This past weekend I hosted the inaugural dinner party at Chez Karin Ouest. For some people it’s planting a garden, repainting, or perhaps registering the kids in a new school. For me, it’s cooking. Actually, feeding would be more accurate. I never really feel like I’m home, in my home until I’ve fed friends at my table. And that homey feeling commenced Saturday night, when a few new friends scored the first reservation.
The first dinner in a new place, shared with new people who haven’t experienced your particular brand of epicurean handiwork could be daunting if you let it. So don’t let it. This is not the time for shock and awe, but rather an opportunity to provide a tasty backdrop to building friendship. In my view, first dinners should be welcoming, cozy, go with the conversation but not be the conversation, and involve as few utensils as possible. If you want to stretch your culinary muscles and go over the top, save it for dessert. An entire meal of gastronomical ambition is exhausting to everyone involved. And unless you are cooking for friends who moonlight as Iron Chef judges, most people aren’t all that adventurous when it comes to entrees that require too much explanation, especially when the cook isn’t well known. There will be plenty time for culinary fireworks another day. In fact, plan on it. Good cooks never seem to lack friends with appetites.
After almost three decades of dinner parties, I’ve learned that when it comes to welcoming friends the first time around my table there are a few simple rules to success: the meal has to be easy to serve, can be made ahead, and delicious. The other day as I was preparing my menu, I discovered one more thing about my “first” dinner parties. I seem to be stuck in a loop of culinary deja food. Apparently for the past three “new home” dinner parties I’ve hosted, I’ve served the exact same dish. Amazingly enough, it was entirely accidental.
I made the dish the first time about a month after moving into the big city. The guests were new friends who over the following 14 years, became my city family, sitting at my table (and I at theirs) more times than either of us can remember. The second serving was after moving from that first tiny apartment to the downtown home I would love for over ten years, and the home I left to venture westward. The guests were 4 hungry men (it was Chelsea after all) and I made the bold move of serving Italian to Italians. They ate every speck and became dear friends and frequent guests at my table for over a decade. When I was preparing the menu last Saturday morning, I came across my “menus” file while looking for a recipe. Here was a written record of countless meals for countless occasions celebrated around the table at Chez Karin. And there it was….the same menu, three times prepared, in three new homes, over the past 14 years. The title of the dinner was the same for each – “First Dinner Party in New Place”, and while the players changed over the years, the theme, and the intention has been the same for all…Welcome Home.
Believe me when I say I was truly shocked when this deja food realization hit me. Obviously the star of the menu must have been a success, and I don’t know why I keep forgetting how delicious it is and haven’t made it more often. I have a feeling from now on I will. I found the recipe in my favorite, most dog-eared copy of Buon Appetit – the Tuscany Edition (circa 2000), and have made most of the recipes out of it countless times over the years. This one is an all-time favorite, and obviously a crowd pleaser since each time I’ve made it the guests keep coming back. The perfect ragu for company, here is Pasta con Ragu di Vitello, Salcicce e Porcini – Pasta with Veal, Sausage and Porcini Ragu. I made it with homemade pappadelle last weekend, but dry pasta is fine, and it would be absolutely terrific over polenta too.
PASTA WITH VEAL, SAUSAGE AND PORCINI RAGU
Pasta con Ragù di Vitello, Salsicce e Porcini
(Bon Appétit, May 2000)
- 1 cup water
- 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms*
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 small carrot, peeled, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 8 ounces sweet Italian sausages, casings removed
- 8 ounces veal stew meat, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 2 14§-ounce cans low-salt chicken broth
- 1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes in juice
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
- 1 pound fresh pappardelle or purchased fettuccine
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring 1 cup water and mushrooms to boil in small saucepan. Remove from heat. Let stand 15 minutes. Strain soaking liquid through paper-towel-lined sieve into bowl. Coarsely chop mushrooms. Set liquid and mushrooms aside.
Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrot, 1/4 cup parsley and garlic. Sauté until vegetables are tender but not brown, about 5 minutes. Push vegetables to side of skillet. Add sausage and cook until brown, breaking up with back of fork, about 4 minutes. Add veal and sauté until brown, about 5 minutes. Add wine. Increase heat to high and boil until wine is almost evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add 1 cup chicken broth; boil 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add reserved mushroom liquid. Simmer until liquid is almost absorbed, about 5 minutes. Transfer mixture to processor. Using about 4 on/off turns, process just until coarsely chopped. Return mixture to skillet. Mix in tomatoes with juices, bay leaves, sage, fennel seeds and porcini mushrooms. Reduce heat to low. Simmer uncovered until sauce thickens, breaking up tomatoes with fork, adding remaining chicken broth 1/2 cup at a time and stirring occasionally, about 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper. (Ragù can be made 2 days ahead. Cool slightly. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled.)
Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain. Add sauce to pasta pot and rewarm over medium heat. Add pasta and toss to combine. Transfer to bowl. Sprinkle with cheese and remaining 2 tablespoons parsley.
*Dried porcini mushrooms are available at Italian markets, specialty foods stores and many supermarkets.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
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