Need to tell you all how the meal turned out. I shared all of your ideas with my friend, the hostess, and then left on a four day trip to her house via Oregon and the California coast. During that time, she decided what the final dishes would be. Her decisions are largely influenced by her notion of what's appealing (she's very Asian, and they NEVER eat out) coupled with the extreme logistic issues of her kitchen which is just about the worst I've ever cooked in. For one, it's small with very little counter space and really terrible appliances. Circa 1980, some of the electric stove's burners barely work, and the oven is so small that a standard cookie sheet doesn't fit in it. She'd kill to replace both but her frugal partner won't allow it. And secondly, my friend is a bit of a hoarder so every free inch that does exist is already spoken for with stuff that never gets weeded out. That applies to the contents of the fridge and the freezer too, so once food is prepped or made up there isn't a place for it to go back to until it's time for the final baking/grilling/what have you. One has to storage, food safety, and the physical limits of what two cooks can do in an inadequate kitchen in the hours just before guests arrive, which adds layers of difficulty to what is already a complex meal: appetizers, dessert, and three sit-down courses.
By the time I showed up, in honor of Oscars weekend she had decided on two Wolfgang Puck recipes, one for short ribs and one for chicken pot pie, some apple dumplings from the country magazine of America's Test Kitchen, and a salad that I had suggested.
In fact, while I was travelling she'd made the short ribs, with so-so results. That is, she'd bought a combination of standard bone-in short ribs supplemented with "boneless short ribs" and discovered, in cooking both, the awful truth that boneless so-called short ribs are not the same supple meat by a long shot. They would not be good enough to serve, and we didn't have enough of the other nor time to cook more, and the sauce was not at all bad tasting but at the same time just a foundation, nothing refined enough to serve. My job was to save it. So I cut all the short rib meat away from the bone and thick membrane which made enough for 12 small portions that we could roast in the toaster oven for service, strained the solids out of the broth, reduced it, and combined it with some reduced syrah and instant coffee to make a "coffee gravy", as we called it. I made some wild rice cakes to serve this on and blanched and roasted some broccolini "because a midwestern meal is incomplete without a long-cooked vegetable) for a garnish. Good dish, good save. (The boneless short ribs got shredded and combined with roasted pasilla chiles for a fantastic huevos rancheros breakfast a day later.)
The Wolfgang Puck chicken pie, which we made into 12 small pies in ramekins, was outstanding. We followed the recipe pretty exactly but used fresh shitake mushrooms instead of crimini or white (I was wary about extra liquids from the latter) and jazzed the sauce up with a lot of fresh tarragon. The crusts on a few got too dark, but that's because the oven was too small to bake 12 small ramekins in one layer, so some were just too close to the top element for too long. If there had been leftovers, one of these is what I'd have wanted for breakfast the next morning.
The apple dumplings, in which apples peeled and halved horizontally are stuffed with butter, sugar and raisins and wrapped in dough were also outstanding. Each made a great small individual pie and were well-matched with the two vintages of Sauternes my friends served.
The salad course I blew, big time. I had thought we were going to pair that with a smoked turkey hash, (John was going to smoke the turkey breast before we arrived) but that didn't happen, so I suggested we add bacon to the salad to represent the smoked meat and pork elements, and pair the salad with souffle-like johnny cakes baked in a muffin tin. But we got behind with the other stuff and I didn't read the recipe I found that morning (in Saveur magazine) carefully enough, as about 15 minutes before the first guest was going to ring the doorbell I discovered 1) that it called for 15 minutes of aeration-purposed beating with a stand mixer and 2) Annabelle doesn't even own a mechanical mixer. (She'd like one, but has no room for it.) We just had to let that go and serve the salad alone and looking rather stranded on the plate.
Also, she hadn't planned any appetizers, just said "you'll think of something". So I made a duxelle out of the crimini mushrooms that didn't go into the chicken pies and mixed it with grated Jarlsberg cheese, and separately made a remoulade out of frozen langoustines and my friend's homemade pickled horseradish. Those went on toasted squares of white bread--a fond jab at the piles of white sandwich bread that were once a mainstay of a typical midwestern dinner.
Anyway, so there you have the meal. Thanks everybody for your input!
My wine shopping and I have never had a problem. Just a perpetual race between the bankruptcy court and Hell.--Rogov