I had my first official grown-up dinner party this past weekend. I have given parties before, and much as I love the idea of a party, I often fret the entire time, wondering if everyone has enough to drink or has someone to talk to. I was curious to find out if the dinner party would cause me more anxiety or less.
For a party, as long as you've got snacks and a place to sit, people are pretty happy. For a dinner party, the stakes seemed higher. I wanted my guests to think I had some idea how to cook, that they had a meal in a clean and inviting environment, and to see me as a relaxed and pleasant hostess. The last part being the most challenging. Must envision calmness...
I chose a Mexican theme as I wanted to play with mole and my friend Allison's tortilla press. And, of course, I adore Mexican food. I'll have to write about my Mexican culinary experiences another time, as they could certainly take up several entries. So the question became, could I myself replicate anything close to my experiences in San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca or Puerto Escondido? The answer, yes and no.
I used Rick Bayliss' cookbook, Mexico: One Plate at a Time for many of the recipes. It's a good, thoughtful book that I'd recommend. He and Diana Kennedy are American cooks who are known for their Mexican cooking, although any Mexican would probably roll their eyes at these gringos. I also used some of the knowledge I gained from a wonderful one-on-one cooking class I had while living in Central Mexico two years ago.
The menu looked like this:
Garden salad with a home-made (improvised) cilantro pepino dressing.
Sopes -- little Mexican boat shapes which you top with black beans and cheese.
Chicken with Mole sauce -- roasted chicken and a sauce from Oaxaca
Chilaquiles (a tortilla casserole, recipe from Rick Bayliss' cookbook)
Black beans and rice (duh)
Fresh made tortillas -- using Maseca, an instant tortilla mix
Flan and chocolate sorbet -- flan recipe from Rick Bayliss
Decaf Coffee with Mexican cinnamon
Saturday was shopping day. Reflecting Boston's dearth of Mexican restaurants, we also do not have the bazillion Mexican tiendas like NYC does with the authentic ingredients, such as queso de campagne or even proper Mexican chocolate. (Though of course you can buy some of these online). However, I did find a Salvodorean place on Broadway in Somerville (Ball Square, next to the Portuguese Bakery with wonderful pan queso). There I was able to buy Maseca, crucial for tortillas, some imported queso blanco. When I found out the small block of cheese was $6.50, I cringed and the grocery store owner started offering me a lower price! This was a bit startling since we don't usually bargain up here in the Northeast. I tried to tell her it was OK, but she still charged me less. Guess that's the benefit of shopping from the little shops.
The chilaquiles were the most challenging while at the same time the least gourmet of the group. I mentioned to the grocery store owner that this was what I was making and she gave me a funny look. After learning more about chilaquiles from the cookbook, I realize it was because I said the Mexican equivalent of "Guess what, I'm having a fabulous dinner party and I'm going to serve tuna casserole!" You basically whip up a tomato sauce and some greens, add stale tortillas and serve. Not very fancy, but very authentic. Sadly, the chilaquiles weren't the biggest hit on the table. People weren't sure what they were or what to think of them. So, we'll cross that one off the list for future fiestas.
The flan was a really fun dessert to make. I didn't have little custard dishes, but Bayliss said you could use coffee mugs, which was not very elegant, but they worked wonderfully. Once I'd cooked up the flan, it was really fun to release it into the little bowls, listening for the sound of the flan pulling away from the sugared mugs and landing with a satisfying ker-shlump.
The chocolate sorbet is a very simple recipe: 3/4 cup sugar, 3/4 cocoa (must be high quality -- hershey's won't do), 2 cups water or coffee, vanilla. Throw it all in the ice cream maker and go. I also added a pinch of salt and a pinch of cayenne. It has this amazing consistency, almost like scraping the sides off a slightly melted chocolate bar. Everyone loved it.
A major factor at a dinner party is the conversation. We mostly ended up discussing the new Michael Moore movie (Farenheit 9/11), and did our standard bemoaning of the state of the world. Folks lingered over coffee until it was time to take the 8 year old home for her bedtime. At the end, I found I was exhausted but extremely pleased. I'd had a great time, and I think my guests did too. Despite the bemoaning over the state of the world, the fact that a group of 6 can still get together for a home-made meal and good company seems like a positive sign for civilization.