“It starts at SIX??” Bertrand stops in his tracks, vacuum cleaner in hand.
One of my biggest discomforts is when I manage to annoy my husband.
“I never told you that..?” I ask sheepishly, knowing full well that I have neglected to. “I wrote six in the invite because You-Know-Who and You-Know-Who always want our dinners to start earlier, apparently.”
As I hear myself say this, the only emotion I have that is stronger than feeling bad about not alerting Bertrand to this new, earlier time is the idiocy from bowing to the particulars of two Blue-Plate Special friends, which is, in fact, hearsay. After tonight, we would return to our usual 7-ish start and the You-Know-Who’s would just have to deal with it.
But, for now, it was 6pm and Bertrand was pissed.
“Honey, Marty’s not coming until 5:30 to get the grill started!” Nothing worse than hearing your love use his term of endearment dripping with stress. “That’s not enough time!”
“Want me to ask him to come earlier?”” I ask, still sheepish.
“Yes,” he answers, already around the corner and up the stairs, leaving me with my phone and a prayer that my text will get through from our challenged cellular-weak corner of the state.
I text. Martin responds (“All good!”). Bullet dodged. Nevertheless, with guests arriving in four hours (not five), I’m vacillating between tears and an anxiety attack. Is this what it’s like to run a restaurant? How could we possibly have enough food???
We will, thanks to my friend Hope’s suggestion of not only soliciting friends to make sides, but directing them what to make. I offered three recipe options, all from bonappetit.com. Smoked potatoes (http://tinyurl.com/glmrt2u), grilled panzanella (http://tinyurl.com/jxb3j3s) or corn salad (http://tinyurl.com/gpaqpfu).
The thing about farming recipes out to your friends boils down to good math. How many servings each recipe promises determines how many friends to ask, or how much they should make. Imply (or blatantly state) how large the crowd will be and joke that doubling or tripling might be a good idea, ha ha ha. I did this, but at some point, I just lost count. Still, I vaguely knew we’d be rich in corn salad, and that made me giddy. Bertrand had made it a few weeks earlier and it was the best corn salad we’d ever tasted. I credit the tarragon, while Bertrand might credit the kick of Aleppo pepper. Our friend William might say it was the blanching of the hazelnuts. One thing was for sure: Everyone who made it greeted us with, “How good is this corn salad??” when they walked through the door.
We certainly had enough steak, too. Hanger, sirloin and the dozen fillets that we’d splurged on during a momentary lapse of checkbook balancing at the butcher. Martin pulled up with his grill and his girls (Anne, his wife and their two daughters) at 4:45. The man is an expert griller. Even using only his modest portable back-up (charcoal; old school), he cooked each piece (marinaded for two days) to perfection, trimming away the occasional gristle and unwanted fat with a chef’s keen eye.
Not long after six, the cars began pulling up. Through the kitchen door they came, lugging bowls of panzanella, roasting pans loaded with potatoes and lots and lots of that corn salad. I happily took their goods, then sent them out to the porch where the wine was waiting, along with one large jar of homemade pineapple vodka that our new friends Karden and Gillian had brought. Rookie of the party award went to them for that move. A line even formed when they started serving it.
There were five tables to serve, so, at Bertrand’s suggestion, I stuck Post-Its in every serving dish we owned, each bearing words like “Potatoes, Porch 1” or “Steak, Large Table 2” to ensure that no table be overlooked a side dish. We scooped the food into their respective platters, with enough reserve left over in all categories. As soon as Martin handed over the fifth plate of steak (aka “Steak, Dining Room) to garnish with chimichurri, I sent daughters out with the food. The guests took notice and scattered to the various tables like a single round of musical chairs.
Danielle, the server we hired from the Southfield Store, floated among the tables, indoors and out, picking up empties that needed replenishing, be they dishes or wine glasses. Bertrand and I floated, too, visiting each table like a chummy restaurant host, occasional lslipping off to the kitchen to scarf down some of the meat, which–quel surprise–we’d bought way too much of.
“Should I even cook the fillets?” Marty asked, pointing to the dish of raw meat, then gesturing toward the nearest table as if to say, “Everyone’s had some.”
“Yes!” we both yelled. Besides, we hadn’t made dessert…
A few years ago, friends of ours had a Labor Day picnic where they did something I’d never experienced: they served bits of steak as appetizers. No toothpicks, no small plates, not even a fork. They just pierced it off the grill, sliced it narrowly down,then passed around a platter of it as if it were pigs in blankets. No one hesitated to use their fingers and gulp it down. It was very popular. We weren’t quite as familiar, but Bertrand ceremoniously walked around with a large platter, and everyone made room.
When the plates were cleared, most moved inside to get away from the mosquitoes, but a hardy (DEET-laden) group remained, talking into the night. Another group lingered at the picnic table up on the porch. At closer glance, the Massachusetts real estate friend was talking to the real estate friend from Connecticut. The parents of teen skiers were sharing stories on the porch with the other parents of teen skiers. Even funnier, by sheer coincidence, our GQ editor friend Devin was having his first conversation with Paul, who’d just joined the magazine but they hadn’t met yet. A lot more was getting accomplished than mosquito biting.
The following morning, we could hardly get out of bed. But there was some cleaning up to do. Danielle had wondrously washed nearly every serving plate, but dozens of dinner dishes were waiting in a leafbag-lined trashcan, tables needed to be folded and put away and nearly a hundred napkins had to be laundered. When we walked into the Southfield Store for coffee, our friend Tim looked up from his usual table by the front door. “You had quite the Tom Sawyer thing going on last night, didn’t you?”
His tone bore no bitterness; more of a “Why, you devils…” admiration. Then again, his bowl of panzanella had been the biggest of the four we’d received.
“We’ll ask you to bring the steak next time,” Bertrand joked.
Or, at least I think he was joking.
Chimichurri Sauce (serves 10)
- 5 garlic cloves
- 2 cups cilantro
- 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley
- 1/2 cup mint leaves
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 3 T agave
Combine all ingredients in food processor and mix thoroughly. Store in fridge for at least 12 hours. Overnight is ideal. When steak (or chicken, or tofu, or even various grilled vegetables) are cooked, spread over them and serve.