practice makes perfect

perfecting the "done before they arrive" party- a work in progress

Categories: Meat, Veggies and Sides, Sauces and Such, Dinner Party, Sources, Well Equipped, Fête Fact, Posted on July 6, 2021 by Sandy Bergsten

A few weeks ago, after returning to Chicago we had our first dinner party. I was so excited to plan the menu, at long last set our table for more than two, and prep for the evening. I thought I had it all planned out perfectly. Turns out I was more than a little out of practice.

I hate when I have people over and I find myself stranded in the kitchen. I want to be at the table. And now more than ever I want to join conversations with other people. While it seemed like I had everything done ahead of time, I obviously had lost my entertaining groove. The night was a huge success, the meal delicious, and we all had a blast as was obvious from our overflowing recycling bin. But I was a little miffed with myself that I missed even a few of those connected moments. For our next party I made it my mission to have each and every thing done ahead of time.

Nothing beats cold beef tenderloin for an intimate summer fete. The best part is that it must be done earlier in the day or even the day before. My mother’s recipe is foolproof. Which is a good thing because with this cut you sure don’t want to blow it. And talking about a good tip, a friend told me about Bill the butcher at the Apple Market in Lincoln Park in Chicago. He is the real deal and he actually appreciated my detailed order. For beef tenderloin I always ask for a center cut, the same diameter throughout and I like to serve six to seven ounces per person. As my daughters are fond of saying- there she goes ringing her high-maintenance bell. When you’re paying a premium for this cut, I say “ring” away.

Here’s my mom’s recipe for beef tenderloin. If you don’t have a good meat thermometer, stop reading this and order one online. The key is to roast the tenderloin until the very center is exactly 125 degrees. Don’t multitask, this cut goes from 97 degrees to 125 degrees in what can seem like moments.

Place the trimmed tenderloin on a rimmed heavy sheet pan covered with heavy duty foil. If it is cold leave it out for a few minutes to allow it to come to room temperature.

Brush the meat with a couple tablespoons of melted butter and season with plenty of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.

Bake in a preheated 450 degrees for exactly fifteen minutes. Then keeping the meat in the oven reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue cooking until the internal temperature reaches 125 degrees. Remove from the oven, tent with foil and let sit fifteen to twenty minutes. The tenderloin can be made several hours or even a day ahead of time. Let cool completely, wrap in foil and refrigerate. Well before your guests arrive slice the meat. A bonus is that cold beef tenderloin is much easier to uniformly slice. Put the meat back together, wrap in new foil and refrigerate. Fifteen to twenty minutes before serving, place the meat on serving platter and loosely cover with foil.

I always serve my beef tenderloin with a horseradish sauce that has a bit of a kick and a little staying power. Start with three quarters cup of sour cream. Then to give the sauce extra body whisk in two tablespoons each mayonnaise and whipped cream cheese. Whisk in two tablespoons of well-drained horseradish. I put my horseradish in a small strainer and press with a spoon to remove all the excess liquid. No one wants a sauce that runs across the plate. Add more drained horseradish to taste. Season with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. The sauce can be made a day ahead of time. Place in a decorative bowl, cover and refrigerate. That way it is ready to go.

For my do-ahead sides I channeled my inner Ina. Her fennel potato gratin is to die for. Remove the stalks from a fennel bulb and cut in half lengthwise, then slice crosswise. You want approximately two cups of sliced fennel. Halve an onion and thinly sliced crosswise.

Put a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter in a medium sauté pan and sauté the fennel and onions together over medium-low heat for ten minutes, until tender and slightly caramelized.

Thinly slice a pound of peeled russet potatoes by hand or with a mandoline. If using a mandoline always take care to use a slice guard or wear a steel glove, the last thing you want to do the day before your party is gash your finger. Those things are sharp.

Place the sliced potatoes in a large bowl with the one cup of cream, one cup of grated Gruyère, half teaspoon salt, and quarter teaspoon freshly ground pepper. Add the cooled fennel and onion mixture and mix well.

Pour the potato mixture into a buttered 8x8 baking dish. Press down lightly to smooth the top. 

Combine a tablespoon of heavy cream with a quarter cup of Gruyère and sprinkle evenly on the top.  

The casserole can be covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours or baked immediately. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for one to one and quarter hours, until the potatoes are very tender, and the top is browned and bubbly.  Allow to cool for at least ten minutes to set. Serve hot. 

I got a little carried away with our cocktail conversation and forgot about my gratin. It got a little toasty but still tasted great.

Roasted cherry tomatoes and basil couldn’t be simpler and are the perfect complement. Toss two pints of cherry or grape tomatoes lightly with olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet pan. Spread them out into one layer and sprinkle generously with kosher salt.

After I finally took my gratin out of the oven, I raised the temp to 400 degrees and popped in the tomatoes. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the tomato skins just pop, shaking the pan occasionally. Remove from heat and toss with a quarter cup of slivered basil.

This perfect plate came together in mere minutes. I didn’t miss a moment of this entertaining evening, all my planning and preparing ahead of time truly paid off.

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