6 Recipes to Bring Family Dinner Back to the Table
Eating is only partly about sustaining your body. It is also about dining, sustaining and developing relationships among the people at the table and one of the most important ways that people come together. Over time, the dining experience transformed from a crowded table of family or friends into a ritual of eating alone. Even when people are sitting together, each person kept to his or her own plate and didn’t share. In fact, it is often considered rude to reach across the table and dig into another diner’s plater. Not at my table!
I am one of four siblings. When I was growing up, both of my parents worked long hours at night and I was often left to fend for myself in the kitchen while my mom delivered babies at the nearby hospital. But when we did manage to have the rare family dinner, not sharing was not an option. Six sets of arms were reaching in every direction, clamoring for my mom’s famous Chouriço and Pepper Sloppy Joes, among many other dishes.
Related: 4 Tips to Bring Back Family Dinners
When I think of my life as an adult, I realize that I’ve done a lot of laughing with my mouth full, and rarely at a “fancy” restaurant. My best memories have been of meals where the food was exciting and fun to eat, and was enjoyed with beloved company.
My best meals have been the ones that have been intimate and communal at the same time: intimate because I was with close friends, yet communal because of the elements of sharing and community.
Too many meals follow a format, a carved-in-stone approach to eating. I would rather have the experience be full of surprises, a kind of potluck where guests don’t have to bring anything and never quite know what is going to be served next. My best meals have been the ones that have been intimate and communal at the same time: intimate because I was with close friends, yet communal because of the elements of sharing and community.
My new book, Share, is about how to entertain your friends and family with creative food in the comfort of your home. When people think about entertaining, they often consider the drinks they are going to serve or the music they are going to play as the pivotal element. For me, the food always comes first. I like my food to do the entertaining, and that’s why I serve dishes that are delicious but that are also innovative enough to start conversations among my guests—about the food and also about just how much they are enjoying every bite.
In a perfect world, people would spend more time enjoying weeknight dinners together at home. But realistically, most of the people I know reserve their “special” cooking for the weekends when they have more time. Whichever you prefer, below you’ll find some dishes that I come back to time and time again when I am hosting a party because I know that they are the ones everyone at the table is going to love. From the simplest of dishes to the most complex, you can be assured that all of the them have been road tested as guaranteed crowd pleasers. My hope is that some of these recipes become incorporated into your go-to menu when it comes time to entertain.
White Sangria with Cranberry and Cucumber
Makes about 9 servings
White sangria, with all the fruity wine flavor of the magenta version without the threat of staining your upholstery, is deliciously refreshing. The cranberry juice (pressed from the white cranberries that you’ll occasionally see in the bag of red ones) makes this an especially great choice for a winter holiday bash.
- 18 ounces (about 2¼ cups, three-fourths of a 750-ml bottle) dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
- 4 ounces (½ cup) sweet white wine, such as Moscato
- 4 ounces (½ cup) white cranberry juice
- 6 ounces (¾ cup) fresh lemon juice
- 3 ounces (6 tablespoons) Simple Syrup
- 1 medium Kirby cucumber, unpeeled, cut into thin rounds
- 18 ounces (about 2¼ cups) chilled seltzer water, as needed
- Fresh mint sprigs, for garnish
Stir the dry white wine, sweet white wine, cranberry juice, lemon juice and syrup together in a large pitcher. Add the cucumber, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight. For each drink, pour about 4 ounces (½ cup) into a tall ice-filled glass, leaving about 1 inch of headspace. Fill with about 2 ounces (¼ cup) seltzer and stir gently. Garnish with a slice of soaked cucumber and a mint sprig. Serve immediately.
Smoky Rubbed Chicken Wings with Honey, Bourbon and Molasses sauce
Makes 6 servings
I order chicken wings anytime I see them on a menu, and this recipe will make you realize just how incredible they can be. After a lot of trial and error, when I finally got the rub right, I felt like I had unlocked a magic puzzle. There are a lot of ingredients in the rub, but they provide a perfect mix of sugar and spice, and the bourbon-spiked sauce coats the wings in yet another layer of bold flavor. If you prefer the grill to the oven, grill the wings over medium indirect heat (about 400°F) for about 40 minutes, until they are almost done, before adding the sauce.
- 1 cup store-bought spicy barbecue sauce, such as Rattler BBQ sauce
- 1 cup tomato ketchup
- ¼ cup molasses (not blackstrap)
- ½ cup bourbon, preferably Maker’s Mark
- ½ cup honey
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander seeds
- 1 tablespoon sweet smoked paprika
- 1½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 1½ teaspoons dried thyme
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
- ¾ teaspoon celery salt
- ¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ¼ teaspoon dry mustard
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- 5½ pounds chicken wingettes*
- To make the sauce: Bring all of the ingredients to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking often. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, whisking occasionally to discourage scorching, until lightly thickened and reduced by about one-quarter, about 30 minutes. Remove them from the heat and let cool. (The sauce can be covered and refrigerated for up to two weeks.)
- To make the rub: Whisk all of the ingredients together in a small bowl.
- Put the wingettes in a very large bowl and toss with the rub. Divide the wingettes between two 1-gallon self-sealing plastic bags, seal and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
- Position racks in the top third and center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F. Line two 18-by-13-inch half-sheet pans with aluminum foil for easy cleanup.
- Spread the wingettes out on the baking sheets, spacing them well apart. Roast the wingettes, turning the wings over and switching the positions of the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through cooking, until the wings are crisp and cooked through, about 40 minutes. During the last 5 minutes, brush the wings with some of the sauce. Remove the wings from the oven.
- Position the broiler about 8 inches from the source of heat and preheat the broiler on high. In batches, broil the wings to caramelize the sauce in spots, about 3 minutes. Serve hot, with any leftover sauce passed on the side.
*Chicken wingettes are chicken wings that have been chopped between the joints, with the wing tips discarded. Many of the large poultry producers sell chicken wingettes. Fresh wingettes are better than the frozen ones, as the latter tend to be dry when baked. Or do it yourself: Chop whole chicken wings between the joints with a cleaver or heavy knife and discard the tops (or save them for another use, such as stock).
Rigatoni with Merguez, Ricotta Salata and Brown Butter
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Here it is—my favorite pasta dish. Ever. I learned to make it with torchio, an unusual funnel-shaped Venetian pasta, but any tube-shaped kind will do. The dish isn’t saucy, so you can really taste the individual flavors, and the merguez, with its spicy harissa flavor, has an unexpected kick. Both parsley and mint provide fresh accents.
- 1 pound ziti or other tube-shaped pasta
- 6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
- 1 pound merguez sausage, casings removed*
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ¾ cup (3 ounces) shredded ricotta salata cheese
- ½ cup Sicilian Bread Crumbs or pan-toasted bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions until al dente. Drain well and rinse under cold running water.
- Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Continue cooking until the milk solids in the saucepan turn hazelnut brown, about two minutes. Immediately pour the melted butter into a small bowl.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a very large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook, occasionally stirring and breaking it up with the side of the spoon into bite-sized pieces, until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until it softens, about 1 minute. Stir in the tomato paste and parsley and mix well. Pour into a colander to drain the excess fat. Clean the skillet.
- Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is lightly browned, about two minutes. Add the sausage mixture and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Transfer the pasta mixture to a serving bowl. Add the browned butter and mix well. Top with the ricotta salata, bread crumbs and mint. Drizzle with additional olive oil, toss and serve immediately.
*Merguez is lamb sausage, boldly seasoned with harissa, the North African spice paste. Because it is pork-free, you’ll often find merguez at halal and kosher butchers. As an easy substitute, mix 1 pound ground lamb, 1 to 2 tablespoons harissa (sold at specialty markets and online), 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 2 garlic cloves, shredded on a Microplane zester.
Related: Recipe: Morgan’s Veggie Patties
Twice-Cooked Eggplant with Cilantro-Sesame Pesto
Makes 4 servings
When people say that they don’t like eggplant, I tell them they just haven’t tried my eggplant. Eggplant chunks are first roasted for a lightly caramelized flavor, then finished in a wok with a myriad of Asian flavors. Dark purple globe eggplant works well here, but the narrow Japanese variety is my preference because it’s sweeter.
- 1½ pounds Japanese eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed under a knife and peeled
- 2 cups packed fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted*
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon Sriracha
- 1 teaspoon fresh orange juice
- 1 teaspoon Japanese soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted*
- 2 tablespoons packed cilantro leaves
- 1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted*
- To roast the eggplant: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Toss the eggplant with the oil in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Spread on an 18-by-13-inch half-sheet plan. Roast, stirring occasionally, until tender and lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely. (The eggplant can be covered and stored at room temperature for up to 4 hours.)
- To make the pesto: With the machine running, drop the garlic through the feed tube of a processor to mince it. Add the cilantro, lemon juice, sesame oil, and sesame seeds and process until pureed. With the machine running, pour the olive oil through the feed tube to make a smooth sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (The pesto can be covered tightly and stored at room temperature for up to 4 hours.)
- To make the mayonnaise: Whisk all of the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside for up to one hour.
- To finish the eggplant: Heat a large wok or skillet over high heat. Add the oil and swirl the wok to coat the sides. Add the eggplant and spread it out in a single layer. Let cook until the underside is seared, about one minute. Stir-fry until hot, about one minute more. Remove the wok from the heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the pesto, the pine nuts, the cilantro leaves and the sesame seeds. Transfer to a serving bowl, drizzle with the mayonnaise, and serve hot, with the remaining pesto passed on the side. (Leftover pesto is delicious stirred into plain steamed rice or used to flavor vinaigrette.)
*To toast either sesame seeds or pine nuts, heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add the seeds (or pine nuts) and cook, stirring occasionally, until toasted, about one minute for the seeds or slightly longer for the pine nuts. Transfer to a plate and let cool completely.
Black-Bottomed Butterscotch Pots de Crème
Makes 6 servings
When it comes to dining, I love a good surprise. These layered butterscotch desserts feature a hidden chocolate base and an unexpected coconut-infused whipped cream topping. Make sure you instruct your guests to really dig down into the bottom of their glasses, as the best bites include all three elements. The butterscotch layer is thickened with egg yolks only, so be patient when cooking, as it takes time for the mixture to reach the thickening point.
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 3 tablespoons whole milk
- 3 large egg yolks
- 3 ounces bittersweet chocolate (about 70 percent cacao), finely chopped
- 1½ ounces milk chocolate (about 40 percent cacao), finely chopped
- 3 cups heavy cream, heated to steaming
- ½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
- 2/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
- ¼ cup water
- 9 large egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
Whopped Coconut Topping:
- ¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons sweetened coconut flakes
- 2/3 cup heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons confectioners’ sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- To make the chocolate base, heat the cream and milk together in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat until steaming. Whisk hot cream mixture. Return this to the saucepan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the custard reaches 185°F on an instant-read thermometer and is thick enough to coat the spoon (a finger swiped through the custard on the spoon will cut a swath), about 3 minutes.
- Combine the bittersweet and milk chocolates in a medium heatproof bowl, and place a wire sieve over the bowl. Strain the custard (to remove any bits of cooked egg) directly into the chocolates. Let the mixture stand for 1 minute. Whisk until the chocolate is smooth and melted. Divide the chocolate base equally among size 1-cup glasses or jars. Cover and refrigerate until the base is chilled and set, at least 1 hour.
- To make the butterscotch layer, bring the cream and vanilla bean to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and let stand for 15 minutes. Using the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds from the bean into the cream and discard the bean.
- Bring the brown sugar and water to a boil in a medium have-bottomed saucepan over high heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is boiling. Cook without stirring, occasionally swirling the saucepan by the handle, until the syrup is very thick with large bubbles and reaches 270°F on a candy thermometer, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Carefully ladle the hot cream mixture into the brown sugar syrup (it will splatter) and stir until well combined. Remove from the heat.
- Whisk the egg yolks and granulated sugar together in a medium heatproof bowl. Choose a wide saucepan large enough to nestle the bowl. Bring about 1 inch of water to a simmer in the saucepan over high heat. Reduce the heat to keep the water at a steady simmer.
- Whisk the hot cream mixture into the egg yolks. Place the bowl over the simmering water (the bowl bottom should not touch the water). Cook, stirring almost constantly with a rubber spatula and scraping down any splashes on the side of the bowl, until the custard reaches at least 190°F on an instant-read thermometer and is thicker than the typical custard sauce, about 10 minutes. The idea is to cook the custard as much as possible without it coming to a simmer and curdling, which takes some time, so be patient.
- Strain the custard through a wire sieve into another medium bowl to remove any bits of cooked egg. Add the salt. Using an immersion blender or hand mixer on low speed, beat the custard for one to two minutes to expel some of the steam and help cool it. Place the bowl in a larger bowl of ice water and let stand, stirring occasionally, until the custard is tepid, about 10 minutes. Divide the custard evenly over the chocolate bases in the glasses. Cover each glass with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until the pots de crème are chilled, at least 4 hours or up to 1 day.
- To make the topping: Combine ¼ cup of the coconut with the heavy cream in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Remove from the heat and let infuse for 30 minutes. Strain the mixture through a wire sieve into a medium bowl, pressing hard on the coconut. Place the bowl in a larger bowl of ice water and let stand until chilled, about 30 minutes. Add the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Whip with an elective mixer until the topping forms soft peaks. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve, up to 4 hours.
- Meanwhile, position a rack in the center and preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread the remaining 3 tablespoons coconut on a small baking sheet. Bake, stirring occasionally, until the coconut is lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes. (This can also be done, very efficiently, in a toaster oven.) Let cool.
- Top each pot de crème with a dollop of whipped topping and a sprinkling of toasted coconut. Serve chilled.
French Toast Bread Pudding with Pumpkin Maple Syrup
Makes 8-to-10 servings
Soaking bread in custard makes the best French toast, so it made perfect sense to transform everyone’s favorite breakfast into a communal confection. There are zillions of bread pudding recipes, but this one has a perfect proportion of bread to custard, and the pumpkin maple syrup makes this a damn near perfect autumn brunch dish.
Spiced Crème Fraîche:
- ½ cup crème fraîche or sour cream
- 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
- ½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice*
- Soft butter, for the baking dish
- 1¼ cups granulated sugar
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 8 cups (1-inch) cubes rich bread, such as challah or brioche loaf, preferable slightly stale, about 10 ounces
Pumpkin Maple Syrup
- 1 cup maple syrup
- 2/3 cup solid-pack pumpkin puree
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- ¼ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice*
- To make the crème fraiche: Whisk all of the ingredients together in a small bowl. Cover and let stand at room temperature for at least 1 hour. (If you have time, refrigerate the crème fraiche mixture overnight. Let stand at room temperature for one hour before serving.)
- To make the bread pudding: Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Have ready a large roasting pan to hold the baking dish.
- Whisk the eggs and sugar well in a large bowl. Whisk in the cream, milk and cinnamon. Add the bread cubes and mix well. Let stand five minutes for the bread to soak up some of the liquid. Pour into a baking dish. Cover tightly with aluminum foil.
- Place the baking dish in the roasting pan. Put the pan on the oven rack, and carefully pour enough boiling water into the roasting pan to come about ½ inch up the sides of the dish. Bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake until the pudding is barely browned and feels set when pressed gently in the center, about 30 minutes more. Remove from the roasting pan and let stand for 5 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make the syrup: Whisk all of the ingredients together in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
- Spoon the pudding into individual bowls and top with dollops of the spiced crème fraiche. Serve immediately, with the warm pumpkin syrup passed on the side.
*If you don’t have pumpkin pie spice, mix one teaspoon ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground ginger, ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, and a large pinch of ground cloves.
Related: Recipe: Blueberry Blast Smoothie
Excerpted from the book Share by Chris Santos. Copyright © 2017 by Chris Santos. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.