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Feature Thu Mar 06 2008

Foodie and the Feast

Last fall I went to a dinner party hosted by a friend of my husband. I’ve been impressed by nearly every dinner party I’ve been to—it’s not easy to have a few dishes ready at the same time and to appear relaxed when serving them. But never before had I seen one person feed such a large group of people. This guy, this single guy, had appetizers ready when his guests, about 20 of them, arrived. He also had two entrees and dessert ready. As I was leaving, I told the host, Tom, that I loved to cook for friends, but I didn’t think I could ever cook for such a big party. “Of course you can,” he said. “I’ll help you. Let’s do it in February.”

I’ve thrown dinner parties myself. Like playing basketball or the guitar, it’s something that requires practice. I hosted my first dinner after taking a Thai-cooking class. By the end of the four-week class I was full of confidence, so I invited friends for a Thai feast. I spent the day chopping herbs, grinding spices and mincing meat. That night I fell asleep before my guests had even left the table.

jamie_oliver.jpgAfter that labor-intensive meal, I fell in love with Jamie Oliver’s tray-baked salmon with green beans, tomatoes, basil and olives. Everything is cooked together. You simply combine the vegetables, olives and basil, and when ready to cook, put everything on to a preheated baking tray to roast for a quick 10 minutes. I happened to use Pyrex one night when entertaining friends. When I put my chilled salmon into the pan, the heated glass shattered, leaving my kitchen and my slab of salmon covered in bits of glass. But I rinsed off the salmon and forged ahead—and luckily no one went home with shards of glass in their bellies.

I didn’t really think about the dinner party with Tom for a few months. But in late January, as our agreed upon weekend approached, Tom wanted to start talking menus. Part of me was really excited by the idea of cooking for a crowd. I checked out cookbooks from the library and experimented with recipes. The other part of me was nervous, and had images of myself the day of the party, covered in flour and getting tipsy on the wine I was meant to use for cooking, a la Bridget Jones. Meanwhile, my husband invited every single person from his office, and it slowly became apparent that the few people I know in Chicago weren’t going to be able to come. So I was a lot less Bridget Jones and a lot more Samantha Stephens, the wife on Bewitched, who always had to whip up meals for her husband’s coworkers, only I didn’t have any special powers to fall back on.

What I did have was a love for In Style magazine, especially the entertaining section. I loved how they outlined what you should do in the days ahead of a dinner party. I planned on a plan like that for myself. I was going to set out my serving dishes ahead of time. And I convinced Tom that it would be best to make pitchers of cocktails ahead of time, rather than make individual cocktails for each guest. For dinner I was going to make a vegetarian stew with chickpeas, green beans, polenta with goat cheese, and an easy and tasty bread-pudding with asparagus that I’d made before. Tom was bringing chicken stewed with prunes, eggplant lasagna and rice balls. Each of my recipes was simple; it was just my shopping plans that were complicated. I was going to go to Pastoral for cheese, Stanley’s for produce and maybe a few other specialty shops. Then I ran up against a hairy work deadline and had to do all my shopping at Dominick’s the day of the party. I walked the aisles haunted by an article I’d read in the New York Times about feelings of competition and anxiety that arise around a dinner party. Tales of mortification over store-bought tortillas and quotes like, “There’s a specific cachet that only a fiddlehead fern can convey,” danced in my head.

IMG_1058.JPGThe day of the party my family got excited and offered to help. My kids decided they would each make a dish. My daughter, who is 8, invented a salad about a year ago, a combination of her favorite things: grapes, olives, basil, pickles (gherkins) and sometimes cherry tomatoes. My son, who’s 10, searched Google for vegan dishes and decided upon an eggplant “caviar.” He wanted to do his own grocery shopping, so he came with me to Dominick’s, and carried his recipe in one hand and a basket in the other. He was so excited, he approached about a dozen people in the store to tell them that he was planning to cook an eggplant for a dinner party.

In the end, it wasn’t really me cooking for a party of 20. It was Tom, my two kids, my husband and me. So, of course, it was pretty painless. I moved into the kitchen around one o’clock, and started trimming the beans and supervising the eggplant’s move from the oven to the blender. I finished the beans and set them in the refrigerator. Then I started the stew, for which I used Jamie Oliver’s recipe for North African lamb stew with chili, ginger and chickpeas. I substituted eggplant for the lamb. Time started to fly by, and I worried I wouldn’t finish the cooking, so my husband, Darren, I mean, Joe, stepped in to make the bread pudding. I found the recipe a few months ago on 101 Cookbooks. It’s easy and delicious. And at the end of the night, it was the dish guests talked about most.

Tom arrived a little before six o’clock. We set out some appetizers, including the rice balls he’d made and the polenta I’d made (or sliced and baked with goat cheese). Then Tom set to work making the cocktails. We had a pitcher of vodka and grapefruit martinis, and a pitcher of gin martinis. Guests showed up, some bearing dessert, and most bearing records. (After dinner we were going to dust off our turntable and play some LPs.) The dinner went smoothly, with only a few minor glitches. We ran out of plates before all the guests had served themselves dinner, so I had to grab empty plates out of people’s hands and wash them. And, at the end of the night, after the records had been played and the bread pudding was gone, I went to stick some leftovers in the refrigerator and in the back I noticed a full bowl of green beans. I might have remembered to serve them, had they had a little more cachet.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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Editor: Robyn Nisi, rn@gapersblock.com
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