Virtual Dinner Party No. 1 – A Triumph!

Robin BoyleAustralian, Dinner Party, General Interest

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(Update: For VDP No. 2, click here)

Coronavirus Lockdown

With most of us in self-isolation or even total lockdown, a VDP or virtual dinner party is one way to catch up with friends and to continue to test your cooking skills.

We thought we were so clever to come up with the idea: to have an online hookup with friends and share a meal, or a wine tasting, or a glass of sparkling and nibbles over a chat. But others had thought of it before, as I discovered from a quick Google search. (If you think you might give it a try, at the end we give four useful web links that are worth reviewing.)

So we set up our first virtual dinner party over the weekend with two Adelaide friends. They are great cooks and were all for it.

Following is a summary of how the evening panned out, including how we planned it, the menu, the running sheet and recipe notes.

First, a photo taken on the night of the dessert: apple and strawberry crumble.

The Concept

On the Thursday before our catch-up, we decided we would meet online at 7.00 pm Adelaide time on the Saturday night. We would use Zoom for the ‘video conferencing’. The menu was largely determined by what we all had in our fridges and pantries to avoid having to go shopping at such a late stage.

We decided that we would all cook the same dishes using the same recipes and aim to serve them at the same time.  Recipes had to be fairly straightforward without too much late preparation. We had to think about practical issues, for example, did we have enough oven space to start cooking the crumble (which required 35 minutes) while the chicken was finishing off?

We accepted that sometimes during the evening some or all of us would be off the video screens as we attended to the cooking duties. We also decided to serve similar wines.

On the Saturday we took the extra step to make a running sheet in order not to have a complete debacle, for example, with one couple on to dessert while the others were just plating the chicken.

The Menu for Virtual Dinner Party No. 1

Salad of iceberg, avocado, tomato, cucumber and feta

Main Course
Harissa-marinated chicken breasts
Dry roasted sweet potato and roasted slivered almonds
Steamed broccolini
Steamed white rice
Citrus sauce

Apple and strawberry crumble
Yoghurt with a dash of honey and rosewater

An Eden Valley Riesling
A Barossa Valley Red

Running Sheet

While it might seem somewhat prescriptive, the aim was to keep things moving and coordinated.  The times given below are Adelaide time (half an hour behind Melbourne time).

7.00 pm Adelaide time (7.30 pm Melbourne) – Log in via Zoom
7.01 – Raise our glasses. Cheers to us all!
7.05 – Oven on
7.15 – Sweet potato into the oven
7.15 – Serve the salad
7.25 – Chicken into the oven – 20 minutes needed, Rice on
7.35 – Broccolini on for steaming
7.40 – Crumble assembled
7.45 – Chicken, sweet potato, finished and out of the oven
7.45 – Crumble into the oven – 35 minutes needed
7.50 – Serve main course
8.30 – Serve dessert

How it all panned out

At 7.00 pm (Adelaide time) we were all logging onto Zoom. After a few hiccups we were soon seeing each other on our screens.

Yes, we did soon pour ourselves a glass of Eden Valley Riesling. The evening had begun.

Coronavirus (COVID-19) dominated the conversation!

Fifteen minutes had passed when we remembered we had a running sheet.

The salad was served at round 7.30 pm (Adelaide time). In effect it was a Greek-style salad and the Adelaide and Melbourne versions looked remarkably similar!

Our chicken dish was based on Yotam Ottolenghi’s harissa-marinated chicken with red grapefruit salad from his “The Cookbook”. You will find recipes here and here. It is a challenging recipe in some ways. It would be good to have the harissa on hand (excluding the yoghurt): it can be made well ahead of time, days or weeks. Our friends made it from scratch. However, we had some in the fridge made from very similar ingredients (recipe link below), and we topped it up with some homemade sweet chilli jam and some homemade tomato sauce. Chicken breasts (each cut into four thin pieces) were used as none of us had thighs on hand; care was taken not to dry out the breasts during cooking. We omitted the red grapefruit salad because of our salad entree. The sauce made from grapefruit juice was quite delicious with the chicken and accompaniments. We didn’t have any maple syrup for the sauce so we used some dark brown sugar and honey instead. The citrus sauce would work with many other dishes and thus it is a recipe we will keep in mind.

The running sheet was soon way out of whack! We had too much to talk about. And it was amazingly easy, with each couple on their screens but seemingly sitting on the other side of the table! There was nothing “formal” about the meal, as we just ate in our kitchens, as that was where work had to be done. It was 8.30 Adelaide time when we started to eat our chicken! But at least by that time dessert was in the oven. We had had also moved on from the Riesling to the Barossa red!

Unfortunately we were too distracted to take a photo of the main course. However, here is a link (photo below) to our favourite recipe for harissa.

We served dessert 45 minutes later. Soon we will post our method for making crumbles: it is the standby dessert for us, so easy yet so delicious. We use a very simple topping using just flour, sugar and butter, finding it gives as good if not better result than tizzied up toppings made from oats, nuts or whatever. A wide range of fruits – fresh or frozen – can be used as the base, generally with no precooking required. The photo at the end of this post was taken some time ago and is of a crumble of apple, blueberry, strawberry and black currant.

On Saturday we had earlier diced the apples (leaving the skin on) and tossed them in lime juice to maintain colour. Then just before cooking we placed them in the base of the pie dish along with the raw quartered strawberries. We stirred some sugar through, smoothed the crumble mixture over the top, then popped it in a medium oven for 35 minutes. Normally we would serve a crumble with lovely thick cream. However, the cream on the night suggested by our friends was a great substitute: take a creamy yoghurt and add some honey and a dash of rosewater but not too much of either; combine well, taste and add more honey and/or rosewater, or more yoghurt if too strong.

It was not long before the Adelaide clock had ticked around to 10 pm. The running sheet was out by an hour and a half but still very useful in terms of keeping us on our toes about what was coming up.

We found the whole experience was so much fun, so personable, and almost real, as if you could reach out and hug each other (despite social distancing advice). We had so much to talk about, and often the food and wine faded into the background.

The four of us agreed to meet up the same way next Saturday: we have already decided on the menu.

Some Useful Links

Dinner parties go digital during coronavirus outbreak: ‘We lock in every Saturday night’

How To Throw A Virtual Dinner Party

How to have a virtual dinner with friends or loved ones

Here’s How to Have Your Own Virtual Dinner Party During Coronavirus Quarantine

Contributions welcomed!

If you have had your own virtual dinner party or virtual foodie or wine experiences, we are happy to hear about them, including the menu, wines, etc (and good quality photos if you have any) and why it turned out so well.