Certain occasions call for an impressive feast. I’m not necessarily saying you should cook above your skill level—no one is impressed with an evening plagued with kitchen disasters, with the host swearing in the kitchen while the guest awkwardly drinks on an empty stomach, repeated offers to help turned down. Not my idea of a good time.
But there’s nothing quite like hearing that delighted gasp of “Wait, you made this?” Especially when it’s coming from the object of one’s affection. (Hey, there’s a certain holiday coming up.) Or perhaps your parents are coming to town. Or old friends. Or you’ve got a big birthday that you want to celebrate with decadence, or you were gifted a really, really good bottle of wine.
On these occasions, you must accept the possibility of failure in light of the potential for glory.
When I am looking to prepare something truly spectacular, there are a few cookbooks I turn to. Some of these books are not, I believe, meant to be cooked from in home kitchens. Foolishly, this doesn’t deter me. Attempting to cook like a professional is the point of these sorts of meals—bring on the overnight proofs, the twelve-hour braises. I draw the line at water circulators, but bring on your sausage stuffers and your pasta rollers.
The first place I turn is Quebec. There must be something about Montreal that brings out the extra in chefs, and cookbooks like The Art of Living According to Joe Beef are loaded with foie gras and oysters and veal, every other dish cooked en gelée. These recipes, which have a patience for classic technique often absent in more practical modern cookbooks, according to Joe Beef, “[evoke] that nostalgic, ‘Why don’t people make this anymore?’ feeling, like a beautiful picture from the old Larousse… or sleeping on a train. There is only one good reason to make this dish: because you can!”
Other times I follow the Acadians down south: Cajun and Creole foods have never failed to delight. I have an ancient copy of The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1900), which is thankfully still in print and full of recipes for every which way of baked oyster and bayou game. For recipes that are guaranteed to work, however, John Besh’s My New Orleans will get you where you need to be, with its chanterelle tartlets and its jambalaya and Pére Roux cake. When in doubt, crawfish tails are available frozen, and a bisque laced with crawfish and brandy always makes me swoon.
Twice a year I forget how frustrated I get making mole, and pull Diana Kennedy off the shelf. The Cuisines of Mexico contains a treatise on this notoriously complex and sophisticated sauce that I am pretty sure everyone but me achieves effortlessly.
If it’s Christmas, I wrangle tamales; if it’s summer, surely Francis Mallmann’s Seven Fires or Greg and Gabrielle Denton’s Around the Fire have something to offer for outdoor festivities. If you’re stuck indoors, don’t sleep on Mallmann’s Malbec-braised lamb.
At this point, if I don’t veer off into Momofuku territory (hello, bo ssäm), it’s time to consider charcuterie.
There are few that can resist a creamy, luxe chicken-liver terrine, smothered in some sort of exotic jelly. But if you have higher aspirations than that, Olympia Provisions will lead to you a mean pâté, or, heck, go for the pheasant and prune number.
Or perhaps I’m in the mood to invest some time in picky finger work, in which case it’s time for dumplings. Helen You’s new book Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook is a brief but thorough guide to the dumplings of your dreams.
Land of Fish and Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop will guide you through the Lower Yangtze region.
If something simple like steak is in the cards, perhaps the occasion calls for a tricked-out cocktail or two. The PDT Cocktail Book is full of delicious examples of the best craft cocktails—try the Benton’s Old-Fashioned—the early twenty-first century had to offer, while Death & Co will, perhaps, lead you to invent your own. Either way, if infusing alcohol is more up your alley than wrangling a meat grinder, this is your best option.
So load up the table with flowers and the good wine glasses; light candles; play records. If you have any velvet lying around, make use of it. These things will distract your guests from your swearing and burning things in the kitchen, should it come to that.