Have you seen my cooking mojo? Because I have lost it. I’ve not made anything more than a tuna salad sandwich all summer. “I feel like a sham,” I told my husband: “I write a column about entertaining and I’ve all but stopped cooking.” He consoled me, as he often does, by agreeing with me. Although I had not asked him to elucidate, he followed with a line from Woody Allen’s Bananas: “You’re a travesty of a mockery of a sham.” Yes, I am.
I’m not deeply concerned about the lost mojo. It’s happened to me before and I bet it has happened to you, too. But we always get our grooves back, don’t we? In the meantime, I’m still getting friends together for take-out meals at my house and schlepping take-out dishes to friends’ houses. If you are a regular reader of this column, you know I have always advocated for the casual, take-out dinner. I have discovered some fabulous new options and included them here—along with an old standby or two.
A word from the ambience committee
You might be serving “just take-out,” but you still can create a sense of occasion. Serve a festive cocktail and nice wines. Set a cheery table with pretty dishes, fresh flowers and, if it’s dark enough, glimmering candlelight. Don’t forget music. After seeing Love & Mercy, the fantastic biopic about Brian Wilson, I’ve been on a mad Beach Boys jag. It’s good party music, upbeat and evocative for everyone. Crank it up for energy when guests first arrive, then turn it down for conversation.
I’m zealous about Zoës
If you live or work near the Country Club Plaza, you’ve probably noticed Zoës Kitchen, which recently opened across from the tennis courts, where Annie’s Santa Fe used to be—or, if you’re a Gen Xer, where Blonde used to be. Zoës is a chain, a bit like an upscale Chipotle, but with light Mediterranean offerings, including an assortment of “Family Dinners,” perfect casual, take-out fare. Of the entrée options offered, the kabobs are the more party-foodish, especially if you pay a little more for steak and shrimp kabobs. Order a large kabob family dinner, and you will get a tub o’ Greek salad with dressing, ten grilled kabobs and your choice of two sides. I like the orzo tabouli and the white beans (yes, carbs galore!). The package also includes fresh pita triangles and hummus, all for about 50 bucks. Here’s what I adore about Zoës Family Dinners: their online operation is idiot-proof, and they have to-go packaging down to a fine art. They have special parking for people picking up take-out. You can order and pay online then just scamper in and pick up your brilliantly packaged dinner. When you get home, transfer everything onto your most elegant platters and serving dishes, then hide the evidence. Or don’t. I’ve said it a million times and I will say it again: nobody cares if you didn’t make it yourself.
We Kansas Citians are lucky to live in a hotbed of excellent, muy autentico Mexican restaurants, most of them family run. They usually don’t display a catering menu, but most are happy to set you up for success, providing you can get past the language barrier that sometimes exists. My friend Arlette Torres, scarily fluent in Spanish, English and God knows what else, told me the perfect way to ask a Mexican restaurateur to aid and abet you, Say “¡Hola! Me encanta su comida. Quiero servirla en mi casa. ¿Me puede vender (insert food item here) para doce personas?¿Cuánto me cobra?” This means “Hello! I love your food and I want to serve it at my home. Could you sell me (insert food item here) for 12 people? How much will you charge me?”
Of course, you could just bring in your biggest, prettiest casserole dish, point to it and say “Chile Rellenos?” or “Carnitas?” and they would probably get your meaning.
When you aim to impress
James Beard Award-winner Michael Smith is one of the best-known, hardest-working restaurateurs in Kansas City, his name synonymous with inventive, delicious food. When your dinner requires a little more elan, Michael and his equally hard-working wife, Nancy, can lend a hand. “We do platters to-go all the time,” says Nancy, “for all kinds of situations.” She says they will loan you their nice platters and trust you to bring them back, or you can bring in your own serving dishes, and they will assemble the food in them. A perfect September dinner would be the Eight-Hour Pork (my fave — it’s been on his menu since day one) with penne mac and cheese with poblanos and Tomatoes Provencale. Such a meal for eight would set you back about $240, which pencils out to about $30 per person. If I served this dinner, I would not hide the evidence that it was from Michael Smith’s; I would shout it from the rooftops.
By the way, Kansas Citians aren’t the only ones impressed with Michael’s cooking. When the Rolling Stones came to town in June, Mick Jagger popped in for dinner with his posse of six, plus two security guards. He had the wild Chinook salmon and the Sicilian Mafalde (see below for recipe) and cheerfully posed for a photo with Michael and Nancy.
Two more easy-peasy dinner ideas
I am a huge fan of the Gates Barbecue Party Tray. A small tray ($43.50) can feed four very hungry carnivores, a large tray ($79.95), seven. You will want to supplement with potato salad, baked beans, cole slaw, and of course Boulevard Pale Ale. There is a Gates Barbecue near you; locations are strategically placed throughout the metro area.
The Mixx has opened a restaurant in Hawthorne Plaza, to the elation of many in southern Johnson County. Stop by and pick up two full orders each of Palermo Insalada (addictively good tossed salad) and Tomato Basil Pasta with chicken. You’ll have a delicious dinner that serves five to six for about 40 dollars. For extra convenience, order online.
Make this recipe and move like Jagger
This is the pasta dish Mick Jagger ordered at Michael Smith’s restaurant when the Rolling Stones were in town for a concert in June. Reading the recipe almost makes me want to start cooking again. Mafalde is ribbon-shaped pasta with wavy edges.
Michael Smith’s Sicilian Mafalde
20 ounces of fresh or dry mafalde pasta, cooked according to package directions
½ cup roasted yellow peppers (thinly sliced)
½ cup roasted red peppers (thinly sliced)
1 dozen roasted cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoon fresh chopped basil
2 cloves thinly sliced garlic
1 tablespoon fresh chopped oregano
1 tablespoon Calabrian chiles
Caramelize garlic in sauté pan with olive oil, then add rest of ingredients. Sauté together, then add cooked mafalde pasta. Top with grated Romano cheese.