by Dean McCord
photographs by Catherine Nguyen
The cocktail party. Ugh.
As a partner in a fairly large law firm, I disdain few things more than the ritualistic cocktail party, having to make small talk with the next person you bump into, be it one of the name partners or a junior associate.
I can only imagine how it is for our summer associates, the handful of law students who work for us for six weeks over the summer. These gifted students typically work at two different law firms during the summer before their final year, and in addition to learning about the quality of their work, we want to make sure they have a good time.
We’re evaluating them, making sure that they would be a “good fit” in a process not too dissimilar from fraternity or sorority rush – but we want them to like us, too. And so, each summer, we entertain them. Cocktail parties are the old stand-by; sometimes it’s just a happy hour get-together, other times it’s a dinner at a local restaurant.
We recognize that these traditional types of events can get a bit stuffy, so over the years, we’ve tried to do things a little bit differently. We’ve gone on road trips – white water rafting in West Virginia, renting a house boat on Smith Mountain Lake – but our traditional event is the Wyrick Robbins “interactive” dinner party.
For the past 15 years, my wife and I have hosted what we first called a “cooking school.” It’s actually an interactive dinner party where attendees are integrally involved in the production of the dinner. Some folks prep. Others cook. And the ones with a good eye get to plate. The ones who don’t have much skill in the kitchen serve, clear, and clean. That way, we put people in situations that are a bit different from our office environment, as when a summer associate needs to tell our managing partner that he’s screwing up the composition of the plate.
In the years I’ve been doing this, each dinner has revolved around a particular cuisine, often Italian. Until this year. I came up with the crazy idea of having a dinner based on food from the ’70s. Why? Because my original plan was to focus on Asian cuisine, and I realized that was far too broad – would anyone do a theme of “European” food? Exactly. Anyhow, when I was at the point where I decided against an Asian theme, an iconic ’70s song, Al Stewart’s The Year of the Cat, popped up on my Spotify playlist.
“Hmm. The ’70s,” I pondered. I started looking for menus from the decade of Watergate, disco and bad baseball uniforms, and came across a mother lode: the New York Public Library’s archive of more than 17,000 menus, transcribed and indexed. Of the 314 menus from the ’70s, I focused on one from a 1975 banquet honoring two culinary legends, Julia Child and James Beard. The original menu was sufficiently vague that it allowed us to use our imagination. We didn’t replicate menu items; instead we made contemporary dishes suggested by the banquet that took place 39 years ago. “Consommé” (most likely beef) became “Corn consommé with Chanterelles, Sweet Corn and Chives.” We had a total of seven courses, each with wine pairings (French, of course. Julia would have approved).
And most of the guests came in costume. We had sparkly disco shirts, bell bottoms, tight jump suits, platform shoes, and lots of gold chains. My law partner, Lee Whitman, arrived in the best costume – Evel Knievel – complete with a bejeweled walking stick. Seth Hoffman of the Raleigh Wine Shop, who was pouring wine for the guests, dazzled in a shirt adorned with iconic ’70s logos and a necklace that could be used as a weapon. Heidi Bloom and her husband, the Honorable Vartan (Woofer) Davidian, had a yin-yang approach: She dressed as a flower child struggling to emerge from the ’60s; he was a disco dancer extraordinaire.
Because I was in the kitchen, I decided against anything hot and just grew a cheesy ’70s-era mustache and wore a t-shirt with Farrah Fawcett on it – yes, that photo from the iconic poster every ’70s-era adolescent boy had hanging in his room. Interestingly, and perhaps unfortunately, none of the summer associates arrived in costume. Their end-of-summer reviews clearly noted that egregious mistake.
It was a fun night, and although no one ended up dancing to the Bee Gees, the Ramones, or even Rupert Holmes (why, yes, I do like piña coladas), everyone got involved and helped make a seven-course dinner flow smoothly. The summer associates bossed around the seasoned partners, ensuring the canapés were perfectly composed and all the plates were elegantly assembled. It was a team effort, for sure, and I think Julia and James would have been proud.
Badly formed; perfectly delicious
One of the items on the original 1975 menu from the Julia Child/James Beard banquet was for Malfatti Parmesan, a dish with which I was unfamiliar. After conducting a little research, I learned that these little dumplings are actually quite common in Northern Italy’s Lombardy region. “Malfatti” is loosely translated as “badly formed,” and this was the only item on the original menu that we duplicated for our dinner. These cousins to gnocchi are fairly simple to make and quite delicious.
It is important to get as much water out of the cooked spinach as you can.
12 ounces fresh spinach,
rinsed to remove any grit
8 ounces ricotta
½ cup bread crumbs
½ cup grana padano cheese (or parmesan)
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
12-18 sage leaves, chopped
Flour for assembly and dusting
Boil the spinach in a large pot of salted water for about three minutes. Drain the spinach and then press out all the water by squeezing it in a clean dish towel. Chop the spinach finely and add to a large bowl. Add the ricotta, eggs, bread crumbs, grana padano, a pinch of salt and nutmeg. Mix thoroughly with your hands or a rubber spatula. The mixture will be fairly wet.
Turn the mixture onto a floured surface and separate into four portions. On the floured surface, roll each portion into a log, about one-inch thick. Cut the log into one-inch dumplings and place on a sheet pan. Repeat for the other three portions.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the dumplings, stir to ensure they’re not sticking on the bottom, and cook until they float, about 3 minutes. Reserve about ¼ cup of the boiling liquid for the sauce.
Meanwhile, make the sauce by melting the butter in large skillet over medium heat. Once melted, add the chopped sage and cook for about a minute. Add the reserved cooking liquid to emulsify the sauce. Drain the dumplings, add to the sauce, and stir until the dumplings are thoroughly coated. Salt to taste. Serve with additional grana padano grated on top.