This week, two true human gems from our hometown arrived on our doorstep, smiling and hungry. We’d known for weeks that they were coming, and for weeks I mused, casually, on what I would prepare for this occasion. As I am often guilty of doing, I romanticized the event, picturing myself in front of a spread of perfect food, hovering on my tiptoes in carefree bliss, tossing my hair back and laughing casually as they ooh and ahh over my creations for the evening.
I decided on the menu about six hours before their arrival, my hair was a mess, my forehead shining with meat grease like a lighthouse at sea, and though I tried desperately to appear carefree, I was far, far from it. As my buddy Kurt says, so it goes.
Every single time we do this, we “entertain,” I experience a kind of self-inflicted performance anxiety, one unlike any other. I know, deep down, that no one is going to care as much as I care. But that doesn’t stop me, every time, from making the whole thing incredibly difficult for myself.
I believe that your home is a reflection of who you are. Nothing beats walking into a place and being able to feel the people that live there in every fiber, every smell, every tiny detail. What makes it even better is when someone creates a dish or two, in their own perfectly imperfect kitchen, and serves it to you under their own roof. There’s a certain intimacy there that cannot be replicated any other way.
When I think of this, I picture my grandmother placing a plate of baked chicken and five-minute rice on top of a fuzzy blue placement in front of my 9-year-old self. What made that plate taste SO good, and I mean truly incredible, was the fact that grandma had made it, that I could smell the rosewater or verbena on her skin as she placed the food in front of me, and that when I looked up from my plate, felt the oriental rug under my feet, caught the glimmer of her hanging copper cookware out of the corner of my eye, I felt the most overwhelming sense of PLACE. I strive to create that experience for anyone who walks through our door.
Here’s the problem: it’s EXHAUSTING.
When we hosted a housewarming party a couple of months back, my mom happened to be in town. Though my mother has been victim to this same entertaining anxiety, she is a lot better at hiding it. Is she stressed out to the max? Sure! But you’d never guess that, not for a second.
The key, she says, is to keep it simple. Stick to the basic, tried-and-true stuff that makes you comfortable. Seek out short ingredient lists and short prep times. Don’t allow yourself to peek over the edge of your own sanity. Hide ya’ crazy.
Don’t spend a lot of money. No one likes a show off, so buying lobster tails is out. For our party, my mom pointed out the chorizo with a casual wave of her hand. For less than $4, I had a protein picked out for a simple and yummy pasta dish.
This week, after plenty of page flipping and internet trolling, I took a deep, mindful breath, decided I wanted to make Austin-worthy tacos, and lo and behold, Food and Wine came to the rescue for the gagillionth time.
I found a recipe with all of the elements. 20 minute prep time. A short list of easy-to-obtain ingredients. Crowd pleasing, with a touch of DIY. You can find the recipe for Steak Tacos with Pineapple here.
Someone needs to buy me a better knife. I sliced this lovely slab of skirt steak in the most unfortunate way, so I’ll be looking to improve on that next time. The tacos also beg for a sauce of some kind. The flavors are there, but I could see our guests reaching for the equivalent of salsa and looking befuddled when there was none to be found. The pineapple created something similar to a salsa, its juices seeping into the meat and the tortilla so beautifully, but next time I might let the fruit sit with the red onions and cilantro and a little lemon juice until a more salsa-like consistency emerges.
For the side, I roasted some Brussels sprouts until they were brown and crispy (ideal because they just cook and cook, even without a chaperone, so you can focus on other things like refilling your drink) and then found a recipe for an “aioli” that used hummus as its base. It was easy, it was good, it’s worth a look. (Note: I prepared the Brussels sprouts differently and opted out of the sriracha, though I’m sure it would be delicious.)
Finally, dessert. Fortunately, our guests were sweets lovers, so I’m pretty sure I could have served them a spoonful of peanut butter with a chocolate chip on top and they would have been pleased. Instead, always the overachiever, I assembled tiny s’mores “pots,” layering those three familiar, magical ingredients together with a little butter on the bottom and popping the ramekins in the oven at 350. Easy, right? Can’t lose, right?
Mistake #1: the ingredients. When you’re trying to make a nostalgic dessert like s’mores, buy the most basic ingredients. I’m talking the top selling, on-the-commercials consumerism shit. Buy the JET PUFFED marshmallows, the ones made with corn syrup and terribleness, not some cane sugar substitute. Go for the milky-est of milk chocolate, the good ol’ Hershey bar. Honey Maid is the only real graham cracker brand. Everyone knows that.
Marc and I shop at the best little organic food mart near our house, and they have everything we need… just, like, a crunchier version of it. A more expensive, slightly better-for-you version. And when it comes to s’mores, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Mistake #2: damage control. When something feels like it’s going to turn out dry and mealy, it probably will. Since the marshmallows did not melt the way the processed ones do, there was no creaminess to be had. I should have added something, even a little milk or more butter, kind of like you would with bread pudding, to moisten the graham crackers and bring it all together. But I didn’t. Because stress. Because performance anxiety. Because it’s the 3rd set and the rest of the team has left and and I just want to go home.
Did our guests complain? Of course not. They were gracious and hilarious and ate the whole dry, dusty thing. Gotta love good eaters. When I master this recipe, I’ll post it.
Next year, I am marrying the type of man who loves entertaining. When we lived in Cincinnati and he had his own place, he opted to host just about anything he could, from Halloween to New Year’s Eve. And he’ll always be that way. For me there’s something about putting your home (and your culinary skills) on display, ready for any and all judgment, that makes me turn into a much crazier version of my normal self, one that (thankfully) he loves anyway. But for him, for me, and for our future guests, I’m working on it.