Ask a Glutton: Your Perfect Dinner Party
I’m throwing a small dinner party. What are good things to make that have cohesive prep/ cook times? I always end up starting prepping or cooking items at the wrong time and then have to find ways to keep side dishes warm while waiting for the chicken to finish roasting.
The best thing to remember when hosting a dinner party is that everyone is already impressed with and loves you. These are, presumably, your friends, and you’re feeding them, so even if everything burns and you get drunk and order a pizza, they’ll still think you’re the best. Aside from that, the secret is appetizers. That way, if things take longer to make than you expect them to, or if you’re waiting around for a latecomer to show up, everyone will still be fed and happy. I like to make Smitten Kitchen inspired French Onion Toasts; all you have to do is caramelize some onions whenever you have time in the week leading up to the dinner party. Then, when people start showing up hungry, spread em on some sliced French bread, top with grated cheese, and slide under the broiler. A couple of these with some cheap red wine are more than enough to keep any hungry guest happy.
In terms of specific dishes, I find that the best things to make for dinner parties are things that can be served cold, or have flexible cooking times. Instead of roasting a chicken, try braising it, or making coq au vin. This means that you can make it ahead of time, then turn off the oven and let it sit while you make whatever else you want to eat; braises and stews only improve as they sit. As for sides, I like to make a bunch of different things that can all be thrown into the oven together. If you’re roasting that chicken, surround it with vegetables and potato chunks with a few cloves of garlic in their jackets. That way, everything comes out of the oven at the same time, and you don’t have to make any complicated time management spread sheets.
Pasta is another good option, because you can make the sauce ahead of time, and then heat it up as you boil the water right before eating—and also because it doesn’t require much accompaniment other than salad or maybe some bread if you wanna double down on the carbs (which, believe me, you do.) Just remember, whatever you chose to make, don’t worry if it isn’t as hot as you hoped, or if your friends have to wait a while to eat. You are feeding them! And if that isn’t more than enough to earn their eternal love and admiration, they aren’t the right kind of friends anyway.
I don’t have a grill. What are some non-grill Summer Foods I can make?
I love this question, because I have personally never understood the tyranny of the grill in our collective conception of summertime cuisine. After all, with greater and greater numbers of Americans moving back into the cities, and the world’s population as a whole becoming more urbanized, the suburban backyard BBQ is quickly becoming a thing of the past. So your lack of grill space just means you’re ahead of the curve!
My all time favorite thing to make in the summer is this wonderful pasta with basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella. You chop up a big pile of the best tomatoes you can find, mix in a few cloves of garlic, some salt, and olive oil, and leave it to sit for a while. When the flavors have melded, and everything’s nice and garlicky, cook some pasta (I usually use angel hair), and mix everything together, topping it off with piles of chopped basil, some torn up mozzarella bits, and a few extra glugs of olive oil if it looks a bit dry. It’s delicious, summery, and endlessly adaptable. You can add whatever summer veggies you’ve got lying around, like corn, zucchini, or baby arugula. You can substitute brown rice or faro for the pasta, leave out the cheese if you’re vegan, whatever. It will still be fantastic.
Speaking of zucchini and corn, both make wonderful fritters, another summertime standby of mine. For the zucchini fritters, grate your zucchini, salt it, and leave it to drain for a bit. Then mix it with an egg, about ¼ cup of flour, whatever fresh herbs you have lying around, and some feta. For the corn fritters I usually beat the egg whites to give them more substance, and add a glug of soy sauce instead of the cheese. Both are quick, easy, can be baked or fried in some neutral oil with a high smoke point, and are the perfect accompaniment to a lemony salad and some stargazing in the back yard! I love summertime food, and could go on about this forever. Don’t even get me started on the increased potential for stone fruit desserts.
I love cheesy food. Unfortunately, I think I’m developing a slight lactose intolerance, mostly because when I eat a large amount my stomach hurts. Homemade Mac&Cheese is my ultimate comfort food. Any suggestions on how to maximize the ooey-gooey-creamy taste and texture while minimizing the actual cheesy content? I’m not looking for a vegan option, just a lower lactose level.
Oh honey. I am so sorry to hear this. Freshman year of college I was friends with a kid who was horribly allergic to lactose, but loved ice cream. And we were living in Italy, the land of perfect gelato! So he would still go down to Grom and grab a cone a few times a month, even if he was doubled over in pain afterwards. Dairy is a cruel and subtle mistress.
As for the reduced cheese macaroni and cheese, you have a few options. Since lactose is typically found in the whey of cheeses, hard cheese like parmesan and aged Gouda tends to be easier to digest for lactose intolerant people. A general rule is that the harder the cheese, the lower it is in lactose. Goat’s milk cheese has normal amounts of lactose, but is naturally homogenized, which can make it easier to digest, and recipes for goat cheese-based mac and cheese are all over the internet. Or you could just say the hell with it and only make this amazing Joan’s on Third Mac and Cheese every once in a while; it’s pretty much the cheesiest, most amazing thing ever, so a small portion should sate your cravings with minimal fuss.
I tried to make some Dhal Tadka (with red lentils and rice bran oil instead of ghee, plus I skipped the curry leaves) the other day, and I did not season it enough—it is super bland. I tried fresh coriander, an entire lemon (juiced) and some more whole dried red chillies thrown in toward the end of cooking, to try and make this taste like something. Apart from not using enough seasoning/spices in proportion to the amount of lentils cooked, did I go wrong by using rice bran oil instead of ghee? Does it make a big difference going sans-ghee and sans curry leaves? Also: what do I do to rescue a shit-ton of bland-tasting Dhal Tadka in the freezer? Here is the recipe I used (and did not follow re: proportional amounts of spices).
I can already tell you what your problem is here. The rice bran oil! Ghee is the magic ingredient that gives all the best Indian food its wonderful, slippery unctuousness, and by leaving that out you’re basically just making some healthy lentils. Delicious as well, when done right (y’all KNOW I love lentils), but a different beast entirely. If you don’t want to buy a whole jar of ghee, clarifying butter at home is super easy; just melt some unsalted butter, and skim off the solid butterfat that rises to the top.
As for rescuing your freezer dhal, you have a couple of options. Number one, and my personal favorite, is the condiment dump. Toss a bunch of siracha on there. Maybe some soy sauce; a little unami never hurt nobody. I also really like yoghurt on my dahl, and you can make a really easy, delicious, and traditional accompaniment called raita by grating a cucumber, salting it and leaving it to drain, then squeezing it out and mixing it with garlic, freshly grated pepper, and whole milk yoghurt. This stuff is delicious enough to eat on cardboard, so it should certainly help elevate your dhal a little. Another way to go would be to do makeshift veggie burgers by mixing it with some cooked brown rice and shredded greens, forming into patties, and frying in some of that ghee you made. Remember not to beat yourself up about this one too much! Sometimes recipes just don’t work out the way we want them to. The most important thing is to be proud that you’re expanding your culinary horizons, and live to fight another day.
And that, ladies and gentleman, is called living the modern American dream.
Previously: Ask a Glutton Who Wants to Help