First it was a big project due at work. Then it was end-of-term projects due at school. Then I had to have surgery. Surgery! UGH! And then my computer died! (and is still dead even though it has a new hard drive!) UGH UGH! All this CRAP was sucking the joy out of me, and I neglected this new little blog of mine for two months, and was in a foul mood, and generally wanted to jump out a window. So I decided to have a little dinner party before the holidays to get things back on track. It was just the thing.
There's always an element of performance anxiety when cooking for an audience; you want everything to be good enough that your guests will come back! I went through a lot of possible menus: Moroccan lamb stew and couscous, fried chicken with biscuits and coleslaw, a big roast with garlic mashed potatoes. But those all sounded so serious, and I wanted dinner to be a hands-on kind of meal, where you really have to get into the food — lots of slurping, dipping bread into sauce, wrestling a bit with some unwieldiness. There's something about that kind of shared experience that makes everybody loosen up, drink more wine, have more fun. Maybe the word I'm looking for is unstuffy. (Is that a word?)
So after much deliberation and thumbing through recipes, I decided on my mom's cioppino, but with more shellfish and more spice, along with this tangy stand-up salad, with the addition of endive leaves. Some of the guests are writers working on memoirs, so for dessert we had the addictive hazelnut Madelines from my favorite bakery, Sweet Melissa.
Cioppino is a fish stew, and my mom's recipe is what she calls a dump-and-stir — easy, fast and flexible. I put together the savory, spicy tomato broth, then added the fish and shellfish just before we sat down to eat so the chunks of meat wouldn't turn into little erasers.
I had some reservations about making this dish, because I'd made it for a crowd once in Boston while I was there for a journalism conference a few years ago. I was staying with friends of friends of a friend, and they invited several of their friends and neighbors over for dinner, and as a thank-you for putting me up, I offered to make the main course. Bostonians love seafood! Right? I had been really happy and excited with how it turned out, but during dinner nobody said a word about the stew, instead praising at length someone who made a herb spread by chopping fresh thyme into a stick of butter. I though, in the words of Christian McBride, Huh, I guess they didn't dig it.
This time, I think everybody dug it. I suppose you can never be totally sure. But a few had seconds, and most of the food was gone by the time they left, which must be a good sign. In any case, I liked it's spiciness, the way the shellfish opened to reveal their plump tastiness and how the pieces of soft fish flaked apart on my tongue.
We ate and talked, drank too much wine, and after everybody had gone, and after I finished cleaning up the kitchen carnage around one in the morning, I decided to have another bowl. My mood had been bolstered, and I was ready to face the holidays.