The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.
I’m a good and experienced home cook and often entertain in my summer house. I find it hard to deal with guests invading my kitchen, eager to help, as I actually like cooking in my own time and in my own way, and I don’t really enjoy supervising others or ordering them around. What’s the best way to handle this sort of situation?
Restaurants are defined by a stark dividing line between the kitchen and the dining room. One of the hidden pleasures of eating and entertaining at home is the absence of that line. Who doesn’t like to hang out in the kitchen and watch the action? And it is perfectly understandable that your guests are offering to help you when they see that you are busy. But when it comes to cooking, we all have our individual styles and preferences: Some of us like to have company; others need to be left alone to focus on whatever task is at hand. Some home cooks need absolute order; others bask in the jolly chaos of throwing together an improvised meal with the help of whoever is around. How we run our own kitchens and allow others to enter the territory is mostly a matter of temperament (and, to some degree, our skill level and confidence), but we cannot assume our guests will automatically pick up on it.
In your case, it appears that you perceive being interrupted in the kitchen almost as an invasion of your privacy. I would urge you to communicate this from the get-go—gently or, if need be, firmly. It’s perfectly acceptable to send guests out of the kitchen as long as it’s done gracefully: “Please do make yourself comfortable outside with a drink. I need to take care of something by myself right now and will join you in a bit.” On the other hand, since you are the host, it is also your job not only to make your guests feel welcome and at ease but additionally to prove that you are happy to spend time with them. Keep in mind that it might feel awkward for them to be left to their own devices as you toil away in the kitchen. If you have a spouse or partner or even a trusted friend game to help host, it would be up to him or her to entertain them at that point of the evening and keep them out of your way.
Ultimately, the key is to strike the right balance. You wouldn’t want to feel like a servant who acts in the background of your own party. Try to do as much prep work as possible ahead of your guests’ arrival, choose dishes that don’t require a great deal of last-minute cooking, and generally cut back on kitchen time during their stay so you can join them for at least a portion of pre-dinner drinks before it’s time to sit down for the meal. After all, the idea is to spend the entire evening or lunchtime together. And once you have defined and declared the boundaries, you may eventually warm up to having a person or two spend time in the kitchen with you while you cook, now and then. You might even grow to like it.
I often make fresh basil pesto using my food processor, but it always turns brown and unsightly, even when I freeze it. Is there a way to prevent this?
Kermit the Frog was right: It’s not easy being green. Pesto alla genovese is one of those condiments that are deceptively simple, just as easy to get right as to get wrong. And (rest assured you’re not alone with this issue) it all too quickly oxidizes, turning from bright green to muted olive green to, eventually, unsightly brown. Note that what looks brown won’t taste green either: It’s an indication that the mixture’s bright aroma has turned the wrong way too. Freezing it will actually accelerate this process before eventually slowing it down. Freezing, like cooking, breaks down raw ingredients (ice crystals burst cell walls), and fragile herbs like basil don’t take well to it. Keep your pesto out of the freezer and only make just as much as you can imagine using within a week.
Here are some notes on how to give it the necessary shelf life without going below zero:
First, make sure the basil leaves you’re using aren’t wet. If they need a rinse, tumble-dry them, spread them out on a kitchen or paper towel, carefully roll that up, and leave unattended for a few hours (or overnight, stored in the bottom drawer of your refrigerator) to let the towel absorb all excess water. Also, including a bit of fresh parsley in the mix (which is quite traditional) will brighten the end result both in color and flavor.
In your food processor, quickly pulse the herbs, pine nuts (Spanish are best), and freshly ground—never grated—Parmigiano (use the processor’s S-blade to pulse it into a coarse meal ahead of time), along with a little dollop of Greek yogurt with live cultures (not traditional at all, but it turns out its enzymes help stabilize the green color) and more salt than you’d think is necessary, to a paste. Briefly run the machine while adding just enough olive oil for everything to come together. Pour the pesto into a glass jar, flatten its surface, cover it with a thin layer of additional olive oil to seal, and store it in the refrigerator.
A note on the use of garlic: Good-quality raw garlic adds a welcome, jolly sharpness to pesto, but this love affair quickly turns sour once the chopped garlic is hanging out for too long and starts to release its sulfuric fumes. Keep it out of your pesto base, no matter what some Italian nonna said. Instead, add thin slivers of it to your pasta dish just before serving. And don’t ever cook your pesto or all those efforts will be moot, as heat will invariably turn it brown. Break the pesto up with a splash of hot pasta water, add the drained pasta, and toss as you would a salad, adding more olive oil to taste. I like it the classic way, with linguine and some added blanched string beans and chunks of cooked potato. To paraphrase Kermit’s closing lyrics: I think it’s what pesto wants to be.
I don’t like to cook (OK, I don’t cook), but I like having people over. Is it OK to openly serve takeout food or even to have food delivered when guests are in your home? Honestly, I’m going to do it anyway, but I’m wondering if I should be embarrassed by it—or if I should hide it.
The statement “I don’t like to cook” always waffles me. You may never have looked at it this way, but cooking is in fact one of the very few things in life we can accomplish by ourselves from beginning to end in one day—starting with planning a menu, going to market, preparing and serving a full meal in your own kitchen, and finally enjoying the meal itself, which of course is all the more thrilling when it is shared with others. Do not underestimate the kind of deep satisfaction one can gain from this sort of exercise. Besides, a kitchen that’s never used for more than reheating prepared food is like a baby grand no one plays anything but chopsticks on.
It’s actually quite common for people to serve catered, store-bought, or ordered-in food to their guests when entertaining at home, and I can think of several more endearing reasons than the one you profess: time constraints (not everyone has the leisure to prepare a meal from scratch for a number of people), logistical challenges (a small apartment kitchen is not an ideal place to cook dinner for, say, a dozen guests), or even lack of confidence (some people are perfectly apt to cook a decent meal for themselves but get as tight as a pressure cooker when it comes to cooking for others). While there is absolutely no shame in offering your guests food that you have not prepared yourself, it’s not quite something to be proud of either—even if you’re a showoff and (loudly) make a point of having the food delivered from a three-star restaurant.
Naturally, trying to hide that the food isn’t homemade is almost a comical suggestion, more fit for a sitcom than a sit-down meal. What you can do is prove to your guests that you actually care—beyond dialing a number, placing an order, and charging your credit card—by making an extra effort in the way you present the food while gracefully announcing where you ordered it from. It’s another chance to show you have given all this some thought. Rather than serving it directly out of the unappetizing containers it came in, transfer the food onto nice platters or into bowls. Set the table or buffet with glassware, decent plates, silverware, and real napkins. From there, it’s just a small step to enhancing the entire affair with an added personal touch like some freshly chopped herbs sprinkled over a dish, a big bowl of mixed lettuce leaves you bought at the farmers market with a homemade salad dressing on the side, or glass dishes filled with assorted fresh berries to be served with the dessert you ordered.
Yes, cooking a full meal for a number of guests may not be a picnic—but neither should your dinner party feel like one.