Having friends over for dinner is always more fun when you put them to work. No, really! Last weekend I pulled out an old cookbook (Fondue Cook-In from 1968—how sixties is that title!) and did something I haven’t done since the seventies—served fondue. Not the hearty Swiss Gruyère cheese fondue, which warms you on a winter night, but the beef fondue which as far as I know was an American development (correct me if I’m wrong) and still fun patio food on a summer night.
When I asked to have the beef cut in one-inch cubes for fondue, the butcher said “like kebabs?” so I don’t think he gets this request much either. “Exactly,” I replied. Later, on the patio, I served a dark-leaf balsamic vinaigrette salad while the oil heated up, and then we started cooking our meat on color-coded forks. Soon everybody was experimenting with cooking times and sauces and the conversation flowed. We had four sauces: a hot mustard, a sweet mustard, a soy-sesame sauce, and a cold yogurt dip I mixed (because the butcher’s kebab remark made me think of it) a plain Greek yogurt with chopped dill, tarragon, chives, and parsley, chilled all day. It turned out to be a delicious dip for veggies as well as small cubes of sizzling steak, and was a great hit.
That chilled yogurt with is part of the Persian dinner we fix about every three months or so when a friend that I knew in Tehran comes over. Only we usually make it with chopped cucumber and dill (mast va khiar). Jon and I have dinner down to a system—shopping together is part of the fun. I cooked the rice and scoop out melon balls to marinate with fresh peaches and a little sugar and rosewater for dessert (paludeh), while he mixes the chilled yogurt and chops onion to season the kebabs. A few ready-made sides like fresh-baked sangak, eggplant (kukuye bademjan), and a parsley/spinach casserole (kukuye sabzi), and we have a feast—ideally outside on a summer evening. My earliest memories of picnics are in Persia.
I’m not the only one that puts guests to work. Last spring we visited friends in Florida who enjoy sous vide cooking—foods slow-cooked in an airtight bag while immersed in a temperature-controlled water bath. It was great for salmon and the next night’s pork chops came out tender, but they don’t brown in the water bath, so I got to torch them manually. After dinner, we applied the fire to the sugar on a crème brûlée and I was enchanted. I’m not planning to get a sous vide cooker. My counter is cluttered enough already. But I sure like wielding that torch! Like a Bunsen burner in the kitchen!
This could have been my dream dissertation topic: communal cooking, especially outdoors. Is there a culture that doesn’t have some tradition of shared meal preparation? Think of the camaraderie around picnics and beach fires, think of s’mores, Swiss fondue, Korean barbecue, and Mongolian hot pots. I remember cooking meat and vegetables in simmering broth at a hot pot restaurant in Chongqing, China, laughing as we struggled to retrieve the tasty morsels with our chopsticks. So watch out if you have dinner at my house. I might just put you to work.