21 Rules of Entertaining

May 16th, 2013 · 369 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Entertaining, Organizing, Strategizing, Planning, Rules

One of the more fun parts of my “job” is that I have an excuse to reach out to people I’ve been secretly stalking for decades.  Take last month, for instance, when I met Susan Spungen for breakfast at a Union Square coffee shop. Spungen spearheaded the food section at Martha Stewart Living twenty years ago. We have her to thank for leading the team that put together the Hors D’oeuvres Handbook, which is not only my finger food bible, but the bible of caterers across America. When I heard she was coming out with a book on Entertaining – What’s a Hostess to Do? – I set up a date, and over poached eggs and shaved asparagus, downloaded her hard-won wisdom.

21 Rules for Entertaining
Culled from What’s a Hostess to Do, by Susan Spungen (and so many thousands more where these came from)

1. Less can be more. Focus on a few beautiful well-conceived, well-prepared dishes.

2. Unless it’s the holiday, in which case the key word is “bounty.” (See above.)

3. The language you use for your invitation should focus on who you do want at the party (“Join us for a grown-up dinner”) not who you don’t want (“No kids please.”)

4. For the kids — When in doubt: “Bambini Pasta,” i.e. noodles, spaghetti, penne, whatever you got — with butter and Parm.

5. Some handy math: On average, assume your guests will have 2 drinks per hour (10 guests x 2 drinks x 2 hours = 40 drinks). There are approximately 5 wine glasses per bottle. A 1-liter bottle of liquor contains enough for 32 mixed drinks. One liter of mixer will make 8 drinks.

6. The Paloma is The New Margarita.

7. [OK, disclaimer: Susan didn't exactly say that, but I did, and will continue to all summer. To make: 1/2 cup grapefruit soda (such as Mexican Jarritos or Jamaican Ting), the juice of half a lime, and 2 ounces tequila. Serve over ice with lime wedge.]

8. Centerpieces: DO use short candles, DON’T use tall or overly fragrant flowers or plants; DO decorate with short flowers or potted plants, DON’T crowd the table.

9. Scented candles? Yes, for sure, in the bathroom. On the table? Never.

10. All will be fine if Nutella is on the menu. Nutella Dessert Sandwiches: Toast thinly sliced brioche bread, spread with Nutella and dust with powdered sugar. Serve warm.

11. Three Four-Syllable Laws of Sanity Preservation when entertaining: Make it Ahead, Cook What You Know, Think Mise en Place.

12. A multitude of sins can be easily overlooked when people are basking in a warm glow: Lighting should be soft.

13. Bathroom checklist: Close the shower curtain, empty the trash. If there is no lock, make an “occupied” sign to hang on the knob. Better yet, have the kids do it.

14. Invest in a collapsible metal coatrack and never dive through a mountain of identical black wool overcoats heaped on a bed ever again.

15. Winning Cheese and Fruit Pairs for a Starter Spread: Apples + Cheddar, Quince Paste + Manchego, Figs + Gorgonzola

16. Good salumi needs little accompaniment. But no one will object if it’s next to some good bread, olives, and crisp fennel slices.

17. To make after-party cleanup less soul-crushing, always start the evening with an empty dishwasher, dish rack, trash can, and sink.

19. Yes, you can bring wine = The answer when your friends ask What Can I Bring?

20. A good party is much more than the sum of its parts. The gathering takes on a life of its own, and it almost always works out, even when it doesn’t.

21. The no-fail menu for entertaining kids and adults: Ribs, Slaw (lose the brussels in the summer), and make-ahead Ice Cream Sandwiches.

To make: For each sandwich, place a scoop of ice cream on a chocolate chip cookie (try Tate’s brand or another thin crisp cookie). Top with another cookie and press down gently. Place on a rimmed baking sheet and set in the freezer. Wrap individually after they’ve hardened, and freeze until ready to serve. (more…)

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Real Deal Bolognese

January 17th, 2012 · 59 Comments · Pasta, Pork and Beef

Like a lot of people I know, I returned from my first trip to Italy in 1993 determined to teach myself how to cook. The eating in Florence, where Andy was “studying” art for the summer, was so revelatory that I didn’t waste a whole lot of time once the wheels touched down Stateside. On the way home from the airport, I stopped by our local bookstore and found my friend Matt behind the counter. I asked if he could recommend a good Italian cookbook that might offer even just a hint of what I had just experienced across the Atlantic. As far as I know, Matt never cooked a thing in his life, but he will forever hold a special place in my heart because he handed me The Classic Italian Cookbook, by Marcella Hazan, and, with the understatement of the decade, told me, “People seem to really like her.”

The name was familiar — Andy’s Aunt Patty had already introduced us to Marcella’s milk-braised pork loin — so I plunked down my five bucks for the mass market-y looking paperback, started flipping through it, and for almost twenty years have not stopped. That’s probably why the book, held together by masking tape, now looks like this:

It’s sort of like looking at Luca Bear, my daughter’s dingy teddy-bear lovey with the frayed bowtie that she has been sleeping with since she was 13 months. One look at him and you know that thing has been on the receiving end of some serious love.

The summer I first bought CIC, I tried out a few of the recognizable recipes — Tomato Sauce 1, Tomato Cream Sauce, Blender Pesto — making some real knucklehead comments in the margin as I went along. “Too garlicky” I wrote after adding three cloves of garlic to a tomato sauce that didn’t call for any garlic at all. Improvising with a Marcella recipe, I’ve since learned, is not something one does, unless one does not want to learn how to cook. You make the dish exactly the way she tells you to. In a nod to her shortcut-obsessed American audience, her headnotes are studded with phrases like “if you insist” and “if you are so inclined” (Fettucine with Gorgonzola Sauce: “You can try substituting domestic gorgonzola or other blue cheeses, if you are so inclined, but you will never achieve the perfectly balanced texture and flavor of this sauce with any cheese but choice Italian gorgonzola”), but the effect is the opposite of liberating. It makes you desperate to not disappoint her. (There are also many less passive instructions such as this one, under Mayonnaise: “I can’t imagine anyone with a serious interest in food using anything but homemade mayonnaise.”) The ingredients she uses in her recipes are all basic staples of any kitchen — butter, ground beef, salt, onions — which means that in order to yield the kinds of dishes that have earned her exalted status in the food world, it is absolutely imperative that you do not deviate from what’s written. For Hazan, who was trained as a biologist and went on to teach cooking classes in her New York apartment, it’s all about technique. When I do what I am told (literally leveling off two tablespoons of chopped onions), not only do I find  myself with insanely delicious dinners I’d be proud to serve to Grandmas Turano and Catrino, but I find myself a little smarter in the kitchen. Her bolognese, which you are looking at above, was the first Hazan recipe that we fell in love with for this reason. “It must be cooked in milk before the tomatoes are added,” she wrote. “This keeps the meat creamier and sweeter tasting.” And then: “It must cook at the merest simmer for a long, long time. The minimum is 3 1/2 hours; 5 is better.” We, of course, always do five. (more…)

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First Place Loser

October 19th, 2011 · 20 Comments · Dinner, Pork and Beef, Posts by Andy, Quick, Rituals, Uncategorized

There’s this thing Abby and I do, before every soccer game. She’s usually sitting on the wooden bench by our door, in her too-big uniform, and even though she’s in third grade, I’m enabling…I mean, tying her cleats. When I’m done, I give her a pat on the knee and look into her eyes.

“You ready?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says. The affect couldn’t be more flat. She has heard this before.

“You gonna be tough out there today?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says.

“Good,” I say, “because if you lose, don’t bother coming home.”

She rolls her eyes.

So when I was loading my stock pot full of chili into the back of our car at 8:30 last Saturday morning, on my way to deliver it unto the judges of our town’s first annual Chili-Off, Abby saw her opening.

“Hey, Dad,” she said.

“Yeah, Abby?”

“If you lose today, don’t bother coming home.”

You know where this is going, right?

We’d signed up for this Chili-Off — which would take place at the Pumpkin Fair, which raises money for our town’s elementary school — a few weeks ago, and Abby wasn’t the only one having fun at my expense. Jenny, too, had been gleefully applying the pressure, getting all up in my mug about it. (“Remember that venison chili Francine made for us like ten years ago?” she asked a few days beforehand, out of nowhere, which I took as challenge — brazen in its passiveness — to my manhood. “Mmmm, that was so good.” Damn, I thought. Should I be using venison?). The night before the contest, she’d been watching me like a hawk as I got my mis en place going, hovering, looking skeptical, asking me if I was nervous, if I knew anything about “the competition,” if I had a secret ingredient up my sleeve (meaning: you might need one), if I’d be able to show my face at the coffee shop if we lost. But I had waited until 9:00 on the night before the contest to start cooking, and I didn’t have the time or bandwith for new recipes or special ingredients. Go with what you know, as they say, and so I did. I’m not about to abandon the chili I love because there might be someone out there building a better, prettier one. It’s called loyalty, people.

Besides, I only know how to make one chili by heart. It’s quick and easy, about thirty minutes of hands-on time, and is a regular in the family rotation. Every Halloween, actually, we make a batch of it for friends and neighbors, who stop in before they go trick or treating, or while they’re out trick or treating, sort an open house kind of deal. It’s a dinner party in a pot. We stick a ladle in the Le Creuset, put some paper bowls and fixings on the counter — sour cream, cheese, cilantro, avocado, chips — and everybody stands around with a glass of red wine and serves themselves. It’s become something of a tradition, and nobody has ever complained about the food. To my face, at least.

The chili itself is a pretty straightforward base with lots of possible variations, but for the First Annual Chili-Off, I decided to go classic (beef), with a slight twist (chorizo). The chorizo adds some subtle heat and smokiness and, in general, just really good depth of flavor. I mean, it’s sausage, for chrissakes; it’s not going to make it worse. By 10 pm, the stock pot was in the refrigerator, marking its time until Judgment Day.

We showed up at the fair at 12:30, having completely missed the Chili-Off, not to mention the panel of seven judges who apparently tasted all fourteen entries with the seriousness of the dead. The day was beautiful, sunny and windy, the leaves just beginning to turn. High clouds were blowing through in long formations. A soccer kind of day. One of Phoebe’s friends ran right up to us as we walked in. “You guys came in second place!” she said. “Phoebe, your dad almost won!”

Almost. Hey, I tried, right?

Jenny looked at me. She smiled. “Second place, wow,” she said, throwing an arm around my shoulder. “Not bad, not bad. But you know what George Steinbrenner said: Second place is really first place loser. I’m just saying.”

Ouch. I don’t the name of the guy who won first place, but I have two things to say to him: Congratulations, your chili rules. And: Stay away from my wife. – Andy

Second Place Chili
Serves 12 to 15 (more…)

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No Kids Allowed (sort of)

September 30th, 2011 · 25 Comments · Dinner, Domestic Affairs, Entertaining, Pork and Beef, Posts by Andy

If you come to our house for a grown-up dinner party, there’s a good chance it’ll be just after 8:00, and our two kids will greet you at the door. If all has gone according to plan, they’ll be bathed and pajama’d, their teeth will be brushed, and with a little luck they’ll be in bed, out of sight, 30 minutes later.

It’s not that we worry about the girls being un-presentable or that we fear they’ll pillage the crostini plate before our guests have taken their coats off. (OK, maybe we do worry about the crostini thing. It’s a problem.) It’s that usually the people we have over for dinner are parents, too. Parents who have already spent the waking part of their day doing what parents do – suffering through another Wa Wa Wubbzy marathon, doling out snacks, pretending to lose at Uno – and probably, if they’re being honest, don’t feel a real powerful need to spend valuable babysitting hours doing the same with someone else’s kids.

In our experience, what our guests are looking for is a cocktail with plenty of ice, some tasty food, and a conversation that does not begin with the words, “I am counting to three…” So usually, after our kids make their Dinner Party Cameo – the key with kids, like food, is to leave your guests wanting more — one of us will take them upstairs and shepherd them through their bedtime paces, while the other sets the table and puts the finishing touch on whatever has been braising away all afternoon in the Dutch Oven.

Very often in our house, it’s short ribs. We love braised short ribs for three reasons: one, they’re unstoppably, almost obscenely good; two, they’re impossible to screw up; and three, they require no hands-on time once the guests arrive. Entertaining, for us, is all about not having to start from zero once the kids are in bed, chopping and blanching and reducing – and sweating — while our guests stand in the kitchen, hungry, with one eye on the clock. It’s about having a glass of Barbera and diving into a dinner that is ready to go, but that also feels simultaneously casual and special. And when everything goes right, you can almost forget — for a few hours, at least — that there’s a Thomas the Train track running through the living room, and that you have to be awake at 5:30 the next morning to perform a sock puppet show. – Jenny & Andy

This story appears in the current issue of Bon Appetit. Head over to their website for the Short Ribs recipe, which is a simplified version of an old Balthazar favorite. Photo by Christopher Testani for Bon Appetit.

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Oh This? Just Something I Threw Together…

July 15th, 2011 · 16 Comments · Quick, Rituals, Sides, Salads, Soup, Vegetarian

You know when you go to someone’s house for dinner and they seem to have it all together? One of the hosts is mixing you a drink and asking your children about camp while the other is sipping a glass of Prosecco, tossing some sort of delicious summery salad, listening intently to what you are saying, and showing no outward sign of doing what I often feel myself doing — which is pretend to listen intently to what you are saying while mostly worrying about the fact that — s#@t! – I forgot to make the g@#$*%n salad dressing! I should probably not admit this in a public space that is accessible by public…people, but I very much aspire to be the confident, nonchalant host who, when cooking for a large group of guests, can wing it without stressing. I’ve been aspiring for about fifteen years now.

But in those fifteen years, I’ve discovered something about myself. I am not a wing-it kind of person. I like to have a plan. This diagnosis probably gets to the root of my dinner diary pathology and my contract-drafting habit. And it is (more…)

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Instant Dinner Party

January 24th, 2011 · 78 Comments · Dinner, Entertaining, Favorites, Pasta, Pork and Beef, Posts by Andy

Spoiler alert: If you come over to our house for dinner any time between now and the first day of spring, there’s about a 90% chance we’re going to cook this for you. The pork shoulder ragu you see above is our new obsession. It’s the ideal dish for Sunday dinner, or even better, an informal winter dinner party: It’s warm, it’s hearty, it smells insanely good, it goes well with red wine, and my God, is it tasty. But none of those are the main reason we’re so obsessed with this right now — no, the best part of this one is that, once the guests arrive, your work is already done. All the prep — what little of it there was — is four hours ago, a distant memory. Which is increasingly the way we like it. It seems like the older we get, and the more cooking we do, the simpler we want our entertaining to be. For sure, there was a day when we would have spent the afternoon, Martha-style, frantically scooping out little cucumber cups with a mellon-baller and filling them with creme fraiche and topping them with smoked salmon and dainty sprigs of dill, when we would have been stirring (and stirring) risotto and mandolining three different kinds of potatoes and being distracted, instead of hanging out with our guests. But then kids happened, and our tastes changed, and those days are gone. These days, I love nothing more than a one-pot meal — I am a braising machine! — and this really basic pork ragu over pasta is where our heads are at right now. It’s an instant party: you just take it out of the oven, shred the pork, boil some pasta, and you’re done. If the kids don’t like pork, they can eat the pasta; if they do like pork, then I love them, and there’s still plenty for everybody. Though I should add that, as good as this is on a cold winter night, it’s even better for lunch the next day. If it weren’t for a little thing known as coronary heart disease, I would eat this every day for the rest of my life. –Andy (more…)

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Friday Round-up

October 29th, 2010 · 15 Comments · Baking and Sweets, Birthdays, Holidays, Celebrations, Kitchenlightenment, Rituals

…to have family dinner: When my kids are 16 and 15 (instead of 8 and 7) and we are dealing with friendship dramas, SATs, sexting episodes, and God only knows what else (Parents of teen-agers: please refrain from telling me what else) dinner will be so firmly established as my family’s 6:30 Magnetic North, that my kids’ hormone-raging, eye-rolling, parent-resenting bodies will be hardwired to come home, sit down, and talk to me anyway. In other words, I will have them right where I want them. (more…)

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Todd’s Minty Peas

April 14th, 2010 · 11 Comments · Dinner, Vegetarian

When we have families over for dinner, we like to have the usual spread of above-average cheeses — La Tur, Humboldt Fog, Trader Joe’s twisted bi-color cheddar sticks. But the starter that inevitably manages to stop guests mid-bite is a relatively recent discovery: Todd’s Minty Pea Dip. It’s technically a Jamie Oliver recipe, but the first place we ever had it was at our friends Todd & Anne’s house and have not been able to refer to it as anything else since. Todd, a master trawler of farmer’s markets whipped up the dip for us during peak produce months, and I was shocked to discover that it was made from frozen peas. Served with some crusty bread slices, the humble little dip can easily hold its own alongside market behemoths like corn and tomatoes. It also happens to be versatile (we’ve had it as a dip, spread on a sandwich for dinner, mixed with ricotta and sealed inside ravioli) and, unlike corn and tomatoes, can be enjoyed year round.

Todd’s Minty Pea Dip

In a food processor, whirl the following until it is the consistency of guacamole.

-1 cup frozen peas, thawed
-handful fresh mint leaves
-2 tablespoons-ish fresh Parm
-juice from 1/2 lemon
-1/3 cup olive oil
-salt

Garnish with some more shredded Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with baguette slices or spread across a piece of crusty bread.

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