Whether you're having friends in to watch the Redskins and Atlanta Falcons Monday evening, or the election returns Tuesday, or for some other occasion when the guests will be up and down, back and forth, and breaking into partisan discussions, you're in for a long haul.
In any case, the meal must be a moveable feast, set on a buffet table for guests to serve themselves as the fancy takes them. Hot dishes must be agreeable to waiting on a heater for hours and cold dishes must take no harm at room temperature. They must be easy to eat with one eye on the plate and the other distracted by current events. It all adds up to simple, old-fashioned food.
Soup springs instantly to mind -- one of those earthy brown brews that mellows by the hour, filling the kitchen with a heady vapor. The basis for such soups is always meat and the sweetest lies on the bone, as the saying goes. Nothing could lie closer than the meat on an oxtail and nothing makes a finer soup, for oxtail is full of gelatin to add richness.
Extracting maximum flavor is a matter of time, of patiently simmering at low temperature for five hours or more until the meat falls by itself from the bones (they are discarded at the end of cooking). At the same time the fat dissolves, so it can be skimmed from the soup after chilling. Whole barley gives body to the soup and you may like to follow the British custom of adding a tot of madeira or sherry at serving time. Just leave the bottle beside the soup pot as an invitation.
Hand in hand with soup goes bread, and this whole-wheat loaf is appropriately dense with walnuts, with a sweet touch added by chopped dates. The recipe is based on the famous French pain Poil ane, which took Paris by storm a few years ago. Baking temperature is higher than usual to ensure a crisp crust while the inside remains moist. The result comes as a surprise to Americans used to factory-produced white bread -- you really need to chew.
For contrast I'm suggesting a salad of broccoli and cauliflower -- two vegetables that are easy to find and that hold up well. The dressing is a squeeze of lemon juice and a sprinkling of olive oil. Please look for the very best oil; the variety of olive oils available is amazing and price is not necessarily an indication of quality. Most important is to find an oil that suits your taste -- they can be light or rich, fragrant or fruity, golden yellow or pine green. Like a choice of wine, it's up to you.
Dessert, especially on election night, is the time to indulge in nostalgia with a cake that grandmother might have made. Remember upside-down cake? This version has fresh pears baked in a gingerbread with brown sugar topping, so that when it is turned out the pears form a flower pattern on the dark cake. Serve it with whipped cream, ice cream or sour cream and it will distract the most avid political buff from the election matters at hand. TIMETABLE
Up to three days ahead: Make soup and store in refrigerator.
Up to two days ahead: Bake bread and freeze or store in airtight container.
In the morning: Bake upside down cakes and keep covered at room temperature.
Four hours before serving: Thaw bread if frozen. Cook broccoli and cauliflower, toss with oil, and keep at room temperature. Set the table.
Twenty minutes before serving: Skim fat from soup and reheat it on top of stove. Warm cake in a very low oven. Whip cream or put sour cream in bowl for cake; put ice cream in a bowl in freezer.
Just before serving: Set all food, except ice cream, on buffet table. OXTAIL AND BARLEY SOUP (25 servings)
Brown rice can replace barley. 4 tablespoons oil 10 pounds oxtails, cut between joints 3 pounds onions, thinly sliced 1 1/2 pounds carrots, coarsely chopped 5-6 stalks celery, sliced 1/3 cup flour 6 quarts beef stock 6 quarts (6 liters) water 2 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or 2-pound can tomatoes, crushed 2 large bouquets garnis (2 sprigs thyme, 2 bay leaves, 18 parsley stems each) Salt and pepper 1 pound barley
In a very large stockpot, heat oil and brown pieces of oxtail thoroughly on all sides. Note: Browning adds a great deal of flavor to the soup. Take out pieces and drain all but about 3 tablespoons fat from the pan.
Add onions, carrots and celery and cook gently until soft but not brown, stirring occasionally. Add flour and cook, stirring, until both flour and vegetables are light brown. Stir in stock, water, tomatoes, bouquets garnis, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Replace pieces of oxtail and cover pan.
Cook over low heat until oxtail is very tender and falling from the bone, 4-5 hours. Stir occasionally during cooking and add more water if liquid evaporates rapidly. At the end of cooking the soup should be rich but not too thick.
Let soup cool to tepid, then lift out pieces of oxtail and remove meat, discarding bones and fat. Chop the meat and replace it in the soup. Add barley to soup and simmer until tender, 25-30 minutes.
Discard bouquets garnis and taste soup for seasoning. Prepare it at least 12 hours or up to three days ahead and keep it in the refrigerator.
Before serving, skim solidified fat from the surface of soup and bring it to a boil. It can be kept warm several hours without harm. BROCCOLI AND CAULIFLOWER SALAD (25 servings) 6 pounds broccoli Salt 2 cups olive oil Pepper 3 small cauliflowers, about 6 pounds total weight Juice 3-4 lemons
With a vegetable peeler, peel broccoli stems, trimming them two-to-three inches long. Divide stems into flowerettes. Cook broccoli in a large pan of boiling salted water until tender but still firm, five-to-seven minutes. Drain it, rinse with cold water, and drain thoroughly again.
While broccoli is still warm put it in a large bowl, add half the olive oil, sprinkle with pepper, and toss carefully so heads do not break.
Cut cauliflower flowerettes from stem and discard it. Cook flowerettes and toss with remaining olive oil and pepper, exactly as for broccoli.
Broccoli and cauliflower can be cooked up to four hours ahead and kept covered at room temperature.
Just before serving, combine broccoli, cauliflower and juice of three lemons in a large bowl and mix gently. Taste, adding lemon juice, salt, and pepper if necessary.
Tip: Add olive oil to warm vegetables so they can absorb it. DATE AND WALNUT BREAD (Makes 4 loaves to serve 25)
For a crisper crust, bake the bread in heavy metal loaf pans or in small skillets. 1 quart lukewarm water 4 tablespoons honey 2 cakes fresh yeast or 2 packages dry yeast 7 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour, more if necessary 2 cups all-purpose flour 2 tablespoons salt Oil for bowl 2 cups walnut halves, broken in half 1/2 pound pitted dates, coarsely chopped
Put half the water in a small bowl, stir in honey and sprinkle over yeast. Leave until dissolved, about five minutes.
In a large bowl put both kinds of flour and make a large well in the center. Add yeast mixture, remaining water, and sprinkle salt on flour. Stir gently, gradually drawing in flour to make a smooth dough. Add more whole-wheat flour if necessary to make a dough that is soft and slightly sticky. Turn dough onto a floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, 5-10 minutes, adding more flour as necessary to stop it sticking to the board. (If necessary, knead dough in two batches).
Transfer dough to a lightly oiled bowl and turn it over so top is oiled. Cover with a damp cloth and leave it to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. Grease four 9-by-5-by-4-inch loaf pans or four 7-inch skillets.
Knead risen dough lightly to knock out air, then knead in walnuts and dates. Divide dough in four, pat each piece out on a floured board and roll into a loaf, or shape into a smooth ball if using skillets. Set loaves, seam side down, in pans or skillets.
Cover again with a damp cloth and leave to rise in a warm place until dough has doubled in size and fills the pans, about 30 minutes.
When risen, place in a 450-degree oven and bake until loaves begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Lower heat to 400 degrees and continue baking until loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom, 20-30 minutes. Turn out on a rack to cool. The bread keeps well two to three days in an airtight container, or it can be frozen.
Tip: If you are going to take the time to bake, make it worthwhile by doubling the recipe and freezing half for later use. GINGER UPSIDE DOWN CAKE WITH PEARS (Makes three cakes to serve 25)
If you don't have a big mixer, make the batter in two batches. 3 29-ounce cans pear halves 15 prunes FOR THE TOPPING: 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar 3/4 cup butter FOR THE CAKE: 1 cup butter 1 cup honey 1 cup dark molasses 2 1/4 cups warm water 6 cups flour 2 tablespoons ground ginger 1 tablespoon ground allspice 3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1 tablespoon baking soda 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 6 eggs, beaten to mix 1 cup sugar Whipped cream, sour cream, or vanilla ice cream (for serving)
Put 1/2 cup brown sugar and 1/4 cup butter in each of three 10-by-2-inch cake pans. Heat in oven to melt sugar and butter, about 10 minutes. Mix together to spread mixture in base of cake pans. Drain pears and dry with paper towel. Halve and pit prunes. Arrange pear halves and prunes cut side down, in cake pans, pressing into topping.
For cake: In a pan melt butter, honey, molasses and water, stirring until smooth and mixed. Leave to cool to tepid. Sift flour with ginger, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl beat eggs until mixed. Add sugar and beat until mixture is thick and light, about 5 minutes. Add flour and molasses mixtures to beaten eggs alternately in three batches, stirring together as lightly as possible.
Pour half of batter into cake pans to half cover pears. Bake in a 375-degree oven until sides of cake are set, about 10 minutes. Reduce oven to 350 degrees. Pour remaining batter over pears and bake until a skewer inserted in center of cakes comes out clean, about one hour. Leave cakes to cool in pans 10 minutes, then turn out onto platters, spooning over any topping left in pans. Serve cakes warm, with whipped cream, sour cream or vanilla ice cream.
Cakes can be made up to eight hours ahead and kept covered at room temperature. Warm them in a low oven before serving.