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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cook With Me: Friends For Dinner is Like Las Vegas

It's the Holidays, and you might well be scurrying about: Friends are coming to Dinner!

Or is Social Updating limited to Twitter and Facebook. Do you invite people over? Do you get nervous and then mad? Wish you'd never invited them? Throughout my years of teaching I have listened to many stories from friends and my students. Fear. Loathing. More Fear.

You'd think entertaining was like Las Vegas with Johnny Depp. And in the immortal words of Raoul Duke-

"There was madness in any direction, any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning."

Okay, this is before you get started, right? The evening beckons and promises to be beautiful from afar, elegant, mysterious, and powerful. But just turn your back for one minute.....

So, I've come up with a set of rules that I follow.

I recently too extended an invitation and immediately my mind luxuriated in the ambiance of the whole scene. No, I don't do psychedelic drugs like Raoul, but there was a flurry of sparks and a universal glow in the sky! I closed my eyes to the aroma of sauces reducing. Even the pile of dirty pots and pans, could not dissuade me. I love them all! (Truly, I do love washing dishes.) And I pictured in a moment of triumph the last moment, as I hang up my apron by the refrigerator and sat with my friends at the table, tucking my leg under me. Candles flickering, wine is sipped. Spoons lift soup from bowls.

"Let's keep it simple this time," I said to my husband, Rich, as I sat down to make a list.

Eleven Rules of Cooking For Guests

Rule #1 - Be organized

He rolled his eyes at me, if you can imagine.

Glancing at the clock showed there was still six hours till our friends arrive. PLENTY of time. Oodles in fact.
"I know what you're thinking. Have you no faith that I can change?"

He unpacked the bags from the farmer's market.

Rule #2 - Shop in advance

"Ok, just what is up with your eyes?" I ask.

A deluge of rain began outside. And my eyes were already closing, so melodic is the pitter patter of drops.
So I plan my strategy over an early lunch at my computer; a bowl of warmed leftover chicken piccata and lentils, I assembled my list to assess just how expertly matched were my ambitions and my time.


Rule # 3 - Know your Limits

Appetizers - Unknown (something will surely show itself)
Roasted Broccoli Salad
Another Veg
Home-Baked Focaccia
Fish - Whatever Rich "Catches"
Flourless Chocolate Cake - Already Baked, Yay!

What could be simpler, I asked? As I stepped up from the office, piercing and tumbling two eggplant on another pan and opening the oven to the scent of roasting garlic and a nicely crisp broccoli, I pondered. The sublime image of going to the garden with our guests to pick some herbs and lettuces. Ouch. Now my hand was burnt. With ice on my hand, dripping on my list. Whatever came after "Another Veg" gets blurry. Okay, now I remember. Done. I cross off Focaccia. My guests  voices boomed in my head: Let there be No Carbs. Okay! Okay!

Rule #4 - Ask if Your Guests have Special Diets

Rain poured - it shooted in fact, out of the downspout. Rich had not yet cleaned the leaves out of the gutters.

But before I could snap into a nap I set down to wait for the two eggplants. After they cool, a simple chopping with capers and they'll climb in with the burbling sauce of tomatoes, garlic, celery, onions, and peppers on the stove. I'll stir in some broken shards of 85 % chocolate. This version of Sicilian Caponata is a favorite and hails form Papa Andrea's Sicilian Table. Spicy, sweet, and salty from capers and aromatic from our fresh bay leaves.

Turning the heat to low, the computer dings in the office, and demands that I answer a few - just a few- more emails. Good thing as there was an email from the folks coming.

She begins, "Did I mention he's allergic to garlic and onions? But he can "eat around" anything you make. He'll be fine," she concludes.

What? I say to myself? Everything has garlic and onions.

Rule # 5 Be Flexible and Roll With It

Oh, well. I won't put any more garlic and onions in anything -- its fine.

And surely while I am in this chair its efficient to update Twitter and Facebook, too. Then I can really relax and enjoy the afternoon and evening!

With Social Updating complete, I push away from the desk. But it nags at me, a little, isn't that what dinners are? Social Updating? Or were, I say, before we all got so social that we never see each other anymore.

Come back for the conclusion of this story, and feel free to leave a comment.

Do you do Social Updating by have friends over for dinner? And how do you manage it? What happens in your kitchen?

Sicily’s Caponata
from the C’est si Bon! kitchen revised from Papa Andrea’s Sicilian Table written by Vincent Schiavelli (who you might remember as the Subway Phantom in the film, Ghost.)

Believe me, there is enough written about this Sicilian dish to keep you entertained for weeks, and as many recipes to try. This dish epitomizes the Sicilian propensity to mix all the culinary influences pushing at its shores. North African influences add the sultanas, (raisins) almonds, and bitter chocolate.

2 large eggplants, roasted til they collapse, then chopped in ½” pieces

Tomato Sauce
6 cloves garlic, salted and minced
3 ribs celery, thinly sliced
1 cup large green olives with pits, if possible
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup red wine, more if needed
1 32 ounce can italian plum tomatoes, crushed
1/2 cup sultanas or raisins
2 teaspoons honey
1 bunch fresh basil, chopped
½ tsp each cracked black pepper and smoked paprika

Add Later:
3 ounces of dark (85% cocoa) chocolate, broken
balsamic vinegar

Remove the pits from the green olives by smashing them between rocks from your Sicilian estate. If that’s not possible, just use your wooden cutting board and smash them as you would garlic, with your chef knife.

Pierce and roast the eggplants at 350 for about 45 minutes or til they collapse. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Chop as directed.

Mince garlic. Slice celery as directed.

Assemble remaining ingredients for the tomato sauce.
Heat olive oil over medium heat in a pan deep and large enough to stir the tomato sauce.

When the oil is hot begin by sautéing the celery - about 5 minutes. then, add the garlic and olives. Keep stirring and tossing til golden deglaze with the wine and reduce the heat to medium low and add the tomatoes, sultanas, basil, sugar or honey, paprika and pepper. simmer for 30 minutes. taste for seasoning. adjust.

While this is cooking, chop your cooled eggplants.
To the tomato sauce add chocolate, stir til melted.
Remove from heat and add eggplant. mix well together, gently.
and taste. It should have a sweet sour salty taste.
Adjust with balsamic vinegar.

Great served cold or hot. With bread and friends!
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