I’m starting to realize that when it comes to the art of the dinner party, our European friends have got it figured out. In contrast to the harried and high-stress entertaining situations that many of us find ourselves in, where the focus is often more about impressing guests than just enjoying an evening together, gatherings in Italy, Spain, and France seem to be more relaxed. One secret I’ve recently discovered? Guests are often called on to take part in the preparation itself, which not only lightens the load on the host — there’s something about working towards a combined goal that brings everyone together (especially when it’s over a bottle of Chardonnay.)
To kickoff our all-new (and very exciting!) partnership with La Crema Winery, I recently invited a few friends to come over and cook with me. We made a menu inspired by our Tuscany cooking class, then sat down under the olive trees in my backyard to savor it over delicious wine and great conversation. Keep scrolling for the dishes we made, what we poured with them, and a few tips on hosting an interactive cooking party of your own.
*photos by ashleigh amoroso
One of the highlights of our trip to Italy earlier this summer was the cooking class we took with Giuseppina, a born and bred Tuscan woman who truly embraced the idea that dinner parties should be a communal experience – and that the cooking process itself should be as integral to the party as the sitting down and eating together.
When planning how this night should begin, I simply asked myself, “What would Giuseppina do?” and the obvious answer was to set out a variety of delicious cheeses, accoutrements and bottles of wine to sip throughout the preparation. That way I knew that any guests who arrived hangry could be immediately satisfied, and everyone could enjoy the process from start to finish.
La Crema’s Monterey Chardonnay was the perfect choice for drinking throughout the evening, both because it paired well with our menu and I knew all our guests would love it. Lemon, peach, and crisp tangerine notes are complemented by a complex minerality that makes it refreshing and so satisfying on a warm summer evening.
Chanel’s husband Eric joined us on the patio to sip wine and sample cheeses… so we put him to work prepping pizza ingredients.
The menu was inspired by dishes that we tasted throughout our time in Italy. The cheese board was a nod to our epic trip to a cheese farm; fig, caramelized onion, and prosciutto pizza from the cutest pizza restaurant in Tuscany; and pork tenderloin and new potatoes from our cooking class with Giuseppina.
Here are a few of my favorite cheeses that I chose for our appetizer board:
- triple creme brie
- aged cheddar
- herbed goat cheese
It’s always a good idea to select a variety of hard, soft, and creamy cheeses, and I avoided anything overly strong so as not to overpower the delicate flavor of the Chardonnay.
In my book, any season and any occasion is the perfect time for La Crema’s Monterey Chardonnay. Its fresh versatility pairs deliciously with fish, shellfish, cheese, pork, roast chicken – the options seem endless! The balanced flavor of the wine enhanced every dish on our menu.
This pork loin roast was one of my favorite recipes we learned to make on the trip – it’s already become one of our new favorites to make for family gatherings! The little trick that I learned was that after chopping up tons of rosemary and garlic, you actually roll the pork loin like a log in the spice mixture so that it become totally coated and bursting with flavor.
The woodsy scents of fresh rosemary and spicy garlic perfumed the entire kitchen, especially when we popped the pork into the oven.
Chanel sips Chardonnay in between chopping. There’s no doubt that cooking feels less like a chore and more like a party when done with friends.
Along with the Chardonnay, we poured La Crema’s Monterey Pinot Noir and Monterey Pinot Gris, two other favorites that I always keep on hand for impromptu get-togethers.
Grilled pizza is one of my favorite dishes for entertaining, and I believe the secret is all in the dough. It’s a simple recipe (keep reading for the details!) and you’ve got to roll it out super thin so that it chars and bubbles up on the grill for that crispy-on-the-outside and chewy-on-the-inside magic texture.
Aren’t these the most gorgeous heirloom tomatoes? In August and September, I try to use them in as many ways as I can, so that come October when they’re not in season anymore, I’ve had my fill and am (almost) sick of them.
A few keys to pizza grilling success:
- Completely prep all your ingredients and set them next to the grill beforehand, since once the cooking process starts, everything moves very quickly.
- Get the grill as hot as possible — which means preheating it well in advance of when you actually want to cook. You want to create a brick oven type of environment, which means HEAT is they key.
- Always add herbs or fresh greens after the cooking process so they don’t wilt.
I set up this Italian-inspired dinner table amongst the olive trees on my back terrace. It felt like we were right back in the Tuscan hill country!
We found some red and white patterned linens and supplemented with vintage flatware, plus the cutest antique table and wooden chairs from Loot Vintage Rentals for a setting that looked straight out of a classic Italian restaurant.
The other night, I was at dinner with a friend from Spain and was telling him about our interactive cooking party. He told me that where he’s from, in San Sebastián, there are food-centric members-only clubs called txokos where people gather to cook with their friends, eat and socialize late into the night. It’s an important part of Basque culture and a true celebration of family, friends and food traditions.
Though appealing, I have to admit that the idea feels a little foreign to our culture, where convenience and ease are elevated above all else. I wonder how most Americans would react to paying for a dinner out, then being told that they had to prepare the food for themselves? Approaching the cooking process as part of the fun is a completely different approach, and one that I can totally get on board with. Perhaps I need to start a txoko here in Austin?
Carmen and I cheesin’ for the camera.
We threw a second impromptu pizza on the grill, which was a simple take on the classic margherita, topped with sliced heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil.
Chardonnay is loved for its ripe fruit and balanced flavors, but it can get overwhelmed by overly strong or pungent foods. To get the most enjoyment out of the wine, knowing a few do’s and don’t’s of Chardonnay pairings can be super helpful (read on.)
Chardonnay pairing DO’s:
- Serve with mild, simply-flavored dishes.
- Pair with meaty fish and shellfish .
- Pair with simply seasoned poultry and pork dishes.
- Complement the oakiness with foods that have toasty flavors from grilling or smoking.
- Pair with dishes that have a silky texture, such as risottos and creamy soups, sauces and pastas.
Chardonnay pairing DON’T’s:
- Don’t pair with aggressively seasoned food. Avoid chilies and super spicy dishes, such as a lot of Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian fare.
- Don’t pair with bitter foods. Bitter greens and vegetables and spices like turmeric will make the wine taste sour.
- Don’t pair with acidic foods, such as raw tomatoes, olives, capers, ceviche and tangy vinaigrettes and sauces.
- Don’t pair with pungent or high-acid cheeses. Avoid funky, washed-rind cheeses (taleggio, Époisse) and aged goat and sheep’s cheese.
- Don’t serve too cold, which dulls its pairing powers. Remove it from the ice bucket or refrigerator 15 to 20 minutes before pouring, and let it warm up to about 48 degrees.
We raised our glasses to an unforgettable night full of great food and wine that somehow tasted that much better because we prepared the meal together. Salute!
This post was sponsored by La Crema, the perfect pairing for our Italian-inspired dinner party. Stay tuned for so much more wine-pairing inspiration with La Crema’s wines through every season of the year!