Like about 75% of the women in America, I’m in a book club. Still, I like to think our book club, which started in 1998, was an original idea at the time. And, unlike some book clubs that meet at restaurants or for drinks after dinner, ours has always been a de facto supper club, too. Whoever is hosting that month’s gathering makes dinner for the group; the rest of us bring wine (my husband refers to it as “wine club”). So, in addition to some great reading — highlights of our 150-plus book list include The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Lamb by Christopher Moore, Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner, and about eight Margaret Atwood novels — we’ve had some killer dinners over past 12 years.
This month it was my turn to host for our discussion of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (a fun read but didn’t lend itself to much heated debate). I made a meal that the group loved, and about halfway through making it, I realized it would be a huge hit as a family dinner. It’s basically just a Un-Composed Salad-Slash-Antipasto Platter plus some pasta and bread on the side. Each person creates their own salad bar entrée. It seems perfect for a casual summertime gathering or fun family meal. This kids can help with the preparation, which I find really helps with their enthusiasm, especially when vegetables are involved.
I came up with this idea because my book club was on a Wednesday, and, being a Wednesday, my organic box had just arrived. I was, as usual, inundated with produce. So, while my sister kept me company, I did the following (it might seem like a lot of work, but you’re going to have to chop those veggies at some point, right?):
- Cook one package of pasta in a large pot of salty water and rinse. Toss with pesto or olive oil, Parmesan, and salt & pepper (add a few sliced basil leaves if you have them, too).
- Thoroughly rinse one head of lettuce (mine was green leaf), shred it, and dry it in a salad spinner. In a shallow bowl, toss the lettuce with just a little olive oil and vinegar (I used my favorite basil oil and sherry vinegar). Don’t really dress it dress it; we’re going to serve the whole deal with extra dressing.
- Cut some asparagus spears (about 10) into 3-inch pieces and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
- Cut two small zucchini into quarters the long way and then cut in half or thirds. Drizzle with olive oil.
- Cut one red bell pepper (organic for sure; it’s one of the “Dirty Dozen”) into thin pieces and drizzle with olive oil.
- Grill (either on a grill pan, Foreman grill, or gas grill) the above until slightly browned but not thoroughly cooked. It’s salad, not fajitas.
- Sautée one pint of sliced mushrooms in olive oil and salt & pepper.
- While those veggies are cooking, slice a cucumber and quarter a few Roma tomatoes (carrots, organic celery, and strawberries would be great additions, too).
- Slice some cheese. I used an extra-aged Gouda like Rembrandt, Vincent, or Beemster, but Dutch Parrano would also be perfect. If you have not tried them, these are delicious cheeses — sort a cross between Parmesan and Gouda with a nutty flavor. A little goes a long way, which is a good trait for cheese, no?
- I had some leftover grilled chicken breasts (like I’ve said before, whenever you cook or grill anything, MAKE EXTRA and keep it on hand for times like these), so I cut them up, too.
- Arrange the grilled and raw veggies on a large platter with the cheese and chicken. If you are married, I am assuming you own at least one (probably 10) pretty platter since they seem to be standard wedding gifts. If not, they are super useful and worth buying. TJ Maxx Home Goods has a great selection of things like this. I got mine in Italy; you can’t see it, but it has a rabbit in the center, molto bello.
- Serve platter alongside bowls of salad and (now slightly cooled) pasta and have dressing on the side. I had made a balsamic vinaigrette and used that. I am not a huge fan of bottled dressing (mostly because I don’t like the way it tastes, but also because the ingredients usually include things like xantham gum, disodium phosphate, and MSG), but that works, too; just make sure it’s a natural brand, which should have some more pronounceable ingredients. And a baguette of course. Have everyone use tongs to create their own custom meal. Have fun!