Food

When Garnishes Turn Garish

Our hardcore foodie friends serve us incredible dinners, but they won’t let us reciprocate. What should we do?

Fancy vegetable dish with Pickle logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Adam Jaime/Unsplash.

The Pickle, written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart, is Slate’s food and cooking advice column. Got a sticky situation in the kitchen? Email us at slatepickle@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited lightly.)

We have close friends who frequently have us over for dinner and prepare elaborately, hilariously fancy meals. They aren’t chefs, just hardcore foodies. It’s always delicious, but a little stressful; I get the sense that it’s important to them to really wow their guests, so we find ourselves complimenting everything 2,000 times and also feeling guilty about the $12 bottle of wine we brought. Every time we offer to return the favor and have them over for dinner at our place, they find some reason to decline. Now we’re actually starting to get a little bit uncomfortable. (And even, if we’re being honest, a little insulted that they don’t want to eat at our place!) How should we handle this?

It’s very unfortunate that the foodie trend has reached a point where people are perfectly happy to learn how to cook fancy food but completely neglect to hone their social skills as hosts. It seems we have put the cart before the horse: Food should never take center stage at a dinner party. That doesn’t mean that it should not be delicious or, occasionally, elaborate, but it should always serve to elevate the occasion, not stifle it. This is a classic example of hospitality turned into hostility. Your friends probably think of themselves as generous hosts, but it appears that they are in fact showing off or, worse, making you feel unworthy. It’s not an attractive trait, and I completely understand that it makes you uncomfortable, even more so since they continue to dodge your invitation.

Perhaps it’s time to question this friendship. Ask yourself: How do these evenings unfold, besides the food? How is the conversation at the table? Are the hosts inquisitive? Are they showing any interest in you by asking questions about your lives? Is the discussion lively? Or are they merely talking about themselves? If so, what’s the point of spending an evening with them?

On the other hand, it’s possible that they are just neurotically picky about food to such an extent that they’re uncomfortable in other people’s homes, even as they feel committed to nurturing their friendship with you. After all, they keep inviting you back. Ask yourselves why. Perhaps you have unwittingly become facilitators of their behavior by duly performing the role of gasping spectators and giving them what they are fishing for: ego-boosting compliments. It might be worth a try next time to be very nonchalant about the food and drive the conversation to other matters, showing them that you are interested in them as people, not as a source for homemade haute cuisine—if that is indeed the case. You might be able to break the spell and get them to accept your invitation to dine at your humble abode after all. If, however, you find that, upon closer examination, this is not in their interest or not really in yours anymore either, then this friendship may have run its course. A fitting reply to the next invitation? Mirror their own refusal back at them and say, “I’m afraid we’re not worthy!”

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Who’s Right?

I love to cook, but I hate to shop. My particular nightmare is having to run to the grocery store when I am in a rush on the way home from work. I step into the supermarket and wander aimlessly and endlessly, dithering about what to get. If I have planned my weeknight meals, it’s all to the good, but all too often a Thursday dinner will catch me unprepared. Assuming I have a well-stocked pantry and spice rack, can you recommend an efficient way to shop on a weeknight (versatile ingredients, etc.), so that I can get in and out of the store quickly, avoid processed foods, and still have some flexibility around what to make when I get home and can think clearly?

I cannot blame you for hating to shop if you get your groceries in a supermarket as you rush home from work. I too would prowl the aisles like a tiger in a cage with my mind going blank from facing the carelessly stacked heaps of wilting produce, ugly, loud labels, and packaging of processed foods with their screaming promises of being “all-natural” and “healthy.” This is a scene we must try to avoid as much as possible.

Now, of course I understand that this situation may be a matter of time or logistics, but before I answer your question, I’d like to urge you (and everyone) to make an effort of now and then buying fresh produce at a farmer’s market and supporting your local baker, butcher, or fishmonger. Perhaps you are already doing this when time allows, in which case you know that shopping can be immensely pleasurable under the right conditions. In any case, the core of your problem lies in the word unprepared. Let’s try to solve it and make it easier on you.

There is no ingredient or kind of produce that is not intrinsically versatile. For example, any vegetable can be steamed, boiled, roasted, pan-fried, grilled, or stir-fried, with dramatically varying results, especially if you consider the many different variations you get by adding spices or condiments—from butter and fresh herbs, to sesame oil and fresh ginger, to olive oil and hot chilies, just to name but a few. The same goes for easily adaptable cuts of meat or seafood like chicken thighs or fresh fish fillets. The options widen according to your imagination, knowledge, and, most importantly, the way you organize your pantry and stock your fridge with staples—something that can be done once a week. The goal is to keep your kitchen in a permanent state of readiness so that all it takes is a handful of key ingredients that determine the menu.

But then how to decide what to make? Consider a ruse I devised when I started out as a private chef, about 20 years ago, cooking three meals a day for the same group of people: I simply decreed that each meal would not merely reflect the season and the market’s offering but be inspired by a different culinary culture or region. This is where your pantry comes into play. Think of it as a library.

Beyond the basic dictionaries (salt, sugars, salt, flour, cornstarch, baking powder), you have the classics (a variety of rice and pasta, dried beans and lentils, polenta, semolina, couscous), some personal favorites (canned chickpeas, tuna packed in olive oil, pickles, olives, honey, chocolate, cocoa powder, peanut butter, raw nuts, sesame seeds, shelled pumpkin seeds, dried raisins, tahini), some contemporary fiction (a freewheeling array of oils and vinegars, save for the cheap romance novel that is canola), and, of course, world literature (seeds and spices, neatly packed into glass jars and preferably used within a year; dried herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram; and hot chilies, better if self-dried using your oven’s pilot light).

The no-nonsense nonfiction shelf is stocked with durable condiments (assorted mustard, oil- and vinegar-based hot sauces, mayonnaise, tomato paste, and a variety of jams). Next come the current best-sellers, rather perishable quick reads (cheeses, eggs, butter, milk, yogurt) with a few noteworthy standouts (celery and citrus fruit). The poetry section deserves a special spot (tender leafy greens and lettuces, as well as fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, dill, tarragon, and basil, all of which should be immediately rinsed, tumbled dry, and stored in containers at the ready), and finally, on a low shelf under the counter, what you inherited from your parent’s library (carrots, potatoes, onions and garlic). With everything set in place in an orderly fashion, all you need to do is enter the playground with the daily news—say, a striped bass, a bunch of rainbow chard, radishes, peaches, and a bundle of fresh mint—and use the library to play and improvise. The next step is to figure out how to use everything up before it outlives its prime, and start all over again. Instructions thereof can be found in the philosophy section, top shelf on the right.

If you want to do a fairly simple roast chicken but go a step beyond the basic oil-salt-pepper, what would be a good thing to try? Someone advised me to roast the chicken in chicken stock … is that a thing? What are marinades, and how can I avail myself of them?

There are few edible things as complete and satisfying as a whole roast chicken in all its simplicity. But to make it leap off the plate, you should indeed consider adding a few focused touches.

Regarding spices, let the chicken squawk for itself: Less is more. A complex combination of spices is welcome for braises and stews but not recommended here. Definitely stay clear of commercial spice mixes, even if they are enticingly called “dry rubs”—they are likely to include such abominations as garlic powder and onion powder, stale chili powder, and dry herbs whose essential oils have evaporated a long time ago. Rather, stick with no more than one or two seasonings of your choice and preference, such as a fresh herb like sage or a spice like cumin. But that’s only a fragment of the story, no matter if it started with the egg or the chicken.

Part of the appeal of a roast chicken is crisp skin covering tender, juicy meat, and to achieve that in absence of a rotisserie contraption, some tricks are called for. Roasting something “in stock,” by the way, is technically no longer roasting but braising—definitely a “thing,” but a wet affair, whereas roasting is a dry affair. Here is how I do it.

The skin must be as dry as possible when you place the bird in the oven. Marinades or brines are therefore not a good idea. Using paper towels, pat the chicken dry, and then split it in half. This way, you can roast it with all of the skin always exposed to the oven’s dry heat and gain the advantage of a considerably shorter roasting time. I call this my “ambidextrous chicken” because both halves mirror each other in their perfect appeal. Cut off and reserve the backbone and season only the underside of the halves with kosher salt. Don’t worry, seasonings will be added, just later. Place the chicken, skin side up, on a platter and refrigerate it, uncovered, for a few hours or overnight. This will firm up the skin.

When you’re ready to put the meal together, wash, peel, and cut your choice of fibrous vegetables (carrots, celery, celery root, parsnip, turnip) into irregular diamond shapes no smaller than a cherry, add some sliced leeks or onions or whole garlic cloves (in their skins), and toss everything with a dash of olive oil, and perhaps a couple of sprigs or fresh rosemary, into a roasting pan. Add the backbone for flavor and pre-roast everything in a 375 degrees Fahrenheit oven for about 20 minutes until halfway done. Season the underside of the chicken halves with pepper and not more than one other aromatic spice or herb, like paprika or ground cumin or chopped fresh thyme, or a smear of Dijon mustard, or simply tuck a bunch of fresh tarragon sprigs underneath before placing them, skin side up, on the hot bed of vegetables. (You could also carefully slip some whole sage leaves under the skin, over the breasts and thighs.) Brush the skin with melted butter and generously season it with kosher salt only. (Spices are likely to burn.) Roast at 450 degrees for about 35 minutes. Pierce the spot between thigh and breast to check for doneness: The running juices should no longer be pink.

To finish, place the chicken halves only under the broiler to brown the skin some more. Transfer the vegetables onto a platter, keeping any pan juices in the roasting pan. Deglaze the pan with a splash of white wine or water, and pour it through a sieve into sauce pan. Skim off the chicken fat (store it in the freezer for roasted potatoes, some other time) and bring the stock to a simmer. You can add a touch of heavy cream to the sauce or whip some best-quality butter into it. Serve immediately with plain rice.