Author Anya Fernald on how a broken oven on Thanksgiving sparked her love of cooking, and how her time in Italy informs her methods for entertaining others.
I was twelve years old and my family had just moved to Palo Alto, California, from Eugene, Oregon. We were settling into a new house in a new town and my parents were having a small Thanksgiving with a few of their new friends—maybe eight people total. My mom slid the turkey into the oven but a few hours later the stove in our rented house went on the fritz, and the turkey skin darkened too quickly, though the inside was still raw. My mom melted down, undoubtedly due to the stress of both the meal and the recent move.
I had always liked to help her cook, but that day I climbed into the driver’s seat: I made the potatoes, I finished the turkey, I cooked the carrots and the green beans. She recovered in time to make the creamed pearl onions and together we baked the pies. It’s a Thanksgiving division of labor we have maintained since. That day, I discovered that I loved not only cooking, but also the feeling of accomplishment that comes with pulling something off to the delight and pleasure of others.
I still love the challenge of preparing a meal, with many elements coming together like a piece of music, a performance. It’s the same thing I love about being an entrepreneur and a parent: I’m forced to think on my feet, to step back and figure out solutions for making an evening seamless and fun. As I’ve gotten older and developed a passion for eating good food, gardening, and cooking, my family dinners have become more elaborate and interesting, but my entertaining philosophy—to serve a good meal without stress—remains the same.
My time in Italy helped mature an approach to entertaining and sharing meals that built on my natural enthusiasm for execution and organization, tempered by the Italians’ ingrained sense of ease and enjoyment. Living in Italy, I participated in so many family meals where the cook enjoyed it alongside the guests, with much of the work done ahead. My former mother-in-law, Irene Ciravegna, set a fine example. When my then-husband and I would come for Sunday dinner, we’d be greeted by a platter of whole fennel, a bowl of carne cruda, and a wedge of pecorino, with a plate of fresh olive oil alongside. We would spend the first half hour snacking, cutting the fennel into rounds, dipping it into the oil, and dabbing it with salt, while she would finish pulling things out of the oven and eventually join us. It felt easy and effortless.
I now do the same, setting out one or two things that my guests can start on immediately when they arrive: a whole salami, ready to slice, a platter of soft-boiled eggs topped with anchovy fillets, and a bowl of radishes or cherry tomatoes. Those snacks, and a drink in everyone’s hand, gives me a chance to finish any last-minute cooking.
For a larger party of more than eight people, I like to plate a first course and serve the second course family-style, and I usually move any starters to the table so that people can keep munching. I find that plating that first dish makes it easier for people to dive in and keeps conversation flowing, and by the time we get the family-style main course, everyone has become friendly and is happy to pass the platters and serve themselves and others. For a smaller party, I do the whole dinner family-style, usually in two courses. Even if the dinner is just two courses, serving them sequentially slows you down and encourages your guests to relax into the dinner.
For any type of group entertaining indoors, I focus on dishes that can be prepared in advance. Unless I am outside at a grill, I avoid serving steak to a group of more than four; it requires too much last-minute cooking to do properly. A few sides or salads, always served family-style, fill things out. I keep dessert simple: a plate of sliced panforte or cookies alongside fruit and some chunks of nice old cheese; chocolate bars broken into pieces, or a make-ahead favorite like jam tartlets or baba au rhum. If I’m entertaining outdoors, the same rules apply: I use the grill to cook a starter, the main course, and one side dish, then round out the meal with cold vegetable salads.
Reprinted with permission from Home Cooked: Essential Recipes for a New Way to Cook by Anya Fernald with Jessica Battilana, copyright © 2016. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.