We’d been cautioned. Owning a house near the Berkshires is akin to running a bed and breakfast all summer long. Around February or March the calls start rolling in from winter-weary friends and family asking if they can take us up on our open invitation to spend a summer weekend at Smallpeace.
Not that I mind. I sincerely love entertaining, but it often means I am faced with the pressure of cooking for gastronomically sophisticated houseguests. I am not a trained chef, and have only ever professed a kind of instinctual approach to cooking rather than any formal expertise. Though I have learned a thing or two during my years working in the service side of the catering industry to make dinner preparation go more smoothly.
- Keep it simple stupid – Where would you rather be? Catching up with old friends or slaving away for hours in the kitchen all by your lonesome? If you start with good ingredients, dinner often makes itself. So reject the idea that you MUST make that white wine sauce or impress them with that chocolate soufflé. Besides, nobody likes a showoff. Better to substitute a little fresh lemon and herbs with that trout or buy a few bars of nice chocolate to go with a bowl of local berries for desert.
- Plan and prep ahead – Sketching out a rough draft of what your menus might be both helps with the shopping and sets your mind at ease. But don’t be afraid to deviate from the plan should you come across some fabulous, in-season item at the farm stand. Also, I try and do a lot of the cutting and dicing of ingredients in advance—onions, garlic, etc.—so I can reduce my preparation time.
- Have a few fail-safe side dishes that make the most of local produce. This cuts down on think time and waste. I swear, I think I served some version of tomato salad with olive oil and lemon with almost every meal this summer. It’s simple, easy, and well liked by the general population. Also, a few seasons ago, we planted a small herb garden. It’s been a real lifesaver when I’m under the gun to whip up a quick meal with whatever’s on hand. In minutes, I can cut a handful of basil, parsley, and oregano to make a pesto or green sauce with pasta. Voila!
- Put ’em to work. I’ve learned the hard way that the most successful chefs and managers are good delegators. So if you are like us and have an abundance of friends who are handy in the kitchen, get them chopping, whipping, garnishing, plating, whatever! There’s nothing like a group activity combined with a chilled rose to put everyone at ease.
And so it was that the weather did not cooperate this past Labor Day weekend. Still, our friends who were visiting all the way from Chicago went home well fed. Our favorite meal of the weekend? Just look (I wish the photos were better, but I was a bit more interested in serving my guests than photographing my process.).
Whole baked trout stuffed with lemon and fresh tarragon
(Thank you, herb garden).
Tomato, summer squash, red onion salad with fresh mint and Meyer lemon vinaigrette. Mmm. I grew up in San Diego with a Meyer lemon tree just outside our kitchen door. It smelled like Jasmine and white flowers, I kid you not. I used to carry boxes of them back with me to New York, squeeze them, and freeze them in ice trays so I could be reminded of sunny San Diego all winter long.
A chilled bottle/s of Rose – Chateau de Pibarnon to be exact. It’s peachy/pink tint looked like candlelight.
And the pièce de résistance…Corn pudding with fresh chives. This pudding is not meant to be a dessert, rather a hardy, savory/sweet side dish to compliment the delicate, herbal and citrus flavors of the main course. This is one of those simple, quick crowd pleasers that you should keep in your back pocket for everyone to enjoy, including vegetarians, though not vegans.
CORN PUDDING RECIPE
• 4 cups fresh corn kernels (from 6 ears)
• 2 tbsp sugar (or less, depending on the quality and freshness of your corn)
• 1 ¼ tsp salt
• ¼ tsp real vanilla flavoring or the seeds from one vanilla bean
• 2 cups whole milk
• 4 farm fresh eggs
• 4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
• 3 tbsp all-purpose flour (a bit more if you like a more cakey texture)
• ¼ cup chopped fresh chives
• Pinch of grated nutmeg
Heat oven to 350˚ F. Butter a 10-inch pie plate.
Pulse half of corn in a food processor until coarsely chopped. Transfer to large bowl and stir in remaining corn kernels, sugar, and salt.
Whisk milk, eggs, butter, flour, vanilla, and chives together and add to corn. Stir until well combined. Pour into pie pan and sprinkle with nutmeg.
Bake pudding on a baking sheet until center is just set; about 50 minutes to one hour. Let stand for 15 minutes before serving.
Serves 6-8 as a side dish. Though the four of us finished it all in one sitting!
My corn pudding recipe is based on one by Ruth Reichl in The Gourmet Cookbook