No one will ever mistake me for Martha Stewart or her wannabes. I ought to know how to be one, because being a food writer means keeping up with food and lifestyle magazines. But I've learned to stick to the food and restaurant stories. When I get to the "entertaining" ones, I just get depressed.
It's not that I don't like to have friends over for dinner; we do it all the time. But I can't honestly say I've ever thrown a true dinner party.
At least according to the magazines, that would entail: getting out my good china, which may be an eclectic mix but was not bought at Pier 1; filling my house with armloads of flowers (all grown in my two-acre cutting garden); polishing my silver handed down from my wealthy grandmother; putting place cards at each setting; and casually tying large, luxurious bows around each chair for that special touch. Oh, and preparing a four-course meal for 12, of course, who will all fit with room to spare around my marble-topped table. This is served after the guests arrive by boat/horse/private jet, and we've already spent the day on my yacht.
Hey, I can't even get past the dishes not bought at Pier 1.
I thought about all this again last weekend, when we had my husband's oldest friend and his new girlfriend over for supper. (This friend's mother so loves Martha, she owns a Martha Stewart mask--so this is a guy who's had his share of good food.) We drank prosecco, ate spiced nuts my sister made, and had salad with cream biscuits, shrimp and grits, and an almond-apple pie. Because it was a few days after Thanksgiving, my sister's family was here, so we had three boys running around and a baby who got passed from lap to lap, wholly unable to fall asleep. Definitely not a Bon Appetit party of the month.
And yet, it was completely wonderful, which still surprises me. Even though I never throw formal dinner parties, I did, pre-motherhood, spend hours making suppers for friends. They expected it, I knew, since I'd gone to cooking school, so I worked hard to live up to expectations. Some of those suppers went completely overboard, and while I enjoyed the experimentation (I am not afraid to try out new dishes on company), I was often exhausted by the end. And my cooking so intimidated our friends, they were afraid to invite us over, instead preferring to go out to eat. (A few of them figured out that I adore being cooked for, thus ensuring friends-for-life status.)
If not for the better, I doubt it's for the worse that those days are long gone. I was feeling bad about not making a more elaborate meal last weekend, but our friend said it was the best meal I'd ever cooked him. And that was probably true, because it was relaxed, tasty, and not overwrought.
So I've come 'round to accept that I am highly unlikely ever to throw true adult dinner parties. Mine are destined to fall under those "supper for friends" magazine categories (which still try to glamorize the event, glorifying their precious subjects' moments of slumming it). I have some hope that our next house, which I'm designing now, will force me to grow up, given its large dining area and more formal rooms. But even then, I expect I'll still prefer simple food with friends.
Simple, though, doesn't mean boring--and it definitely does not, in my house, mean throwing in the towel and succumbing to all those "desperation" recipes, which glorify little but two cans of this and three jars of that. I want real food, full of flavor, which can be prepared ahead of time or easily at the last minute.
The shrimp and grits fit that bill; I made the pie and cheese grits and cooked the bacon ahead of time, shelled the shrimp, and set up my mise en place with chopped parsley, lemon juice, and sliced mushrooms. The others ate a simple salad of mixed greens with a weird, but tasty, dressing (you toss the salad with a little ranch dressing, then with a vinaigrette of olive oil and balsamic vinegar), lightly candied almonds, and dried cranberries. Meanwhile, I cooked the shrimp, using my version of the late Bill Neal's recipe. It took about seven minutes, and the closest I got to using convenience foods was pre-sliced mushrooms.
And many meals can be equally low-stress and delicious. Tomorrow night I'm making those spiced nuts again, then oven-baked crab cakes, a simple cucumber salad, roasted green beans, and a black-and-white cheesecake for a birthday celebration. I can make or prep everything ahead in minimal time; all I'll have to do when everyone arrives is put the crab and beans in the oven. Quick-cooking seafood is always a good bet (unless you're dealing with picky eaters, but that's another column). I love salmon, and it feels like a luxurious dish no matter how simply it's prepared. If you've ever read anything about food before, you probably already feel hit over the head by writers and chefs proclaiming that ingredients are what counts; get good ones, and they nearly do the cooking for you. It isn't quite that easy (even good ingredients rarely go from market to table without some intervention), but it's still true. Good fish, a few vegetables, and a hot oven really can be all you need.
Cook's notes: This recipe is adapted from one in an ad for Odense almond paste. It called for a whole tube of almond paste (not marzipan--be sure to get pure almond paste). I found that too sticky-sweet and prefer half or three-fourths of a tube, but you can be flexible. It's a tasty and quick pie, even if you make the crust yourself. (If not, I prefer Wellspring's--now called Whole Foods--frozen pie crusts. I know lots of food magazines recommend the Pillsbury refrigerated ones, but I'm not impressed with them.) Granny Smiths are usually recommended for baking apples, as they have the requisite firmness and tartness, but they're actually fairly tasteless, so be open to other possibilities at the market. Be sure to bake the pie on the middle oven rack, to keep the top from getting too dark.
Apple-Almond Crumb Pie
3/4 of a 7-ounce tube almond paste
1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon, divided
5 baking apples, peeled, cored and thickly sliced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup chopped whole almonds
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Roll almond paste between two sheets of waxed paper to form a thin 8-inch circle; place in bottom of pie crust. In a large bowl, stir together granulated sugar and 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon; add apples and stir to coat. Pour into pie shell; place pie plate on a baking sheet.
In a medium bowl, stir together remaining 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, flour, oats, brown sugar, and almonds. Cut in butter with your fingers, a pastry blender, or two knives until mixture is crumbly. Gently spoon over apples, pressing down slightly to adhere.
Bake for 55 minutes, until top is golden and apples are softened (if you're not sure, poke one with a skewer). Cool on a wire rack; serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream or ice cream.