by John Ryan
Here's an idea: invite someone over, make something pleasant to eat, talk for a while, and call it a night.
Though it sounds simple enough, chances are that by the time your friend knocks on the door, this simple get-together will have become An Event. You'll know that it's happened when you find yourself cleaning parts of the toilet you can't see. Or when you realize that you've given the day over to shopping, chopping, spending too much for wine, and generally knocking yourself out to make it all look effortless.
Sure, it's insane, but anything less has become practically illegal. Thanks to TV chefs and life-style gurus, entertaining has become less about getting together and more about proving one's fluency with centerpieces and herb sprigs.
When entertaining is so much about showing off, it becomes a huge problem. First, anything you know how to make is automatically out of the question. It's like the joke about not wanting to belong to any club that would accept you as a member—you assume that any dish you know how to make must be second rate.
So who do we turn to? Personalities who would never invite us to dinner.
That could be fine, except that they are usually staggeringly dishonest. How else could they present feasts that look like catered events and call them casual?
So my idea of a casual menu?
First, I'm not a fan of appetizers. Partly because I don't normally have them, but mostly because I've rarely tasted an hors d'oeuvre that was worth the work. However, I'll admit that offering something does smooth out the time it takes to get dinner on the table. This time of year I might go with artichokes. I'm not talking about an elaborate recipe, just a couple artichokes steamed and served with mayonnaise or vinaigrette. They're easy and delicious. They take a lot of time to eat and you have to use your fingers (which is an added bonus—eating with your fingers knocks the stuffiness out of any occasion.)
If dessert is necessary—and I'm not convinced it is—consider small cookies or chocolates. Forget about making puff pastry or investing in a rich cake from a bakery. Most of the time I'm full after dinner and I don't want another 3000 calories anyway. With cookies I can have one or two. Besides, they don't require a new round of dishes and they allow everyone to leave the table and move into another room.
Contrary to the current entertaining ethic, I feel that dinner itself should be something you thoroughly know how to make. Even if your best friends are coming over, who needs the anxieties of a new dish? This time of year it might be the pork and shiitake mushrooms that follows. But whatever you decide on, you want something that doesn't require the kind of split second timing you would expect from a pit crew at the Indy 500.
The point is, after all, to enjoy each other's company.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page modified April 2001
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