French adventure

Life itself is the proper binge” — Julia Child

One of the challenges — and pleasures — of maintaining old friendships is finding new ways to surprise each other.

Last weekend, it was my turn to host a few women in my neighborhood who’ve been close for more than two decades. For our semi-annual gatherings, we take turns hosting and try to come up with a special theme dinner or a local culinary adventure.

More often than not, we end up renting a movie to watch after dinner — a documentary, foreign film, or even a chick flick that our husbands wouldn’t care to watch. (At one get-together, for instance, we spent an afternoon watching both versions of Grey Gardens, starting with the original documentary.)

Always a Francophile, I opted for a French theme this time around. And since I already own Amelie — one of my favorite foreign films — everything fell into place.

For me, half the fun of hosting a dinner party is shopping and planning for it. Turning to The French Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone, I chose an easy boeuf en daube that could be prepared ahead of time. The day of our dinner was unseasonably warm, so I opened the windows in the garden room and set our table for dinner there. When my friends arrived, I served brie and strawberries, then put together a simple salad of pears, blue cheese, almonds, and French vinaigrette.

Of course, no dinner party is complete without the right music. For this one I chose the musical score to Midnight in Paris and French Cafe (a collection of original French classics, including Bridgette Bardot’s Un Jour Comme un Autre). I also own the musical score to Amelie, so I played a sampling as a preview. After dinner, oui, we poured French roast coffee and headed down to the rec room to watch the film.

When it comes to entertaining our oldest friends, it’s all too easy to get stuck in familiar ruts and routines. And when life gets crazy-busy, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with throwing in the dishtowel and meeting for a burger and a beer at a local hangout. But it’s twice as much fun to shake things up and try something out of the ordinary. Each time we do, we create a wonderful new memory. — Cindy La Ferle

–Bottom photo: Image of Audrey Tautou as Amelie, from the film. For a larger view, please click on each image. —

Company’s coming

One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”  ~Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, Pavarotti, My Own Story

Earlier this month, a couple of dear friends phoned to invite us over for dinner. They had a big pot of turkey chili bubbling on the stove and a loaf of cornbread cooling in the oven. “Nothing fancy, just comfort food.”

The spur-of-the-moment invitation was all the more delicious because Doug and I hadn’t planned anything for dinner that evening. And the cozy company of longtime friends was exactly what we needed in the middle of a crazy-busy week. It turned out to be a perfect evening.

That night, we also revisited an earlier conversation we’d started on the topic of entertaining.

We all admitted that, in the past, we often avoided inviting friends for dinner because we thought a meal for “company” had to be fancy or labor-intensive. Which is silly, of course, but it was an easy excuse to make when we were too busy or too lazy to break bread at home with friends.

Along the same lines, anyone who reads gourmet cooking magazines on a regular basis will admit to feeling intimidated sometimes, even by featured recipes described as easy or simple. If throwing a dinner party requires performing a culinary miracle, well, we’re not likely to host very often.

One of the great gifts of midlife is that you start getting over these things. You realize that “the good life” is what’s real — not a page out of a glossy magazine. You remember that your true friends love you just as you are, and that any dish that’s good enough to serve your family is good enough for them, whether it’s your favorite mac and cheese or turkey chili.

Not that foodies shouldn’t have some creative fun in the kitchen.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to master a few healthy recipes that work for company as easily as for the two of us.

For instance, in the March issue of Prevention, I found “All-American Family Favorites,” a feature that includes several no-fuss, kid-friendly dishes that can be prepared in no time at all. The Skillet Chicken “Parm” looked fabulous, so Doug and I put the recipe to the test after shopping for a few items at the local market. The ingredients are as basic as you can get: chicken breasts, cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil.

I’m very happy to report that the meal was both easy and delicious — and perfect for casual dinner guests. Topping it off, our own red skillet looked so colorful with the basil garnish that I had to share my photo with you. (I don’t have the rights to reprint the recipe, so you’ll have to pick up the March issue of Prevention, still available on newsstands.) From now on, I’ll be on the lookout for more recipes like this.

There’s nothing cozier or more satisfying than raising a glass to old friends around a dinner table. So when the mood strikes, call your best friends and invite them over for a simple midweek supper. Don’t worry if the house isn’t clean. Dim the lights, uncork a bottle of wine, light a candle, and let the conversation flow. Cheers!   — Cindy La Ferle