What can I do to polish up my dinner-party act?
I am a gracious, grateful dinner guest. I swear.
And yet, when I’m invited to dinner I can’t help noticing little things that went wrong that could easily have gone right with minimal effort. I’m far too polite to mention them to my host, so I offer them here to my readers:
DRESS THE SALAD IN A BIG BOWL: It’s called a tossed salad because it needs to be tossed so that the dressing lightly and evenly coats all the elements. Yes, it entails dirtying an extra bowl, but the result is worth it.
SALT WITH CONFIDENCE: Why doesn’t your food taste like restaurant food? Because you are using a fraction of the salt. When boiling potatoes or pasta or vegetables, use a tablespoon or two in the water — very little of the salt will wind up in the food. Salt meat before you cook it, salt onions you are sauteing, salt, salt salt. You’ll find that if you salt your food during the cooking, your guests will not ask for the salt shaker at the table.
USE FRESHLY GROUND PEPPER: I am not a salt snob. I generally cook with kosher salt but I doubt if I could taste the difference between a dish seasoned with it or regular iodized table salt. Pepper is another matter. Unlike salt, which is a mineral and whose taste will not deteriorate for millennia, pepper is a fruit — each peppercorn is a tiny dried pepper fruit — and it has a relatively short shelf life. The best way to keep it is in whole peppercorn form, grinding it at the last minute to release its complex flavor. There is no comparison between the taste of freshly ground pepper and the pre-ground stuff that comes in a tin or jar. I often start out a dish with some freshly ground pepper and then give it a few twists of the grinder at the end. The older I get, the fewer spices I use, and the more I appreciate black pepper.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT POT: For searing, you want cast iron or stainless steel — something that will put a nice crust on whatever you’re cooking. Nonstick pans cannot sear. For braising (a pot roast, a pork shoulder, etc.), you want the smallest pot the meat will fit into. Do not let your brisket float around in a big pan. A snug fit means you’ll use relatively little liquid to come halfway up the meat and, because there’s not much of it, it will be flavorful and rich. For pasta, use a big pot and don’t fill it up more than two-thirds. Otherwise, the water will boil over.
PAY ATTENTION TO POTATOES: For potatoes destined to be mashed, don’t let them sit in the water once they are cooked. Potatoes are like sponges and the more water they absorb before you mash them, the less milk, cream and/or butter they will soak up: You’ll wind up with bland, runny mashed potatoes. As soon as potatoes are tender, drain them well and, for good measure, put them back into the empty hot pot and shake over low heat to get rid of any other excess water. Then start beating in the good stuff.
WET BREAD BEFORE REHEATING IT: This trick works with any bread that isn’t absolutely fresh, from frozen rolls and baguettes to a day-old bagel on which you’d given up. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Run bread under running water until it is wet. Place directly on oven rack and bake for 8 to 15 minutes, depending on thickness of bread and whether or not it was frozen.
Oh no, did I just pick apart my dear friend’s meal?