To celebrate Jessica’s birthday last December, I wanted to do two things: (1) take her to an indulgent D.C. dinner and (2) host a dinner party with her, in honor of her. For the first, we went to Zaytinya and had as much mezze as our hearts desired. I really liked Zaytinya when I first moved to D.C., but I sort of forgot about it as the city’s restaurant scene expanded over the past few years. Last spring, I had brunch there and was floored by how good it still is. I left the table stuffed, yet wanting to sit right back down and eat it all again. When it came time to pick a winner for Jessica’s birthday feast, Zaytinya came to mind. And it delivered, both on the standards (e.g., those puffy pitas and taramosalata) and the not-so-standards (e.g., the sausage and egg flatbread).
The next day, we threw a casual dinner party for five. Our menu came together over the previous couple of days via e-mail, text, and finally, some in-person perusal of cookbooks. I don’t remember saying, “let’s choose all Ina Garten recipes so that we know the food will be easy and delicious,” but it was apparent from the early planning stages that Ina would be guiding us through this dinner party. Jessica nominated Ina’s mushroom lasagna, I proposed Ina’s puff pastry mustard and gruyère batons as an app, and Jessica suggested Ina’s roasted butternut squash salad to round it all out. Sounded like a foolproof, back to basics at home meal if I ever heard of one.
I approached the day like I thought Ina would: we shopped that morning for the ingredients, bought fresh flowers,
wore button-down shirts, and wrote a timeline that would take us from prep to dinner. The funny thing about a timeline is that we kinda had to wait around to get started. We were excited and wanted to get going, but played it cool and tried to relax until the schedule told us we should start. Eventually, we just couldn’t wait any longer, so we got a jump on the prep. The batons and lasagna could be assembled in advance and the components of the salad could be prepped. Our impatience turned out to be a lifesaver because somewhere along the way—maybe waiting for the butter to brown for the béchamel, or maybe waiting for the lasagna noodles to cook—we lost a chunk of time. Suddenly, we looked at the clock and realized we’d lost like 45 minutes and our two friends were scheduled to arrive very soon. We laughed, confused by how we lost our safety cushion, but proceeded to pour béchamel, scatter mushrooms, and sprinkle parmesan at lightning pace. Luckily, our guests rolled up a half hour late and were none the wiser.
Unsurprisingly, everything was delicious. The standouts were the mustard and gruyère batons. All we did was spread dijon on puff pastry, folded it over, topped it with parm, gruyère and some flaky sea salt, cut it into batons and baked it. This is the kind of recipe that makes you feel like a real baller in the kitchen. It’s simple, French, and insanely good. Each bite goes something like this: crunchy-salty-cheesy, followed by soft buttery flakes, followed by tangy creaminess. The dijon loses its bite in the oven, so the puffs don’t give you any fiery nose-burn (I think Ed was a little disappointed by that). If you really like that sensation, English mustard might be a good choice, as it’s typically hotter than dijon. I recommend letting these get nicely browned before you pull them from the oven. I was SO excited when I saw how puffy they got that I pulled them just a moment or two too soon. As a result, they collapsed a tad as they cooled and the flakes weren’t as perfectly crispy as I would have liked. I’m being neurotic here, though. They were to die for.
The lasagna was also really good. Jessica spotted that Smitten riffed on this dish by adding garlic to the milk and browning the butter for the béchamel. We added those steps, too, and they were well worth it. Ed, Jessica, and I thought this lasagna was very tasty and judging by our friends’ clean plates, they thought it was good, too. This is a solid choice for a vegetarian main, but I am mentally filing it in the “great but not outstanding” category. If I had to choose between the turkey-goat cheese lasagna and this one, I’m going turkey.
The roasted butternut squash salad with warm cider vinaigrette was a nice accompaniment. We roasted little cubes of butternut squash with cranberries and walnuts, then tossed them with baby arugula in a vinaigrette made of reduced cider, maple syrup, cider vinegar, and the other usual suspects (shallots, dijon, olive oil). The flavors and textures were great, but I felt that the dressing needed another hit of acid. Next time I will probably increase the vinegar and squeeze some lemon juice over the finished salad.
For dessert, our friend Sarah brought a gorgeous vanilla layer cake with lemon curd filling and chocolate icing. She topped it with candied meyer lemon peel, which I could have nibbled on for days.
Normally, I would never host a dinner party with all new-to-me dishes, but I have such faith in Ina’s recipes that I wasn’t even a little nervous about whether we’d have success. I’m so glad everything turned out flawlessly, as Jessica deserves nothing less.
Here are links to the recipes we used: