Last night we had some friends over for dinner- a lovely vegan family that also homeschools and shares our values. It’s been so nice to spend time with them as it can often feel so lonely when much of your life doesn’t relate to what others are doing. Meaningful connections are something to be treasured and grateful for. There’s nothing more I enjoy than selecting, cooking, and sharing food with others. Coming together at the table, all eating the same food, sharing conversation and wine and laughter, struggles and triumphs- it’s religious to me. The true sacred pleasure of life. Everything can be worked out at the table- anxieties soothed, wounds healed, bellies filled, experiences shared. We almost always sit down to dinner at the table together, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I try to never rush it. Traveling to Italy at 15, this was something I admired so much, the “church” of communing together at the table for hours on end with excellent, simple, homemade food- I remember thinking, this is living, this is what life is about.
Food absolutely does not need to be fancy, contrived, or perfect to be good, in fact I would argue that the simpler the dish is, the better. Last nights menu was nothing outrageous, just humble vegetables prepared very simply but with care. No exotic seasonings (olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, chile flakes, bay leaf are my basics), 20 step recipes, or slaving over a hot stove in sight. With the holiday season approaching, I’d like to share a few recent menus and also some aperitivi suggestions for you to make or take to any upcoming festive occasions.
First, to start, if it’s a dinner party or a festive occasion, I always start with some champagne/sparkling. It just is so fun and such a lovely ritual to pop open a bottle and to all share the same drink at first. It sets the tone for the evening, there’s no fussing of “what do you want to drink” and it gives your guests something to do and lets them relax a bit. And of course, it doesn’t have to be expensive or even alcoholic at all. A nice bottle of kombucha, sparkling water with a splash of fresh juice or a wedge of citrus, or sparkling apple cider can all stand in for an alcoholic drink. I really love all of the Gerard Bertrand sparkling wines, or the Juvé y Camps pinot noir brut rosé.
A cheese board always looks impressive and fun even though it takes hardly any time to set up. DIY some crackers, or Mary’s brand are great and v/gf, or slice up a crusty baguette. For the cheese, these recipes are great: almond feta, cashew garlic + herb, paprika rolled “goat” cheese. If you’re picking up a store bought cheese, I recommend the Miyoko’s or Treeline cheeses. Slice up a little fruit- apple, pear, pomegranate wedges are all nice this time of year. A little wedge of membrillo, fig jam, or something else sweet pairs well with the sharpness/saltiness of the cheese. And a nice smear of a whole grain mustard (I strongly prefer Maille brand). Something pickled is nice to add too- like pickled onions, beets, cauliflower, radishes, whatever.
Instead of (or in addition to) the cheese board, something crunchy is nice. I love to make David Lebovitzs party mix (just sub in Miyoko’s butter)- it’s so good, everyone loves it, and you can make it ahead of time. Another go to that’s easy to make ahead of time and that everyone LOVES is this brined + roasted rosemary almond recipe.
Olives are a lovely and easy thing to put out for nibbles. Grab them from the olive bar if you can- the green Castelvetrano olives are my personal favorite. I always get whole instead of pitted because I think they have a lot more flavor and are more fun to eat. Just be sure to leave a little dish for the pits. If you’re feeling fancy, the day or 2 before, marinate them with a little olive oil, chili flakes, orange or lemon zest, and garlic. You can even warm them a bit before serving if you like.
I like to light a candle, and leave some beautiful things on the table- this time of year, pumpkins or squashes, pine or fir tree trimmings, interesting greenery, persimmons and pomegranates are all lovely. It’s nice to have a set of pretty vintage china or silverware to make things special, too. You can inexpensively find beautiful old things at thrift stores, estate sales, and the like. I like to serve things in courses because it’s more fun to me that way, and it kind of forces everyone to slow down, converse, and enjoy the course more before moving on to the next.
For example, last night: we had nibbles, then moved to the table where we started with roasted veggies, then moved onto soup, then salad. Then we moved over to the couch for conversation and later, dessert. It was lovely. Here’s the recipes:
for the roasted veggies:
Any mix of veggies you enjoy, cut up into similar sized pieces for even cooking- I used halved radishes, quartered smaller carrots, and romanesco cauliflower cut into florets. Any vegetable works, try to choose a nice assortment of seasonal veggies with varied colors/textures or flavors. Toss with a nice drizzle of oil , sprinkle with s+p and chopped herbs if you like (like rosemary or thyme) and roast at 400-ish until nice and tender- time will depend on the veggies, mine took about 20 minutes. Toss halfway through. Next, I layered torn radicchio (sub endive, frisee, arugula, spinach, or other hardy green) on a platter, heaped the veggies on top, and drizzled with a nice balsamic. You can also fancy it up more by scattering toasted nuts or seeds, pomegranate arils, sliced apples, whatever you enjoy. Serve while still warm.
for the soup:
I used THIS recipe, and simply omitted the meat and used broth in lieu of water. It was delicious and made a ton and I made it a day ahead of time, which not only deepened the flavors, but also meant that all I had to do that night was heat it up.
for the salad:
my guests kindly brought THIS salad (and just omitted the creme fraiche), and it was beautiful and festive and a lovely textural contrast after the soft soup.
for the cake:
this flourless chocolate vegan and gf cake is excellent. I always sprinkle a bit of granulated sugar over the top to give it a crackly crust. I popped it in the oven soon before my guests arrived, but you could also make the day before.
another very simple menu we enjoyed the day before:
My mother in law came over to celebrate Chanukah with us and share some stories and culture with my kids. We had some radishes with Miyoko’s butter to nibble on while I was cooking, and I also set out some whole in shell mixed nuts with a few nut crackers. Whole nuts are always fun for kids and adults alike and look so beautiful on the table. I prepared a simple applesauce (peeled and cut into large chunks about 6-7 golden delicious apples, added a splash of water, and cooked them down in a pot with maybe a tablespoon of sugar, then mashed with a fork).
Joel made the latkes- we used this gf, vegan, baked recipe this year + last year and I think they’re delicious. I add oil to the pan, though. This is a nice homemade “sour cream” , or if you’re buying store bought, the Wayfarer vegan sour cream is great and has much better ingredients than its counterparts. As a side, I cut a Savoy cabbage into wedges. I heated some oil in a large pan and added the cabbage wedges when it was hot, sprinkled salt and pepper liberally, and let them sear until the bottoms were nice and browned. Then, I added a splash of water into the pan (1/4 cup or so) and added the lid and cooked for 5 minutes or more until tender. A perfect complement to the flavors of the apple and potato, beautiful, and so simple.
For dessert, roasted chestnuts (cut an X into the top of the chestnut and roast at 400ish for about 20-25 minutes until tender, dump into a kitchen towel and crunch/twist them so their shells crunch and crackle a bit). My mother in law brought some candied orange peels dipped in dark chocolate and we had those, too.
I hope you are having a lovely week- and that these little tips are helpful for you! If you feel uncomfortable entertaining, just remember to keep it simple, choose dishes that can be done ahead of time or are very easy/hands off, and don’t be afraid to ask someone to bring a side or salad or dessert to contribute. Most people are more than happy to be invited and no one is judging you or checking your baseboards for dust, etc. Just relax and enjoy yourself! Share food and love and be merry.