My friend Mike (of Paloma fame) loves to make cocktails, so I love to invite him over for get-togethers. He brought this lovely pink concoction to our Prospect Park picnic the other week. (Another reason I like Mike is that he thought ahead and pre-batched it in a plastic pitcher, so we could make it past the park gates.) It's a pleasingly tart mixture of grapefruit and lime juice, honey simple syrup, bitters, and gin. "It's practically a health drink," as he likes to say. I'll just say that it goes down pretty easy. And look at that, it matches my nail polish, too.
Mike calls this drink the Colonial, and I believe it's a riff on the original Colonial cocktail, which also involves maraschino liquor and bizarrely, an olive. I'll stick to Mike's version, thanks.
(Makes 1 drink) 1/2 grapefruit, juiced (red or white) 1/2 lime, juiced 1 generous Tbsp. honey or honey simple syrup Half a dozen dashes of bitters 1 3-4 oz. shot gin
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, and shake until combined. Pour into a Martini glass (or plastic cup) over ice.
2. When was the last time you threw a dinner party, and who was invited?
I threw a potluck not too long ago at my apartment. It was a smattering of friends, some whom I hadn't seen in a long time, and others I do practically every day. It's always fun to mix people whom you think would get along, or should meet one another in a room. That, I think, is one of the keys to being a good dinner party host.
3. What is the best menu you've ever made for company?
I have no idea, there's been too many! But since it's still fresh, maybe a holiday dinner party for 25 people in Brooklyn. Main course was a ham from my friend's farm in Vermont, stabbed with cloves and the whole nine yards. Sides included beet and citrus salad, crunchy savoy cabbage salad with nuts and lemon, and I made four types of ice cream for dessert -- peppermint, molasses, orange-spice and honey malt barley (it was a company dinner party for Sixpoint).
4. What's your preference: wine, beer, cocktails?
I like them all! And lately, kombucha.
5. What's your favorite dinner party soundtrack?
Maybe a little bit of finger-snapping, jazzy Nina Simone to get started, then move onto Jobim/Gilberto sambas during the dinner, or something else subdued and comforting. Then afterwards, crank it up with anything and everything you want to blast! Lately, for me that would be Purple Rain.
6. Some friends are coming over for a last-minute dinner. What do you make?
It definitely depends on what's in my fridge already. Usually, there's bunches of vegetables, eggs, and bits and pieces of leftover things. So I might go with making breakfast at night -- an omelet. Or serving some fried rice or noodles with all sorts of vegetables and eggs. There's always unopened jars of things that I've pickled, so that always works well for appetizers.
7. Do you usually cook everything yourself, or do you have help?
I have help when cooking for large events, which I find myself entwined in a lot -- at supper club dinners, etc. It's fun finding a method to the madness of serving a lot of people together, as fast as possible. But for everyday situations, I'm a solo cook.
8. Do you ever buy store-bought food, or is everything on your table made from scratch?
I simply find it easier, more economical, and often, better, to make the most food from scratch. For instance, mayonnaise is really quick to make, and you can also give it a splash of really good olive oil for a twist. But there are always some things that are going to be much better, and much more fun, when bought from a master, like artisanal cheese, or really great bread.
9. What do you like to serve for dessert?
I'm not huge on desserts, so lately it's been just really good fresh fruit, whatever's in season. I had a bowl of the sweetest cherries from the Greenmarket the other night and thought, "now why mess with such a good thing?"
10. If you could invite anyone over for dinner (living or dead), who would it be?
MFK Fisher, please. I would love to get her drunk on whiskey sodas and hear all her saucy stories, in person. [Photo: courtesy of Cathy Erway]
If you like cooking and comics (and who doesn't?) I highly recommend my friend Vanessa Davis's latest work Kitchen Conniption. She calls it a "sloppy zine, all about the cuisinal arts." In true Vanessa style, it's funny, wise, and full of great stories. (You can see more of her work here.) It also contains tons of recipes (quick polenta, matzoh crack, West African ginger drink, honey beer bread), cooking tips, and other silly stuff.
She also gives Dinner Party a shout-out, so I'm a bit biased, but it's really, really cool.
A picnic calls for bright, fresh salads. Here are two of my current favorites:
Tomatoes + corn + something extra
Take a few very ripe tomatoes, about one per person, plus a handful of grape or cherry tomatoes, if you'd like. Cut them into bite-sized pieces and toss them in a bowl with the raw kernels cut off of two ears of corn. You could add chunks of avocado, some crumbled feta or goat cheese, or shelled edamame or fava beans. Whatever you like. Fresh herbs are nice as well: basil, mint, thyme, oregano, dill. Dress the salad lightly with olive oil and the juice of a lemon (or a generous splash of red or wine wine vinegar). Toss, then add salt and pepper to taste.
Potatoes + green beans + herbs
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Cut up some yellow or red-skinned potatoes into bite-sized slices, about 2 medium potatoes per person. Trim some green beans into one-inch pieces, about a handful per person. Place the vegetables in a roasting pan, spreading them out so they don't overlap too much (you might need an additional pan). Drizzle with olive oil. Roast for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through and starting to brown. The beans will be slightly frizzled. Chop up about a cup of herbs. Dill, tarragon, basil, oregano, chives, whatever you like. Thinly slice a small onion, if you'd like that too. Remove the vegetables from the pan while they are still hot and place them in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together one part white wine vinegar to two parts olive oil. Add a hefty spoonful of mustard. Whisk until smooth and add a generous amount of salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the vegetables, add the chopped herbs, and toss. Eat at room temperature.
I've been lamenting New York quite a bit lately, so I'll say one very great thing about living here: free outdoor concerts. Yes, they can be so crowded it's not even worth it. One year, we went to see David Byrne and had to sit so far back in the woods we could hardly hear him. Another year we saw Richard Thompson and got caught in a sudden downpour, thunder and lightening and mud oozing under our toes. But when it does work out, it is one of life's great pleasures. There's something wonderful about packing a picnic dinner, grabbing a blanket, and listening to live music on a wide expanse of grass as the sun sets. Preferably with some friends.
Which is what we did last Saturday, at the Allen Toussaint show in Prospect Park. I took responsibility for dinner, and our friends Mike and Jo were in charge of covert cocktails and wine ("Nothing in this bag but a blanket, sir!") and cupcakes.
When thinking about what to make, my mind went to all the usual picnic places: chopped vegetable salads, baguette sandwiches, fresh fruit, some cheese. All nice options but I felt like making something heartier, a real dinner we could eat in the grass. After browsing Epicurious, I found a recipe for picnic meatloaf from an old issue of Cookie magazine that made me pause. The photo showed a pinky-brown slab of meat with a perfectly round slice of hard boiled egg in the center. Picnic meatloaf?
"Is this weird?" I asked Dan. "No," he said. "It's like pâté." Now, pâté is something I can get behind.
I like meatloaf as much as the next person but I've never made it before. It's just one of those dishes I never think about. But a nice person at Strauss Free Raised recently sent me some beautiful free-range veal, and there was a pound of ground meat in my freezer, waiting to be used. The recipe called for a mixture of ground chicken and pork, plus chopped up cooked chicken sausages, but I could easily sub out the ground chicken for veal. Picnic meatloaf time!
The recipe also calls for grated apple, thyme, and onions, which I sauteed in a pan to release their sweetness. And the eggs: you nestle three hard boiled eggs down the center of the loaf before you bake it so that each slice, when cut, has a bit of egg in the center, like magic.
Although the loaf came out of the oven perfectly cooked, smelling of apples and pork, I was a little nervous to bust it out at dinner. What if everyone was expecting sandwiches? And did Jo eat meat? (Later, I found out she doesn't.) Oh, well. Picnic meatloaf it would be. Into the Tupperware it went.
To my relief, everyone was game. No one shrunk away. Jo even took a few bites, proclaiming it delicious. Served up with a roasted potato and green bean salad and some fresh corn and tomatoes, it was the nicest picnic I've ever packed. The cupcakes didn't hurt either.
Adapted quite a bit from Cookie magazine via Epicurious. (Serves 6 to 8 people)
Olive or vegetable oil 1 tart apple (such as Granny Smith), peeled and grated 1/3 cup diced onion 1/3 cup bread crumbs 2/3 cup cream (or evaporated milk, any fat content is fine) 2 tsp. dried thyme 1 lb. pound ground veal 1 lb. ground pork 3 cooked chicken sausage links, casings removed, chopped Salt and ground black pepper 1 egg, plus 3 hard-boiled eggs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray. Pour a small amount of olive oil into a saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions, apple, and thyme. Cook until the onions are translucent and the apple has softened. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside the mixture until cool. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients but the hard-boiled eggs. Press half the mixture into the pan, then gently press in the hard-boiled eggs, end to end. Mold the remaining mixture on top. Cover with foil and bake until the juices run clear when you poke the loaf with a sharp knife, 1 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and let cool for 30 minutes. Take the loaf from the pan, let it cool completely, then wrap it well and chill overnight. (If you are pressed for time, I chilled the loaf for three hours in the fridge and it was fine.)
Usually when Dan and I go on vacation, we bring a long list of restaurants we want to try. In Vermont, our friends Mindi and Tom took us to a few breweries, ice cream spots, and one very nice little place for lunch, but we cooked dinner every night. Which was exactly the right thing to do.
I let out a yelp when I saw their kitchen, partially out of excitement, but mostly out of jealousy. My kitchen sucks so bad, people.Not only do they have tons of counter space, they have a huge, stainless steel fridge, three (!) ovens, and plenty of cabinets and drawers to hold everything. (I am sure all of these details are embarrassing Mindi very much.)
But more than all of that, the kitchen was a place we could spend time together. It was so relaxing spending the evenings chopping and stirring alongside one of my closest friends. We listened to music, caught up on all the important stuff, took turns refilling each others' glasses. We drained an impressive number of wine bottles. On our last night in town, we decided to make pizza, which turned into a pizza-off. Tom went the wholesome route with a whole wheat crust, marinara sauce, sauteed peppers and onions, and local goat cheese. I went the not-so-wholesome route with a regular crust, marinara sauce, spicy Italian sausage, and pre-shredded mozzarella from a bag.
Cooking alongside people--something I don't have the space to do at home--is pretty enlightening. I didn't know Tom could make pizza dough, or the proper ratio of whole wheat flour to white flour. I showed him how to use a pizza stone. Which is essentially taking it out of the box, but still. Mindi told me that the way I cut avocados is completely wrong (in half, instead of lengthwise). As a native Floridian, the statement was a bit hard to take. But she was right.
Anyway, back to pizza. Tom and I rolled out the dough, dressed it with toppings, and slid the pies into the oven. I contemplated sabotage but didn't go through with it. About twenty minutes later, both pizzas emerged golden brown and bubbling. Slices were eaten. And seconds, and for some people, thirds. A tie was declared. The slight sweetness of Tom's crust was a nice match for the tangy goat cheese. And my pizza had sausage, which...come on.
More than the tastiness of the pizzas, the main thing I remember is a growing sensation of anger as I chewed Tom's perfectly cooked crust. I thought that the many, many pizzas I had made at home were fine. At times, even delicious. Compared to Vermont-oven pizzas, not so much. Tiny kitchen, I hate you sometimes.
Although it does give me another reason to come back. Guys, can I stop by to use your oven next Wednesday?
Tom's whole wheat pizza crust
Tom's crust is actually a whole wheat version of King Arthur Flour's recipe, a Vermont-based company known for its very high quality flours. Mindi and Tom swear by their products, and after tasting the results, I do as well. Tom made a few adjustments to the pizza making process, which I attempted to reproduce below.
2 tsp. active dry yeast
7/8 to 1 1/8 cups lukewarm water*
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups King Arthur whole wheat flour
1 small handful, cornmeal
*Use the lesser amount in summer (or in a humid environment), the greater amount in winter (or in a dry climate), and somewhere in between the rest of the year, or if your house is climate controlled.
Dissolve the active dry yeast with a pinch of sugar, in 2 Tbsp. of the lukewarm water. Let the yeast and water sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, until the mixture has bubbled and expanded. Combine the dissolved yeast with the remainder of the ingredients.
Mix and knead everything together—by hand, mixer, or bread machine set on the dough cycle—till you've made a soft, smooth dough. If you're kneading in a stand mixer, it should take 4 to 5 minutes at second speed, and the dough should barely clean the sides of the bowl, perhaps sticking a bit at the bottom. Don't over-knead the dough; it should hold together, but can still look fairly rough on the surface.
Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover the bowl, and allow it to rise till it's very puffy. This will take about 90 minutes using active dry. If it takes longer, that's OK; just give it some extra time.
Divide the dough in half, for two pizzas; or leave it whole for one pizza. Shape the dough into a rough circle. In either case, don't pat it flat; just stretch it briefly into shape. Allow the dough to rest, covered with an overturned bowl or lightly greased plastic wrap, for 15 minutes.
Use vegetable oil pan spray (or a bit of olive oil, spread with your fingers) to lightly grease the pan of your choice. Or, if you are using a pizza stone, skip this step. On a clean, dry surface sprinkled with cornmeal, use a rolling pin to roll out the dough. Place the rolled out dough in the prepared pan or stone. Press it over the bottom of the pan, stretching it towards the edges.
*Allow the dough to rise, covered, until it's noticeably puffy, about 90 minutes. (* Tom skipped this step, but it is recommended by KAF.)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Add your toppings to the pizza, and bake it on the lower oven rack about 20 minutes. The crust should be nicely browned, both top and bottom, and the cheese should be melted. Check it midway through, and move it to the bottom rack if the top is browning too much, or the bottom not enough. When done, serve immediately.
Everyone says Vermont is beautiful, but the scenery still exceeded my expectations. My parents drove around the state on a summer vacation many years ago, and when they returned my Dad said they saw "every shade of green you could imagine." I thought about that as we passed by dense forests and greenish-blue mountains, walked across an overgrown field with patches of aromatic wild thyme underfoot, tromped past ferns and verdant moss on a hiking trail. Those bright, clear days and the company of friends relaxed me more than I even thought was possible.
And there was food, of course.
In a very amusing review of a restaurant in our area, the New York Times' food critic Sam Sifton wrote, "The best restaurants give us a taste of the life we aspire to have." I've been turning that phrase over and over in my mind, and think it applies to good meals in general, not just restaurants.
On our second night in Vermont, we grilled tilapia tacos on the deck and ate them with sliced avocado and a creamy, cumin-spiked crema. Soul music played softly from an upstairs window, wine was passed around, the air smelled like fresh grass clippings. The fish was perfectly tender, smoky from the grill. Everyone was relaxed, not thinking about work or anything other than the food and people in front of them.
At that moment, I wanted the patio, the grill, the leafy backyard, the house, the absence of traffic, and even the cute puppy underfoot. City living seemed insane. What was I doing with my life? Who needs the hassle? Why couldn't we live--and eat--like this all the time?
As I settled back into real life, I realized I was being irrational. (An eight-hour train ride will do that to you.) Brooklyn is appealing in its own way. For now, I can look at trees from the window of our third-floor apartment and cook fish indoors on a grill pan. My friends may have an adorable house in an idyllic setting full of farmers markets and breweries, but I have 24-hour bodegas, a giant park around the corner, and a calendar booked with dinners, concerts, plans with friends.
Vacations are are special because they are fleeting, a taste of a different life. But that dinner was the type of meal I want to have all the time, surrounded by people I love, eaten in the quiet, sweet-smelling dusk.
Vermont dinner Tortilla chips and salsa Grilled corn on the cob Tilapia tacos with avocado, tomatoes, red cabbage, and cumin crema
Tilapia tacos (Serves 4 to 6 people)
2 lbs. tilapia filets
2 limes, juiced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno minced
About 4 Tbsp. olive oilSalt and pepper
Flour or corn tortillas
To make a marinade for the fish, put the lime juice, garlic, jalapeno, and olive oil in a large bowl and mix until combined. Place the fish in the bowl and rub the marinade all over. Add a generous amount of salt and pepper. Refrigerate for 1 hour. Heat your grill and cook the fish on both sides until flaky and tender. Serve immediately with tortillas, chopped tomatoes, shredded red cabbage, and sliced avocado.
*To make the crema, combine 1 cup sour cream with the juice of 1 lime, 1 tsp. ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste.