Isn’t Jacqueline Kennedy stunning in this photo? That fabulous dress, the pixie haircut and those perfect pearls? It just all seems so effortless.
Being social is something I have to work at. I’m not very good at it. So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to be a better host. One of my dreams for my new home is to host calm little dinner parties for small groups of friends. The ones where you linger over glasses of wine, and stay up past your bedtime telling stories and giggling and feeling warm and cozy. I didn’t do enough of this in San Francisco – sometimes we were too busy or too tired, but too often because hosting makes me anxious.
So lately I’ve been tackling this problem the way I tackle most problems – writing up ridiculous lists in my Moleskin. This one made me chuckle when I looked back at it, so I thought I’d elaborate here. This should really be titled “8 Tips to Stop Being A Hermit, and Socialize, Mkay?” or “How to spend time with people, rather than your DVR”.
Here you go:
#1: Bring on the biscuits. A dinner party does not need to be six guests and a four course meal. A dinner party can be one guest, a meal on the floor. A dinner party can be boxes of Chinese take-out sitting cross legged. Or that ole’ standby, Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits. You know you are a sucker for those biscuits.
#2: Being Social Good, Being Hermit Bad. It’s a little pathetic that I have to remind myself of this. In college, I liked to take advantage of every opportunity to share a bite to eat with friends. 5pm was cocktail hour with Lizzy, house council meetings had fresh focaccia, and there were always late-night ice cream runs. You’d never head to dining hall to eat a meal alone – the more the merrier.
#3: Channel a Host-Master. My current one is Chez Panisse chef David Tanis – with his underground Paris supper club “aux chiens lunatiques”. If he can invite total strangers over for a meal, I can invite a friend over without stress.
On this note, a few weeks ago, Tara Austen Weaver posted the beginning of a series on how to be a consummate host, in which she shares her ”hosting anxieties”, and interviews those who feel comfortable inviting in the masses. I’m looking forward to reading more of these.
#4: You are not alone, horrified host. My fears and anxieties are shared. There was a study a while back written up in the Telegraph that found that “57 per cent of people found entertaining friends for a meal more nerve-racking than commuting to work, while a quarter said it was more testing than a job interview.” Isn’t that ridiculous? This actually makes me feel a little relieved because I never feel that badly about hosting.
#5: Put away the Alinea Cookbook . I have a terrible habit of spending almost all of my time in the kitchen in experimentation mode. This means that most meals we eat at dinner are only at 75 – 85% of perfection because I’m always trying to fiddle. While it may be tempting for the masochist to pull out the professional cookbook for entertaining, there is no shame in having a good chili recipe that works every time.
#6: Just because your mother uses a set from Shreve’s, your silverware need not match. I’m currently boasting a set of five bowls from Crate and Barrel, white with aubergine inside. My set of “dinner” plates are ones I stole from our house in Maine, vintage green stoneware “snack” plates from the 1950’s with rimmed depressions for the cups that go with them. Literally, plates designed for sitting and eating in front of the television. In the future, I’d love to have a set of beautiful tableware, but as long as the plate is functional, it’ll be just fine.
#7: Put away the bleach, your house need not be sparkling clean. It will never be as clean as it needs to be. Just suck it up, and hope that your friends aren’t jerks.
#8: Stop being boring. See those blank spaces on your iCal? Fill them. You out there, fellow anxious hosts – I implore you, invite someone over next week. Even if it is just for tea, takeout, or a box of Annie’s Shells and Cheddar (although you can do better). The only thing you need to do to have a dinner party is invite someone, just one, and there you go. It is incredibly gratifying to feed people.
After writing out my little list, I felt comfortable enough to invite over my first house guest. Despite the fact that we have no table, one chair, and we are still in the process of painting the kitchen. I made this warm chicken stew, a salad, and strawberries macerated with a little liquor, and some fresh whipped cream. I think it worked out pretty well.
serves 4 modestly
with a green salad and some crusty bread
This is one of my favorite recipes adapted from Nigella Lawson for Chicken Cacciatore – she’s a fabulous hostess herself. I’ve actually written about it before, here, but I’ve perked it up a bit. Her addition of beans gives the recipe a little bit more substance. It’s flexible too – you can do it with most pieces of chicken, whatever beans you have on hand, bacon or pancetta or even cubed ham. And, this is one of those nice dishes that you can cook in one pot, and even make in advance of your evening, as it almost always tastes better reheated the next day.
2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 whole clove of garlic
1 white onion, sliced
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary (or 1/4 teaspoon dried)
2 thick strips of smoked applewood bacon, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
4 whole chicken legs, bone in, with skin (about 2 pounds) or just thighs are fine
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
1/2 cup white wine (or sherry)
1/2 cup chicken stock or water
1 (14 ounce) can of chopped tomatoes
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 (14 ounce) can of cannellini beans
1. Season the chicken with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Preferably a few hours before if you can). Heat a heavy bottomed pot (I use my Le Creuset) on medium heat.
2. When hot, pour in the olive oil, swirl to coat the bottom of the pot, and place the chicken legs skin side down to brown, about 10 minutes. Turn and cook the other side for about 3 more minutes. Remove, and set aside.
3. Add the bacon and onion and stir until the onion is translucent, about five minutes. Add the whole clove of garlic, the rosemary and bay leaves, and cook for a minute or two, until fragrant.
4. Pour in the white wine, scraping the brown bits from the bottom of the pan (where your flavor is!) Add the can of tomatoes, chicken stock, cannelini beans, sugar, and celery salt. Put the chicken back into the pan, skin side up, cover, and braise for 45 minutes. Remove your bay leaves before serving, as so your guests don’t choke.