A food and nutrition writer for more than a dozen years and a vegetarian since the age of 13, Ellen Kanner is a fourth-generation Floridian living la vida vegan in Miami. She keeps a website and a blog and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post. She is the author of Feeding the Hungry Ghost.

Party girl

Saved by the panzanella

By
April 8, 2011

Friends and parties are two instances where I think less is not more. A cozy dinner for four? Lovely, but let’s invite you, too. You’ve got a friend in town visiting from Austin? Excellent. Bring him along. Your babysitter cancelled? Bring your kid. Oh, and her playdate. And bring the babysitter — she broke up with her boyfriend, she’s bereft, and I’m hoping my almond-and-pear torte might cheer her up. Our gorgeous guy friend might cheer her up, too. Let’s see if he’s free Saturday night. Remember when he introduced us to that real fun couple? Didn’t they used to live in Austin? Let’s invite them, too.

This is how my dinners for four turn into free-for-alls for 14.

I’m not into chaos. I don’t revel in cleaning the house before and after (I have a refrigerator magnet that says “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life”). But I do find joy in friends and people I want to make better friends. And I love planning what to cook for them. When I should have been working or cleaning or decorating or choosing some clever frock to wear, I dream and scheme over what to feed the crowd coming on Saturday.

My brain, which can really hold very little in the way of useful information, absolutely hums when it comes to people’s food hates and food faves. I am a food idiot savant. I may not remember the color of your eyes, but I remember if you’re fungi-phobic. I remember who picks out raisins in everything, who goes into anaphylactic shock if he eats shellfish, who has a particularly acute chocolate addiction, and who, though she says she’s banned sugar and dairy, is the first to dive headlong into the cheesecake.

Panzanella is perfect when the tomatoes are ripe.

It’s not always easy. You never know when someone’s suddenly going to go allergic on you or be in phase one of the South Beach Diet. But assuming you’re having people over you like, what better way to show it than feeding them what nourishes the body and spirit both? To be at a party where you can’t eat the food feels a little like being Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl — you’re left out in the cold, pressing your nose against the glass while everyone else is laughing and feasting.

There’s no point in throwing a party only to spend the entire time messing about in the kitchen. Yeah, the guests are there for your awesome food, but presumably, they like you, too. Don’t plan an elaborate menu that will wreck your kitchen and your nerves. Parties are there to have fun. That includes the host.

This is why I do not believe in making weensy pretty things. I do not stuff. Not bras, not ballot boxes, not spring rolls nor grape leaves. I will eat these things (well, excepting the bras and the ballots) but I will not prepare them. Life is short, and I am clumsy.

I believe in kimia, a word I discovered in Paula Wolfert’s 1973 seminal cookbook Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Kimia is a kind of magic, a sense of abundance, “the power to multiply food.” This doesn’t mean you can instantly conjure up a platter of sushi. The law of increase has to do with making the most of what you have, even if it’s very little.

Fresh, local produce is a party’s secret weapon — it’s vibrant in the mouth and easy on your wallet. Whole grains and dried beans keep in your pantry like money in the bank. They’re cheap, comforting, nourishing, and, with clever application, feed a hungry horde. With a little creativity, a well-stocked larder, and a desire to feed those you love, there is always enough to eat.

For a last-minute lunch/brunch on a recent Sunday, I used what I had — bread, eggs, fresh red tomatoes at their most glorious Florida ripeness, radishes and herbs right from my garden, and a happy heart. This translated as a big, bodacious panzanella, crisp radishes that tasted of terroir, and soft scrambled eggs with feta and mint. Add a sunny afternoon and half a dozen garrulous guests (some, happily, bearing Champagne), and it became the kind of impromptu party I love.

I don’t advise my party-giving method to others. But what is the point of having friends if you can’t invite them over and feed them, if you can’t eat and drink and talk and laugh together all crowded around the table? There’s always room for one more. So pull up a chair, and let’s eat.

Related recipe: Party Panzanella

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