You're having a dinner party. The cookbooks stack ten-high beside your bed. In the morning you trip on the ones you've cast to the floor, the ones that hold no answers. The appetizers are all little balls of soft cheese rolled in diced something. The entrees are either dated one-dish meals or include ingredients like lobster that are too obviously "special." The desserts are too homey or too grand.
Your eyes have changed a glasses prescription for the hours you've spent squinting at Epicurious. What good are food bloggers if they can't offer you one great dinner party recipe?! You go to the basement and heave up a stack of old Bon Appetit and curled Cook's Illustrated. Hours slip by as you flip through them. Occasionally you say to yourself, "I don't have time for this! Why, in all these recipes, isn't there one that jumps out!"
Most of us who entertain know these moments. If you're lucky, your whole dinner party will revolve around the one recipe you find that is the honest one, the pure one, a religious composite of ingredients that you instantly recognize as perfect: perfect because the ingredient list isn't crazy. Perfect because the ingredient list has just enough "wow!" to it. Perfect because the instructions aren't that time consuming, no critical last minute procedures that include high heat or — god forbid— hot oil.
In fact, it's perfect because — well, you don't really know exactly why it's perfect, but you just see the recipe on the page, and you know it will work; you know it will invite the oohs and aaahs for which we strive when we cook for others, and that you will be at the table, relaxed, to hear them.
But how do you know it when you see it? People who cook just do. Maybe it's because we've followed enough failed recipes, we've assembled 35 ingredients and ended up with nothing more than spicy tomato sauce, or we've spent dinner parties alone in the kitchen assembling last-minute salt cod fritters while the guests drink, feeling awkward and guilty.
I asked Mary Ann McCormick, who with her daughter Nicole Nordensved, owns Lark Fine Foods in Essex, maker of wonderful cookies such as rosemary shortbread, about that kind of recipe masterpiece, a recipe you know will work as soon as you see it:
"The first one that comes to mind is a recipe from 'The Silver Palate' authors' 'The New Basics,' for Sante Fe Pork Stew. I've been making it for years so I can't recall much of my first reaction to the recipe except that it has ingredients I like (namely sweet potatoes, capers and black beans, in addition to the obvious pork) and it's a stew, which I really like."
Gloucester resident Mary Lou Nye, a graphic designer and landscape designer, offered some thoughts on how we know a recipe is a winner:
"I think I look for something I am familiar with, can relate to, but something that sparks my imagination, the 'I can do this, but it's better than what I've done before; it's a reach. If something is a little bit of a challenge, then you put your whole effort into it, which usually makes whatever it is better."
Nye also suggested that sometimes a great recipe is anchored by one fabulous ingredient, like the garlic in the classic "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic" or the addition of chipotle peppers to a corn bread recipe.
Barbara Gavin of Rockport, a passionate home-cook who works at Pearson Education, says this about finding a recipe masterpiece:
"Funny you should bring that up ... I was looking for a beet salad recipe; I must've scanned 30 recipes and none were right, none seemed to achieve what I wanted. And I knew it in, maybe, 15 seconds — like scanning resumes when you are hiring? — maybe some recipes, for some mysterious reason, give us license (or ideas or space or options) to improvise?"
Gavin offered me this recipe from the blog Food52. I instantly knew it was a winner. It won't suffer for being made ahead. The dressing is a hallowed combination: lemon, honey and garlic. It includes the summery taste of squashes, the surprise crunch of pistachios, and the sweetness of golden raisins, elevating all out of the sometimes drab "cooking from your local farmstand" category. This is an example of one of those recipes to which you know you will return many times. To be honest, the 66 rave reviews on the Food 52 website gave me confidence, too.
Summer Squash Couscous with Sultanas, Pistachios and Mint
From Food 52
1 tablespoon lemon zest
Juice of one lemon
1/2 teaspoon honey
3 garlic cloves, crushed
11/4 cup vegetable stock
1 cup couscous
1/2 cup diced yellow squash
1/2 cup diced zucchini
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
1/2 cup sultanas or golden raisins
1/4 cup chopped pistachios
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
Freshly ground black pepper
In a small bowl, whisk the lemon zest, lemon juice, honey, and 1/4 cup of olive oil. Add the garlic cloves and let them steep for about 30 minutes.
Next, bring the vegatable stock to a boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in the couscous, cover, and turn off the heat; allow the couscous to sit for about 5 minutes, or until it absorbs all the liquid. Toss the couscous with a fork so the grains don't start clumping together, pour into a large mixing bowl, and set aside.
In a skillet over medium high heat, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Then, add the chopped squash and zucchini, shallot, sultanas, pistachios and a pinch or two of salt. Only cook for about a minute or two — you still want the squash and zucchini to be al dente. This just ensures they aren't too al dente, and all the flavors can marry before they hit the couscous. Set aside until everything reaches room temperature.
Once the vegetabless have reached room temperature, add them to the bowl with the couscous and combine.
Then, remove and discard the cloves of garlic from the dressing, and toss the dressing with the couscous (add the dressing gradually, as you may not need it all). Fold in the mint, season with additional salt and pepper if necessary and serve at room temperature.
Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood of Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at email@example.com. Follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.