Where were you on Jan. 7, 2012?
I remember the date vividly, because it was the worst dinner party I ever hosted and not because of my guests, who were kind to send me notes afterward thanking me for everything short of the food. They used the trick I employ when chefs whose work I can't praise ask me how I'm enjoying dinner in their restaurant: So nice to be here. Love the dining room. Great service.
In my house, we call such distractions 'shiny baubles,' like the sparkly objects one waves near the face of a crying baby to distract him.
The details of that winter evening are fuzzy (the mind has a wonderful way of tempering traumatic events), but I do recall botching something Italian from Marcella Hazan, making something complicated without rehearsing it first and being grateful that my partner, Ed, who had just completed culinary instruction at L'Academie de Cuisine, prepared the dessert. Baking is Ed's forte - and the last course is a guest's parting impression.
Decades ago, I could cook, and I did it a lot - with confidence. In my first tour of duty for The Washington Post, one of my tasks involved testing recipes in what was then a twice-weekly Food section. Alice Waters's pizza, Sen. Daniel Inouye's sweet and sour spareribs, Lord Baltimore's laborious layer cake - you name the dish, I probably made it during that four-year run in the 1980s.
I moved on to ever-better food gigs in Milwaukee, San Francisco and Seattle, then back to Washington. With each new job, I found myself spending less time in my home kitchen and more at restaurant tables. Last year, a dozen into my job as food critic for this newspaper, I figured I cooked fewer than 10 meals. That is not a number I share proudly. Cooking, I realized after my mess of a home-prepared meal last year, is like a second language. If you don't practice, you get rusty. And in my case, my Italian (French, Chinese, you name it) had lapsed into babble. More significant, bringing people into your home for a meal is one of the most intimate expressions of human communication, and I wasn't practicing it.
I was determined to change my status, to replace the foil swans and white cartons of unfinished restaurant meals in my refrigerator with Tupperware containing food I had made and shared with friends under my own roof. Moving from a small condo in Logan Circle to a generous house in Crestwood in February put me on the right track. So did a partner who prefers dinner closer to rush hour with a Stella Artois he opens himself than 'our next available reservation is at 9 o'clock' and hovering waiters.
People make the mistake of waiting for The Perfect Moment to entertain at home, or thinking they need to replicate the menu from the Inn at Little Washington. Take it from a new homeowner and a freshly enlightened dinner host: No one cares if you haven't painted your walls or re-covered your sofa. And no one is expecting you to play Patrick O'Connell in the kitchen. Your friends will be grateful simply not to have to cook. They may even leave with a new contact or two in their iPhones.
I was determined to change my status, to replace the foil swans and white cartons of unfinished restaurant meals in my refrigerator with Tupperware containing food I had made and shared with friends under my own roof.
If you're a chorister who hasn't sung a serious note in a while, you don't attempt Rachmaninoff's 'Vespers' for your first audience. For my debut dinner in our new home in March, I invited two close friends and fed them dishes that had not only passed the Food section's recipe-testing hoops - sweet and sour pickled salmon, fresh green beans with feta and lemon, cherry almond cake courtesy of directions from the Kennedy Center's Michael Kaiser - but also made their way into the newspaper's new cookbook.
For my second meal, I reached out to two couples who had hosted Ed and me so many times, I couldn't in good conscience accept another invitation until I had cooked drunken roast pork and Brussels sprouts with wild fennel seed for them. Dinner Party No. 3 starred herbed leg of lamb from the Wall Street Journal and lemon meringue pots de creme from the New York Times. On the occasion of a visit from my mom, she whipped up a wild rice casserole and a lemon angel pie - two fond memories of my Minnesota youth - and Ed and I contributed beef short ribs and chocolates brought back from a quickie trip to Paris.
I most enjoy serving food with a story, or strong sentiment, behind it. On Memorial Day, I fed friends roast chicken with bread salad, a recipe from my favorite restaurant in San Francisco, Zuni Cafe, and coconut cake from the family files of my predecessor and friend, Phyllis Richman. During my Bay Area career, that succulent chicken, arranged on a bed of greens with macerated currants, toasted pinenuts and croutons splashed with champagne vinegar, was the featured attraction at countless birthdays and dates; as a youthful recipe tester, few dishes made a sweeter impression on me than that moist white cake and its lattice of shaved coconut, brown sugar and melted butter. Such a comfort was that cake, Richman told her readers, it had gone to war with an uncle (and even to Italy with her on assignment).