The bears are waking heavily from their hibernation. Tadpoles squirming in mud puddles. Birds flock to feeders. Butterflies unfolding from cocoons. And just like that, we too are emerging from a two-year long winter of pandemic restrictions. A perfect time to host a dinner party.
The other day I watched a program in which the chef described hiding from his tormented older brothers under the kitchen table, while his grandmother above him was preparing pasta, the flour gently raining down on him. The seed for cooking was planted in those times, and he grew to become a celebrity chef. His children spoke of sitting under a table in their father’s restaurant when they were young, while the staff prepared the room for service and they could watch the activity in the open kitchen.
Few people have that kind of inspiration at a young age and are intimidated by cooking, especially when preparing food for others. One way to dive might be to perfect a dish that you become so comfortable with that over time, you won’t even need a recipe. Let’s call it “your signature dish”.
I have several friends whose “signature dishes” I love. Carol, an excellent home cook, has made a lovely paella every year for their annual croquet party. Paella is an all-in-one Spanish meal prepared in a wide, shallow pan with a base of rice cooked in saffron broth, along with meat, seafood, and vegetables.
She did it outside on a Weber grill (how did she handle the heat so well?) layering the ingredients in stages according to their cooking times. The finished dish pleased the eye with its clever placement of red pepper strips, thin slices of lemon, green pea dots and parsley fluff. I remember how the scent wafted through the yard, luring us in with plates in our hands.
Joan makes deviled eggs, which might not sound like a big deal, but they are to me, because hers are so much better than I can make. She manages to cook the eggs just right so the whites are photo-worthy orbs, with cleverly placed toppings on top of the perfectly seasoned, creamy mashed yolks. When she comes to a party with her clever egg container, I smile.
And then there’s Bridget, who makes the chocolate chip cookie I dream of. I struggled to get that perfect combination of thick, chewy, chocolate-laden chocolate. When she told me her recipe was for the bag of Toll House crisps, I shook my head. His advice? Be sure to start with room temperature butter. Yet somehow I still can’t get the texture of hers, so I’m just waiting for an invitation to a meal at her house, where I know the towering cookie stand will will persuade you to save room for dessert.
After a trip to Yucatan and seeing the Mayan women making homemade tortillas, another friend made tortillas his signature dish. Hans organizes dinners with friends where everyone takes turns pressing tortillas, which are then cooked and garnished to be eaten at the table. He gives tortilla presses as gifts and hopes the love for fresh tortillas will spread.
My chef friends also have some dishes they cook at home. Cooking there often boils down to simple meals using commonly available ingredients. When Chef Paul serves poached eggs over risotto, it’s pretty special for a dinner party. I also like the fact that his “speed risotto” comes out just as well as the long-stirred version.
I was on the phone recently with another friend named Paul from California who mentioned that he got home from a long trip in time for his wife’s pizza dinner. Rachel has been making pizza every Friday for almost 40 years. When they started their career and worked long hours, they decided not to socialize on Friday nights. Instead, they started staying home to eat pizza and watch “Dallas,” a popular television series.
I met Rachel when she was in law school and my late husband’s roommate. He laughed when he told me she ate Campbell’s corn flakes and tomato soup. Obviously cooking was not a priority for Rachel. I knew her mom worked in the test kitchens for Better Homes and Gardens, and while mom cooked the family meals, Rachel’s job was to set the table.
Rachel didn’t do much cooking at home, but she told me she made the most elaborate recipes she could for her college home economics assignment, motivated to get a better grade. When she decided to make pizza as part of their Friday night ritual, she approached it with the same tenacity.
Rachel described the genesis of pizza making with the acquisition of a bread machine, which she used to make her pizza dough. She researched pizza making, and the light bulb moment came when she read that the most important thing about pizza is that it “should be served hot.” She decided that was all she really needed to remember, and it gave her the confidence to move on.
Several years and four bread machines later (they would run out over time), she started making dough without a machine. She also moved on to making gravy and, more importantly, carried on the Friday night tradition even as their family grew. Their home became where her children and their friends met on Friday nights, enjoying pizza, movie videos and a sleepover.
Her kids now make pizza with their own families, and the last time I visited Rachel and Paul I was treated to a pizza night on Friday, which brought back fond memories. They’ve come full circle, as their Friday night table is often set for two now, ready for a hot pizza out of the oven and a movie. When they entertain, Rachel knows she can make her signature dish, usually a pesto and arugula, or a basic cheese and tomato, and it will be the highlight of the evening menu.
What is your signature dish?
Basic pizza dough
Makes two medium pizzas
1 C. lukewarm water (just above room temperature)
1 packet (2 ¼ cup) active dry yeast
2 ½ — 3 C. unbleached all-purpose flour
2 t. salt
Optional: 1 tbsp olive oil, plus more for oiling the bowl
Combine water and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let stand for ten minutes until bubbly. Add 2 ½ cups flour and salt (and oil if using). Mix with a dough hook until the dough comes together, adding more flour if it is too wet. You can also mix by hand in a large bowl, stirring the batter with a wooden spoon.
Take the dough out of the bowl and place it on a floured surface. Knead the dough for five minutes or more, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Lightly oil a large, clean bowl and place the dough in the bowl, turning to coat in the oil. Cover with a tea towel and let rise for at least an hour before use. The dough can also be prepared in the morning and be perfectly usable at dinner time.
Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Spoon some cornmeal on your baking sheet(s). Remove the dough from the bowl and divide it in half (or in four for small pizzas). Place dough on baking sheet and stretch to desired shape. Let stand while you prepare your toppings and the oven preheats. Stretch the dough again by pressing down on it with your fingertips before adding your toppings. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the pizza, gently lifting the edge to see if the crust underneath is golden brown. Let the pizza rest for a few minutes before cutting it, but serve it hot!
TC Latino Market on South Airport Road in Traverse City offers maseca, an instant corn masa flour for making corn tortillas. Simply add water as directed and knead until you get a modeling clay consistency. They also sell tortilla presses. A tip on a recent visit was that masa can be used to dredge a piece of fish before cooking it for fish tacos.
Simple Seasoned Black Beans
It’s perfect for beans and rice or on tacos.
1 T. grapeseed or safflower oil (grapeseed, or other)
1 medium onion, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, minced
1 15 oz. can of black beans, drained and rinsed
1 to 2 medium fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
½ t. Cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
Fresh cilantro for garnish
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions and stir to soften, then the garlic. Cook for another minute. Add black beans, tomato and seasonings. Heat until tomatoes are cooked through and beans are hot, about 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Give a cup
Delicious on tortilla fillings, especially beans and roasted sweet potatoes.
½ t. salt
1 T fresh lime juice or apple cider vinegar
1 bunch cilantro (about 1 cup packed)
1 minced garlic clove
1 ea. grapeseed or safflower oil
In a food processor or blender, place the ingredients, except the oil, and blend until the cilantro is finely chopped. With processor running, slowly add oil in a thin stream. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice if needed. Can be diluted with water.