Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Doing Midweek Dinner

The only way to keep in touch with friends here in the Wretched Little City is to pick up the phone while at the office and to nail down a date on our calendars. Dinner at our place. During the week. On a work night. 7PM. “Nope. Just bring your sweet selves.”

Who in his right mind promises such a thing? The shopping, the prep, the cleaning and the rush all conspire to undermine the very reason for such a dinner: to relax with friends. With years of experience under our belts, we know how to manage this.

A) Do not shop on the day of the dinner. Get it all done the day before.

B) Set a menu that can be prepared either the day before or completed with an hour to spare before your friends arrive.

C) Make choices that keep mess to a minimum. Guests feel guilty if they see your kitchen piled to the ceiling with pots and pans that they know will keep you up after midnight.

D) Make the evening look effortless to your friends. Watching you knock yourself out will not relax them.

Here’s an example. Something we threw together earlier this month for Dan and Jim whom we had not seen since January and who had pictures of their vacation in Costa Rica to share.

I divided the shopping tasks with C:

San Pelligrino bottled water
Three types of cheese (one strong, one mild, one triple crème Brie) An assortment of crackers.
Wine. A white and a red (whatever catches your educated eye).
A chewy aromatic loaf of bread.
Packaged stir fry cut boneless/skinless chicken strips.
Packaged sir fry vegetables.
Components for dessert.
Freshly ground decaf espresso

We set the table the night before. Persimmon Fiestaware, Fire King mugs and Depression era glassware in the Miss America Pattern will keep the table light-hearted and casual. Candles high, and flowers – on this evening, a potted “Olympic” red begonia – low enough to easily talk over. Cloth napkins are a failsafe way to let your friends know how much you like them. They know you had to iron them.

table setting

Home from the office and gym by 5:30PM, I know that I will have everything done by 6PM.

I take the cheeses out of the refrigerator and arrange them unwrapped on a Villeroy & Boch “Design Naif” platter. They will have time to warm up before our friends arrive. Setting out more than one cheese knife encourages even a small number of guests to dive in rather than be shy or expect to be served.

I coat the bottom of the skillet with olive oil and shake in a liberal amount of my own blend of seasoning. I think everyone should have his own signature blend, just as in decades past, a refined person always had his own particular “tisane”, a blend of tea and dried flavorings. My seasoning mix usual consists of crushed black pepper, cumin, curry, thyme, rosemary, sage, basil, oregano and sea salt. I’ve learned that although C and I cannot get enough garlic and hot peppers, we leave those out of most meals we prepare for others.

I add the chicken strips and shake on more of the seasoning. I have to pause at this time to wash the raw chicken off my hands with hot water and antibacterial soap.

chicken strips

Next I rip open the package of stir fry vegetables and dump them on top of the chicken.


I replace the glass cover and set the gas flame to medium. After eight minutes, I will turn the chicken strips and replace the lid for another seven or eight minutes.

veg and chicken in skillet

I choose a large oval hand painted platter by Droll Designs into which I dump the vegetables and place the chicken strips on top of the heap, coating them with any liquid remaining in the skillet.
Fortunately, our oven has a warm and serve drawer into which is placed this platter.

I slice half the loaf of bread and place the slices and the intact half in a weathered crackle glazed bowl and set it on the table with the serrated bread knife and the softening butter.

C selects vintage blue glass compotes with silver stripes for the assemblage of a sublime dessert consisting of hazelnut gelato topped with pomegranite gel, dried cranberries and an intricately printed white chocolate pyramid with a ganache center. These are placed in the freezer.

C's dessert

The pot and utensils get either washed or tossed out of sight into the dishwasher. We choose the American standards channel on the cable radio, pick out shirts and pour ourselves some wine. We open the front doors in advance of our friends’ arrival and take a moment to inspect our menagerie of plants. I pick some herbs to garnish the chicken.

front doors open

Nothing left to do but enjoy the evening which is over at a sensible hour with no one feeling guilty about having pigged out or having had to much to drink or expecting to pay the price of excess by dragging through the workday to follow.

I hate work. It is an intrusion that has crowded out the wonderfully debauched all-nighters of our youth, but until I can shed it, we’ve either this civilized mode of hosting friends or the restriction of socializing only on weekends. Before you hit the comments field and remind me that there are things called restaurants for exactly that sort of mid-week interaction, you should know that I hold with Kate Hepburn who had what I consider to be a healthy dislike for restaurants. She once said, “You give me the sixty dollars and I’ll cook you a damn meal.” Really. I don’t know who is behind the kitchen door of a restaurant. I do know that they are not concerned about my health. The chairs always give me a backache, there is usually a draft on my neck, the food rarely lives up to its description, service is disdainful, bathroom suspicious, lighting and noise irritating and the bill is rude. There have been some rare exceptions to this summary, but for the most part I’d rather be home making nice and in bed by 10:30PM with the kitchen cleaned.


Anonymous said...

What a lovely host you are, and what a GREAT apartment, wow good looks, good in the kitchen, clean and tidy I would love 'friends' like you and C xx

evilganome said...

It's nice to know someone else eschews restaurants. My reason, I worked in them too many years. I can relax at home. I rarely find eateries relaxing. There are some nice little bistro's in my neighborhood, but on the rare occasions I entertain now, I'd rather do it at home where one can relax, rather than have a waiter hover over one. You are also quite right about the quality of the food and bill.

BigAssBelle said...

you know, i am motherless and soon to be fatherless. i am available for adoption and i want to come live with you. i'll be unobtrusive in the main, but you can haul me out to entertain guests and you will love my laugh (so i'm told) which is frequent and, according to others, delightful.

this was an absolutely luscious post from start to finish. i agree with you on the subject of restaurants but fear that cooking at home is going the way of most good things in the world. congrats for being a standard bearer in the ongoing fight for quality and graciousness over speed and convenience.

BigAssBelle said...

many shocking things in this post, though, from the view of the residence (is that really yours? what happened to the manhattan high rise i envisioned), to the fact of you (or you two) working. whaaat?? shocking, i tell you.

Brian Spolarich said...

Have you been talking to my husband?

We do the exact same routine, 'cept your pad is bit swankier than that of us country mice.

Anonymous said...

Decafe espresso?? Is there such a thing?

dpaste said...

THAT was the apartment I was expecting to visit Saturday last. No wonder I was confused.

circleinasquare said...

Ir restaurants as we know them were to vanish tomorrow, I would die of starvation within a week.

Mike said...

Wonderful post. I have some fiesta ware in about a dozen colors but not persimmon.

tornwordo said...

Yeah, for some reason, I thought that was your NY apartment too. I prefer dinner at home every time. The kitchens I've seen, the cooks never wash their hands after handling the raw chicken. They just wipe them on their apron.

Gay Curmudgeon said...

It’s been a long time in coming, but we have reached similar philosophical views on restaurants and entertaining.

I used to love eating out at restaurants in Sydney where I grew up. The variety of foods and cuisines pouring from the official Australian policy of multiculturalism was amazing. Through my twenties I sampled everything the city afforded. When I moved to Seattle in my early thirties, I found the Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Lebanese, Greek, Italian, and Chinese food I remembered from my twenties only palely reflected in the versions I’ve sampled in my travels here.

I started learning to cook because my favorite dishes couldn’t be found on menus, or the version on the menus wasn’t true to my memory of them. You can buy Laksa (a noodle soup) easily in Sydney, but after more than a decade I’ve only found the Singaporean version of it in one place in Seattle.

Today, food in a restaurant has to be something we couldn’t or wouldn’t make at home or, or if it is something we make, it has to be a lot better than what we can manage. The more I learn about cooking, the less I eat at restaurants. Restricted disposable income is a great motivator as well.

Simple to make meals with great flavor and presentation, but with very contained preparation and minimal clean-up can be had from Kylie Kwong’s excellent “Simple Chinese Cooking”. The speed and simplicity of food in this book guarantee at least one, if not two, weeknight meals from its pages.

You mentioned your own “tisane” so let me encourage you to have more than one. My inspiration for making my own spice mixes, seasonings, pastes and oils is a book by Christine Manfield called ”Spice” which covers so much culinary ground that you may find you need a larger spice cupboard.

We’ve found that getting commitment from people on the phone at the office gets hung up by “checking in with the significant other”. To get around this, we invite everyone to a big shindig at our place early in the New Year and lock down dinner dates with all parties present.


Anonymous said...

How much nicer to be invited into someone's home for dinner than to spend the evening in a commercial atmosphere eating questionably prepared food, especially when the hosts are as well-organized and thoughtful as you. And that dessert, where could you buy that for love or money?
Wish I'd read your post about 40 years ago when I was still entertaining friends but doing all the work as they arrived and unable to enjoy them as I should have. Great planning guys!

Anonymous said...

Might I recommend Amy Sedaris' book on entertaining, "I Like You"? No doubt that you'd love.

Anonymous said...

So that's how it's done! That dessert makes me swoon.

Anonymous said...

We entertain at home all the time. With two exceptions, most of our friends want to meet at restaurants.

I travel with work for about three days a week, and entertain clients at very nice restaurants in NYC, SFO and BOS. I enjoy the meals and love my clients. It is still work.

My favorite events are always at home, preparing meals with the Overeducated Redneck. The OR is a FINE chef.