Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/ KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast" which was also a finalist for the IACP Cookbook of the Year award. Saveur magazine chose the book for its Saveur 100 list. His book "Mediterranean Vegetables" was chosen one of the top ten Cookbooks of 2001 by the Chicago Tribune and his first cookbook, "Cucina Paradiso: The Heavenly Food of Sicily," was a "best book of 1992" in the New York Times Book Review’s Christmas List. He is the author of 16 books, of which 14 are cookbooks and a contributor to eight others. His latest book "One-Pot Wonders” was published by Wiley in 2013. Colman Andrews, former editor of Saveur magazine called Wright "the reigning English-speaking expert on the cuisines and culinary culture of the Mediterranean." As an independent food scholar he has lectured at the Center for European Studies at Harvard, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown, the Rusk School for International Affairs at Davidson College, the Culinary Institute of America, and other universities. He also writes for food magazines such as Saveur, Gourmet, Fine Cooking, Food & Wine, and Bon Appétit and wrote all the food entries for Columbia University's "Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East" and several entries for the “Oxford Companion to Sweets.” His scholarly articles on food have appeared in peer-review journals such as Gastronomica, Food and Foodways, and Al-Masaq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Studia Arabo-Islamica Mediterranea.  Wright also writes for his own web sites, www.Cook-Coquus.com and www.cliffordawright.com.

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Making Cabbage Cool Again With Two Hot Recipes Image

Cabbage is the Rodney Dangerfield of vegetables: It doesn’t get any respect. It gets a bad rap. Cabbage never gets mentioned as one of the hip vegetables like kale. It’s not a super-vegetable like broccoli rabe. It’s not an adorable vegetable like baby Brussels sprouts. It’s not a “cool” vegetable. It’s stodgy and old-fashioned. I mean, they make sauerkraut from it.

All those cooler vegetables just mentioned, though, owe their existence to cabbage. The big green head we associate with cabbage today was not always what cabbage was. Today there are hundreds of varieties of cabbage that have developed from the progenitor cabbage, called the wild cabbage, including the many forms of cabbage and further horticultural developments such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoliflower, broccoli rabe and kohlrabi.

Botanists divide the cabbage into five groups. It is the head cabbage, green, red, crinkly-leafed or Savoy cabbage, that I’m speaking of. But there are some 400 varieties of head cabbage.

The cabbage is probably native to the Mediterranean, but in Roman times the head cabbage we think of as cabbage today did not exist. The Romans had only leafy cabbage, probably kale. There are some obscure references by Roman naturalists Pliny and Columella to what has been taken by some to be head cabbage. These descriptions refer to heads of the plant being a foot in diameter, but it is not at all clear whether this refers to a compact headed cabbage that we know today or is simply an expression referring to the above ground portion of the plant.

The wealthy citizens of Rome, in the period after Cato the Elder (mid-second century BC), thought of cabbage as poor people’s food as we know from the description in Juvenal’s satire when he described the difference between the food that the patron ate, namely olives to garnish an excellent fish, and the food of the client, who finds cabbage in his “nauseous dish.”

It seems that the head cabbage we know today was developed in Germany in the 12th century. Soon it would be the single most common plant in the medieval garden.

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cabbage rolls. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

It’s not a popular vegetable today, but it is a vegetable that does draw the curious cook. The most obviously intriguing thing to do with cabbage is to separate the leaves and then stuff them by rolling them up. There are many great preparations for cabbage from sauerkraut, to kimchi, to coleslaw, and every culture has a recipe for stuffed cabbage. Here are two recipes for cabbage lovers from cabbage-loving Slovenia and Croatia, next door to Italy.

Braised Cabbage

Cabbage is a very popular vegetable in the Balkans, served raw, in the form of sauerkraut and cooked in a variety of ways. In the northern part of the former Yugoslavia, today’s Slovenia and parts of Croatia, cabbage may be cooked with sour cream or tossed with noodles and smoked bacon. In Bosnia or Montenegro, it might be cooked with tomatoes. This recipe from Slovenia is typically served as a bed for a roast duckling.

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 55 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 bay leaves

2 tablespoons tomato paste mixed with 2 tablespoons water

1 cup dry white wine

One 2-pound green cabbage, cored and sliced as thin as vermicelli

15 peppercorns

8 juniper berries, lightly crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the bay leaves and cook until they begin to sizzle. Reduce the heat to medium and very carefully add the tomato paste and wine, which will spurt and splatter rather dramatically.

2. Continue cooking for a minute then add the cabbage, peppercorns, juniper berries and thyme. Mix so the cabbage is covered with sauce.

3. Add the lemon juice and continue to braise over medium heat until the cabbage softens, 6 to 8 minutes.

4. Reduce the heat to low, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the cabbage is completely soft, about 45 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve hot.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

These cabbage rolls are a winter specialty known as arambašici in their home of Sinj, a town near the Dinaric Alps on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Traditionally, this casserole of stuffed cabbage leaves is made from a whole head of cabbage that has been prepared as sauerkraut. Each sauerkraut leaf, or as in this recipe cabbage leaf, is stuffed with beef, pork and bacon, and flavored with lemon zest, onion, garlic, cloves and cinnamon. Each roll-up is separated from the other with pieces of pršut (Croatian prosciutto) and smoked tongue.

Arambašici can be made with fresh cabbage leaves or grape leaves, too. My recipe uses fresh cabbage, which is the easiest to find and is what a cook from Sinj would use in the summer. Many cooks also like to make the casserole in the evening and then reheat it the next day, and you should consider doing that as it is delicious.

The casserole cooks a long time so the meats are very tender and the cabbage leaves become silky. The smoked bacon, smoked pork, smoked tongue and prosciutto can all be picked up at the deli counter of most supermarkets.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 4 hours

Yield: 20 to 26 rolls, or about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 large green cabbage (about 2 3/4 pounds), central core removed

1 1/4 pounds boneless beef neck meat or beef chuck, finely chopped

5 ounces smoked bacon (preferably) or lean slab bacon, finely chopped

2 ounces beef fat (suet), finely chopped

6 ounces boneless pork shoulder or neck meat, finely chopped

2 large onions, chopped

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

Grated zest from 1 lemon

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or beef fat for greasing

One 4-inch-long beef marrow bone (optional)

1 ounce smoked pork (any cut), finely chopped

2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced into strips

2 ounces smoked tongue (optional), thinly sliced into strips

1 cup water and more as needed

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 300 F.

2. Remove and discard any of the outermost leaves of the cabbage that are blemished. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt and plunge the whole cabbage in and cook until the leaves can be peeled away without ripping, about 10 minutes. Drain well and, when cool enough to handle, separate the leaves carefully, setting them aside.

3. In a large bowl, mix together the beef, bacon, suet and pork. Add the onions, garlic, lemon zest, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix well with your hands.

4. Arrange a cabbage leaf in front of you with the stem end closest to you. Place 2, 3 or 4 tablespoons (depending on the size of the leaf) of filling on the end closest to you, then roll away once, fold in the sides and continue rolling away until you get a nice, neat package.

5. Continue with the remaining cabbage leaves. Arrange the cabbage rolls side by side, seam side down, in a lightly greased 13- x 9- x 2-inch casserole (you may need to use two casseroles), making sure you leave some room for the beef marrow bone. Sprinkle the chopped smoked pork over the cabbage rolls.

6. Place the prosciutto and smoked tongue slices (if using) between the cabbage rolls. Pour the water over the cabbage rolls and cover with aluminum foil. (The casserole can be refrigerated at this point to bake later.)

7. Bake until the cabbage rolls are very soft, slightly blackened on top and bubbling vigorously, about 4 hours.

8. Serve hot or let cool to room temperature and serve as an appetizer the next day.

Main photo: Pirjati Zelje (braised cabbage). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Zombie Pizzas With Real Innards for New Year’s Image

The popularity of zombie movies exploded in the past several years.

Since no one watches zombie movies alone, a New Year’s Eve party is perfect. From old zombie movies going all the way back to”White Zombie” from 1932 with Bela Lugosi to the long list of recent zombie hits, there’s not shortage of flicks to pick from. For food in front of the TV, popcorn is easiest, but here’s a fun idea: zombie pizza.

It’s a clever way to introduce offal, that is, zombies eat guts. Here are three pizzas that can be partially prepared ahead of time. An enclosed pizza is a “pizza with guts” made with lamb tripe, lamb kidney, veal sweetbread in a spicy-hot chile and tomato sauce. The second is “pizza with blood and thyroid,” made with tomato sauce to represent blood, comte cheese and fried veal sweetbread, which actually is thyroid gland. Finally, the “pizza with liver bile, gonads, and pus” is made with chopped cooked spinach to represent liver bile, roasted whole garlic (gonads), diced fried eggplant, burrata cheese and ricotta cheese to represent pus, and thin slices of tongue headcheese.

Pizza with sweetbreads and comte cheese or “pizza with blood and thyroid.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Pizza with sweetbreads and comte cheese or”pizza with blood and thyroid.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

When I made this for my enthusiastic friends Erin and Deanna,  they thought that everything was representative and there were no real innards in the pizza. Erin later said “despite my insistence that no real’‘innards’ be included, my naïveté in believing that Cliff would honor that request got the better of me. I gobbled down all three slices of pizza with complete disregard to manners or napkins (do as the zombies do).” Both Erin and Deanna agreed the first pizza below was their favorite. I stayed away from liver because its taste is too strong, while sweetbreads are mild and flavorful.

When making this menu, prepare as much as you can ahead of time — a day ahead — so that they can be assembled quickly. Follow the instructions for making pizza using the following amounts, 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast, 1 1/3 cup water, 4 1/2 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour, 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt or to your taste. Once the dough is made, divide in half. Divide one half in half again for the two small balls called for in the first 2 pizzas below. The remaining large ball is used for the stuffed pizza.The prep and cooking times below assume the pizza dough is already made (see link instructions for dough prep time). I advise prepping almost everything the day before so that on New Year’s Eve you only have to roll the dough and bake the pizza with its topping or filling.

Pizza With Sweetbreads and Comte Cheese: ‘Pizza With Blood and Thyroid’

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 1 hour

Cook time: 7 to 9 minutes

Total time: about 1 hour, 9 minutes

Ingredients

1/4 pound veal sweetbread

Water

3 tablespoons distilled vinegar

Extra virgin olive oil as needed

1 small pizza dough ball (see link above)

1/2 cup tomato purée

1/4 pound comte or Gruyère cheese, diced

Directions

1. Soak the sweetbread in water to cover with some vinegar for 20 minutes. Remove and place in a saucepan and cover with water. Turn the heat to medium and once the water is barely bubbling continue to poach the sweetbread until white and firm, 20 minutes. Remove and slice.

2. In a frying pan, cook the veal sweetbreads with a little olive oil over medium-high heat until golden, about 4 minutes. Remove and set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 550 F with two baking stones (preferably), one on top rack and one on the bottom rack.

4. Roll the pizza dough out on a floured work surface until about 14 inches in diameter. If you do not have a pizza peel, place the dough on a lightly oiled pizza pan.

5. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil over the dough. Spread some tomato purée over the pizza leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle the comte cheese over the pizza and arrange the sweetbread on top.

6. Slide the pizza peel under the pizza and place the pizza, using a quick jerk forward and then back onto the baking stone or place the pizza pan in the oven. Bake until blackened on the edges, 9 minutes (7 minutes in a convection oven).

Pizza With Spinach, Eggplant, Burrata Cheese, and Tongue Headcheese: ‘Pizza With Bile and Pus’

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: 7 to 9 minutes

Total time: 47 to 49 minutes

Ingredients

1 head garlic, cloves separated with shin on

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 pound eggplant, peeled and diced

One 15-ounce can cooked spinach (with no preservatives), drained and rinsed, with excess liquid squeezed out, chopped

1 smaller pizza dough ball

5 ounces burrata or mozzarella cheese

2 ounces ricotta cheese

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 550 F with two baking stones (preferably), one on top rack and one on the bottom rack.

2. Place the garlic cloves in their skin on a piece of aluminum foil and roast until soft, about 12 minutes. Remove and remove their skin and set aside.

3. In a cast iron skillet heat the olive oil over high heat and when it is smoking add the eggplant and cook, stirring and turning, until golden brown, about 6 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

4. Roll the pizza dough out on a floured work surface until about 14 inches in diameter. If you do not have a pizza peel, place the dough on a lightly oiled pizza pan.

5. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil over the dough. Spread the spinach to cover the surface leaving a 1 1/2-inch border. Sprinkle the eggplant and roasted whole garlic cloves on top and then lay the sliced tongue headcheese on top. Place the burrata and ricotta cheese on top.

6. Slide the pizza peel under the pizza and place the pizza, using a quick jerk forward and then back onto the baking stone or place the pizza pan in the oven. Bake until blackened on the edges, 9 minutes (7 minutes in a convection oven).

Stuffed pizza with mixed offal in spicy tomato sauce or “pizza with guts.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stuffed pizza with mixed offal in spicy tomato sauce or pizza with guts.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Stuffed Pizza With Mixed Offal in Spicy Tomato Sauce

The filling for this enclosed pizza must be made the day before and refrigerated. The preparation of honeycomb tripe takes at least a day before you even begin the sauce, so buy smooth-skinned paunch tripe (usually available in Middle Eastern markets), which cooks faster. We called it “pizza with guts for zombie-watchers.”

Yield: 8 slices

Prep time: 12 hours

Cook time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 pounds lamb tripe (mixed tripe if possible and smooth paunch tripe if possible)

3 lamb kidneys, arteries removed

One 6-ounce can tomato paste

3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 cups dry red wine

1 ounce fresh red chiles, blended until smooth with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil in a food processor

1/4 pound veal sweetbread (optional, for its preparation for cooking see below)

1 1/2 teaspoons red chile flakes

1 bunch fresh oregano, tied together

3 bay leaves

Salt to taste

1 large ball of dough

Directions

1. Prepare the tripe by boiling it for about 6 hours, replenishing the water as it evaporates. Remove and cut into small pieces. Let it cool and congeal in its fat.

2. In a flameproof casserole, cook, stirring, the tripe and its fat, the kidneys, the tomato paste, garlic, red wine, and chile paste, over medium heat until bubbling, about 5 minutes. Cover with water, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours.

3. Add the sweetbread slices (if using), chile flakes, oregano, and bay leaves and continue to cook, partially covered, for 4 hours. Season with salt. Remove the kidneys and slice then return to the sauce.

4. Divide the dough in two and roll one out to about 14-inches in diameter and place in an oiled 14- to 16-inch round baking pan or pizza pan.

5. Heat the oven to 400 F.

6. Spread the filling over the dough and roll out the other half and place on top, sealing the edges by folding over slightly and pinching together. Bake until the pizza is golden, about 30 minutes. Remove and let cool slightly before serving.

Main image: Pizza With Spinach, Eggplant, Burrata Cheese and Tongue Headcheese or”pizza with bile and pus.” Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Snake-Shaped Christmas Cake An Umbrian Tradition Image

Perugia is the more important of the two provinces of Umbria and in culinary terms is most famous for its chocolates. Perugina, the chocolate firm founded in 1907, makes chocolate kisses (baci) famous throughout Italy and even in the United States. It’s also the historic home of a novel Christmas cake.

A variety of sweets are made around Christmas such as pinoccate, little diamond-shaped sweets made of sugar and pine nuts, hence their name. They usually are made “black” with chocolate or “white” with vanilla. Locals say that the small cakes were made by Benedictine monks as early as the 14th century and are served to end lavish Christmas feasts.

A simple syrup is made until rather dense and then the same weight of pine nuts as the sugar is added and poured onto a marble slab to be shaped as one makes peanut brittle. The diamonds are cut and cooled, with half of each piece being chocolate and half vanilla. They are then wrapped in black and white pairs in festive and colorful Christmas paper.

Another Christmas delight from Perugia that is a bit easier to make is the symbolic eel or snake-shaped torciglione (twisted spiral) Christmas cake. The Perugina say it is shaped like an eel to represent the eels of nearby Lake Trasimeno, while others attribute a more symbolic meaning rooted in pagan times. The Greeks saw snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals; the snake’s skin shedding was a symbol of rebirth and renewal, an appropriate symbol at the time of the birth of Christ.

Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake)

In most of Umbria, but in particular around Lake Trasimeno in the province of Perugia, torciglione is a Christmas and New Year’s Eve sweet. It is also sometimes called a serpentone or biscione and it’s made as a symbol of luck. It is claimed that this sweet was developed in the 19th century by a master pastry cook, Romualdo Nazzani, who opened a cake shop in Reggio Emilia and created some magnificent sweets, such as biscione, which means “snake.”

This Christmas cake is made with an almond base and meringue topping decorated with candied peel to represent the eyes of the snake. In Christian iconography, the snake can represent temptation as it was in the Garden of Eden. Eating the snake is thought to bring luck.

Torciglione

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes

Baking time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

1 pound whole blanched almonds, toasted and chopped

3/4 pound (about 1 1/2 cups) sugar

2 tablespoons rum

Zest from 1 lemon

3 large egg whites, beaten until stiff

3 tablespoons pine nuts

2 coffee beans

1 candied cherry

Directions

1. Heat the oven to 325 F.

2. In a bowl, mix the almonds, sugar, rum, lemon zest and egg whites until a dense consistency.

3. On a buttered parchment paper-lined baking tray form the mixture into the shape of a snake. Place the pine nuts over its surface. Put the coffee beans in as eyes and the cherry as a tongue. Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes.

 Main photo: Torciglione (Holiday Almond Meringue Snake). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Pantry Antipasto To Please A Holiday Crowd Image

“Fresh is best” is usually a good rule to live by. But if you know how to find quality preserved items, a few well-chosen canned foods in your pantry can save the day, especially during the busy holidays.

Healthy food is food that is minimally processed. All the foods’ transformation should happen when you turn it from the raw to the cooked and not at some factory.

When I am unable to pronounce the ingredients listed on the side of a food’s packaging I shiver. When I see the word “natural” on a food package I read “Sh&u8#%g” because it has the same meaning. However, I am not a fanatic or obsessive about food: I can eat crap too. I do so minimally. I don’t always seek out organic, or local, or seasonal, or any other of the environmentally correct buzzwords.

Now and then canned food is just plain convenient. And luckily there are some canned products that are not loaded with chemicals such as taste enhancers or preservatives of one kind or another. If you keep these in your pantry you will always have a delicious, convenient and quick preparation on hand. This is particularly handy during the holidays. On their label you should see only one ingredient list, namely the same one as on the front of the packaging, the food itself. Some might have some citric acid, but that’s OK.

There are four foods that I use in their canned form for a variety of reasons: the food is out of season, I forgot to buy the food, I’m too tired to cook, or it’s a last-minute idea. My five canned go-to foods are chickpeas, tuna, artichoke hearts, tomatoes and pimentos.

In this recipe you’ll use four of those. The idea here is that this is party-quality food, the kind of dish that you could serve to guests and they will comment on its deliciousness. After they do then you can spill the beans, so to speak, and tell them how simple it all is.

Four-Can Antipasto

Yield: 4 servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1 15-ounce can organic chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed

4 canned organic artichoke hearts (foundations), drained and quartered

2 tablespoons sliced pimentos

2 1/2 ounces canned yellowfin tuna in olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Directions

1. In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium heat.

2. When the garlic begins to sizzle add the chickpeas, artichokes and pimentos and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

3. Add the tuna, salt, pepper and cayenne, toss a few times and remove from the heat. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Main photo: Four-can antipasto. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Need A Thoughtful Gift Idea? Try These Cookbooks Image

Shopping for a great Christmas gift once meant hours of driving and parking, but with today’s Internet shopping, it’s easier. Internet shopping can be great for those of us who like to give cookbooks. With so many available titles, there are a few things gift-givers need to know to sort out the well-written quality books from the lesser potential gifts.

Cookbooks are terrific gifts because they can be used every day and often attain heirloom status that leads you to better cooking.

My specialty as a cookbook author is writing cookbooks for home cooks interested in culturally driven cooking that reveals a history or story. My favorites are Italian and Mediterranean cuisines in general. So when I look for cookbooks as gifts, I like to give not the latest trendy cookbook but often older books that I value and that my younger friends might not know. These are books from which I learned. I lament the fact that for all the cookbooks published every year and the popularity of food television and celebrity chefs, I don’t believe people are cooking at home more.

Food television has stimulated people’s interest and tried to turn cooking into entertainment and competition, but I doubt it has gotten them into the kitchen. What will make you a better cook? Buy a good cookbook, not necessarily the one everyone is talking about, and get into the kitchen and follow a recipe, and through trial and error you will learn to be a better cook.

Along with the handful of quality new cookbooks published each year, there are plenty of older, out-of-print ones that are almost bibles. You can find them on the Internet and they’re sometimes cheap. If there is someone who’s cooking you admire, ask them what their favorite cookbook is.

Good cookbooks have several criteria, and having recipes that work flawlessly isn’t one of them. More than meticulously tested recipes, I look for quirkiness, personality, a history, or a story told, perhaps about the cook, the author, the cook’s mother, the culture, or a broad sweep of it all.

When I see the crêpes suzette recipe written in that particular style of the ’60s in Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” it’s not merely a delicious recipe. It is also laden with pregnant memories evocative of a whole era, of an entire culture, and a particularly wonderful day when I made it for the first time as a 15-year-old.

Here is a very small collection of older cookbooks from my library that I am fond of even if I don’t cook from them regularly nor would I say you must have them in your library, nor are they the best in my collection. They are simply good books I’ll never get rid of. (The first book is shameless self-promotion, but I actually use my book, too.)

» “A Mediterranean Feast” by Clifford A. Wright (William Morrow, 1999)

» “The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook,” by Gloria Bley Miller (New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1975)

» “Foods of Long Island,” by Peggy Katalinich, A Newsday Cookbook (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985)

» “Pasta & Pizza,” by Massimo Alberini, with recipes compiled by Anna Martini; Elisabeth Evans, trans. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977)

» “French Provincial Cooking,” by Elizabeth David (New York: Harper & Row, 1962)

 Main photo: Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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How to Throw a Flawless Holiday Dinner Party Image

It is joyous to watch people have a good time and set a table for sparkling conversation and good food. I hope my guests talk about the dinner party well into the future, about the people they met, the topics they conversed about, and the food they ate. I try to provide a memorable experience.

Although you want to create a casual atmosphere for your guests, planning a dinner party is not at all casual. Entertaining is an art and needs to be orchestrated with as much precision as a set-piece military battle. To do otherwise invites chaos.

Entertaining takes many forms, but I prefer the small dinner party of six to eight. That number of people provides the critical mass. Eight is the maximum number of people who can sit at a table and listen to one person speak. They will in the course of the evening split into many different conversations.

Choosing the guest list

The first thing to decide when having a dinner party is whom to invite. That’s harder than it sounds because the mix of people is a form of alchemy and the wrong choices can make for a memorable dinner party you would prefer not remembering. One of the most horrible dinner parties I attended was one with 12 people, many of whom had absolutely nothing in common, where the food was a hodgepodge of unrelated dishes, and where more than half the people smoked at the table when there were non-smokers.

Think about who you are inviting. You can invite boisterous people and reticent people, but not too many of either. A boisterous person can be fun, but sometimes if you are not careful, they can dominate the table. Too many reticent people stifle the table. Dinner parties will often draw out people’s personalities. I once had a quiet chef at one of my dinner parties, and his story of how he got into the profession had us riveted. Another time, a woman not known for her humor told one of the most hysterical stories I ever heard, and we nearly fell out of our seats. This happened because they were comfortable, and it’s this comfort you must create and provide.

Second, set a definite time for people to arrive. I usually say “sharp.” Waiting for stragglers may seem polite to you, but it’s your guests who have already arrived who are being put out. They may be hungry.

Planning a conversation-piece menu

Third, what will you make? That depends on what kind of cook you are. If you’re not confident of your abilities, stick with something you’ve made before, although you should feel free to try at least one new dish. Keep the menu manageable and seasonal. Ask all guests whether they have any food allergies or dislikes; this is important and often overlooked. Also remember Julia Child’s advice and never ever apologize for your cooking.

Menu planning is an art, and a three-course dinner is typical. How organized are you? One of the big mistakes a host can make is making a too complicated menu that keeps them in the kitchen instead of with their guests. A guest should not see what happens “behind the curtain” because if they see you work too hard or if there is a huge mess, they will become anxious themselves. Many menus can be based totally on food prepared ahead of time.

Guests will offer to help, and a good host will always refuse their help, at first. There are three tasks I appreciate guests taking on: acting as bartender, helping serve plated food, and bringing used dishes to the kitchen. The exception is a dinner party where guest participation is part of the evening, such as a fondue party or a barbeque.

Keep your menu on track. Don’t make wildly different dishes and stay with a theme. For instance, if your theme is Spanish, maybe Andalusian in particular, your choice of dishes provides a built-in conversation topic. Few people know what Andalusian food is, and now you’re the expert. “Both tapas and gazpacho were born in Andalusia,” you can explain as you serve the gazpacho.

Your kitchen should be clean and equipment put away before guests arrive. Everything should be set up so you can anticipate every need. I usually lead guests to the living room where we will sit and have cocktails and light finger foods. The easiest of these are nuts, but sometimes you may serve something a bit more involved that will portend the food to follow to increase excitement and expectation.

About 45 minutes after the last guest arrives (and all guests should have arrived within 15 minutes of the designated time), you will want to start moving people to the table, which will, of course, have already been set. One could write a book on how to set a table. Suffice it to say that your table should look inviting. A tablecloth, I think, is far more inviting than place mats, which always reminds me of feeding children.

Who sits where is one of the most important decisions you’ll make. You don’t need to sit boy-girl-boy. Consider personalities when making a seating chart. I usually try to sit the prettiest woman or the guest of honor (very loosely defined) next to me. I also don’t believe in splitting up couples as a matter of course and especially not if everyone are deep strangers. This is one of the mysterious facets of entertaining — how personalities gel. There are no secrets or tips for the matchmaker. Good luck.

 Main photo: A holiday fondue party. Credit: Michelle van Vliet

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