Until recently, the only thing I felt completely confident cooking for company was chocolate chip cookies. But after Ian's delicious evening (Kimberly chose pear, Brie, chocolate, and her grandmother's apple pie), the "four-ingredient meal" has become my preferred mode of entertaining. Including guests in the menu planning has not only deepened our friendships—a discussion of the chosen flavors usually leads to great stories about family, childhood, holidays, or travel—it's also enabled us to expand our social circle along with our cooking abilities. Here's how it works:
Step One. You need to be comfortable bragging, as Ian is. I can now pretty much count on Ian to offer up a four-ingredient meal to any of our friends, friends of friends, colleagues, and people we barely know who happen to mention a fondness for food. This, by the way, always sends me into a panic, even though the handful of four-ingredient meals we've done so far have been much tastier than I ever could have imagined.
As it turns out, for me anyhow, panic is Step Two. Panic leads to creativity. This is true in everything I do, from writing to cooking. In my experience, lack of panic means lack of caring. If panic is present, you will find yourself up late at night Googling various combinations of the requested ingredients, like "rhubarb and balsamic vinegar," to find inspiration and direction. You will read the indexes of cookbooks (I love The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine) to see which dishes call for figs or pistachios. You will visit stores that sell only spices (or penzeys.com), or your new favorite gourmet shop, where you will debate the merits of various forms of your ingredients, like truffle paste, truffle carpaccio, and truffle oil. You will ask the produce people which pears are best this time of year, and they will have helpful and well-reasoned answers. You will fall in love with your local farmers' market, where you will discuss heirloom tomatoes with the folks who grew them. Somehow this new language, food, allows you to engage in long, passionate, mouthwatering conversations with anybody, anywhere, anytime.
Step Three is menu planning. As I said, we are not Iron Chefs. We need more than an hour to plan (not to mention shop for) a meal, especially if someone decides the duck needs to be bought in Chinatown. Or if that same someone further complicates the challenge by promising to use the ingredients "in a surprising way." For example, Kimberly's grandmother's apple pie became an apple martini with graham cracker rim. (Ian considers a cocktail a first course.) The chocolate showed up in a Mexican mole sauce for chicken. The Brie was baked and served with sliced pears as an appetizer, which now seems altogether too obvious, but we needed one ace in the hole. And dessert was a homemade pear sorbet, which we made with store-bought pear juice in an ice cream maker that had been gathering frost in our freezer.
Step Four is the vodka. Did I mention the vodka? After we came up with the idea of a liquid first course, our friends' ingredient choices starting making their way into vodka infusions. And now, with at least four vodka infusions going at any one time, even if a meal is a disaster, nobody complains. Or drives home, for that matter. Supplies and recipes for vodka infusions can be found at infused-vodka.com, but basically, if it would make a good ice cream or sorbet, it would make a good vodka.
Step Five. Don't be afraid to involve guests in the cooking. I used to think letting friends help meant asking someone to chop celery, but Ian will hand a friend a recipe for fish wrapped in banana leaves along with some banana leaves and wish them good luck. This might seem rude. It might be rude. But our friends have enjoyed the challenges we've thrown at them, like filling tamales or shaping their own ravioli. It lets them take pride in the meal, and helps me not panic (as much) when guests arrive and dinner isn't ready.
Step Six. It's not cheating to buy a course or two. In fact, it can be fun (albeit expensive) to include the world's best crab cakes flown in fresh from Baltimore (faidleyscrabcakes.com) if a guest chooses crab as one of their ingredients, or even if they don't. It's sometimes comforting to know that at least one course will be worry-free.
Step Seven. Keep your guest list short. I love it when a group is small enough to have one conversation. Otherwise, it always seems that giant bursts of laughter are coming from the end of the table where you are not. A small group means the cooking is more manageable, and you don't miss any laughs. And there will be plenty, because this is a long, luxurious, many-course night, and when you share your home, people seem more comfortable sharing their stories. We've invited couples we didn't know so well who have become some of our closest friends. We've cooked for houseguests, like my best friend from college and her husband, who chose rhubarb, not because he wanted to make life difficult but because his mother makes a killer rhubarb crisp, and now I love cooking with rhubarb. I included a colleague who happened to mention she loved pumpkin when we were planning a dinner that featured pumpkin, so sometimes the ingredients dictate the guest list, and sometimes the person who picks the ingredients dictates the guest list by bringing a few friends along. Once we invited four friends and let each pick one ingredient.
What I started to realize is that this approach to cooking is a terrific approach to entertaining, because no matter which ingredients are chosen, the most important ingredients are the people. I used to try to visualize how everyone would get along, try to bulletproof the evening. But I've learned I can put any of my friends together, because if each guest is special and amazing to me, by dessert, they'll find each other special and amazing.
These elaborate menus we've attempted, these culinary leaps of faith, have taught me that if each ingredient is picked carefully and appreciated for its uniqueness, celebrated really, then somehow the whole will be fabulous, as will the whole of your life once it's filled with delicious elements, be they food or people.
So be bold. Brag. Experiment. Invite. And if a night is less than perfect, remember, there's always the vodka.
Cindy Chupack is the author of The Between Boyfriends Book (St. Martin's Griffin).