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The No-Cook Dinner Party of My Dreams

Standing in the foyer of my apartment building, clutching a sack of peak-season stone fruit, I uttered a low and anguished growl. I'd just received a notice informing me that a small gas leak had been discovered in our pipes, and that our gas service would be shut off immediately and indefinitely. The building had recently been inspected in accordance with Local Law 152, which New York City lawmakers passed in the wake of two deadly explosions in 2014 and 2015. This is, of course, a good thing for public safety. It's also as protracted and bureaucratic a process as one might expect in this city of 8.2 million, and one that can leave residents without cooking gas for what can feel like forever.

I prefer being alive, I suppose, to being instantly turned to vapor. Nevertheless, I gnawed at my nails as I catastrophized about how this would impact what and how I could cook.

Here I am, one month later, still without any BTUs. I thought I could simply swap one heat source for another, so I purchased a well-reviewed induction plate-which, I soon found out, literally screams when it comes into contact with my (pricey and allegedly "induction-compatible") stainless-steel pans. Even my cast-iron cookware heats up just a little differently and unexpectedly on this strange, beeping glass hob.

It's a drag, though many gas-less NYC residents have it far worse off-and as an incorrigible kitchen gadget hoarder, I've got enough microwave, electric pressure cooker, and panini press power to run a small restaurant out of my 1,100 square feet. Once upon a time, I might've hauled all of that machinery out to prepare a dozen-course dinner party for friends and family. But now, especially at the height of East Coast summer, when outside feels like the inside of a Russian sauna, why shouldn't I lean into not cooking anything at all, or at least not heating anything at all?

"At the new dinner party, the menu should require little effort," Epi contributor Chandra Ram wrote in May. "I want to spend time with my friends, not my stove." I can't say I feel that way myself. Years of gas cooking (and a soupçon of fossil fuel propaganda) have made me catch feelings for my range's beautiful blue flames. But Chandra's emphasis on simplicity stuck with me: If I were to try to host some kind of dinner party, now that that's sorta-maybe okay (for the moment) for post-vax folks to do again, what would I make sans stove or oven?

Immediately my mind leapt to cold soups: borscht, ajo blanco, and the most seasonally appropriate of them all, gazpacho. Now, gazpacho appears in many forms and thicknesses, from chunky and pico de gallo-like to thin enough to sip through a straw. Traditionalist Goldilocks that I am, I prefer mine between those extremes, made the Andalusian way: creamy and emulsified, with bits of old baguette for body and Sherry vinegar to brighten and balance the sweet summer tomatoes. I could build the whole thing in a food processor or powerful blender and then pass it through a sieve for extra silkiness. Easy-peasy.

"Next," I would tell my imaginary guests, doing my best impression of a server at one of the too-fancy white tablecloth restaurants I haven't frequented in one and a half years, "is a duo of salads." Both come from chef Katie Button's Cúrate, a favorite of mine that's based on recipes from her Asheville, NC restaurant. The first is a colorful mess of cubed watermelon and fat chunks of ripe heirloom tomatoes dressed with a simple sherry-honey vinaigrette. Crumbles of fresh goat cheese and slivers of raw onion highlight the sweetness of both fruits, while a garnish of tarragon adds a deeply herbal, almost medicinal note. 

The best part, however, is the corn nuts-a crunchy flex I have deployed in many other salads since. (Button recommends Spanish quicos if you can find them, although I've also used the enormous maiz cancha from a nearby South and Central American market. The typical gas station variety will also work well.)

The next dish feels like a proper synthesis of my Spanish-ish dinner party theme and my New Yorker's love of Jewish appetizing tradition: thin slices of gin-cured trout, set atop a relish of freshly grated tomatoes scented with garlic and rosemary, gilded with yet more onion slices and rough-chopped Kalamata olives. It's a salty, briny foil to the watermelon and tomatoes, and the only appliance it requires is a refrigerator, in which the fish spends four hours curing. Homemade cured fish is one of those stupid-simple moves that always impresses, and this plated dish looks much fussier than it is.

Lastly, I'd want an uncomplicated, tart dessert to cleanse the palate of all those powerful flavors. Perhaps it's childhood nostalgia, or maybe it's my proximity to Paleteria Los Michoacanos in Corona, Queens, but I've been feeling ice pops lately. To round out my heat-free meal, I'd turn to Salma Hage's simple recipe for pomegranate-yogurt ice pops, which I prefer to make with labneh for extra richness, but Greek yogurt works just as well. They take all of 10 minutes to prepare, easily done while the trout is curing.

At the end of the meal, with melted pomegranate juice trickling down our fingers, my fictitious guests and I would trade stories about coping with lockdown, joke about the cabin fever that made us momentarily contemplate mariticide, and exchange worries about our uncertain future. And I'd glance over at the unplugged induction plate, its screams now quiet, and remember that after the hell of a year we have all endured, a little inconvenience is just that.


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