This week I've been sharing one of the most fun dinner parties I've ever hosted — we invited six friends over and threw an Italian polenta party anchored by a four-foot-long board in the middle of the table! Today I want to share the whole party with you and show you how it all came together.
From dramatic polenta pouring, to bottles of red wine, to my favorite tip for keeping polenta warm and creamy for hours before dinner, here's a peek inside this cozy supper.
The Day Before
The best dinner parties, in my opinion, are the ones where the food is made well in advance. I shared my recipe for shredded beef in red wine with you yesterday, and this is what I made the day before the party.
I was actually more pressed for time the day before the dinner, or else I would have made the mushroom sauce and the braised kale then too. All of these things will keep well in the fridge. To reheat, leave them covered in their cooking pots, and slide into at 300°F oven for an hour, or until ready to serve.
Setting up the Party
The preparation for this party was relatively simple. I stepped away from work an hour early and put the beef in the oven to begin warming. Then we ironed the runner and laid it out on the table, and set the table with pasta plates, water glasses, and wine glasses. I put out little candles and lit them (see my 5 best tips for creating a warm dinner table atmosphere here).
Then I turned my attention to the food. First, I scooped out ice cream into individual glasses and put them back in the freezer. I don't like scooping ice cream at the table during a dinner party; it's so nice to have it ready to go.
I made a quick fennel salad (I sliced the fennel in the food processor) with a lemon-garlic dressing. I wanted something crisp and refreshing to go with all that rich polenta. After that I worked on the braised kale (sautéed with garlic and cooked, covered, with broth and vinegar over low for about 30 minutes) and a creamy mushroom sauce (from this recipe). This kept me pretty busy even after the guests arrived at 6pm, and I wish I would have been able to make all these dinner dishes the day before.
Making the Polenta (and Keeping it Warm)
The fun and casual, laid-back atmosphere of a polenta party would be dampened a bit if you had to be stirring polenta at the stove right up until the moment you served it, right? Fortunately there is a better way.
Two hours before the guests arrived, I started the polenta. I made two big pots of polenta with the easy method where you cover the cooking polenta and cook it on low, stirring every 10 minutes.
After about 40 minutes, once the polenta was getting thick and creamy, I stirred a few ounces of mascarpone into each pot, as well as a handful of Parmesan. Then I poured each pot of polenta into a slow cooker set on LOW to stay warm. The slow cooker is magic for polenta. Instead of hardening and getting chunky, as it will at room temperature, the polenta stays perfectly creamy and spreadable for hours.
I may have been busy at the stove when the guests arrived, but that was just fine, because we put out a super quick and easy spread of appetizers. I love having something for guests to nibble as they stand around and chat. This dinner was on a weeknight, and I like to give people some time to relax and get in the party mood.
This was also another wonderful use for that gorgeous board from Gray Works Design. I set out all the little bowls of olives, prosciutto, peppadew peppers, and grapes on the board; I liked how it elevated them above the table settings. We also opened a bottle of Prosecco and poured glasses of bubbly for everyone. (My husband is such a good host at things like these — it really helps to have someone on drink duty while you're finishing up in the kitchen.)
The Polenta Board!
And the the sun went down, and we cleared the appetizers for the big event: Topping the polenta board! This board was huge — 4 feet long! I had described to everyone what we were doing, but I don't think anyone really got it until I put that board on the kitchen island and poured an entire pot full of polenta all over it. Then everyone was up from the table, laughing and taking pictures and helping put toppings on the polenta.
I spread most of the polenta on the board; it cools quickly around the edges, forming a little dammed-up lip that keeps the warmer polenta from dripping off (well mostly, anyway). I handed each of the guys a spoon and they heaped up the kale, meat, and mushrooms, alternating each topping so people could reach whatever they wanted from all corners of the table.
We carefully, gingerly moved the board from the kitchen island to the table and the feast was on!
At the table, everyone had a big soup spoon to serve themselves, and a fork to eat with. People reached in and scooped out polenta into their pasta plates. We served lots of red wine (look for more on wine suggestions tomorrow) and everyone had a fabulous feast. We demolished that polenta pretty well, against my expectations — but I did get to send leftovers home with everyone!
After dinner, while everyone relaxed and finished their wine, we cleared plates and wiped down the board. I returned it to the table and brought out the ice cream. I wanted something utterly easy for dessert, and something refreshing after such a heavy meal.
I bought plain vanilla Breyer's ice cream (I've always liked how light it is) and drizzled a little bit of warmed cherries in red wine syrup over top. These sound fancy, but they were the easiest thing I had; I put up a few pints of these several years ago. You could also use warmed raspberry jam, or simple fresh fruit.
A Polenta Supper
And that was our polenta party! I loved the way we all gathered around that enormous board — it was just about the most fun we've had around the table so far this year.
Want to throw your own polenta party? On Friday I'll offer a few more practical tips for throwing a party with a menu like this. I also want to tell you more about the artists who made the gorgeous board.
Featured Party Resources
At the Table
- Polenta Board: Footed Platte from Gray Works Design
- Linen Runner: Yarn Dyed Multi Stripe Table Runner from Williams-Sonoma
- Water Glasses: Duralex Picardie glasses
- Appetizers: Prosciutto in rosettes, Castelvetrano olives, grapes, peppadew peppers, Prosecco.
- Salad: Fresh Fennel and Lemon Slaw
- Polenta: How To Make Creamy Stovetop Polenta (warmed in slow cooker)
- Shredded Beef: Braised Shredded Beef in Tomatoes & Red Wine
- Braised Kale: Made without recipe; just sautéed and then cooked on low.
- Mushroom Sauce: Rich No-Cream Wild Mushroom Pasta Sauce
- David and Deborah Hopler of D Squared Photography and Video