Saturday, October 2, 2010

Friday dinners: The luxury of time

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This is my entry for the third round of Project Food Blog, Foodbuzz's contest to find the next food blogging star. Today's challenge: Host a luxurious dinner party. I'll let you know when the voting starts - and thanks to all of you who've helped me get this far. Thanks also to Nathan Janos for his beautiful photos.

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.



A few Fridays ago a friend from work came to dinner with his girlfriend and his mother. Interesting, the way it happened: I'd never had an opportunity to work directly with Nate, an MIT alum who does something I'll never understand involving algorithms and higher math, but he came by my desk from time to time to chat about food and ask for recipes. Then, a few months ago, he emailed: "So what does it take to get an invitation to dinner in Erika's kitchen?" I was flattered. We set a date. I also invited 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.

23 comments:

Dorothy at Shockinglydelicious said...

OMG, we are THERE!

Monet said...

I only wish I was in California! I would love to come over to your house for one of these Friday night dinners. In fact, I'm almost tempted to just buy myself a ticket! You did an amazing job on this challenge. I so enjoyed seeing you prepare and host such a lovely dinner. Thank you for sharing, Erika. You have my vote!

Mardi @eatlivetravelwrite said...

Oh Erika I love the theme of your dinner. I can totally relate to needing the luxury of time in September, the worst month of the year for me! You can come over any time and cook my Friday dinner!! Good luck my friend!

Sippity Sup said...

"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."

You are such a good writer! GREG

Erika said...

@Sippity - Thank you for noticing that sentence. I was particularly pleased when that one came out of my fingers.

Food, she thought. said...

I love your take on luxury. What a beautiful family and welcoming home. And that food don't look too bad either.

Foodie said...

I can so relate to your theme, time is such a luxury for so many these days! I love that your writing is so warm, inviting and family-based. Dinner looks yummy!

The Cilantropist said...

I love that you put out veggies before every meal!! Such a good mom. :) And truly time is a luxury, and time with family and friends is even more of a luxury. Great post, I would definitely love to drop by for dinner!

PS. Agree with Greg, great sentence about Friday dinner and weekend.

A Thought For Food said...

Ha! I love your menu... what a creative way of phrasing the courses. I'm curious to see that plum tart recipe... I did a plum dessert too.

Fun As We Go said...

Those puff pastry twist turn me on! Looks delicious and I would love to join you for dinner on Friday night, I am right in Hermosa Beach :) I think I can learn a lot from you!

Nancy said...

Hi Erika!!

Ok, I have to admit it - I got a little "teary" reading this post! Time spent with family and friends around the table is precious and indeed a luxury. To me, this post hit it out of the park!!!!

Also have to say that I truly loved this -"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."

Whitney said...

We have an open door policy on dinner too! I loved this tender post, congrats! you get my vote!

http://whitneysamusebouche.blogspot.com/

Whit

Brooke@foodwoolf said...

What a beautiful meal from a gracious host. What a great night to celebrate time and great company. I love how generous you are with your time, your food, and your friendship. You know you have my vote!

Food o' del Mundo said...

You make me miss my family and the regular gatherings. LOVE your table!
Voted.
~ Mary

Daily Spud said...

I have to say that being in the kitchen and at the party at the same time is also my favorite combination :) And I second SippitySup's shout out for the line about the Friday dinner ending the week like punctuation ending a sentence - it's a sentence to be proud of and a sentence worth voting for. My only regret now is that I live nowhere near Southern California, otherwise I would be taking up your invitation to drop in for dinner!

Julie @ Willow Bird Baking said...

Voted for you for great writing :)

My dinner party was designed to take the diner food from Gooch's Diner, where my parents first met over 40 years ago, and elevate it to luxury for their 39th wedding anniversary. Come see if you'd like :)

Jessica said...

Everything sounds delicious! Hope we both make it to the next round! :-) You have my vote!

Daydreamer Desserts said...

Hey... no fair, you picked the worst evening traffic day for the invite! ;) Voting, darlin'.

Lindsey @ FRESH AIR + FRESH FOOD said...

Love the way you write - and that plum tart looks amazing! I'm sending a vote your way!

http://www.foodbuzz.com/project_food_blog/challenges/3/view/1176

onlinepastrychef said...

I feel like I can see you in your kitchen, browning chicken and mincing shallots--your words are your pictures (although your photos are amazing, too:). You have one of my votes, for sure, Erika!

Erika said...

Everyone - your comments are making me proud, humbled and teary! Thank you so much for your support for Project Food Blog, but more important, thank you for taking the time to read my words and share your reactions. I am trying to keep up with all of yours, too....

Libby said...

OMG roasted broccoli is my favorite! Even the stems are delicious when roasted. This post was so well written, and you're right, TIME is the ultimate luxury. Your take on the dinner party was so refreshing, cheers! You got my vote! Hope we both make it through :) :) http://bit.ly/cNNCrR

She's Cookin' said...

Congrats on progressing to the next round with your Friday night dinner party. It truly speaks to the lifestyle that the majority of us live and you have artfully created a luxuriously delicious spread - I can hear the oohs and aahs and collective sigh of relief that greets the weekend :) Hope you had a fun day at the Ferry Building -wish I could have joined you.

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