Last night I made dinner for a group of family and friends. I wanted to make something delicious and impressive, since this was a group of pretty sophisticated eaters, but I also needed something that was not spicy (because of my parents), not bizarre (because of Sam) and not too complicated (because I was cooking it on a working day). I decided to make Amy Sedaris’s Pastitsio which is rich, and complex enough to indicate a certain level of “I slaved all day for you.” I must confess before I go on though, that I lied to you all (and I have been thoroughly punished). In the post about Sedaris’s cookbook, I stated that I “often” make the Pastitsio with her Greek Beans and a salad for dinner parties. The truth is, I have made Pastitsio several times, and I always serve it with a salad and a green vegetable, but I had never really made the Greek Beans until last night. Mea culpa. It was a culinary fantasy?
Greek Beans are green beans cooked with carrots and onions in a tomato sauce. It sounded like a great idea; all sort of healthy, and colorful, and light in contrast to the meat-filled, Bechamel-covered Pastitsio. All I know is that the Pastitsio was eaten (even seconds) but the mounds of Greek Beans on plates and in the serving bowl remained fairly constant. They tasted acidic to me, and even my father who loves me dearly said he “didn’t care for them.” I probably did something wrong, or maybe I didn’t, but bottom line is that I violated at least two of my own cardinal rules (about which, more in a minute). It certainly wasn’t a terrible dinner; the entree was fine, the wine flowed, the company was entertaining and the salad and dessert were lovely, but I can’t get it out of my head that I fed those people something that was not very good. To atone for The Greek Bean Debacle, I offer you some things that I have learned about cooking for company that should serve you well:
- Do not serve something to guests if you have never tried the recipe before, unless you don’t like them very much and are just having them over because you owe them a dinner.
- If you think something tastes weird when you taste it, there’s a good chance other people will, too. Fix it, for God’s sakes, or throw it out and make something else. An honest bag of frozen peas cooked and served with a pat of sweet butter would have been infinitely better than the Beans that Bit Back.
- Don’t put oil in your pasta water. I don’t care who told you to do it. It keeps the pasta from absorbing whatever you put on it for serving, which reduces the flavor.
- Everything tastes better when it’s really hot.
- Everything looks better if you have odd numbers of things on a plate, and even better if one of the things is a pile of something green and herb-y.
- Do not attempt to “improve” your guests by serving them things that they may not want to eat, but which you think they should try. This list includes, but is not confined to tripe, trotters, tartare, tofu, and tongue.
- Unless you are somebody’s Jewish mother making blintzes or latkes, try to be done cooking when dinner is put on the table. It is disconcerting and stressful for guests when the host and/or hostess keep jumping up from the table to do something in the kitchen. The exception to this rule is if you have one of those kitchens where your guests can sit at a counter and you can face them while you cook and serve and do all sorts of wild Benihana schtick.
- If a guest tells you, once you are actually at the table, that he or she cannot eat what you are about to put on his or plate because he does not eat meat, is on a strict diet, keeps Kosher, can’t eat spicy food, etc., and this is the first you’ve heard of this limitation, fix him with a glassy stare and say “I’m sorry for your trouble.” You may then send him home with a complimentary copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette.
- If you are pressed for time, buy a fabulous dessert from a good bakery. Do not engage in Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade garbage; most sentient beings would vastly prefer a plate of really elegant bakery cookies to some horror show involving an Entemann’s pound cake covered in pudding, sprinkles and iced animal cookies that looks like you asked your first grader to make dessert.
- If you serve enough cocktails before dinner and keep the wine glasses filled during, you can probably dispense with all previous advice because no one will care.