ELV — the man, the myth, the galloping gastronomic gourmand — doesn’t usually bother with such trifles as New Year’s resolutions. It’s not that he’s above trying to improve himself, but more like he doesn’t enjoy setting himself up for failure.
But 2015 will be different. For once, we intend to do something to benefit our mind, our spirit, and the friends and family around us: we’re going to cook for them.
On a semi-regular basis.
Most of you don’t know this, but for over twenty years our dinner parties were legendary in three states: Kentucky, Connecticut and Nevada. Sometime around a dozen years ago — when both Vegas’s food scene and our food writing took off — we started dialing back our cooking to focus more on restaurants and writing about them. (When you’re eating over 400 restaurant meals/year (1998-2012), the only thing more daunting than cooking dinner for yourself is what to do with the refrigerator full of restaurant leftovers you’re always saddled with.)
Don’t get us wrong, we never objected to taking home half of a first class steak anymore than we did an armful of French pastries. Over time, though, your larder gets as depleted as your enthusiasm for a home cooked meal.
So, to achieve a little more life balance, we are hereby dedicating ourselves to the art of entertaining, and reacquainting ourselves to the myriad of cookbooks and recipes we have loved since 1976 — the year we took up cooking in earnest.
What we will do on these pages is simpler. Probably no more than the occasional overview of the meal and wines to match, blended with a few helpful tips on entertaining and pulling off a successful event.
As for last night’s repast (pictured above), it was a simple affair enhanced by some complex wines. Speaking of wines…
* Invaluable Entertaining Tip #1: Always have friends with more money, better taste and more impressive wine cellars than your own.
*Invaluable Entertaining Tip #2: If you don’t have such friends, get some new ones.
The food was four courses: Julia Child’s classic coq au vin (chicken in wine) — straight from Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1 — accompanied by buttered new potatoes with parsley, and green beans dressed with a mustard vinaigrette and sliced almonds, followed by a monster cheese course and an Italian panettone (purchased from Valley Cheese & Wine) and a crème caramel renversée (from Julia, natch).
* Invaluable Entertaining Tip #3: 6-8 people (including you and your partner) is the ideal number for a successful dinner party. Two couples are boring (no matter who the couples are) and once you get past dinner for 8, the cooking (and dishware and cleanup) becomes a chore.
* Invaluable Entertaining Tip #4: Anyone who invites someone over for dinner whom they don’t know — at least as a casual friend — is an idiot. The idea of cooking for your boss went out with June Cleaver. Trying to impress someone while you’re fretting over a hollandaise sauce or dressing a salad makes as much sense as debating the national debt with your dentist.
Lest you think we’re about to go all Dorie Greenspan on you and turn this into a recipe/cooking blog, be advised our posts on our parties shall be (relatively) recipe-free.
We will tell you this, though: to be a good home cook, you need to find some cookbooks you like and work your way through them. Being of mid-Baby Boomer status, ELV’s cookbooks reflect the teachers who were stars in the genre back in the 70s, 80s and early 90s:
(The books that taught ELV to cook)
*Invaluable Entertaining Tip #5: Most celebrity chef cookbooks are worthless. Stick with the classics from professional cookbook writers: The Joy of Cooking, Jacques Pepin, Marcella Hazan, Mitchell Davis, Mark Bittman, et al, and avoid anything supposedly written by someone you’ve seen on the Food Network.
*Invaluable Entertaining Tip #6: Cookbooks by anyone you’ve seen on the Food Network make excellent coffee table decorations and door stops.
ELV’s two sons — both of whom are serious home cooks (imagine that?) — swear by Kitchen Sense by Mitchell Davis and How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.
If you insist on star-f*cking while you slave over a hot stove, Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks are generally excellent, and Wolfgang Puck’s aren’t bad either.
*Invaluable Entertaining Tip #7: Don’t even think about throwing a dinner party until you have made all of the recipea at least twice. You love your friends too much to experiment on them…unless you tell them in advance that’s what you’re doing.
– Coq au vin simmered in an entire bottle of sassy, young Corbières wine.
– Buttered new potatoes with gobs of finely chopped parsley.
– Green beans dressed in a mustard-red wine vinaigrette (make the vinaigrette ahead and toss the whole enchilada together at the last minute and sprinkle generously with sliced almonds).
– A drop-your-fork-delicious cheese course — served with ripe pears, peeled tangerines and fig jam. (We always stick with the classics: a wedge of Stilton, a hunk of true Parm, one soft cheese and maybe an artisanal beauty (or two) recommended to us by Valley Cheese and Wine.)
– Pear and chocolate panettone dressed with a dollop of crème caramel renversée that we made the day before.
Invaluable Entertaining Tip #8: Cheese can be a show-stopper (and a low-maintenance one at that) if you’re having any sort of wine-centric meal. Always serve it after the main course and before the desserts (so as not to spoil your guests appetites for your show-stopping cooking.)
Invaluable Entertaining Tip #9: Know your cheesemonger. Which in the Vegas Valley means knowing Bob and Kristin Sande at Valley Cheese & Wine. They can guide you through all of the ins and outs of presenting cheese at a party or dinner. Whole Foods will do in a pinch, and Trader Joe’s if you’re desperate, but if you’re the sort that enjoys your fromage from Albertson’s, you are beyond hope….so don’t embarrass yourself by inflicting your hideous taste in fermented curd on your unsuspecting guests.
*Invaluable Entertaining Tip #10: Never ever EVER invite dietary restrictions, dieters or picky eaters to a dinner party. They are the dooky in the punch bowl of dinner guests, and should NEVER be tempted away from an evening of Magnum P.I. reruns and the Weight Watchers meal of their choice.
– Duval-Leroy Vintage ’07 Brut Champagne
– Crozes-Hermitage ’07 Southern Rhone
– Walter Hansel ’09 Russian River Chardonnay (a thick, balanced chard that could seduce a white Burgundy lover)
– A. P. Vin ’09 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
– Paloma ’02 Merlot (beautiful with the Stilton – mellowing out and enhancing both the wine and the cheese in all sorts of lip-smacking ways)
– Schlossgut-Diel ’05 Spatlese Riesling (one of our go-to/never-fail cheese/dessert wines)
As we said above, having friends with impeccable taste in wine is a definite plus in the entertaining department. Our friend Bob is the sort of guy who, if we say something like: “Bob, I’m thinking of serving dry-aged wallaby with some mongoose fritters,” doesn’t look at us like we have a platypus growing out of our ear. Instead, he always comes back with: “I may have an ’04 cab-merlot blend from the Barossa Valley that would be perfect, unless you’d prefer a classified growth Bordeaux. Tell you what, I’ll bring both!”
Like we said, having great friends is half the battle.
A votre santé!