The luxurious dinner party: I've thrown my share. Our annual Trufflepalooza, which this July featured 13 truffle-laced courses for 70 people, certainly qualifies. We use mismatched vintage china, linen cloths, antique crystal and sterling. Every course, from risotto to creamy corn soup to filet mignon, is topped with a thick layer of freshly grated Italian black summer truffles - decadence in each bite. We pour champagne, wine, Port for hours on end. It's a lot of work, but rewarding. I hope it's a summer tradition my kids remember forever.
These days, in the throes of a new school year and a new role at work, my luxury is time. Getting home early enough on a weeknight to make a proper dinner for my family. Stealing a few minutes before work to bake a couple dozen muffins to hand out at my office. An evening when I don't have to go to back-to-school night, work late, raise money for my kid's youth orchestra, or wax enthusiastic about my alma mater at the college fair at a nearby high school. An evening when we can sit down to dinner and eat without constantly checking the clock and calculating how to fit in the remaining homework, violin practice and personal hygiene before bedtime.
That's why Friday dinners are my luxury. Friday dinner ends the week the way punctuation ends a sentence: definitively, assertively, making clear the difference between the busy week past and the more relaxed weekend ahead. We invite friends with kids and without; married couples, dating couples, singles; old, young, and everywhere in between. I'm sure there are those who consider "luxury" and "kids" mutually exclusive. I think having the kids join us for dinner is the best part. We get our grownup time after they finish eating and run off to play. But while they're there, we all reconnect after a long, busy week. Also, they crack me up.
In general, we have an open-door policy when it comes to dinner. We issue invitations freely and spontaneously to those we know well and, often, those we'd like to know better. I'm lucky to have married a man who likes a crowded table as much as I do. I grew up in a house where the same four people had dinner around the kitchen table every night, week in and week out. I'm glad my kids have grown up with so many different personalities dropping in to share a meal in our home.
Dinner for a crowd on a weeknight is a challenge, even on a Friday, when I can usually leave work an hour or two early. I use my early mornings well, and I plan menus around easy prep. Any recipe that requires more than 10 ingredients or more than two pans will not make it onto the menu, no matter how tasty it sounds. And I don't mind subjecting guests to experiments. I want Friday dinners to be comfortable, not fussy. I'm not looking to impress.
Arianna, a wine writer, and her five-year-old Z. "He's adorable," said Emery, my 11-year-old, when I told him Z was coming to dinner. Z, apparently, was just as pleased: "I love going to the big boys' house!" he said when Arianna told him of the plans.
I always put out cut-up vegetables with dip before dinner. My theory about feeding kids: The more vegetables you put in front of them, the more they're likely to eat, especially if chips are not an option. We started with circles of English cucumber and daikon radish, with a bowl of the avocado spread a Guatemalan friend taught me to make long ago. It's just avocados, cilantro, lemon and salt, blended smooth in the food processor. I also pulled a box of puff pastry from the freezer and spread it with tapenade (olives, fresh basil from the garden, and garlic), then cut it into strips, sprinkled it with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and threw it into a hot oven. Crispy, salty, buttery, they went perfectly with the first glasses of wine.
We sat down to chicken thighs braised with bacon, shallots, prunes and Armagnac, another opportunity to experiment on friends. Recently I acquired a slow cooker, and I want to love it - I'm trying. Friday night dinner seemed the perfect time to give it another chance. The carpool picks my kids up for school quite early, so after they leave the house I've got at least an hour before I need to be out the door. That Friday I chopped the shallots while the kids ate breakfast. When they left, I used my hour to cook the bacon, brown the chicken, saute the shallots, and dump the whole mess in the slow cooker with some dried prunes and a splash of Armagnac. When I got home from work late that afternoon and lifted the lid, the smell made me smile. We ate the rich braised chicken over brown jasmine rice, and with that I served broccoli, roasted in a hot oven and topped with grated cheese. I always make a green salad, which this time included hearts of crispy romaine, halved red grapes, crumbled French feta, and toasted pumpkin seeds, tossed in a mustardy French-style vinaigrette.
We ended the meal with a simple plum tart, which I put together while everyone was arriving. I use the same crust, a simple press-in dough made with olive oil, for both savory and sweet tarts. It's adapted from a recipe in Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte, one of my favorite examples of the "cookoir" genre. I sliced late-season purple plums and arranged them over the crust, then mixed sugar, butter and a little flour with Chinese five-spice powder to sprinkle on top of the fruit.
Here's one thing you should know about me: I'm a bit of an exhibitionist. No raised eyebrows, now. What I mean is that I really like to cook with spectators. We have a good kitchen for it. I work at the long granite-topped peninsula that separates the kitchen from the dining room, then clear it off and put out the food so guests can serve themselves before sitting down. I can be in the kitchen and at the party at the same time - my favorite combination.
If you're in southern California and find yourself free on a Friday night, whoever you are, drop me a line and drop in for dinner. Nothing would make me happier.