It should be noted that I have no professional cooking experience. I haven’t spent a day in culinary school, and the closest to food service work I’ve ever had was working at an ice cream shop in high school. But I’ve always cooked for myself and my friends—the desire to feed people and make them feel at home is something I’ve always felt.
For a while this Martha Stewart impulse was kind of embarrassing, as the reality of what I could feasibly make for people (on the basis of both my meager cooking skills and my meager finances) would never match up to my high expectations. When I first started cooking in high school, I tried making pasta from scratch for somebody I admired greatly—the end product was cut so thick as to be nearly inedible. Over the years I’ve served biscuits dry as chalk, tofu burnt to a crisp and tacos that fell apart when you looked at them, largely to people I love. Not even because I’m a terrible cook, but because I tend to get a little too ambitious in the kitchen when company’s coming over.
But since the weather’s been getting warmer and evening baseball games require both friends and food for proper enjoyment, I’ve wanted to have people over for dinner all the time. To do this without making myself crazy from embarrassment at my sometimes disaster meals, I realized I’d have to divorce myself from the idea of perfection. More importantly, I’d have to stop apologizing for serving up less than perfect food. Because somebody apologizing for something they’ve made for you is awkward and uncomfortable.
Last year, Alison Roman had an article and accompanying menu in Bon Appetit titled “It’s Not Entertaining, It’s Having People Over.” Her point, made clear from the title alone, is that cooking for people shouldn’t be something to panic over—you invited your friends over to enjoy their company, not to spend hours agonizing over recipes and cooking alone in the kitchen.
It’s okay to have store-bought stuff on the table and it’s okay to ask your friends to pick up or make things to bring. For the dish(es) that you are going to make at home, pick recipes that you’ve already made and enjoyed before, so you already know they’re good and feel confident making them. Or ignore that completely and do what I typically do: Text a friend “Can I test this new recipe out on you tonight? No promises it’ll be good.” Because then they know what they’re getting into, and that the night might end in ordering delivery instead. Take this approach only with friends you love and trust.
Recently, I learned that my friend Sara had never had gnocchi, one of my all-time favorite things to eat. “What?! Gnocchi is the best,” I told her. “Come over tonight and I’ll make some for you.” A bold move on my part, no? But pan-fried gnocchi is so quick and easy to make, and it’s something I’ve done enough times that I felt my chances of messing it up dramatically were slim.
I asked Sara to make a salad to bring along and bought some sparkling water. For the gnocchi, I went sans recipe and blended together a pesto-adjacent sauce from Italian parsley, walnuts (which I had to ask her to pick up, because the Smith’s by my house doesn’t carry any), sundried tomatoes and lots of fruity olive oil. I chopped up some shallots and fried them before I threw the gnocchi in the pan. When I put everything together, I put a little goat cheese and fresh red onion on top.
Y’all, it was so tasty. And I wasn’t even the only one who thought so.
But perhaps the best part was that I wasn’t stressed about cooking it. While I wasn’t sure that a parsley pesto would work as well as it did, I knew that Sara wasn’t going to think less of me if I didn’t get it exactly right. She was coming over to hang out with me—the food part was just incidental. Because the most memorable dinners are never about the food you eat. They’re about the company you keep.
So, text that friend you haven’t seen in a while and see if they want to come over for dinner tonight. You don’t need to light the candelabra or bring out the fancy plates. Just put on some good music and cook your favorite food for your favorite people.