Eron has an amazing talent for integrating cooking into her everyday life. She cooks with a sense of ease and grace, as though it's no big thing.
But nothing could be further from the truth for her. Preparing meals is, in some ways, the biggest thing. Food is the sustenance of our physical bodies, but it is also sustains the community created in the act of breaking bread together, traditions and cultures, and our planet. Eron’s kitchen is a hopeful one, at least in part, because she has faith in the practice of preparing food: I can make a meal that means something for myself, and for others. Cooking is significant, an act of love and responsibility.
As inspiring as I find this, I can’t say I manage to integrate this sense into my own daily life. I’m pleased when I cook anything from scratch. I made myself a BLT the other day and told people about it. I was that proud. So when Eron asked me to be a guest blogger, I happily agreed, and then spent the next week obsessing over what I was going to cook. And of course, if I’m going to cook, we may as well have people over to share it. My boyfriend invited two of his friends over, and I started making a menu.
First came the cocktails. I’m a sucker for a pretty bottle, and you can’t go wrong with ginger. Canton is a French liqueur that blends ginger with cognac, ginsing and vanilla. One of our guests loves a good Dark and Stormy, so I used Canton’s recipe for a Dark and Stormier. Then, I used the fantastic website, www.foodpairing.be, to find complementary flavors for both rum and ginger. Some were expected, like dark chocolate, but a few flavors never would have occurred to me. Blue cheese, for instance.
By this point in the planning process, my dear boyfriend had managed to invite everyone he knew, and we no longer had a real headcount. Maybe there would be four people, maybe 15. Maybe they knew there was dinner, maybe they just thought it was a party. This presented some big problems with planning. No one on the internet had any suggestions for feeding an uncertain, but possibly large, number of guests, especially since I wanted the food to be finger-friendly.
Here’s what we did. First, I went out and bought way more alcohol, ginger ale, and limes than I imagined we could ever consume in one party. It wound up being the perfect amount for a raucous 10-person group; a more staid bunch could have done with less. Then, I took the three ingredients—ham, shrimp, and blue cheese—from my FoodPairing research and started googling. Baked coconut shrimp was a perfect choice because baked stuff is always easier for a party, and who doesn’t love coconut shrimp? Plus, shrimp are easy to eat with your fingers, and the portion size is completely flexible. I also found an Ina Garten recipe for ham and cheese in puff pastry. I doubled it to make two giant loaves and then sliced them into small bite-size portions.
I was so pleased with the flavor combinations and with having figured out a way to deal with an uncertain number of guests that I forgot that a lot of people don’t eat shellfish or ham. Luckily, I hadn’t yet made the second puff pastry, so I left out the ham and added cheddar. It was obviously an afterthought, and I felt really bad about my lack of consideration, but our crowd wound up being totally shrimp and ham friendly. Phew.
I also made lime meltaways from Smitten Kitchen’s recipe. But then I forgot to bake them. We enjoyed them for breakfast this morning instead.
This was by far my most successful dinner party cooking experience. Everything was super fast and easy to make, every last crumb was gone so people must have liked it, and the food made for a dramatic table presentation. Clean up took about 20 minutes. From start to finish, I made everything from scratch between 5:30 and 8pm. The lime meltaways took the longest—at least 20 minutes of mixing and forming—but they’re lovely because you can make and freeze them way ahead of time, and then just slice and bake.
- Baked coconut shrimp. My pictures show tail-off 51-60 size shrimp; next time I’ll use slightly larger tail-on shrimp, and 3 pounds instead of 2.
- Marmalade dipping sauce. I used 1 cup of marmalade (I used my Eron’s homemade organic orange marmalade—delicious!) mixed with 1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard and 1 Tablespoon prepared horseradish. It got rave reviews.
- Ham and blue cheese puff pastry, sometimes called Feuilleté Savoyard. I used ½ blue cheese and ½ parmesan and this was unbelievably good. It did indeed complement with the rum and ginger.
- Cheddar and blue cheese puff pastry. This was basically the same as above, but with cheddar instead of ham. It wasn’t as good, but I think adding a layer of mushrooms to soak up the grease would have made it better.
- Lime meltaways.
- Dark and Stormiers. We tried a couple different kinds of ginger ale, and although I’m a redblooded Reed’s drinker, I have to give props to Bruce Cost’s unfiltered original ginger ale, here. The trick is to find a not-so-sweet ale, and add extra lime juice to counteract the sticky sweet Canton. We bought 1.75 L of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, one bottle of Canton, 8 limes, and 16 bottles of ginger ale. You can make two drinks per bottle of ginger ale.
Cooking for friends often gets bogged down in minor details like getting a firm guest list or making sure you have plates for everyone. On the other extreme are people who insist that it’s about the friends, not the food, and it’s all the same whether you home-cook or share a delivered pizza. There’s some truth to that, but ultimately, the act of making food for people—anyone who chooses to show up—is an incomparable experience. It’s about the friends, but also the labor of making the food, and the act of sharing the food, joyously. If you want to continue thinking about the hopefulness embodied in dinner parties, take a look at Jim Hayne’s inspiring essay on the subject, here.