Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

A Cozy Winter's Saturday: Steven Cooks at Last

My friend Jim is very good at whipping up a fine bistro-quality dinner on relatively little notice. He can see what looks good at Coastal Seafoods and build a nice meal around it, or just pick up something at Whole Foods, and there will be a nice dinner when we arrive. As a result of Jim's facility, I regularly wind up eating at his house, at small dinner parties of one sort or another.

I do my best to contribute. I pick up nice cheeses and smoked fish. On occasion I have made dessert. (Usually I'm the only one drinking wine so it doesn't count that I have often provided that piece of the meal.) I also contribute vintage dinnerware and silverplate to Jim's china cabinet, when I see what Jim may need. Still, I really should do the hosting more often. More specifically, I really want to do the hosting more often. I've written before of my occasional attempts to be a host.

Last Saturday I just said let's have dinner at my place. Actually I said this on Friday, because I had a commitment-free Saturday. Suddenly Saturday was full to bursting. I was up early to get the crepe batter made and put a load of laundry in and then I spent the day shopping and cooking and setting out the Fiestaware and straightening up the place (no time for a major scrubdown cleaning, alas, but things weren't too bad).

Saturday was a brisk cold day, and my kitchen filled with cooking smells. From this Stephen and Scott upstairs knew I was having folks for dinner, as they told me when I called to invite them to join us if they could (when I realized that I had two adults and one child coming but I had enough food for about 8 hungry people). About the time the root vegetables were ready to be pureed, Jim and Denise and Denise's daughter Anna arrived for a nice comfortable hour chatting in the kitchen. This time Jim brought dessert.

I set Anna up in the side room with my portable DVD player and a pile of 1960s comic books I had been purchasing for her off eBay and a plate of cheese and crackers. She was in a comfortable cocoon there, and quite happy to read and watch DVDs and snuggle up under a blanket.

What happened next was what should happen when you spend the day cooking: the meal, though tasty, was not the focus in itself but the background and support for a very comfortable evening.

For appetizers we had a French cheese called something like Pyrenese, which was studded with peppercorns and had a smooth nutty taste. Since I thought, at first, there would be only three of us I bought a little $5 nugget of excellent French chevre, which I usually don't try because there isn't enough for everybody. It was worth the money. We also had shrimp and cocktail sauce. The pre-cooked shrimp looked uncharacteristically good, so I saved myself some time and cleanup and bought them rather than cooking the shrimp myself. I was right in my assessment of their quality. Scott in particular seemed especially happy with them.

For salad I bought a container of mixed field greens. I cooked up four pieces of Nueske's excellent bacon (which I chopped up and then put on the side to account for vegetarian Stephen) because Denise loves her bacon on her salad. I scored the tops of some shitake and crimini mushrooms and cooked them quickly in very hot olive oil, also for the salad. For dressing I whisked up some wine vinegar, fresh lemon juice, olive oil, minced garlic, dijon mustard, basil, and oregano. This tasted bitter at first but after sitting for half an hour it mellowed beautifully.

I spent the day putting together spinach crepes in bechamel sauce, based on some Julia Child recipes. I cheated with frozen spinach, but after cooking it with butter and salt and pepper and nutmeg, and then cooking it again for 10 minutes with shallots and gruyere-based bechamel sauce it was just fine for the crepe filling. For a side dish I used a Martha Stewart recipe: I peeled and cut up some butternut squash, a turnip, and two pears and tossed them in a pot in which I had sauteed some onion in butter. After they got soft I pureed them in the food processor and added salt and pepper. This finished just as Denise and Jim arrived, so they got the first taste and suggested some parmesan, which I added and it was delicious (and even better the next day).

I served a (very) inexpensive white French Bordeaux, which Scott and I polished off (Stephen and Jim had small tastes).

Jim's dessert was, well, a story that had something to do with a bad recipe but turned into some fine pie crust and a chocolate custard and some whipped cream and some strawberries all mixed together. And we had tea.

Anna wanted nothing more than her cheese and crackers.

The hours glided by. There was a lot of cleanup, but Denise joined me in the kitchen for that while Stephen and Scott and Jim sat comfortably in the dining room and talked about the moral and religious underpinnings of political beliefs. When it was time at last to break up the evening, we sang some. Then some more.

This is exactly what I had hoped my apartment would feel like when I moved there and furnished it: A cozy place to spend a cold afternoon and a pleasant setting for a sentimentally social evening. At the end of the evening, the long evening, everybody looked up and said, "This was really nice!"

Every time I do this I resolve to do it more often. All it will take is more free days.
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