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.
Can one ever be too old to respectfully ask people to BYOB to your party without looking cheap? In your 20s and early 30s it seems like a given, but at what point are you expected to provide all the alcohol for a party of people?
One of the reasons it is quite common among young people to ask everyone to pitch in and bring something to drink to a party is that everyone is more or less in the same boat of financial instability and no one wants to rock it too hard. Entertaining at home is also, in those sophomore years, a fairly loose affair of coming and going, and there is an additional incentive to guaranteeing ample amounts of alcohol for those who depend on it to break the ice. This makes for some very odd and unbecoming mixes of wine and beer and what have you, with decidedly mixed and mixed-up results. But after a certain age—around one’s early 30s—it’s time to take charge and play the part of the host with the generosity and self-respect it demands. Take a more curatorial approach to your party and leave the vulgar acronym BYOB to the next generation of hapless thirsty youngsters—or restaurants without a liquor license.
If keeping a fully stocked bar and wine cellar is not an option, there is a third, more elegant solution than asking your guests flat out to cater your party: Just take a chance and count on their generosity. Usually, most people, when invited to a dinner or cocktail party, will ask if they can bring something, giving you an opportunity to tell them to bring a bottle of wine or interesting spirit. In my experience, for a dinner, many even ask if there is a preference in terms of what kind of wine would be best suited for the intended menu, which is another sign of maturity. Still, don’t take it for granted that everybody will be as considerate and pop the question, and be forgiving if they don’t—chances are they will not arrive empty handed, and in fact, you might end up with more than needed without having prompted it.
Having said that, as the host, you are still responsible to provide at least enough to drink to get the evening started, be it a glass of wine for everyone (the price point of which is up to you) or whatever welcoming drink you choose to offer (the default in my house is a Campari with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.). Of course, the budget goes up if you serve hard liquor, but that is an option you can easily bypass; it’s perfectly acceptable to serve wine only at your party. Just make sure you have at least sparkling water available for nondrinkers.
Most importantly, I urge you to stop thinking about your dinner parties in terms of your expenses. Be as generous, nay, more generous than seems reasonable, and celebrate your generosity with your guests. Bask in it! For in a time when almost everything we do has become a calculation or a means to an end, entertaining at home should remain a sanctuary or, in a word, priceless.
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I don’t cook a lot of meat for myself because I find it intimidating. What are some good starter recipes I can try?
A big slab of raw meat can indeed be “intimidating.” After all, it reminds us that we, too, are made of flesh and blood, and that can be uncomfortable. This discomfort is the driving force behind vegetarianism. But the fact that the slaughter of an animal—be it wild or farm raised—can lead to a divinely delicious meal is one of the great mysteries of life and a crown of human achievement. The author Betty Fussell has brilliantly described and analyzed America’s ingrained obsession with raising cattle and consuming meat in her book Raising Steaks. Fussell does not mince words, and her unapologetic passion for meat is visceral and contagious. Most importantly, she understands, perhaps better than any other food writer I know, that writing about food is really writing about something else, such as history, culture, or psychology.
Twenty-five years ago, when I accepted my first job as an in-house chef in a Hamptons villa where I was hired to cook for a group of demanding, protein-craving executives, I had the same trepidation as you: I had only recently recovered from a phase of increasingly staunch vegetarianism and happily become what I like to call an “occasional carnivore” and thus did not have much experience yet with cooking meat. I had to learn fast, and on the job. Do not fret: Overcoming your fear of cooking meat is extremely rewarding in many ways. Find a good source for organic meat, accept to pay the price for it, and start exploring.
The main challenge or fear of cooking red meat (which I assume is what you mean by “meat”) is to figure out how to cook it to the right degree, ranging from rare to well done to falling-off-the-bone tender. Each result is achieved with another combination of cooking technique (dry or wet), cooking time (fast or slow), and the degree of heat you apply to it (low or high)—all of it in relation to the particularities of the cut of meat you have chosen, which in return is dictated by knowing which cut is more suitable to each approach. This may sound complicated, but it’s merely a list of connected principles you can gradually acquaint yourself with.
I will assume that you have already passed the sophomore class of ground meat with its burgers, meatloaves, meatballs, and their consortiums. Let’s also bypass grilling and barbecuing since summer is practically over, and whoever owns either a grill or a barbecue contraption probably knows how to use it. This leaves you with the four main techniques for cooking meat in the home kitchen: pan-frying, roasting, braising, and stewing. Roasting is probably the most daunting of them because there are preferences to consider from rare to well done, and there is no telling the eye where your roast is at (an instant-read thermometer is your best friend). Pan-frying is short and intense, and braising demands a good amount of trust that the meat will not dry out. There is plenty of literature and online information available for each of these, so I will just get you started with one example for what I deem the gentlest and most forgiving technique: stewing.
The meat (beef or lamb) should have some fat and connective tissue (“chuck”—shoulder—is popular, but you wouldn’t go halfway wrong with short ribs.) Cut it into chunks no larger than, say, a large apricot, coat them with a thin film of oil, season them with salt and pepper, perhaps some chopped fresh thyme leaves, and brown them in batches in a heavy stainless-steel pot or Dutch oven. This first step is crucial for that deep, meaty flavor that is the benchmark for a beef or lamb stew. Deglaze the pot each time with a bit of water, save the liquid with the meat, and rinse the pan for the next batch. After the final batch, skip the deglazing and instead add some quartered shallots and halved garlic cloves into the pot, sautéing them gently until lightly browned (their juices will effectively deglaze the pan). Now pile the meat over them and add enough white or red wine or homemade stock to barely cover it. (Don’t even think of using any of that awfully assertive prepackaged stock popularized by Rachel Ray on her TV show, or your stew will taste like cafeteria food during a 30-minute lunch break.) If wine or stock are not an option, use water or, as I often do in kosher households, unsweetened pomegranate juice.
Add some aromatics (an onion with a few cloves stuck into it, a bay leaf or two, a bundle of fresh thyme, the green part of a leek, or perhaps a few pieces of star anise or even a cinnamon stick) and simmer the stew over the lowest flame possible (occasionally skimming off rising foam and fat); or, better yet, place it, covered, in a 275 F oven. After about an hour, add some carrots and celery stalks, cut into small chunks and preferably previously sautéed in some butter, and simmer the stew (or return it to the oven) until it’s done. How long will it take? Until the meat is tender—very tender—but not falling apart. It could be one more hour—or less, or more. It depends on too many factors to list. You will just have to check now and then and develop a sense for it.
To some, including this writer, this dish is really all about the sauce. Strain it into a sauce pan and, this is very important, skim off the liquefied fat or you will have a very fast ride the next day. Cook it over a medium flame until reduced by a third to concentrate its flavor, season it with salt as needed, and add it back to the meat and vegetables. A touch of butter stirred into the stew just before serving will go a long way.
My partner of 20 years is a professional chef and cooks most of our meals. I am a gourmand and love his food. Recently, I have rekindled my own interest in cooking, but I feel that my food could never live up to his standards. Any advice on how to handle this?
Ever since I “got serious” about cooking at the tender age of about 8 years, I have been flabbergasted when family members or friends protest that it would be impossible to cook for me as they expect me to be too judgmental. Nothing could be further from the truth: To eat a lovingly prepared home-cooked meal, no matter at what level the cook considers him- or herself, is, to us who cook for a living, like a vacation. (Well, unless it is completely botched, in which case it is probably more amusing than aggravating, for we know from our own experience how much can go wrong.)
Here is one thing most people don’t know about professional cooks: They may be very opinionated but, knowing how much work can go into preparing even a home-cooked meal, they are usually graceful and appreciative eaters. In addition, most of them have a genuine curiosity about food made by others (tasting food is to them what reading the newspaper is to others, even if it’s just Page Six or the funnies), and they generally prefer, at least at home, simple meals that are uncomplicated and pure and do not remind them of the more elaborate food that comes out of professional kitchens.
One would hope that your partner embraces your new enthusiasm for home cooking and does not use it as an excuse for lecturing you. Having said that, it would be a gravely missed opportunity and almost an insult if you did not tap into his or her knowledge for advice. A simple rule might be to ask questions—the more specific, the better—only before you get cooking and after the meal. Unless you both agree to a hands-on cooking lesson, I suspect you’d be rather nervous to have him or her look over your shoulder while you are at it, and I have to admit that it is hard for us to not immediately correct in minute detail what we consider a mistake when we witness it in real time.
Figure out what kind of food you would both like, and try not to be too heavy handed in making it either ape his or hers or strain to be different from it. And don’t try to impress him or her with something that is more elaborate or complicated than suits your level of expertise. Be humble: Stick with simple dishes and learn how to do them well. Nothing makes a chef happier than a meal that tells him or her that the cook respects and understands the ingredients, doing as little to them as possible to let them speak for themselves. In other words, pay as much attention to the quality of your produce as the cooking itself. Which is not to say that you should develop a style of your own. Try something new, give it your own spin, but do it with purpose. Ideally, your food should taste to your partner as if he were reading a poignant passage from your memoir.
One more recommendation: Be fastidious in cleaning after yourself when you work in the kitchen. Remember that chefs regard their kitchen as their territory; treat the one you both share with care and respect. You can rightly expect your partner to do a good portion of the cleanup after the meal, but I can promise you that his or her enthusiasm for your cooking, no matter how delicious the meal turned out to be, will be gravely dimmed if he or she is facing a kitchen in chaos afterward.