Dinner party menu leaves you California dreaming

Among the lovely memories of several visits to Southern California is the annual Sawdust Festival in Laguna Beach.

This is an arty seaside town to begin with, but during that six-week festival they pull out all the stops. Ranging over numerous venues are exhibitions featuring the finest of fine arts and fine crafts.

Then there's something called the Pageant of the Masters, a stage production made up of talented locals portraying various works of art in a number of still-life scenes, accompanied by plenty of sound and light. There's a different theme each year, of course, and tickets to the pageant are extremely hard to come by.

If you're fortunate enough to have relatives in the area, you can hit the July event, then put together a post-festival dinner with a local theme. No worries about the weather, either; one of the many nice things about Southern California is that you can plan a summertime outdoor event a year in advance and be 99.9 percent sure it isn't going to rain or be so hot you can't eat outdoors.

We take our chances here on the Right Coast, but entertaining friends Southern California-style is worth the gamble. For menu planning, you might want to bypass the (popular) Latino influences in that area and turn to Wine Country (Napa/Sonoma) for inspiration. Although that area is about eight hours to the north, the ingredients for your SoCal dinner are readily at hand in Laguna and, thankfully, in Ellicott City as well.

Build your menu for eight around light-ish ingredients, with an eye toward easy. And be sure to incorporate favorite California wines into each course. (We make a few suggestions but basically leave that to you and your local wine purveyor.)

Begin with artichoke bites, and some figs with feta and prosciutto. We like to quaff something bubbly with our appetizers.

For the main course, try grilled salmon with orange-saffron butter, sided by a Mediterranean rice pilaf salad, and an avocado, frisee and radicchio salad with balsamic vinaigrette.

For dessert, we use another ubiquitous summer product and do a make-ahead chocolate-zucchini bread to be served with a favorite gelato.

Have fun!


To quaff: A rose, a sauvignon blanc or a chardonnay.

Feta Stuffed Figs

You can substitute Montrachet (goat) cheese for the feta. We use feta because we have a frequent guest who detests goat cheese. Either way, the sweet figs, the tangy feta, the salty prosciutto, with their varying textures foster a mini-explosion of yumminess in the mouth.

24 large, fresh ripe figs

About 1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese

1/3 to 1/2 pound prosciutto (you don't need much)

Fresh fig leaves or leafy green lettuce leaves, garnish

Trim off stem ends of figs. Slit figs lengthwise (but not all the way through). Stuff figs with cheese crumbles. Cut prosciutto pieces in half lengthwise. Wrap a generous piece of prosciutto around each fig. Secure with toothpicks. Arrange fig leaves or leafy green lettuce on a serving platter. Arrange stuffed figs on top. If not serving right away, cover and chill until appetizer time. Makes 24 stuffed figs, for three per person.

Artichoke Bites

About 14 ounces frozen artichokes, thawed; or 1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts packed in water, dried well and cut into bite-size pieces

1/4 cup minced roasted red peppers, well drained and patted dry if bottled (in water, not oil)

1/3 cup dry white wine (try sauvignon blanc)

1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup plain bread crumbs

About 1/4 cup olive oil

Additional oil, for baking sheet

Small toasted croustades and/or favorite whole wheat crackers, for serving

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

In a bowl, combine wine, artichokes and red peppers. Toss gently. Stir in cheese and bread crumbs. Place oil in shallow dish.

Lightly oil a baking sheet. Form generous teaspoons of the artichoke mixture into small balls. Dip each in oil, then place on cookie sheets about 1 half inch apart. Flatten slightly with a finger. You want to end up with 32 "bites" or at least multiples of 8 (for 8 guests).

Bake for 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Serve immediately with croustade and/or crackers. Makes about 32, or 4 per person.

Grilled saffron salmon

Couldn't be simpler, but the fragrance and flavor of saffron make this main dish a stand-out.

8 (1-inch thick) salmon steaks (East or West Coast)

Vegetable oil, for brushing

Pepper; and salt, if you must

Fresh parsley sprigs, garnish

Orange-saffron butter

1/2 teaspoon lightly crumbled saffron threads

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

5 teaspoons grated orange zest

1 tablespoon finely chopped shallots

Pepper; and salt, if you must

For the orange-saffron butter, place orange juice in a heat-proof glass cup and zap 30 seconds in microwave. Add saffron threads and stir with a fork to dissolve.

In a food processor or blender, pulse-process orange juice-saffron mixture, unsalted butter, orange zest, shallots, and pepper and salt to taste. Remove to a piece of wax paper and use the paper to shape butter/saffron mixture into a log, so you can cut 8 "coins" from it. Cover and chill until serving time.

For the salmon, prepare grill for medium-high cooking. Brush salmon steaks with some oil, add some pepper; and salt, if using. Grill steaks 4 to 5 minutes per side. Remove to a large serving platter. Add a saffron butter coin to each steak. Garnish with parsley. Serve.

Mediterranean rice salad

This cool and colorful make-ahead side dish is lighter than the "usual" cook-out fare featuring potato or pasta salad. If you feel you need more veggies, turn to yet another of our natural wonders — the avocado. Perhaps the ones you use will come from our in-law's avocado ranch, a 40-acre spread near Mount Palomar observatory.

For avocado salad, choose 4 large, perfectly ripe avocados, peel, cut in half lengthwise and gently remove seeds. Spritz with a little lime juice to prevent browning. Arrange on small, chilled plates on a bed of frisee or other favorite spring greens (about 1 cup per serving). Drizzle with a mixture of half olive oil and half best quality balsamic vinegar. Grind some sea salt and fresh pepper over each. (You can make about 1 hour in advance, then chill until serving time.)

Rice salad

This can be served warm or at room temperature as a pilaf or made ahead and chilled to be served as a salad.

1/2 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 celery stalks, chopped

1 cup long-grain white rice

1/2 cup sliced almonds

2 1/2 cups water

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/2 cup raisins

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh mint

1 tablespoon chopped, fresh dill

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Salt, if using

1 cup dry rose wine (not white zinfandel)

Feta cheese crumbles, optional garnish

Dill sprigs and/or mint sprigs, optional garnish

In a large saucepan, over medium-high, heat olive oil. Add onion and celery, and saute until onion is translucent. Add rice and almonds, and cook, stirring constantly, until almonds are lightly browned. Add water, tomato paste, raisins, mint, dill, pepper (and salt) and rose wine. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook 25 to 30 minutes until rice is done. Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed.

To serve, arrange on an attractive platter. If desired, sprinkle on some feta cheese crumbles and add a few dill or mint sprigs. Serve warm or at room temperature. Or cover and chill overnight if you wish.

Chocolate zucchini loaf

Here's another way to use summer's bounty of green squash. For this SoCal feast, we actually add wine to the "bread." You'll probably want to serve this with a favorite ice cream, frozen yogurt or gelato. Add some whipped cream, if you wish. And, perhaps, a drizzle of hot fudge sauce.

One loaf should yield 8 nice slices, but go ahead and make another, so you'll have some to enjoy after the guests have gone home.

1 cup best-quality unsweetened cocoa powder

2 eggs

1/2 cup canola oil

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons poppy seeds

1/2 cup whole milk (or 2 percent)

1 cup shredded (unpeeled) zucchini

1/4 cup (red) zinfandel

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour an 8-by-5-inch loaf pan. In a large bowl, stir all ingredients together well. Pour into prepared pan. Bake in center of oven for 60 to 70 minutes, until a toothpick (or cake tester) comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 15 to 20 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely. Wrap well and refrigerate until about 30 minutes before serving time. Makes 1 loaf.

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