Weekend Update: Brunch

j1213

Here’s how I knew that it was good brunch: I did not ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” Instead, I was thinking of ways in which I could have managed better. A very good sign.

There were seven of us at the table, and only Kathleen and I knew everybody beforehand. I have come to see that, ideally, this would always be the case. When I was young, and reading Proust for the first time, I thought that it would be the coolest thing in the world to have a salon. On a certain day of the week, or (more realistically) the month, one’s coterie would drop by en masse. This despite Proust’s consistently unflatting portrait of Mme Verdurin and her circle. But what did I know of “entertaining”? I knew my parents’ cocktail parties, that’s what. The same people showed up at them for years, yet I still yearned for a salon of regulars. I must have thought that, by substituting tea for whiskey, my shindigs would inspire the kind of lofty conversation that would have made my parents’ friends take flight.

At the end of dessert — we would continue sitting at table for another hour — I thanked the friend to my left for having been such a lovely guinea pig. I rather regret this now; it seems an ungracious thing to say to anyone. But in almost every detail the brunch was a mission. I wanted to know how to fit giving a weekend luncheon party into the texture of regular life, more or less as I make dinner for Kathleen and myself on school nights. A lot remains to be learned, but even though I’m tired and somewhat afflicted by Sunday night blahs, I don’t look back on this afternoon’s meal as a big deal that completely disrupted the weekend.

The important thing is to try to make friends happy to be in my home. This involves good company and good food, served with as little fuss as possible. It may have seemed like fussing when I asked everyone to leave the table after the main dish, so that I could tidy it up for coffee and cake, but everybody went right on talking, which, at least among my friends, never gets in the way of eating.

The entrée was a chicken dish from Gourmet, circa 1993. I haven’t written it up at Portico but will try to change that. It’s an “oven-friend” dish — a  genre that excites skepticism as a rule — that is in fact far more suitable for a winter luncheon, at a properly-set table, than the real thing would be. It’s quite piquant; there’s a lot of cayenne pepper.

I discovered that the fish poacher is an ideal vessel for marinating two cut-up chickens.

The side dishes were seriously retro: a German potato salad, made according to a recipe from the original New York Times Cookbook (1961), and an aspic of bouillon and V-8, with minced green onions floating obscurely in the ring. We began with a fruit salad and muffins, and ended with a mocha-rum cake (I make it with Jack Daniels) that also came from an Early-Nineties issue of Gourmet. The fruit salad came from Gristedes, but in chunks too large to serve without a knife; it took ten minutes to render them bite-sized. The muffins were flavored, dimly, by the Calvados in which I plumped some raisins. I had wanted to make cinnamon rolls, but yeast bread would have taken more time than I had allotted.

There would have been more time to play with if I’d really known what I was doing, the way I know how to prepare a roast chicken dinner. I knew how to cook each dish on the menu, but not how to cook them all on the same menu, which is really the final lesson of giving dinners, including as it does knowing where to put the special plates that you want to use for dessert until it’s time to use them. All in all, I did pretty well, but I want to get better. I want to have it down to the sweet spot of habit. I know that I’ll never be bored so long as friends old and new are kind enough to venture into darkest Yorkville for a seat at my table.