'Tis the Season

We are firm believers in eating, drinking and being merry – no matter the time of year.  This is how I was raised and this is what I know.  Partner-in-crime is of the same opinion.  Thank my stars for that.  Birthdays, summer shebangs, autumn soirees, engagement gatherings (my sister last summer) and sometimes holidays (not sure about this year), we like to gather with our friends. Some of my fondest memories are those of my parent's dinner parties.  We traditionally lure the masses with promises of phenomenal company, gastronomy, music, an al fresco fire pit and white lightening.  When it is impossible to gather everyone, we still try to tempt a few.  Dinner parties have always been a favorite means of mine by which to entertain.  Six can squeeze around our cozy dining room table.  We light candles, put back libations, serve grub and enjoy the intimate conversation that such a number allows.

I hosted my first dinner party during my early days in Dusseldorf, Germany. Looking back I think I was maybe 23 years of age.  Our guests –  a German man of Spanish descent and a woman from Jakarta – were both avid cooks and gourmet eaters.  Naturally, the stakes were high.  To start, I made a creamy Parmesan artichoke dip that I served with knackebrot.  I think we might have been the only people in the great state of Nordrhein Westfalen with a Weber grill so naturally our guests expected the American friend to grill meat.  So as not to disappoint we served a beautiful piece of Argentinian beef tenderloin weighing five and a bit pounds.  We picked this up in Frankfurt at my parent's butcher.  It should be noted that they lived approximately 3 hours down the street.  For sides, I served corn sautéed in a pan with Thai red chilies.  New potatoes roasted in the oven for just under an hour and were eventually drizzled and mixed with olive oil, chopped mint and rock salt.

I am almost certain that I served a green of sorts and as no self-respecting German meal is complete without bread, I procured a baguette from my baker.  I painted it in butter mixed with chopped cilantro and garlic, wrapped it in foil and popped it in the oven.  Easy and delicious.  Please note this bread is best done on a hot grill.  For dessert I dished up a cheese plate that came to fruition thanks to the cheesemonger in town willing to help the inexperienced American girl.  Add halved figs to the plate she instructed.  Had I heard of pepper jam?  If our guests had a sweet tooth, there was apple crumble.  I carefully peeled apples, squeezed lemons and pulsed sugar with oats.  Not bad for my first attempt at a dinner party never mind that preparation took me all day and part of the day before and I spent a good chunk of the evening in the kitchen.  It was actually a marvel that I was even able to sit down and eat with our guests. Deep breaths.

Fast forward ten plus years and numerous gatherings later, lessons have been learned in the arena of dinner party planning.  I like to get my ducks in a row early so as to eliminate potential feelings of distress or strain.  I have been informed that when time is of the essence, I become emotional in the kitchen. Partner-in-crime is wise to ask what he can do (%$#@ I respond) and immediately disappear.  Do not fall victim to such behavior.  It can and does get ugly.  Unless your gathering is a collaborative effort, tackle as much as you can in advance.  Salads that sit nicely over night.  Dips that actually taste better the next day.  Appetizers that call for easy assembly.  The day before, I do the shopping and map out my plan of attack.  I am quite anal by nature so organization is how I roll. Easier said than done but it is important to try and not sweat the small stuff.  Before your guests arrive, call the bartender and pour yourself a well deserved drink.

For the six or more gatherings, we like to serve Pork Carnitas.  They are the business.  You braise a pork shoulder for four hours in a blend of liquid and spices yielding the most tender yet crispy meat.  The sky is the limit in terms of pairings.  During last night's affair, we served the meat with shredded purple cabbage, scooped avocado, pickled red onions, chopped green onions, sour cream, quarters of lime, cotija and cheddar cheeses as well as jalapenos.   Beans are a must.  We like to make our own refried beans - 1 can of drained pinto beans in a hot pan with bacon and chicken broth.  Black beans with paprika pair nicely too.  Cilantro makes a fitting garnish.  We have an amazing Mexican grocer a few miles from our home that we discovered a pair of months ago.  It is here that I first learned how to make Ancho chili powder in my own kitchen.  Now we venture to our supermercado when we need cotija cheese, hot sauces and the best selection of avocados as well as peppers in the city.  

These make for incredible leftovers.  The meat and sides can be parlayed into a host of meals.  Soups, salads, tortillas, hot sandwiches, on their own.  This morning I enjoyed mine with two fried eggs and all the trimmings.

Buen provecho

Pork Carnitas
Adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz


8 lb pork shoulder with the bone in
A charitable amount of kosher salt
A healthy glug of olive oil
1 three inch cinnamon stick
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp Ancho chili powder
1 tsp cumin
1 TBS maple syrup
3 bay leaves
5 cloves of chopped garlic

Vamos a cocinar

1.  Perhaps you are lucky and have a butcher who can cut the meat for you.  If not, take a deep breath, bring out a sharp knife and cut the meat into big chunks.  We cut ours as best we can yielding 5 to 7 inch chunks   Get as much off the bone as you can.  Now put the meat together and salt generously.  I like to use David's kosher salt.  Put the lone bone (that probably looks like T Rex had its way with it) in the bag in the fridge to reuse in a different dish.

2.  Pour a healthy glug of oil in your Dutch oven. Turn the heat high and add the meat in a single layer.  Do not pile meat on top of meat.  This is important as we are now browning the meat to secure a lovely crisp exterior.  I usually have to do this in two rounds.  No problem.  It takes approximately 30 minutes.  Pretend that you are frying chicken.  Wear an apron please.

3.  Once all your meat is browned, remove it from the Dutch oven and set aside.  Turn the heat off.  Now you want to carefully add 1 cup of water to the pot. Stand back as the pot will hiss at you.  Embrace it.  A few seconds later you can scrape the flavorful bits off of the bottom.  

4.  Return the meat to the Dutch oven and fill with water until it is approximately 60% full.  Now add the cinnamon, chili powder, Ancho chili powder, cumin, maple syrup, bay leaves and chopped garlic back to the Dutch oven.  Stir the liquid around the meat so as to dissolve the spices.

5.  Put the Dutch oven in the oven - no top necessary.  Your oven should be around 350 degrees.  Our oven is delinquent so we crank it up a bit higher.  You want to let this braise for 3 to 3.5 hours.  Check on it every once in a while and turn the meat.  As you are braising, the liquid will disappear over time.

*Note - Invite your friends over sometime within the 3 to 3.5 hour stretch as your kitchen and home will smell amazing.  All will be impressed.*

6.  After 3.5 hours, your Dutch oven will contain caramelized, brown, aromatic meat.  Let it sit for approximately 15 minutes to cool and carefully shred the meat.  Return it to the oven for another 30 minutes or so (keep an eye on it) so the meat crisps nicely.

7.  Congratulations Chef!  Serve and sit back as your guests overwhelm you with praise.

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