Monday, May 24, 2010

what's for dinner, zora o'neill?

Dear readers, do you know about the book Forking Fantastic: Put the Party Back in Dinner Parties? It's pretty, well, fantastic. Whether you host dinner parties on the regular, or want to try your hand at  your very first one, this book is a smart, fun, and enthusiastic guide. It is nothing like the majority of entertaining books out there, with their fussy rules and tablescapes. The authors, Zora O'Neill and Tamara Reynolds mastered the art of laid-back entertaining through their weekly Sunday Night Dinner supper club, and this book contains plenty of their recipes, game plans, and tips as well as lots of and funny anecdotes. I am very excited to bring you a two-part Q&A with the book's authors. First up: Zora.

1. Name, occupation, and city
Zora O'Neill,
freelance food and travel writer, coauthor of Forking Fantastic! Put the Party back in Dinner Party, New York, NY, in the glorious borough of Queens

2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?

In February, right after we got back from a recent trip to Thailand, we invited some people over for dinner so we could cook some spicy noodles and otherwise cheer ourselves up for no longer being in that land of bountiful and delicious food. We were eleven people--friends and neighbors, with one relatively new-to-the-group person. It wasn't too calculated--but I do like to keep it under a dozen people, or else it gets too loud and you get split between too many conversations. (I really like a group of six or eight, but we never manage to keep it that small.)

For this dinner my husband, Peter, had gone a little crazy shopping at the Thai grocery, and even bought some giant frozen crickets. He fried them up, but said, "I don't think I can eat these!" Our friend Katie, though, didn't even hesitate, and crunched right into one--which made the rest of us a little embarrassed, so we all had to jump in too. Katie is an excellent guest, and not just because she'll eat fried crickets!

3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?

I still think back fondly to an Ethiopian dinner I made while living in Cairo, back in 1998. I'd never cooked Ethiopian food before, but I loved the stuff, and I had a bunch of recipes from the Frugal Gourmet, of all people, which seemed pretty credible. Getting the ingredients wasn't difficult, but we didn't have big platters to serve the food on, like they do in Ethiopian restaurants. So we just covered the table entirely in aluminum foil, and then laid the injera (the stretchy flatbread) and everything out on that. I still remember the sound of long sheets of foil being pulled out of a box--somehow loads of foil always says 'party' to me, whether it's for a table cover or a costume or some other random decorative thing.

I also remember having a minor tantrum in the kitchen at the last minute, when the injera wasn't working out--that was the one recipe where the Frug did not come through. My friend Peter--who just happened to be visiting, and didn't know what he was getting into--kept his cool, though, and we somehow fixed it and carried on. This is probably one of the reasons he much, much later became my husband.

The guests were a lot of my friends in the Arabic program I was in that year--many of whom I'm still close with today. The Ethiopian dinner was just one of many mad projects we took on to distract ourselves from too much homework and other tedious expat problems--and all that definitely brought us closer.

Oh, and I remember sneaking off in the middle of the party and taking a half-hour nap in my bedroom. I'd been cooking all day and was completely wiped. I still do that occasionally. That's how you know you're eating with real friends--they don't mind if you fall asleep!

4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?

Wine, usually, because beer makes me very sleepy, and I can't drink much without feeling too full to eat. But with spicy food, beer still kicks the ass of any riesling or whatever wine people claim is supposed to be good with chili. I especially love a good chelada--the Mexican treatment of beer on ice with lime juice, and salt around the rim of the glass.

A good cocktail at the start of the evening is a delectable thing, though, and can be great for stimulating the appetite. I just wish I had the foresight and calm to make one for people when they arrive...and then also was able to deliver dinner on time, before they have a chance to get too wasted on the hard stuff. Because I can't do this, cocktails are rarely served at my house, unfortunately.

5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?

I'm rarely organized enough to pick out music beforehand, and the early part of guests arriving is usually just the same stuff I was playing while cooking. I delegate that job to a guest. I've had people sit and compose iTunes playlists for an hour, instead of talking to people, but I think that's great! We also have a record player, so it's fun for other people to flip through the stacks and play DJ.

Tamara and Karl (her husband) and I made playlists for various dinner situations and put them up on our book website. Karl's "Summer Fried Chicken" mix is an especially great combo of outdoor party music.

6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner. What do you make?

My default thing is something pasta-y, as it's just a good blank slate for a random assortment of things from the fridge and pantry--pull it all together, and you can wind up with a substantial meal. In the summer, there's this great lemon-basil pasta recipe I have; in the winter, it might be something more like a lamb ragu.

If it's truly last-minute, like the day before or the same day, I really just pull out whatever I've got, and try to keep extra shopping to a minimum--I figure the important thing is the people, and as long as we don't go hungry, we'll be fine. I really like the creative challenge of making something out of apparently nothing.

But if I'm planning ahead a little bit, like more than a few days, then I also really enjoy the process of sitting down with the cookbooks and figuring out a full menu where all the flavors and textures go together. Then making lists, and all that. For me, the organizing part can be just as satisfying as the cooking.

7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?

My husband is a good cook himself, so he usually does one or two things at least to help out. And sometimes he takes over almost entirely if the menu is more his forte--he's more confident with a wok, for instance. I occasionally set aside tasks like picking herbs from stems or grating cheese, and leave that for the first couple of people who show up and say, "What can I do? Put me to work!" But just as often, it makes me feel a little more organized just to do that stuff myself and know it's done.

8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?

Just about everything is made from scratch--I like the challenge. I think the only product I buy is Sabra hummus, and I'll occasionally buy other mezze, such as taramosalata and stuffed grape leaves, from our neighborhood Greek grocer because we happen to have such a good one. And we have good Middle Eastern and Indian flatbreads in our neighborhood too, so I'll buy those.

9. What do you like to serve for dessert?

Something fruity, if possible--it just seems better for the digestion. Honestly, dessert is often a bit of an afterthought. After Tamara and I finished the cookbook, I realized we didn't have a single chocolate dessert--and I doubt we've ever made one together. I certainly love chocolate, but it is often just too deadly after a big meal. I don't want people to hurt themselves! I'd rather serve people yogurt with honey and a little fruit, and be done with it, than trot out some ridiculously rich confection that makes people groan with delight...and then hate themselves later.

10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?

Robert Farrar Capon, who wrote The Supper of the Lamb, a beautiful and witty book about food that I often reread for inspiration. Then again, I might be a little tongue-tied if I met him in person--but to judge by his writing, he seems like he would be a thoroughly charming guest.

[Photo: Peter Moskos]


Anonymous said...

Just wondering how a supper club is formed?
Different people each week? Standing invitation?

AV said...

The Ethiopian dinner in Cairo with its foil-wrapped tables (and, if I remember correctly, table-tops raised off of the ground on cans so that we could all sit on the floor) has been one of the most memorable meals of my life.

Daniel said...

I hope the Summer Fried Chicken Mix included Memphis Women and Chicken by Dan Penn!

Lisa said...

Anony: I think you could do it either way. I'm sure Zora and Tamara could provide more info, but Cooking Light has some basic info on getting started:

AV: Wow, I would think so!

Daniel: Mmm...fried chicken.

Sarah from 20somethingcupcakes said...

I love these posts! Keep 'em coming! xxSAS

Lisa said...

Sarah: Thank you!


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