June 19, 2023

The Unexpected Dinner Guest

Who Brought the Unexpected Gift

A friend of ours called this morning and asked if he could come over for dinner. He is one of our ex-pat friends from France who used to live near us in Michigan. A year ago, he moved with his wife and three children to their dream city, Chicago. Although he now lives in Chicago, he continues to work in Detroit Monday through Friday. As soon as he announced his move, my husband Pierre and I told him to please come over for dinner any time. The door is always open. 

It took him a while to get comfortable inviting himself over for dinner on short notice. He was hesitant until I promised it wouldn't be a bother and I wouldn't go out of my way, joking with him he would get leftovers most of the time. Like pasta with leftover lamb or pork roast and rosemary, a Caesar salad to start, then plums, and a piece of chocolate for dessert.

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Pasta with Leftover Lamb and Rosemary
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The Best Homemade Caesar Dressing
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Fresh Plums for Dessert
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Michel Cluizel Chocolates

My promise seemed to break the ice since he started to invite himself over for dinner. Today was one of those days where he was coming by tonight. 

As with any family dinner, some days you feel like a rock star because you have a great plan for dinner and time to cook. Then there are those days when you panic at the end of the day, wondering, “What am I going to do for dinner?” And you don't feel like cooking. I was somewhere between these two extremes today. I had a plan, but my day didn’t go as I expected. Today was a challenging day. My kids were moody, and my workday was challenging. Then my husband Pierre came home almost unable to walk, suffering from a mysterious cramp in his left leg. Today was proving to be "one of those days,” I thought at 5:00 when I realized I forgot to go to the grocery store at lunchtime to buy essential ingredients for dinner. I needed bleu cheese for an endive salad and more sausage to accommodate our extra guest. 

Endive leaves on a plate topped with wlanuts, parlsey, rosemary, and bleu d'auvergne cheese
Endive Salad with Dijon Sauce

All I wanted was to sit on the porch and read after dinner, then get a good night’s sleep. I wished I could cancel dinner and tell our friend it was not a good day after all to stop by, but I knew I couldn't. I had no choice but to pull it together and come up with a plan B. Dinner must go on. And it would, but I feared how long it would go on.

There is a characteristic every French person I have met possesses. They do not rush through dinner, nor do they dine and dash. It’s like there is an obligatory time of at least an hour to sit at the table and talk after dinner is over, which is, more often, an hour and a half to two hours. I adore this custom, but today I was not in the mood for more than a 45-minute dinner.

So, my plan was to somehow make up for my lack of ingredients and get dinner ready. Then, after an appropriate amount of time after dinner, I would excuse myself and leave my husband to sit with our guest and linger. I knew this would be at the risk of being rude, but I was willing to take the chance.

The main dish for dinner was Italian sausage with onions and peppers. A classic dish that reminds me of my childhood and is often found on menus at Italian restaurants. I'm never able to snap a photo to do it justice. It's scrumptious and easy to prepare. It was almost ready since I prepped most of it this morning. It took about 5 minutes to prepare the sausage, onions, peppers, and garlic. While everything was cooking, I checked my emails and my work plan for the day. Then I deglazed the pan with white wine and went to my desk to work. Now all I needed to do was add some tomato sauce that I had frozen and let all the ingredients simmer together. 

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The Unexpected Dinner Guest 11

The side dish was polenta with basil. I also got a head start on this dish, so there wasn’t much left to do. The evening prior, I boiled the polenta in chicken stock. It cooked while my husband and I were talking and cleaning up after dinner. Then I added parmesan cheese and fresh basil and spooned the polenta into a pan. The second step took less than 10 minutes, including clean-up. Now, all I had left to do was to cut the polenta, dredge it in flour, and fry it until golden brown. This step takes about 10 minutes. Then I would put it in the oven at 300 degrees to stay warm until dinner. 

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Fried Polenta with Fresh Basil

Next, I needed to compensate for not having enough sausage. There was one piece for everyone, and I knew everyone could eat two each. So, the solution was to add a cheese course and dessert. Fortunately, I had taken some cheese out of the freezer that morning, so it had thawed and was ready to serve. I removed it from the fridge so it could rest at room temperature before serving. I didn't take a picture, but this is an example of a simple cheese course. You can read about the French Cheese course here.

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The Unexpected Dinner Guest 12

For dessert, I prepared Fraise au Vin, strawberries in red wine, fresh lemon juice, and a few pinches of sugar. Perfect, I thought. This is a balanced meal, and there will be plenty for everyone. 

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The Unexpected Dinner Guest 13

The last step was to find a first course since I was missing the bleu cheese I needed for the endive salad. The solution was simple. I went to the front porch and pruned the nasturtium plant to make a salad: a few nasturtium leaves, flowers, a dollop of Boursin cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil.

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The Unexpected Dinner Guest 14

Dinner was delicious. The nasturtium salad, sauteed sausage, and peppers with fried polenta hit the spot. The sampling of Cantal, Roquefort, and St. Marcellin cheeses from fromages.com and a glass of Bordeaux wine followed by fresh berries was the cherry on top. I know everyone appreciated the meal, but the best part of the evening was what the meal inspired.

As we lingered after dinner, we discussed the cultural differences in Detroit vs. Chicago and how my friend’s wife is creating a new circle of friends in Chicago. This led to talking about what characteristics they appreciate and look for when making new friends. Then we shared how we both teach our children the education of conversation, educating them on how to be interesting to someone new they meet. Like when you go to dinner, and you sit with strangers for two hours, what do you talk about, even if you have nothing in common? We talked about how this area of conversation is an education for our children and that it is a process. We expect them to sit through dinner when we have company. Sometimes they grumble and ask if they can be excused, but we never give in. We agreed that it is how they will learn. Enthralled by our conversation and discussing our shared philosophy, I hardly noticed the next hour pass by.

Somewhere between the main course and the strawberries, I realized I felt warm and comforted and so relaxed. A drastic change from my tired and frenzied state earlier in the day. It’s hard to say whether the shift in my spirit came from the Roquefort cheese, creamy as it melted slightly in the 90-degree heat. Or that it was paired with a glass of rich Bordeaux wine that intensified the flavor. Perhaps it was the comfort food of fried polenta or the flowers on our salad plate. Or the enlightening conversation that made my day. I can’t say it was one thing or that the cheese, wine, or flowers were even necessary for the outcome. But what I am sure of is that this is what always happens at the table when there is good food, and you take the time to enjoy it. I smiled to myself, thinking I shouldn’t have had a thought to rush dinner tonight because today, of all days, it was exactly what I needed.

When I think about the time it took to create this experience, I marvel at how it is not that much work. 3 minutes to make polenta in the evening. 10 minutes to prep sausage and peppers in the morning and 20 minutes to cook while I multitask and reply to emails. 5 minutes to make a salad, 1 minute to put cheese and bread on a tray. 5 minutes to chop strawberries and marinate them in red wine and sugar. 10 minutes to fry polenta. 15 minutes to clean up and store the leftover polenta. And the next day, I have leftover polenta to warm with tomato sauce on top and can spend 15 minutes baking chicken and making a salad for another quick and easy dinner.

Cooking takes effort, but the rewards are priceless. So, the next time you don’t feel like making dinner, remember you can slice vegetables like tomatoes or carrots of the kids, and drizzle them with olive oil for the first course, make a simple French Omelet Baveuse for the main dish, then serve bread and cheese and strawberries. You'll have dinner ready in 15 minutes, and it will be worth it.

You make be interested in these related posts;

The Best Conversation Starters for Kids

A Conversation Starter That’s Remarkable

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