speaking of impressive

I’m having people over for dinner next week.  I can, like few others, make a three-day weekend of planning a menu. "Please don’t let it rule your life," Phil warns, "or I don’t want to have people over." 

"Well, then you should have married someone else because this is what I do." He still doesn’t get it.  He sees menu-planning as a distraction.  I should be writing.  Instead, I’m devising.  I’m plotting.  I’m trying to compose a menu that will look impressive while remaining quite simple to tackle. 

"Well it doesn’t get easier than make-your-own-sundaes for dessert," I say thinking of all the fun toppings I could offer: crushed peanut butter cups, graham crackers, twix pieces, miniature marshmallows… oh and of course a homemade fudge meant for profiteroles. 

"Of course there’s easier.  It’s called buying a cake."  But I don’t want to buy a cake.  "Stephanie, I know you think make-your-own-sundae sounds clever or creative or whatever, but no one cares!  You’re the only one who gives a shit."  I don’t, as it happens, think it’s clever.  I think it says, I’ve cooked and can’t be bothered with dessert.  And I care.  It matters to me.  So what if no one else cares?  It makes me happy.  If I want a create your own night, what’s the big deal?  "You waste too much time" seems to be the big deal.  There are always larger issues masked behind these arguments.  I hate when I have to feel his stress and it somehow equates to my having to change.  No one gives a shit? I do. And that should be enough.   Ice cream for everyone!  Or more likely, the company will bring a dessert.  That’s certainly one way to clamp an argument.

As for the rest of the menu, of course I could paw my way through one of my Charlie Trotter books, but come now.  I don’t have the time nor inclination to cull 82 ingredients for one entree. Still, I treasure my time with cookbooks, articles, and recipe web sites. He believes if cooking is done properly it’s done efficiently, effortlessly.  My grandmother, for instance, could manage to tent a table in tasty morsels without a moment’s notice.  She had a proper pantry, was masterful with leftovers.  And I’d agree, great chefs are impressive in their ability to surprise us with the ordinary.  I’m not arguing.  But it’s a different task at hand when you know company is coming.  You have the opportunity to plan, to assemble, to scribble out ideas, to delight your guests.  And mostly, you have the opportunity to share with others the thing that excites you most.  It’s a gift being able to share something you love.

The worst of it, I would say, is cooking for those who simply eat to live.  Their bodies are machines, and food is simply fuel.  Sometimes they forget to eat.  I don’t like these people.  At all.  I like big characters with stories who gulp wine and spin tales and ask for seconds. They’re appreciative of the work that went into it, the thoughtfulness, the smallest details.   The plates you’ve chosen, the linen napkins and the delightful napkin rings with their whimsical motifs.  The tumblers for the wine, in lieu of long-stemmed glasses, setting the mood.  The music you’ve selected.  It’s an orchestra.  The flavored butter you’d made days in advance.  The way you took care to see all your vegetables were cut uniformly, into distinct even pieces, delicate little jewels.  This is lost on Phil, and on most actually, but it doesn’t make me love it less.  It’s so much a part of my enjoyment, the planning that goes into a meal.

And lately, here’s what I’ve discovered: there aren’t enough (any?!) books out there paying attention to impressive, yet manageable, menu planning.  Sure, there are cookbooks dedicated to easy meals; get dinner on the table in less than an hour.  But where do you turn when your in-laws are coming for dinner?  When it’s the first meal you’re cooking for him?  When you’re meeting his out-of-town friends for the first time?  Where is the cookbook that tells you which music to play, which cocktail to serve, and how many hors d’ ourves to make?  We’re talking manageable yet ridiculously impressive meals, right down to a killer dessert.  And I don’t care if some of it is semi-homemade (a la Sandra Lee).  A book that will tell you how to just make it look fancy, even though it isn’t.  With the use of cookie cutters and molds, or that one ingredient that will change the way they look at the entire dish.  A book that tells you to add truffle oil to the white pizza appetizer (and that tells you to buy the dough, not to make it yourself).  Yes, it should have menu ideas for the bigger occasions, but much more to the point: it should make small days the occasion.  Anniversaries, just because you’ve been working so hard, because you kicked ass in soccer, because no one should have to put up with that friend of mine who’s been sleeping on our sofa menus.  Maybe the star of one menu is the entree, and with another, all your time is spent on an impressive dessert.  The point is, the book isn’t out there.  And I’m doing something about it!



  1. Have you seen this quote?

    If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it. ~Toni Morrison

    I have the feeling that you can and will do it superbly.

  2. Hmmm… I don't want a book for all that. I'm with you on the 3-day-weekend of planning, but, like you said, that's the part I love. Where's the fun in opening a book that tells you which music and appetizers are the perfect ones? It's like creating a painting and having an author/artist tell you exactly which colors to use and where to put them. Then everyone's masterpiece is exactly the same. Where's the personality or beauty in that?

    FROM STEPHANIE: I think the songs, etc. would merely be suggestions and serve, if anything, as inspiration. You know beyond the whole "Italian Night, serve lasagna and listen to Mambo Italiano."

  3. Love it… Stephanie, you're so spoiled. But a fun-blog to read anyway… except for the boring baby-stuff.

  4. I think most people appreciate effort but not to the extent you'd want them to …

    Off the subject, but please tell your audience how the original bean, Linus, is doing?

  5. I would love to be a guest at your place, I almost never have a meal without seconds:-)

  6. "impressive, yet manageable, menu planning"

    This is a good idea. I'm not big in the kitchen, but I think I would be if somehow I had guidance. I have the All-Clad, the OXO, and Pampered Chef, just don't know what to do with it all. And the I like the idea of cooking, enjoying, entertaining….all of it, but with ease. And I think most people do too.

    Stop your other writing and get on this asap :)

  7. Go for the planning week-end! I wish I was luck enough to be invited once to you place for dinner ;-)
    Any suggestions for a nice website about food?

  8. Marion Burros "Elegant but Easy" has helped me out. And I love the way you make every small detail of life important. People act like the things you HAVE to do are getting in the way, but I think these are the things that should be done with the most style.

  9. I think a book like that is a wonderful idea, and I would buy it in a heartbeat. I also enjoy the planning but a little help would be wonderful. I want to introduce my 4 children to just what you describe – how the little touches can make all the difference. Already my 16 year old son understands the importance of thread count in his sheets, and I'm sure he would be one of the first to notice that all the vegetables were cut uniformly. He is a rough and tumble, football-playing, sloppy room kid. But he appreciates the extra effort and special touches that people go to when trying to make a more comfortable life.

    I want that book now!! Get busy and write it!!

  10. The book will be helpful to many who find planning an entire dinner an overwhelming affair – great plan. As for the truffle oil, actually most chefs will warn you against the truffle oil, as most of it made with a synthetic truffle flavor.

  11. It's not as much for the impressive, I don't think, but the fabulous cookbook "How to Cook Everything" has whole meals inlcuding apps and dessertts designed for various occasions, such as first time you meet the in-laws, 4th of July, celewbrating anniversaries, etc. So it may not be as sophisticated as what you're looking for, but I always did love that meal suggestion section of the book.

  12. My favourite recipe book is Stephanie Alexander's "The Cook's Companion" which is every Australian home-chef's 'bible' in the kitchen. Her recipe for Roast Fillet of Beef for a Party (p 104, the one with the red wine stains) won me over with the line "Have a pre-dinner glass of wine, serve the olives or whatever." I make it almost every time we have more than six for dinner. The recipe is followed by Fast Red Wine Sauce and Yorkshire Puddings, the latter which has all of us wishing we were descended from the convicts.

    I can come up with combinations myself if I need to, but even the great chefs need the occasional muse.

  13. It's too bad that Phil can't share the genuine excitement and love you have for entertaining guests, or even understand it, that it's stressful and absorbs a ridiculous amount of your time and concentration — but, that it's the kind of stress you most happily and willingly throw yourself into, because it's for something you love. It's not like there are any negative consequences, either. Best of luck with the meal, not that you need it, I'm sure.
    PS. Do picky eaters bother you? Because I am, decidedly, quite picky, but it's not that I don't enjoy food, or just "eat to live". Rather the kinds of foods I love the most, and obsess about sometimes, actually, are a perfectly proportioned and soft baguette, or stumbling by accident onto the most exquisite cafe noisette you've ever had. The simple things, when the attention has been paid to make them extraordinary.

  14. I think make-your-own-sundaes is way more fun than a bakery-bought cake. Not that I wouldn't eat the cake and self-consciously ask for seconds, but MYO sundaes are unexpected at a dinner party.

    I was going to suggest you write the kind of cookbook/relationship stories/novel you're talking about, only to find you already thought of doing it! Gee, whodda thought — the writer recognizes a great idea when she sees one. A few years ago I read a wonderful novel about a couple with a son who relocate from I don't remember where to Rochester, NY. She's a high level healthcare executive, and he's a stay at home dad who is a marvelous cook. Interspersed with the character interaction and typical novel stuff, are accounts of the husband's (I think his name is Lincoln) shopping trips, meals and, at the end of the chapter, the recipe. Very clever and a wonderful book. There was a subplot about the husband nurturing a litter of stray kittens. If anyone recognizes the title, speak up. SK would love it, even if she doesn't plan to write something like it.

  15. This post made me laugh so much. The conversation with your husband could have been between me and my husband, and only this week-end my best friend and I had a bitch fest about people who 'forget' to eat. This was completely incomprehensible to us…eating and drinking are one of the great pleasures in life. Your book sounds like a lovely idea, you may want to consider a 'where to shop' section or notes with each dish. There's nothing worse than finding a fab dish but thinking 'where on earth do I get that' about a particular ingredient (which is invariably the most important one).

  16. Here's what I need: How to cook a meal that makes your loved ones feel cared about when you come home at 6, dinner needs to be on table in an hour, nothing is prepared, and children want your undivided attention. And also, what do you always need in your pantry to facilitate a weeks worth of these types of meals? You are the only mom of twins (or mom at all) that I know who can spend a weekend menu planning — please share your secrets!

  17. Steph, if you haven't already, check out Ina Garten's cookbooks. She describes the importance of not just food, but how to arrange music and lighting for a party. I love her cookbooks and own every single one. All of her recipes are simple, yet very elegant.

    And with Phil, it's a guy thing. They just don't get it. :-) On the other hand, just remember that your friends are coming over to see you, and the food is secondary. They'll be appreciative of anything you do and won't know if something is or is not supposed to be a part of the menu. Have fun!

  18. go all out!! its your first dinner party down in your new digs isn't?? it will set the standard!! besides…you wanna impress these folks don't you?? ha!! wish i could go. dessert bar sounds fab!

  19. Also Nigella Larson has a book like this and of course, Martha Stewart's entertaining. Multiple menus for various occassions with decor to bout. You can borrow if you're around ACC tonight.

  20. if the food is good i'm usually full after a dinner party and i hate feeling burdened by having to eat dessert or feeling guilty for turning all their hard work down. give them a brownie.

  21. Stephanie, there are many cookbooks that list menus for all types of occasions. Three that come to mind & which I own, are Seriously Simple by Diane Rossen Worthington, Today's Gourmet by Jacques Pepin, & Menus for All Occasions by Julie Dannenbaum. Most of Julie Dannenbaum's other books also give suggested menus. That being said, I keep an extensive computer file of recipes (well over 800) as well as a hand-written book of menus from dinner parties we've given & since that has filled up, a computer file of same, listing guests, wines, what worked/what didn't, etc. Like you, I'm compulsive about this kind of thing & love spending the time & effort to get it right. There are many people who think we foodies are nuts, but who cares? Different strokes for different folks.

  22. Please do write this book! I recently bought Feast by Nigella Lawson for this very reason. I read her cookbook like a regular book in bed. My husband thinks I'm ridiculous.

  23. Your blog makes me miss Austin so much! I'm stuck here in Boston but very anxious to get home.
    Try these margaritas with your company – they are super easy and the VERY best.

    1 12-oz can frozen limeade
    1 12-oz can sprite
    1 12-oz can tequila (or maybe a little less to taste)
    1 12-oz bottle Corona beer.

    Serve on the rocks

  24. P.S. A variation on make your own sundaes: A selection of homemade ice cream sandwiches. An ice cream machine makes fast work of the fillings….minus all the chemicals of store-bought….& you can bake the cookies well in advance & freeze the entire thing. I usually offer a choice of chocolate filled with vanilla ice cream or large gingersnaps filled with cinnamon ice cream. There's never been a complaint & people love the informality of a dinner party ending with finger food!

  25. When you write that book I will be first in line to buy it! I too enjoy the planning stage of a meal but am always up for the little tips to make it a little easier, more efficient and just a bit more impressive.

  26. How about a fancified mexican night? You can make everything homemade and while it's all super easy, it's fresh and impressive. Empanadas and stuffed chili peppers for starters, braised pork carnitas, homemade pico de gallo and guacamole on the side, and a big fresh chopped salad with romaine, tomato, beans, corn, and queso fresco and whatever else you have on hand in a lime vinagrette. Make a big batch of homemade sangria and you're good to go!

  27. I loved this post! And I completely understand it. I've actually had company before think I'm trying to impress them too much and it made them uncomfortable (of which I didn't understand- I was just trying to make it nice?!) I don't know how people forget to eat. I love all different kinds of foods, enjoy long tasty meals with wine and great company. Its fabulous! If you put a cookbook together I'd be all over that!

    And on another note, I love the idea of picking music to set the mood and atmosphere; it's like picking out a great wine that brings out the flavor of the food. Love it!

  28. There's nothing wrong with getting jazzed about hosting and preparing and planning. It's a great way to use your creativity. The only tricky part is when one is so consumed with everything being perfect, and with the imagined accolades they will receive from their guests, that they aren't even thinking about enjoying being with them. My mother has sullied many Christmases this way. It may sound selfish to blame her when she was doing all of the cooking and preparing, but it was depressing when I realized that it was all about her and not about her guests, who would truly be happy without the pumpkin soup if it meant a relaxed host and family member. If these guests are actual friends and not just business acquantances with whom you don't plan on really connecting, I boldly, uninvited-ly advise that you don't let your desire to project an image of martha stewartdome completely overshadow any opportunity to feast on their company.

  29. Stephanie, your comments on people who forget to eat? Spot-on, exactly how I felt this past weekend after cooking for hours for a party. The cleaning, the decoarting, all of the tiny details I planned and mulled over for weeks – the exciting stress, the good stress, the stress you look forward to – and most of it was lost on our guests. Over 3/4 of the food I prepared was left over… I tried to be realistic about my expectations, but there was a selfish part of me that though "Well! You're in the presence of something special! You should be gobbling it up!"… It made me wonder – should I plan a party based on what I want or what my guests want? If I plan it for someone else, what's the point of having a gathering at all? Then I might as well be getting paid.

  30. I'm with you Stephanie… I love the planning, days ahead–and the attention to detail. I also have a husband who always "reminds" me that I 'have more important things to worry about'. Picky eaters and those on diets of various sorts don't bother me, as I know how it is counting points. I was disturbed by the comments of the wife of my husband's college roommate, who after devouring my carefully planned and executed (and damn tasty) meal, said (not in so many words) that she was going to purge when they got back to the hotel. I'll chaulk it up to her being anorexic and borderline, but I won't be cooking for her again:)

  31. Is Phil originally from the south? Im not a big foodie but being from the south, I dunno, we dont usually bother with all dat der fancy shit in our cooking.
    Just lots of fatback and salt, and tons of sugar in your tea.

    Are you going to finally get to make your tiny sandwiches?

  32. Stephanie, I've been reading your blog a while now and I always love the honesty of your musings. Your thoughtful comments and questions usually have me thinking all day. I love the idea of your cookbook. I think of the suggests re: music and appetizers as training wheels. We all need more help in the beginning. After we get the hang of what goes well together, we can begin to experiment on our own. Suggestions like that would basically put me on the right track even though I might veer off the path now and then. Your menus always sound amazing. I love entertaining and I would love to be able to pull out your cookbook to see what the ever-impressive Stephanie would do.

  33. People eat to live??? Uggghh! I once dated a doctor who followed that same philosphy, needless to say that didn't quite work out. I take great pride and pleasure in every morsal I eat! Now that you have given yourself the great idea for this cookbook, hurry up and plan your dinner so you can start this project….there are so many of us out there who need this book :)
    A book signing around your kitchen table would be fabulous….followed by dinner of course. No pressure….

  34. I love Celebrate! by Sheila Lukins (of Silver Palate fame). The book presents menus and recipes for every possible occassion and also includes suggestions about decor, music and wine to make things all the more festive.

  35. for Mama Dramas, may I suggest "Saving Dinner". They have books as well as a website subscription which sends you out a weeks worth of menus every week, complete with grocery list. The meals are hardly gourmet, but if your goal is healthy, good food fast every night and no time to plan, I think they're pretty handy. Also, they just started doing "freezer menus" on the website which let you make six meals and freeze- all you have to do is reheat. Not fancy, but useful in a hurry.

    For Stephanie, thanks for the inspiration to take food a little more seriously. My new kitchen will thank you when I make a good meal in it.

  36. The Nigella Feast book someone mentioned is the one I was talking about – Nigella always makes things fun.

  37. The Silver Palate cookbooks have been mentioned above and they have amazing recipes and menues all planned out- going on a picnic, Fourth of July, Fireside, etc. Sliver Palate Good Times- I've made a LOT of things from there- the Chicken Marbella – great for a dinner party and looks beautiful all on a platter. I also think that the Barefoot Contessa is worth looking at- I am dying to try her skewered lemon chicken with a peanut dipping sauce that you cook up on the stove. Also have made her lemon pound cake- wowza. Have you seen her on TV? You'd like her I think, and the menus are all there.

    Thanks Samantha for your recipe- sounds nice, boozy and fizzy- I'm going to try!

  38. Culling your Charlie Trotter books for 82 ingredients wouldn't even afford you ONE entree. You'd probably get a squirrel-testical sized ball. When we ate at Charlie Trotters, yes, it was nice, and yes, it was fun discovering the new wines and yes, we all got a nice buzz on, but man, the salad consisted of a sliver of carrot and some shred of something that came from the ground. And yes, there was some moose (as in the animal, not as in chocolate) something or the other meat, and sure, the olive oil and cilantro ice cream was interesting, but I came away thinking we could have purchased wheel-barrow-fulls of $1 cheeseburgers and fed a couple thousand hungry kids!

    As for your dinner party–DO IT! It's what you love! And have fun! Just make sure you include Zero Bar bits (remember those, know what they are?) and I'll be all over the make-your-own sundaes!

  39. i beg to differ with julie. while most southerners may not care about fancy ingredients they are masters of the dinner party. who else would have matching cocktail napkins and themed
    hors d'oeuvres spreaders for every holiday?
    us southerners take eating seriously and like you i truly believe the beauty of life is in all in the details.
    there's nothing a well planned meal, some flowers, and a glass of wine can't cure.
    bon appetite y’all.

  40. Let us know this book is complete b/c I'll one of the 1st to buy it. :) I totally get engrossed in menu planning and the "details" as well when it comes to having people over.

  41. Gosh, I thought I was the only one who would stress for a week over what to make for guests! LOL I love entertaining, the more the merrier. When cooking for more than 30 I have found that the freezer is my very best friend.

    My dream is to have a large enough storage someday to have seasonal/themed dishes for every occassion.I want complete sets for everything. Might need my own 2 car garage for storage but that is my dream. :)

  42. For all you Silver Palate fans, there was a fabulous article in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday about the original owners and their shop on the Upper West Side. They are releasing a 25th anniversary edition of their cookbook soon and there are great new recipes for Chicken Marballa and Chocolate Cake.

  43. "It made me wonder – should I plan a party based on what I want or what my guests want? If I plan it for someone else, what's the point of having a gathering at all?"

    You GIVE a party to others. Look up "host". Then look up "gracious". In return, others think of you in gratitude and GIVE you the gift of a reciprocal party or dinner.

    It isn't about the hostess's enjoyment. The mark of a good party is whether the guests ever want to come back.

  44. Just an idea – do you ever read the party idea pages at the end of InStyle magazine? I always get great ideas there.

    Beyond that……I think you just started your next writting project. ; )

  45. Now that you have babies, this attention to details is going to make your life even more "distracted." You can't just send any old teacher present, it has to be the prettiest one she receives. It's your turn for t-ball snacks? Well, they will have to be clever and cause a stir among the other moms.

    I, too, love to make a presentation. I don't necessarily need anyone to shower me with praise (although it is wonderful when they do.) Plain and simple is just not o.k. with me. My husband doesn't even bother anymore to tell me that I'm stressing out over nothing. He's learned that it is much easier to just steer clear when I get an idea.

    If you want cook something that sticks to your ribs and is sinful, pick a Paula Deen recipe. I have taken a vacation to Savannah, GA just to eat in her restaurant. Good luck!

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