There have been a few meals in my dinner party-throwing history that made me feel like I'd hit a home run. Not just in the quality and variety of food on the table, but in how fun the night was, how late people stayed, how much I laughed and really enjoyed myself. Nights like those make you feel like you've conjured something magical. And some nights, well, not so much.
After a dinner party is over, I pat myself on the back then think about all the things I'd do differently: we should have played less Bob Dylan on the iPod, there should have been a lighter dessert after such a rich meal, I should have made more salad/guacamole/chocolate cake, I should have made less salad/guacamole/chocolate cake, I should have stayed out of the kitchen more, I should have had fewer gin and tonics. As Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel so brilliantly says on The Simpsons: "Shoulda but didn'ta."
Maybe this line of thinking is unproductive, or obsessive, or overly negative. Cooking a multi-course meal for several people in a small kitchen is no easy feat and I always feel a small sense of achievement every time people come over hungry and leave full. But sometimes I wonder whether they like my cooking as much as they say they do. When I eat at other people's houses everything seems impressive. I'm bowled over by cocktails, a bowl of nuts on the coffee table, pretty napkins on peoples' plates.
These are the kinds of things I do myself, but because I do them on automatic pilot, they don't seem as interesting, as special. Can we ever truly judge our own efforts without a cloud of self-doubt getting in the way?
The other weekend, Dan and I had three friends over for antipasti, linguine Bolognese, salad, and a chocolate-pear tart. It was a fine menu in my mind--the sort of uncomplicated, rustic comfort food I like best. The sauce, a speedier version of the classic Bolognese came together easily and made the house smell wonderfully of meat and tomatoes and sauteed onions. It was rich and brick-colored and I couldn't wait to serve it over steaming bowls of pasta.
Which I did. Maybe I served too much pasta because a few bowls were still full when I cleared everyone's plates before dessert. Or maybe the sauce wasn't as good as I hoped it would be? It was rich with pork and beef and a little sweet from the tomatoes and carrots, but somehow it didn't have the depth of flavor that I associate with Bolognese. Maybe because my version took one hour, as opposed to three.
There was a lot of leftover pasta. "It's so good but I ate too many appetizers," said one friend with a famously robust appetite. Hmm. I liked it myself, but wanted a little more oomph, a little more something.
The tart I made for dessert was tasty, but not the way I imagined it as I rolled out the dough and arranged slices of pears on top. The chocolate chips I sprinkled over the pears had re-hardened after the tart cooled and now they looked kind of silly. I should have warmed the tart in the oven before serving it. Shoulda but didn'ta.
After dinner, as Dan and I stood side by side washing and drying dishes at the sink, I asked him, "Did you really like that dinner? Be honest."
"Yeah, I did," he said. "Why?"
"I feel like I have a hard time evaluating my own cooking. Sometimes I know it's really good, but most of the time it doesn't measure up to how I wanted it to be in my mind. That Bolognese was fine, but I thought it could be better. I wonder whether my cooking is as good as people say."
"Oh, I'd definitely tell you if something wasn't good. Everyone likes your cooking and appreciates that you do it."
I believed him but didn't feel convinced.
A few days later I was at a party with some friends including Colin and Anne, two of the people we had over for Bolognese. As we nursed our plastic cups of wine, they brought up the dinner and how much they liked it. "Really?" I asked. "Because I wasn't sure if it was all that great."
"I knew it!" Anne said.
"Knew what?" I asked.
"I told Colin that you were doubting your cooking abilities, but we've never had a bad meal at your house," she said. "You are the most consistent cook we know."
Between the wine and the compliments, I am sure my face was pretty red.
Is there a moral to this story? I guess its that no one is harder on you than yourself. It's true! People, myself included, love a homecooked meal and are happy to be fed by anyone other than themselves. No one is thinking about the stupid little thing you're mentally kicking yourself over. I'm going to remind myself of this the next time I overcook the meat or forget to buy the ice cream.
Some meals are just better than others. And every time you have people over it's a clean slate, a brand new chance to make something delicious, to create a perfect night.
Saturday night dinner with friends
Red leaf lettuce with red onions and Parmesan
(Serves 6 to 8 people)
2 28 oz. cans whole tomatoes with juice or crushed tomatoes
3 Tbsp. olive oil
6 oz. pancetta or 6 slices bacon, finely chopped
1/4 lb. ground pork (not lean)
1/4 lb. ground beef chuck (not lean)
1/4 lb. ground veal (I used 1/2 lb. beef, and omitted the veal)
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 carrot, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. kosher salt (I used much more, taste as you go)
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. linguine (or other pasta such as spaghetti, ziti, or orecchiette)
Grated Parmesan, for a garnish
If using whole tomatoes, in blender or food processor, purée tomatoes with juice. Set aside. In large, heavy pot over moderate heat, heat oil until hot but not smoking. Add pancetta and sauté until golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Add beef, pork, and veal (if using) and sauté, breaking up meat with back of spoon, until browned, 7 to 8 minutes. Add onion and carrot and sauté until vegetables are tender, 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in red wine and simmer, scraping up browned bits stuck to bottom of pan, until liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, cream, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat to moderately low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened and brick-red in color, approximately 30 minutes. In large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta until almost tender. Drain well and toss with sauce. Serve with grated cheese.