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How to Host an Effortless Gathering

Lauren Lane's Tips for Making Memories Around the Table

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Photography by Janie Jones

Originally published in Lee's Summit Lifestyle

Food fosters connection. Lauren Lane, a Johnson County culinary guru, has a passion for teaching others to cook and to connect by entertaining and sharing a meal with one another. Through her classes and online blog, she encourages friends and strangers to cook more often, entertain more easily and create memorable moments around the dinner table. "I love to make things look beautiful but unveil how simple it can be," Lane explains. 

Lauren's Tips for Hosting an Effortless Gathering 

  • Cook seasonally—it ensures the ingredients you use are in their prime.  

  • Choose recipes that can be made in advance.  In my recipe development, I share just how much can be made in advance. 

  • Not everything needs to be made from scratch. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many dishes.  

  • If you don’t bake like me, buy your desserts and put them on a pretty platter.  Sometimes I sprinkle with confectioner sugar to make them look extra special.

  • Have a glass of wine or a signature cocktail that you offer to everyone who enters your home.  

  • Create a mood by turning on music, turning down the lights and lighting candles.

Lauren's Tips for Creating an Easy and Beautiful Tablescape

  • It's always a great idea to bring the outdoors in to your table, and it often can be found in your own yard. Use greenery from your yard, branches from your trees, flowers or pine cones.

  • Use fruit as table decor because it can be so beautiful, and it can also be used after the event to make pies or smoothies.

  • Votive candles create a nice ambiance especially when cozied up in the greenery. 

  • Cloth napkins always make the table special. (If you don’t want to iron them, just tie a little twine around them and no one will notice.)

Caramelized Onion Tart

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (Cervasi recommended)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 medium onions, sliced very thin
  • Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • 4 thyme sprigs, plus more for garnish
  • 1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed in refrigerator

Method

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat until melted and sizzling. Add onions and sprinkle generously with Kosher salt and pepper. Stir to coat onions with the butter and oil. Turn heat to low and cook onions for up to 40 minutes, stirring frequently. The onions will be soft, browned in places and taste almost sweet when finished caramelizing.

On parchment paper, roll the puff pastry into a rectangle, roughly 10 by 16 inches. Place puff pastry on baking sheet. Top pastry evenly with onions, leaving a 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle with thyme. Sprinkle bacon or cheese, if desired. (See tips section). 

Bake on middle rack until crust is golden, about 25-30 minutes or until edges are browned. 

Let the tart cool for 10 minutes. Cut into rectangles. Serve warm or at room temperature. 

Lauren’s Quick Tips

  • Add dollops of blue cheese or goat cheese for a variation.
  • Add cooked bacon or pancetta on top.
  • Top the cooked tart with baby arugula and sprinkle with olive oil and Kosher salt. 
  • When a recipe calls for butter, you can use salted or unsalted butter. I personally always use salted butter.

Fall Sangria

Serves: 4

Ingredients

  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 sliced oranges
  • 1 sliced apple
  • 1 bottle (750 ml.) dry red wine
  • 1 cup cranberry juice
  • 1 cup apple cider
  • ¼ cup orange liqueur
  • ¼ cup brandy
  • Club soda 

Method

Add cinnamon sticks, apple and orange slices to the bottom of a large pitcher. Pour in wine, cranberry juice, apple cider and orange liqueur. 

Stir to mix. Place pitcher in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to one day. 

To serve, pour Sangria over ice in glasses. Spoon some of the fruit in each glass. Top each glass with a spritz of club soda. 

Lauren’s Quick Tips

  • Make this the day before and add club soda before serving.
     
  • Change up the fruit for a variation. Plums, pears and berries are all good choices.
     
  • If you don’t have brandy—don’t sweat it—it will still be delish.
     
  • Use inexpensive Pinot Noir (lighter) or Cabernet Sauvignon for this red fall sangria.
     
  • If you’d like to garnish the glasses, use a sprig of rosemary, or an orange slice.

Rigatoni with Butternut, Sage Béchamel

Ingredients

  • Roasted Butternut
  • 4 cups peeled butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 1 medium squash)
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt 

Bechamel Sauce

  • 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter 
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups whole milk, room temperature if possible
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Pinch fresh nutmeg
  • 6 fresh sage leaves (or more to taste), chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cup fontina, grated
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1 pound dry rigatoni (Cervasi recommended)

Method

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

On a baking sheet, toss together butternut squash, olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt. Transfer to oven and roast for 20 minutes, then stir and roast for another 20 minutes.

In a 2-quart saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and garlic and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Always stirring, gradually add milk a little at a time, and continue to whisk until sauce is smooth and creamy. Simmer until tiny bubbles start to form around the edges. (Watch carefully as it may boil over if it comes to a rapid boil.) Sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Turn off heat and stir in fontina, nutmeg and sage.

In a large pot, bring to a boil 6 quarts of salted water. Add rigatoni and cook for about 5-7 minutes. Because pasta will cook a second time in the oven, make sure the inside is still a bit hard (al dente). Drain in colander. Return pasta to pot and pour in bechamel sauce and add butternut squash. Using a wooden spoon, mix well until all pasta is coated with sauce. Top with grated parmesan.

Pour into a greased 13 by 9-inch baking dish. At this point you can cover and refrigerate it for a few hours.

When ready to serve, preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Take out the baking dish with pasta, and let it come to room temperature.

Bake uncovered for 45 minutes or until the top has bubbled up and browned a bit. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. Top with pine nuts and fried sage. Bake uncovered for 30-45 minutes or until top has melted and browned a bit. All ovens are different so look for the melty goodness on top. Check to be sure it’s warmed through. 

Remove from oven and serve. 

Lauren’s Quick Tips

  • Whole butternut squash has a better taste and texture then frozen precut butternut squash.
     
  • To make whole butternut easy to peel, place the entire butternut into the microwave and microwave for 3 1/2 minutes. When it cools enough to handle, easily peel and cube the squash.
     
  • Garnish with fried sage leaves and toasted pine nuts to make it fancy for entertaining.
     
  • For more of my easy entertaining ideas, make-ahead recipes and inspiration, follow Lauren Lane at:

Follow Lauren Lane: Lauren Lane Culinarian | @lauren_lane_culinarian | Pinterest | Facebook

Sign up for her free blog and receive a guide on how to build a beautiful cheese platter (antipasti board) and for more entertaining tips and recipes. 

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