manly marinara

For my birthday, I decided I wanted to have one last dinner party in this great apartment before all the furniture, pots, pans, plates are sold.

I have few delusions and many failures to speak of when it comes to cooking for guests.  A logistically unsound person to begin with, I am flustered and have been known to spend the entire evening managing my missteps in the workspace while the party rolls on elsewhere in the house; if the wine and company are good, my frenetics may go unnoticed.  By the grace of Mark Bittman and Anthony Bourdain (God surely does not exist in my kitchen), I’ve pulled off a few wins in the dinner party category.  Last night was a win.

My issue in the kitchen is timing.  Therefore, I started the day before with my homemade marinara wickedness. Stewed canned tomatoes have a lot of water and need to be boiled down; also, the red wine (always cook with what you drink; idiots use  “cooking” wine) in the sauce needs time to sit and have a long friendly conversation with the herbs and garlic in the sauce (oh, for the days when I can grow my own herbs).  I recommend this day-in-advance prep for all red sauces (and soups, incidentally).  The day-in-advance prep also works for larger dinner parties because ten is not an easy number to prepare for.  If you want time to actually socialize with the guests and you want a casual atmosphere, this menu is perfect.

This is not to say that you won’t be in the kitchen the day of your party.  Yesterday, I felt like I was in the kitchen all day, washing dishes, adding to the sauce, washing more dishes, cleaning around the house, coming back to the sauce, adding more of what was needed.  The layering of the flavors really allows for a rich, full-bodied final product.  Round out your day-before-prep with as many mushrooms, spinachi (the plural of spinach) or other veggies (eggplant or zucchini) as possible.

I’ve never made the same sauce twice.  Aside from the aforementioned tips, it is important to note that I really don’t work with a recipe.  When I set off on a marinara adventure, I have the basic procedures in mind, the little signatures that make the base of my sauce unique (there are a few secrets I only divulge to dinner guests).  However, it could be the external variables such as the season, the guests, the wine (or even if I am feeling a bit cocky and adventurous from a successful day at the keyboard) that influence the final product.  In any case, tasting as I go, doting over the concoction and adding what’s needed/desired is effort that, while certainly time-consuming, is absolutely not labor intensive.

The smells that emanate the house invariably will bring a certain wife into the kitchen.  But this is yet another part of cooking in general that I truly enjoy.  For this aspiring cook, putting together a meal–whether it be for two, ten or twenty–requires outside discernment and suggestion.  With Nic’s help, the fashioning of this sauce yesterday, specifically, was like she was helping me edit a short story: masking a flavor that was too strong was like a deletion of a superfluous or poorly-written sentence; adding a squeeze of lemon at the very end was like choosing one synonym over another.

In addition to the red sauce, there was also a Chef Nikolai standard.  Anyone who’s anyone knows the pride I take in my Caesar salad, the recipe I took from Ma and made my own (she never used anchovies, an omission which I cannot fathom).  But I won’t go on about this.  Caesars are simple and if you want the recipe, I’ll give it to you.  Again, over time, you’ll make it your own depending on your taste.

None of this would have been complete without Nic’s herbaceous, spicy garlic bread.  Also, she made some killer chocolate chip cookies.  In addition to the chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, the real coup de grace was when she decided to sprinkle just a few grains of sea salt on the top.  The results were a perfect balance of sweet and savory that could be dipped in either milk or–less-traditionally–the remainders of your wine.

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