When Amy Thielen is looking to let off steam on Friday nights, she cooks dinner for friends. Sometimes it’s for no occasion at all; other times it’s for big, blowout celebrations, holidays or birthdays. Thielen and her family live in rural northern Minnesota; “In my corner of the world, in-house entertaining is more than a way of life — it’s pretty much our only option,” she writes in the introduction for her latest cookbook, “Company.”
The book, released at the end of August, is billed as the “radically casual art of cooking for others,” and includes 20 full menus for different types of gatherings — Saturday Nights for parties of six to eight, Holidays for eight to 12, Perennial Parties of six to 10 and Casual Walkabouts for full buffets for 15 to 20 people. There are also notes and advice, plus a section on stocking a pantry.
This is Thielen’s third book, and while her second was a memoir, she says this one is also “very personal” with its own voice, one she calls her “crabby grandmother” in that it’s just a teeny bit bossy and authoritative but not authoritarian.
“This is a conversation with whoever is reading it as a cook, and we are in this together. It’s not like I’m telling a story. It’s a conversation, and it feels more reciprocal, even though it’s impossible to be reciprocal, really,” she muses.
It’s somewhat unusual to come across a cookbook with full menus; it’s much more common to group recipes into categories such as appetizers, main courses and side dishes. But Thielen says that leads a cookbook author to “pump up every recipe to the height of flavor.”
“But when you’re composing a menu and actually cooking a menu for a group of six to eight people, not every single side dish can be a symphony of flavor. It can’t be so elaborate. Menus need a rhythm section, too,” she says.
Thielen believes dinner parties are a piece of music — there’s the bombastic bits, like fried chicken, but there’s also the undercurrent of rhythm: fresh corn on the cob boiled in milk, or “beautiful beans, boiled just right with a little garlic and butter.”
In Thielen’s mind, not everything can be an explosion of flavor, because it’s just too much for the palate — and the cook.
While “Company” is divided into menus — equally seemingly mundane (A Lazy Day’s Summer Lunch) and celebratory (Easter Feast) — she stresses that people shouldn’t feel bound by them. I cooked my way through the book picking and choosing what felt right based on what I had in my pantry and how much energy I had, and found winners at every turn.
The milk corn is stupidly simple and gives the tip to add a tiny bit of sugar to the milky water along with the fresh ears, because salt will make the kernels tough. I subbed fresh shell beans for the Marinated Chickpea Salad with Lemon and Swiss Chard and ended up with a dish somehow even better after a day in the fridge. I made the ginger-glazed baby back ribs, smashed garlic cucumbers and jasmine rice from the New York City Chinese Barbecue at Home menu for friends, and the table was darn near silent while we licked the spicy, sticky glaze off our fingers with delight.
I’ve earmarked the Family Brunch Around the Fire Pit menu, with its grilled garlic bread with bacon fat and tomato and potato tortilla to make before the last of the summer tomatoes are gone, and cannot wait to make the spicy cinnamon flan as the colder nights come upon us. Overall, the book has a no-nonsense-yet-kind voice that captures the joy one can get from cooking for friends and family, Thielen’s helpful hand ensuring that every dish sings.
Marinated Chickpea Salad with Lemon and Swiss Chard
Makes a generous 3 quarts, serving 20 (easily halved)
1 1/2 pounds (3 1/2 cups) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover generously
1 whole head garlic, plus 6 garlic cloves, sliced
3 bay leaves
4 dried hot chiles
1 teaspoon plus 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (optional)
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium sweet onions, cut into large dice (3 cups)
5 carrots, cut into large dice (2 1/2 cups)
1 tablespoon hot pepper flakes
1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary
1 cup white wine
5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
2 small bunches Swiss chard, washed, trimmed and plucked into large bite-sized pieces
1. Drain the soaked chickpeas, and put in a pot with water to cover by 3 inches.
2. Rub the excess paper from the head of garlic, trim its root end to remove any dirt and lop off the top 1/2 -inch to expose the cloves. Add the garlic to the pot, along with the bay leaves, chiles and 1 teaspoon of the salt; bring the water to a boil; and boil for a few minutes, skimming off the rising foam. Reduce the heat to hold a consistent simmer, partially cover the pot and cook until the chickpeas are tender to the bite but still holding tight in their skins, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. If they’re not beginning to soften after 1 1/2 hours, add the baking soda. When the chickpeas are tender, remove them from the heat. They can sit in their cooking liquid for up to 2 hours at the back of the stovetop.
3. Meanwhile, heat a large high-sided saute pan over medium-high heat, and add 1/2 cup of the olive oil and the onions. Cook until the onions turn light golden brown at the edges, about 10 minutes. Add the carrots and the remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt, raise the heat, and cook until the corners of the carrots bronze and take on a rounded-shoulder look, about 8 minutes; they should be crisp-tender and slightly resistant to a bite at the center. (This dish will be served warm or, more likely, at room temperature, and no one wants to confront mushy leftover-from-dinner carrots in a lemony vinaigrette; what you want are cooked, sprightly “salad carrots.”)
4. By this time, you should have a coppery, oily base at the bottom of the pan. Add the hot pepper flakes and sliced garlic, reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 1 minute, stirring, until the garlic is tender. Add the tomato paste, both paprikas and the rosemary; raise the heat to medium-high; and stir until the tomato paste begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, 3 to 4 minutes.
5. Add the white wine to deglaze, and bring everything to a simmer, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to release its flavor cache. Add the lemon juice, honey and the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, and simmer for a few minutes to thicken the liquid, then taste for seasoning. The sauce should hang in the balance between sweet and sour, offset by the round fattiness of the olive oil. Add salt as needed.
6. Drain the chickpeas in a colander (discard the aromatics), and shake to rid them of excess moisture. Add them to the saute pan, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook until the vinaigrette clings saucily to the chickpeas and they taste infused with the sauce, about 15 minutes. If the sauce is too tight, add a bit of water; if it’s too loose, reduce it further. (This is where, if you’ve got something more pressing to do, you can step away and leave the chickpeas to marinate.)
7. When you’re ready to plate the salad, return the pan to medium heat, add the Swiss chard and fold it in. Cook very briefly, just long enough for the chard to buckle and start to wilt.
8. Immediately spoon the chickpea mixture onto a wide platter, scraping all of the flavorful sauce over the top. It should seep around the salad in a shiny, rusty pool. This salad is as delicious warm as it is at room temperature. You can plate it up to an hour ahead; to refresh, spoon the pooling juices over the chickpeas.
— Amy Thielen, from her book “Company”
Shell Bean Variation
When fresh shell beans (mature beans picked before they’ve dried out, sold in their pods) start to show up in the market in late summer, use them in place of the chickpeas. Their texture is like velour. Substitute 8 cups raw shell beans for the chickpeas, and cook them to tenderness in the same way, but for much less time — just 30 to 40 minutes.