Monday, October 27, 2008

dinner for an old friend

Cooking a meal for someone is an incredibly intimate act. It may not be the most intimate thing you can share, but it's pretty close.

Dinner parties are all about making great food and wanting people to be full and happy. But when you cook for someone—whether you're nuking some nachos or preparing a five-course meal—you're also seeking approval. Does he like the salad? Is there too much salt? Are they really enjoying dessert, or just being polite? In between bites, you really want your friends and family to think you're clever, or cool, or talented, or maternal, or thoughtful, or all of the above. When I cook for Dan, I want him to feel cared for, when I cook for friends, I want them to be impressed, when I cook for my family, I want them to be proud of me. Of course, I want people to enjoy themselves. But deep down, at times unconsciously, I want people to like me.

My dinner parties are all about other people, but they are also about me. Does that make me a narcissist? Maybe. At least everyone's getting something out of it, right?

Last Saturday, Megan, one of my best friends from childhood, came over for dinner. From age twelve to nineteen, we spent hours on the phone talking about God knows what, shared Sassy magazines, went trick-or-treating together and later, to prom with our boyfriends. We swore we'd always be best friends. And then we went our separate ways to college and like a lot of high school friends, new experiences and people and interests formed an enormous gulf between us.

And now we're adults. With jobs, and serious relationships, and suddenly living in New York at the same time. It's kind of weird, thinking about what Megan was like when she was thirteen and now she's sitting in my living room, almost thirty. And I'm almost thirty too. So much time lost and so many things to learn about each other and catch up on—if we can get past the time lost.

I think we can.

It begins with a meal. A meal designed for a cool and rainy fall night, but also to help her see what I'm about now and what I've been doing all this time. Although we all know a meal can't really do that. At best, a good meal can silence the fumbling awkwardness. It can inspire people to sit a little closer and tell stories and listen and really, truly laugh.

Dinner for Megan
Lamb meatballs with yogurt sauce

Roasted beet salad with fried capers and parsley
Garlic soup with mussels
Pear crisp

Garlic Soup with Mussels
As Wednesday Chef says, this soup (shown above) puts moules frites to shame. It's the perfect impressive yet easy dinner party recipe.
(Serves 4 people)

2 lbs. mussels, scrubbed and debearded
1 cup dry white wine
3 Tbsp. olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 baguette, cut into 12 (half-inch) slices
1 egg yolk
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Gruyere
1 to 2 tsp. piment d'Espelette or chili powder (I used paprika)

Place the mussels, wine and 1 cup of cold water in a large saucepan over moderately high heat. Cover and cook until the shells open, 4 to 6 minutes. Strain the mussels into a colander, collecting the juices in a bowl placed below. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over low heat, add the garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, until pale gold, 3 to 4 minutes. Do not let brown. Add the mussel juice to the garlic, raise the heat to medium and bring to a boil. Cover, lower the heat to very low, and simmer for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the mussels from the shells. Lightly toast the bread. Remove the soup from the heat. Combine the egg yolk, vinegar and a couple tablespoons of the soup in a mixing bowl and beat vigorously with a whisk until the mixture gets foamy. Slowly pour the mixture back into the remaining soup, continuing to beat with a whisk. To serve, place a few baguette slices, 3 to 4 tablespoons of grated cheese and some mussels on the bottom of 4 wide soup bowls, cover with soup and dust with piment d'Espelette (or paprika).

Beet Salad with Horseradish and Fried Capers
Another winner from Wednesday Chef! The fried capers really make this salad, don't skip this step. I added sprigs of flat-leaf parsley for color and a bit of greenery, but you could also use watercress or maiche. I also recommend peeling the beets ahead of time because it's easier to peel them before you roast them and they get soft.
(Serves 4 people)

1 1/2 lbs. small beets, trimmed, scrubbed, and peeled
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for beets and frying capers
2 Tbsp. salt-packed or brined capers
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 1/2 Tbsp. horseradish, more to taste
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp. sour cream
Salt to taste
Handful flat-leaf parsley, stems removed

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place beets on half of a large piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil. Fold the foil and seal the edges. Lay package on a baking sheet and place it in the oven. Roast until beets are tender, 45 to 60 minutes. (Test by poking a fork through the foil into a beet.) Remove from the oven. Be careful when opening the foil; steam will race out. When they've cooled slightly, slice the beets into wedges slice into wedges and place in a bowl. Soak salt-packed capers for 10 minutes, drain, rinse, then pat dry. (If using brined capers, drain and pat dry.) Pour 1/2 inch olive oil into a small saucepan over medium-high heat. When oil is hot enough to toast a bread crumb in 30 seconds, add capers. Be careful; oil may sputter. Fry until capers fluff and begin to brown on edges, 30 to 60 seconds. Drain on paper towels. In a small bowl, whisk together mustard, horseradish and vinegar. Whisk in 1/4 cup oil, followed by sour cream. Pour half the dressing over beets; mix. Taste, adding more dressing or salt, if needed. Plate the beets and sprinkle with fried capers and parsley.


Anonymous said...

Love the salad's dramatic color contrast!
It looks yummy.

Daniel said...

On last week's More Fast Food My Way, Jacques Pepin suggested serving fried capers by themselves as an appetizer.

I'm not one to argue with Grandpa Jacques, but they were a bit salty to stand on their own.

Great flavor/texture contrast (since we're talking about contrasts!) with the beets, though.

Maybe a good bar snack?

Vanessa said...

Yeah it seems like you'd need something sweet (like beets) or mild to counter the strong flavor. MMm, like slabs of fresh mozzarella, that'd be yummy too maybe.

It's nice to eat something at a dinner party that's been debearded--since you took the time to do so yourself, shouldn't your dinner?

Daniel said...

I must confess, I hadn't debearded for several days at the time of this dinner party. The mussels were classier than I was!

Lisa said...

Are mussels the Katie Holmes of the seafood world? Discuss.

Anonymous said...

What an insightful and honest commentary on why people want, need and love to cook. I showed it to Larry because I've never been able to properly explain my cooking obsession to him and I think he finally got it. Also, I guess that's why I want to make the turkey.

Megan and Butch! said...

I'm so lame, I actually cried reading this entry.
Thanks for such a wonderful dinner, Lisa. It's so nice to have you back in my life.


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