They say you teach best what you most need to learn, and when it comes to entertaining, I know exactly what lesson I'm working on: Keep it simple. That is not, let's say, my strong suit. The last big party I hosted was for 150 people, and it took six hired helpers and more than that in friends to put together a "little taco spread" that spanned a 12-foot buffet table. It was a fun party, and the food was delicious (if I do say so myself). But it was no small task.
When I look back at that night, the moment that really sticks in my mind was the end of it, when we sat around — those friends who'd helped, a few organizers from the charity the party was benefiting and the random (but welcome) stragglers — in my kitchen, naturally, and ate quesadillas.
These weren't fancy quesadillas, just white melted cheese sandwiched between warm, griddled, flour tortillas that we'd had delivered from a nearby taquerìa. We had a stack of 20 of them, 2 feet high, in the center of the table, each one served on a paper plate wrapped in foil that we unwrapped and tore apart, dipped in salsa or opened up to stuff with pickled jalapeño peppers that came in little Styrofoam containers along with the quesadillas. The moment was relaxed, spontaneous, inviting, and the food, the epitome of simple, was absolutely delicious.
This, for me, is the recipe for a perfect dinner party.
Determined to change my ways, I decided to create a dinner party that took place in the kitchen with those quesadillas as the main event. Chili seemed obvious as the main dish. And, in another unprecedented attempt at keeping it simple, I decided not to serve pork or beef, because not everybody eats pork or beef.
I landed on turkey, but instead of making regular chili and just substituting turkey for the beef (the idea of tomato with turkey just didn't appeal to me), I wanted to make a turkey chili that really took into consideration the flavor of the bird. I got lost for a while down an Italian road where no chili maker wants to find herself until Carolynn showed me the way back with the bright idea to turn it into chile verde. I'd had pork chile verde but never seen turkey treated that way. It turned out to be delicious.
I always have to have a salad, no matter how pared down a menu, and I knew that a Caesar was the only thing to serve with my chili spread. First, it originated in Tijuana, so in my mind it goes with the border-inspired chili meal. What's more, the way I make Caesar salad (and the way it was originally made), the romaine leaves are left whole, not chopped, so you can easily pick them up and eat them with your hands. Still, I make it in batches. When the bowl starts to run low, I toss together some more salad. Note: Keeping it simple does not mean lowering your standards!
That's it. That's the 2014 Perfect Holiday Dinner Party. Do no more. OK … if you really want to go all out, you can stop by a bakery and pick up some Mexican wedding cakes, which aren't cakes at all but round cookies made of ground pecans or walnuts and covered in powdered sugar that goes all over your face and your dress and the floor when you bite into one. Serve them with a pile of napkins (it'll give you a reason to buy those pretty little paper napkins they sell at Christmastime).
Invite friends, including the 5-year olds. (They'll love the food!) Open a bottle of red wine. Get out your spoons. Add a splash of water if the chili looks dry or a can of beans if it's looking like it might not be enough. Relax, and stir.
Here's my recipe for a perfect dinner party.
1. Make quesadillas. The simpler the better. The end product should be something a 5-year old would be happy to be served.
2. Invent a new kind of chili, and make a bottomless pot of it. I like the idea of chili because you can make it in advance, and it's also the kind of thing you can just make way more than you need because you know you can freeze any leftovers for later. If you do happen to run low, I heard a saying from Mexico that if more guests arrive, just add more water to the soup. Well, I'm amending that with chili to say that if you find yourself running low, throw in a can (or more) of beans.
3. Serve a salad guests can eat with their hands. I welcome any excuse to eat with my hands, but especially when it comes to salad. Eating with your hands is fun and familiar, but you know what else this means? It means no forks. It means the only flatware you'll be using for the entire party is spoons. It means fewer things to wash and put away and more time sitting around that kitchen table with your friends.
4. Invite friends. Preferably those you'd feel comfortable eating in front of with your hands and talking to when you have powdered sugar on your face.