Dinner Parties aren’t a kitchen foot-race, way to impress friends, something undertaken as marital duty, a stage to display family silver or repay social debits, a freakish tilt toward culinary kung-fu menu-of-the-month ordeals, or a red badge of courage as you’re buried under mountainous dishes, battered pots, burned kitchen towels and splattered cloths.
Dinner Parties celebrate life, deepen friendships, stimulate storytelling, encourage “We-versus-I” behavior, intensify all the senses, provide a perfect stage for making new friends, become a welcomed refuge from the disheartening cascade of international events and high-pressure day-to-day living foretelling oncoming illness and the loss of old friends, and so they’re a momentary pause as we linger around the table, our little band, celebrating the brightness of being together.
In 1972, having dropped out of graduate school (Far Eastern Studies) and possessed about food, cooking and all things Chinese, I opened a catering business in my hometown of Santa Barbara. This was before I had learned that sometimes less is better when it comes to dinner parties. My typical menu involved 10 to 14 courses and required days of shopping, chopping, mincing and dicing. Dinners turned into theatrical culinary kung-fu events with me racing between the kitchen and dining room to explain every presentation. In fact, five minutes before my first hired catering event, the hostess increased the guest list from eight to 12. No matter, I had enough food to feed thousands.
In 1990 Teri and I built a home on a hilltop behind the Mondavi Winery in Oakville, California. The land was a rocky, rugged 20 acres carpeted with tall golden grasses and highlighted by groves of oaks and Douglas fir and outcroppings of serpentine rock. The site was spectacular but demanded attention, especially the labor of “weed-eating” each spring to keep the grasses at bay and thus lessen the fire hazard to our home. I often thought about putting guests to the task as a work-eat arrangement. Dinner guests arrive in the agony of hunger, and they’ll agree to do anything in the short term (replanting the front flower bed took only a few minutes one evening) for long-term gain (dinner).
Robert Mondavi commanded center stage at a conference in Hawaii during the summer of 1989. Imperial, opinionated, passionate. His strong Roman chin and nose jutted out at an audience of several hundred food and wine professionals as he explained the perfect food match for his famous Fumé Blanc with an appetizer created by his winery chef. It was a mesmerizing performance, and Teri and I, newly arrived in Napa Valley and knowing little about wine, bowed before the Master. Here was truth revealed. Two more winery owners and their chefs followed this command performance, with each “team” parading more facts on matching wine with food. I scribbled madly to capture the subtlety, the brilliance, and the truth revealed. But wait! A murmur gathered force across the crowd as each of us tasted and drank the same pairings, while the moderator, holding a cordless mike, moved through the room, capturing the public opinions from Julia Child and other Gods of Food and Wine. Pandemonium. Heated Opinions. And No Agreement. It wasn’t just whether Robert Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc was served at the “proper” temperature, or that another winemaker’s Fumé Blanc might have made a superior choice, but more astounding, these professionals who earned their living based on the acuteness of their palate couldn’t even agree whether the wine should have been Red or White. I stopped scribbling, started drinking, and relaxed. If the experts couldn’t agree on the color of the wine, then maybe the subject of wine and food matching shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Don’t apologize for your wine choices. There’s probably going to be a wine expert who finds your choice brilliant.
BBQ Chicken with Chipotle Honey Glaze
Organic chicken is the ideal meat to cook for dinner gatherings. Few are the people that will not relish the succulent meat, intense chicken taste, and crisp skin. And of all the methods to cook chicken, barbecuing is the most effective accenting the unique qualities of chicken. All barbecuing requires supervision. Get your friends involved turning the chicken on the grill and brushing on more marinade. However, if you find this distracting or stress inducing, the chicken is great roasted in a 425-degree oven for approximately 30 minutes.
If your experience with Mexican cooking does not extend beyond the narrow taste boundaries of enchiladas and burritos, you’re missing one of the world’s great culinary traditions. The range of ingredients, flavor profiles, imaginative cooking techniques and diversity of dishes from region to region is so extensive that a complete experience would require many lifetimes! Alas, the typical Mexican restaurant menu in the United States reflects none of the vitality of their great culinary tradition.
Mexican cooking is a peasant cuisine—meaning labor intensive, dependent on many hands with plenty of hours to complete the laborious preparation and cooking stages. It is no wonder that the electric blender revolutionized Mexican cuisine when introduced in the 1950s by drastically reducing preparation time. It is the reason why the electric blender is found in nearly every Mexican home.