I love low-key, communal parties. My theory is that with less stress on the host and when everyone only has one dish to pull off (and show off), everyone eats better.
We do this all the time in the summer guise of the backyard barbecue, right? You fire up the grill and ready the meat. Then the non-cooks show up with the soda and booze, one guest brings chips & dip, another contributes a salad, another the dessert. It's perfect for family entertaining and gives you more time with your guests.
The winter version of this format is a soup dinner. The host is responsible for a big pot of a hearty soup and maybe also a few condiments and breads to enjoy with it. Guests ladle their portion directly from the soup pot and then come together at the table.
Chili is the most obvious choice for this cozy, casual gathering but there are other soup/stews that can be the focus of a meal too. Try easy fish chowder or reliable and amplified minestrone, which also makes a meal. Add meatballs to it or just offer garnishes, such as grated cheese, pesto, roasted garlic cloves, diced black olives and homemade garlic croutons. Note that you may need to adjust amounts to in the recipes to yield the right number of servings for your guests.
Of course, a platter of interesting cheeses is a natural companion to soup. I’d add an olive tapenade and herb butter. If you have time or a willing volunteer, bake homemade muffins or simple biscuits for the basket of breads, bundled next to a sour dough and a whole grain loaf, maybe purchased from the farmers market. Encourage your guests to dunk.
Many people prefer pale ales or porters with rustic dinners like this. I’d pour an oak-y Chardonnay and a Southern Rhone or Spanish Grenache, which would each stand up to flavorful soup.
Setting out grapes, clementines and apples and ginger cookies is a great way to end this kind of meal but again, you or a guest might feel ambitious. This buttermilk-coconut pie is comforting and a little different.
I large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 Tbs. butter
½ cup white wine
2-4 medium potatoes, diced
2 lbs. total of white fish (flounder, cod, haddock), cut into 3 “ pieces; clams and mussels rinsed and scrubbed
1 quart fish broth or clam juice
½ -1 cup light cream or milk, to taste
salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme to taste
2-3 Tbs. chopped parsley
In the butter, sauté the onion and celery gently until soft. Add the wine and cook until it mostly evaporates. Then add the broth, seasoning and the potatoes. Add more broth or some water if necessary. Simmer until the potatoes are just a little firm and then add the seafood. When the clams and mussels open, the fish will also be cooked. Remove immediately from the fire and stir in the milk or cream if used. Garnish with parsley and do not allow to re-boil.
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 medium bell pepper, chopped
1-2 Tbs. olive oil
1 16-oz. can of whole or diced Italian-style tomatoes
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth
2-3 cups vegetables, chopped (fennel, green beans, corn kernels, kale, Savoy cabbage)
1 16-oz can of chick peas (garbanzo beans)
fresh or dried basil, parsley, oregano
1 cup cooked pasta OR 1 cup potatoes, diced
Sauté the first five vegetables in the olive oil until soft. Add the tomatoes and the broth and the other chopped vegetables. When those are cooked, add chick peas and add & cook the potatoes. If you are using dried herbs add them now and simmer. If fresh ass them last. Cooked pasta also goes in at the very end.
Minestrone can be a vegan/vegetarian, even vegan, soup unless you simmer old Parmesan rinds with the vegetables, which is pretty yummy. You can also add a splash of red or white wine to the initial sautéed vegetables and add miniature meatballs, already cooked, to the final soup. Serve with Parmesan or Asiago to sprinkle on top.
Black Olive Tapenade
1 16-oz can small black olives (or better quality pitted olives), drained
2-3 Tbs. olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 Tbs. capers
2 anchovy filets, rinsed
juice of ½ lemon
splash of cognac or brandy
2 Tbs. flat-leafed parsley
black pepper to taste
Throw all these into a food processor and whir into a smooth paste. Add oil if it appears too dry. This works well even with canned, domestic olives.
(Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, The Moosewood Collective, 1994)
1/1/2 cup flour
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
2 Tbs. canola oil
1 cup low-fat plain yogurt or buttermilk
½ cup scallions, chopped
1 Tbs. fresh dill, chopped or 1 ½ tsp. dried dill
1 ½ tsp. herbes de Provence
1/4 cup cornmeal
fresh ground pepper
1 tsp. chili powder
3-4 Tbs. sesame seeds and/or flax seeds
grated Parmesan or cheddar sprinkled on top
Preheat oven to 400. Mix dry ingredients well. Mix wet ingredients well. Combine, and add in any adds, to form a soft dough. On a floured board, pat the dough into a ¾” circle and cut into 8 wedges. Bake on an oiled cookie sheet for 20 min. or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Buttermilk Pie with Coconut
(Adapted from The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, Crescent Dragonwagon, 1986)
1 unbaked pie shell
½ cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup flaked and unsweetened coconut
3 Tbs. flour
3 eggs, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1 Tbs. vanilla
grated rind of 1 lemon
nutmeg to sprinkle on top
Pre-heat the oven to 350. Cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the other ingredients. Fill the pie shell, sprinkle with nutmeg and bake for 45 min. The center will be slightly soft.
Editor's note: Patch columnist Amy Baker is vacationing this week and next. She will resume with her column, The Baker's Table, on March 1. Thanks to guest columnist and all-around excellent writer, Judy Hausman for contributing.