Jessie Saunders knows what it's like to cook and entertain in a tiny kitchen. For years, she and her husband lived in a small apartment in New York's Greenwich Village, where, she says, "If everyone was seated around the kitchen table for dinner and someone had to use the facilities, everybody had to get up so that person could get to the bathroom door."
Her casual attitude towards entertaining is, in part, why her cookbook The Two of Us... and Friends is so charming and approachable...Another reason it's a delight to read is that Jessie illustrates her recipes herself, with delicate, whimsical doodles of fruits, veggies, and decor. The book is organized by party size, with menus for small, intimate dinners up to large cocktail parties.
Although Jessie has moved out of her West Village apartment to a bigger (although still small by the average American standards) kitchen, she has some good tips on efficient, graceful entertaining with out a lot of stress. When she's not catering or cooking for friends, she runs Kitchen Cabinet (with business parter Isabelle Krishana), a service to help families organize their kitchens and prepare healthy, home-cooked meals.
You give menus for all sizes of parties. What's your favorite sized party to host?
I can cook for six or eight people with minor stress and minimal planning. I can also maybe do something extra that I can't do when it's fourteen for a buffet, like poaching quail eggs for the first course or make a more elaborate dessert. Also, six or eight around a table is so convivial. It's large enough to have a good hubbub, but you can catch up with everybody.
When you start planning a dinner party, what is the first thing you decide upon?
Actually, there's no rhyme or reason to this. Sometimes, especially in the summer, I decide what I'm going to do by what's at the farmer's market. I actually find this easier than the stress of choosing a whole menu and then having to improvise at the market because they don't have x, y, or z. That said, sometimes there are requests (usually from my husband) or a particular jones for something (like artichokes right now). One thing I always consider is that everybody will be eating in our kitchen, as our apartment has an open plan, so there's no hiding the mass destruction if I have to use 15 pans and three small appliances. I tend to shy away from sautéeing at the last minute or stovetop grilling because of the smoke.
Any special, signature moves?
I like to have salad and cheese after dinner. It's sort of a Euro-centric practice, but having two courses instead of one after the main course gives everyone more time to linger over their wine and thus is a great way of getting slightly lubricated people to give up their secrets.
Are there certain things you always prepare in advance?
Unless I'm making a soufflé, I always have dessert totally done. And I like to have the first course ready to go, even if I have to assemble it. I get really jealous of everybody yukking it up around the pistachio nuts while I'm still working in the kitchen. In fact, I like to have the main course ready with less than five minutes worth of stuff to do once our friends arrive.
Any tips for having everything for the main meal ready at the same time?
The best way is to learn what's forgiving. For instance, overcooking fish is not a good thing, but braised beef short ribs, very gently reheated, can bubble away until everybody is ready to eat. Also, I usually do a room temperature or chilled first course. Remember that any piece of meat does well with a nice rest out of the oven, so you can sauté vegetables as a side during that rest time. The biggest thing to remember is that this is supposed to be fun. No one is paying you for anything, and if the lamb is just warm instead of hot, who cares?
Do you have any recipe suggestions for novice party throwers that always please?
For a first time dinner party, a braised dish — nothing you have to carve with six expectant people sitting at your table. In the summer, I love a giant salad full of good veggies, hard-boiled eggs, and seared tuna or poached salmon. A friend of mine does this great dish with high-quality, store-bought cheese ravioli. She tosses it very well-drained but still hot with chopped tomatoes, basil, green olives, and arugula, and it's dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. The ratio of salad to ravioli should be 1:1, and the heat wilts some of the arugula and herbs, while others remain crunchy and salad-like.
For foolproof appetizers, one I like is an onion tart, which you can make so many ways, either with a quiche base in a tart shell or a on a pizza dough with olives and a bit of anchovy. Another would be steamed asparagus topped with prosciutto or chopped, hard-boiled egg. Or, buy some Burrata, an amazing, creamy mozzarella, and give everyone a slice of that instead of egg. Dress with some nice olive oil, good salt, and lemon juice.
What is your best tip for entertaining in a small kitchen?
Cooking in a small space is all about doing it ahead of time and knowing what needs to be on the burners and what can be in the oven. Also, try to be neat. It is true that the best cooks clean up after themselves.
Any memories from a particularly smashing party that you want to share?
I just threw a going-away party for a close friend who was moving to China. I was cooking almost everything at my house and then moving it to an outdoor spot, so I was a bit stressed. I was also grilling a leg of lamb on a Weber kettle barbecue for the first time, and I was going to be doing it in the dark, after two glasses of wine. I'm a city kid, so grilling is one of my weak spots. But the night was gorgeous and warm, and the dinner was a hit. I was glad to be able to do that for my friend, keep my sense of humor about grilling, and give a party I was proud of.
You can buy The Two of Us...and Friends at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell's.
Also check out Jessie's first cookbook, Not on Love Alone, a collection of recipes for newlyweds.
Related: Our Answer to, "What Can I Bring?"
(Images: Jessie Saunders; Barnes & Noble)