By Contributing Writer Sean Kennedy

In these tight economic times, you may be forgoing the Saturday nights out or gourmet meals. But yodinner_party_at_home_delectabelleu long for that delicious, spongy bread at your favorite Italian restaurant, the chocolate soufflé from that French bistro downtown, and most importantly, that feeling of warm contentedness after you finish a fantastic meal among good company.

News flash: you don’t have to give these things up! Entertaining at home can give you an opportunity to enjoy a gourmet meal in the comfort of your own home. In fact, it can be a lot of fun to plan the perfect meal, get all the items on your gourmet grocery list and create a night to remember through a delicious meal.

The perfect meal starts with the perfect menu. Use the menu of your favorite restaurant as a guide to plan out your own evening. Of course, you know the structure of a great meal. Generally, an aperitif starts the meal, followed by the hors d’oeuvres (appetizers), the main course, then dessert. It’s customary to have a digestif and/or coffee after dessert, which both closes out the meal and allows your company to mingle without feeling like they’re imposing on their host. Of course, this traditional structure is not set in stone, it’s your meal and you can amend it as you see fit!
If you are planning on having a larger number of people over, an aperitif or hors d’oeuvres can give staggering guests something to linger over while they wait for the rest of the party. Of course, you could be planning a romantic dinner for two, in which case wine or champagne can set the mood. To stimulate your appetite, shoot for wines that are young, crisp, and fresh and shy away from full bodied reds. These are too heavy for the start of the meal. A cocktail could also do the trick, like a gin and tonic or vodka with a mixer. Get creative with some dry white wine, orange juice, lemon juice, Perrier or a vermouth.  Just remember to keep it light and refreshing.

Since you’ll most likely be prepping and/or finishing off the meal at the start of the evening, you’ll want to pick quick n’ easy hors d’oeuvres. This way, you’re not cooking a thousand things at once. Try a cheese and jelly combination on some artisan crackers or a baguette from your favorite bakery served with cheese, butter, and chorizo sausage on the side. Creme cheese’s thick, smooth texture compliments a fruity jelly, while brie tastes great with red pepper jelly or a tomato puree. Hors d’oeuvres don’t have to be ornate to be delicious! The key here is to pick fresh and gourmet ingredients. Go to the bakery for bread, sample an array of cheeses, and pay a little bit extra for nice, flat bread crackers.
After all of your guests have arrived and worked up a bit of an appetite, you’ll want to serve a garden fresh salad. The key to any salad is fresh ingredients and the perfect dressing. If you want to scrimp on the budget, try making your own dressing. A typical, basic green salad vinaigrette can be made with mustard, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. David Leibovitz provides a step-by-step recipe for the perfect French vinaigrette. You can also try making a raspberry vinaigrette, which goes great on a spinach salad with candied walnuts and red onion. Like the hors d’oeuvres, the salad should be a breeze. You can experiment with vinaigrettes ahead of time, and toss your salad moments before serving. Easy!

Spinach_Salad_with_Raspberry_Vinaigrette_and_Candied_Walnuts_delectabelleDeciding on a main course may give you the most trouble. With so many options, how can you possibly pick just one main course? Well, you’ll need to narrow down your options. If you’re having a lot of people over, you will want to have a main course that can cook itself as you host, serve, pour, and mingle. Such entrees include rack of lamb, chicken, or pork. If you’re cooking for two, you can do something a little more complicated, like a steak, seared to perfection over a heavy frying pan.

pan_seared_steak_in_mustard_cream_sauce_delectabelleThe season could also help you choose your side dishes or main course. Since you’re making a gourmet meal, you’ll want the freshest ingredients available, including fruits and vegetables that are fresh-picked and in their seasonal prime. You can check to see what foods are in season in your region on this seasonal ingredient map. The Food Network provides an archive of seasonal recipes that could help give you some inspiration. Plan your main course around an array of colors and nutrients. A colorful dish appeals to both the taste-buds and the eyes. You can also play with textures and flavors — crisp with tender, sweet with savory — you want to present a dish that has a little bit of everything.
seasonal_ingredients_delectabelleLast, but certainly not least, the dessert. You and your guests may be stuffed to the brim, but we always leave a little room for some sugar, don’t we?  The great thing about dessert is that it usually can be made ahead of time, then served after dinner. A chocolate-cherry fruitcake can be chilled, then served straight out of the fridge. Certain cakes, like carrot cakes for example, taste best at room temperature (e.g. hours after they are actually made).

carrot_cake_recipe_cream_cheese_frosting_david_lebovitz_delectabelleAfter devouring some sweet treats, finish with a coffee or digestif. In a formal setting, the coffee is usually taken in another room, such as the living room or terrace. When buying coffee beans, go straight to the source: your favorite cafe. Resist the urge to purchase overpriced “gourmet” coffees at your local supermarket. You may be more interested in investing in a classic digestif, like a grappa, whiskey, or fortified wine, instead of an after-dinner coffee. While digestifs are uncommon in the U.S., they’re a great way to allow your guests to wrap up conversation as their stomachs settle.

Et voila! After a fresh opening drink, simple appetizers, a hearty main course, lip-smacking dessert, and a closing coffee, you will feel as content as you ever did after that fancy-schmancy restaurant meal. Yeah, you may have to say goodbye to your favorite Italian restaurant, but I’m sure you’ll find that a homemade, gourmet meal enjoyed with good company is just as sweet.

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