I had a dinner party a few months ago in which everything sort of felt wrong. Not in the way you'd think - my guests ate everything I cooked (two chickens! multiple pounds of vegetables! an entire cake! a whole liter of whipped cream! six poached quince!) and there were no leftovers. But - has this happened to you? - when I sat down to eat dinner with our guests I looked down at my plate and thought, "I don't want to eat any of this".
It wasn't that the food didn't taste good, I guess. It's just that - and I'm having a hard time expressing just exactly what I mean, so bear with me here - it all felt so...strained, my relationship with what I'd cooked, I mean. I'd expended a lot of time and energy on planning the dinner and cooking the dinner and then once the food was in front of me it just felt so foreign, so far away from what I actually wanted to eat, from the things that make my mouth water. It was a sort of upsetting moment - to be surrounded by nine other people kindly devouring all that was laid before them and to feel so estranged from their experience and from the very food I'd spent all day working on.
Does this sound totally trite? I actually wrote a whole long post about that evening, so long that I thought about turning it into a chapter for the book, but in the end I couldn't figure out just exactly how to work it in or how to express myself, really. I mean: I threw a dinner party! The guests loved it! I wished I could have had a peanut butter sandwich instead! What?
For as long as I've been cooking in my own home, when time came to plan a dinner party, I'd spend days poring over cookbooks, trying to put together a menu that made sense (as old-fashioned as it may be, I adore cookbooks that include menu suggestions) and that would be a step up from the usual stuff I eat. But after that fatal dinner party I decided that I needed to approach menu planning differently. I needed to think about what I wanted to eat, first and foremost, when I had guests over. Does that sound like the most obvious thing ever? To me it wasn't.
After the dinner party that made me lose my appetite, I decided that, actually, we eat pretty darn well around here when it's just the two of us. Why, when you get down to brass tacks, should we change that winning formula just because we have people coming over? In fact, wouldn't that be just the moment to stick with the greatest hits that make us happy, dinner guests or no dinner guests?
And so, to celebrate my mother's birthday last week, along with several of her closest friends and my dad, we threw a dinner party with food so good, and so familiar, I wished I could have had thirds.
Instead of wracking my brains to come up with a special menu, I decided to stay simple. I'd made Judy Rodgers's chard panade many times before just for the two of us and fell in love with it a little bit more each time. When I thought about my mother's birthday, I couldn't stop thinking about that panade. It felt like the perfect January meal - meatless yet still full of richness and flavor, shot through with dark greens for our mind, a little cheese for our soul. Simple yet celebratory.
I decided to eschew an appetizer and serve a salad on its own, as a second course, so to speak. Soft butter lettuce and mâche were tossed with cubed avocados and slices of juicy oranges, bound together with a shallot vinaigrette from the Zuni Cafe cookbook, which is where the panade recipe is also from. We had a few good bottles of red wine to pass around and then, for dessert, a simple chocolate mousse from Dorie's new book.
The dinner was a huge success. People took seconds, thirds, licked their plates, and - thrillingly - I joined in. It felt so easy, so effortless. And my mother, a tough critic, was still raving about the celebration days later.
If you haven't yet had the pleasure of knowing panade, it's a cross between a gratin and a bread pudding, but only sort of. You cook a whole mess of onions until meltingly soft and amber-hued. You cube stale peasant bread and toss it with salt and olive oil and a little bit of chicken stock. You sauté Swiss chard until barely limp and still vibrantly green. You grate a tiny mountain of fragrant Gruyère. And then you get to work, layering all four elements over and over until the baking dish is entirely filled. You soak the whole thing with good chicken stock (seriously, homemade stock pushes this dish into the sublime) and then bake it very slowly in the oven until it's plush and satiny, almost wobbling, the top crusted perfectly.
Peasant food for the gods, if you will. And just the thing to make a hostess who, in truth, really does love throwing dinner parties, feel like a million dollars again.
Chard and Onion Panade
Serves 4 as a main course or 8 as a side dish
1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced yellow onions
Up to 1/2 cup mild-tasting olive oil
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 pound Swiss chard (thick ribs removed), cut into 1-inch-wide ribbons
10 ounces day-old chewy peasant-style bread cut into rough 1-inch cubes
Up to 4 cups chicken stock
6 ounces Gruyère, coarsely grated
1. Place the onions in a deep 4-quart saucepan and drizzle and toss with oil to coat, about 1/4 cup. Set over medium-high heat and, shimmying the pan occasionally, cook until the bottom layer of onions is slightly golden around the edges, about 3 minutes. Stir and repeat.
2. Once the second layer of onions has colored, reduce the heat to low and stir in the garlic and a few pinches of salt. Stew, stirring occasionally, until the onions are a pale amber color and tender but not mushy, another 20 minutes or so. If at any point the onions look as if they may dry out, cover them to trap some of the moisture in the pan. Taste for salt. You should get about 2 1/4 cups cooked onions.
3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees (or as low as 250 degrees, if it suits your schedule to stretch the cooking time from about 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours 45 minutes; the slower the bake, the more unctuous and mellow the results).
4. Wilt prepared chard in batches: Place a few handfuls of leaves in a 3-quart saute pan or a 10-to 12-inch skillet with a drizzle of oil, a sprinkling of water (if you've just washed the chard, it may have enough on the leaves), and a few pinches of salt. Set the pan over medium heat until the water begins to steam, then reduce the heat and stir and fold leaves until they are just wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Leaves should be uniformly bright green, the white veins pliable (the veins will blacken later if they are not heated through). Taste. The chard may be slightly metallic-tasting at this point, but make sure it's salted to your taste. Set aside.
5. Toss and massage the cubed bread with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a generous 1/4 cup of the stock and a few pinches of salt, to taste.
6. Choose a flameproof, 3-quart souffle dish or enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Assemble the panade in layers, starting with a generous smear of onions, followed by a loose mosaic of bread cubes, a second layer of onions, a wrinkled blanket of chard, and a handful of the cheese. Repeat, starting with bread, the onions and so on, until the dish is brimming. Aim for 2 to 3 layers of each component, then make sure the top layer displays a little of everything. Irregularity in the layers makes the final product more interesting and lovely. Drizzle with any remaining olive oil.
7. Bring the remaining 3 3/4 cups stock to a simmer and taste for salt. Add stock slowly, in doses, around the edge of the dish. For a very juicy, soft panade, best served on its own, like a soup or risotto, add stock nearly to the rim; for a firm but succulent panade, nice as a side dish, fill to about 1 inch below the rim. Wait a minute for stock to be absorbed, then add more to return to the desired depth. The panade may rise a little as the bread swells.
8. Set panade over low heat and bring to a simmer; look for bubbles around the edges (heating it here saves at least 30 minutes of oven time; it also means every panade you bake starts at the same temperature, so you can better predict total cooking times). Cover the top of the panade with parchment paper, then very loosely wrap the top and sides with foil. Place a separate sheet of foil under the panade or on the rack below it, to catch drips.
9. Bake until the panade is piping hot and bubbly. It will rise a little, lifting the foil with it. The top should be pale golden in the center and slightly darker on the edges. This usually takes about 1 1/2 hours, but varies according to shape and material of baking dish and oven. (You can hold the panade for another hour or so; just reduce the temperature to 275 degrees until 20 minutes before serving.)
10. Uncover panade, raise temperature to 375 degrees, and leave until golden brown on top, 10 to 20 minutes. (If you aren't quite ready when your panade is, re-tent the surface with parchment and foil and reduce the heat to 275 degrees. You can hold it another half hour this way without it overbrowning or drying out.) Slide a knife down the side of the dish and check the consistency of the panade. Beneath the crust, it should be very satiny and it should ooze liquid as you press against it with the blade of the knife. If it seems dry, add a few tablespoons simmering chicken stock and bake for 10 minutes longer.