My good friends Ken and Tricia had a darling baby boy a few months back, and have been in "we're - so - tired - we - can't - see - straight" mode for a while now. I think they're holding it together better than most, but decided a couple weeks back to make them dinner at their house. I was aiming for a dinner that was on the sophisticated side -- something that they wouldn't spend the time to make for themselves.
Making a full dinner in a kitchen that's not your own presents some unique challenges. I usually tend to be fairly casual about my dinner preparations at home, and while I may jot down a few notes, I tend to have the confidence that I'll be able to find everything that I need in my own house and that the dinner will come together. When at someone else's house, however, it's important to have a plan, to prepare as much as possible at home, and to take everything you need.
A couple days before the dinner, I sent K & T an email:
please choose a protein:
The answer came back a while later: "After a long hard fought discussion, we have decided on lamb." That choice made for me, I was free to build the rest of the meal around it.
Pomelo salad with mint, pistachio and walnut oil
Sugar cookies by Tricia
Make a plan.
I wrote out a one-page plan for the dinner that helped me know the exact ingredients to bring, what I had left to buy, and what I could prepare at home. I then followed my own instructions pretty strictly, making sure that everything I needed to do was right on the list. This helped to alleviate any pressure of forgetting items or leaving a major part of the dinner in my fridge. At the bottom of the list, I jotted down the brief directions for cooking the lamb at their house so that I could remember the temperatures and cooking times -- this helped me avoid having to drag cookbooks halfway across town.
I purposely chose items that I had made before or that could be easily made in someone else's kitchen. I wanted dishes that packed a lot of punch but that didn't require deep concentration on my part while there. With a baby to fawn over and chatting to catch up on, I knew that following a complicated recipe would not be a highlight of the evening. Risotto was an easy choice because I make it fairly often, but it is a dish that parents of a newborn baby would never make for themselves.
I decided on a simple white risotto (base recipe from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, "Risotto with Parmesan Cheese, page 244). A couple days prior, I worked with a cheesemonger at Cowgirl Creamery to choose two cheeses that worked out really well: a Fontina and a Fiore Sardo. The Fontina provided a rich creaminess and the Fiore Sardo gave a really delicious bite to the dish.
When trying to choose a salad, I remembered Sam's delicious sounding citrus salad, and decided on an homage to that but that used mint to provide a good flavor combination with the lamb. I also knew the acid in the salad would play nicely with the lamb flavors.
The end result was so delicious that I made an entire plate of it for myself for lunch the next day. Pomelo was the perfect citrus to use because it is not as juicy as most other citruses, and its structure stands up to being in a salad without turning to mush. I wish I could provide a recipe for this, but it was basically the ingredients mentioned above combined until the taste was right and allowed to sit for a few minutes before serving. Absolutely delicious.
Prep as much as possible at home.
I did all of the cooking at K & T's house, though I probably could have cooked the lamb at home if I'd chosen. At home, I marinated the lamb in a Mustard-Rosemary paste (The Complete Meat Cookbook, "Roast Leg of Lamb", page 486), washed the pea greens, and roasted the pistachios that I needed for the pomelo salad. I also chilled the sparkling wine and washed all other vegetables that I could.
Take everything you need.
"I don't want you to be offended by the things I am about to pull out of my bag," I told Tricia. I know that her first reaction when I started piling up ingredients on the counter would be to wonder why I had brought the most basic of ingredients when she had all of these things. But I decided that it would be better to just arrive as a complete dinner unit than to constantly have to ask her if she had each ingredient I needed. To that end, I brought salt, vermouth for the risotto, chicken stock, butter, and my own pepper grinder.
Tricia had told me days beforehand that she would provide the dessert. She made delicious sugar cookies from a recipe that she uses from Everyday Food. In retrospect, I would have overridden her decision and either made something or brought it just so that she didn't have to stress out about making dessert, but I was glad she did it because the cookies were delicious.
The dinner took an interesting turn when I completely yelled at their dog for carting off the remaining piece of Fiore Sardo from my market basket while we were eating. The dog and I go way back, so there were not any hard feelings, and the cheese was saved because it was still in its wrapper and was untouched by canine slobber. Ziggy, the dog, should know by now that no one comes between me and a good cheese!
Though this dinner took a little more planning and forethought, I would do it again in a minute -- it was truly appreciated by the new parents, and fun to try making dinner at someone else's home for the evening.