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Bruin Tracks: Dinners for 12 Strangers


Published Jan 1, 2008 8:00 AM

Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty ImagesCopyright ©

Forty years is a birthday many dread. But not Dinners for 12 Strangers, the program that brings alumni, students and faculty together for good food and great conversation that is going into its fifth decade. And the dinners this year should reflect that anniversary, don't you think? So as a special 40th birthday present to the program, Amy Finley '96, host of Food Network's "The Gourmet Next Door," offers tips to help you go from interested bystander to incredible host:

A beautiful dinner party doesn't have to be complicated or require hours spent slaving in the kitchen. I've always appreciated the Parisian approach to entertaining, which puts the host's energies with their guests, rather than fussing over the details of complicated courses. So job one is: Think "buy, make and assemble."

While guests are arriving and mingling, offer finger foods like tapenade or pâté (with little cornichons) on toasts. (College students may not think they like pâté, but wait and see how many disappear. Plus, isn't this evening about broadening horizons?) By all means, make your own spreads if you are so inclined, but don't spurn on principle the delicious offerings available at gourmet markets.

Save your moxie for a main course. Here again, I think the French have something to teach us. Those classic dishes — beef bourguignon, coq au vin — have something (besides prodigious use of red wine) in common: They're made in great quantities, require no side dishes, and bubble away merrily in the oven for hours while the cook attends to other duties (like setting the table or taking a nap).

Concentrate on the Main Attraction

Volunteer as a UCLA Dinners for 12 Strangers host; deadline for host registration is Jan. 18. For information, call (310) 206-0523 or e-mail

Every culinary tradition has its unattended-slow-cook miracles. Even humble pot roast fits the bill, and can be made highbrow with some inventive vegetable swapping (think parsnips for carrots, Jerusalem artichokes for potatoes, and maybe tiny pearl onions or cloves of roasted garlic, another slow-cook knockout). The point is to serve something prepared with care, but not something that finds you, at the last moment, swearing over a broken sauce.

Serve salad after the main course to break with tradition and introduce an element of Continental flair, and match it with a cheese course. Again, the gourmet market is your friend, as is the phrase "something goat, something ewe, something cow, and something blue" when determining what a good mix for the plate would be.

Timing is Everything

Some sliced apples sautéed with sugar, butter and a splash of brandy gets you halfway to a tart: Lay those lovelies on a sheet of (thawed) puff pastry (rolled out slightly) and fold the edges up over the fruit, and you're there. Voila!

Dinner is served. Pass the conversation.