A dinner party doesn't have to be a stressful, formal affair. In fact, the guests might prefer it not to be.
I don’t like dinner parties. Maybe this is an inconsequential admission for some, but the dinner party is high currency in the circles I run in as a food writer, academic and chef’s wife. Capital D-Dinner Parties, the sort where a group of the host’s friends or colleagues sit around a prettily laid table and are expected to sustain interesting conversation across the span of several courses, always feel to me like an awkward first date that just won’t end; ease and enjoyment the exception rather than the rule. I’ve been known to excuse myself early from the table to get a jump on the dishes, my way of coping with the discomfort.
It took upheaval for me to reconsider my approach.
In 2015, we moved from Brooklyn to a small town in the Hudson Valley. I also gave birth to twins. One might argue that we were excused, by circumstance, from hosting for a while. But as newcomers, we needed to make friends. I decided to buck up and keep at the dinner party thing long enough to establish a new social circle. But a multicourse affair requiring vigilance at the stove just wasn’t feasible. (I know because we tried — repeatedly. I’ll spare you the details.)
So, last fall, planning the requisite first-birthday party for our kids, we tried something new: not a dinner party in the conventional sense, but more a grown-up picnic of sorts. We started out slow — with people who mostly knew one another. We made a big pot of soupy beans and plenty of rice to match. I sliced some avocados. We laid out drinks. Everything was ready hours in advance. Our new friends arrived. Some brought kids of their own. People served themselves and ate — heartily. Some made plates upon arrival, then chased a child. Others mulled around and sipped rosé until their appetites piqued. I got to eat, too, a small miracle while wrangling newly mobile babies.
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The party ended, and the thanks poured in: “We were so relaxed,” “I talked to more than one person,” “You seemed like you were actually enjoying yourself!” My guests were thrilled, and so was I.
High on our success, we tried again a couple of weeks later, this time dipping our toes into those tenuous waters of introducing strangers to one another. Friends were up from the city. The other guests, another set of year-old twins and their parents, were brand new to town. We wanted to roll out the welcome mat.
I went to market in the morning, picking up a few vegetables, some cheese and a loaf of fresh bread. We already had the rest of what I planned to serve: tinned fish and some good chocolate, mustard, beer, wine and more chocolate. Back home, I put together a three-ingredient cauliflower soup. I washed greens for a salad. I shook up a simple dressing in a jar. Then I went about the rest of my day.
Our friends arrived. Without a local sitter yet, the other twins’ parents put their kids down in a bedroom upstairs while I opened a bottle of wine and tossed the salad. When they came back down, we all set upon the food. We helped ourselves to bits of things as we liked. Occasionally, the six of us landed on a common point of interest and found ourselves in one of those magic moments of true group conversation. But for the most part, our socializing mimicked the shape of the meal — fragmentary — as we asked one another to pass the mustard or break off a shard of chocolate or got up to grab a corkscrew.
Toward the end of the meal, Justin, the father of the other twins who had spent the past year as addled as we were, asked how we still managed to cook at home. I told him I’d simply given up on composed dishes (a statement I hadn’t realized was true until I said it aloud). While my husband had turned to one-pot meals since the kids’ birth (sometimes quite elaborate ones; he can’t shake the chef impulse), I’d become focused on bites I wanted to eat, an unintended consequence of learning to get myself fed by snagging tidbits here and there while balancing a baby on a hip or breast.
Later that night, I got a text from Justin: “You’ve inspired me to host again.” That made two of us. It wasn’t long before my husband and I sent out another invite, this time for a brunch gathering in the same mode: biscuits, plenty of spreads, baked apples. I cracked two dozen eggs into a bowl, whisked them up and set a pan on the stove. As people became hungry, volunteers scrambled batches. The adults milled about the kitchen with coffee in hand, children ran, I was happy.
We’d hit gold.
As host, I can relax. Everyone eats and drinks what they want, as they want it, avoiding the ever-anxious interplay between host, guest and food. When someone asks what they can bring, I give an honest answer: whichever element I didn’t have time to pick up. Or, always, wine. No need to worry about pairing; whatever they bring is bound to go nicely enough with some part of the meal.
Most of the prep for these sorts of gatherings is shopping, really, and because we serve the kinds of things we like to eat, much of what we need is already stocked. As for cooking, I stick to the kind of food that requires no measuring and takes just a few minutes to throw together, then takes care of itself on the stove. (Okay, those biscuits were an exception; I remind you — my husband is a chef.) Soup is ideal, like my Back Pocket Cauliflower Soup, or what we call “love soup” in my house: a perfect chicken and vegetable soup heavily accented with dill. For variation, sub out the soup for a pot each of beans and rice, the bread for tortillas, and put out avocados and limes in lieu of tinned fish.
Because I don’t have to worry about much in the kitchen (where we’re eating anyway, just in case something needs warming or a quick stir), I get a chance to eat, too. And because everyone has to get up from time to time to fill a soup bowl or open another bottle, the conversation moves freely, clustering along the natural lines of human proclivity and preference. While I love my friends, I know that they don’t all necessarily — and shouldn’t be expected to — care as much for one another.
Here’s my basic formula: soup, a green salad, good bread, cheeses (I play by the rule of three: one hard and mild, one sweet and runny, and a blue), tinned fish (Portuguese sardines, if you’re asking for my two cents), mustard, plenty of wine and beer, and chocolate. Scale the amounts up or down depending on the number of guests. Leave the soup or beans in their cooking pots on the stove, lay plates and bowls, utensils and glasses on the kitchen counter, and that’s it. No place settings, no courses, no assigned seats.
One frigid night, Justin and his wife, Amy — our fellow twin parents — returned the invitation: a group of 10 for Raclette, a participatory meal if ever there was one. They cut up cheese, laid out cured meat, boiled potatoes, and roasted a few vegetables. The food, a Raclette iron and several tiny pans were set on a table. The rest, they knew, was up to us.
Danila’s Brazilian-Style Beans
Food writer Sara Franklin became a true bean lover while traveling and working in Brazil for a year in her 20s, when she learned to cook the country’s feijão. In Brazil, beans are cooked every which way, but this is the most basic and ubiquitous — a soupy vegetarian bean preparation typically served over white rice as a side. Though she has eaten beans like this more times than she can count, Franklin says, it took hiring her beloved Brazilian babysitter, Danila, for her to learn to prepare them herself.
Pressure cookers are essential household tools in Brazil; the national lunch bell is the sound of the pots “singing” as hot steam escapes through a narrow valve. For anyone who cooks beans with any regularity, she recommends investing in one; they keep beans from being an all-day process and may result in more even tenderness throughout the legumes and a creamier texture.
MAKE AHEAD: The dried beans need to be soaked (overnight method used in testing here). If you’re using “fresh” dried beans, (Rancho Gordo pinto, pinquito, tepary and vaquero all work particularly nicely here) or dry beans you’ve purchased at a farmers market, pre-soaking is unnecessary.
4 servings first-course servings or 8 side-dish servings
1 pound dried beans of your choice (small brown or black beans are most common in Brazil; see headnote)
Canola or grapeseed oil (or other neutrally flavored oil)
4 cloves garlic, smashed
2 bay leaves
Cooked rice, for serving
- Place the dried beans in a large bowl, cover with 3 to 4 inches of cool water. Cover and soak overnight (at room temperature).
- Drain the beans in a colander and rinse with fresh water. Place them in a pressure cooker and add enough water to cover them by several inches. Secure the lid and cook over medium-high heat until the pressure cooker begins to “sing,” then reduce the heat to medium-low heat and cook for 20 minutes.
- Turn off the heat, allow the pressurized steam to escape, then unfasten the lid and check for doneness; you want your beans to be very tender and quite creamy. If they need more time, return the lid and cook on medium-low, checking every 10 minutes for doneness.
- Add enough oil just to coat the bottom of a large pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring, until golden. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the beans from the pressure cooker to the pot, along with enough of the bean cooking liquid to come just to the level of the beans. Toss in the bay leaves and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook for 5 minutes. Discard the remaining bean cooking liquid.
- Taste, and add salt, as needed (these beans are typically quite salty). Discard the bay leaves.
- Serve hot, over rice.
— Nutrition | Per serving (based on 8, using 1 tablespoon oil and 1 teaspoon salt): 200 calories, 12 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 140 mg sodium, 14 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar
— From food writer Sara Franklin.
Back Pocket Cauliflower Soup
This is a shortcut, fewer-dishes-to-clean adaptation of a near-perfect recipe from California chef-restaurateur Paul Bertolli. The soup can stay on the menu even when you’re entertaining friends with dietary restrictions, as it’s both meatless and gluten-free. In warm weather, it’s nice to serve it chilled.
While colored cauliflowers are all the rage at farmers markets these days, the non-traditional varieties make for muddy-looking soup. Stick with the cream-colored variety for this recipe.
MAKE AHEAD: The soup tastes even better after a day’s refrigeration, and it can hold for up to 3 days.
6 servings first-course servings (makes about 8 cups)
1 healthy glug extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1 medium yellow or white onion, coarsely chopped
1 large head cauliflower (1 ½ pounds)
Freshly ground black pepper
Shaved or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional; may substitute nutritional yeast)
- Heat a heavy-bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add enough oil to generously coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onion and a pinch of salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, translucent and beginning to turn golden, 10 to 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, cut your cauliflower into florets (large ones do just fine here).
- When the onions are ready, add the cauliflower to the pot, add another healthy pinch of salt and enough water to come halfway up the cauliflower in the pot. Give a quick stir, clap the lid on the pot, and cook until the cauliflower is easily pierced by a fork, 15 to 20 minutes. Uncover, add enough water to cover the cauliflower by about an inch, bring to a simmer, then turn down to low and cook for 20 minutes, until the cauliflower begins to break down.
- Turn off the heat; let cool slightly.
- Use an immersion (stick) blender to puree until there are no chunks left and the soup has the consistency of very heavy cream. Set aside until ready to serve (if you’re serving later that day, just leave the pot on the stove; if serving the next day, refrigerate).
- When ready to serve, warm the soup over low heat, adding water as needed to achieve a consistency you’re pleased with. Check seasoning, adding more salt to your liking.
- Serve with a drizzle of the oil you have and a couple cracks of fresh black pepper. Parmesan or even a pinch of nutritional yeast adds extra oomph.
— Nutrition | Per serving (using 2 tablespoons oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt): 80 calories, 2 g protein, 7 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 80 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar
— From food writer Sara Franklin.