By Pam Anderson
When my daughters Maggy and Sharon were growing up, I always let them choose their birthday dinner. Sharon frequently requested Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. I was always happy to oblige, but on the 20th of July, even with the AC blasting, we were all stuffed and sweaty by the end.
Last night we celebrated Maggy’s 27th. Since she and husband Andy live in NY now, we decided this year would be different. We were going out for a change. I was thrilled.We chose a great restaurant and made a reservation. Then two days before our big night, my husband’s herniated disc flared. This was not just pop-a-few-ibuprofen and keep movin’. It was bad. Still, we held out hope. Perhaps it was like the 24-hour flu and he’d be better by Friday night. Maybe if he took it easy, he could rally for a few hours.
Friday came and he was still in bed. We finally faced reality. David and I would not be going into NY for dinner. Rather Maggy and Andy would come to us, which meant I was birthday chef again. But I was out of town until a few hours before dinner. This year would have to be potluck.
Fortunately for Maggy, the pot was lucky. Exactly one week earlier, I had planned and shopped for a meal that never happened. The key components: two racks of lamb––now in the freezer––and shrimp-stuffed artichokes. The shrimp were long gone, but I headed to the store for more.
In thirty minutes the artichokes are steamed and prepped, and in five minutes (thanks to the food processor) lemon vinaigrette is ready.
After skillet searing the lamb racks, I pop them in a 450 degree oven for twenty minutes. (No matter their size, they almost always seem to be perfectly done in twenty minutes—I don’t even use a meat thermometer anymore.) I make a quick pan sauce in the empty skillet: equal parts balsamic vinegar and chicken broth.
I finally knew why I had been passing over this massively awkward one-pound Idaho out in the garage the past few months. Tonight, I finally grate it and make rosti. Sauté a few grape tomatoes with garlic and dried basil. Main course—done.
I need a nibble too. Something instant, champagne-friendly, and a tad more special than roasted nuts. While the fishmonger weighs my shrimp, I spot fresh spring rolls (only $2.99 each, complete with a complementary Thai chili dipping sauce). I order three.
Now dessert. Given Maggy’s Brit connection (she lived there for five years and Andy’s a native) she was dying to try Bakewell Tart. No time for from-scratch pastry, but I’ve got refrigerated pie dough (yes, really) for pinches just like this. I unfurl it into a 9-inch pie plate and blind-bake it. (The store-bought stuff doesn’t need weighting.) I spread it with raspberry jam. The rest is a simple mix of eggs, butter, sugar, almonds, and extract. Bake it for thirty and this Americanized Bakewell Pie is ready for candles.
I set the living room coffee table like it was the dining room. We sat on the floor since David was reclining at table in favor of his aching back. It was utterly relaxed, absolutely grand.
This night I needed a great meal on the fly. Two things helped: having a few ingredients to quickly focus me, and internalizing a few basic techniques and formulas, so I wasn’t tripping over recipes.
So maybe for Maggy’s 28th we’ll go out. But who knows? She says it was one of her best birthdays ever . . . and she didn’t even choose the meal.
(Pam Anderson is USA Weekend food columnist and author of 5 books, including How to Cook Without a Book. Her sixth book, Perfect One-Dish Dinners is out this September. She blogs weekly about food and life with daughters Maggy and Sharon at threemanycooks.com.)