Planning the Perfect French Dinner

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One of my favorite things to do, not just in summer but in all seasons, is to prepare a French-inspired dinner. This is always a sort-of Mrs. Dalloway endeavor wherein I spend the morning and afternoon collecting the flowers, bread, and ingredients that I will need to make dinner later that evening. 

The French dinner can be as formal as you wish, but in the summer I prefer to stay casual with easy, quick, and rustic meals paired with a fresh baguette and plate of dessert pastries. 

If you have the chance to execute a French dinner this summer, here are a few tips.

Setting the Table

  • Flowers
    The contents of your floral centerpiece will depend on the season. Since this particular dinner was held in the middle of summer, I used a bouquet of mixed flowers including pink roses. Some wonderful variations to try are hydrangeas, carnations, freesia, garden roses, poppies, dahlias, and chamomile daisies. For greens, I like ferns, succulents, and eucalyptus. Cut your stems on the diagonal, then arrange your flowers either in one vase or in an arrangement of smaller bud vases. Vases are the best way to set the tone and theme of your table, whether that should be contemporary, rustic, or minimalist.
     
  • Candles
    Arrange one or many candles in the center of the table. These could be lightly scented, but I prefer to use completely unscented candles to avoid overpowering the food. My suggestion is use to simple, unscented votive candles placed in decorative holders which can add a bit of flair to an otherwise simply decorated table.
     
  • Linens
    For a casual, French dinner I recommend forgoing a tablecloth and simply dressing your table with cloth napkins. Much like vases, napkins will reflect your personal style and the vibe that you are trying to create. For my dinner, I chose a navy buffalo plaid pattern from Williams Sonoma to create a countryside feel. For a classic French look, the easy choice is a French Stripe pattern. If you'd like a more ornate look, try a blue-and-white jacquard. For something subdued, keep things simple with a classic, double hemstitch napkin in your favorite color. To add another level of customization, you could select various styles of napkin rings. For instance, you could add a sleek, copper ring to the buffalo plaid napkins for a modern twist.
     
  • Dinnerware
    When selecting your dinnerware, try to maintain a sense of balance. If you decide upon an ornate set of blue-and-white china, pair it with a simple double hemstitch napkin and serve the food in clean, solid-colored dishes. If you want to accessorize with printed napkins, select a clean, white plate that will highlight the food. If plain white is too boring, consider a white plate with texture. For a classic French look, try a set of blue-trimmed brasserie plates.
     
  • Servingware
    To maintain a laid-back vibe, serve the food directly to the table in the dishes used to prepare them. Ideally, this would result in a table full of Le Creuset if we lived in a perfect world. There is nothing more charming than a dish served in a small, castiron skillet or a tart left in the pan.

Preparing the Meal

  • At the Market
    To make things easier on yourself, select a few items to purchase from the market on the day of your dinner party. A baguette is necessary and I also like to buy a pre-made dessert from the bakery. For my most recent French dinner, we bought a selection of pastries (macarons, tropezienne, flourless chocolate cake, raspberry tart, and a miniature raspberry shortcake) from the bakery at Whole Foods which we then arranged on a simple white plate. In total, the dessert arrangement cost $10.
     
  • Prepare At Home
    Commit to preparing 2-3 dishes at home. This will consist of a main dish, a side, and simple salad. A charcuterie board can serve as a super easy-to-make side dish. To create a simple salad, mix your favorite greens together in a large bowl and top with cherry tomatoes, mixed nuts, and a simple lemon and mustard dressing. Here is the main dish that I prepared for my recent dinner:

Tomato + Cheese Tart
1 cup cheese (can be any combination, but I like parmesan + gruyere, gouda, or goat)
1 sweet red onion
1 pie crust
1.5 cups of cherry or grape tomatoes
3 tbsp butter
Salt + Pepper
Handful of fresh basil

Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees. Melt butter in a skillet over medium-high heat, add thinly sliced sweet red onion. Let the onion caramelize, about 25 minutes. Meanwhile, roll out the pie crust into a shallow tart pan (I highly recommend this one from Gobel Standard). Fill the tart pan with your grated cheese, covering the bottom completely. Add caramelized onions on top of the cheese, then place the tomatoes on top of the onions. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, checking every often to be sure the crust does not burn. Remove from the oven when the crust is golden brown and the tomatoes have begun to burst open, then top with chiffonade basil and serve.

  • Serving the Food
    1. Arrange your baguette on a wooden cutting board, slicing a few pieces off the end. Serve with room temperature, salted butter.
    2. Serve the simple salad in a wooden or porcelain bowl. 
    3. Leave the tart in the pan and bring to the table.
    4. Arrange your desserts on a large plate or a cake stand.
    5. Place the charcuterie within arms reach of each guest.

Curating the Music

Finishing the Night

  • After dinner, move into the living room or backyard for desserts and an aperitif.
  • For a French Kiss, mix a bit of Lillet with perrier, creme de cassis, and a slice of orange.
  • For a summer cocktail, try blending Lillet Blanc with gin, orange juice, basil, and tonic water.