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James Beard's Guide to Impromptu Dinner Parties

James Beard

February 23, 2017


In his iconic tome, Beard on Food, which was first published in 1974, our namesake wrote prolific prose on a vast landscape of culinary topics, from a lesson in chicken anatomy to a sandwich manifesto to whipping up a dinner party in a flash, which we share with you today. Humorous, erudite, and timeless, this collection of essays remains an indispensable resource for the home cook. Stay tuned for more! 

James Beard on Impromptu Meals

Have you ever had friends drop in around mealtime and then realized there’s practically nothing to eat in the house but eggs and a can of soup? Of course you have. We’ve all faced those emergencies when one has to do some quick improvisation. I remember reading in the paper about a woman who kept her wits about her during the last great New England snowstorm. Her family was yearning for, of all things, apple pie. Suddenly she remembered the mock apple pies our forefathers made with soda crackers, sugar, spices, and butter, and she produced one forthwith. It was a huge success, and before the storm was over she’d made it again and again. That’s what I call intelligent thinking.

My own way of coping with unforeseen situations is to keep a special shelf stocked with things I can reach for when I have to make a meal in a hurry or feed unexpected guests. I always have cans of minced clams, salmon, tuna fish, corned beef, corned beef hash, sardines, pimientos, white truffles, evaporated milk, broths and soups, olives, and a selection of pasta from the tiny orzo to the big macaroni. I usually keep frozen crabmeat in the freezer, also vegetables of various sorts and bits and pieces of leftover ham and chicken.

A swift dish that will stretch to serve a lot of people is Spaghetti with Clam Sauce. Open and drain two 7-ounce can minced clams, saving the liquid. Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil in a small skillet, add 2 finely chopped garlic cloves, and cook for 4 minutes. Add the clam liquid, raise the heat, and cook down. Bring two quarts well-salted water to a boil, and cook an 8–ounce package of spaghetti rapidly until just tender but still bitey. Drain and place in a colander over boiling water. Heat the minced clams through in the garlic broth and add some chopped parsley or chives. Dish the pasta into 4 plates and spoon the clam sauce over it. Sprinkle with more parsley—no cheese on this, please; it’s better as it is. With a glass of white wine, salad or sliced tomatoes, crisp bread, and fruit to follow you have a top-notch meal, as good as you’d get in an Italian restaurant.

Recently I picked up a new quickie from Phillip Brown, an excellent cook who does demonstrations with me from time to time. Let’s call it Phillip’s Sardine Special. Open and drain 2 cans of French or Portuguese sardines—preferably boneless, skinless kind—and wash them very carefully with warm water, being sure not to break them up. Pour 1/4 cup olive oil into a small baking dish and top with one large onion, finely chopped. Arrange the sardines on the onions and mix in a 4-ounce can of pimientos, cut in thin strips. Season with 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and pour on another 1/4 cup oil. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve very hot, with toast with a salad and some cheese, you have a satisfying meal for four.

Hash is another one of my favorite spur-of-the-moment supper dishes. For Quick Corned Beef Hash, heat 3 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons oil in a heavy skillet, add 1 medium onion, finely chopped, and sauté until translucent and lightly colored, about 4 minutes. Add 1 can corned beef, coarsely chopped, and 1 can corned beef hash. Blend well. Season with salt and pepper and turn the hash over several times. Add 3/4 cup boiling water or 1/2 cup heavy cream or evaporated milk, and cook it down quickly. Reduce heat, and cover the pan for 3 or 4 minutes to give it a chance to steam. Remove the cover and loosen the hash from the pan with a spatula—it should have formed a crisp bottom crust. Turn it over, omelet fashion, and turn out onto a hot platter. Top with fried or poached eggs or roll scrambled eggs into it before you turn it out. Serve with heated chile sauce or homemade pickles and hot biscuits, if you have them. For dessert, have ice cream.

For more of James Beard's culinary creations, view our recipe collection.