Over the course of the past couple months, I have put a bold intention out into the universe several times: “I want to get back into the kitchen.” This is in large part because I find myself with a little more give in my schedule than in years prior. I can’t say I’ve made entirely good on this initiative yet, but I did squeeze in some baking for my son’s birthday and my brother’s visit from Norway, and then I made Mr. Magpie a modestly elaborate dinner from Paul Kahan’s cookbook for Father’s Day: a whole-roasted bronzino with romesco sauce and a red pepper-shrimp salsa. As I’ve dipped my toes in, I’ve been reflecting on lessons learned while cooking and entertaining over the years —
- Always select a bowl/cutting board/pyrex one size up from the one you think you need. About 50% of the time, I misjudge and end up needing to clean two separate dishes. Funny how accurate the sentiment of “measure twice, cut once” has proven in matters big and small in my life.
- Don’t be afraid of serving items at room temperature. You can drive yourself crazy attempting to have every dish on the table piping hot. In my opinion, dressed vegetables, potato salads, and rice and couscous dishes are lovely at room temperature. In Chicago, we had friends from Italy who served a number of dishes intentionally at room temperature, including a chicken-in-vinegar dish that I still daydream about. This opened my eyes to not only the practicality of the room temp dish but its occasional sophistication in the design and consumption of a dish. Cold dishes can suppress/mute flavor, for example.
- On that point: if you find yourself with sub-par wine (we euphemistically call it “joven wine” or, when really bad, “airplane wine”), throw it in the freezer for awhile — ice cold wine is surprisingly palatable, as the chill seems to suppress whatever acrimonious flavors pummel the tongue when warmer. Alternately, make wine spritzers by adding club soda or Italian soda and citrus.
- Make the stove wait on you — not vice versa. How often in my younger days did I frantically finish chopping in order to deposit the mirepoix into hot oil, or did a pan come to smoking point while I, flustered, attempted to finish prep? You can always turn the heat off, reduce the heat, or fully move a hot pan off the burner if you are not ready for it. The pan should wait for you. Do not let your stove be a bully!
- Gleaned from my mother-in-law: never apologize for the food in front of company, even if over-seasoned or under-dressed. I mean, don’t let your guests eat raw chicken or fully burnt bread, but, in general, it’s best not to draw attention to your perceived shortcomings. This is in part because few people are as critical of your own food as you are, and sometimes what you consider to be a gaffe will go entirely undetected. (So why draw an enormous arrow?) But mainly, criticizing your own food is an awkwardness for your guests to endure, as they will inevitably feel required to shower you with “Oh no, it tastes great!” to varying degrees of authenticity. The older I get, the more self-aware I have become about over-apologizing. It might feel like humility, but it actually garners a lot of attention and draws down the energy in a room — in other words, it can have the opposite effect of making it all about you.
- When in doubt, add salt. I am convinced that one of the principal differences between restaurant cooking and home cooking is seasoning.
- When estimating how much alcohol to purchase, the best rule of thumb we’ve come across: two drinks per person for the first hour of the event, followed by one drink per person per hour for each subsequent. This rule holds valid unless you have your college friends over.
- Bar snacks are my favorite way to ensure guests will not be famished by the time dinner rolls around. Of course I love to serve a canape or substantive appetizer in addition, but I have observed that it is rare for guests to have more than one or maybe two of these kinds of bites, whether because the offering is awkward to eat, guests feel impolite asking for more, the serving logistics are encumbered (i.e., the tray is on the coffee table, and your guest is sitting on the outskirts of the room), or perhaps it simply feels too gluttonous to have a third crab cake. If you scatter inviting bowls of bar snacks around the room — at the bar area, on side tables, across the coffee table — guests are never more than an arm’s reach from a nibble and able to serve themselves comfortably. I like serving cheese straws, cheez-its, mixed nuts baked with herbs (Giada has a delicious recipe), homemade chex mix, sesame sticks, wasabi peas, fancy potato chips (think truffle), marcona almonds. If serving olives, I always have a tiny dish for pits and make sure each of those dishes has a “sample pit” deposited in it before guests arrive. This is usually one of our last “before the bar opens” activities: dashing around, eating a sample olive so people know where the pits go.
- Expect to spend the first hour of a cocktail party circulating to refill glasses. After that, you can assume the room has sufficiently lubricated itself to the point that wine will not be as in demand and/or guests will feel comfortable seeking out their own refills. But for that first hour, you will be shocked at how quickly the wine appears to evaporate. I hate looking around and seeing empty glasses! When we stayed with friends in the Hamptons, our hostess would absolutely never let our glasses go dry or even quarter-full — she was insistent on this front. It was a dangerous weekend — ha!
- Related to the above: if at all possible, position the bar in an open room / open area, or distribute different types of refreshments in different stations, i.e., my husband will often keep a cooler or ice-filled tub full of beer at one corner of the patio and a wine station at the other. Otherwise, you will wind up with a bottleneck.
- Dim the lights and aim for a lot of candlelight. Everyone looks better!
- Squeezing citrus for cocktails takes a very long time. I nearly always do this the morning of an event. Mr. Magpie and I usually put our heads together to “par-mix” planned cocktails ahead of time, i.e., we estimate the total number of drinks needed, then pre-squeeze the exact amount of citrus needed, pre-mix any liquors that can be pre-mixed (for example, if making a batch of margs, you can pour the cointreau and tequila together in a Pyrex so it’s one less thing to measure out, ounce by ounce, at cocktail hour), slice/chop any garnishes, including lime wheels/wedges, strawberries, etc.
- Garlic and nuts burn very easily over heat. You might be able to get away with other things in the kitchen, but burnt garlic will destroy a dish. Faire attention!
- Salads are always more elegant and better-tasting when prepared by somebody else. My sister recently told me that “A salad is the ultimate gesture of love.” You can use these insights to your advantage by serving salad to your guests — homemade dressing in particular is a surefire way to impress. My favorite recipe is: 3T vinegar (I like to mix vinegars — red wine vinegar is particularly acetic to my palate and so I often cut it with champagne vinegar), 6 T oil, 1 T dijon mustard, 1 T honey, salt, pepper, and a clove of crushed garlic. Whisk or shake vigorously in a mason jar.
- Adding fresh herbs to any salad is an “x factor” you won’t regret. A handful of dill, parsley, chives, cilantro, etc will take an average salad to new places and sophisticate the flavor.
- In case of dessert catastrophe, make sure you’ve stowed a pint of sorbet in the freezer and a bottle of champagne in the fridge. Scoop sorbet into coupes and top with a float of champagne. Elegant and easy as can be. Alternately, I’ve literally never met a guest who doesn’t love an ice cream sandwich or a Snickers ice cream bar. We usually have both on hand in our freezer.
- You eat with your eyes. Mr. Magpie’s favorite rejoinder. He is passionate about serving every dish in the proper plate, with the proper garnish, even if it’s just the two of us. Sometimes when we are very hungry, he will be briefly tempted by the idea of eating directly out of a delivery container or tupperware, but then he says: “No, we can’t eat right out of the bucket.” This is not snobbery or putting-on-of-airs — this is his way of finding joy and intention at every meal time. I admire this tremendously about him and it has changed the way I approach food and think about dining. Before we have guests, we always circle up about which dishes will serve the food to its best effect — e.g., would an endive salad scattered across a long, thin white dish be more dramatic than a heaping bowl? Would serving family style versus plating in the kitchen be more inviting or challenging for guests? Etc.
- Know your limits. I will not touch a recipe that asks me to debone a chicken or butterfly a fish. Anything with a food mill in it will require some soul searching, and deep frying is also to be undertaken sparingly. Thankfully, there are usually alternatives (a good butcher/fish-monger can often handle the deboning / butterflying — as was the case when I made Paul Kahan’s bronzino dish! I would have wimped out otherwise!). But if it’s going to be more off-putting than fun, and more likely to end in failure than success, just say no. Maybe one day I’ll be a butterflying pro but right now — well, I have other fish to fry.
- Select recipes that look like fun to you. Every now and then, I wax poetic about working my way through old French cookbooks, but — while I love the food — the idea of poaching fish does nothing for me. I’m sure I would enjoy eating said dish, but the preparation does not inspire me. So what? Pick something that does.
- Preparing food for people is a gesture of love. Earlier this year, we had dinner at our friends’ home, and the husband had gone so far as to “do a dry run” of the sauce the night before because he wasn’t sure how it would turn out. I was tremendously moved by his care. It has forever changed the way I see him. Over the course of my life, I have leaned on food as a means to communicate love and concern frequently — when in doubt, send comfort food.
What lessons have you learned along the way?
+My husband’s openness to joy is a treasure.
+J. Crew has some fab new arrivals – these platform sandals are SO chic. Sort of a more accessible version of the fisherman sandal trend. I also love this cable knit cashmere tee (perfect if you have a chilly office environment) and this top in the pink floral.
+Doen’s new arrivals are dreamy, too — I love this dress to wear around the house or over a swimsuit. Boho dream. I know so many of you love their Jane blouse, which is out in some fabulous patterns and colors this summer.
+Get the Jane blouse look for less with this steal.
+Have I been in la-la land? Have suddenly heard a lot of people talking about this mustard bath as a long-standing cult-following must-have, especially if you are feeling under the weather. (My sick day essentials here.)
+Adore this OTS top with high-waisted white denim or shorts.
+My friend Inslee designed the adorable sealife pattern on Lake’s newest set of pajamas!
+Love this awning stripe tablecloth.
+This tee dress from Target is the kind of thing I would have lived in during pregnancy.
+More dresses for all phases of motherhood here.
+A non-hideous shower squeegee. It’s the little things.
+These wavy jelly sandals are so fun — and under $30.
+Loewe’s popular flamenco bag is on sale in the prettiest pink color here!
+Love this upholstered bench.