When we first started entertaining, I would always be running late. I once placed a whole chicken in the oven as guests were walking through the door, resulting in a two-hour wait for dinner. It was close to five years ago now, and I can’t quite remember whether I had put a little something to nibble out on the coffee table, but I do remember that it was awkward. After that, I improved, slowly, but for years the closest I would be to “ready” would be a mad dash for the shower as guests would call for exact directions.
The problem? I was trying to be too much of a perfectionist. And the ironic thing about perfectionism is that the more you attempt it, the more things go awry, and end up unravelling at the edges. Often absurd results would ensue, such as that time when, after spending forty-five minutes detailing the phone, the picture frames on our bedside tables and the inside of my fridge with a q-tip, my stamina waned out before I approached the stove-top, or the open cabinets beneath the television, standing smack in front of the sitting area. I wish I were kidding.
The food may have been appealing, but trust me, I was not. When we had just moved to Beersheba, we invited both of our families for dinner. The imminent arrival of my mother-in-law, who is at her most relaxed while walking around her house with a disinfecting wipe in hand, sent me into a cleaning frenzy. It was only when my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law walked through the door with their blow-dried hair and perfectly manicured nails, that I looked down and noticed my own chipped nails and bright pink chapped hands. I doubt they noticed that I had taken acetone to the light-switches.
All this to say that it took me quite a while to realize that trying to make entertaining perfect was a sure recipe for disaster (guys, I’m sparing you here, this is just the tip of the iceberg), and a sure way to guarantee that I wasn’t going to have any fun. This beautiful, inspiring post on perfectionism really struck a cord with me, and for a while I had the picture of one of the little girls holding up a sign that says “Bye Bye Perfect, Hello Fun!” as the wallpaper on my desktop. Anyone who knows me knows it’s just what I needed.
With time, I learned a few things, and compiled my own mental entertaining rules: clean, do the grocery shopping and prepare nibbles earlier in the week, and make dessert the night before. Now, when I’m putting together a menu, I’ll resist the desire to make three different desserts, and opt for my favorite, easiest, no-fail chocolate cake (that you can freeze!). I’ll choose favorite standbys for the main course- spoiler alert: if you’re having dinner for the first time at our house- there’s a 95% chance you’ll be served curry chicken.
It’s working. The last time we had friends over, I had time to take a refreshing shower, put on a little makeup, and have a glass of wine with Yaki on the couch, before the guests rang our doorbell. With our glass of wine, we nibbled on these Mediterranean Olives and Sweet & Spicy Almonds.
I broke my own rules, and made these for the first time for our guests. They can be made well in advance and come together in just a few minutes, although you do need to keep an eye on the almonds during their (short) stint in the oven. The olives are bright and pop with flavor, improving with time, the flavors bumping shoulders and melding into each other. The almonds are gorgeous, beautifully lacquered, and crisp. The combination of sweet and spicy catches you off-guard: the kick of the chilli flakes hits first, and then the undercurrent of the sugar comes rushing in, intensifying like a wave, as the chilli dies out. Behind it all, the fennel seeds are evasive, teasing. The additions of coriander seeds in the first, and fennel in the second are exotic, playful, and hard to pinpoint, adding just the right amount of intrigue to get your guests talking. A
perfect fun little icebreaker.
Sweet and Spicy Baked Almonds
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups (10 oz/ 285 grams) raw almonds
2 tablespoons water
Preheat the oven to 325F/170C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Mix sugar, fennel, salt and pepper flakes in a medium sized bowl. Add the almonds and water and stir until coated. Pour onto the baking sheet, and spread out evenly.
Bake the almonds for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and give them a stir. Return to the oven and bake for another 17 minutes, checking and stirring the almonds 2-3 more times. Almonds will turn the most gorgeous shade of dark brown. Cool and store in an airtight container.
Marinated Mediterranean Olives
Adapted (barely) from Jamie Oliver
1 ½ tablespoons coriander seeds
200 grams (7 oz) Kalamata olives
200 grams (7 oz) green olives
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
First, crush the coriander seeds, just a little, you don’t want them too fine – if you have a better-equipped kitchen than I do go ahead and whip out your mortar and pestle. Otherwise, place the seeds in a Ziploc bag and whack them a few times with something heavy. Next, peel long, thick strips of lemon zest and place them in a bowl with the olives. Squeeze the lemon juice into the bowl, and add the olive oil and coriander seeds. Give it a stir, then taste and add salt and pepper. Place them in a jar and refrigerate, where they can hang out, improving with time.