In which the author tells you how to run your life -- or at least how to make the most of the fun parts of it.

For instance, inside these pages you will learn how to weather a mortar attack in good spirits; how to avoid booking yourself on the Internet into a bed and breakfast full of twee quilts and dusty tchotkes; and how to plan a dinner party that will stun your guests with deliciousness and style and not destroy your will to live with the amount of work you have to do to pull it off.

These are things I know firsthand, and things people who know me often ask me about (though I usually just book them into bed and breakfasts myself -- identifying ruffled death traps is an acquired skill). I am almost always right about everything (food, style and travel-related, anyway, and often many other things) and if everyone would just do as I say, dinner would taste better, cupcakes would not be dry, your parties would be more fun (for you), and mortar attacks... well, they always suck. I can't do anything about them.

*except laundry. I can't manage my own laundry, much less yours.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

How To Be Ready to Entertain Drop-In Guests, Who Are Often the Best Kind and Deserve a Little Aforethought.

It’s a question of properly stocking one shelf of your pantry (and a teeny corner of the fridge) with things that require little to no preparation and have a long-shelf life. If you are a child of the Cold War, you might also be thinking: handy list in event of nuclear war! Yes, yes it is.
Here’s what to stock:
  • dates, dried apricots, dried cranberries
  • Marcona (or other roasted) almonds; raw walnuts
  • wasabi peas
  • Carrs wheat crackers, and another variety. The little Grille toasts are good and remind me of a very strange night with two drunken Dutchmen outside St. Cezaire Sur Siagne (with the greatest river ever at the bottom of an old Roman trail. I fell asleep on the trail and woke up with butterflies lighting on my chest). But Carrs Wheat Crackers are non–negotiable.
  • Cannellini beans in a can
  • Chickpeas in a can
  • High quality sardines (really!) – from Spain or Portugal, boned and skinless, packed in olive oil. Shouldn’t be any other ingredients than fish, oil, water, salt… An Italian grocery will have a good selection.
  • A jar of roasted sweet red peppers (Piquillo, if possible)
  • Stilton cheese
  • Real Parmesan cheese (or Parano, an addictive mixture of parm and gouda).
  • Olives, either a really good imported kind with pits! in a can, or the mixed kind from Whole Foods in a container that you keep in the fridge. If you get pitted olives they will be tasteless and terrible. Usually.
  • If it’s summer keep on hand some Vinho Verde – the lightly sparkling and usually cheap and almost always delicious wine from Portugal – or Prosecco. If it’s not summer, something red and a little fruity – a syrah or Pinot Noir.

So many snacks, so little time. Do one, some, or all, depending how much you like your guests how hungry they are and how long you want them to stay. Put these on an attractive wooden cutting board, or gorgeous plates, or large pieces of slate you picked up at Home Depot for a song and keep for just this purpose.

  1. Set up a plate with Stilton cheese and Carrs wheat crackers – unbelievably delicious together – the sharpness of the cheese and the sweetness of the cracker are perfect together. Put some dried fruit (cranberries and apricots) on the side, and Marcona almonds or walnut halves. You can also chunk up the Parmesan and eat that; it doesn’t get nearly enough straight up eating. It’s nutty and has tiny crystals in it that snap when you bite. Break out the red wine. If you’ve got a pear or an apple, slice it. This is best offered up when the weather is a little cool, so not the dead of summer.

  2. Cut open the dates, remove pits, and cut slivers of parmesan – large enough to fill the date’s sad empty carapace. Add a walnut half if you feel like it. Serve them as is, or pop them in the oven for a few minutes. You could also stuff it with the Stilton and a walnut instead, and maybe top with a drizzle of honey.

  3. Open up the Cannelini beans. Pour out the vile viscous liquid they come in. Rinse them in the can with water. Pour out the water. Maybe rinse it again. You want the beans as free of that hideous muck as possible. Meanwhile, gently heat one smashed garlic clove and a pinch of red pepper flakes in about 4 tables spoons good olive oil – cold pressed, extra virgin (all of these things you should already have in your kitchen. If you don’t you’re hopeless, stop reading.). If you have a sprig of rosemary from your herb garden or your terracotta pot on the windowsill (what?? no herb garden?!) let that stew in there with the garlic. We’re trying to infuse the oil with flavor. Don’t let the garlic brown. It can toast but if it turns something you would identify as brown, it's going to be bitter and you’ve gone too far. Start again. Now, pour the infused warm oil over the beans which you have placed in an attractive bowl. If you’re feeling fancy, use your microplane to zest a little lemon on top. Gently stir the beans. Serve alongside the other kind of crackers (not the Carrs wheat, which I think have the calories of an Oreo, but are much more delicious, if that is even possible). Try these:
  4. Rinse the olives in the same manner. Their brine is too salty so they need to be liberated. Douse them with a little olive oil – they should be glistening, not swimming – lemon zest and a pinch of red pepper flakes (I am enjoying Aleppo pepper from Turkey these days).

  5. Now the sardines. Bust these out when you want to confound and impress. Don’t tell people they are sardines; everyone thinks they hate them. Drain them as necessary. Put a piece on the Other Cracker (have I mentioned I like those little French toasts?), topped with a sliver of piquillo pepper. Eat. Or! Stuff a sardine inside a red pepper and heat in the oven. Totally delicious, or so my boyfriend insists, but he cooks them on the grill. Too much trouble for our purposes.

  6. Chickpeas! Drain them. Saute them in a hot pan in a tiny bit of olive oil – or roast them – with crunchy sea salt (not too much!). If you have smoked paprika (see: “you should”) shake some of that on them. Ditto for cumin. Roast/sauté until they have dried out a bit. Taste. Swoon. Serve warm or cold as finger food. Any leftovers – there will not be any – can be pureed and used as a hummus-like dip. These chickpeas, which I must say I stole more or less from Rachel Ray who is annoying but once in a blue moon offers up something good, remind me of a delicious chickpea soup in a cumin/saffron broth I ate in Mahmudiyah, Iraq (Triangle of Death!) in 2007. The town was celebrating the reopening of a market where unspeakable things had happened (at the hands of Iraqi thugs posing as “insurgents”) and I got separated from the soldiers who were supposed to be protecting me (they were alarmed; I was not. But considering that this market had been attacked, on various occasions, by: multiple simultaneous car bombs, motorcycle bombs, bike bombs, and finally monstrous men with grenades and AK-47s standing on the roof. Well. I guess they had reason). Anyway, during said separation, I was swept up in a crowd and an old man pressed a bowl of soup in my hands, which I ate and then gave back the bowl and he filled it again from a giant pot over an open fire and gave it to someone else, spoon and all. I like to think that the temperature of the soup killed the germs. In any case, it was delicious, and I slept well that night and happy about the market.

  7. Wasabi peas are just good to have around anytime.

  8. If you want to be completely ridiculous and over the top, and have 15 minutes to spare, get a half gallon of whole milk, and a lemon. Put the milk in a big pot. Squeeze in 3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. Bring the pot to a light boil. In about 15 minutes, the milk will start to curdle and separate from the heat and the acid. You'll see small smooth chunks. Pour the whole mess out into a colander lined with a cloth dinner napkin (you do have cloth napkins, right? sigh) Let it drain for a moment and there you have it: fresh ricotta cheese that will taste better than anything you can imagine. Spoon it on crackers, top with whatever you've got -- the peppers, the Aleppo dried red pepper and olive oil, the sardines, the cannelini beans etc. Wonderful and eye-poppingly impressive but almost as easy as boiling water.

    You’re welcome, as always.

    Oh, by the way, here is the river below St. Cezaire, where you will get butterflies alighting on you as well if you attempt the hike down and take a nap off to the side.

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