Dreams of Dinner Parties (Italian Dinner 101)

I made Italian Dinner 101 the other night. You know what I mean: pasta (whatever you have), sauce (homemade, bottled, with or without meatballs), garlic bread (mandatory) and salad (optional). It's a no-brainer, you can make it in your sleep, yet it's a meal that for so many of us is laden with context and dripping with meaning and memory. This is often your maiden voyage in the kitchen, the meal you cut your teeth on as an adult cook, the Sure Thing whipped up for first dates at your first apartment. ID101 is the stuff young dinner parties are made of.

For me, ID101 will always conjure up a summer evening of 1983. I was fifteen, my parents were away somewhere, and my brother, his friend Jim, and Jim's girlfriend Anna were making spaghetti. There they were, these three adults, and I laugh writing that because they seemed unequivocally adult to me, but their average age couldn't have been more than 20. With blithe, chatty confidence they were in my mother's kitchen, putting water on to boil, chopping onions and garlic, concocting sauce, slathering Italian bread with butter and garlic powder and wrapping it in foil to put in the oven, washing lettuce for a salad. They were making dinner. They were having a party.

And I was invited.

To me, this was not only the coolest thing ever, but it became all I wanted to do someday: have a few friends over and make a pasta dinner on a summer night. I remember tearing apart my dresser and closet because Anna had on a sundress, Jim was wearing aftershave, and my brother was in the shower: clearly, this was an occasion. I'd been let behind the velvet rope and I wanted to look nice. What I came up with probably involved a peasant skirt, and definitely there was a lot of mousse and eyeliner and drugstore perfume, but I walked into the kitchen as Anna was breaking a fistful of spaghetti into the pot, and she glanced at me. Thirty years later I can still see her at the stove and hear the way she said, "Oh don't you look nice?"

She asked if I could find candles for the table and light them. I scurried off. There was no salad dressing but have no fear, Little Sister is here: my Mom had taught me to make dressing when I was like six, so I got out the cruet and the vinegar, mustard, dried oregano, worcestershire and oil, and the salad was dressed. When Anna needed a bread knife, a colander, a grater for the cheese, I reached into drawers and cabinets to procure immediately. When Jim couldn't find the corkscrew, I knew where it was. When my brother came out with two shirts and asked "This one? Or that one?" I said that one and Anna nodded, yes, definitely that one. Jim said, "We need music," and I fetched my tape deck from my room and tuned it to the radio.

There was no A/C in our house in that day, the boiling water and the heated oven made the little kitchen into a sauna. We opened windows and sliding doors and turned on fans. The cat got underfoot. Anna and Jim canoodled and I amended my visions of the future to include a boyfriend, preferably one who could cook, but I'd settle for one who'd kiss my neck while I was cooking and I'd playfully shoo him out of the way as Anna was doing. Exactly the way Anna was doing, that was going to be me someday.

Finally, we sat down at our round dining room table to feast. Anna sat in my mother's usual place, plating up and passing. Jim poured wine, including some for me. I took a sip and it was awful, but I would've sooner died than go get myself a 7-Up. Jim held up his glass and made a toast and I clinked mine with theirs. I sat in candlelight, in the company of the elect, eating and talking and included. I was perfectly happy. I needed nothing more, except to grow up and be this, do this, have this. It was one of the top five dinners of my life.

At some point in the evening, I had enough wherewithal to scram and leave the young adults in peace. I went up in my loft and read or wrote in my journal. My bedroom window looked out over the patio, and through the screen wafted the faint smell of cigarette smoke, muffled conversation and laughter and the clink of beer bottles. I fell asleep, dreaming of pasta, garlic bread, salad, the company of friends and romance in the kitchen.

Was it any wonder that some years later, when I was in college, my novel-in-progress contained a seduction scene that revolved around Italian Dinner 101? I had Julie, my ballerina heroine. I had Buddy, who loved her but she didn't return that love. Buddy needed a girlfriend, somebody really cool, he deserved it. Meanwhile, there was this girl Lucy two rooms down and she was cool, and she too deserved someone, but how could I get her and Buddy together?

Turns out Lucy was no idiot, she knew exactly how to do it: she just made dinner and looked like dessert.

Photo Credit (via Creative Commons):

Steve's Pasghetti Pie

This is really Clara's Spaghetti pie:  my grandmother's recipe, passed to my Aunt Evelyn, who gave it to my mom, who gave it to me. I now give it to you.  

My brother Steve adores this. It can be an appetizer, it can be the main dish with a salad, or it can be a side for soup. It tastes good hot, room temperature, or cold right out of the fridge at 2AM. And as we discovered last night, it's divine with a smear of leftover pesto.

In the recipe below, the last 3 ingredients are not Clara's. They are my own tinkering, which is what you're supposed to do with a family recipe. You all get together and something like this is served and everyone knows Cousin Jane makes spaghetti pie with extra onions. Aunt Ethel uses raw onions, not fried. Aunt Mary puts in raisins. Aunt Betty leaves out the salt because of Uncle Jack's high blood pressure so nobody really likes Aunt Betty's spaghetti pie.

But everyone loves Clara's.

Clara's Spaghetti Pie

  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1-2 large onions, diced (originally 1, I like a lot so I use 2, and I like using a mix of yellow and red onion)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/3 cup parmesan cheese
  • fresh ground pepper

Pick a large frying pan with a handle but not too high sides. My largest one does have high sides which makes sliding the pie in and out a little tricky.

Fry the diced onion in olive oil. Do not be stingy with the oil (hey, I'm just repeating the directions, Grandma said don't be stingy!) The onions should brown on the edges.

Take the pan off the heat and put the onions in a large bowl to cool down.

Meanwhile cook 1 pound of spaghetti and generously salt the water. You will not be adding salt later on so you want the water a little more seasoned. Cook the paste until just al dente. It will cook more once you put it in the frying pan.

Drain the pasta and rinse with very cold water. Drain thoroughly again.

In a medium bowl, beat 4 eggs with the parsley, parmesan cheese, and 3 or 4 grinds of the pepper mill. Add the cooked spaghetti to the large bowl with the onions, pour the egg mixture over all and combine well.

In your pan there should be some oil left from frying the onions, but add more if it seems too dry and put on medium-high heat until shimmering. Dump in spaghetti-egg mixture and smooth out to fill the pan. Turn heat down to medium and cook until nice and brown on the bottom. Every now and again take your spatula and run it around the edges and a little bit underneath.

Slide the pie onto a large plate cooked side down.

Call your brother and tell him you made spaghetti pie and he should leave now.

Now the tricky part: hold the plate in one hand like a tray, take the frying pan with your other hand and invert the frying pan over the pie. Keep your hand on the bottom of the plate and push up. Hold on tight to the handle and keep pressure down. 1-2-3, turn the whole operation over. Now the uncooked part of the pie will be down in the frying pan and ready to brown.

It usually takes 5 to 7 minutes per side to brown well (enough time for your brother to drive over).

Slide onto large plate or platter (I like to use my big wooden cutting board) and cut into wedges, reserving at least half for your brother.

My mom says spaghetti pie can be frozen in foil and warmed up in the oven (it should be thawed first). However I cannot attest to this because I have never seen leftover spaghetti pie in my life.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad

Sunday I tasked myself with sitting down and actually engaging in some menu planning.  To think about the coming week, who was going to be where, when dinner would be eaten, and what to make.  So the plan looked like this:

And I made a shopping list from that, and thus went to DeCicco's determined to stick to the list, the whole list, and nothing but the list. No buying on hope or impulse or "well maybe..." The plan is the plan, the plan shall be the plan, we shall stick to the plan.

Anyway, that was the plan, and so far so good. As planned, we had skirt steak last night with roasted potatoes and asparagus.  Delicious as always, and as always a nice piece of steak left over for my lunch today.

Tonight's plan was the Vietnamese Chicken Salad recipe I'd seen in Martha Stewart Living, with a few cleverly thought-out improvements to save time—one being that I bought a rotisserie chicken to use instead of poaching my own.

Then I remembered that Redman's swimming lessons had been changed to Monday nights, and part and parcel of swim lessons is going to eat afterward at Red Rooster. Jeeps said he'd wait to eat back at home, then he suddenly remembered that tonight was camp registration night and he might as well go directly there from swimming, so he might as well eat at the Rooster.

What's that expression? "Make a plan and God smiles." So suddenly I was missing 50% of the household. Did I really want to go ahead and make this dish? Well...yes. I knew Panda would eat it. I was really looking forward to eating it. So what the hell, I'd make it. I'd just make less of it.

Here is full recipe with my modifications and smartass commentary. I just halved everything. Except the smartass commentary.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad

For the sauce:

  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 1 tbsp rice-wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp hone
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tsp minced ginger
  • 1 tsp minced garlic

Whisk all ingredients in small bowl until smooth and creamy, set aside.

For the salad:

  • 2 fourteen-and-a-half-ounce cans low-sodium chicken stock. (Fuck you, Martha. Stock does not come in 14 1/2 oz cans. Now I have to do math. 4 oz is 1 cup, 14 1/2 oz times 2 is 29 oz, divided by 4 is 7 cups plus 1 oz. I guess an ounce is a tablespoon? 7 cups plus 1 tablespoon of fucking chicken broth, OK?!)
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (or skip all of the above and procure thyself a rotisserie chicken, take the meat off the breast and shred into bite-sized pieces)
  • 1 pound vermicelli (or as they say in the neighborhood, voimicelli)
  • 1 cucumber, seeded and cut into 3" long matchsticks
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into 3" long matchsticks (or, if you are clever like me, a handful from a bag of pre-shredded carrots)
  • 1 red pepper, seeded and cut into 3" long matchsticks
  • 1/2 small red onion, peeled and cut as thinly as possible (skip this if you plan to be kissing)

1.  If using fresh chicken, then bring stock to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the chicken and simmer 12-to 15 minutes until chicken is completely cooked. Remove chicken from pan, set aside to cool. When cool, shred into bite-sized pieces.

2.  If you used stock, cook vermicelli in same, adding more water if necessary.  Otherwise start from here and cook vermicelli until al dente. Drain. Return pasta to pot and toss with 1 tbsp lime juice, 2 tbsp rice vinegar, and 1 tsp peanut oil (which I didn't have because peanut oil doesn't seem to come in small bottles and I really don't need a 1/2 gallon of it. I used canola)

3.  To assemble salad, put vegetables, chicken and pasta into a large bowl. Pour peanut sauce over all and toss to combine.

4.  If you are the brilliant Pandagirl, make the observation that this salad would be yummy rolled up in lettuce leaves.

And it was.