If you've ever hosted friends or family for dinner, you've most likely put some time and effort into planning the menu.
Early in my cooking life (which is later in my real life, relatively speaking) I thought the way to my guests' hearts and stomachs was with fancy food: marbled steaks, roast chickens, and any dish whose name contained foreign words. "Au gratin" this and thing-I-had-to-Google-in-order-to-pronounce that. The name of the game was to impress.
Turns out that same game had other names like "uncertain new recipe" and "expensive and difficult to find ingredients" and "sweating bullets when guests arrive."
Fortunately, there were never any true meltdowns or burned dinners that required a call to Domino's. The food was good, conversation enjoyable, and the evenings pleasant. What more could you ask for?
But, the more I cooked and hosted, I soon realized that I didn't like spending so much time in the kitchen while my friends were in the other room. Keeping up with the conversation a room away isn't ideal. You're bound to miss fun things, and no one likes missing fun.
Then, it happened -- what I refer to ask my turning point meal. A last minute dinner invitation left me no choice but to serve our friends chili... with Fritos. Not even corn bread but chips out of a friggin' bag. And dessert, typically the piece de resistance of my meals? Cookies stashed in the freezer and vanilla ice cream. The shame, I tell you.
Can you guess what happened?
We ate, we laughed, and we went back for seconds (some of us thirds). The evening was relaxed and fun, none of which was missed by yours truly. It was then that I discovered the real secret to successful entertaining:
Serve food you love.
Not just food you think will impress people or end up on Pinterest with a bazillion repins and comments like "omg, that's almost too gorgeous too eat!" It can be those things but it doesn't need to be those things.
Food that's good and inviting. Food that people want to eat and actually make in their own kitchens. Food that has a history. Food that's simple, comforting, and hearty.
Like good ol' Sloppy Joes. (Anyone else think of Adam Sandler's lunch lady song here?)
Bet you didn't think a dish with the word "sloppy" in it could be dinner party fare, huh? Think again! I served them to friends recently and the first thing someone said was, "Are you serious? I love Sloppy Joes! Haven't had them since I was a kid." Everyone else echoed his sentiments and we dug in family style.
I chose sausage buns in lieu of traditional burger buns to (slightly) cut down on the typical Sloppy Joe splatter, and even made open-faced fork-and-knife sammies with English muffins. Those tiny changes aside, the taste was otherwise classic and just what you'd expect. Ground beef in a sweet seasoned tomato sauce, studded with tender peppers and onions on a fluffy toasted roll. Almost exactly like Mom's from years ago. Lick your fingers/fork/plate delicious!
What's a little mess among friends? As long as it's a tasty one, I promise there won't be any complaints :)
Super Sloppy Joes
(adapted, with a few changes, from Rachael Ray's recipe)
A few notes: Serve these on whatever carbohydrate vehicle you like. Sausage rolls retained the most filling, but burger buns would be delicious, too. I opted for a toasted English muffin and turned my Sloppy Joe into an open-faced sandwich. To each her (or his) own!
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
3 Tablespoons brown sugar
1 Tablespoon Montreal steak seasoning
1 medium white onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 Tablespoon Worchestershire sauce
1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce (about 2 cups)
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
6 crusty rolls, split and toasted
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Add oil and meat to the pan. Spread the meat around the pan and begin to break it up. Add sugar and spice mixture to the skillet and combine. When the meat has browned, add onion and red peppers to the skillet. Reduce heat to medium and cook onions, peppers, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce with meat for 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce and paste to pan, and stir to combine. Reduce heat to simmer and cook mixture 5 minutes longer. Scoop meat mixture onto toasted, buns and cover with tops. Serve immediately and enjoy!