Food & Drink The no-pressure cook

In Perfect Recipes, the host with the most is the one who can relax and enjoy the guests

At a particularly tedious point in the preparations for our last dinner party — I was tearing around with the dust mop and my husband was meticulously scrubbing the bathroom sink — my better half pointed out that our guests were coming to see us, not our well-polished porcelain. He was right, of course, so why is it that entertaining so often turns a three-course meal into a three-ring dog-and-pony show?

In Perfect Recipes for Having People Over, author Pam Anderson, who will make a guest chef appearance at Central Market on Thursday, suggests that home cooks drop the word “entertain,” which implies performance, and say instead “having people over.” “That’s what you say when you want to do it,” she says. “What’s really important is sharing a meal with people, around a dinner table, and the friendships that are deepened by that experience. It takes the pressure off when it’s not about you but what you’re doing to make something cool happen.”

Chef and cookbook author Pam Anderson.

Anderson is the Julia Child Award-winning author of three previous cookbooks, and the former executive editor and test cook of Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine that features extensively researched and tested recipes — often of basic favorites, such as the best apple pie or roasted turkey — cooking techniques, and product and food recommendations. Cook’s is kind of a Consumer Reports for home cooks, so it makes sense that for Anderson, recipe development would be a thorough endeavor; beginning cooks will appreciate that she provides extensive variations for many of the recipes. For example, one basic beef-stew recipe comes with eight variations, including Hungarian with sweet paprika and caraway seeds, and Moroccan with dried fruit and a spice blend of coriander, cumin, cinnamon, and ginger. “I try to provide a formulaic approach to recipe development,” she says. “There are principles and boundaries, but within them there is all kinds of room to play, you don’t have to follow a recipe rigidly.”

True to the philosophy of Perfect Recipes, Anderson has also created recipes that make having people over a less stressful endeavor. “I’ve cooked a lot — all my life,” she says. “And being in a situation where I love to, and really need to, entertain, I find myself having people over a lot. If I’m having these issues, other people must be, too.”

To that end, Perfect Recipes provides suggestions for simplifying food production, either by creating the dish ahead of time, picking up convenience items — such as frozen puff-pastry dough or a roasted chicken — or substituting less complicated ingredients. She also recommends “going with the flow,” being flexible enough to work with the ingredients and time available, and developing a pantry that allows you to cook on the fly. “You can always put out a bowl of nuts or cheese and crackers for hors d’oeuvres,” Anderson says. “No one knows the menu but you, so you don’t have to pull off everything if you don’t have time.”

I had people over on a Wednesday evening for an impromptu dinner of butternut-squash ravioli with rosemary oil. The recipe suggested pairing it with salmon, but I had a big bag of mixed greens, so — in the spirit of Perfect Recipes — I decided to forego an extra stop at the grocery and make a giant green salad instead.

Pam Anderson, guest chef

6:30-9pm, Oct 20 $65

Central Market Cooking School
4821 Broadway

Perfect Recipes for Having People Over
By Pam Anderson
Houghton Mifflin
$35, 304 pages
ISBN: 0618329722

Rather than making pasta from scratch, Anderson’s recipe encases the filling — butternut squash, rosemary, garlic, Parmesan, and prosciutto — in wonton skins. In the freezer department at Central Market, I found some very thin Hong Kong-style skins that produced the most tender pasta, outside of homemade, I’ve ever had. As for the ravioli, the filling was sweet and aromatic, with the prosciutto providing a dose of salt and a chewy balance to the fluffy squash. I dressed the salad in Anderson’s cumin vinaigrette, which combines dijon and lemon for a pungent flavor that cut through the richness of the ravioli with gusto. Between sipping wine and chatting up a storm, dinner came together in a relaxed 40 minutes.

While I felt only a slight urge to tap dance whilst whisking the vinaigrette, I did wonder if it would have been prudent to try the recipe before serving it to guests. “I just kind of go for it,” Anderson says. “If you do a recipe that can more or less be prepared ahead of time, you can more or less try it ahead, but I don’t have the time. I think we should look at it as an adventure, deal with our insecurities, and let go. You can always blame it on the person who wrote the book.”

By Susan Pagani

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