…and a good time was had by all

Deck the antique sideboards with strings of cheap multicolored lights, fa la la la la...

I love to throw parties. No, wait, scratch that–I love to plan parties, and I love to go to parties. What I don’t love so much is all the cleaning and rearranging of furniture; the endless lists and invariable forgetting of at least one item from every list; the last-minute rush to make everything fall perfectly and seemingly effortlessly into place. Mind you, none of these things usually stop me from having parties, but being a hostess tends to bring out the worstest in me, and every time I tell Long-Suffering Husband that I’d like to entertain, I can practically see the effort it’s taking for him to not groan out loud.

This time, however, a lot of the hullaballoo and hecticness was taken care of, by none other than my very favorite grocery store, Wegmans*. In October, I was honored to be chosen as the winner of their “Family Time” contest, the prize for which was an Italian-style Sunday dinner for eight. Rather than try to decide whom among our friends we would ask to join us, LSH and I decided to throw open our doors and celebrate: my having won the contest, our upcoming anniversary, and the holiday season. To make a dinner intended to serve eight actually feed 30-40 people, we asked everyone to bring an Italian appetizer to share. The result? A convivial gathering of friends old and new, much riotous laughter, even more expressions of gustatory pleasure, and a broken wine glass or two (because it’s not a party until something gets broken).

Sorry, partygoers, but before y'all arrived, I squirreled away the summer sausage for private consumption. I love ya, but... it's summer sausage. I'm sure you understand.

But I get ahead of myself. Earlier that afternoon, a friendly fellow from Wegmans showed up with what appeared to be a normal-sized sedan, out of which he kept producing boxes and bags–a veritable parade of offerings. I took fewer trips when I moved into my college dorm. We hauled it all inside, started unpacking and taking pictures, and spent a good fifteen minutes oohing and aahing over it all.

Just like Perkins offers a bottomless cup of coffee, this seemed like the bottomless box of foccacia.

There was a fruit basket, with some cheeses, and the most darling miniature cheese board and cheese cleaver (when I’m done with it, I’m going to give it to the farmer’s wife, since it’s perfectly sized for blind mouse tails). There was a giant focaccia, and underneath that focaccia was another giant focaccia.

There were pans of sauce, pans of pasta, a beautiful long tray of nibbly things (and you know how I adore nibbly things), a box of cannoli that I had to hide from the children, a platter of salad with the same circumference as a hula hoop. Oh, it was an impressive spread, my friends.

It's a sweet little buffet of scrumptiousness. Don't eat the shiny berries in the back, though; they're poisonous

Either Wegmans had a typo, and this was supposed to be "Dinner for 18," or the lovely woman in Catering took extra special care of us.

And then I had to tart it all up with my tricolor glitter pom-pom sticks. What can I say? I am powerless when there’s glitter afoot; I have to succumb to its sparkly siren song. These little antipasto-on-a-stick numbers were my contribution to the cocktail party, above and beyond the Wegmans bounty. Clearly, I suffer from some kind of neurosis related to not having enough food. Maybe it’s in my genes, since both my grandparents lived through the Depression and, in their later years, liked to collect used light bulbs, twist ties, and toilet-paper tubes. Just in case.

It's Christmas! in Italy! and Glitterland!

My inner bag lady really wanted to fish the used sticks out of the garbage, so they could be reused. But I drowned her with wine.

Just as I finished impaling bocconcini and artyhearts on the sparkle sticks, the guests began to arrive…bearing food. Copious amounts of food. In the event that a freak, flash blizzard made the entire guest list snowbound inside our house, we would even then be eating leftovers for days. There was that much food. Our wonderful friends brought dips, chips, beer bread, more dips, baguettes, pizza bread with a dip, a red cabbage-and-sausage casserole, pate and artisanal ham from The Piggery in Ithaca, more cheeses, beer, wine, vodka and mixers.

Luckily, Dr. Atkins had a prior committment and couldn't make it.

Needless to say, it was all scrumptious. Scrump-diddly-umptious, even. After an initial lap around the living room to socialize, it seemed as though most guests stationed themselves at strategic points around the buffet, in proximity to their favorite foods. The children, who were upstairs watching movies while simultaneously tearing all the bedclothes and mattresses off the beds and playing Legos, would make occasional sallies downstairs for bread and dip, and of course for the cannolis when I eventually, reluctantly put those out.

And although we were very nearly literally pressing food upon people (“Hold still; I’m just going to tuck this meatball into your neckline, OK? It’ll make a great little snack later”), and despite the fact that more than once I was heard to exclaim, in my best Italian nonna voice, “Mangia! Mangia! Eat, you’re too skinny…” we were still left with a staggering amount of food. It was like Thanksgiving all over again; we ate leftovers for lunch and dinner for the next three days, then finally cried Uncle and packed up the rest for the freezer. It’s going to be a long, long time before I have to buy sauce. Or focaccia. But you know what? I’m just fine with that.

*N.B.: I am not professionally affiliated with Wegmans, although it is my devout wish to be so, especially since they recently were named #3 on Fortune‘s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. Nay, I just adore (and spend way too much money at) Wegmans.

Hot-Plate Carbonara, OR, the Last of the Homemade Bacon

A few weeks ago I had an amazing experience–I got to spend an entire week at a rural country house with friends from college, most of whom I hadn’t seen in mumbledy-mumble years (and when I say “mumbledy-mumble,” I mean, “upwards of 19 but not that many, for chrissakes, how old do you think I am?”). It was remarkable how comfortable we all were with one another, almost instantly, even though many of us had lost touch for eons and only re-connected via the magic of Facebook. There were few, if any, awkward moments. At least until it came to the cooking.

Now, I was perfectly happy to eat out, or to subsist on nibblies like hummus and pita chips and potato chips and brie and fruit and olives and vodka, and to be sure we did plenty of that. Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to not cook–especially when I am trying to relax, because I enjoy cooking. This house, however (which shall remain nameless, except to say that it is the former home of an eccentric couple who make even eccentricker pottery and home furnishings), did not have a functional stove; it had an Aga Cooker.

Aga Cookers are like really, really expensive pioneer stoves. You can’t just flip one on to whip up a quick omelet or cup of tea. No, these tanks take hours to heat up, and provide heat to the entire county. So in August, in upstate New York? They’re pretty much just decorative.

The vacay house did, however, have an electric teakettle, an abnormally large toaster oven, a microwave, a gas grill and a double hot plate. As one of the reunion attendees said, it was like overdecorated camping. But you know what? I love camping. I love the make-do, improvisational challenge of camp cooking. So I took my teeny baggie of leftover homemade bacon, and some parsley from my CSA, and some eggs from my chickens, and I made Hot-Plate Carbonara.

Looks pretty damn good for an impromptu dish made in an unfamiliar kitchen, huh?

Hot-Plate Carbonara

1 lb. Thin spaghetti or other pasta
2 eggs
½ cup white wine, leftover champagne or pasta cooking water
½ to 1 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese, finely shredded or grated
small (or large) amount cooked bacon or pancetta
fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

After a thorough (and sometimes frightening) search of the cupboards in your vacation home, take the largest pot or pan you can scrounge up. It will be a crappy, lightweight pot that looks like it spent the better part of the 1990s in a thrift store. That’s OK. Fill it with water and set it on the bigger burner of the hot plate. Go away and read in the hammock for 45 minutes, or until the water comes to a boil.

Take down the biggest pottery bowl from the top shelf of a cupboard, standing on a rickety painted chair if necessary. Wash the dust out of it. Crack your two eggs into it and beat. Add a generous glug of last night’s champagne, which some non-drinker or thoughtful inebriated person corked up with a twist of aluminum foil and left on the counter. Marvel at the fact that the foil actually kept the champers kind of bubbly. Drink the rest of the leftover champagne, even though it’s warm. Add the parmigiano-reggiano to the egg-champagne mixture and stir to combine. Plunk a couple of wooden spoons or salad tongs into the bowl.

When the pasta is cooked to your liking, drain it in an antique colander that looks like something your grandmother would’ve shucked peas into. Working very quickly, dump the hot pasta into the bowl, then start stirring and tossing with alacrity. Why alacrity? What’s at stake, you ask? A delicious, creamy pasta sauce is at stake. Otherwise you will have a bowl of pasta in scrambled egg sauce, and a long damn wait while the pizza delivery guy finds your rural vacation home and putt-putts up the cobblestone driveway in his 1994 Corolla. Or an opportunity to uncork some more champagne, preferably cold this time around, and begin where you left off, telling stories of escapades past and friends not forgotten.

Oh, P.S.: After tossing the heck out of it, top with the parsley and bacon; season with salt and pepper. Duh, Nick!

Et Tu, Basil?

We only ever use wild Parmesan cheese. I find it so much more flavorful, not to mention ecologically sustainable, than farmed Parm.

The basil has started rolling in–not yet in copious enough amounts for pesto, but give it a few weeks. If you have only a bunch, that has been only slightly denuded for use on a pizza Marguerita,this is the pasta to make. It’s dressed with a light, caesar-inspired sauce and then tossed with the basil just before serving. When I made it, I added some grilled sausages and vegetables left over from the night before. This is really an easy weeknight meal that can come together in the time it takes you to boil the pasta. And yes, I am fully aware that in writing this way, I sound like the bizarre love child of Nigella and Good Housekeeping.

This makes me think of a class picture; the mini yellow pepper feels fat so she's hiding behind the zucchini. The sausage is all full of himself and thrusting his assets into the foreground. In the middle, cheerleader zucchini huddle for strength in numbers, and to borrow each others' lipgloss; underneath them all, the studious, mild-mannered Honor Roll noodles

Basil Caesar Pasta

1 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 anchovy
juice of one medium-sized lemon
1 lemons’ worth of zest
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
1 small bunch basil, chiffonaded
½ box of your favorite pasta
1 cup reserved pasta cooking water

Combine the oil and garlic in a small pot over low heat. Add the anchovy, mashing it. When the garlic is fragrant, but before it burns, remove the pan from the heat and transfer the mixture to a small bowl, preferably a high-sided one you can use an immersion blender in. When the oil has cooled, add the lemon juice, lemon zest, parmesan cheese and perhaps a ½ cup of the reserved pasta water. Blend until this becomes a smooth sauce. If it is too thick, add more of the pasta water. Toss the pasta in the sauce, add the basil and toss again, and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Stay tuned for further installments of my “Speedy Weeknight” dinner series!

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