A Congenial Table.

As we inch toward normalcy, the first thing on my ‘can’t wait to-do it list’ is visiting all our children and grandchildren.  After that, I am eagerly looking forward to the day I can call up friends and say, “Come for cocktails!”  I long to plan a party, dress up and raise a glass with my favorite people.

As I started to dream of my next social gathering, I wondered who the first person was to wake up one morning and think – I’ll just dig out the martini glasses, whip up some canapes, purchase copious amounts of ice and have the gang over for drinks.  One story is it all started with eggnog.

According to the Huffington Post, “The principal antecedent for the cocktail party comes from September 1890 when Mrs. Richard S. Dana introduced the concept of an ‘eggnog party’ in the society resort of Lenox, Mass., parties she would throw every autumn for years, when the goldenrod was in blossom.  Following the lead of the Lenox “cottagers,” it became the height of the Gilded Age fashion to host a party around a bowl of eggnog.”  

As much as I admire a beautiful punch bowl, I don’t think I would enjoy an entire evening consuming a dairy-oriented drink.  Luckily, apparently neither did Clara Walsh of St. Louis, Missouri.  In 1917, Clara gave a highly publicized party that captured the curiosity of the public.  She hosted a “Baby Party” during which adults drank booze from baby bottles.  Inviting over 50 of her closest friends for a one-hour party of drinking and merriment, she termed it a Cocktail Party.  There were Bronx cocktails (gin, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth and orange juice), Clover Leafs (gin, grenadine, lime juice and egg white, garnished with a mint leaf), highballs, gin fizzes, martinis and Manhattans.  I am curious how much staff she had for the occasion. The local newspapers showered her with praise and her inspiration spread quickly throughout the city. 

The gatherings I see in my mind’s eye harken back to the 50s and 60s.  Following World War II and the mass exodus to the newly sprouting suburbs, people were removed from the cities and bars and found ways to entertain their nearby neighbors and friends in their home.  

Entertaining at home became almost an obsession for some.  They perfected the art of the cocktail.  Out came the bowls of olives and nuts.  The party dress was renamed the cocktail dress and shelled peanuts were no longer simply peanuts, but cocktail peanuts.  Checking out the array of finger foods, you could pretty much count on the ubiquitous silver chafing dish brimming with warm cocktail weenies swimming in questionable red sauce!

As much as I love a dinner party, cocktail parties are much more hassle free to plan.  They don’t have my biggest dinner party stress of trying to schedule the dishes so they are ready at the right time.  Canapes can be made well ahead of time, giving me time to slip into something more festive plus no worries that the souffle will flop! It gives me an opportunity to use the sparkly stemware I have collected over the decades.  Some vintage, some not, I have been known as the woman with a glass for everything, a title I am happy to bear!  

So someday soon I will be gathering my favorite appetizer recipes, polishing up my stemware collection, and sending you a proper invite, even if the goldenrod is not in blossom.  Now I just need to find the perfect hostess apron…

C’est la vie.

A Congenial Table…

My baby jus’ wrote me a letter…

Every year as Valentine’s Day approaches, I embark on finding the perfect setting to create an atmosphere of intimate romance for our table for two. And since love is not something to be celebrated only one day a year, I decided to indulge in some fun this past Saturday.

I have been searching the internet for inspiration and was rewarded most serendipitously!  Most of the tablespaces presented for Valentine’s Day focus on the color red and hearts.  I wasn’t interested in purchasing “heart” plates and I’m not a huge fan of red, but one place setting of an older pattern from Mikasa caught my eye.  It was a little more subtle in its pattern but sadly, the pattern was no longer available.  Mr. Smith and I had previously used Replacements, Ltd. when we broke some dinner plates, so I hopped onto their website in hopes they might have some pieces.  One click led to another and then – there they were!  The sweetest little salad plates covered in script writing and named Love Letter.  As I entered my credit card information for the purchase, my dinner theme wrote itself.

Mr. Smith and I collaborated on the menu for Saturday night and agreed to keep it pretty simple.  The main attraction would be New York Times Cooking Filet Mignon with Mushrooms and Madeira Wine Sauce accompanied by Wegman’s Potatoes Gratin Rosemary & Thyme (so easy and so yummy), green beans with raspberry clafoutis for dessert.  Saturday morning, I made the clafoutis.  If you haven’t made one before, I highly recommend giving it a try.  This French light and custardy baked dessert is simple and has never disappointed.  With our dessert prepared, my meal prep responsibilities were pretty much complete which gave me time to focus on setting the table.

In addition to purchasing the new small plates, I ordered a couple of glass bead chargers from Etsy.  I usually try to work with what I have on hand but was really in the mood to add a bit of sparkle.  Plus, the chargers can do double duty as platters on a buffet table.  Lots of candles, some beautiful spray roses and a little surprise held back to add at the last minute.

With Chris Botti’s album When I Fall in Love adding to the ambiance, Mr. Smith outdid himself in preparing the filets and sauce.  The mushrooms, shallots and wine combined into an exquisite sauce for our delicious filets.  Mr. Smith’s choice of a tasty Bordeaux was the perfect complement our dinner.

Back to that little surprise I added to our table setting just before we sat down to dinner.  Little stacks of handwritten letters tied together with a ribbon. I have saved letters that Mr. Smith has written to me over the years, the oldest ones from the month after we married in 1978 when he went on a camping trip in Canada with his father.  All the letters were written before email and text became a way of life, when either he was traveling for work or we were in the middle of a geographic move, a literal timeline of our life together.  He had no idea that I had saved them.

After we cleared the dinner plates, I poured us each another glass of wine and sat and sipped while I listened to my husband of 43 years read each and every one aloud to me.  The letters are very dear to me.  The thought that went into them, the time it took to write them and the journey they took to arrive, sometimes crossing the Atlantic Ocean.  I wonder if when I am gone my children will go through my box of treasured memories examining them to get a fuller picture of their parents, or if they will consider them my memories and nothing they need to see.

Either way, I hope that one day they will share with my grandchildren and greatgrandchildren that Mr. Smith wrote me letters that I treasured enough to save for decades.  Maybe they will be inspired to write a letter or two of their own.

C’est la vie. 

A Congenial Table

No matter what your political beliefs or affiliations, we are living through a unique moment in our nation’s history and it’s taking a toll on all of us.  After turning on the TV last Wednesday afternoon and seeing rioters attacking the Capitol, I lost my sense of invulnerability.  I don’t have the words to articulately express my feelings, but I am left under an oppressive cloud, making finding the pleasures in everyday life far more difficult.  Although Sunday was a half a week away, I thought about 86ing my plans for the first Congenial Table.   By the end of the night Sunday, I was so glad I hadn’t.

Mountain of Love, Mountain of Love or How Two Old People Ended Up Dancing in Their Kitchen on a Sunday Night

While Mr. Smith is unequivocally the head chef in our home, I am not without my skills.  I have decided my goal for 2021 and A Congenial Table is (at least) once a month to come up with the menu, do the shopping and cooking, allowing him a day off.

First, I needed a menu. We both love a good crab cake and I knew they were within my wheelhouse.  I Googled ‘What to serve with crab cakes?’, added a salad, a vegetable and crispy potato and had a plan for a delectable meal.  I remembered Mr. Smith had a crispy potato recipe he was wanting to try, so I broke my own rule before I even got started.  I assigned the potato dish to him.

Saturday morning we set off to the market to do the shopping.  We found almost everything on our list and in one case, something that wasn’t on our list.  I wasn’t going to serve a dessert, but Mr. Smith spotted a small container of cream puffs in the bakery and somehow they ended up in our cart. In addition to the menu, I had been thinking about my table setting.  I have replaced our Christmas table linens with a favorite gray and white tablecloth and wanted all white flowers for the table.  The flower selection that morning was very disappointing, and I left empty handed.  

After my morning cappuccino on Sunday, I set off to a different market to check their flower supply and grab a couple of things we had forgotten.  There I was rewarded with some white hydrangeas.

This striking black ceramic vase was made by my oldest son. I added the hydrangeas and had my centerpiece. Perfect.

I wanted to serve Sunday dinner at 6:00, but somehow the day got away from me. My well laid out agenda was to make the salad dressing, prep the salad and the put the crab cakes together in the afternoon.  But we had a late lunch, read instead of prepping dinner and then went for a long walk.  Now I was really behind schedule!  

Back from our walk, I dove into my dinner prep, annoyed at myself and not in the best of moods.  When I finally got to a lull in my prep time, I went to grab a shower.  For dinner on New Year’s Day, I had donned an Eileen Fisher black dress and it had made me feel festive.  The idea was to do the same.  And what did I put on post shower with freshly coiffed hair – my silky, sexy pink and black pajamas!  In my defense, they are lovely pajamas and in this case I will refer to them as les pyjamas to make them sound more elegant.

As I was putting the finishing touches on the salad, Mr. Smith popped open a bottle of bubbly.  A dry sparkling wine goes well with the sweet crab cakes with its creamy sauce, or you could serve a classic Chablis or fine white burgundy.  Sitting down at the table with the snowy bouquet in my son’s vase and candlesticks gifted to me by my mother-in-law, I began to relax.  Wynton Marsalis, Standard Time, Vol. 3 was playing.  Wynton on the trumpet, his dad Ellis on the piano and the candlelight were working their magic.

For our salad, I chose Pomegranate, Arugula Salad by Tyler Florence at Food Network. I used an arugula mix with some other baby lettuces rather than all arugula. Topped with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings, toasted walnuts and the red, juicy pomegranate seeds, it was a yummy start to our dinner.

After salad, it was time for the main course.

We have tried many a crab cake recipe, but once we hit on Martha Stewart’s, we’ve never looked further.  I cut the recipe in half, making four cakes.  We each had one on Sunday and now have two in the freezer for a future dinner.  Speaking from experience, they do freeze beautifully.  Martha uses a mixture of jumbo lump crab and small size crab.  We have sometimes been able to find a can that includes both, but not this time.  I just bought a pound of “premium” crab, then broke some of it up a bit and left some larger chunks.  While Martha suggests serving with tartar sauce, we prefer remoulade.  

We steamed fresh green beans as a side to make ourselves feel better about devouring the rich crab cakes. The elegant cakes were nearly overshadowed by Mr. Smith’s Crispy Roast Potatoes.  They were delicious!  Fluffy and crispy at the same time.  As a side note, we did think they required a little extra roasting time, about 15 minutes longer than the recipe called for.

By the time we finished dinner, I was much more at ease. I spent a few minutes tidying up the kitchen, then it was time to serve the illicit cream puffs.  I decided to create a faux croquembouche.  As I started artistically forming my creation, Mr. Smith began singing Mountain of Love, or at least the bits and bobs of it that he knew.

Then through the magic of iTunes, Johnny Rivers’s voice filled our apartment, crooning to us in his soulful way.  I grabbed Mr. Smith and in the perfect end to our evening, we danced around the kitchen.

Ha!  Actually, not the end of the evening.  We luckily had bubbly left to complement the cream puffs.  So, for a week that started out really sad and scary, I was able to move forward with my dance partner to turn it into a A MOST Congenial Table.

C’est la vie.