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Food Bytes PG Cookbook The Food Chain
Kitchen Mailbox Countdown to Dinner Dining
Cooking for One: A host's survival guide for entertaining many picky plates

Thursday, April 13, 2000

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An actor, about to pass through the great proscenium in the sky, once said, "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." I, about to pass out from frustration, say, "Cooking for one is easy; cooking for a dinner party is hard." And it's true. The solo cook has only one batch of idiosyncracies to please. Set another place or two at the table, and things can get mighty complicated.

For instance: At our house, there's no such thing as entertaining solely as a "pay-back" for past invitations received or parties attended. I throw dinner parties just for the fun of it, and almost any excuse will do. The Patio Awning is Up, I'm Testing Recipes, You Have to Meet So-and-So.

Ideally, the drill goes like this. Guests are chosen for their ability to contribute interesting and stimulating conversation. A date is considered when said guests are available. The menu is designed to be semi-thrilling (people have great expectations from a food pro), with some things that can be made in advance and at least a few dishes that can sit at room temperature for a while without any fear of food-poisoning my pals.

But it's not that easy anymore. Now we have to deal with the dining quirks of fuss-budgets. As Honest Abe sort of said, "You can feed some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can't feed all of the people all of the time." Here's what I mean.

Catharine prefers not to eat red meat. Adam avoids fish. Dick wants vegetarian meals. Sue is on a low-fat diet. Arnold doesn't like spicy foods. Low cholesterol and high sodium are priorities for Frank, and peppers give him gas.

Of course, I respect real allergies to such things as seafood and wheat and also the restrictions of recovering alcoholics. On top of that, I'm lactose intolerant myself and I don't eat milk products or cheese. So where do I get off complaining about my guests? You call this the joy of cooking?

The restaurant world is affected by runaway dietary preferences, too. Robert Kinkead, chef-owner of Washington, D.C.'s Kinkead's, has a word for customers with excessive food idiosyncrasies. He calls them "PIAs," or pains in the, uh, gluteus maximus. Of course, everyone has a right to be boss of his own diet. It would just be nice, though, if people with elective preferences would lighten up a bit when they're guests.

Pains or not, friends are friends and I've devised a system for small dinner parties. Match the meat and spice eaters, and group fish eaters with vegetarians. Invite compatible stomachs, not like minds, and damn the conversational consequences.

In the case of the bigger dinner party with lots of food choices, I let guests duke it out at the buffet. My husband and I gave a party for 60 not long ago. The food theme was Mediterranean. There were platters of marinated and roasted vegetables for everybody, poached salmon for the low-cal fish eaters, bison tenderloin for the low cholesterol-red meat fanatics, olive oil-based marinated dishes, country breads and baskets of fresh fruit. Chocolate cheesecakes with hot fudge sauce were scarfed down by those who don't give a dietary damn.

Guests have responsibilities, too, and that includes eating some of the dinner party food and making nice over it.

If you have a real food allergy or sensitivity, yes, you MUST tell your hostess in advance, especially if you are invited to a small dinner party. But if yours is a just a preference or an adherence to a popular diet you MAY inform your hostess about it, saying that you prefer not eat XYZ, but please don't go to the trouble to make substitutions. On the other hand, if invited to a big bash, eat a good snack before you go, be quiet and just avoid any food that gives you fits. Don't be a PIA.

Here are two Mediterranean-style side dishes that fit into almost anyone's preference plan. The solo cook will like them because they're easy to do, and, with the addition of a sunny-side-up egg, make a swell week-night supper.

Roasted Carrots With Lemon and Olives

1 bag (16 ounces) baby, ready to eat carrots
4 peeled garlic cloves, bruised with the side of a knife
4 thin slices lemon, halved
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon small black (Nicoise) brine-cured olives, pitted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the carrots, garlic, lemon and olive oil in a shallow baking dish. Stir to blend and season. Bake, stirring occasionally, until carrots are tender and lightly browned, about 45 minutes. Add olives and bake a few minutes longer. Makes 1 serving with leftovers.

Wilted Greens With Raisins and Pine Nuts

2 teaspoons olive oil
2 big handfuls fresh spinach leaves, rinsed well, stems discarded
1 tablespoon raisins
1 small garlic clove, crushed through a press
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or more to taste
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon pine nuts (pignoli)

Remember that spinach collapses, so be generous and use a generous amount of fresh leaves.

Heat olive oil in a saute pan. Add spinach with some water still clinging to the leaves. Toss and turn until the leaves wilt. Add raisins and garlic.

Cover with a lid and cook over low heat for about 2 minutes.

Add vinegar, season with salt and add pine nuts. Good with Italian bread. Serves 1.

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