I began my career as a recipe tester for cookbooks, and I did that work for two years. I loved cookbooks and loved browsing for them at thrift stores or used-book shops. My husband, Jim, was a book publisher and often brought home the cookbooks that his company published or that were sent to him by other pubnlishers and editors. As a result, I owned a hundred or so cookbooks that I kept in a bookcase in our front hall.
Jim had been collecting wine for many years and we began to have dinner parties for which we carefully paired the wine and food. I was young and insecure about cooking for company, so spent a lot of time planning and worrying about our parties. One day Jim told me that he would like to invite an acquaintance of his, a French chef who owned a restaurant in Manhattan, to dinner. Years before, friends of his had set him up on a blind date with her. That date didn’t lead to others, but Jim and Sally had kept in touch through their mutual friends.
I was excited and chose the menu carefully. We invited five other people to make a dinner party for eight.
I cooked an elaborate meal, including duxelles* in filo pastry that was folded into triangular packets and baked until crispy, and a soup of finely diced vegetables in a homemade beef bouillon that took three days to make. By the day of the dinner, I was very nervous and doubtful, regretting that I had agreed to cook dinner for a professional chef, one whom I’d never met.
Sally — tall, slim, blonde and attractive – was the first to arrive. We greeted her together at the door. She slipped out of her coat in the hallway and the bookcase caught her eye. She turned to Jim, crying, You collect cookbooks! I was confused, because she was talking to him. I also love cookbooks! she said. How long have you been collecting?
I felt silly standing there, feeling invisible. Did she think he had cooked the dinner? Had she forgotten that I lived there too? They’re Denise’s, Jim said, and she replied, Ahhhh, and proceeded into the living room.
Somewhat rattled, I served the appetizers, including my savory and elegant mushroom turnovers. No one but Jim said a word about them and my insecurity mounted. Jim said nice things about the food, but no one else made single comment until I served the three-day soup when Sally murmured “yummy,” after which the other guests also made appreciative noises.
That was the clue to the problem. It wasn’t that the food was bad, it was that everyone was self-conscious in front of the chef. No one wanted to be the first to say they enjoyed the food if Sally hadn’t given her approval. She probably didn’t realize how eagerly I was waiting for her reaction to my hard work – she did all of that and much more every hour of her working day. She may have been too distracted by her own thoughts to think of offering praise. It turned out that she was hoping that Jim would offer her a contract to write a cookbook. We didn’t see her again. Not long after that dinner party, she closed her restaurant and moved to back to France.
We kept having dinner parties and I remembered the lesson I had learned that night. Not about cooking, but about being a guest. Sometimes people now joke about being intimated at the idea of cooking for me. I love to have anyone cook for me and I’m not critical of what’s served unless the circumstances require it. If it’s for work, yes, if it’s for pleasure, I’m happy for the good company and that someone was kind enough to do the cooking. Everything else is just gravy.
* Duxelles is a mixture of finely chopped mushrooms, onion or shallot, and herbs, sautéed in butter.
For those who eat pork, Bourbon-Marinated Roast Pork is perhaps the perfect fool-proof dinner party recipe. The simple, flavorful, marinade is easily assembled the night before the dinner. To roast, simply pour the marinade and meat into a roasting pan. This recipe, from my cookbook “Dinner for Eight: 40 Great Dinner Party Menus for Friends and Family,” was given to me by knitwear designer Vasilka Nicolova. It had been given to her by her mother-in-law, labeled “Not for the common people.” Try it and I think you’ll agree.
Bourbon-Marinated Roast Pork
For pork marinade:
- 1/4 cup bourbon
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 5-6 pounds boneless pork tenderloins
- Vegetable oil, for greasing pan
For sour cream sauce:
- 1/3 cup mayonnaise
- 1/3 cup sour cream
- 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
- 1 tablespoon dry mustard
- 1 teaspoon white or red wine vinegar.
1. Prepare pork marinade: In a small bowl, combine the bourbon, soy sauce and sugar. Mix well. Place the pork tenderloins in a heavy-duty ziplock bag. Pour the marinade over the pork, close the bag securely, and turn the bag so that the pork is well-coated in the marinade. Place the bag (with the sealed opening up, to prevent leaks) in the refrigerator.
2. Prepare sour cream sauce: In a small decorative bowl, combine the mayonnaise, sour cream, chopped onion, dry mustard and vinegar. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a baking pan. Remove tenderloins from marinade and place in pan. Bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center reaches 180 degrees, about 50 minutes.
4. To serve, transfer meat to a carving board and cut diagonally into thin slices; keep warm. Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan, return to medium heat, and stir to deglaze the pan. Arrange the sliced pork on a serving platter and drizzle the liquid from the pan over the top. Serve with the sour cream sauce passed separately.
WINES: Gewürztraminer, Riesling Spätlese or Cabernet Franc, or a Pommard