Great Gatherings

Entertaining like the pros is easier than you think.

Keep it simple. It’s one of the best-kept dinner-party secrets—and also the most obvious. So why is it that so many of us do exactly the opposite, tackling new recipes with expensive ingredients and complicated techniques that aren’t in our everyday repertoire? When we made house calls to four of the area’s most respected chefs, we found that their philosophies on home entertaining were remarkably similar: Keep the numbers at 20 or fewer, avoid new recipes, try not to complicate things with too many dishes, expand your menu beyond foods that can only be served hot, and don’t be afraid to ask your friends to bring an appetizer or dessert. And their advice to guests? Bring your appetite.

Chef John Brandt-Lee

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Chef Bruce Cooper
Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar

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Chef Aimee Olexy
Talula’s Table

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Chef Patrick Feury

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- Partner Content -

Local Resources

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Summer Recipes from the Chefs

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Avalon chef/owner John Brandt-Lee's daughter Ava watches as Dad dresses up a tempting display with microgreens.When entertaining at home, Avalon’s John Brandt-Lee likes to relax, trading elaborate sit-down feasts for vast appetizer spreads. A typical party might include cheese and salumi platters with local artisan cheeses, fig jam, balsamic cipollini onions, truffle honey, and cold fish salads like calamari with Kalamata olives, scallop ceviche, baby Spanish octopus and potatoes, and preserved tuna with roasted tomatoes and red peppers. “These foods work for large or intimate crowds,” says Brandt-Lee.

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Other standbys include thick, grilled Italian bread with ricotta cheese and eggplant caponata; hummus with toast points using seeded bread from Sarcone’s Deli; and grilled vegetables with a balsamic agrodolce and fresh mint. And no dinner party at the Brandt-Lee home would be complete without a seasonal martini or a glass of his favorite wine, Affentaler Riesling. “The advantage of doing hors d’oeuvres and then sitting down for a small, simple dinner is two-fold,” says Brandt-Lee. “For one, you wow guests with a lot of creativity and choices. And two, everything can be prepared ahead so you get a chance to enjoy your party, as well.”

Whether it’s a formal family gathering with traditional Italian pastas, or a laid-back meal of grilled steaks, tossed salad and seasonal heirloom tomatoes, his wife, Marissa, always sets the scene, filling the dining room table with her china. And though he’s not as enamored of formal tableware and serving pieces as his spouse is, Brandt-Lee has accrued a collection of cutting boards and long, thin plates to serve as “canvases, where the food you arrange can become the paint for creating unique pictures to cover your table.”

Brandt-Lee advocates Wegmans’ astonishing array of cheeses, as well as its olive bar, antipasti selections and containers of pre-washed and -cut crudité. His secret weapon for adding flavor to his chicken paillard and grilled fish: Agrumato, a lemon-infused olive oil from Tuscany, brought in just for him at Carlino’s in West Chester. “The flavor is unbeatable,” he says. “They stone-ground the olives and organic lemons together.”

Other specialty items on Brandt-Lee’s grocery list include Mirai sweet corn and heirloom tomatoes from Pete’s Produce in West Chester, and fresh pasta sheets and traditional Italian meats from Talluto’s in Philadelphia. He gets all of his meats from Esposito’s Porchetta in Philly, his local fish from Viking Village in Barnegat Light, N.J., and his herbs from Cross Creek Farm in Glen Rock.

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For Jake’s owner Bruce Cooper, there’s no better place to entertain than the kitchen.When Bruce Cooper says his favorite restaurant is home, he’s not claiming to be the best cook in town. It’s just that, as a busy restaurateur, going out is the last thing on his mind. Playing in his own kitchen—possibly with leftover ingredients from his two successful Manayunk ventures, Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar—is how he unwinds. And he likes to do that in the company of his wine and foodie peers.

More health-conscious than most, Cooper is adamant about not overdoing the food. If he’s hosting a sit-down dinner, he keeps appetizers to a minimum, generally opting for one or two small plates of finger foods or cheeses that often become part of the main meal. And he doesn’t stray far from the action in the kitchen. “I hate even walking into the living room,” he admits.

Cooper is a list fanatic. It keeps him organized and allows him to prep hours ahead of time, so that when his guests arrive, he’s relaxed and ready to enjoy the evening. For entertaining on a larger scale, Cooper suggests getting help with the bar or offering just one specialty cocktail before moving to wine with the meal.

Everything is laid out on Cooper’s sizable kitchen counter, so there’s no going back and forth from room to room. Cooper avoids too many heavy, high-carb dishes to make room for all of that great wine he and his buddies like to share and comment on. He prefers lots of warm or chilled greens tossed with light, herb- and garlic-infused vinaigrettes.

Cooper’s favorite resources are the Ardmore Farmers Market and his own restaurants. He favors soup (“It’s do-ahead, so it makes the meal easier to pull off,” he says), mini-crabcakes (“People never get tired of them”) and grilled shrimp salad (“It feels luxurious, feeds a crowd and is simple to prepare”). For dessert, he’ll typically go with sautéed seasonal fruit served warm in simple syrup (“It’s like pie without the shell”) or strawberry shortcake—he makes the biscuits from scratch.

Another piece of advice Cooper is more than happy to share: Get your roast done early. “I see people waiting for them to finish all the time,” he says. “It can be room temperature, though—so there’s no reason to push it to the last minute. It’s the sauce that should be hot; the meat doesn’t have to be.”

Roast or not, Cooper urges anyone who actually wants to enjoy their dinner party to follow this five-P mantra: Proper planning prevents poor performance. “Make your lists. Get your shopping done. Prep your table and service pieces the night before,” he says. “And stick with tried-and-true dishes that won’t leave you frantic at the last minute—or asking your guests, ‘Did it come out OK? Do you like it?’”

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Talula’s Table owner Aimee OlexyFor Aimee Olexy, everything begins and ends with locally grown ingredients. At her nationally acclaimed Kennett Square gourmet market and restaurant, Talula’s Table, she treats customers exactly as she would dinner guests in her home. When this single mother of an active 4-year-old does have a chance to entertain on her own, it’s all about easy preparation and cleanup.

A recent gathering centered on one of her favorites, steamed mussels. This particular batch came from Delaware and proved sizable, sweet and succulent. To her surprise, guests went through several enormous pots, the contents seasoned with fresh herbs from the raised-bed gardens where she and daughter Annalee love to play. Décor accents generally begin with locally grown flowers from the Kennett Square Farmers Market, plus unique serving pieces that aren’t too precious to be used outdoors.

With Olexy’s love of cheese, guests can always count on getting a year’s supply of calcium before heading home. At her most recent event, it was a massive clothbound wheel of Vermont Cabot cheddar from Cellars at Jasper Hill, a Vermont artisan cheese partnership. Various white wines were chosen for their crisp, light, fruity flavor profiles. Other options included a selection of Vermont ciders (a gluten-free alternative), and Ketel One vodka with Stirrings all-natural tonic water and thick lemon slices.

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Entertaining at home is a family affair for Nectar’s Patrick Feury.Many chefs will say they don’t cook at home—or even fess up to eating really odd things when they do. Not Patrick Feury. This one-man show is never without a running guest list, whether it’s several kid-toting families, couples taking a break from their little ones, or an impromptu gathering of his culinary peers.

On the rare occasion that his parties aren’t last-minute, Nectar’s executive chef starts planning a few days in advance, with a list that includes what to shop for, what to ask his gardening friends to bring, and what his wife, Tina, will be making (usually her addictive broccoli rabe). Beyond that, it’s all about dishes that can be enjoyed at room temperature: pork loin with fennel, garlic and onions; strip loin; grilled shrimp; or a hefty salmon filet.

When Feury does turn up the heat, he might opt for thick steaks and short ribs from Pineland Farms in Maine. On occasion, he’ll throw in a homemade sausage (like a recent blend of scallops and tea-smoked shrimp), chicken liver or other pâtés, and made-from-scratch bread.

Feury favors grilling over roasting because it’s interactive and gets people outside and away from the kitchen. And he doesn’t fret over a messy kitchen, often serving right from the pots rather than worrying about the dishes. He suggests simple salads like mixed beans in a vinaigrette; haricots verts with lemon, olive oil and fresh herbs; and, in late summer, a colorful mix of heirloom tomatoes from his garden.

Dinner-party décor leans toward the shabby chic, with bright yellow and blue linens, cottage-garden-style flowers, whimsical wine openers, glass charms (so guests can keep track of what their drinking out of) and plain white china. The one detail he insists on, though, is the right glass for each beverage. And if one gets broken, not to worry. Feury never wants friends to feel like they’re unworthy of good glassware. And he’s an avid shopper, always restocking his cabinets with interesting glasses wherever he can find them.

Music is always in the background, too—usually something light and upbeat. “I don’t want to dictate the mood,” he says. “Atmosphere is created by the conversations guests inspire.”

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Local Resources*

Ardmore Farmers Market: Suburban Square, Ardmore,

Avalon: 312 S. High St., West Chester; (610) 436-4100,

Esposito’s Porchetta: 1627 S. 10th St., Philadelphia; (215) 271-8418,

Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar: 4365-67 Main St., Manayunk; (215) 483-0444,

Kennett Square Farmers Market: State and Union streets, Kennett Square,

Nectar: 1091 E. Lancaster Ave., Berwyn; (610) 725-9000,

Pete’s Produce Farm: 1225 E. Street Road, West Chester; (610) 399-3711,

Sarcone’s Deli: 734 S. Ninth St., Philadelphia; (215) 922-1717,

Talula’s Table: 102 W. State St., Kennett Square; (610) 444-8255,

Talluto’s Authentic Italian Food: Various locations,

Wegmans: Various locations,

Farther Afield

Cellars at Jasper Hill: 148 Town Highway 41, Greensboro, Vt.; (802) 533-2566,

Cross Creek Farm: 3921 Krebs Road, Glen Rock; (717) 235-4702,

Pineland Farms: 15 Farm View Drive, New Gloucester, Maine; (207) 688-4539,

Cassidy’s Viking Village Fish Market: 1501 Bayview Ave., Barnegat Light, N.J., (609) 494-8140

* Chefs’ restaurants in italics.

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Wild Mushroom Soup
By Chef Patrick Feury of Nectar

Mushroom Stock – Yields 1 quart
• 1 cup button mushrooms
• 1 tsp. thyme (no stems)
• 1 tbsp. lemongrass, sliced thin
• 1 tsp. ginger, chopped
• 1 tsp. mushroom soy sauce
• 1 1/2 quart chicken stock (or water for vegetarian soup)

1. Place the button mushrooms, soy sauce and chicken stock in a pot, and bring to a boil.
2. Simmer the liquid for a half-hour.
3. Add the remaining ingredients, and cook for a half-hour more.
4. Remove from heat and strain through a china cap, retaining the solids and liquids for the soup.

Soup – Yields four 6-ounce portions
• 1 quart mushroom stock
• 4 ounces shiitake mushrooms
• 4 ounces button mushrooms
• 1 ounce frozen porcinis or dried
• 3 ounces shallots
• 2 ounces celery
• 1 leek, just white
• 3 ounces soy bean oil
• 1 ounce extra virgin olive oil

1. Sear off the shiitakes in soy bean oil, and butter with the fresh button mushrooms.
2. Add the vegetables and cooked solids, and sweat until the vegetables are translucent.
3. Add the mushroom stock; bring to a simmer for 20 minutes.
4. Puree the soup and pass through a chinois.
5. After in the soup bowl and finish with olive oil, serve.

Seafood Salad with Lemon and Basil Dressing
By Bruce Cooper of Jake’s

Serves 4
• 2 each cooked lobsters, meat removed, tail cut in half
• 8 each cooked 21-25 shrimp, de-veined and tail removed
• 8 ounces jumbo crabmeat, picked clean of shells
• 2 each avocado
• 4 each 3/4-inch slices of large, ripe tomatoes
• 1 cup mayonnaise
• 4 ounces heavy cream, whipped
• 1 each lemon
• 2 tbsps. chiffonade fresh basil
• 8 each cherry tomatoes, cut in half
• 1 cup baby salad greens or baby spinach
• Olive oil, salt and pepper

1. Zest lemon, using a microplane zester, into the mayonnaise. Then add basil, and lightly fold the whipped cream into the mixture. Season with salt and pepper, and adjust with lemon and basil as desired.
2. In a separate bowl, place the cooked seafood and slowly add small amounts of the dressing to the desired consistency. The seafood can be refrigerated for 4 hours at this point.
3. Slice the tomato into half-inch-thick slices and place evenly on a large platter; season with salt and pepper.
4. Remove the skin of the avocado, slice in half, remove the pit, and slice and place on the tomato.
5. Place the halved lobster tails on the avocado, and then the remaining seafood evenly on the lobster. Reserve any excess salad for seconds.
6. Garnish the platter with cherry tomato halves and the remaining dressing as desired.
6. Place the baby greens or baby spinach into a bowl, and season with a touch of olive oil, salt and pepper. Place onto the seafood, and serve.

Grilled Vegetables
By John Brandt-Lee of Avalon Restaurant

• 2 Italian eggplants, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick
• 3 green zucchini, sliced lengthwise 1/4-inch thick
• 3 squash, sliced lengthwise 1/4-inch thick
• 2 medium red onions, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick
• 3 tbsps. extra virgin olive oil
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1/2 cup of six-year balsamic vinegar
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 3 sprigs fresh thyme
• 2 cloves garlic, crushed
• 6 slices thick-crust bread, grilled
• 2 cups ricotta impastata

1. Coat vegetables with oil, salt and pepper. Put on grill (medium to high heat), and cook on each side for 2-3 minutes. The onions and eggplant may take a few minutes longer. Remove from heat.
2. In a small saucepan, combine balsamic vinegar, sugar, garlic and herbs. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Reduce liquid by one-third.
3. Pour liquid over vegetables, and marinate for 24 hours. Serve vegetables at room temperature with grilled, thick-crust bread topped with ricotta impastata.

Tip: Reduce the amount of time you grill the vegetables to 1-2 minutes, and finish by roasting in the oven at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Vegetables will caramelize and be extra sweet.

Crudo Scallop Citron & Shaved Asparagus
By John Brandt-Lee of Avalon Restaurant

Serves 6
• 6 U-10 fresh dry-packed sea scallops
• 3 tbsps. lemon juice
• 3 tbsps. olive oil
• 1 tbsp. champagne vinegar
• 1 small shallot, diced
• 1/8 cup fresh parsley leaves, cut up
• Fresh-cracked pepper
• 4 hearty stalked pieces of asparagus, peeled raw lengthwise
• Maldon Sea Salt
• Lemon-infused olive oil (preferably Agrumato)

1. Slice each scallop into wafer-thin medallions (should yield approximately 3-4 slices per scallop).
2. In a mixing bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, champagne vinegar and shallots. Once emulsified, add parsley, fresh-cracked pepper and scallops. Toss scallops for about two minutes in vinaigrette, and place four pieces of scallops on the center of each plate.
3. Add the peeled asparagus to the mixing bowl, and toss in the remaining vinaigrette. On top of each pile of scallops, place a small bunch of the asparagus. Spoon the remaining vinaigrette over scallops and asparagus. Finish each with some sea salt and a drizzle of lemon olive oil. Serve Immediately.

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