Dinner parties have pretty much faded into the past, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I mean the kind of dinners where you light the candles and serve a three- or four-course meal you have spent hours preparing.
I used to have dinner parties every other month or so, and attend friends’ dinner parties about as often. They were my favorite way to socialize: more intimate than a party, with good conversation and a lovely feeling of well-being at the end of the night. Those evenings could be magic.
Now meals with friends, when they occur at all, are likely to be less formal — pizza on the grill or a last-minute pot luck. Spending two days cooking is physically difficult and expensive, too.
Ah, but the rewards. I was reminded just how much I missed dinner parties when I had a handful of girlfriends over last week. I took a few shortcuts — I bought pate instead of making it, for example — but I still managed to offer a luxurious dinner of braised lamb shanks over polenta and individual Grand Marnier soufflés — plus homemade bread and a mesclun salad with bacon and toasted walnuts that served as a first course with the pate.
A leisurely dinner of good food helps the conversation flow. We talked and laughed for hours. And then I had delicious leftovers the next day.
Of course, to accomplish all this I had to start cleaning the house two weeks out, and start shopping and cooking well before the event. The morning of the dinner, as I was scrounging for cloth napkins in the hall closet, I remembered why I don’t entertain like this anymore. It’s a lot of work.
Much later, while sipping the last of the pinot noir and swapping stories, I remembered why I used to entertain like this. There’s no better way to enjoy the company of friends.
The lamb shanks, with their rich, winey broth, were inspired by a meal my friend, Linda, cooked for Tony and me in France. I assembled and partially cooked them the day before the dinner, refrigerated them in their pan, and cooked them an hour longer just before the meal.
BRAISED LAMB SHANKS
4 strips bacon
4 lamb shanks
2 cups roughly chopped onions
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 to 6 carrots, scrubbed and cut in 1 1/2-inch lengths
1 tbsp. tomato paste
2 branches fresh thyme or 1 1/2 tsp. dry
1 bay leaf
1 cup beef broth
1 bottle (750 ml) dry, drinkable red wine (I used a $7 pinot noir)
Fry bacon in a wide, deep, lidded pan until crisp; drain on paper towels. Trim any excess fat from the shanks and season very well with salt and pepper. Brown on all sides over medium-high heat in the bacon fat. Remove from pan and set aside.
Reduce heat to medium and sauté onions and garlic in the fat remaining in pan, adding a splash of vegetable oil if necessary. Stir in carrots and tomato paste. Add thyme and bay leaf.
Return lamb shanks to pan. Increase heat to high and add beef broth. Bring to a boil and boil for a couple of minutes to reduce slightly. Add wine. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, partially cover and simmer for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, until lamb is very tender. Serve with polenta or potatoes. Makes 4 servings.
HELP U COOK
Polenta is a dish that a requires a lot of stirring in the kitchen when you’d rather be having cocktails or eating an appetizer with your guests — unless you have a way to make polenta in advance and keep it warm without solidifying (the polenta, not you) into a giant hunk.
Here’s how: Make the polenta as usual, adding extra water per directions if you intend to serve it soft. I stir one cup of cornmeal and a teaspoon of salt all at once into 5 cups cold water, then cook and stir it occasionally over heat adjusted to allow the polenta to sputter very lazily. When the grains of cornmeal are soft and taste cooked, stir in 6 tablespoons butter and a cup of grated Parmesan.
To keep the polenta from setting up, place the pan of polenta in a larger pan of hot water over low heat. It may be kept warm an hour or more in this manner. Beat the polenta with a spoon before serving.
The New York Times’ Eric Asimov, writing on the perils of opening a cellared wine too soon: “Drinking it was like being confined to the first paragraph of a great book.”
What I cooked last week:
Roasted delicata squash, chicken skewers with sweet soy sauce; no-knead bread, mousse pate with a salad of greens, toasted walnuts, bacon and vinaigrette, braised lamb shanks in red wine over polenta, and individual Grand Marnier soufflés; chocolate chip cookies; sirloin steak salad with roasted butternut squash, toasted walnuts, shaved onions, feta cheese and vinaigrette; eggs over hard with thin-sliced Swiss cheese on seeded bread.
What I ate in/from restaurants:
Thin-crust veggie pizza from Earth Fare; hamburger steak, mashed potatoes and a cornmeal muffin at Cracker Barrel; beef fried rice at Giant Eagle Marketplace restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls; two Taco Bell tacos.
From Linda A.:
My parents went to the Stouffer’s (restaurant) in Summit Mall in Fairlawn every Friday night when I was in high school. Thought you might be interested in this…
Thank you so much for sharing this link. I came to Akron in 1978 and faintly remember the Summit Mall Stouffer’s. I regret I didn’t have a chance to eat there. For years, though, as the newspaper’s food writer I was peppered with requests for recipes from the chain, which I see from your referenced article started in 1922 as a coffee shop in the Arcade in Cleveland.
Eventually the restaurants took a back seat to food production. Lean Cuisine is still made here in Northeast Ohio, but the hot beef tenderloin sandwiches and green salads with white French dressing are long gone. Many of the recipes are still floating around in a cookbook Stouffer published, “The Stouffer Cookbook of Great American Food and Drink.” I don’t have a copy of the book, but I found a copy of the French dressing recipe I once printed in my Recipe Roundup column:
WHITE FRENCH DRESSING
3 tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup boiling water
1/4 tsp. paprika
1/4 cup hot water
1/2 cup sugar
3 tbsp. salt
1 tsp. dry mustard
2 3/4 cups vegetable oil
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. onion juice
1 clove garlic
Dissolve cornstarch in cold water in a saucepan. Add boiling water and cook 3 to 4 minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick.
Dissolve paprika in hot water; add to cornstarch mixture and cook 1 minute longer. Stir in sugar, salt and mustard. Strain mixture to eliminate any lumps, if desired.
Whip hot mixture on medium speed of an electric mixer while gradually adding oil alternately with vinegar. Beat in onion juice. Add garlic clove, cover and refrigerate 24 hours to blend flavor. Remove garlic before serving. Makes 1 quart.
We raise and butcher our own chickens and use the necks, butts and wingtips to make broth to can. I skim off the fat before canning. Could I use the fat to cook potatoes?
As long as the moisture has been eliminated — the fat should solidify when chilled — you can fry food in it and it will taste very good indeed. Too bad you don’t raise ducks. I’d give a lot for some duck fat.