Real Entertaining: A cozy winter lunch
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 2:38 PM
A friend has been suggesting for quite some time that my partner, Michael, and I entertain a friend of hers who rents an apartment half a block from our house.
"She lives near Philadelphia but works a few days a week in Washington," she prodded. "You'll love her."
I always nod enthusiastically and promise to call them very soon, but my friend sees through the ruse and continues her gentle nudging. Last week, as if to sweeten the pot, she divulged: "The husband's great, too. He's a food writer."
As if that would work. It isn't that I am against meeting the couple; it is just that I feel nervous about being set up on a blind date of sorts. The fact that one of the guests is a food writer represents a zero-sum gain; we'll have plenty to talk about, to be sure, but the pressure to produce a terrific meal is greater.
To manage everybody's expectations, I decided we will have our new part-time neighbors over for a cozy lunch at noon or so on a Saturday. Just the four of us. That kind of party is a good way for a small group of people to meet for the first time, because the duration of the event is finite. When you are invited for lunch, as opposed to brunch, the presumption is that everyone has something else to do in the late afternoon. Guests are therefore expected to show up on time and not linger after the meal is over.
If the invitation implies a slight formality, the word cozy removes the sting; it implies, "We'd love to have you over, just us, nothing grand." In other words, don't expect an intricate, multi-course meal. With no other guests invited, the getting-to-know-you phase common to all first dates is more focused.
Here is my plan: Serve simple hors d'oeuvres and wine by the fireplace (nothing like a crackling fire to help break the ice), then a two-course meal: entree and dessert. No popping up and down to serve a first course, no prepping in the kitchen between courses.
Even with that menu, making things that can be done ahead of time is key. For the nibbles, I settled on what are basically two spreads: a chunky artichoke smish (marinated artichoke hearts, Boursin cheese, parsley) and steak tartare. It is always wise to offer vegetarian items, especially to those whose eating habits are unknown to you.
Considering that its main ingredient is raw beef, the tartare is not something I would ordinarily serve to strangers. But certainly an exception can be made for a food writer and his spouse. Traditionally, the dish is presented with a raw egg yolk on top, but instead I use the yolk to emulsify a vinaigrette prepared with some usual tartare flavorings (Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, capers, cornichons, parsley) and unusual ones (truffle oil, fish sauce).
Ring molds shape the spreads into neat cylinders on the plate, giving them a finished, professional look. The artichoke spread and steak tartare are surrounded with baguette slices that have been brushed with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper and toasted.
For the main course, I first considered chicken in a pot with fennel, saffron and parsleyed potatoes, which has a nice, rustic feel, or a lighter goat cheese souffle, which promises a little elegance and drama.
Rather than deal with having to carve or fret over timing, I decided to make seafood potpies instead. For the filling, I saute leeks, shiitake mushrooms, carrots and water chestnuts, which add a pleasant crunch. I season the mix with garlic, thyme leaves and Old Bay and make a white sauce right in the pan, using flour, fish stock and milk. Then I fold in sea scallops, shrimp and, if I'm putting on the dog, chunks of lobster. Once filled, the individual crocks (easy to serve) are topped with cutouts of buttermilk biscuit dough perked up with generous amounts of chopped parsley, dill and scallions.