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Harvest Dinner with Friends

Story and recipes by Dewey Kelly * Photos by Paul Yonchek

Republished by permission of Northwest Palate Magazine

In wine country, a harvest dinner is the often-rushed midday meal that marks a break from harvest and crush. My first vineyard harvest "dinner," sometime in the mid-1970s, was a simple meal of sandwiches and 1973 Eyrie Pinot Noir shared with David and Diana Lett at Eyrie Vineyards. It was a welcome pause after a long morning of picking grapes in the rain. More recently, I joined Veronique Drouhin at Domain Drouhin Oregon for a harvest dinner, French style. Chef Anja Spence prepared a sumptuous midday feast of Cornish game hens, wild rice, fall greens, and tarte tatin. Winery staff and an international cast of interns gathered at a long table in the winery's entry hall to share the feast and camaraderie. After a lively, morale-boosting hour, everyone headed back to work, refueled and recharged.

For those who don't own wineries or grow grapes, a harvest dinner is a more general celebration of autumn's abundance. Few regions can boast the variety and quality of ingredients found in the Northwest, from organic produce and herbs to seafood and wild game. And though we take advantage of this bounty every day, we make the harvest dinner a focal point for good food, good friends, and good wine.

An interactive harvest dinner, in which the guests join in preparing the dinner, is a great way to celebrate the season. After all, at many dinner parties, the guests hang out in the kitchen anyway--you might as well put them to work! All you need is a group of adventuresome friends, a menu, and a plan.

The Menu

Your harvest dinner with friends should feature indigenous ingredients at their peak. It should also include recipes that can be prepared up to a point and held to be finished just before serving. Most important, the menu should take into consideration the host's kitchen and the guests' culinary aptitude.

The following menu is designed so that a moderately skilled group of six diners working at a casual pace in a reasonably well-equipped kitchen can make dinner in under two hours. Some preparation can be done in advance.

Crostini Bar
You can set up the crostini bar right in the kitchen to sustain your guests as they prepare the other courses. Serve slices of toasted Italian bread with mix-and-match accompaniments: garlic and white bean spread with roasted vegetables, tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, and sauteed kale with prosciutto. Make the garlic and white bean spread in advance. The rest can easily be assembled in 30 to 45 minutes.

Heirloom Beet Salad
The many varieties of beets available in the fall make this salad both a visual and a culinary treat. The recipe calls for specific varieties, but the salad works with any variety. Pick what looks best. You can steam and marinate the beets in advance to give them time to chill thoroughly.

Rosemary and Apple-Glazed Roast Pork Tenderloin
In this dish, whole pork tenderloins are infused with massive amounts of rosemary before being cut into medallions and grilled. Most of this dish can be prepared before other guests arrive. The final step--grilling the medallions and heating the sauce--takes only about 10 minutes. Remember to preheat the grill before sitting down to dinner!

Fall Harvest Gratin
An update on scalloped potatoes, this dish features Yukon gold potatoes, turnips, and winter squash. It's easy to prepare but does require the longest cooking time of any of the dishes. Make sure to get the gratin in the oven at least 1 hours before dinner time.

Fall Vegetable Medley
Brussels sprout leaves with kohlrabi and carrots star in a vivid stir-fry with all the colors and flavors of fall.

Rum Baba with Flambeed Peaches and Blueberries
Individual yeasted cakes drenched in rum syrup, rum babas make a rich, satisfying backdrop for peaches and blueberries. The babas can be made in advance. The fruit should be flambeed just before serving. Tip: Leftover babas make excellent French toast.

The Plan

To maintain some degree of order, pair your guests into teams and assign a dish to each team. Consider your guests' culinary skills and interests--the best match is when the team finds their contribution to the meal challenging enough to make it interesting, but not so complicated as to seem like work. Be realistic about your kitchen's work areas and the number of cooks who can use them simultaneously. Make note of the sequence of tasks for each course so two teams don't end up needing the oven at the same time. If you lack enough spots for everyone to cook at the same time, consider doing more preparation in advance or having the teams work in shifts.

Assemble the ingredients for each dish in a basket and include the recipe. When the guests arrive, gather everyone (preferably with a glass of sparkling wine) to review the menu plan. Give them their basket of ingredients and recipes, point them to their work area, and let the celebration begin!

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