Outside of writing, cooking is probably my favorite creative outlet. Annoyingly I only get to do it rarely because cooking for one is utterly joyless for me. If I can’t share what I’m making, I don’t see much point in it. This has more to do with my personality than my menu. It’s like how I don’t consider a story done until I get a solid bit of feedback from a handful of my fans.
Anyway, a few times a year I do get the chance to cook for a crowd and I always post my trials and errors here, usually along with pictures of the food…or at least of the weekend. I took zero pictures last weekend so this will be an even more absurd exercise than normal as I’ll just throw stock photos into the mix.
1. Pasta with sausage and broccoli rabe
This is quickly becoming a go-to dish for me. It’s easy as hell but it uses enough weirdo ingredients that people go “Oooh” and “Ahhh” and if you play it right you come across as a genius.
Basically if you can taste food for texture than you can make this. Get four hot italian sausages, split open the casing, brown and mash up the meat in a pan.
Get a bunch of broccoli rabe. This is “Oooh” ingredient number one. I bought it at the A&P, but it’s good to lie and say you went to some farmer’s market thing. You steam this. If you don’t know how to steam something, well, you put it in a pot with enough water to make steam but not so much that the broccoli is drowning in it. Ideally you have a steamer insert to go into the pot to make an inch of room between the water at the bottom and the broccoli.
Now this is important. As it’s steaming, TASTE THE BROCCOLI RABE. You should have prepped it by snipping it into little bits and discarding the stems when they get too thick. So pop a bit into your mouth now and then until it has the right texture. The flavor will be bitter, that’s what broccoli rabe tastes like, but the texture should be pleasing.
Crunchy? You’re not there yet. Mushy? You went too far. Throw it out and pretend like you planned on a meat sauce instead.
It should be about ten minutes total.
Pasta is the same way. Salt your water and bring it to a boil. Throw two boxes of shells or orecchiette (you can gain fancy points for using this) into the water once it’s boiling. Stir. Cover. When it comes back to a boil take the cover off or you’ll have a boil over. Then taste after seven minutes or so. Mushy? You’re fucked. Crunchy? Start tasting a shell every minute or so. Get it the hell out of the water sooner rather than later because there’s a lot of carry over heat so a little under will turn out to be nicely done while a little over will turn into mush in the strainer.
Dump the cooked sausage into a big bowl, dump the broccoli rabe in, dump the pasta in, stir. After that’s mixed start crumbling your blue or Gorgonzola cheese in. You want some of it to melt in the heat of the pasta but some bits should stay whole so you get contrast.
Again, this dish involves cooking three ingredients and then stirring them together but when you present it as “Orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe and a hint of blue cheese to bring it all together” people will think you’re a wizard.
2. Beet salad
I love beets. My friend thinks they taste dirty. I think he’s never washed his beets. Beets are also easy. You give them a rinse, cut the ends off, drizzle them in oil, then wrap them in foil and put them in a 350 oven for about an hour. Let them cool and then peel the skin off. You will get red dye all over the god-damned place and your hands will look like you’ve been butchering sheep. It’s fun. Once the skin is off cube your beets and TASTE THEM. If they’re too crunchy, back in the oven they go. When they have a nice plump, juiciness, they’re done. Mine had to go back in the oven. Didn’t hurt ’em none.
Now here was my big breakthrough this year, I decided to add mango to the cubed beets. I took a mango, cut the flesh from that giant annoying seed in the middle, peeled away the flesh from the skin, cubed it, and threw it in the bowl with the beets.
Complicated, I know.
I also added a splash of Balsamic Vinegar. Then I crushed some walnuts over the top. With my fist. Because I’m all man. I mean the walnuts were out of their shells, I didn’t crush walnut shells with my fist. But shelled walnuts from a bag were crushed over the top.
This was a big winner.
3. Pulled Pork
I’ve been doing things to pork shoulders for six or seven years now and the fussier I get with things the less happy I am with the results. This year…oh by the way you should be drinking at every stage of the entire cooking process for all of these recipes. Anyway, this year there was a drunken debate about brining with a friend of mine. He said that too long can make the pork taste “wormy” and I said that I agreed but that some brining was needed and then I think we quoted Always Sunny for awhile.
But we did, indeed, brine the pork shoulder. We had a picnic shoulder cut…thing of pork. To make a brine you heat some water in a pot and add a ton of salt. How do you know how much salt? TASTE THE WATER. It should be ocean salty or saltier. Then you need to cool it down because you can’t put pork into hot water to brine because that’s disgusting.
So why heat the water in the first place? Because cold water won’t let as much salt dissolve in it as hot water does. So you up the heat, dissolve a lot of salt in it, then cool your brine down. If you’re adding ice to cool it keep in mind that the ingredients of ice are: water. So you’re adding water to your brine. So your salt level will decrease as the ice melts. It can be easier just to shove the pot in the freezer for awhile so you don’t have to think as much. Remember, you should be drinking so thinking should be an anathema to you at this point.
Then the pork goes into the brine and the whole thing goes somewhere at a temperature safe to store meat overnight.
Now here’s where I switched things up this year. Normally I take a big pan and put quartered onions and garlic along the bottom, and add some liquid (water, apple juice, bourbon, a mixture of some sort, whatever) then put the pork in and tent it with foil and let it sit in a 250 oven for most of the day. I’ve never been crazy happy with the results.
This year I opted not to tent it.
I do need to stress the quartered onions in the pan. You don’t want the pork just sitting on the bottom of the pan cause it’ll overcook there and get stuck and blech.
Anyway, no tenting, 250 for most of the day, and then I cranked it up to 450 for an hour. This did…something. I don’t know, I think the tenting in past years has ended up steaming the pork more than slow cooking it. The object is to make the fat at the top of the pork (oh put your pork in fat side up) render down through the meat, self basting the whole sucker.
No tenting seemed to help that process more. Again, I think it was steaming too much before, and then the blast of high heat at the end really let her get some color and run through the last bit of fat.
By the way, cracklin’s, i.e. the pieces of fat that have rendered entirely into browned chips, are fucking delicious.
Then you pull the pork and serve it up with things and stuff.
4. Pesto Pasta
Here’s another “recipe” that’s me-proof but makes people “Oooh” and “Ahhh.” You don’t even cook anything here except the pasta. You make the whole thing in a Cuisinart. First garlic, that can be mildly tricky because garlic cloves in a Cuisinart like to bounce around like lunatics and not chop but on pulse you can get the suckers to pulverize. Then you add basil. Not dried, herby, basil, but fresh basil still on the stem.
Again, bought it at the A&P. Wash it, cut off the thicker parts of the stem, then into the Cuisinart. You’ll get a weird half result here with leaves smooshing against the side but that’s okay because ingredient three is olive oil. Drizzle it in until you get a nice smooth paste consistency. Then maybe some shredded parmigiana. Some people add cream here too. Most of this is optional. Again, you should be drinking, so have fun with it. I actually don’t remember what I added. Except salt. How much salt? Well first you TASTE YOUR PESTO. Then add some salt. Then TASTE AGAIN. When you like the taste you’re there.
At the end of all of this I throw in some pistachios. I don’t turn them to mush, just pulse until they break down. This is another “Ooooh” thing that makes you seem like a wizard. They add a nice crunch, distinguish your pesto from other pestos, and they’re green and salty so it’s a nice match.
Then cook some pasta and mix.
Just go to the Alton Brown recipe. It looks like a pain but good lord it makes fantastic wings.
6. Cheese plate? Salad? Grilled things?
I don’t know. I cook a lot when I get the chance and was constantly throwing things together.
Just keep in mind that people love eating, it brings them together, and if you have a lot of heavy dishes you should make something lighter to balance it out. Too much light stuff and you should anchor it with something heavy. Too much tangy? Add some sweet. Too much starch? Make more meat.
Oh and always drink while you cook. Always. That’s the most important part.
Unless you don’t drink.
In which case bring whatever you love into the kitchen with you, because if you aren’t having fun doing it then the food gods will be angry and your food will pay and then really what’s the point?