The world can be divided into two categories: Those who are good kitchen help, and those who are not. My husband of 33 years, God love him, falls solidly into the latter category. He cares nothing of culinary matters, although he cheerfully will snarf down pretty much anything I set before him. And he does empty out the dishwasher every morning. But other than that, he is all thumbs in the kitchen. I cannot, when we have parties, count on him to be my helpmeet at the sink, the stove, the cutting board. For that, I turn to friends who share my fondness for cooking. And I like to think they turn to me. In fact, some of the happiest, most companionable times of my life have been spent cooking with friends and family. But I also have endured a few cooking-with-others experiences that were no fun at all. Here are a few thoughts about how to have a good time cooking with friends.
“What can I do to help?”
It’s the universally asked party-guest question. I used to assume my guests were only asking to be polite and would in turn politely reject their offers. It took me a while to realize that most folk—even those who are inept kitchen help—are happy to be asked to do some little thing. People want to be a part of something larger than themselves, like a rockin’ dinner party.
Giving your guests small tasks is a great way to make them feel connected to the party. The kitchen is where the action is, and it’s fun to be there, but nobody wants to work too hard. It’s best to have everything done that can be done before the doorbell rings, and then make assignments of the little last-minute tasks.
When you give a guest a job, make sure he or she has a fresh cocktail, and get the tunes cranked up in the kitchen. Equip them with the tools they need. If you ask them, say, to chop some chives, don’t make them root around your kitchen for a knife and cutting board. And always make sure they know where the trashcan is.
We never stop learning
Julia Child said “the more you learn about food, the more you understand how little you know.” I always learn something when I help people in their kitchens. Everybody has their own little tricks to share. My friend Bernie Ashcraft is a hospital pharmacist. She always claims to be an indifferent cook, but I’ve learned a million little tricks from her, because she is meticulously organized, even for the most casual meal. It was from her that I learned the best technique for making Smashed Potatoes, the perfect accompaniment for a big ol’ juicy steak. (ironic because Bernie is a vegetarian). Email me for her recipe.
The Insufferable Food Snob Don Loncasty is an unending font of kitchen tips and shortcuts. I always learn from him. For example, he taught me how to make homemade pasta using a special attachment to my KitchenAid mixer; he taught me how much better kale is when you chop it in the blender; and he taught me that you can use one simple ramekin to mold chopped Cobb Salad into elegant little mounds. For his recipe, (which, actually, he stole from our friend Dan Nilsen, who got it from his mom), email me.
This can’t be said often enough
If you make a dish to bring to a dinner party, prepare everything, and I mean everything, at home. If you are going to make a mess, darling, do so in your kitchen, not your host’s where, at party time, every inch of counter space is precious. This is a point I’ve mentioned several times in the decade I have been writing this column, and I always get a number of emphatic “Amen, Sister’ emails and a funny story or two.
Avoid piping hot or icy cold dishes, unless you are certain there is oven and fridge space. If you are bringing something store bought (no crime in that), put it on a pretty platter or bowl and, for extra points, drop a garnish on it.
Beware the Kitchen Triangle
My friend Kathy Kelly is, among other things, a fabulous interior designer who has planned her share of swanky kitchens. She uses the term kitchen work triangle. It’s the area containing the stove, refrigerator and sink. In any well-designed kitchen, says Kathy, none of the three elements of the triangle should be more than four steps away from the other.
To me, the lessons of the kitchen work triangle are twofold. Lesson one is you don’t need a big kitchen in order to work efficiently. In fact, I can think of a few kitchens that are a little inefficient because they are so big. Then again, maybe I’m just envious.
Lesson two: if you are a guest and you are not helping, stay outta the triangle. Women seem instinctively to know this. Men, on the other hand, gravitate straight to the triangle and plop themselves right in front of the sink, beer in hand and you have to interrupt their conversation and tell them to move.
Participatory dinner parties
Here are a couple of dinner party concepts that, while not screamingly original, are a really fun way to cook with friends. They are easy on the hosts, because everyone brings something. And they are good solutions if you’re feeding an assortment of vegetarians and carnivores.
Create-your-own pizza party. I use Boboli crusts, but if you’re of a mind, you could make your own pizza crust. I have everyone bring an assigned topping or two—some prosaic, like diced green peppers, others more exotic, like chopped figs or prosciutto ham —then I supply some toppings myself. Before the party I make little place cards identifying each topping, because people like to know what they are eating. I also make a pitcher of Negronis to serve, a nice complement to the pizza theme.
I have people assemble their pies, which then go into the oven. (Important note: put toothpicks out and tell everybody to use them to do some clever identifying thing on their pizza, because the pies all look alike when they come out of the oven.) Then the guests sit down to the table, where I have salads served as a first course, which they can eat while the pizzas are baking. Before the party, make sure you have enough baking sheets and adequate oven space.
Build-your-own taco party. In addition to seasoned ground beef, you can offer fish, carne asada, pulled pork or shredded chicken. I provide taco shells (Old El Paso got smart and started making some that stand up by themselves) as well as flour tortillas. You can also offer imaginative ingredients like arugula, chopped mangoes and cilantro lime sauce—but again, identify ingredients with place cards or some sort of little signs.
It’s also nice to have an assortment of interesting little serving bowls, small serving spoons and tongs. Start collecting them at art fairs, estate sales and flea markets and you’ll have a good mix in no time.
The perfect end-of-summer party cocktail
I’m always looking for adult beverages one can make by the pitcher and serve over ice. This is a refreshing, warm-weather drink, with a tropical twist. You can make a separate, booze-free batch for the nondrinkers.
The Tiki Torch
1 part orange juice
1 part pineapple juice
1 part lemon-lime soda
1 part club soda
2 parts coconut rum (adjust if you want it boozier)
Chill ingredients, and blend them together in a big pitcher or punch bowl. Pour over ice in a tall, pretty glass (hurricane glasses are the best). Garnish with a chunk of pineapple.