life parties

Recipes for Success

7 August 2009


[Anniversary roses, August 2009.]

I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next at all times. – Nora Ephron on gourmet.com

The funny thing about this anniversary party was not that we made too much food — I think that was pretty much a given from the moment we started out — but that a few days later there were barely any leftovers. I mean, we made a lot of food. People ate and ate and ate and some even went back for more. My mom told me people were wandering around with handfuls of cookies after dinner and the toasts (I wondered if I really needed to bake two batches of oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies when I’d also baked two coconut-pineapple-peach cakes and two dozen mini vegan chocolate cupcakes and yet … and yet.), though certainly they couldn’t have been hungry.

It was the kind of party that sparkles — if you know what I mean? A 40th wedding anniversary celebration with old friends and family and friends who are family. Buckets of chilled wine and sitting outside in the sweet, sunny afternoon talking about Virginia and building boats and photography and food politics. Piles and piles of delicious food spilling from the table in the kitchen (cheeses, couscous salad with roasted sungold tomato and garlic dressing, salmon cooked to pink perfection on the neighbor’s grill, bread, Greek salad, tomatoes slow-roasted in olive oil and white wine, patty pan squash scattered with fresh basil, wasabi-deviled eggs from a backyard chicken coop). There were flowers and heart-to-hearts and friends from the city and all sorts of silliness, too.

But mostly there was food.


[Emily’s grilled squash, bits of my uncle’s Greek salad, August 2009.

]

When I plan a party the center is always the food — the food is what makes the occasion, be it birthday, casual dinner, or major wedding anniversary fete. This can’t be a surprise; food is the thing I’m thinking about most times (and yes, I barely finish one meal before I start contemplating the next) and which I is such an integral part of my life. Food, too, is one of my best ways to show love; it’s the thing that brings us all together in happy appetite.

In the case of my parents’ 40th anniversary party I knew I wanted to do something special — specialer, even, than special. Forty years with a person (“Patience,” says my friend who just celebrated her 45th

.) is something most of us only dream of achieving and thus should be celebrated and cheered. So the food had to be not necessarily extravagant — because those days for me are long, long gone — but it had to be absolutely enticing, delicious, and worthy of such an occasion.

I think it was.

When I started planning the menu I gave careful thought to logistics — not working in my own kitchen, only having a day and a half to prepare the food, assorted other events such as a surprise visit from a far-away uncle and his girlfriend, how I’d squeeze in a run (and I did!), etc. — and considered options. I knew we’d have a five-hour window during which I envisioned the food resting comfortably on a table in the kitchen, available for nibbling on whenever, and so didn’t want to make anything that needed to be either hot or cold at any one time. (A sit-down dinner didn’t appeal because it just seemed so … formal and this was meant to be a relaxed and comfortable affair.)

I also knew the food would be unrefrigerated and didn’t want to prepare anything that could spoil by sitting out for a lengthy period (the cake, of course, would be alright because it tastes best after being at room temperature for a few hours). And, OK, fine, I have this penchant for making dishes that are very vegetable-friendly as well as being utterly delicious, so the majority ended up being not only vegetarian but vegan (don’t worry; there was also lots of grilled fish and shrimp). Of course there had to be a cake — I knew immediately it would be a coconut-pineapple concoction — as well as mini vegan chocolate cupcakes for those who might eschew all that whipped cream.

I haven’t given a party on that scope in quite awhile — I think there were about 25 guests and family members — but oh, how I love doing so. I won’t say it doesn’t take a bit of work to put on an event of that magnitude, but when it comes together and you look at a table piled with gorgeous food, see brilliant flowers on tables set up in the backyard, and hug beloved friends who’ve come to celebrate — well, it’s worth every hour and slight exhaustion.

A few things that help, when you’re putting on a special ‘do:

– A fabulous co-cook (and griller extraordinaire) is not only appreciated but absolutely essential. It helps when the co-cook in question is someone whom you adore and who will enthusiastically wake up early to hit a) Hardcore Espresso for coffee and b) the Sebastopol farmers’ market by 9a, discussing tomatoes (we’re still marveling over the gorgeous flat of seconds we got for $3), wild-caught salmon, and squash with equal interest. I don’t honestly know what I would have done without her.

– Planning your menu in advance, but leaving room for additions and changes (i.e. be flexible). In terms of this party, we added a few last-minute items (my uncle’s fantastic Greek salad, a plate of shrimp cocktail, a pesto that was more cilantro than parsley as I, err, got distracted while making it. And you know? It was all fantastic.

– If you think one cake might not be enough bake two. In the moment this might seem slightly insane, but when the party arrives you’ll be quite glad you did. (Also, sending guests home with plates of cake and leftovers is immensely gratifying.)

– Allow people to help you. This is a lesson I’ve learned over the years — I used to want to do it all mostly myself — and I’m so grateful I did. There’s no way I could’ve done that party without Kurt and Emily, and I would not have wanted to. I’m so often a solitary cook but I think I prefer to cook with others if I have a choice, especially when they’re just so awfully good at it.

– Make a lot of food but keep it simple if you can.

– Make it a group effort

– At the last minute when you’re supposed to be changing into a pretty party frock, instead slip into the backyard garden to snip herbs (lavender, rosemary) and flowers (nasturtiums) to adorn the plates. You’ll still have time to change and it will look so lovely.

– Allow lots of time for hugs throughout the day-of cooking process, especially from your younger brother.

Our menu was wide-ranging, but it was tied together by sharp, fresh, seasonal flavors and the simplicity of the dishes that allowed said flavors to sing through. I was proud of every single bit of food we served to our guests, and I don’t think I would have changed a thing — except, perhaps to have made less. But that’s the point of leftovers, I suppose, and as I mentioned, there weren’t that many anyhow.

We have ten years to plan the next one. In the meantime, I’m missing my Mainers and hope we’ll be able to cook together again very soon.

A 40th Anniversary Fête

Spanikopita, Greek spinach and feta pastry

Dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with rice and tomatoes
Homemade hummus, with whole-grain bread
Cheese plate, with sharp cheddar, havarti, brie, swiss

Grilled salmon, with choice of parsely-almond pesto or nectarine-lime salsa
Shrimp cocktail
Roasted potato salad, with green beans and vegan pesto
Pearl couscous salad, with roasted sungold tomato and garlic dressing, chickpeas, cucumber and feta
Greek salad
Grilled patty pan squash and grilled asparagus, with olive oil-soy sauce glaze
Slow-roasted heirloom tomatoes, braised with olive oil and white wine
Grilled vegetable skewers, with onion, red pepper, mushrooms

Coconut cakes, one filled with pineapple, one filled with peaches
Mini vegan chocolate cupcakes, with bittersweet vegan ‘butter’cream
Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies

  • Amanda 11 August 2009 at 5:54 am

    I am planning my parents-in-law’s 50th anniv party…i hope it’s half as lovely as yours. Thanks for making it look easy :)

  • helen 9 August 2009 at 7:05 pm

    A brilliant party! So much love in the food! What a joy to have a family like this …

  • kate. 9 August 2009 at 3:28 pm

    ew. i cannot believe you made coconut cake with peaches when i was not there. we are no longer speaking. :P (ps, you are not supposed to really post this.)

  • Akila 7 August 2009 at 10:00 am

    Nicole, I just found your site via Twitter and am so happy I did. Your food writing is beautiful. I love parties like this where everything feels natural and comfortable and delicious. And, I love that term you use “sparkles” because that is what it feels like when a party just feels right.