The kitchen is the heart of the home--and the best place to have a party. It is the one room in the house that provides just the right ambience for great conversation and joyful eating--the very dynamics that make a party great.
To my mind, the perfect party is a cocktail-hour buffet that starts in the kitchen and stays there until coffee and a simple sweet are served.
It's informal and easy, and all it takes is some thought and minimal setup (ergo minimal cleanup). The party offers more substantial food than typical cocktail fare and can actually serve as supper for those who want to linger and talk.
You may need to give your kitchen a candid look before you throw the party. Find a central focus and serving area in the kitchen and give it style; colorful flowers casually arranged in a pitcher, unusual multicolored scarves for counter covering, a cluster of tapers or votive candles (with the overhead lights lowered) and great bowls and platters for the food. Grace the platters and serving surface with carefully placed green leaves. Small dessert or butter plates (as well as forks) are required.
TOMATO SALAD WITH RED ONION, BASIL AND GORGONZOLA
8 large firm-ripe tomatoes (about 3 pounds total)
4 ounces domestic gorgonzola, cut into 1/3-inch dice
2 medium red onions (about 11 ounces total), cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/4 cup julienned basil leaves
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons light-tasting olive oil
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
Cut tomatoes in halves, remove inner pulp and reserve for sauces or soups. Cut tomato shell into 1/2-inch dice.
Combine tomatoes, gorgonzola, red onions, julienned basil, vinegar, olive oil, sugar, salt and pepper to taste in large bowl. Toss gently. Cover and chill 2 to 6 hours. Gently toss again. Drain off excess liquid. Adjust seasonings before serving. Garnish with basil sprigs. Makes 8 servings.
A small amount of cornmeal gives this focaccia perfect texture for improv open-sandwich-making with thinly sliced salami and cheese; it also stands remarkably well on its own. The dough can be kneaded one day, rolled and baked the following day for total freshness; or focaccia can be frozen and reheated.
1 package dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees)
2 1/3 cups bread flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup light-tasting olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 tablespoon snipped chives
1 tablespoon minced parsley
Red pepper flakes
Generously oil 2 large baking sheets (preferably black steel).
Stir yeast and sugar into warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes.
Mix bread flour, cornmeal and salt in food processor fitted with metal blade (can also be kneaded with mixer dough hook or by hand). Turn on processor. Slowly pour yeast mixture through feed tube. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Process until dough cleans inside of work bowl but is still moist. (Add little more flour if dough sticks to sides of bowl. If dry, add little water.) Process until dough is uniformly kneaded, elastic and supple, about 40 seconds.
Transfer to large plastic food bag, squeeze out air and seal at top, allowing room for dough to expand. Let rise in warm spot until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down. Use immediately or refrigerate overnight.
Combine remaining 6 tablespoons oil, garlic and dried herbs. Warm on stove top or in microwave oven.
Divide dough in half. Let rest 5 minutes. On floured board, roll each piece into about 12-inch round. Transfer to prepared baking sheets. Pierce surfaces with fork. Generously brush with oil mixture, including edges. Sprinkle with Kosher salt.
Place in center rack of 450-degree oven. (Use 2 ovens otherwise bake focaccias in sequence, one after other.) Bake 2 minutes, then pierce any air pockets with fork. Continue baking 6 to 8 minutes, or until lightly browned around edges only. (Do not over bake.) Brush with any remaining olive oil, including edges. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and pepper flakes. Cut into wedges and serve hot. Makes 2 (12-inch) rounds.
Note: Focaccias can be baked in advance and frozen. Cool completely, freeze, then wrap airtight. Let thaw in wrapping. To reheat, place in cold oven and set at 300 degrees. Bake until hot, about 5 to 7 minutes.
RICE SALAD WITH ARTICHOKES AND PROSCIUTTO
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 (6-ounce) jars marinated, quartered artichoke hearts, drained, cut in halves
4 teaspoons white wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup minced parsley
2 tablespoons minced basil leaves
4 green onions, minced
2 ounces prosciutto, cut into small dice
Freshly ground pepper
Parsley or basil sprigs for garnish