: I have an old bear rug, which we placed on the patio table under an oversized wooden peel holding the zakuski. Cocktails were vodka based, of course, and we froze a bottle inside a carton lined with roses and filled with water. Removed from the carton, it created a flower bedecked ice block for the vodka bottle. We made up a cocktail of lemon verbena syrup, lemon juice and triple sec, shaken with ice-cold vodka, and garnished with cucumber slices.
Ryan and Hallie created a zakuski board that was a work of art both in composition and its riot of colors. There was smoked fish, herring, cheeses, seedy bread, homemade pickles, nuts, fresh fruit, mustard and chutney. Alongside the board was a platter of steamed new potatoes topped with dollops of sour cream and caviar.
The fire was lit, Russian music played, and guests arrived. I may have been a bit nervous being part of the minority old guard in the group, but I shouldn’t have worried. Everyone was so welcoming in their conversations and offers to help.
I took two of the young women into the kitchen to assemble the koulibiacs. It is a good party dish in that you can prepare the ingredients in advance, then wrap it in pastry just before baking. Halley and Laura were each given pastry and asked to make a design for the top. They performed admirably, with a Russian sickle on one and geometric graphics on the other. More works of art!
Once the fish was in the oven, we progressed to the long table. We poured the wine and served the borscht. It’s a nice trick to serve chilled soup you can sip from a glass; festive and unusual. We toasted in Russian and between the courses, Eric ran the show. Ryan was at the head of the table and given the military hat to wear. A phone and keyboard were placed before him, with Eric instructing him to pick up and answer the call, regarding some secret Russian business … It was a good show.
Throughout the night, we asked different pairs of friends to help with the clearing, plating, and serving. The conversation flowed with stories of their travels, work and hobbies. We had a table of interesting characters — surfers and skiers; an archaeologist, photographer, videographer, potter, architect, writer, consultant and jeweler. When we served the finale, a pear almond tart, there was applause and calls for another “State Dinner” soon.
Many of my friends are in supper groups that have themed dinners based on different countries’ cuisines. I am so glad, as I think we learn more about other cultures this way. It is also fun to spend time with a different generation, and perhaps be inspired to be more playful. Diplomatic phone calls, nuclear launch codes, and standing for the national anthem can be as much a part of a “State Dinner” as the food.
With a little effort and a lot of tongue in cheek, you can transform a night into the unexpected for your guests. You will have fond memories and so will they.
I would love to give you the recipe for koulibiac, but while the list of ingredients is not intimidating, the instructions are too long for this column. I used the recipe from Balthazar, a NYC bistro, but found others online from Martha Stewart and Food and Wine that I would also recommend.
There are many recipes for borscht, but this is a light and easy one, good for a first course. It may be served hot or cold.
Makes 12 small servings
1 ½ T. safflower or canola oil
1 large red onion, chopped
2 lbs. beets, peeled and cut into 1” pieces
1 apple, granny smith or gala, peeled and cut
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 C. chicken or vegetable stock
4-5 C. water
2 T. cider vinegar or more to taste
1 T. brown sugar (optional)
Fresh dill, chives, or parsley for garnish
Sour cream or yogurt (optional)
Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat, add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened. Add beets and apple and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add stock and 4 cups of water, bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, uncovered, until beets are soft, about 40 minutes. Stir in vinegar and sugar if using.
Puree soup in batches in a blender or food processor until smooth, transferring the puree to a bowl. Taste and season with salt and pepper, adding a bit of vinegar if you want a little more acid kick. If too thick, thin with more water.
Chill at least six hours before serving. Can be made two days ahead and refrigerated.
Serve in glasses or small bowls, sprinkle with herbs and add a small dollop of sour cream or yogurt.
If your beets are very sweet and fresh, I find no sugar is needed.
— Rose Hollander
Apple, Fennel and Celery Salad
Serves 8 – 12
2 granny smith apples, core removed and sliced thinly
1 large fennel bulb, core removed and sliced thinly, fronds saved
6 celery stalks, sliced into thin matchsticks
2 – 3 T. apple cider vinegar, or lemon juice
¼ C. fruity olive oil, plus more to taste
Fresh ground pepper
Coarsely chopped toasted walnuts (optional)
Fennel fronds or parsley for garnish
Place apples, fennel, and celery slices in a large bowl. Toss with the vinegar and a pinch of salt. Stir in olive oil, a bit at a time, stopping when you like the taste. Season with more salt and the pepper. Garnish with walnuts and fennel fronds. Nice with some grilled bread or seedy bread and butter, on the side. Decadent with a smear of rich, creamy blue cheese instead of butter on the bread.
— Rose Hollander
We always have fun creating simple syrups for cocktails! The basic recipe can be adjusted to any herb, floral or citrus notes you may want to add. Keep a jar in your refrigerator and play!
Flavored Simple Syrup
1 C. water
1 C. sugar
Sprig of fresh herb or more, depending on the strength of the herb.
Heat water in a small saucepan, then add sugar, stirring to dissolve and bring to a boil. Turn off and let it cool about 10 minutes before adding the herb. Let sit overnight, then strain into a jar, and refrigerate. To make the lemon verbena syrup, I used two sprigs; if using rosemary, I would use one sprig. Mint is classic, but basil in a drink is also very good. For a citrus syrup, add the peel but not the white pith. You can leave the peel in the syrup until you use it. Grapefruit is fun and more of a surprise than lemon.
The syrup can be brushed on a simple pound cake, added to fruit for an ice cream topping, or into plain yogurt for a quick dessert.
— Rose Hollander