A Good Time Was Had By All
Of the parties I've done in recent months, the latest one was the most fun, simply because I've learned my lesson about planning ahead and allowing ample time for cooking. The party was Sunday night, and I insisted that my co-host/chef Adam drive up to Novato the night before so that we could brainstorm one final time, and then have the entire day Sunday to cook. The last time we did a party together - for twenty-odd people back in February - we were terribly disorganized. Our menu was in flux for days; Adam had never been to Novato before; he got lost en route and didn't arrive until an hour before the party started. To say that we were frazzled and cranky would be a severe understatement.
This time, we were prepared. Late Sunday night, we dove into a pile of persimmons, pomegranates, plums and oranges and poured bottle after bottle of wine over the lot of them. I added a few shots of Amaretto and Cognac to round out the flavors. We crashed hard and got up early Sunday morning. Adam and B made a final run to the San Rafael Civic Center Farmer's Market for a few last-minute items. Then we looked at our cooking schedule, and launched in on chopping, dicing, peeling and roasting. While we worked, we snuck sips of sangria and cranked up the music and told jokes. Remember last time? We said. When we were about ready to strangle each other?
At the aforementioned party in February, we passed small bowls of popcorn dusted with rosemary and sea salt, to be munched in between sips of champagne. We decided to repeat the popcorn starter, only this time with a brick-red spanish paprika that Adam procured from an un-named source. This paprika was like none other I had seen or tasted: we kept sticking our noses into it for whiffs of the sweet-smoky spice. With frites as my inspiration, I twisted sheets of black paper into cones, and we filled them with red-tinted popcorn for guests to enjoy as they arrived.
For starters, we filled black bowls with marinated Spanish olives; we served empanadas filled with chevre, sun-dried tomatoes and capers; whole mushrooms sauteed in olive oil with fresh garlic; a golden torta of potatoes and eggs; a crock full of rich, creamy salt cod. I had created a 4-hour playlist on my iPod of Tito Puente and Tania Maria and other Latin-inspired music, and the music flowed in perfect tempo with the sangria. Our guests were imaginatively dressed; from a gorgeous Matrix-like creature to a couple arrayed in vintage pilot costumes, our Ghost Chairs overflowed with eye candy.
And then, a moment of panic: As I leaned over the sink to wash a few prep dishes, my bare sandal-clad toes came into contact with something wet: uh-oh. I looked down to find water dripping out of the cabinet below the sink. The rug beneath the sink was quickly becoming sodden; I opened the doors to find that the plumbing beneath had become disconnected. Thankfully, it was an easy fix. I sopped up the water with bathroom towels, and hoped that no one noticed.
And then it was time for the piece de resistance of the evening: two pans full of paella. One was composed of red meats, including sausage and chicken; the other was studded with mussels and salmon and huge scallops. Several people crept into the kitchen to watch as Adam made a soffrito, then dumped it into bowls and filled the paella pans with rice and broth; finally, the vegetables went back into the rice, and the meats were arranged over the top, and the pans went into the oven. The aromas mingled in the air - paprika, saffron, sausage, salmon, manila clams - a blend of fish house and spice factory, rendolent of old Spanish streets and an apron-clad grandmother bent over an ancient stove. Would Brett have been impressed? I hope so.
At one point during the evening, one of the guests pulled me aside. It was someone I had only just met, a friend of a friend. "This is amazing," he said. "Most of the time, people just throw Doritos into a bowl and call it a party. This takes me back to my childhood, when people actually cared about the food." Right then and there - it was all worth it.
My sweetheart lured a few of our party guests outside with Cuban cigars while Adam and I fiddled over the last course: Chocolate Death. This was an example of true collaboration: we began with the notion of chocolate. I suggested brownies made with a blend of my favorite chocolates, plus a dose of dark vanilla and a hint of cinnamon. Adam upped the ante, suggesting that we dip the brownies in chocolate ganache and coat it with... something. Together, we created a mixture of brownie crumbs, Sharffenberger cacao nibs and pulverized chipotle pepper. And voila: Chocolate Death. Looking for all the world like coffee-colored hockey pucks, these were dense black wedges of bittersweet, faintly smoky heaven. We thought they might be too dense for people to finish, but they quickly disappeared.
And then, too soon, it was over... B and Adam and I sat down with the last of the sangria and talked over the high points of the night. We high-fived each other over the best dishes, and talked about how to make other ones better. We felt a little melancholy - all that dreaming and shopping and planning, and suddenly it was in the past tense.
Which is why - but of course! - we will do it again.