The table and flowers I picked up at the Greenmarket
I started hating myself at about 3 a.m. on the Sunday night before our second Friday Night Dinner Party. I had invited one too many food people, and in a moment of irrationality, a friend from out of town called to say she'd be in New York, and I invited her, too. But she already had plans with a chef, and asked if she could bring along the chef. "Yes, of course!" I typed faux-breezily. And so, the comeuppance: unable to figure out the menu, I tossed and turned all night.
A place setting (skipped placemats to make it more casual); platters marked with sticky notes
Shop the Story
But then my pals at Food52 stepped in -- they wouldn't let me sweat! On Tuesday at our photo shoot, they listened to my working menu, dismissed it as too ambitious, and began helping me edit. Much of party planning is about editing; the best editors are the best hosts. Out went the grilled calamari! Out went the roasted turnips and turnips greens! And my lemon ice milk was nixed in favor of the Bi-Rite basil ice cream they were whipping up in the test kitchen (more on that in the upcoming weeks!). I was left with the following menu, and a feeling of buoyancy. I could, indeed, go out on Wednesday night and still manage a dinner on Friday. Exhale.
Salad greens and dressing; the Porchetta, ready for the oven
Dessert: Basil Ice Cream Strawberries with Lemon Verbena
Prepping the strawberries; Tad making the Mahogany Potatoes
Here's how I did it:
Tuesday: After work, picked up all my essential groceries, including the baguette for the bruschetta. Merrill told me I could freeze it, and she was right!
Wednesday: A French friend once noted that Americans don't buy enough prepared foods when we entertain. I often think of this when planning a party, and try to include a few special items, both as a way to ease my workload, but also to introduce friends to foods I love. This time, I bought the deviled ham at Dickson's Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market, where I also picked up the pork shoulder. Pork shoulder is not terribly expensive and cooks beautifully (read: difficult to ruin); it may become my new dinner party stand-by. I found a small-batch ricotta at Lucy's Whey. And went to the Greenmarket for the vegetables.
In the Food52 test kitchen, we finished the ice cream -- a lucky short-cut, I admit! -- and by accident, overwhipped some heavy cream, so we took the stiff cream all the way to butter, seasoned it with Maldon sea salt, and added it to the dinner menu! I was far enough ahead on my menu that I went out to dinner with friends.
Thursday: Panic set in, but I pulled a duck move, and kept it cool above the water, while frantically paddling beneath the surface. Because I'm a terrible procrastinator, I did nothing but email until 11 p.m. and then kicked it into high gear. I pickled the onions (and forgot them in the microwave overnight -- no harm!); set the table; laid out all the platters and serving pieces, and labeled them with yellow sticky notes (Virgo alert!); cleaned up the house; made the porchetta dry rub and with the help of my sweet and patient husband, Tad, who stayed up late with me, got the pork ready and in the fridge.
Friday: Set out the frozen baguette. Picked up flowers and strawberries at the Greenmarket on my way to work. Came home around 3:45 p.m. Tied the porchetta and got it in the oven. Cleaned the lettuce and radishes. Set out the ricotta, deviled ham, and butter, to warm them to room temperature. Made toasts. Trimmed the strawberries and macerated them with sugar and lemon verbena harvested from our deck. Put the flowers in vases; changed the towels and soap in the bathrooms. Then went back to work for a bit.
The makings of Bruschetta with Ricotta, Lemon Zest and Honey, and IKEA napkins (love them!)
For the first time in years, I was ready when the doorbell rang. Our friends piled in. During the cocktail hour, my five-year-old daughter and I assembled the ricotta toasts while sitting in the living room with our guests, and she did the serving. This is my new strategy -- it saves me the time of assembling one hors d'oeuvre in advance, and also lends a relaxed atmosphere when people are meeting and snacking. The pork took longer than I expected; and some guests came later than expected, so all worked out. Wine bridged the gap.
Radishes with Homemade Butter; the dining room just before dinner
However, I did make one unfortunate mistake. I encouraged Tad to break free of his roasted potato routine, to try the wildly popular (on Food52, at least!) Mahogany Potatoes. He agreed, and did a wonderful job with them. But I forgot that they're doused with lemon juice after roasting. The porchetta had a vinegar-based sauce, and pickled onions were, well, pickled. So the main course was awash in acidity. What use is it to lose sleep at 3 a.m. if I'm not going to catch a rookie mistake like this? Urg!
One couple brought us fresh eggs as a hostess gift.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).
Before starting Food52 with Merrill, I was a food writer and editor at the New York Times. I've written several books, including "Cooking for Mr. Latte" and "The Essential New York Times Cookbook." I played myself in "Julie & Julia" -- hope you didn't blink, or you may have missed the scene! I live in Brooklyn with my husband, Tad, and twins, Walker and Addison.