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Counter Intelligence: Impromptu dinner party can be stress-free

By April Hamilton

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Pierre doesn't know what to do about Cary's birthday," my husband alerted me just days before our dear friend, the proprietor of one of my favorite restaurants in Charleston, was turning 40. "Let's have a party," I answered, without hesitation. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, my brilliant idea had a few potential flaws: The actual date was just a few days away; the birthday girl, not wanting anyone to go to any trouble, had all but rejected the idea of a party; and, finally, how does one go about hosting a dinner party for a local celebrity chef?

We set about quickly addressing the various obstacles, beginning with a call to the birthday girl. Cary Charbonniez, a trained chef, is an expert at feeding people really great food and spoiling them on her turf. I wanted to reciprocate and she wasn't making it easy. After much persuasion, she reluctantly agreed to "something really small" and urged "please don't fuss," adding "no balloons, no presents, no cake." I promised to fulfill her wishes, even though I wasn't in full agreement with these illogical requests.

With only a few days to plan this no-cake celebration, I phoned a few of her closest friends and invited them over. As if prompted, each person inquired, "Can I bring something?" I hadn't even thought to ask, but instantly answered, "Sure, how about an appetizer? Can you pick up bread? Toss a salad? Bring some wine?"

With that, the bulk of the work was done. I had scarcely spent 20 minutes on the phone and my impromptu party was essentially catered. All that was left for me to do was make the main course and dessert. No problem.

To stick with the "no fuss" request, my husband reminded me to keep it simple. To observe the birthday milestone, I decided on the classic "Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic," and because cake was forbidden, I chose to make rustic tarts with local fruit from the market. Simple.

The chicken dish is deliciously foolproof, a combination of fresh vegetables, the aforementioned garlic, and boneless chicken thighs that braise in some wine for exactly an hour and a half. That's 90 minutes to assemble the free-form tarts and then greet and mingle with guests as they arrive with their chosen dishes. Easier than I expected.

Our patio table began to fill up with delicious nibbles and drinks that our guests toted in. A homemade lemony hummus and colorful veggies platter arrived. Another guest brought a beautiful display of chilled shrimp with spicy cocktail sauce from the fish market. Golden crusty baguettes from the bakery and a gorgeous watercress salad appeared as well. The birthday girl and her husband arrived with champagne and we shared a toast and sat down to a casual feast.

Hosting a dinner party doesn't have to be stressful and formal, even when you're cooking for a "celebrity chef." Even though I've spent most of my life in the kitchen, it doesn't take a trained chef to put a casual, fabulous meal together for friends. Especially if they help. It's truly about sharing a meal with good friends.

Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic

This recipe is deliciously simple: Layer aromatic vegetables in a pot with seasoned boneless chicken, pour in a little wine, cover and bake. To dress this up for company, I like to add sliced leeks -- an extra chopped onion can be substituted. Serves 6.

     1     onion

     1     small bunch leeks

     4     stalks celery

     40     cloves of garlic, unpeeled

     6     sprigs fresh parsley

     6     sprigs fresh thyme

     Zest of 1 lemon

     1/3  cup olive oil

     12     boneless, skinless chicken thighs

     2     teaspoons salt

     1/2     teaspoon black pepper

     1/2  cup white wine

     French bread for serving

PREPARE vegetables: Chop onion coarsely and place into a large bowl. Slice white and light green part of leeks, rinse well and drain, and add to the onion in the bowl. Cut the celery into long, thin diagonal slices and add to the bowl, along with the garlic, parsley, thyme and lemon zest.

HEAT oven to 375°. In another large bowl, toss the chicken with olive oil.

COVER the bottom of an ovenproof pot with one-third of the vegetables. Lay 4 of the oiled chicken pieces over the vegetables and sprinkle with one-third of the salt and pepper. Repeat to make 2 more layers. Pour the wine over the chicken.

COVER the pot tightly with foil. Bake for 1 1/2 hours without removing the cover. Remove from oven and let stand a few minutes before carefully removing foil.

SERVE the chicken with the vegetables and pan juices, along with the French bread, which is delicious spread with the garlic squeezed from its skin.

Summer Fruit Costata

Works well with stone fruits, such as peaches, plums or nectarines. Tarts can be chilled for several hours before baking. Recipe can easily be halved. Freeze remaining wrapped dough disks in a freezer zip-top bag.

     1     recipe crostata dough (see below), divided for 12 tiny tarts

     1/4  cup unbleached flour, for rolling the dough

     3     tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar

     6     fresh peaches, plums or nectarines, sliced off the pit into eighths

     1     tablespoon milk

SPRINKLE a clean work surface with flour, and gently pat each dough disk into the flour to lightly coat. Working with half of the dough, roll out each dough disk into a 5- to 6-inch circle and transfer each to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle each circle of dough with 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Repeat with remaining dough, keeping one sheet chilled while you work with the first.

DIVIDE fruit into 12 equal portions.

WORKING with one sheet of dough circles at a time, lay one portion of peach slices in the center of each dough circle, leaving a 1-inch border. Mound any extra fruit just slightly in center. Fold plain edge of crust up to partially enclose peaches, leaving fruit exposed in center. Gently fold and pinch dough edge to seal any cracks. Dough will drape gently over fruit, with creases or folds every few inches enclosing the fruit around the edges. Repeat until all tarts are formed.

HEAT oven to 425°.

BRUSH crust with milk and sprinkle top of fruit and dough with remaining sugar.

BAKE crostatas until crust is golden brown and fruit is bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven. Cool on baking sheet 10 minutes. Can be made 4 hours ahead. Let stand on sheet at room temperature. Re-warm in 425° oven for 5 minutes, then serve.

Crostata Dough

A food processor makes light work of this pastry. If you don't have a food processor, the dough can be mixed by hand.

For dough:

     1/2     pound cold unsalted butter

     2    cups unbleached flour

     3     tablespoons granulated sugar

     1/2     teaspoon kosher salt

     1/4  cup ice cold water

CUT the butter into 1/2 inch cubes and keep cold.

PLACE the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse a few times to combine.

ADD the cold butter cubes to the processor, carefully tossing with a spatula to coat each butter cube with flour (this prevents the butter cubes from sticking together and helps them combine more evenly with the flour).

PULSE 15 times, or until the butter particles are the size of small peas.

ADD the ice water, with the motor running, all at once through the feed tube. Process for about 10 seconds, stopping the machine before the dough becomes a solid mass. If the dough seems dry and crumbly, add a few sprinkles of cold water and pulse again.

TURN the contents of the bowl onto a sheet of parchment paper, pressing any loose particles into the mass of dough. Divide into 12 equal pieces for individual tarts. Roughly form each piece of dough into a disk and wrap in parchment or plastic wrap.

CHILL for at least 1 hour. The dough may be refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 2 weeks.

April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email aprilskitchencounter@gmail.com.


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