A Selection from "My Deceptively Delicious Dinner Party…"

Plan B was a dinner party for my friends. I figured they could serve as kid-substitutes even if they wouldn’t perhaps be as wonderfully direct as your average five-year-old.

I felt like a fraud when I bought the book. I don’t have kids. I don’t know what it’s like to try to get children to eat vegetables. What right did I have to buy this book? (Plus, it was in a Mother’s Day display which somehow emphasized that I was unfit to purchase it unless my ultimate intent was to give it to someone proper.)

I bought it anyway. I wanted to make as many recipes as possible to give my guests a chance to sample a broad range. I tried to turn it into a fun party game (dangerous territory?) by not telling them what vegetables were hidden inside each dish. I made them guess what purees were included. I even created a chart for them to fill out with boxes for the mystery vegetable and whether or not they liked the dish or had any additional input.

In order to pull this off, I had to make a number of vegetable purees. Jessica makes it sound easy — you toss a bunch of vegetables in a food processor and store the purees in your freezer and pop them out whenever you want to make a vegetable-laced dish for your kids.

I, however, am a frantic, childless grad student and so it wasn’t so much easy prep work as frenzied grocery shopping and mad apartment-cleaning on Friday night (which made me wonder what I was going to do with the rest of my weekend as cleaning and grocery shopping seem to take up the bulk of them) and then rising with the sun on Saturday to puree my heart out and cook, cook, cook.

If I learned anything from this culinary adventure, it is that I am not very good at steaming vegetables. I can blame my steamer in part (I was killing time at Crate and Barrel recently and saw they had steamers for $8, so it might be worth investing in a new one).

I have an aunt who missed her calling in life in either interior design or personal shopping. She has a good eye for design and every time I visit she has rearranged the furniture in at least one room of her house.

She is also good at giving gifts. When I first moved to New York and started cooking for myself, she gave me a colander filled with every kitchen gadget imaginable: a garlic press, pastry brushes, a vegetable peeler, a timer, etc., etc. (When I was moving out of my first horrible apartment in New York, my roommate claimed that the colander was his and asked me to unpack it so he could make pasta. We went back and forth until I finally realized that it would be easiest to just do it — my reward being that I would never have to deal with him again and so the colander became a parting gift from my life.)

My aunt *also* included a vegetable steamer in that 2003 Christmas gift. And by now, I had used pretty much everything in there, except said steamer. It was even still in its original packaging.

The steamer was all bound up in a metallic wad and I had trouble busting it open — so much so that I actually broke it a little (which may also explain why I had so much trouble steaming with it). It doesn’t really stay open in a nice bowl-shape. It’s either completely flat or falls in on itself. I did the best I could, balancing it on top of the saucepan and hoping for the best.

Cauliflower was my first vegetable. I cut it into florets but was only able to fit a fraction in the “steamer.” The recipe says you have to steam for eight minutes…but eight minutes into it, my cauliflower did not seem particularly tender and I still had a chopping board full of florets to blow through…and I wasn’t getting any younger (people were coming at 7:30…and at this rate, I was going to spend an hour steaming the head of cauliflower alone), so I decided to boil the rest. (Well, actually, I decided to try to put the cauliflower in a saucepan with a little water — which is what the book says you do to wilt baby spinach — but I soon found that it burned and so I added a lot of water and just let it boil.)

I had some baby spinach left over from a recipe I found in Bon Appetit’s celebration of greens in March (for St. Patrick’s Day — get it?) and so in the interest of frugality, I decided to just use what I had instead of purchasing more baby spinach. (Jessica also says that baby spinach requires no preparation whatsoever and so it’s a snap.) But, I have a big Cuisinart and I did not have all that much baby spinach…so I was able to blend the spinach…but not exactly puree it per se. It splattered against the sides of the food processor and I tried to scrape it back toward the blades with a spatula, but it always ended up just splattering against the sides again and eventually I gave up.

My boiled/steamed cauliflower florets pureed nicely in my Cuisinart once I had softened them. But I had to wash the food processor out repeatedly, which was kind of a pain. (I can’t imagine Jessica doing that over and over again.)

The sweet potatoes were an absolute dream to puree because I roasted them instead of steaming. (But, I forgot to poke holes in them and one of them leaked sticky stuff all over the pan…but I was thankful it did not explode in my oven.)

Another quick note about entertaining: I am completely paranoid about hosting anything. My aunt — the same one who gave me the colander — has a party-planning philosophy. She threw a holiday party once and was very selective about her guest list. Hardly anyone showed up and it was a miserable failure. Ever since then, she has invited literally everyone she knows –- from the mailman to the checkout girl at the grocery store –- and found that this usually ensures a decent mix of people (or at least one that is not completely humiliating). I have tried to adopt a similar tact –- much to the chagrin of my “friends” on Facebook? –- but I think with only mixed results.

I have a friend who always throws great parties. She doesn’t even really throw them — that would require far too much planning. She just decides on a whim that it would be nice to have some people over and because she’s so much fun, what starts out as an intimate gathering quickly snowballs. It’s amazing to me.

I am the type of person who really likes to plan things: the guest list, the food, the order the dishes are served, how my apartment appears, etc. And yet after all of my careful preparation, I have never been able to amass an audience like my friend can. Not once. It’s hard not to take it personally.

Don’t get me wrong –- the people who came were very good sports. But I did this on short notice and one good friend was out of town and another had her fiancée visiting and the F train was bypassing my stop that weekend, so I feel I could have amassed a more sizable crowd had I held off for a bit. (My friend definitely could have…but she, too, ignored my email and so I was unable to muster interest in my party by association with her.)

Also? I have a complex about music. As in, I am completely embarrassed by it and I don’t want anyone to know what’s on my iPod. I think that someone must have made fun of me as a child and it scarred me for life. So this is perhaps another reason why it’s so important to keep the conversation going whenever I have a group of relative strangers amassed in my apartment and I have no background music to fill gaps or to provide conversation pieces. (Or maybe I worry too much.)

I wanted to have an “appetizer” for my guests and I finally settled on mozzarella sticks because the tofu cubes seemed too complicated and the dips sounded a little boring. Plus, Jessica swore her mozzarella sticks were super-easy and I, too, shared her fear that mozzarella sticks were far too complicated for any rational human being to make on his or her own. So I was curious.

I also planned to make lasagna and so I had purchased two enormous hunks of mozzarella, which turned out to be way too much cheese. It was also kind of expensive. And now I have one huge hunk of mozzarella left in my refrigerator. (Although I saw a man eating an enclosed pastry-ish thing on the Subway afterward which made me want to make empanadas. I can definitely rid myself of some cheese that way.)

I tried to jazz up Jessica’s recipe by adding some spices to the breadcrumb mixture. I also couldn’t find flaxseed at my grocery store, so my mozzarella sticks were flax-less. You’re supposed to make little logs and then roll them in bread crumbs and freeze the “sticks” for 20 minutes – presumably so they’ll stay together when you brown them? And I don’t know if it was my timing or what, but I took them out of the freezer after 20 minutes and ended up putting them back in again because I had to do other steps in other recipes before I was ready to brown the sticks…and, unfortunately, they didn’t really want to stay together for me and became a huge blob. It was kind of like a mozzareppa, grilled cornbread with mozzarella in the middle that you see at fairs and festivals and the like.

I, however, was horrified by how ugly it was and wanted to pretend it had never existed. But my guests were far more adventurous than I was and were still willing to try them.

That’s the thing — in my sophomore year of high school, I had to take a speech class and one of our assignments was to do a demonstration. I decided to give a speech on how to make brownies.

At that point in my life, I certainly hadn’t baked as much as I have now, but brownies don’t require much expertise — especially if they come from a box. So…I tried to jazz them up a bit by dusting them with powdered sugar the night before. But when I woke up the next morning and was gathering my things for school, I was horrified to discover that the powdered sugar had melted and my brownies looked awful.

“No one will eat them! I am giving a speech on brownies and no one will want to eat them!” I panicked.

“Don’t worry,” my mother said. “You’d be surprised — people will eat just about anything. Especially if it’s free. You’ll see.”

And, much to my surprise and delight, my mother was right. I apologized profusely when unveiling the ugly brownies to my classmates, but they ate them all anyway. It was the same thing with the mozzarella sticks. I tried to advise against them, but people ignored me and actually consumed them.

And, ironically, it was the only recipe that everyone universally liked.

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Filed under appliances, books, cheese, chocolate, parties

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