If it were up to me, we would entertain every weekend. I love having people over, whether it’s for a sit-down dinner, casual cookout or winter game night. To me, having friends and family over, laughing and creating memories, is what makes a house a home. To my husband, it means stress and more stress. He enjoys spending time with our friends and family just as much as I do, but prefers it’s at a restaurant or someone else’s home. He’s a bit on the anal side (to say the least) and because our house and yard isn’t fully complete yet (I’d say 85% done from when we built), he would prefer we lay low on the party scene until everything’s right. I say no time like the present, especially since there is no such thing as perfect. So we compromise and I have cut back on my gatherings to every couple of months, including a dinner party for 12 this past Saturday. And I think even though he initially baulks, he enjoys it just as much as I do once things are underway. At least this is what I tell myself.
We had several of my cousins over, as well as my parents, uncle and grandma. My grandma is one of seven kids so my mom is like one of 100 first cousins. When she was growing up, they did everything together. Of the second and third cousins (confused yet?), I’m closest to these guys and that’s who we had over. It’s always fun for us younger cousins to sit around the table and hear the stories from their childhood, and of course, my grandma, for 94, can remember everything and every date that has ever happened so listening to her talk and share is easily one of my favorite things. We have such a large family and every time we are together, it not only makes for a wonderful time and good laughs, but I also realize just how fortunate I am to be part of this – and also a little sad that we don’t get together more often.
Since it was a big group, I wanted to make an easy meal that I could prep most everything ahead of time. Pretty much everything on the menu I’ve made before, so that definitely helped. The exception to this was the beets I served first. I absolutely love beets but have never attempted to make them before. My favorite beets anywhere are at Lolita, and thankfully, the man behind those beets, Chef Matt Harlan, helped me attempt to recreate that dish.
Lolita’s beets are drizzled with a mixture of honey, red wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. Then, topped with a mixture of ricotta, salt/pepper and lemon zest, then finshed with chives, toasted almonds and orange zest. It’s absolutely delicious.
Matt was cool enough to give me some tips on making this dish. I did a practice run earlier in the week and frankly, they came out like crap. After talking to Matt, I realized where I messed up and mixed everything together with the ricotta and therefore totally botched this dish. Luckily, my second attempt came out much, much better. They weren’t as good as the real thing, but I must admit they weren’t bad and I think my guests enjoyed them. Either that or they are fantastic liars.
As for everything else, I made:
–Chickpea bruschetta, a staple at Mario Batali’s Babbo restaurant. For this dish, you need:
1 C chickpeas
4 T olive oil
2 T black olive paste
2 T balsamic vinegar
2 T chopped basil
dash red chili flakes
dash fresh rosemary
1 clove minced garlic
Kosher salt to taste
Combine everything and serve over bread. Can be served either as an appetizer or with the meal, which is what I prefer.
–Peas, but not just any peas – another Mario Batali classic. Super easy and again, a sure crowd pleaser. Even the non-peas lovers enjoy this simple dish.
–Pasta with summer amatriciana sauce (adopted from Fine Cooking). Not as good as Battuto’s version, but definitely a winner.
2 T olive oil
1 red onion, diced
2 – 5 thick slices of pancetta (about 1/4 in thick), cut into short strips (I prefer the pancetta at Chef’s Choice Meats, but because of distance, I often just pick it up at Miles Farmer’s Market)
1.5 lbs cherry tomatoes, halved
1/8 tsp cayenne
Kosher salt to taste (I often omit this depending on how salty the pancetta is)
Heat the oil and onion over medium heat until softened but not brown, about 4 mins. Add pancetta and cook until both are a muted shade of purple, about 6 mins. Add tomatoes, cayenne and salt. Simmer until the tomatoes have been reduced to a thick, pulpy sauce – about 15 – 20 mins.
You can either serve as is, which is great, or take it one step further and mix with an immersion blender (my favorite tool in the kitchen), which is how I prefer.
–Bone-in pork chops. The key here is the brine, which we learned from Mario himself. Soak the chops in a mix of ¼-cup kosher salt and ¼-cup sugar in 2 quarts of water for at least 12 hours or overnight. Then brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper and grill. You can also serve with grilled shallots or peaches, but I was lazy and we just served with really good balsamic. Trust me, the brine really does a number on these chops and they are simply wonderful. I could never eat chops until I discovered the beauty of brine.