If it weren’t for the white apron he’s wearing and the tongs in his hand, it would be hard to tell who is the cook/host at this dinner party. Momentary panics like, “Ooh, is this pot supposed to be bubbling like that?” boil up in my head as Ian Marks slides around the kitchen, tumbler in hand, laughing with his guests. But he has everything in the oven and on top of the stove under control. All I can do is pour a drink and wait.
Ian has two upper hands in this arena. One, he’s a chef in real life (Ian is chef/co-owner of the two-year-old Beast and the Hare in the Mission). Two, he’s been hosting dinner parties since he was a child. Of course, not exactly, but almost.
He grew up in the Upper Haight with a dad who threw elaborate dinner parties for masses of friends, often. “I just learned what was needed to make Passover work,” he says. What makes Passover work for 75 people is family style. Just like at his restaurant, food at Ian’s home is made for sharing, and he uses the terms “not overdone, cozy food, taken to a higher level” to describe what he cooks.
But his food’s not comfortable in the mac ’n’ cheese sense. It’s imaginative and delicious – like Jamaican jerk-rubbed quail wings, seared scallops with wild arugula, quick-pickled watermelon and ricotta salata, pork cheek sausage coils (that he cased himself), duck breasts, spicy collards, and paella rice. Orange and fig galettes with caramel just in case anyone’s still hungry.
For Ian to possess the secrets to dinner party success while the rest of us repeatedly embody the frazzled dinner host look would be unfair. So Ian dropped some knowledge. See below; even the playing field.
1. Put the menu on paper.
It helps when you go shopping for ingredients. Aim for two apps or sides, two cocktails, a salad, and your entrée. “If you are an overachiever, go for a dessert too, but remember people are hopefully full by the end of dinner,” Ian says. He suggests a well-presented fruit plate as a good idea for dessert.
2. Make your food pop.
“When I invite people over I want them to feel like I am going all out, but it can get expensive,” Ian says. He came up with a percentages theory – 80% fluff, 20% pop – to help his wallet out. For instance, he used huge duck breasts and long pork cheek sausage coils – visually impressive and physically filling. That’s the “pop.” He served easy-on-the-wallet “fluff”: flavor-rich paella rice and spicy collard greens as sides to those main dishes.
3. Stay seasonal.
“Food IQ in San Francisco is unusually high,” Ian says. Your guests will probably know when crab season ends, when porcini is at its best, and when tomatoes are out of season, so you should too.
4. Mark it, hang out.
Mark (a restaurant term for searing on one side) anything you can to cut down on cooking time. Ian marked the duck breasts and scallops about an hour before anyone showed up. Then 10 minutes before dinner, he seared the other sides to ensure the duck was rare, the scallops hot and juicy. This frees up a little time to hang out. As Ian says, “I invited them over, I should at least hang out with them.”
5. Nibbles and spirits, immediately.
Your friends coming over might not have eaten all day in anticipation of getting super fed at your house. Hungry people are cranky. Cranky people suck. The easiest thing to give people is cheese – there’s hardly any prep. Ian uses one hard cheese, one soft, and tosses pistachios across “all haphazard like,” and adds slices of pears, figs, or apples, and Castelvetrano olives. Shove some crackers on the side and it’s officially a “rustic” looking dish that will hold them over till dinner.
6. Have booze.
A lot. It’s common sense. “Good party cocktails don’t take too much measuring, don’t have too many ingredients,” Ian suggests. Ian chose Pimm’s Cups and Manhattans, two of his favorites that both use only three ingredients and orange peels and wheels as garnishes. As for measuring? It doesn’t matter at a party.
7. Keep ’em separated.
Make sure drink headquarters isn’t in your cooking space. Your guests will mingle wherever they smell alcohol. You don’t want that to be in the kitchen, since you don’t want your friends swervin’ near your boiling pots.
Ian’s friends say they appreciate how he involves them at dinner parties. “Conversation is great but even better to have busy hands,” Ian says. “Plus, it gives people a sense of ownership in the food they are eating.” Ian had guests cut up tomatoes, bread, mushrooms, and asparagus to serve with the bagna cauda nibble tray. This makes the kitchen less solo, more fun for him, too.
9. Leave plating for the restaurants.
No need for forced fanciness. “I love family style because it makes people interact with the food.” Ian says it’s good to let guests decide how much food they want. This doesn’t mean don’t show off your food. Ian piles food onto serving plates to give a sense of bounty. So, even if people don’t eat a ton, they feel satiated because their eyes are filled with overflowing platters.
10. Reward yourself.
Enjoy the fruits, duck breasts, and scallops of your labor. “Get out of the kitchen, eat the inventive quail wings you made with your friends. Make a cocktail and talk in the living room,” Ian says. You’ll be glad you did the next day when you and your hangover have to clean up the kitchen.
In case these tips aren’t enough, here are three recipes from Ian that are sure to get your dinner party started:
Mixed Vegetables with Bagna Cauda
15-20 large brown mushrooms
12 Early Girl tomatoes
12-15 Fingerling potatoes
6 cloves of garlic
12 anchovies in oil
1/4 C unsalted butter
2 slices of lemon
½ C good olive oil
Toss the mushrooms with some olive oil and salt. Roast at 450 F for 10 minutes. Cut each tomato into 4 wedges. Boil the fingerling potatoes in salty water. Once they are tender, slice in half. Plate all three vegetables on a nice big warm colored platter or a wooden cutting board.
Now make the bagna cauda for your veggies to be dipped in. Bagna Cauda means “warm bath” and that is exactly what it is; a warm bath for your vegetables to bathe in. On the lowest flame, cook the garlic, anchovies, and olive oil together until the anchovies have disappeared and the garlic is letting off a very sweet smell, making a sort of confit. Add the butter and lemon slices. Once the butter is melted, skim off any foam and serve warm in a big ramekin with your prepared veggies spread around it on a nice big wooden board.
3 C Arborio rice
2 qt. stock (meat or veg) mixed with 3 T. Dulce Paprika De La Vera (Hungarian smoked paprika)
2 small white onions (diced)
3 cloves garlic (chopped)
½ bunch of thyme (roughly chopped)
2 ripe tomatoes
1 T. ground coriander
3 T. good olive oil
Salt to taste
Add oil, onions, thyme, and garlic to a large high-sided cast iron pan on high heat. Sauté until onions are translucent. Push onion mixture to the side and add the paella rice. Toast the rice a bit (this will add some depth to your paella).
Mix everything together, and add the paprika stock; one cup at a time. Only add more stock after it has been sucked into the rice. Once half the stock is poured in smash the 2 tomatoes and add to the pan along with the coriander. Mix with a wooden spoon and then continue to add stock. The trick is to add the stock little by little, folding the rice over and only adding more once the stock has been sucked into the rice. Cook the rice to your liking. I like to keep it a bit toothy but its up to your how al dente you like it. Serve in a earthenware bowl with a bit of lemon zest and chopped parsley on top.
Jerked Fried Quail
1 C rice flour
1 C cornstarch
1 tsp. baking powder
2 T. salt
3 T. brown sugar
3 T. Dijon mustard
1 habanero pepper (optional)
2 cloves garlic, smashed to a paste
3 T. cholula hot sauce
1 lime, squeezed
1 tsp. of each: nutmeg, allspice, ginger and black pepper (Jamaican pimento, if you got it)
6 quails, patted dry
A couple of splashes of light beer
1 qt. of vegetable oil for frying
4 qt. sauce pot
Combine dry ingredients in one bowl. Toss marinade in another bowl along with the quails and let sit for at least 30 minutes. Dredge quail one by one in the dredging ingredients making sure to coat the quail completely in the flour mixture.
Deep fry quails 1 or 2 (don’t over crowd) at a time until cooked through on each side. This should take about 3-4 minutes per side. Check the middle to make sure they are finished.
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