“So, who are you having over this weekend?” my neighbor calls across the back fence. She’s only half joking— it’s a rare weekend that my husband, Kevin, and I don’t have friends over for dinner.
Hosting dinner parties has always been Kevin’s way of getting to know people. Our courtship, which began as a series of Friday work lunches, grew over dinners for two (or sometimes three or eight) in his apartment on University Parkway. The first dinner had a rocky start when I was first surprised, and then irritated, to discover I was expected to chop the vegetables for our meal, a simple pasta salad. But by our second dinner, I was touched (and a little surprised) that the turkey cutlets Kevin had marinated in a red wine vinaigrette (and ahead-of-time prep is not Kevin’s strong suit) had turned shocking pink. I don’t even remember the third dinner, because by then the food didn’t matter.
I do remember a dumpling-making party guided by several Chinese graduate students who worked with Kevin at Hopkins’ Eisenhower library. And I remember an impromptu baking session on a rainy weekend when Kevin, a loquacious buddy and I made date bars and drank cheap rosé. Better food came on nights when the gang of friends who worked with Kevin gathered for cutthroat games of Risk.
Kevin’s roommate would conjure Indian-themed dinners of chicken with lentils, garlicky Gujarati-style string beans and bowls of spicy chickpeas. Gang of Four or Nick Cave thumped through the stereo while friends squared off as opponents and consumed growlers of the old Baltimore Brewing Co.’s Pils and Marzen.
When Kevin and I got engaged, it seemed natural to him to invite my family to dinner at his apartment. But while I was moved by his kindness, I was also a bit wary. A joke among friends was that Kevin might invite you to dinner at 7, but you wouldn’t eat until at least 10. Would my grandfather be patient enough to wait? And then there was the matter of the dining room. We knew my folks wouldn’t mind sitting on plastic folding chairs or eating from mismatched china, but I wanted to make the dinner a little special, so I ran to the local TJ Maxx and bought a bright red tablecloth and a large, inexpensive red and white bowl for the pasta primavera. Photos of that night show my grandmother grinning over a large plate of pasta and everyone raising glasses, cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling.
In the 12 years we’ve been married, my own attempts at throwing dinner parties have suffered a few minor glitches. Often I find myself drawn to some ingredient when planning a menu, only to find that I repeat it throughout the meal. The first dinner I cooked for friends in our Chicago apartment included ricotta stuffed shells and cheesecake. This Christmas, three dishes in my menu called for mushrooms. Yes, there can be too much of a good thing.
For this reason, I find myself returning to a few old standby menus. On the morning of a dinner party, I make the marinade for a London Broil and let the meat soak up the mixture of wine and balsamic vinegar most of the day. Nearly by heart, I measure the milk and sugar that I mix with four eggs for the baked custards. Meanwhile, Kevin cleans.
As dinnertime approaches, I halve plum tomatoes, sprinkle them with sliced garlic, bread crumbs and parsley and drizzle them with a little olive oil. They’ll bake alongside an easy potato gratin made with gruyere cheese and cream. I throw together some greens and whatever’s in the fridge for a salad, heat a baguette in the oven, put out some olives and nuts and that’s it. OK, if I’m feeling energetic I might make some gougeres, rich little cheese puffs that will spoil your dinner after one or two, but that’s really it.
By the time the doorbell rings at 7 o’clock, the house smells heavenly. Time to pull a cork and let the fun begin.