October 02, 2010

Welcome to my luxurious...ehm...rustic dinner party: project food blog challenge #3

I still can’t believe it! I made it to the third challenge. Surprise and happiness were overwhelming when I read “advanced” on my profile picture of the Project Food Blog competition page. And then, fear kicked in. I really have to write the third challenge now. Opsie. That’s how the challenge prompt reads:

“Celebrate! You've made it this far, and the next challenge is to hold a party for your friends and family (at least four guests). Whether you're an experienced host or an entertaining newbie, get creative and host a luxurious dinner party where your guests will discover new tastes and exotic flavors. Share your hosting secrets with readers, like how to cook for a crowd, plan a menu, or involve guests in the prep. And don't forget to document the party with pictures of the table spread, food, and guests.

Well, I’m neither a master in the art of entertainment nor a newbie. And I don’t know if I have any ace up my sleeve but I sure have some suggestion about how to make it a unique experience. I will share these suggestions with you in this post.


My first suggestion is: choose the venue carefully. You want a cozy environment and possibly a room that can comfortably accommodate all the people you are inviting. I don’t believe in overdoing. I don’t think the room should be decorated in a fancy way. Nor that you should use expensive dishes and cutlery. But that is my personal taste. As many of you know by now, I like simplicity and I want the dishes as well as the venues of my parties to reflect my personality.

Now, before I tackle this challenge, let me play a little game with you: find Wally and me in the following two pictures

                                  Picture#1                                    Picture #2  

Solution: you will never find us in the first one! Nope, Wally and I are not big parties people. There we are instead in the second picture, a picture from a Thanksgiving party. That is our usual setting. When it’s time to have fun we like small venues, most likely a nice quiet dinner at somebody’s home, where we can chat (and not scream to be heard) with our dearest friends. Usually, all this happens in front of a nice homemade dinner and a bottle of wine.

So, when I read the prompt of the challenge I knew I wanted to share with you one of our usual dinners. Now, here comes problem #1. This is how our apartment has been looking in the past week:

Let aside the fact that our apartment is so tiny that I don’t have a kitchen counter, nor a dining table, we are in full moving mood! We are moving into our first home next Monday and our stuff is all packed. No way I could host a dinner at our place.

                                                                                      Nat and Terrell sitting room starts to get 
                                                                                      filled up with my bags of food!

The solution to this problem was easy: 
our dearest friends, Nat and Terrell,
agreed (well, let’s say they know better
than saying “no” a feisty Italian!) to
host a dinner for the four of us at their
place, which, incidentally, is a super cute

Second problem: the challenge prompt says “luxurious party”. Luxurious? Luxurious like caviar and champagne?! Nope that’s not my style. But wait a minute! I looked up a definition of luxurious and among others I found this one:

                  epicurean: displaying luxury and furnishing gratification to the senses; rich and superior in quality "

Oh right, that’s different! I can do that. When it comes to dinners I organize I always try to reach either one of these two goals: (1) to entertain my guests with dishes they have never had and they would not have a chance to find in an American restaurant or (2) to prepare those dishes that I can make very very very well and I know my guests love! For this challenge I try to do both.

Nat's family has a winery so he always provide the wine for our dinners!


Last time I was in Italy I brought back a box of Pizzoccheri. Pizzocheri is a very particular type of pasta traditional of Valtellina, a region of the Italian Alps on the border with Switzerland. I hadn’t had an occasion to make it yet and I thought this dinner was the perfect time! I wanted to make a dinner that talked about me. A dinner that spoke of simplicity but with a strong and decisive taste. I was sure Pizzoccheri was the right main course to accomplish this.

La Cucina Valtellinese (Valtellina Cuisine) is a very rustic cuisine. It’s a cuisine very rich in fat derived from butter and cheese, in particular Bitto, Fontina, other mountain cheeses, and goat cheese. Did you already guess why I love this cuisine? Cheese is the magic word! Because of the high content of butter and cheese Valtellina Cuisine is…hmmm…heavy. Veeeeery heavy. After all, the dishes are made for a cold weather. But don’t fear the calories. They are all worth it!

After choosing pizzoccheri as main course, the rest of the dinner was planned accordingly. Because of the heaviness and of the richness of flavors of the main course I knew I needed to limit the total number of dishes and that I needed to keep them very simple.
Here is the full menu I presented to my guests
I chose a very simple starter that could recall other flavors and food typical of the Valtellina valley. I decided to make a loaf split pan bread that has a very rustic appearance, a nice and crunchy crust and a soft inside. I presented the bread together with a simple appetizer: slices of prosciutto, coppa and mortadella and little bites of honey goat cheese.

Our starter at 7:30 pm...

As an aside, I always loved goat cheese with a sprinkle of honey on it but this time I got a goat cheese made WITH honey. Wally, who usually eats a bite of goat cheese and then is already satisfied ate so much of it that I didn’t have any left over (and I was hoping to have some more of that cheese for me in the coming days L )

...and at 7:45! These guys are hungry!
That's why it gives me satisfaction to cook for them!

But let me say something more about Pizzoccheri. Pizzoccheri is a tagliatelle-shaped buckwheat pasta cooked together with potatoes and chards (or spinach, according to season availability.) When the vegetables and the pasta are ready, they are drained and layered with grated cheese in a huge serving bowl. The traditional choice of cheese is the Bitto or the Fontina. I could not find Bitto cheese so I used a good quality Fontina. To this, you also add grated parmesan. Finally, you pour the melted butter over the layers so that everything can melt  under the butter’s heat. It is a huge amount of fat! Just consider that you put 130 grams of butter, 100 grams of parmesan and 160 grams of bitto/fontina for about 300 grams of pizzoccheri! As I said, don’t get intimidated…it’s worth every calorie you will need to burn the day after!)

The bowl of Pizzoccheri is ready to get attacked by my guests!

What I truly love of this dish is that it is tradition to serve it in a huge serving bowl, from which everyone helps themselves, adding to the dish’s character of a rustic cottage meal.

Pizzoccheri really is a full meal so the habit is of having only that as a main course. The maximum you can really add to it is some salad but I would really suggest to keep the rest of the meal easy and light! This does not mean giving up dessert of course! Sara could never suggest that. Even with a heavy meal I think everybody deserves at least a good sweet bite. 

Honey and Goat Cheese Tartlettes

So to keep it in harmony with the rest of the meal, I made four individual tartlettes filled with a honey and goat cheese cream. I thought (actually everybody did because they did not just take a bite…they ate them all) this dessert was in perfect symbiosis with the rest of the meal.


I always thought the best part of cooking and baking is to share the food you make with the people you love. Not just to give it to them but really to sit down and enjoy it together. One last suggestion I have for dinner planning is related to this and simply put it’s this: don’t overdo! I do not like dinners with too many courses (unless of course it’s a potluck and you share the tasks to prepare it with your guests).

Wally (left) and Terrell (right) always love making fun of me
moving my hands like crazy!
Too many courses means you will feel like a Thanksgiving stuffed turkey afterwards and I don’t like the feeling of the food coma. In particular I would not suggest making many complicated dishes. I believe it’s good to have one main dish around which the dinner will revolve. In this way you can truly enjoy the important dish. But most of all, as I already said, I really like sharing the meal experience with my guests. I like to be able to actually sit down and enjoy the meal and the conversation. I’m not a chef! I don’t want to be spending the evening going crazy in just cooking all the time! So my suggestion, again, is “keep it simple and enjoyable!”


Oh well, I guess there is also that part. I did most of the cleaning up in exchange for having a nice place to hold my dinner but, hey, it was worth it! Just look at Nat's happy face in serving himself a nice spoon of cheesy pizzoccheri. Cooking for others is all about making them happy, right?


  1. Sara, I love your humor. Especially picking the two of you out of the crowd - lol.. Great job!

  2. Well, I did not have a home, I did not have a kitchen...all I was left was some good humor! Jan, once I settle in my new home I'll have another dinner and you will be invited :)

  3. You'd never find me in that first picture either- I much prefer small gatherings! Your dinner looks lovely to me. Good luck with your move!

  4. Bravo! I'm with you about the small group gatherings. I go find a quiet corner and people watch at big parties on the rare occasion I go. Your dinner looks fantastic. I really think you need to move to the East Coast!

  5. I want to come to this party! That pizzoccheri looks delicious--I'd never heard of it before. I love that you kept things simple and enjoyable, too. Great job!

  6. Okay, I'll have you over for dinner if you invite me the next time you make this. This was a very nice post--honest and a pleasure to read. So glad you had friends that opened their home to you so you can throw this dinner party. Yay!

  7. yummy! And a little Hawk's wine definitely makes everything better! If you ever want to party on the East Coast, feel free to come cook for me and you can use my house ;o)

    hugs! Kim @ Frost Me!
    party inspiration

  8. Great party, Sara!!! I just finished a bowl of lamb stew and one of those honey and goat cheese tartlets would be perfect right about now :-) Kate @ kateiscooking

  9. Sara, I would love to open my home for one of your parties! (if ever you make your way to Canada?? lol) I've been voting for you and I am thrilled you made it to round 3!! Congratulations!

  10. Congrats to making it to the next round. I have the same problem with you - teeny kitchen with no room! You did a great job with it though. Good luck!

  11. You had me sold at goat cheese.. everything looks delicious :) I'd come to a dinner party you're hosting any day!

  12. Nicely done rustic dinner party - love that it sounded easy and you had such tasty food! What a special touch to have wine made by friends. Those goat cheese tarts look amazing!!! A must make! Good luck with the contest!

  13. I bet that buckwheat pasta tasted terrific. Actually, I could go for that right now...Best wishes with the challenge!

  14. Looks amazing, wish I'd of been invited! He He I'll be cheering you on. Goat cheese tarts, yum. Good Luck!

  15. Would have loved to been at that dinner!

  16. Your menu looks delicious! Good luck with that kitchen :) I hate unpacking.

  17. The honey and goat cheese tarts sound divine! You put on a good party!

  18. Thank you guys for all the support! I really enjoyed this dinner party despite all the constraints. I'm looking forward to show you a better planned dinner at the new home!

  19. I'm the same way as you, I'm much more comfortable with a small gathering. Your dinner looks delicious, especially the homemade bread! YUM! And those tarts are absolutely beautiful. You did a wonderful job with your dinner party. Best of luck to you! :)

  20. Great job on the dinner party challenge, especially considering your current living (or lack there of) situation. Your menu sounds really great, I wish I was there to try those honey and goat cheese tarts! You've got my vote!

  21. Love it! I think its great to have just your nearest and dearest around you to share a wonderful meal! Best of luck to you in PFB!

  22. Love it...warm and friendly with a great menu, voted :)

  23. Aww it looks good! I enjoyed your post, so none of the twitter sadness. Totally want the recipe for your main course as well. Always looking for one-dish meals.

  24. Looks absolutely delicious! I admire you for putting together a meal like this while moving! Good luck - I voted for you again.

  25. You know you've done well when your guests finish dessert! Now I want goat cheese! Well done.

  26. Back again for another vote! Love it Sara! - megan@foodalution.com

  27. Sometimes less is more, and in this case, it definitely was. Your food looks, wonderful, especially the Pizzoccheri! Good luck in the competition.

  28. Fantastic job, especially in such a tiny space! Voted for you.

  29. Wow...Sara first I have to take my hat for you that you managed to throw a party while moving. I moved from NY to LA last year and only the word " Moving" makes my eyes twitch. LOL
    Everything looks delicious. and Good luck in this round, you sure got my vote.

  30. Guys, I'm amazed by the support I'm receiving. Above all in these crazy days of moving! I will soon post the recipes I used for this post. Stay tuned!

  31. I had never heard of pizzoccheri prior to this post, tt sounds insanely decadent and delicious. I can't wait to see a recipe. Good luck this week, you've got a vote of ours!

    Lick My Spoon

  32. Love it! The pizzoccheri is definitely a new one on me, but given my love of spuds, cheese and chard, I definitely want to try it sometime. And I must say that you have excellent taste in friends, who not only give over their apartment but always supply the wine too. Gotta love that (and gotta vote for it too!)

  33. Your menu looks fantastic, can I come? Good luck in round 3!

  34. Add me to the long list of people who want to try that pizzoccheri! Looks wonderful, Sara. Nice work!

  35. Amazing dinner! The pizzoccheri and tartlets look insanely delicious! Good luck!

  36. It seems like pizzoccheri were a real hit! Ok I promise I will try to find them and make them soon enough after I unpack, with recipe included. And one day I wish I could invite you all to my new home for a pizzoccheri dinner :)

  37. Everything sounds wonderful--yay for your friends letting you use their house:) That buckwheat pasta sounds amazing. You have one of my votes!

  38. Ah! I bought the exact same shelves from Target and had the EXACT same problem! I actually tore up my receipt from Target, rolled it into a few small balls and shoved it in the holes on the back of the shelf. Worked like a charm. Great minds.... :)

    Susan Graham


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