Nancy Spiller, author of Entertaining Disasters: A Novel (with Recipes), was one of my mystery guests at The Second Unconfidential Cooks’ Dinner—that is, I had never met her; she is a friend of my friend Susan. Her book continues a tradition of fiction with food that began for me way back when Nora Ephron wrote Heartburn (I’ve been making her vinaigrette for decades—6 T olive oil, 2 T red wine vinegar and 2 T Dijon mustard). I pretty much love everything I’ve read in the genre. Really, what more could a girl want than good writing/eating?
The premise of Nancy’s novel is simple. The heroine, FW…freelance Food Writer…is about to host a dinner party, and to say she’s suffering a bit of stage fright is an understatement at best. FW has been writing for years about her fabulous dinners in all the journalistic nooks and crannies in LA’s celebrity/culinary scene. It’s expected that a meal at her well-documented hillside home surrounded by gorgeous gardens will be nothing less than a 5-star extravaganza with, of course, the most sought-after A-list guests. Hard to live up to? You betcha, especially since it’s all been lies. She’s fabricated every scrumptious detail about every coveted invitation to every one of her dinner parties! Nary a guest in her dining room for over ten years. Needless to say, the week before the real event is fraught with all kinds of reflections on her past, tension between herself and her husband, and a slew of personal doubts and insecurities.
I loved all of it. Nancy is a wordsmith and can tell a good yarn, and the whole conceit of entertaining in LA is an issue that hits home for me. Actually, entertaining in LA is something else. Before I moved here I visited a friend often who lived right on the beach in Santa Monica and had party after party at her house…the kind most of us only see in the movies or in magazines—coming from NYC, it was an amazing break—like a Saul Steinberg drawing…my bed, pool, sand, ocean. One day-of-a-big-bash, I was just hanging out when my friend got on the phone and started calling around to see if people were coming that night. It was a sit-down dinner for 18 and with just a few hours to go, more than half of the lucky invitees hadn’t even bothered to rsvp! Not only did she call each of them, she phoned the others to remind them of the time and make sure they were coming. I couldn’t believe my ears. No biggie, she said—she has to do this before every party. I was appalled when, after all that, one (re)confirmed guest didn’t show, or even call with PROFUSE apologies and a great excuse. (Nothing less than death really would have been acceptable as far as I was concerned.)
When Bruce and I started entertaining (so as not to leave baby Emma for a nanosecond), it was a deja vu. Only difference was I didn’t do that much calling and the no-shows’ empty seats begged a story…which I divulged willingly. Naming names.
Mean old me.
Here’s what Nancy wrote about all this LA nonsense: “Most people are too busy making something of themselves so that other people will want to make themselves available to them, thus making themselves unavailable to those ignoble others who might alleviate the loneliness motivating their frenzied race to success. If you live in Los Angeles, you know what I mean.”
Yes, I do.
I recommend Entertaining Disasters to any foodie, host/hostess as well as to those who just like a great read. The recipes are great. Nancy made two wonderful hors d’oeuvres for The Second U-C Dinner about which she said: “It was a wonderful group of women, a terrific collection of dishes and I am still in its thrall. It truly was the kind of evening that my novel’s narrator thinks only happens in magazines.” Yay!
GOAT CHEESE AND ONION MARMALADE TARTLETTES
Mini Filo Shells (in the freezer section of most markets)
Red Onion and Roasted Garlic Marmalade, recipe below
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill the mini-filo shells with a garbanzo-bean-to-almond-size chunk of goat cheese. Top with a dollop of onion marmalade and then heat for 7 to 10 minutes just until the filling is heated. They’re quite good warm from the oven. (NOTE: Nancy said that in retrospect, if she were bringing to a party again, she would heat them onsite.)
Red Onion and Roasted Garlic Marmalade
6 medium red onions (about 2 lbs)
1 head roasted garlic
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup organic chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 t. salt, or to taste
5 T balsamic or red wine vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
Thinly slice onions crosswise into rings, then saute in a noncorrosive medium saucepan with the oil until soft. The large pile of onions you began with will soon cook down to a more manageable mass. Add broth, vinegar, salt, and brown sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened and most of liquid is evaporated, about 1 hour. After you get the onions cooking on the stove, begin squeezing the garlic cloves from the roasted head. Add these to the onions about halfway through the cooking hour. Store covered in refrigerator for up to 1 week. Serve on anything that makes sense.
GARLIC CREAM CHEESE DIP ON LITTLE TOASTS
Red cherry peppers, sliced
Garlic cream cheese dip, recipe below
Spread the dip on slices of toast and top with peppers. (NOTE from Nancy: This dip is also wonderful to serve with ruffled potato chips.)
Garlic Cream Cheese Dip
1 8-oz. block cream cheese, brought to room temperature
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 stick butter, brought to room temperature
3-4 cloves garlic, more or less
Whip cream cheese and butter together with an electric mixer; mix in mayonnaise to a smooth consistency, but not so still it will break chips. With garlic press, press cloves of garlic in, then whip further until fully incorporated. Serve with ruffled potato chips and a crisp, bubbly prosecco. Nancy’s mother enjoyed serving this with a gin martini made with aerated gin. She civilized the gin by attacking it for several minutes with a hand-cranked eggbeater, thus taking out all the spirit.