19 December 2011

Jenifer Rubell gets a little sloppy..and I love her for it.

My last cookbook review is a departure from the other three--there's steak and chicken all over the place, and the emphasis is on tasty but quick and relaxed cooking styles. I love it, and it has revolutionized the way I host.  (And it's not too late to order for the socialite on your Christmas list.  Yes, I said Christmas.  This is a book with steak recipes in it, after all).

Look how much mad fun she's having!

Jennifer Rubell: Real Life Entertaining.  Published by Harper Collins, 2006.

The author promises “easy recipes and unconventional wisdom” underneath a fun-loving picture of her partying down in the kitchen as she cooks.  It makes you want to be like her--fun!  Not stressed out!  Hangin’ with the guests!  And actually, this is a great handbook for getting there.

Rubell’s recipes are very simple and quick without relying on pre-packaged food; the premise is that, as the hostess, you want to spend time with your guests rather than being chained to the oven all night.  The other premise is that you live in a city with tons of friends who drop by in large numbers without warning, and you need to be able to whip up something tasty on the sly.  I do not suffer from this particular problem too often, but I have certainly suffered from the former, and it’s nice to have an arsenal of tasty, impressive-looking dishes at your disposal to make entertaining more fun.  It’s also nice to be able to do it on a weeknight for your family, guests or no.  She also cleverly includes a list of staple pantry items so you can pull these recipes off without running to the store just as the guests show up.

As for the unconventional wisdom, I would say most of it really falls into the category of giving you permission to not be a perfectionist.  She has tips in little yellow boxes scattered throughout the book offering advice on how to enlist guests in some of the prep work while keeping a fun party atmosphere, how to lay a classy table with odds and ends from the Salvation Army, and when it’s OK to serve buffet style and make people get their own damn food (hint: most of the time).  She offers recipes along with hosting advice organized into themes: Drop-In Dinners (that’s when the freeloaders show up looking for chow), Sit-Down Dinners (an elegant yet casual affair in Rubell’s mind), Brunch, Lunch Buffets, One-pot Meals, Dinner for a Crowd, and Get-togethers.  Her chapter on desserts is mostly to report that she doesn’t really like dessert, so she artfully arranges some chocolate bars in mismatched bowls and passes around the brandy.  How could you not love this style?

Perhaps it would have eventually come with age, but when I first read this book in my early 30s, shortly after moving into my first house with my (husband’s) first real, grown-up job, I was killing myself playing hostess.  Rubell’s style is welcoming, relaxed, and makes having guests a pleasure for all, and this was a revolutionary idea to me.  I can honestly say that, whether or not I follow her recipes (they’re pretty good, but there’s a lot of steak), I have become a much better hostess from adopting the ideas in this book.

From the book:

Mashed Potatoes with Figs and Parmesan (from the chapter entitled Sit-Down Dinners)

Serves 8

7 dried figs
10 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 ¼ cups grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Bring a pot of water to boil.  Place the figs in a bowl and cover with some boiling water ladled from the pot.  Soak for about 10 minutes.  Place the potatoes in the pot.  Boil them until they’re fall-apart tender, about 10-12 minutes, then drain and place in a serving bowl.  Remove the figs from the soaking water but don’t throw the soaking water away.  Chop the figs and add them to the potatoes with ¼ cup of the soaking liquid, the butter, olive oil, Parmesan, salt and pepper.  Mash everything with a fork until it’s well-combined but still a little lumpy (homemade style).   To be served with Grilled Skirt Steak with Orange-Mint Chimichurri and Thyme-Roasted Brussels Sprouts.”