Saturday, June 9, 2007

Be My Guest

I thought this article from the Washington Post was very interesting...

As Jon and I continue to make our house a home, doing interior decorating and outdoor landscaping, we are planning to have a house-warming some time, hopefully this year. This article sure made me wonder, hmm... am I ready to play host to any party? =)

Well, I most certainly will make sure my party is more low-key and a much smaller production!

Be My Guest

By Ellen McCarthy
Friday, November 3, 2006; WE30

Here's the thing. At what point during a dinner party should a good host actually break down and call Domino's? Is it when you've had 10 people squeezed into a basement efficiency apartment in Mount Pleasant for three-plus hours and they start to name Disney dwarfs and Supreme Court justices to pass the time between courses, and the lamb still looks animate even though it was supposed to be done 45 minutes ago and your smart-aleck foodie friend Neil keeps saying, "Let's just give it a few more minutes," even though the clock is inching toward midnight and the wine is starting to run low? Then is it time to hang up the apron?

Yeah, well, whatever.

The story of my dinner party debut is a long and not particularly flattering one. But I'll tell it. I'll tell, if only because you seem so eager to listen and you look, more or less, like the understanding type. Please, have a seat.

It would be disingenuous, I suppose, not to admit that the whole production began out of something akin to laziness. The given assignment was simply to document someone's early adventures in entertaining. At this point, I could've, probably should've, gone forth to find an eager subject -- an ambitious Young Professional Everyman who would smile while he sauteed and discovered a latent love of cooking wondrous enough to fill every aching hole in life. But, uck. How to find this person? And what if his prep sessions coincided with new episodes of "The Office"? I would start to resent my earnest guinea pig and his gross food and boring friends, and the whole thing would end badly.

Besides, I was lucky enough to have found in myself an ideal prototype. Ideal in that worst-case-scenario kind of way, which just happened to be the exact ideal necessary for this little experiment. As I mentioned, I live in an efficiency apartment. Also, I own one chair and can't cook. Oh, I suppose that's not entirely true. Two days before I took on the assignment, for instance, I made an omelet. The operation set off a smoke alarm and sent my landlords rushing downstairs to check that I wasn't torching their property, but, in the end, it was quite tasty. Charred is an underrated style for eggs, especially when accompanied by cheese.

So, a dinner party.

Lovely affairs, aren't they? You get the intimacy of a coach cabin on a transcontinental flight combined with the sustenance of a semi-professional eating competition. Plus enough wine consumed in a stationary position over a prolonged period to ensure that at least one guest will say something fantastically offensive by the end of the evening:

The cutoff is a C cup. Any woman with less than a C cup should be forced, by law, to get a state-funded boob job. Come on. Why not?

The intention was simply to serve 10 people a four-course, homemade meal without giving any of them due cause to pursue legal action upon exiting the apartment. Piece. Of. Cake.

Now, be a dear and allow me just a moment to set a bit of a scene. At the time I embraced this assignment, my refrigerator contained the following: one package of shredded cheese (for use in omelet), two milk cartons with expiration dates best left unrevealed, a mustard jar of mysterious origins and a lone cucumber, given to me by a friend who also offered the words, "I'm scared you don't know how to live."

That, by the way, is categorically untrue. I get on just fine and quite happily, though I'll admit there are some facets of modern existence that hold no interest for me, and finding uses for stray cucumbers is one of them.

Anywho, the refrigerator is flanked by a counter measuring one foot wide by three feet deep. I also have a Lilliputian stove, a bed in the middle of the foyer/living room/library/den and that chair, on which I sometimes do some sitting. It's actually a charming place, bigger than one might think when first descending past the medieval gate that guards the entry.

The Hobbit Hole (official property designation) has many fine qualities: wonderful landlords, good water pressure, picturesque Mount Pleasant location. But I had never fully tested its potential as a space to entertain. Surely, with some tweaking it could become the very definition of elegance.

The food aspect of this shindig proved trickier. My mother, a good woman who doesn't talk much about the undergarments that may or may not have been burned during her college days, said this: "If you never learn to cook, you'll never have to do it." Very wise, and entirely true until I got myself into this little predicament.

I should mention that I had one major advantage heading into this debacle (besides the ample space available in my refrigerator). I have, over the years, logged tens -- okay, maybe dozens -- fine, tens of dozens -- of hours watching the Food Network.

What remained to be seen was the extent to which a major Food Network investment could aid one's talents in the kitchen. I'm quite sure I'm capable of constructing a sugar skyscraper worthy of medal contention in any major national contest, and I absolutely know where to head next time I find myself in the mood for the cheapest food greater Cooperstown has to offer, but would that translate to culinary mastery?

An answer in due time, my friend.

My journey began with a stop at a 20-person beginners' cooking class at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda. At least I thought it said "beginners." Maybe most beginners begin a bit differently than I do. We jumped right into the secret of good pie dough, how to cut shallots along the "fingers" and the importance of a well-organized mise en place . (It's important -- apparently very, very important -- that every tool and every spice stand at the ready before one even thinks about starting to cook.)

"What we're actually doing here is making a sauce, a sauce for our greens," said our instructor, a big-bellied chef named Dave Arnold. "It needs to have the right taste, the right color, the right viscosity."

Say what? I enjoyed myself immensely and departed with the overwhelming sense that I was up a creek without a paddle. Or a boat or a cellphone or a snack pack of trail mix.

I'm sorry, but do you have any idea how many things are involved with the preparation of food? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, little buddy, but the answer is many, many things. Apparently, a can opener and a Brita filter will take a girl only so far in life.

Anyway, on to the menu. No matter where I turned, everyone -- my colleagues, siblings, the Ethiopian woman on the bus who kept fiddling with her headphones while I was trying to talk -- had a piece of advice. Actually, they all had the same piece of advice: Serve only things you can prepare in advance. That's right, if executed properly, I could spend the afternoon before the party getting a nice blowout and penning handwritten notes to old grade school chums.

(In truth, though, everyone in the group scheduled to attend the affair had another suggestion: "Stock up on the booze if you expect us to stay past the appetizers.")

After three days of cookbook reading and Internet searching, I decided on the following: an arugula salad with figs and prosciutto, butternut squash soup, rack of lamb and a chocolate torte. Delicious, huh? Well, delicious in theory.

Five days before the event, I drove to Pittsburgh to steal every gift my sister received for her wedding last year. Glasses, mixing bowls, silverware, 18 pairs of candlesticks. But if I was concerned before about the physics of fitting 10 people into my apartment, I was frantic now at the thought of squeezing in 10 people and four tons of gadgets.

Hey, Tara, how are ya? Listen, do you think you could do me a favor and bring half a dozen chairs when you come on Friday? Great, great. And you won't mind if I store a crockpot on your lap during dinner, will you?

On the eve of the eve of the big day, I took to my hands and knees for a cleaning marathon and penciled in a quick trip to pick up a practice rack of lamb, but, uh . . .

"Nope, sorry. We can't keep it in stock, and there's no guarantee we'll get a new shipment by the end of the week," said the friendly butcher at the P Street Whole Foods.

That was grocery store No. 3 at 9:30 p.m. I went to bed that night short four chairs and a main course and dreamed that my party started before I had a chance to buy wine.

But the next day, the gods smiled and Harris Teeter sold me four big racks. Ugly buggers, and not cheap; I loved them regardless. And was merrily on my way to pick up the other 48 items on my shopping list.

"Can I help you find something? I see you circling," said the nice man at the Van Ness Giant.

"Well, yes, I'm looking for parsley," I replied.

"Okay, do you want the flat leaf or regular?"

"Right. Um. Why don't you choose this time?"

By the end, every Giant employee in the mid-Atlantic was enlisted in my little brigade, and still the cocoa powder alone took 15 minutes to find. "It's on Aisle 6, with the hot chocolate." Of course it is. Why didn't I intuit that?

The cooking began at 6 the night before the party and lasted until midnight, and I have to tell you, compared with the planning and cleaning and shopping, it was virtually a trip to the day spa. Sure, an onion ended up in the chocolate glaze and my first attempt at soup produced a liquid the consistency of a sand milkshake, but at least there was progress.

And it turned out -- I'm saying this only because I feel very close to you right now -- that I had more counter space than originally thought, though some might technically refer to it as "floor."

I woke up the next morning with the excitement of a C student on SAT Saturday and began by removing the batteries from my smoke alarm. There would be no time for a test run with the lamb, but I can follow directions when they really matter. And three people assured me unprompted that it's a foolproof dish. (Several others chose to describe it as "ambitious," but no matter.)

The next 10 hours blurred by in a frenzy of chopping and cursing and wishing I could turn back time to go find that smiley guinea pig and get myself out of this ridiculous fiasco.

Just before my guests arrived, I did a few sun salutations to get into a Zen place of peace so I could focus on what really needed to come of this evening spent breaking bread with people I care deeply about. In a moment of clarity, I realized only one thing mattered: that no gastrointestinal distress be induced until they were way the hell out of my apartment.

"Hi! Welcome!"

Oops, did I forget to mention that mine is the subterranean door? Hellooo! Down here!

It probably breaks some cardinal rule of hostessing, but all the people I invited were already close friends, with the exception of my landlords, who are Canadian, and, well, you know what that means.

A bottle of champagne or five were uncorked, and I began to consider the possibility that I might be a natural. The place worked pretty well, for starters. The chairs (which probably looked familiar to some of my guests, from whom they were hijacked) fit comfortably around a long table, and my bed didn't seem to be obstructing any major escape routes.

Even the food was working out. True, there wasn't enough salad to go around, and Neil was kind enough to mention later that he would have added a touch of honey to the soup, but all in all it was unfolding splendidly. And honestly -- you should have seen the way they raved about the mixed nuts I had set out as an hors d'oeuvres. Genius, really.

I tried not to get cocky; my pièce de résistance, the lamb, was still to come. But the searing had gone well, the oven was properly preheated and my trusty Internet instructions were laid out before me.

Let me tell you why I picked lamb, which I chose before doing any comparative pricing analysis. It seems to have a very specific -- and short -- cooking time. About 25 minutes, according to my printout from "Peggy's Fine Dining Gourmet Recipes." (Peggy doesn't seem to have a last name, which maybe should've told me something.)

So in went the racks, and I carefully marked the time on my watch -- and by "watch" I mean cellphone. Does anyone still wear a watch?

After a half-hour in the oven and 10 minutes of resting, we were ready to carve. Ewww, is there supposed to be that much blood?

"Yeah, let's just stick it back in for a bit longer," Neil suggested.

Right, excellent idea.

"We're getting close," I announced to the table at 10:20.

"We're getting close," I said again at 10:35, after a second slice showed no signs of improvement.

"It may be a while," I said at 10:48.

Okay, one more time. Please, Lord, let this work. And it was perfect -- medium rare and stunning to behold. Plate up the microwavable veggie medley side, kids, dinner is served!

Hallelujah! Finally.

"Aaaaand, change of plans," Neil announced, snatching back the two dishes that had been delivered after every other cut revealed more wretched rawness.

What in the name of all things holy is happening here? And where is that damn meat thermometer I so meticulously remembered to snatch from my sister?

"This is a big meal for being so late," my landlord Elayne noted about 11:15.

"Don't worry," responded my helpful friend Erin. "It's almost breakfast."

Sigh . . .

Well, so, the lamb finally made it to the table just before 11:30. It found a fan in Clifford, the dog who lives upstairs, and 45 minutes later, when the (not completely awful) cake was cut, I settled in for a good, long rest. A rousing debate on the merits of professional sports was just getting underway -- one Canadian is anti and he has some interesting points -- and while I couldn't care less either way, I found myself falling in love anew with the joy of sitting.

It has been a week now since that fateful night, and I'm happy to report that I have absolutely no idea whether the evening was a success. I'm not sure any host ever could. Of course my friends are going to tell me they had a fine time. What else would they say? No one volunteered information on any food-related suffering that may have occurred in the aftermath, and I am smart enough not to inquire.

Is it a sign of a good dinner party when guests start to curl up on your bed at the end of the evening? Unclear.

Ellen McCarthy is a Weekend staff writer, but only until Martha Stewart calls.

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