Cooking For Others: In Mixed Company
EVENT: Cooking For The Rents’ Friends, Live-in Catering to Earn My Keep
VENUE: Phoebe’s Parents’ Beach House, Martha’s Vineyard
PARTY SIZE: 6
TYPE: Casual Summertime Dinner Party
MENU: Corn Cakes with Lemon Chive Crème Fraiche; Moroccan Bouillabaisse; Cous Cous; Mixed Greens; Peach-Blueberry Pie
When I left my job at the beginning of August, I decided to delay reality a bit by joining my parents on Martha’s Vineyard for the remainder of summer. It had been a while since I took more than ten days of vacation out there, but it felt pretty natural getting back into the swing of things: a little writing and reading in the morning, various WASP sports in the afternoon, and the ever indecisive debate over what to eat for dinner to determine our evening. When I was feeling unmotivated, I could usually persuade my mother to do the cooking, so long as I was the one to take a lengthy bike ride to Morning Glory Farm and procure the vegetables.
But this summer, my parents seemed to be feeling more social than usual, and more often than not, my mother and I found ourselves in the kitchen together, debating over what to serve the six to eight house guests soon to be squeezing around our small dining room table. Since apparently there were several of these nights prior to my arrival, my mother was all the more eager to turn over the reins. So I found myself cooking for my keep, and catering to mixed company outside my usual crowd.
The first evening, my inner debate was lengthy as to what to put on the menu. Casual, yet refined comfort food goes a long way when entertaining for my friends. But with, well, “real” adults at the table, there seemed to be a need to elevate my game, without going outside my comfort zone. I decided to use my go-to recipe for success with my quarter-life crowd—something fried to start, and a savory, satisfying one pot stew—all dressed up for the fancy folk.
I settled on corn cakes to start—a variation on the corn fritters I usually serve my friends—with a dollop of lemony chive crème fraiche to make them all the more elegant. For the main course, I took a page out of my mother’s book and went with a large tagine. This stew was a variation on classic French bouillabaisse with Moroccan spices and a hodgepodge of the island’s seafood bounty.
As my parent’s friends inhaled the corn cakes even faster than my roommate’s boyfriend did the week before, I realized that meals for those beyond quarter-life don’t have to be fancy in the traditional sense. Beautiful presentation and interesting ingredients are enough to impress your boss, clients, parents, or uber-sophisticated European acquaintances without requiring you to try too hard. Comfort foods can be disguised under a dollop of fancy French cream, or made special by the occasional Littleneck clam, but still manage to produce members of the clean plate club, no matter what age.
From my kitchen, catering in-house comfort to kids of all ages, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Corn Cakes with Lemon Chive Crème Fraiche
Makes 12 cakes, 6 servings
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup fresh corn kernels (about 2 ears)
2 shallots, minced
4oz crème fraiche
3 tbsp chopped chives (plus more for garnish)
½ lemon, juiced (about 1 tbsp)
¼ tsp salt
In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and the egg. Add to the dry ingredients and whisk until just combined. Fold in the corn and shallots.
Coat a large skillet with oil and set it over high heat. When the oil is sizzling (you can flick some water into the pan to test this), add a tablespoonful of batter to the pan and press flat with the bottom of the spoon to form a flat, round cake. Work in batches, making sure not to crowd the pan, and cook each cake for about a minute per side, until brown and crispy. Remove to a paper towel to drain, and repeat with the additional batter.
In the meantime, combine the crème fraiche, chives, lemon, and salt in a small bowl.
Makes 6 Servings
8 plum tomatoes (about 2 ¼ lb), seeded and grated (skins removed at end)
1 large onion, grated
3 garlic cloves, chopped
4 cups fish stock
1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads (optional)
1 tbsp ground cumin
1/2 tbsp sweet paprika
1/2 tbsp ground ginger
1/2 preserved lemon, peel only, thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled and deveined with the tails on
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about ½ lemon)
1 lb white fish fillet (such as monkfish, turbot, red snapper, striped bass, porgy, grouper, and/or cod), cut into 1 ½ inch fillets (about 5 pieces)
1/2 pound mussels, scrubbed*
1/2 pound cockles or small hard-shelled clams, scrubbed*
*you can choose one of the two, so long as there is 1 pound total
In a large Dutch oven or saucepan with a lid, heat two tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, onion, and garlic and sauté until fragrant and some of the liquid has cooked out, about five minutes. Add the fish stock and bring to a boil. When its vigorously bubbling, add the potatoes and the dried seasoning (saffron, cumin, paprika, ginger). Simmer uncovered for a few minutes, then reduce heat, and cover until the potatoes are almost tender, about 8 minutes.
In the meantime, combine the parsley, cilantro, and lemon juice in a medium mixing bowl. Toss shrimp until coated in the herbs. Set aside to marinate. This can be done up to 2 hours in advance, but no more otherwise the shrimp will turn into a ceviche.
When the potatoes are tender, add the preserved lemon, stir to combine, and then submerge the portioned fish filets in the broth. Cook until the fish pieces are nearly opaque but not completely cooked through. Carefully fold in the mussels and the shrimp with all their juices. Cover and cook until the mussels are opened and the shrimp are pink.