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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Spaghetti with Crispy Chickpeas and Preserved Lemon

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Tom Colicchio’s always like “you didn’t develop any flavor” on Top Chef and most people are probably like “what’s he talking about?” My quick answer is: “He’s talking about making things brown.”

Generally speaking, when you’re cooking something, you want it to turn brown (or, to use a prettier word, you want it to “caramelize.”) What that really comes down to is taking things further than you might otherwise feel comfortable. The hard part is if you take them too far, there’s no going back. So you’ve gotta get in there, hover over the pan, but don’t hover too much–if you stare, you’ll be tempted to stir, and that stops the browning. It’s a delicate dance, developing flavor, but if you do it the right way you can create a dish that’s way more dynamic than it has any right to be–like this dish of spaghetti with crispy chickpeas and preserved lemon.

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With A Little Help From Your Cheesemonger

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This is Molly. She works at The Cheese Store of Silverlake, one of my favorite places to shop before a dinner party, and recently I decided to go in without an agenda. “Look Molly,” I said, “usually I come in here with a recipe and then just get the stuff I need, but this time I’m putting my fate in your hands!” She gave me a weird look. “What’s the best thing I could possibly make for dinner using the cheeses from your shop?” She thought for a moment and then said: “Ummm…what about spaghetti in a spicy tomato sauce with white anchovies and a raw pecorino?” Umm…what about YES!??!

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Spaghetti with Purple Cauliflower Sauce

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Unpacking my first CSA box felt a bit like opening presents on Christmas morning. (Note: I’m Jewish but I date a non-Jew, so I know what I’m talking about.) There was the going to bed the night before, knowing the box would arrive the next day; the anticipation, getting out of bed that next morning, going to the front door; and the actual physical pleasure of tearing open the box to finally see what was inside it. You already know the answer from my CSA post, but the most delightful surprise was a head of purple cauliflower. I’d never cooked with purple cauliflower before and I loved the challenge of building a dinner around it.

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Spaghetti with Sun Gold Tomato Sauce

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Look, I can’t pretend it’s autumn here in L.A. To be blunt: it’s as summery as it was in July, though the mornings and evenings are cooler. The telltale sign is what I’m seeing at the farmer’s market: sure, there’s kabocha squash–and I made a very excellent risotto out of it–but, way more present still are heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, basil and all of those sum sum summertime ingredients. If I were a disingenuous food blogger, I could pretend I was crunching through falling leaves, sipping cider and humming the theme from “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” Instead, I’m going to share this amazing recipe from last week’s trip to the farmer’s market despite its unavoidable summeryness.

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Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

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Here are your tools–black pepper, spaghetti, water, salt, butter and cheese–now make something delicious. Ok? Go.

Maybe it’s because these ingredients are so unglamorous that I shied away from spaghetti cacio e pepe for so long. Sure, it’s a classic Italian spaghetti dish, but I’ve always favored the ones with garlic and anchovies (see my Weary Traveler’s Spaghetti, for example) over this one made with cheese and black pepper, regardless of how much my friends rave over it.

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Weary Traveler’s Spaghetti

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Last night, before I fell asleep, I tried to remember all the phases of my 21 hours of travel from the previous day.

I took a bus from the Bellingham airport to the Seattle airport where I rode a mini-train to my gate, waited three hours (during which I bought a Snickers bar which I saved for the plane) and as I finally boarded, I was told that my overstuffed suitcase was too overstuffed to fit in the overhead. During the flight, I had a middle seat but it was in an exit row, which is kind of a mixed blessing. I read a George Saunders story in last week’s New Yorker, which I highly recommend. When I landed in Washington, D.C. (the only place I could fly to make it home to New York before January 3rd), I rode another mini-train to the baggage claim where I was told that I was at Dulles airport which is 25 miles from D.C. proper.

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Spaghetti and Meatballs

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There are certain dishes everyone should know how to make; Spaghetti & Meatballs is one of them.

It’s funny, though, because even though I’ve been cooking consistently for the past six years, cooking my way through the staples (here’s my favorite chili, my new standard roast chicken, my go-to chocolate chip cookie) I’d never really tackled Spaghetti & Meatballs. I once made fancy meatballs in a sugo that had orange zest and I titled that post “Not Your Mama’s Meatballs.” What I wanted, though, was the opposite: I actually wanted your mama’s meatballs. And I think, finally, that’s what I’ve found.

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