Last night I unpacked and rearranged a few more boxes that survived my cross-country move to California last spring. Buried among the miscellany and other detritus were a few recipes I’d kept from my mother, who had, upon my signing the lease of my first non-university-affiliated apartment, given me some of her standbys. Farther down in the box were some spattered and tattered bits of paper I’d assembled over the years of dinner party menus, recipes cadged from internet searches for various things such as “cranberry martinis,” and guest lists.
For example: October 2, 2000, Washington, DC: Dave, Michael, Erin, Elizabeth, Nicole. Vegetarian fejouida with zuchini and potato mash; salad.
Or: January 25, 2001: Chissa, Brian, Amy, Temima, Jessica, Simon, Michael, Ryan, Rena, Nicole: Thai-inspired birthday dinner. Coconut-cauliflower soup, vegetarian pad thai, curried tofu, birthday cake, apple pie. [The birthday girl loved my apple pies.]
A menu for a holiday cocktail party with extravagant drinks: cranberry martinis, limoncello, raspberry-champagne apertifs, and gin fizzes. I remember making perhaps too much food to be consumed before and after the white-elephant gift exchange — mini red pepper quiches baked in a cheddar crust, chocolate-chip cookies, sesame-seed cookies, and truffles were just a few items that made the cut. Looking over my list, I see I omitted the mulled apple cider but kept the latkes.
I started cooking for crowds my last year of college when a Thursday night gathering for friends somehow grew into a weekly party for neighbors and old acquaintances — or anyone we ran into that day on campus. By some trick of fate, we always had enough food (and wine) to feed all of our guests, no mean feat because the numbers fluctuated so wildly. When I took an apartment in the city after graduating, my room mate and I hosted twice-monthly gatherings and really took any opportunity (birthdays, summer solstice, a nice day) to invite people over for dinner. For one party I made ice cream sandwiches with homemade lemon gelato neatly trapped between ginger cookies.
I might be less ambitious these days — time, and money, are more precious — but I sitll consider myself most happy when I am throwing a dinner party (or a party). The entire process, from planning the menu to shopping for ingredients, to setting the table and putting the finishing touches on a dish, pleases me enormously.
My harvest dinner, a good three weeks ago now, was one such happy occasion. I decided to pick up my vegetable ingredients at the Ferry Building Farmers Market the afternoon before — and since it was the Saturday before Thanksgiving it was packed (I knew this, but wanted to brunch at Greens the next morning, which would have caused too much stress if I had also tried to make the Civic Center market, and I am all about trying to reduce stress in my life). I grabbed yams (for soup), a large and beautiful bunch of chard that I heard from another vendor was out-of-this world, potatos, an enormous butternut squash. It was a lovely fall day; it is best to be down at the market when the sun is blazing and it is warm. I had a clear view of the East Bay, and if I looked around the corner, could see my beloved Marin County hills shining still and perfect across the water. My loving one met me when I was nearly done with shopping and we had a sandwich each from Rose Pistola’s booth and a coffee from Blue Bottle, which almost lived up to the hype.
I came home that night and I cooked — I pureed soup and gently folded phyllo triangles, scrubbed the floor and looked up recipes. The next morning, after a delicious brunch at Greens Restaurant, that venerable vegetarian spot in Fort Mason, I baked cornbread and stirred cranberry sauce, working up almost until the moment my guests arrived. It was a wonderful night, with old friends and new — native Californians and re-planted Scandanavians, and a former coworker who made a gracious appearance. We passed out menus and sat around the table drinking sparkling beverages until very late. It was my favorite kind of party.
Fall Harvest Dinner
1. Chard-mushroom-onion phyllo triangles
Brie and home-made bread
2. Potage Jacqueline (sweet potato soup) with sage cornbread
3. Roasted butternut squash topped with black beans and tomatoes
Roasted red potatoes (“Ross potatoes”)
4. Pumpkin pie
[note: All dishes — except the brie — were made without any animal products, and my otherwise meat-eating guests all ate with gusto, which was a great compliment. The vegans, of course, loved it all.]