by John Ryan
Here's a radical idea: invite someone over, make something pleasant to eat, talk for a while, and call it a night.
Though it sounds simple enough, chances are that by the time your friend(s) knock on the door, this simple get-together will have become an Event. You'll know it's happened when you find yourself hunting dust bunnies and cleaning parts of the toilet you can't see. Or when you discover that you've given the day over to shopping, chopping, spending too much for wine, and generally knocking yourself out to make it all look effortless. Sure, that scenario is insane, but anything less has become practically illegal. Thanks to TV chefs and life-style gurus entertaining has become less about getting together and more about proving one's fluency with shallots and herb sprigs. Under that pressure, something as pleasant as having friends over becomes a huge problem. First, anything we know how to make is automatically out of the question. It's like the joke about not wanting to belong to any club that would accept us as a member. We assume that any dish we know how to make must be second rate. So who do we turn to? Personalities who would never invite us to dinner.
That could be fine, except that they are usually dishonest. How else could they present feasts that look like catered events and call them casual? My idea of a casual menu?
First, I'm not a fan of appetizers. Partly because I don't normally have them, but mostly because they're rarely worth the work. However, I'll admit that offering something does smooth out the time it takes to get dinner on the table. This time of year I might go with artichokes. I'm not talking about an elaborate recipe, just a couple artichokes steamed and served with mayonnaise or vinaigrette. They're easy, they take a lot of time to eat, they encourage a casual sociability, and they're delicious. If dessert is necessary—and I'm not convinced it is—small cookies do the trick. (Purchased cookies are fine, but I wouldn't be a food writer if I didn't have a do-it-yourself cookie to propose). Forget making puff pastry (or buying it) or investing in a layer cake with three kinds of buttercream. Most of time I'm full after dinner and I don't want another 3000 calories. with cookies I can have one or two. Besides, cookies don't require a whole new round of dishes and they allow everyone to leave the table and move into another room.
Contrary to the current entertaining ethic, I feel that dinner itself should be something you thoroughly know how to make. Who needs the anxieties of a new dish? For me it might be the chicken sauté that follows. It's an all-season dish, but to make it special, I fold in a seasonal ingredient such as asparagus. But whatever you decide on, you want something that doesn't require the kind of split-second timing you would expect from a pit crew at the Indy 500. The point, after all, is not to worship culinary creations, but to enjoy each other's company. Making something familiar will set you (and everyone else) at ease. If you go with the Spring Chicken sauté, simple boiled rice, and a salad, you won't knock yourself out and no one will need heartburn medication to survive.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
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