BROWSING WITH THE BOSS Top brass coming to dinner? Today's style is modest menu in comfortable surroundings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORGET THE BLACK TIE. Don't worry about polishin Grandma's silver candelabra. Nix the caviar, the filet mignon and the baby veggies.

This is the Down-to-Earth Decade. And, in case you forgot, there's a recession going on here, folks. Suddenly, what was good taste in the '80s is bad taste in the '90s. Marie Antoinette doesn't live here anymore.

But what if the guest of honor is the boss? Doesn't the brass still deserve high-gloss treatment?

These days even the boss would appreciate an evening out when the table looks inviting, not intimidating, where the food is simply good and the mood is relaxed.

"Prior to the 1990s, I think we would have tried to do a meal that was classical French, or we might think we had to do a beef Wellington," says Marion Cunningham, author of the revised version of "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" (Knopf, $24.95).

"But today something like poached salmon with asparagus would be perfectly acceptable. You don't have to feel the need to impress by fancy food as much as making the boss feel comfortable and pleasantly fed. You should try to make dinner less a duplication of a restaurant experience and more an eating-at-home experience."

One of the first steps in making the boss or any guest feel 'D comfortable is to do some research before the menu is planned.

"Very often when people cook for someone else they want to show off what they know and what they like the best," adds Jacques Pepin, well-known cookbook author and TV cooking show host. "That's the wrong approach. If I had to impress someone I would try to find out what that person likes to eat. If the person adores roast of veal, that's what you should make."

Jane Fallon of Jane Fallon Catering in Kingsville agrees that it's important to find out not only what the boss likes to eat but what he or she is allowed to eat. These days, so many people are on low-fat and low-cholesterol diets that making a specialty laced with cream could be as embarrassing as dropping the main course on the carpet.

If you get tense just thinking about having the boss over for dinner, try to look at the experience as a gift you are giving rather than a chore that has been inflicted upon you. If it's not fun for you, it won't be fun for your guest.

Ms. Fallon tells of a client who was doing a dinner party and became totally obsessed because she felt she couldn't fit entertaining into her hectic schedule.

"I told her to change her attitude and look at it like she was giving a gift," Ms. Fallon says. "She decided to wrap all of her food in a package of some kind -- filo dough, parchment paper, romaine lettuce. She had a wonderful time and entertaining became much more creative. If you are doing something for your boss, you need to change the stress to something creative."

One good way to reduce the stress, those interviewed agreed, is to make the event as informal as possible. Tell your guests to wear casual clothing. Serve a buffet or change seats after each course so everyone gets to mix. And make the food casual, like a bowl of steamed shrimp, a pan of paella or a fondue where people gather around the pot to dip and chat.

"I think people are generally more relaxed these days," says Julia Child, a culinary icon who taught Americans the art of French cooking. "People today don't live with a lot of crystal and silver unless they live in a chateau and have maids and butlers. . . .

"If your boss is secure, you don't need to worry," she adds. "If he or she is insecure and needs stroking, you might have to put on the dog. But, in that case, I would change jobs. Do the best you can and don't overdo. And don't do things that you don't know how to do or don't do well."

But what if you follow all this advice and the souffle falls or you drop the salad in your boss's lap? How do you recover?

When something goes wrong, laugh at yourself, says Letitia Baldrige, a Washington etiquette expert and author of "Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to the New Manners for the '90s" (Rawson Associates, $24.95).

Culinary disasters happen to the best of us, including pros like Ms. Baldrige. About 15 minutes before her guests were scheduled to arrive for a large dinner party, she opened the oven to check on the 15-pound roast. Instead of a nicely browned roast, she had a lump of raw meat that had been sitting in a cold oven for five hours. Her solution: She sent out for cheeseburgers and paraded the raw beef in front of her guests to share the disaster (and the joke) with them.

"You have to laugh at yourself," she advises, "because everyone is agonizing for you. Say something like, 'You know I did this just so I could write down your reaction,' or 'I dropped the serving platter on the floor because I felt there wasn't enough pattern in the rug.'

"Everyone will start laughing with you and the joking can save the party."

And, Ms. Baldrige says, a disaster can even give a boost to your career.

"If your boss can see you pull off a dinner party and cope with the problems that come along, he or she will know that you really are in charge, know details and are a good person. One of the biggest worries is lack of people skills in management. If you can manage a disaster, you can manage anything."

Paella, the national dish of Spain, makes a wonderful informal party dish. This version is adapted from "The Spanish Table" (Doubleday, 1986), by Marimar Torres. The classic paella Valenciana always contains snails, but the author says they should be omitted unless you can find them fresh.

Paella Valenciana

de la ribera

Makes 8 servings.

1 chicken (3 to 4 pounds) cut into small serving pieces

1 pound lean pork meat, diced

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil plus 1 tablespoon

8 large prawns, in their shells

1 1/2 pounds squid, cleaned and cut into rings

1 large red pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into thin strips lengthwise or substitute pimientos

4 large cloves garlic, minced

1 large onion, minced

3 pounds tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

8 small clams, shells scrubbed

8 mussels or 16 more clams, shells scrubbed

3 cups short-grain rice

L 3/4 pound green beans, ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 teaspoon saffron threads or 1/2 teaspoon powdered saffron

2 dozen fresh snails in the shell, optional

lemon wedges, for garnish

The day before: Pat dry chicken and pork. Season them with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet or paella pan; add chicken and saute over

medium-high heat until golden. Remove chicken to a colander (pour drippings back into skillet). Add pork to hot oil and saute until golden; set aside.

Pat dry prawns and squid; season squid with 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Saute prawns until just colored; set aside. Finally, add squid and saute for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring and set aside. Allow cooked foods to cool, put in bowls, cover and refrigerate.

Two hours ahead: Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to pan and saute pepper until golden and soft; set aside. Add garlic and onion and saute until soft. Add tomatoes and cook quickly until dry.

In a large pot with about 1 cup water, steam clams and musselon a rack until they open -- about 4 or 5 minutes for mussels, 5 to 10 for clams. Discard any that do not open. Strain the cooking liquid through a fine-mesh strainer. Measure liquid and add enough water to make a total of 6 cups.

Forty-five minutes before serving: Bring the 6 cups of liquid to a boil in a large saucepan. Meanwhile, add the rice to the tomato sauce in the large skillet or paella pan; stir and add the pork, squid, green beans, saffron, snails and remaining 1 1/4 teaspoon salt and 3/4 teaspoon pepper. Saute for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring. Add chicken pieces, push them down and distribute evenly.

Add the boiling liquid to the paella pan or skillet and cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes. (Cooking this dish evenly throughout the skillet is essential. The rice should simmer with small bubbles, but not boil. Stir a bit on the sides and turn the skillet around to prevent overcooking in the center.)

Five minutes before cooking time is up: Add shellfish and peppers on top, arranging them attractively.

Turn off heat and place cloth over the skillet. Let it sit for 10 minutes. Arrange lemon wedges around and serve immediately. Never let more than 20 minutes pass before eating. As the Spanish saying goes: Rice doesn't wait for you; you wait for it.

Italian fondue

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

This fondue recipe from "The Book of Fondues" (HPBooks, $9.95), by Lorna Rhodes, encourages guests to mingle.

1 garlic clove, halved

1 1/4 cups milk

2 cups (8 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese

8 ounces blue cheese, cubed

1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons dry white wine

salami, bread sticks and olives

Rub inside of fondue pot with cut garlic clove. Add milk and heat until bubbly. Stir in all cheeses and continue to heat until melted.

Blend cornstarch with wine, blend into cheese mixture and cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes or until thick and creamy. Serve with slices of rolled up salami or a stick of salami cut in cubes, bread sticks and olives.

Hot fruit compote

Makes 8 servings.

A simple dessert, such as a warm fruit compote, is always a good idea, says Marion Cunningham. Make sure to give your guests options. Offer some good quality store bought cookies and vanilla ice cream. The following recipe is from "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" (Knopf, $24.95).

1 can pears

1 can Bing cherries

1 can whole apricots, pitted

1 tablespoon slivered orange peel

1 tablespoon brandy or rum or 1 teaspoon vanilla, approximately

Drain the juice from the cans. Add to the juice the slivered orange peel, and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Add the fruit and the brandy, rum or vanilla, and heat through.

How do you survive having boss over for dinner? Food and etiquette experts interviewed offered the following guidelines:

Rule 1: These days nearly everyone seems to have some speciadietary needs -- from no alcohol to low fat. Make sure to find out if he or she has any taboos.

Rule 2: Invite a variety of guests from different segments of your life so that the boss isn't on the griddle all night in work-related conversation.

Rule 3: Control the cocktail hour. You don't want people to get drunk and say something they will regret and you don't want to delay dinner too long. A good plan is to have drinks and hors d'oeuvres at 7 p.m. and dinner at 7:30 p.m.

Rule 4: Create a mood of informality that encourages conversation. A buffet is a good idea to get people mixing and talking.

Rule 5: Prepare foods that you are comfortable making. This is not the time to flambe for the first time or try new recipes.

Rule 6: Stay out of the kitchen as much as possible. Depending on your budget, you can hire a college student or a caterer who will serve and clean up the dishes so that you can spend time with your guests.

--Charlyne Varkonyi

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