Have a look at any cookbook and you’ll find nothing but recipes that serve four, six, or eight. When are all these people getting together?
A friend of mine tells me that she reads cookbooks at night before going to sleep. They’re a source of fantasy, it seems. Imagine serving Lobster Thermidor to ten gala-clad guests. How like me to think they were serious. I did the five-course black-tie sit-down thing in the eighties but had to give it up, because I could never count on everybody’s showing up. If you tell guests that you’re planning a dinner for eight, they assume that you won’t miss them if they call to cancel on the day of the party. You think I’m making this up? One former friend had the cheek to tell me that she and her husband couldn’t come because he’d been traveling a lot and needed quality time with the kids. It’s a lot of fun, let me tell you, to reconstitute a table at six in the evening.
The long and the short of it is that ‘family values’ rules out dinner parties, and with them, the utility of most cookbooks. Gourmet used to be a help, running a monthly section that features recipes for two that could be prepared in less than an hour, and I consult the two clothbound collections of these recipes, In Short Order and Quick Kitchen, more than any other cookbooks. Most of these recipes can be doubled to serve four. That’s a lot easier than cutting a recipe in half. Halving measurements such as “1 tablespoon” and “1/3 cup” is never less than very inconvenient. Tough. The last issue of Gourmet that I looked at featured a bonanza of quick and simple grilling recipes – so useful, not to say quick and simple, in a Manhattan apartment – serving six.
(Pinch me if I’ve said this before, but I gave up grilling because even in the summer Kathleen and I eat well after dark, and you can’t grill in the dark.)
I’ve come to regard cooking for two as the pinnacle of the art. You learn how to cook by feeding masses, then slowly refine your technique along with your discrimination, eventually emulating Elizabeth David, whose preferred hospitality was an intimate lunch prepared and served in her jumbled and quaint Chelsea kitchen. I hate to quote anything third-hand, but Johnny Grey’s memoir of his aunt’s system describes the procedures that I would adopt if I had the right kitchen.
When guests were invited to lunch, she would only have one dish ready; the ones to follow would be prepared over a lengthy pre-lunch conversation and guests were usually asked to assist. … If you were lucky and some experiment had taken place the previous day, she would offer it to you in a matter-of-fact way and ask you to try it. … She never boasted about her cooking skills – her whole attitude to cooking was one of interest, inquiry and very occasionally genuine pleasure when a dish turned out well.1
Artemis Cooper adds this delightful note:
She liked to sit talking, with her back to the stove, and occasionally she would swivel around and adjust a knob or peer into the oven.2
Mrs. David’s French Provincial Cooking includes a recipe for veal scallops with apples and calvados that serves two. Although well worth the fuss, it’s a last-minute production, and doubling the proportions would mean doubling the trouble. Once you’ve split the apple, eat half of it quickly, for “however tempted one may be to cook the whole apple just for the sake of using it up, it would be a mistake to do so. It is just that little hint of a sweet taste and contrasting texture that gives the dish its originality. More would be heavy-handed.” Quite right.
French Provincial Cooking (Penguin, 1970), p. 373
2 or 3 veal scallops, pounded not too thin
salt & freshly ground pepper
the half of one sweet apple, cubed and sprinkled with the juice of one lemon
1 1/2 tablespoons sweet butter
2 tablespoons Calvados
1/2 cup cream
Heat the butter in a large skillet until it foams. Add the scallops and sauté them until completely grey. Add the cubed apples. Heat the Calvados in a small pan until it ignites and pour it over the scallops, swirling the pan. Add the cream and reduce the sauce. Remove the scallops to heated plates and let the sauce thicken another half-minute. Spoon the apples and the sauce over the scallops and serve at once. (French Provincial Cooking (Penguin, 1970), p. 373)
1. Johnny Grey, The Art of Kitchen Design (Cassell 1994), quoted in Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David (Michael Joseph, 1999), p. 149.
2. Cooper, ibid., p. 190.
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press