Like most of us home cooks, my mom loved to try new recipes. No matter what else was happening in my life or hers, I could always get a ready answer when I asked what she’d made Charlie (my stepfather, an appreciative eater) for dinner. “Shrimp curry,” she’d say for example. “Only I was out of rice so I used spaghettini.” She was big on such substitutions, registering them carefully next to the recipe in whatever cookbook she was using.
A couple of years after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, she and Charlie downsized to an assisted living facility. She bequeathed to me one of her favorite cookbooks, Cooking for Applause, published in 1981 as a fundraiser for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. I opened it for the first time recently, more than a year after her death, and was moved to tears. There was so much of her in it. It was like walking into her kitchen. She had tried many of the recipes, her comments noted in pencil or faded ink. Several bore her most severe criticism, the imprimatur “NG,” code for Not Good.
But her favorite recipes are easy to spot: the messy ones. If you cook from cookbooks, I hope your favorite recipes are spattered, smudged and dog-eared. I have never understood the point of using those prissy, cumbersome plastic cookbook protectors. What are you saving it for, Sotheby’s? Messy cookbooks give a kitchen soul and provide guidance to others who might use the book after you.
All-time messiest cookbook
My most tragic-looking book, practically a biohazard, is my copy of Beyond Parsley, the second cookbook produced by the Junior League of Kansas City, Mo. I spent an entire decade feeding my friends almost solely (did you get my pun?) from BP, and not only because I was a proud member of the League. Every recipe is solid gold. Here’s a four-star April dinner party plan, all out of BP: serve Fried Walnuts with drinks, then sit down to Hearts of Palm Salad with herb dressing. Follow with Halibut on the Grill, accompanied by Sesame Asparagus and Party Potatoes. Panache Truffle Cake (thank you, Sharon Hoffman) is the perfect dessert.
If you don’t have a copy of Beyond Parsley, email me and I will send you messy PDFs of these recipes or any I describe herein.
A frosty pitcher of fabulousness
We’re coming into the glorious season when one invites one’s homies over for casual cocktails on the deck/patio/veranda/balcony/porch. I like to bust out a big, pretty pitcher of a classic potable like frozen margaritas. I’ve made my Friday Night ‘Ritas for a Crowd so many times I don’t need a recipe, messy or otherwise. But I will send you detailed instructions if you email me. Ask nicely and I will throw in two other well-used recipes, Hyde Park Sangria and Merrily’s Mojitos.
You can start me up
In days of yore I would begin every dinner party with a fussy appetizer, served during pre-dinner cocktails. It took me years to realize fancy starters are a waste of effort. People are too busy talking and drinking to focus on one’s labored-over appie. These days I put out bowls of spiced nuts, olives and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and call that my starter. But when I’m asked to bring an appetizer to a party, I have a repertoire of messy recipes from which to choose.
My messiest is Fiesta Pickled Shrimp, a perfect solution for the time-challenged appetizer-bringer because you use frozen shrimp and marinate it for two days; the frozen-shrimp texture goes completely away. And it looks gorgeous mounded on a white platter, garnished with fresh dill. Sugared Bacon from BP (although in the brunch, not the appetizer chapter) is another delicious appetizer option. You will be amazed at how quickly it disappears.
Go see Jenny!
I asked Jenny Steffens Hobick, native Kansas Citian and author of the gorgeous food and entertaining blog “Everyday Occasions,” for her messiest dinner party recipes. If you haven’t seen Jenny’s blog, drop everything and bookmark it; it will inspire you. She, like me, is a fan of Ina Garten, and her new favorite dinner party main course is the Slow-Roasted Tenderloin from Foolproof, the Contessa’s latest book. With the beef, she likes to serve, also from Foolproof, Balsamic-Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Orange-Braised Carrots and Parsnips. If you don’t have Foolproof yet, Jenny and I both urge you to trot right out and buy it; it’s destined to become one of your messiest books.
I have a trove of other trusted, oft-requested dinner party selections which I have scanned into messy PDFs: BP’s Shrimp Caneel with Creamy Lemon Rice; The Contessa’s Boeuf Bourguignon; Smoked Salmon Lasagna, and Country Style Rigatoni, which I first tasted at the table of the insufferable food snob Donald Loncasty.
OMG, this dessert is so good!
Jenny also has bestowed upon me a recipe of her own creation, Molten Chocolate Cakes, a monster hit whenever she serves them. They are simple to make, with ingredients she always has on hand, the main one being chocolate chips. Email me and I will send you a PDF of Jenny’s handwritten recipe. No discussion of messy dessert recipes would be complete without a mention of Buena Vista Coconut Cake, my most requested recipe. It’s really just a doctored-up cake mix, with a frosting made from whipping cream, sour cream, powdered sugar and, of course, coconut. I can make this cake in my sleep and haven’t needed to consult my recipe for years, but I have committed it to paper just for you.
The two Irmas
My mother’s favorite dessert recipe was Brownies Cockaigne (no drug jokes, please) from The Joy of Cooking, written by another St. Louis girl, Irma Rombauer. Mom referred to the book simply as Irma. (“Let’s see what Irma has to say about chicken and dumplings.”) She cooked from Irma so often, in fact, that the book finally broke into equal halves, which she still used for years. The two Irmas must have been thrown away in the downsize. I’d give anything to have them on my bookshelf now.