Carol H’s Review: FOOD + LOVE + LAUGHTER. Could anything more be possibly added to this already perfect equation? Wait. Yes! ***WINE*** NOW…you are cooking with fire, girlfriend! You are cordially invited to belly up to the table for a fresh helping of Ethel’s exploits in the kitchen.
Some say love is the first ingredient that gives a meal its substance. I say it’s panic. My family qualify as test kitchen volunteer tasters, but I view my guests as Bon Appetit critics; therefore, everything must be perfect for them. That’s how much I want my dinner party to succeed. And for this, I must be able to think on my feet.
Friends and family come by for a nice meal and to enjoy the company. The most ardent critic in attendance is me. I am the only one who knows how many days of planning it took, how long I stood in my kitchen sautéing and swearing, which ingredients I forgot to buy, how close it came to disaster. These fine points of culinary creativity are never divulged. Only I know what a tightrope I travel toward delivering something edible. Surprisingly, I call it fun.
I have been to very few dinner parties because most people I know don’t host them. Many people I know don’t even want to cook for themselves. That’s what the rotisserie chicken at Kroger is for, so I’ve heard. That’s what Chinese takeout is for. But cooking is becoming more popular. Now it comes in kits that have preselected ingredients and good instructions. This is a grand way for your kindergartner to learn how to use a stove, but it’s time to grow up and enjoy the pain and panic of doing it all yourself. Cooking together with friends, though, takes some of the agony out of the process.
Lesson 1: It will never be perfect.
Lesson 2: Buy wine.
Cooking an elegant meal for eight people by yourself can be daunting. Cooking for fifteen deserves a medal. I have never let this knowledge intimidate me. It’s all a grand experiment which sometimes works out and sometimes ends with sending your husband to the Indian restaurant down the street for saag paneer to supplement the surviving components of your exotic meal. For this reason, I like living near a good restaurant and/or all-night grocery store. It’s also handy to know which stores/restaurants are open on Christmas day. I never try to pass off someone else’s cooking as mine. I own up.
I once hosted a cooperative cooking night for ten. For this style of entertaining, I usually chose one part of the group-made meal for an experienced home cook to teach to the rest of us, then made a few side dishes on my own to balance out the table. Our guest “chef,” who was to teach us how to make paneer, texted me in the late afternoon to say his mom was in the hospital. Since I had no idea how to make paneer, I quickly scanned my two Indian cookbooks to see if I could pull it off on my own.
After reading a couple of recipes, I wondered what our instructor’s plan had been since it seemed like an easy though time-consuming process. I called my husband at work to ask if he would stop at that wonderful Indian restaurant three blocks from the house to pick up some paneer on his way home. I became the expert for that evening in making naan, an Indian bread, which we whipped up and cooked on my pizza stone. When I say I became the expert, I mean I read the recipe and had used the stone before, so figured it was a reasonable risk to try whipping it up together. It was.
The planning is harder than the actual cooking. I cook only vegetarian meals. If this friend or that relative requires meat at every meal, I must decide what to cook in order to pacify the meat-eater without having to buy dead animal parts. Then there is the task of buying enough, having plenty—the too-much-is-better-than-too-little dilemma. Buy as much as will fit into your grocery cart. As the cooking proceeds, some ingredients may never make it to your table, but at least there they are, tucked away in your fridge, waiting to be pressed into service.
We hosted our first backyard cookout at our new house this past July 4. We invited lots of people, so gauging an adequate supply of dishes to serve was more difficult than when I know the exact number of people to expect. I was prepared for the whole of Asheville to show up. Thankfully a smaller number appeared at my door. We cooked outside, but, due to the temperature and chances of rain, ate inside our little mountain casita. It’s always difficult to plan what to serve the multitudes. Making numerous simple dishes is my best strategy for those parties where nobody will be sitting at the table, but balancing plates in their laps and glasses on the closest flat surface. To avoid the sin of not enough, I bought out the local grocery store and then sent my husband to another store for a few extra things. People usually like to bring a contribution to the cause, so there is usually more food than necessary. Happily, there were plenty of leftovers on the 4th for people to take home. We never touched the watermelon, so we gave half of it to the kids next door. We kept the leftover ice cream.
Then there are the picky eaters on your guest list. These are not always children. Aunt Mildred hates spinach. Cousin Kristen is currently gluten-free. Uncle Jack can’t understand why there is no turkey. It’s Thanksgiving for Christ’s sake! When your Catholic stepmother says, “What’s a latke?” I think that she’s fair game for a little lecture about cultural diversity and an extra helping of potato pancakes. In these instances, my strategy is to pour more wine…for myself. Allow the food to win them over.
There are dinner parties for inviting family and there are those where you carefully plan the perfect guest list. Four or five guests is an intimate gathering. Six makes the perfect dinner for eight (if your in-house eaters equal only 2) and they can all fit around your table if you put the extension in. Thirteen is a madhouse unless they are your best buds and are not insulted if you ask them to contribute even though you may be cooking for three days preceding the event and will still be cleaning up the day after the event because you ate two pieces of cheese cake and someone convinced you to try the pumpkin pie shots, so need to crash after getting the leftovers (if any) into the refrigerator.
Your first dinner event will be memorable. Mine was a disaster. I cooked for my first boyfriend at his college apartment in Austin. I decided to make lasagna, a dish I had learned from my best friend. Other than the usual stove/oven, my boyfriend’s kitchen was not well equipped for cooking. I brought my own lasagna pan and a few essential utensils. He did not have a colander. No problem for this cooking queen! I simply held the pot lid over the pot as I drained the noodles over the sink and watched in horror as they slid from the pot into the garbage disposal! Slippery devils. Slices of bread, topped with sauce and cheese, make lovely little pizzas. Rescued! Food sometimes just serves as fuel for the next activity anyhow.
Which reminds me of the time I was roughing it in New Mexico with a couple of Sierra Club gals, making pasta in the outdoor cooking area for the group-training attendees. No colander, again. (People, a colander is ESSENTIAL!) Remembering the lost lasagna noodles, we used a clean grocery bag through which we had poked a few holes. Now if you are smart, you may guess that our noodles ended up in the dirt, as pouring boiling water into a plastic grocery bag will melt it quicker than tossing it into a bonfire. Live. Learn. Cook on.
Don’t be intimidated. Julia Child said never apologize for your cooking snafus. Your guests, after all, sat back and allowed you to give it a go. Improvise, substitute, laugh. After the panic, serve it up with panache and never look back. Now go buy a colander. And plenty of wine.
Guest Editor Carol H is a member of the recently formed Asheville Women Writer’s Cooperative. She should be a professional editor or some kind of royalty. I couldn’t do this without her.