- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It was the money. With me — I’m a banker — it’s alwaysthe money. If I focus my sights on that single notion (keeping in the back of my mind, of course, loyalty, family, generosity of spirit … that sort of stuff) things always work out fine — although this time they almost didn’t.

Let me backtrack 12 months. Last year at exactly this time, I was nervous. Concerned, actually, since bankers are never nervous. It had to do with food and my own sense of self and the idea that if you add two and two together and keep good records, you can accomplish just about anything. I still think my math was correct, but it took my husband — his birthday, actually, to teach me that there is a little more to accomplishing goals than that.

For the past 25 years I’ve asked my husband Mark, whose birthday is at the end of September, what he wants for his birthday. Each year I hope for a list of gifts concrete, market-ready items I can buy at the mall. And each year I cross my fingers and hold my breath, already knowing that his response will be… a birthday party.

Mark, you must understand, was your original party animal when we met in 1977, and not much has changed since. Truth be told, he doesn’t even want much from a party. He’s happy seeing friends, eating chips from a bag and sipping beer.

I, thanks to the curse of Martha Stewart and my own Type A personality, cannot entertain like that. Carefully prepared items must be displayed on hand-thrown pottery and vintage cake stands. Menus cater to meat eaters and vegetarians. Napkin bundles. Flower arrangements. Caf or decaf. I’m cursed, but what can I do?

As long as Martha’s around — and I wish her well with both her magazines and her investing — I can’t seem to shake the idea that chip and dip is not enough food to honor cherished friends.

Last year was to be my husband’s 50th birthday, so the pressure was particularly intense. Instead of asking the question in August, as I usually do, I asked in June, knowing in my heart what he would reply. I halfheartedly suggested a Chipper Shredder leaf shredder, one of those big, noisy things that would win my husband the respect and jealousy of all our urban neighbors when leaves began to fall. But no; a party he wanted it to be.

My first thought was that a restaurant was the proper place for such a party. His guest list topped 100, and I was already a little nervous (concerned). Even if we packed guests into our laundry room (we live in Los Angeles, where home prices and land are at a premium, and only fiscally frivolous nonbankers and perhaps a few actors buy homes that are huge) our house could not possibly accommodate that many people.

I thought June was early enough to be making these arrangements for a date in September, carefully chosen to avoid all religious holidays and the University of Southern California (our alma mater) football game. Many restaurants, though, were already booked, and the restaurant two-hour time limit and menu limitations put me off completely.

I read about a local comedy improv club that does children’s parties. I contacted them, they gave us complimentary passes, we went, and we were sold. Not only were they accommodating about the time, my dear husband, the actor-turned-lawyer-to-pay-the-mortgage, would finally have his time on the stage after 50 years. (I also thought other friends might be coaxed to perform, which could make for very amusing and free entertainment.)

But the comedy club didn’t serve food. I began contacting catering companies and learned, much to my horror, that they charge not only for food but for use of equipment, serving staff, delivery, pick up, and anything else they can think of. My bankers’ blood chilled at the cost overruns.

The menu I was considering was not haute cuisine. Pasta and a salad. A do-it-yourself burrito bar. How hard could that be? I put pencil to paper and figured out that I could probably do this myself. In my mind’s eye, I saw a lovely buffet table with color-coordinated tablecloths, chafing dishes laden with aromatic and artfully garnished food. I heard the appreciative (and dare I add “awed”) compliments being whispered by all.

Wait a minute. I opened my eyes and realized that not only did I not have tablecloths, chafing dishes or serving pieces, I was going to have to buy them and probably never use them again. Whose idea was this? And, more important, how was I going to save money? Yet, I marshaled on.

Despite timeline, menu, shopping list and checklist, I almost called out for pizza when I sliced my left forefinger preparing 10 pounds of chicken breast. My son, the Boy Scout, administered first aid for both cut and shock, then calmly lectured me on the symptoms of salmonella poisoning.

I put on a glove and continued with 10 pounds of ahi tuna. Fortunately, I had already made the cookie party favors, prepped the vegetables, made 30 avocados worth of guacamole, cooked the ground beef, and sauteed the mixed squashes and saved lots of money. You can, too.

If you don’t want to throw your party at home because of size or destruction potential (this depends entirely on your friends), think creatively in finding a venue that’s as friendly and cost-efficient as the one I found.

The comedy club rented out their lovely patio and let us use their concession stand for refrigeration and food setup. And they provided additional tables and chairs, ice and a great on-site crew to help us. None of the restaurants accustomed to such parties was as generous.

Hire helpers. For 25 years I’ve been hosting parties all by myself, occasionally drafting guests to help in the kitchen or bring wine. And I must admit I seldom have had a conversation with a guest at any of those parties. For something of this scale, though, I had to choose between enjoying myself or being a slave in the concession stand. Happily, I made the right decision.

Create a timeline. On some level you will do this anyway, but if you formalize it, print it out, and magnet it to the refrigerator door, trust me, you’ll sleep better at night.

Create an easy menu. My menu met my needs for variety, my son’s for meat, and my husband’s for something to go with beer, but nothing I made was difficult or required strange ingredients. Simple is better.

Don’t try to cook everything yourself. For some things — chips and salsa, tamales and birthday cake — commercially made saves money because it saves time.

Create a shopping list. But to optimize cash flow, stay creative and flexible. The list-making is the easy part. Trekking a half-hour to the place that always has that certain something, only to discover that they’re out on the day you want it, means you will need to adjust your menu on the fly or make trouble for yourself that requires cost overrun. This is not acceptable. You also need to keep in mind what will fit in your refrigerator, pantry, garage, neighbor’s oven and/or refrigerator. (See following tip about making friends with neighbors.)

Create a checklist. This is where you write down that you need four sets of tongs, a roll of paper towels, and take-home cartons for the leftovers you don’t like or want to store at home. (Note on leftovers: In my mother’s house, there was always enough food so guests could take something home.)

If you don’t have this extra food or failed-hostess phobia, you are lucky. I share this genetic problem with my mother, and it’s not a happy thing. On the other hand, we are generally blessed with guest repeats. Since I am usually serving and not talking to friends, maybe the leftovers do serve as a reminder to our guests that I am happy they are there.)

Make friends with your neighbors. Until you are packing to schlep 24 pounds of tortilla chips, 8 dozen tostada shells, a tray of tamales, a huge coffee urn, and your son to a party, this doesn’t seem like an issue. But trust me, a willing neighbor who, by the way, volunteers to arrive early so he/she can set out the chips is a gift from heaven. Remember to thank these neighbors profusely and, of course, give them lots of food in the take-home cartons they probably brought.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Not only did I accomplish what I set out to, I learned an important lesson. Friends are what make great parties possible and, dare I say it, meaningful, not just as helpers but as guests. And with the money I saved, I’m already planning next year’s party.

MARK’S 50TH BIRTHDAY PARTY

Chips (24 pounds)

Salsa (12 containers)

Guacamole (recipe follows) (30 avocados)

Caesar salad (recipe follows) (10 heads of romaine)

Tamales: sweet corn or red chili pork (75)

Seasoned ground beef (recipe follows) (10 pounds)

Seasoned grilled chicken (recipe follows) (12 pounds)

Garlic-jalapeno tuna (recipe follows) (10 pounds)

Roasted vegetables (recipe follows) (too many squashes to count)

Tostada shells (4 dozen)

Flour tortillas (8 dozen)

Corn

Sliced olives

Chopped red onions

Shredded lettuce

Refried beans

Shredded cheddar cheese

Chopped tomatoes

Sour cream

A wonderful 34-inch-long birthday cake

Guacamole for 10

3 ripe avocados, halved, peeled and pitted

1 large tomato, seeded and chopped

1 large clove garlic, minced

1/4 large red onion, chopped

½ bunch cilantro, chopped

Juice of 1 to 2 limes

Salt and pepper

Mash avocados to the consistency you like (mushy versus chunky) and add tomato, garlic, onion and cilantro. Add juice of 1 lime, 2 to 3 pinches of salt, 1 pinch of pepper, stir and taste. Add more lime juice or salt or pepper to taste, if desired. Makes 10 servings.

Caesar salad

1 cup olive oil

1/3 cup vinegar (I like part red wine and part apple cider, but lemon juice is good, too)

5 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons anchovy paste

4 to 6 pinches of black pepper

1 egg, soft boiled

Salt

About 6 heads romaine

Garlic croutons

Blend together olive oil, vinegar, 2/3 of the garlic, anchovy paste, and black pepper. Taste to see if you need more garlic or salt and add, if desired. Add egg and blend until nicely emulsified.

Transfer to a lovely cruet and chill. Toss with lettuce and sprinkle with garlic croutons just before serving.

Makes 11/3 cups dressing, or enough for about 6 heads of romaine.

Seasoned ground beef for tacos

1 pound lean ground beef

2 cloves garlic, chopped

3 to 5 tablespoons chili powder

Up to 2 teaspoons salt

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Brown beef with garlic. Drain off fat and add chili powder, salt to taste and cumin. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Makes enough for about 12 tacos.

Grilled seasoned chicken for tacos

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, butterflied (not necessary, but the chicken cooks a lot faster)

Salt and pepper

Juice of 2 limes

1/4 cup olive oil

Pat chicken dry and sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides.

Combine lime juice and olive oil in a glass dish, and place chicken in dish to marinate for about 1 hour.

Grill chicken 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until cooked through, and cut into bite-sized pieces.

If you prefer to saute, or if it’s raining outside, cut chicken, then season, marinate and saute in a little additional olive oil (not the marinade) for 5 minutes, or until cooked through.

Makes enough for about 15 tacos.

Garlic-jalapeno tuna for tacos

Thanks to a Scout family that likes to fish, we get several pounds of filleted tuna a year.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (use a good one; it makes a difference)

1 pound fresh tuna, cut into bite-sized pieces

2 large jalapeno chilies, seeded and chopped

2 large cloves garlic, chopped

Salt

Lemon juice

Heat olive oil in large pan and saute tuna 2 minutes. Before tuna is fully cooked, add chilies and garlic, and continue to cook an additional 2 to 3 minutes, depending on how cooked through you like the tuna and what “bite-sized” means to you. Add 2 to 3 pinches of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice, then taste. Makes enough for about 15 tacos.

Note: I like leaving the jalapeno and garlic in with the tuna.

If you or your guests would prefer not to bite into such pungent flavors, heat the olive oil slowly with the jalapeno and garlic.

Do not allow either to burn. As soon as you get the first “pop” remove the jalapeno and garlic and saute the tuna.

Roasted vegetables

3 large zucchini, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1-inch half-moon shapes

3 crookneck squash, cut in half lengthwise and then into 1-inch half-moon shapes

1 12-ounce basket cherry tomatoes, washed

½ pound mushrooms, halved (I like crimini)

1 large red onion, cut in 1-inch thick slices

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Place zucchini, squash, tomatoes, mushrooms and onion in a single layer on a baking sheet with sides and drizzle with just enough olive oil to coat.

Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and toss. Re-distribute vegetables and roast in preheated 400-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until vegetables are cooked to desired doneness.

Allow vegetables to cool a bit and then cut squash and onion into bite-sized pieces. The tomatoes and mushrooms should be OK, and the juice from the tomatoes and mushrooms will tint everything a lovely color.

Makes about 8 servings.

Pam DiMaria, owner of the consulting company Kitchens Divas, works in a bank and lives in Los Angeles.


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