To have patience with imperfection is almost to guarantee a good time.
In my experience, the most enjoyable gatherings are simple, unorthodox, and occasionally even botched. One of my favorites was a fiesta-style indoor block party to which I invited the entire neighborhood by tucking flyers into their mail slots. “Come me neighbors and tally me bananas!” I proclaimed to the twenty houses on my street. I cooked enough for sixty and patiently awaited the throngs. An hour after everyone was supposed to be there, only two people had shown up. But the food was spicy, the conversation lively, and by the end of the night, I unexpectedly gained a new best friend. Then there was the time I served gula malaca, a Malaysian pudding, for dessert. It came out viscous and gray. As I spooned it into bowls, one of my guests suggested that I rename it bronchitis. Although my ego was bruised for a moment, the jab was too funny not to laugh at, and the rest of the meal was a smashing success.
There are two essential ingredients for a successful party:
1. To feed people (yourself included).
2. To enjoy people (yourself included).
Whatever gets you to that place most comfortably is the key. Perhaps it’s being super-organized and making a masterpiece dish from Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. Or maybe it’s not planning at all and cooking creatively from your fridge, or serving an entrée you’ve cooked many times before. Or it could be asking everyone to bring food while you supply the wine, or inviting people over for just ice cream. All parties don’t have to be perfectly planned, and they don’t have to make sense. The truth is, there are no rules.
Who says that you have to pass hors d’oeuvres, offer alcohol at a cocktail party, or serve a green vegetable at a dinner party? My friend Patti has a strict policy against appetizers. They’re too much work, and people fill up on them and have no room for dinner. She’d rather concentrate on making the meal, where everyone is seated around the table and can converse in something other than small talk. Another friend, Jane, has a similar rule regarding the end of the evening: no coffee. She hates leaving the table to rush around and brew a fresh pot, and she wants everyone to linger over wine and enjoy the evening. (One time I saw someone sneak in a thermos of coffee—which just added to the fun.) All the unspoken “shoulds” of entertaining can ruin a good time. Most of us love good food and look forward to being with others, but the thought of having people over makes us hyperventilate. We have a picture of the perfect party-giver in our heads. She or he has a gorgeous home, serves fab food without getting frazzled, and carries the conversation with razor- sharp wit. This TV image makes us freeze up. But my dining room doubles as my office, my “china” is from a thrift shop, and my significant other is a cat. None of this stops me from having friends over for a good time.
In this book, I want to lower the bar for entertaining and help get people to gather together more often. Sure it’s sometimes nice to spend half the day in the kitchen preparing a four-course meal, but a good bowl of soup or a cup of chai and some cookies make most people happy. Why not invite some friends over for creamed spinach over whole wheat toast and watch a favorite film? Or host a dinner party in your driveway, as one of my friends once did when she was faced with the problem of fitting twelve guests into her tiny studio apartment.
*** Manageable Meals for Friends
There are few culinary rights and wrongs these days when it comes to planning a dinner. Still, there is some advice worth heeding: • Strive for balance in flavors, colors, temperatures, and textures.
• Repetition does not appeal to the palate. For example, not every course should be pan-fried, and a pureed soup followed by a pureed sauce in the main course is a no-no. Another common error is using an abundance of cream and cheese throughout the menu. One exception: If you want to celebrate a special ingredient, say garlic or a bumper crop of zucchini, it can be fun to incorporate it into each course.
• Bypass convention if you don’t feel up to preparing a “fancy” entrée—serve soup, a substantial salad, and dessert. You can always buy dessert at a nearby bakery or ice cream shop.
• Keep it simple—have one complicated course and keep the rest relatively simple, both for your own sanity and for the well-being of your guests’ digestive tracts.
• If you feel uncomfortable about mixing and matching dishes from around the globe, stick to the same country or at least the same continent.
• Finally, on a more praactical note, don’t choose dishes that all require a lot of last-minute attention. Include some dishes that can be prepared ahead of time so you won’t be overwhelmmmmmed right before dinner.
Parties should be whatever you want them to be. Casual and spontaneous doesn’t mean boring and mediocre. If you’re relaxed, your guests will be too. Sometimes I end up inviting four or five extra people a few hours before a dinner party. I don’t spend a lot of time planning my menu. Usually I peruse my favorite cookbook of the moment for recipes that grab me. If one dish doesn’t fit in seamlessly, I’ll throw caution to the wind and make it anyhow. No one will care about the cohesiveness of the menu, and this way I’ll have more fun cooking. Chances are the food will taste better too. I find it exciting to mix and match dishes that aren’t normally served together when the combination makes sense to me. If you aren’t feeling up to making a fancy entrée, just serve soup, salad, and dessert.
This book is meant to inspire. It reflects my passions: Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indian and French cooking, as well as many other cuisines. The menus will satisfy both serious vegetarians and meat-eaters. More and more people are opting to serve vegetarian meals. Vegetarian eating is a way to help the planet, and entertaining helps us make connections and creates a feeling of community.
But the main reason I entertain is even more basic: to make the people I care about happy and to save them the time and trouble of cooking something for themselves.
This is No Big Deal Entertaining. Add a few friends, get ready for the unexpected, and learn that less than perfect is where the fun is.
How to Have Great Food on Hand
When a friend drops by and you’d like to make dinner but you don’t know what to have, a well-stocked pantry and freezer and a few good recipes on hand will pay off. The emergency entertaining recipes (see pages 166–167) should give you some good ideas.
Keep in mind that many of the recipes in this book—and of course others —can be approximated with ingredients that aren’t perfect substitutes. If you want to make Tofu, Broccoli, and Tomatoes with Curried Peanut Sauce and all you have is frozen tempeh and spinach, you can still make the dish. You’ll just have to free-fall and make an educated guess about whether tempeh and spinach should be cooked in the same manner as tofu and broccoli. You will soon become adept at adapting. Combine the ingredients you have on hand with your recipes and see if there’s something you can make with a substitution or two. No vegetable stock for a risotto? Use more onions and garlic and add a carrot or two. No fresh vegetables, but you have pasta? Mix the pasta with beans or lentils. Whatever...