Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dinner for Four

Occasionally over the last fifteen years,  during various mid-life crises or self-indulgent stretches of navel gazing, I have fantasized about opening a restaurant or bed and breakfast. I enjoy cooking and entertaining guests so much that it seems like it would be an ideal next career. I have romantic visions of simmering pots of aromatic vegetable stews made with local produce and homegrown herbs. I would bake bread until my heart's content and not have to throw it away stale or moldy.  I would spend every day playing in the kitchen and finally prepare all those recipes that I have been wanting to try and there would always be plenty of people to eat my efforts.

That's the fantasy. The reality is a little different.

First of all, I love my day job. Leave university life?  Not likely.

Second, the restaurant business is a tough one. The hours are long, tiring, and success can be elusive. But, there is a much bigger problem.

The real issue is that I like entertaining and cooking for my family and friends, and am not at all sure I would enjoy cooking for strangers. As it is, I plan menus around specific people- I have a habit of remembering what my friends like to eat, what they serve me, what they order in restaurants, what they dislike and what they are allergic to. My inspiration comes from my wish to prepare culinary gifts for the people I care about and  like any gifts, the best ones will surprise and delight-- eliciting comments like, "But how did you know I would like that?"

When I am browsing cookbooks, I often read a new recipe and think, “I bet (fill in the name) would like that. Now what would you serve with it?” That sends me on a hunt for side dishes, appetizers and desserts that create an interesting meal- with lots of colors, textures, and (hopefully) complementary flavors. I can't guess how many of these menus I have imagined, but I do know that a relatively small fraction actually got cooked. Life intervenes and there are just not enough hours in a day to have guests as often as I'd like and besides, I am often shy about inviting new people to dinner. But if I know you well, I may well have imagined a dinner menu just for you!

I am intrigued by international cuisines and love to experiment. Sometimes the experiments work the first time, but sometimes not. It took three tries before I successfully rotisseried a whole chicken without setting it aflame and creating a rather dramatic mess-- a raw chicken on the inside, a charcoal briquet on the outside. The Thai peanut shrimp sure sounded good, but was an inedible gloppy mess. Al, Eric, and Ellen have always been appreciative of my efforts, and with the few exceptions noted above ( thank goodness Papa John's delivers), have been willing to eat both my successes and my failures. Fortunately, no one in this family is a fussy eater. Both of the kids have been in and out of vegetarian phases which I viewed as opportunities to work in a different medium. Sort of like watercolors and oils. I am glad they had their vegetarian periods; if they had not, I never would have tried my now favorite pizza- roasted butternut squash seasoned with fresh nutmeg and sage, toasted pine nuts, caramelized onions and smoked gouda. Or known the ease and nearly unlimited possibilities of the frittata. Yum!

The joy of cooking is twofold. Yes, the act of creating something special out of ordinary ingredients is very rewarding, but the real reward is sharing it with family and friends. I love feeding people; I know I am nourishing both our bodies and our friendship. I know I have been successful when people linger at the table in what Ellen calls “that contented haze following a good meal.”

Here is the menu I came up with today. I am thinking of using it for Easter Sunday.

Asparagus and aged goat cheese mini-souffles
Rosemary grilled lamb chops
Crusty french bread
Roasted beet salad with fresh mint and toasted almonds

Crème Brulee garnished with fresh strawberries
Grand Marnier truffles

Many of these recipes are relatively new in my repertoire. The asparagus souffles came to me through one of the Google recipe-of-the-day applications. The grilled lamb is from my new Culinary Institute of America cookbook, and the salad is my own interpretation of one I had last week in Chicago. I have made crème brulee before, but am newly motivated because I found a great source of vanilla beans online. I ordered some and they are unbelievably good.

This menu was created with my family in mind. The only problem is that the kids will not be home next weekend and the menu serves four. Any takers?

P.S.  There seems to have been some miscommunication regarding spring's arrival and the state of Michigan did not get the memo.  I was out feeding the birds this morning as the snow was falling and the cold wind was blowing hard.  However, despite the miserable weather I discovered that the trees have budded, the peonies have poked through the ground, and my daffodils are beginning to open, ever so slightly.  Apparently, while I am whining about the weather, nature just continues the steady march onward in time.  So, today I am grateful with the knowledge that spring MUST be coming, even if somehow we missed the call!


  1. Oh my. This menu sounds ever so much better than ham and polish sausage at my sister's house ... will you adopt me?


  2. sure Nancy! Consider yourself adopted!