Is the dinner party dead? Guy Trebay wrote in the New YorkTimes yesterday that it just may be on the endangered species list.
I have to admit that in years gone by, there was a steadier flow of people at my table than now. So, what gives? Are we too busy? Too tired? Or, as Mr. Trebay suggests: “Increasingly, such gatherings seem outmoded, squeezed out by overcrowded schedules, the phony urgency of affinity sites, restaurants cultism and overall tectonic shifts in how New Yorkers congregate.” Outside of the Big Apple, I’m not sure restaurant cultism is a factor. It may be that collectively we’re in a rut, and cooking for a crowd, once we are out of the habit, seems too daunting. It’s hard to be a part-time cook. If you don’t cook on a regular basis, then inviting six to eight people to your house once in a blue moon is a pretty steep mountain to climb.
I want to get back on the horse, but if I do, I will re-adjust my expectations. A dinner party can (and in these times, maybe should) be an informal affair. Who says spaghetti and meatballs, or even meat loaf is off limits? Better to make something homey and comforting than to contort into a tizzy that leaves you exhausted and cranky by the time your guests arrive.
I usually don’t like to ask guests to bring anything—my feeling is if you are going to give them dinner, give them a night off, too. Buy dessert, or just put a few olives and nuts out before you sit down, and keep your sanity. It’s about the company. Nobody cares whether or not you pull out a homemade chocolate torte. Of course, it’s nice if the food is good, but the whole point is to bring people together. With the holidays looming and so much busy-ness in the air, it might be a good idea to set aside some time to relax with friends. Plan ahead and make a one-dish meal that you can plop on the table with a salad. Spread out the cooking and shopping if you can. Set the table the day before. Read Sara’s post at TheYellow House about making one grand gesture (a roast, for example) and having others bring side dishes if that’s how you want to roll.
Here’s one humble chicken dish idea: If you love dark, tender poultry and crisp skin, start by making braised chicken thighs and turn the technique on its head. Usually, the braising technique consists of browning food, then cooking it slowly in a covered pot with a small amount of liquid. Here, to get the skin crisp, the browned chicken goes into a baking dish with red onions, carrots, white wine, chicken stock, and a touch of honey and vinegar to make a rich sauce. While the vegetables cook in the liquid around the poultry, the exposed chicken skin crisps and browns. The cooking juices make a flavorful sauce. This dish can be prepared several hours ahead and reheated in the oven just before serving. Make some rice or polenta and a salad to serve with it. Dinner is done!
Crispy braised chicken with vegetables
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 to 14 chicken thighs, with skin and bone (about 4 pounds total)
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 red onions, each cut into 8 wedges
8 carrots, cut into 3-inch lengths and halved lengthwise if large
1 cup white wine
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish
1 Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Have on hand two 9-by13-inch baking dishes.
2. Trim the excess fat from the chicken thighs. Pat them dry with paper towels and season them on both sides with salt and pepper.
3. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the chicken, skin sides down. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes, or until the skin is golden. Turn and cook on the other side for 3 minutes. Transfer the thighs, skin sides up, to each of the 2 baking dishes. Tuck the carrots and onions around them.
4. Pour off the fat from the skillet. Return the pan to the heat and add the wine. Cook and stir for 1 minute to scrape up the brown bits from the bottom. Stir in the vinegar and honey. Pour half of the liquid into each baking dish. Add enough chicken stock to each dish to come halfway up the sides of the chicken (it shouldn’t cover it.) Nestle the thyme sprigs into the dish.
5. Braise, uncovered, in the oven for 45 minutes, or until the meat and vegetables are tender.
6. Transfer the chicken and vegetables to a large platter. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
8. Pour the sauce into a large measuring cup and skim off the fat. Transfer the sauce to a pitcher and serve alongside the chicken.
If you have leftovers, sauté some mushrooms, add spinach, stir in rice and leftover chicken. Dinner is done, again.