Monday, August 15, 2011

Empty House

The company has come and gone. And this is what is left.
When Josh told me that six adults and one toddler would all be coming to add to our family of four for the weekend, I immediately thought, "What will I make for dinner?"

I love planning meals. I have menus for parties that I have never thrown: cocktail parties, beach parties, picnics. I find pleasure in spending (wasting?) time looking at cookbooks and pulling together recipes that will mesh into a grand fete. I try to balance burner and oven time as well as preparation time, and I try to plan a dessert I can make ahead.

I've been asked where my affinity for cooking comes from. I think everyone who loves the kitchen points to their upbringing, and I am no exception. Dinner was a way to show affection in my childhood home - not in the distorted way that I have seen depicted in books and movies, as in, Eat what I made to show you love me so that you get morbidly obese and have a disturbing relationship with food and me. Rather, I think that dinner in my house was simply a time to eat what you liked with family. My dad made us kids a separate meal from the adults - something that parents are either for or against, but something that definitely worked in our house. We ate what we liked and weren't forced to clean the plate. I recall being asked to eat "two more bites," but never to "finish that or you will see it for breakfast." As we got older, dinner was when we came together, even if it was over Seinfeld instead of lots of banter. When we three went off to college, we were close enough for weekend visits. Invariably, we went back to school after a weekend home with Tupperwares full of stews, burritos, and other foods we could freeze and reheat at our leisure. I think I went for weeks during my senior year without cooking for myself because Dad stocked me so well. Each of us also had a needy food phase (me as a vegetarian) which Dad included in dinner prep without complaint.

So food is important. Food communicates. It would be unthinkable for me to have people in my house and not plan meals and execute them to the best of my ability ... then critique myself.
Menu 1a: Brunch. Spinach and cheese strata; mushroom, bacon and cheese strata; sliced melon; pastries provided by the Rodes; coffee. I was pleased with the strata (stratae?). You have to assemble them the night before, which is perfect with two kids. I wanted to make waffles and muffins as well, but couldn't manage. I thought I could squeeze it in the morning of - ha ha.

Menu 1b: Dinner. Pasta with roasted cauliflower and zucchini in a olive oil-anchovy sauce, beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts, bread, bratwursts; dessert was a raspberry tart. I kept the anchovies secret because I know it sounds scary to conservative eaters. Both of my MILs do not like fish and both are generally conservative eaters, so when I prepared dinner I hid the tin and only revealed the other ingredients. I decided that a lie of omission was okay when it protected the innocent. Bobby Flay once said that anchovies are the ingredient that everyone says they don't like, but that everyone eats way more of than they realize because it is a common secret ingredient.

The raspberry (birthday) tart was awesome, if I do say so myself. I got the crust just right for the first time, but I almost made butter out of the filling, so the consistency was not perfect. Still delicious, just not perfect.
Menu 2: Dinner. Mexican chicken with sauteed peppers and onions, Mexican rice, cabbage salad with radishes, chips with salsa and guacamole, corn tortillas. I was too nervous to make this when my brother-in-law Sal was still here, since he is Mexican. I already second guess all of my menus when I start to actually execute them, and his presence would have made me shaky, I think. Not that he is a harsh critic or would have railed against inauthenticity or something. And Cass said that Sal would have approved of the cabbage salad with radishes especially, and that made me feel good. I kick myself for not having dessert and for not having time to make the refried beans, however. It cannot be an authentic Mexican meal without beans! That much I know. The dessert was supposed to be a lime-blackberry tart. It required a couple of time-consuming measures that I did not make a priority early enough in the day. First, I should have stood in line at 8:45 in order to get marionberries. Second, I needed to make a lime curd early enough to chill. Third, I needed to cook those marionberries in wine early enough to also chill. I was going to use store-bought dough because, as I have previously mentioned, I have a heavy hand with dough and screaming at shrinkage with guests in the house is untoward. Alack, no tart was constructed.
Menu 3: Dinner. Takeout pizza from 'Zaw. I did make dessert - a peach crisp. I had a menu for this evening, of course, but my two MILs talked me into (I think it was only a suggestion, actually, but I jumped on it) a carry-out from a pizzeria that sources locally (so hip!). You order; they assemble; you bake at home. Also very hip because it's almost like you made it. My other brother-in-law, Matthew, works at a pizzeria and was therefore in charge of the ovens ... although I almost micromanaged too much. (I think I got that from my dad too; he hovers, as do I.) I am glad I finally listened to Matt's sense of timing, because the pizzas would have been burnt if I were in charge.

The dessert came out all wrong. My peach "crisp" was dubbed a Peach Sweet Mush Thing. The topping melted into the peaches, so I guess it wasn't dense enough, and I think I needed a couple more peaches even though I had 10. My MIL was complimentary and said that her Southern mother would have been proud. I simultaneously thank her for the compliment and beat myself up. But don't think it went to waste because we still ate it with ice cream. Heck, even if it wasn't crisp, it was baked peaches smothered in butter and sugar.
And now the people are all gone. I have no more big meals to plan and only Josh to feed for dinner tonight.


  1. Jen, every bit of it was lovely, and we talked all the way home about what a great cook you are. Matthew: "those meals were sick." Apparently this is highest praise if you are a 19-year-old male.

    The problem now is what to feed you when you come to CT. Matthew says our grilled pizzas would be great. Then ran out of ideas . . . But we will soldier on.

    Thanks again for being such a spectacular host - we loved it and had a great time. Much love, Brenda

    P.S. I cannot believe you fed me anchovies. Very sneaky.

  2. Wow, I got the "sick" rating! I believe that is one higher than "illin'." We all had a great time, too. Now it's time to plan the CT trip. And what to feed us? Lobster! of course. And I believe NJ is where all the ducks raised for markets in the US are raised. So, work on your Peking duck recipe. :)