Anatomy of a Dinner Party (A Timeline of Caesar Salad, Spaghetti and Meatballs, and Flourless Chocolate Cake All Cooked And Served in A Single Day)

My friend Ryan O’Connell is one of my favorite people. If you don’t know who he is, hop on to Amazon now and check out his book, I’m Special, and come back here once you’ve bought it and read it. Not only did he write that book, but now he’s writing for fall’s most anticipated TV show: the reboot of Will & Grace. So Ryan’s a talented guy who has great taste in wine and even better taste in dinner parties: he loves my cooking. For his birthday, I told him I’d make him a dinner and he could choose the menu. He thought on it and came back with “spaghetti and meatballs, because I know you’ll do it really, really well.” His boyfriend Jonathan loves my Caesar salad, so we added that to the menu. Later I e-mailed to query about his favorite desserts and he wrote back: “My fave desserts are chocolate cake, chocolate pudding, and strawberry shortcake.” I combined a little from Column A and a little from Column B and chose my favorite dinner party staple, this flourless chocolate cake.

Everyone (Ryan, Jonathan, and our mutual friends Lara, Graydon, and Kyle) were all set to come over on Saturday night at 7:30 PM. So on Saturday morning, I set out for Gelson’s to get started on my food shopping when I had an idea: what if I documented the whole thing, from the food shopping in the morning to the moment everyone leaves at the end of the night? Sort of a timeline of how I pull off a dinner party? Wouldn’t that be an epic, potentially useful post for people who want to pull off similar dinner parties? Well, either way, I did it, so without further ado, I present: a timeline of how I pulled off Ryan’s Birthday Dinner.

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When A Frenchman Cooks You Dinner

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For a while, our friend Cris has wanted to cook us dinner. The fact that we didn’t make it happen immediately won’t seem like a big deal until I tell you that Cris is French. Yes, we had the opportunity to have dinner cooked for us by a French person and we didn’t take him up on it until last week when he and his boyfriend Harry had us over to their Echo Park apartment.

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Quick Queso with Chorizo (and Other Tex-Mex Delights)

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Sometimes it’s nice to cook for friends who favor a particular cuisine because it steers you in a new direction. Normally, I default to European/Mediterranean things like pastas and chicken with couscous and preserved lemon and stuff like that. My friends Jim and Todd (you know them!) are Tex-Mex fans and so, when I cooked for them last week, I decided to pull The Homesick Texan Cookbook off the shelf to delight them with food that they love. Turns out, I love it too and now I have some new dishes up my sleeve to pull out at dinner parties. The one I’m most excited about? Queso with Chorizo (it’s in the title of the post, duh.)

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The World’s Easiest Chocolate Tart

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When we were in Berlin this past July, at a restaurant called Renger-Patzsch, our dinner ended with the perfect punctuation mark of a dessert: a chocolate tart with apricots and vanilla ice cream. It was memorable for its combination of elegance and simplicity; a tart isn’t easy to do, but this one, somehow, seemed effortless. I made a mental note that if I were ever going to cook a meal with European flair, I’d end it in a similar way. My moment came on Saturday, after I served that pork shoulder braised in Guinness to some friends.

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How To Eat Crow (Or: Kristin Puts Me In My Place About Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts and Pizza at Home)

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When someone has a target on your head, it can be a scary thing. But ever since I wrote that article “Ten Things You Should Never Serve At A Dinner Party,” Craig’s sister Kristin has been out to get me. She first made herself known in the comments: “Dear Amateur Gourmet,
Allow me to introduce you to two of my close friends I call Chicken Piccata and Chicken Marsala. They are delicious when made properly, and if you think they’ll always be dry, leathery, and inedible then you apparently have not spent enough time eating in Steve Johnson’s kitchen.” (Note: Steve Johnson is Craig and Kristin’s dad.) “I don’t get this vendetta against b-less, sk-less chicken breasts, I think it’s entirely too stringent. They’re the blank canvas of the meat world! (I stole that phrase from another blogger.)”

And so it came to pass that on a recent trip to Bellingham, Washington, Kristin totally and absolutely put me in my place.

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A Summer Feast for Todd and Jim

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So remember that time that Jim Parsons and his partner Todd Spiewak made my rainbow cookie cake for Jesse Tyler Ferguson and his partner Justin Mikita? Well, since then, Jim and I have been e-mailing and trying to figure out a time for him and Todd to come over for dinner. We finally picked a date–Saturday, August 30th–and we each spent the time leading up to it in different ways: I went to the Pacific Northwest and ate Dungeness crab on a beach; Jim went to the Emmy Awards and picked up his fourth trophy for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. At last, the dinner was upon us and it was time for me to cook.

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Ten Things You Should Never Serve At A Dinner Party

Let me begin by saying that anyone who invites you over for dinner is doing you a favor. Without question, hosting dinner is hard work–the shopping, the prepping, the actual cooking, plus the cleaning–and anyone who takes it upon themselves to do all of that for you deserves your gratitude. That said, sometimes somebody invites you over for dinner and then serves a meal that feels a bit, well, punishing. Often it has nothing to do with the cooking skills involved; usually it has a lot more to do with the recipe choice. Which is why I’ve decided to compile a list of ten things you should never serve at a dinner party. Avoid these ten dishes like the plague and not only will your dinner guests swoon, they’ll even help you do the dishes.

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Lamb Merguez with Eggplant Jam and Green Olives

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Sometimes you make dinner, and everyone nods in approval, eating pleasantly and saying, “This is very good. Nice job.” That’s most of the time. Then, every so often, you make a dinner that has people piping up a bit more enthusiastically. “Ooooh this is delicious,” they say. “Where did you get the recipe?” But only once in a blue moon you make a dinner that has people eating in stunned silence, taking their time to process the glory that is happening in their mouths, only to mutter–after a several minutes have gone by–“This is incredible.”

Ladies and gentlemen, this is that dinner.

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