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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.