I guess it’s a part of living in New York City, that inevitable question: “And what do you do for a living?” I always give the same answer: “I do 2 things: I am a mom I also teach people how to eat.” The truth is that over the last 8 years, I have made a career out of teaching people both how to cook and how to eat. After completing my studies at The Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, I worked at Food & Wine and Chile Pepper Magazines, where I developed simple but innovative recipes for their subscribers to try at home. Somehow, the word spread and people began approaching me to help them come up with unique Kosher dishes based on simple and elegant ingredients. Before long, I found myself working as a private chef for some of New York City’s most discerning eaters, and teaching private cooking classes out of my own kitchen. But these days, what I really find myself doing most of, is reminding people how to enjoy cooking, hosting and eating a delicious meal. It seems that many people have forgotten. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard people say: “I just don’t enjoy it anymore. I have no time. Cooking has become a chore.” And, to be honest, I totally get it. We are all busy and stressed out. Between work, family, and plain old life, things tend to get hectic. Who has the time or energy to throw a gourmet dinner party? It does seem rational. Except for one thing, if the dinner party you throw makes you feel great, happy and rewarded, then there’s enough reason to do it. After many years of attempting, I’ve finally figured our how to make it work…and I’m gonna tell you how.
My philosophies are simple: The joy of cooking is in the eating. The joy of entertaining is in the company.
It’s not about slaving in the kitchen to prepare a 10 course gourmet plated meal. What it is about, is enjoying yourself throughout the entire process. And it’s up to you to figure out how to make that happen. Perhaps it means not preparing everything from scratch or making a few things in advance and freezing. G-d knows that there are plenty of amazing places to pick up divine desserts, like sorbets or French pastries. And, I like to think He put them there for a reason! Throwing a dinner party shouldn’t be a chore, that’s not to say that it doesn’t involve hard work. It is hard work. Between the grocery schlepping, the prep, and the setting up, it certainly is time consuming. But, like anything else that’s rewarding in life, the work should be worthwhile. Below is my checklist for making your dinner party worthwhile.
-Hand pick your guest list. Don’t just invite for the sake of inviting. Invite the friends you enjoy spending time with. Fun people. People who make others comfortable. There’s nothing worse than a bunch of randoms sitting around your table, eating your food, in silence.
-Booze. I like to introduce wine as early as the cooking process begins. I’ve come to learn that cooking tends to relax me, especially while sipping on a glass of red. Also, I serve my guests wine as soon as they arrive. This tends to loosen everyone up and get them in the mood for a nice time. And, I’m not talking about fancy shmancy expensive bottles of wine. Just regular, clean wine. Another thing I’ve learned: when your guests ask what they can bring or how to help, tell them to bring a bottle of whatever they love to drink. (I am by no means trying to push the alcohol here, I really do think that it makes all the difference though).
-Keep it casual. I love a beautiful table setting and fancy flowers, but at the end of the day, what people remember is whether they had a good time or not. And that usually has nothing to do with the flowers or the dishes. Your guests will always be most comfortable in a laid back environment. Let them help you in the kitchen, or with the serving and cleaning up. Your home is not meant to be a restaurant. The setting doesn’t have to be formal and neither does the food…which leads me to my next point.
-Simple food is best. You cannot go wrong as long as you use seasonal, fresh ingredients to prepare simple, delicious dishes.
For example, take a few gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, slice them up, drizzle with good balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Serve with a fresh baguette. Voila. It’s about the quality, not the quantity. I love to serve just a few family-style dishes, that are passed around the table and everyone digs into. Your guests don’t need 10 options. Less is more.
-Ditch this idea of perfection. The perfect meal is in fact an imperfect meal. My idea of the perfect meal is when there are no leftovers, and the guests are using pieces of bread to soak up the sauces from the bottom of the pots and pans. . You no longer need a vegetable and a starch…that is so passé. It’s wonderful when you can get it all in one, so forget about serving your guests filet mignon, and instead opt for a warm, robust beef stew made with butternut squash and wild mushrooms or simply grilled fish with lemons, fresh dill and asparagus. A one-pot-meal is always a crowd pleaser.
-End with a bang. Make sure the dessert is in line with the rest of the meal. It’s like your encore. Does that mean you have to slave over home-made crème brule or miniature macaroons? Absolutely not. It means you should be inventive, think about what you like best, and find a way to present it in a most beautiful way… That could mean setting out you favorite bakery dessert on a gorgeous cake plate or if you like fruit, something as simple as just tossing together strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, drizzling them with good honey, and sprinkling fresh mint leaves and pistachio crumbs over. (Why not serve in shot glasses? Sounds good and easy to me.)
I really believe that making it worthwhile is all in your approach. In my mind, food is tangible and social—the effort you put into it comes back to you many times over, in the form of friendships, health, flattery, and fun. The feedback I love getting most from my client is that they were not only inspired to try my recipes at home, but to make some changes to them—it proves to me that anyone can enjoy hosting a dinner party, and everyone should.
Below is my menu for a most perfect imperfect dinner party.
Heirloom Tomatoes with Avocado and Mint
6 Heirloom tomatoes- use a variety of shapes and colors
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons minced red onion
1 avocado, peeled and pitted, cut into small cubes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ a lemon
splash of white wine
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Cut the tomatoes into wedges, big or small- your choice. Place in a serving bowl. Toss in the mint, cilantro, and red onion. Add the avocado cubes, and squeeze the lemon over. Drizzle with olive oil, and wine. Season with the salt and pepper, and toss well. Serve with a freshly baked and definitely store-bought baguette.
Winter Arugula Salad with Grapefruit and Pistachios
2 bunches fresh arugula (5 cups)
1 grapefruit, peel and pith cut away with a serrated knife and sections cut free from membranes
¼ cup shelled pistachios
1/3 cup good, strong olive oil
Juice from 1 lemon (use Meyer lemons, if in season)
¼ teaspoon Kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
Place the arugula, avocado, grapefruit, and pistachios in a large bowl. Pour in the olive oil, squeeze lemon juice over, and season with salt and pepper. Toss well to coat. Serve alongside grilled meats or fish.
Chicken Stew with Wild Mushrooms, Butternut Squash & Red Wine
The warm, rich aroma of this dish will have your neighbors banging on the front door. It’s simply divine and delicious.
You may use any parts of chicken for this recipe. If you prefer white meat, use boneless, skinless chicken, cut into 2-inch cubes. If you prefer dark meat, use a mixture of legs and thighs. Or, if you’d like a mix, use a whole chicken cut into 8ths.
3.5 - 4 pounds chicken pieces, (If using chicken on the bone, leave the skin on. If using boneless white chicken meat, remove the skin and cut into chunks)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, sliced thin
2 cups peeled and cubed butternut squash
2-3 cups sliced wild mushrooms, (I use the prepared packages of freshly sliced mixed wild mushrooms)
one 6 ounce can tomato paste
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup red wine
½ cup water
1 sprig sage leaves
lots of Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a very large sauté pan that comes with a fitted lid, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, and sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the squash and mushrooms, and cook for 5 minutes longer. Add the chicken, and stir in the tomato paste. Stir in the curry, turmeric, and cinnamon. Add the wine and water. (This might be a good time to pour yourself a glass of wine just to make sure you like the taste!) Season generously with salt and pepper. Bring the chicken to a boil, and cover. Reduce the temperature to medium-low, and cook for 1 hour. Check to make sure the chicken is well-cooked, and the squash should be falling apart. You will know that this dish is ready when your home smells heavenly. Have a taste, and adjust the seasoning to your liking. If you like spicy food (as I do), throw in a tablespoon of crushed chili flakes!
Mixed Berries in Red Wine and Vanilla
This is a gorgeous and modern way to serve berries…always a crowd pleaser.
2 cups sliced strawberries
2 cups raspberries
1 cup blackberries
1 cup blueberries
½ cup sugar
½ cup red wine
1 vanilla pod, split down the middle
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl, and let sit for several hours before serving (up to 6 hours) in the fridge. Remove the vanilla bean pod, and spoon into individual serving dishes, (I use shot glasses for a twist), and serve chilled. Simply delicious.
Divine Fruit Crostata
I love this free-formed crostata because the dough can be made in advance and frozen, so for a quick dessert, all you need to do is thaw, roll it out, and you are ready to go! Fill the crostata with your favorite seasonal fresh fruit. The contrast between the rustic, nutty tart shell and the sweet, gushy fruit inside is simply sensational. This dessert is picture-perfect without needing to be perfect.
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks chilled unsalted butter or margarine, cubed
1 tablespoon whole milk or soy milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Fruit filling of your choice:
3 cups sliced peaches, plums, berries or a mixture
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 egg, beaten
2 packets "sugar in the raw"
Combine both flours, sugar, and salt in a processor; blend for 5 seconds. Add butter; pulse until butter is reduced to pea-size pieces. Whisk egg and milk in a small bowl to blend; add to processor and pulse until moist clumps form. Gather dough into a ball; flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap; chill at least 1 1/2 hours. Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled or wrap well and freeze for up to 4 weeks.
In a small bowl, dissolve the cornstarch in 2 tablespoons water, set aside.
In a heavy saucepan, combine the fruit, sugar, and lemon juice. Stir together and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook, covered for 3 minutes. Uncover, stir in the cornstarch mixture, and cook until the strawberries soften a bit, and juices are released to form a thick sauce surrounding the strawberries, about 5 minutes. Cool.
Preheat oven to 400°. Roll out dough on floured parchment paper to 12" round; brush with beaten egg. Mound filling in center of crust; gently spread out, leaving 1 1/2" border. Gently fold edges of dough over filling, pleating as needed. Brush border with egg; sprinkle with raw sugar. Slide parchment with crostata onto a large rimmed baking sheet and bake until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbly, about 45 minutes. Let crostata cool on baking sheet on a rack. Transfer crostata to a platter, cut into wedges, and serve with whipped cream or ice cream.