Since Thursday, Guillaume and I have been either hosting dinner chez nous or attending dinner parties with friends or family. Sometimes, it's really nice to have dinner plans already made to prevent the whole "what should we do for dinner" conversation. Usually, the conversation ends with a homemade dinner for just the two of us, which isn't really a bad thing anyway.
On Thursday, we spent some time in Gui's old 'hood, catching up with his childhood friends, including the two hosts who will be getting married next month in La Rochelle. We've been looking forward to their wedding since we were living in California, and as the big day approaches, I'm getting more and more excited about it. It will be the first time I attend a religious marriage ceremony in France, and I'm really looking forward to spending an entire day near the sea, celebrating the marriage of two people who've been together for what I think is over 8 or 10 years - something crazy like that! It was nice talking about upcoming wedding plans and hearing stories from the bachelor party that took place a couple of weekends ago. It's also funny to see Guillaume and his friends act like the boys that they grew up being - always trying to outdo one another in some, exaggerated, unnecessary way and calling each other by the pet names they came up with when they were pimply-faced 15 year olds.
On Friday night, we invited Gui's mom over for lasagne rolls and the not-so-disastrous-afterall apricot tart. The ricotta, spinach and prosciutto stuffed lasagne turned out really well and I even remembered well how to make a yummy bechamel. I'll never doubt myself again! While we were waiting for our coffee to brew, we busted out a birthday gift given to Guillaume from our dear friend, Baptiste. It's a juicer - a fancy red one - that we hadn't tested yet. So, we gave it a go, and voila, freshly-squeezed OJ was produced in seconds!
On Saturday, some other friends of Gui invited us to a dinner party at their place where we found ourselves in an exact replica of the house Gui grew up in. Actually, his old house was a few doors down from where we were dining, and besides a few minor cosmetic differences (i.e. paint color, flooring, etc.), the houses are identical. It was cool to imagine him growing up in the three-story abode, playing outside on the terrace as a child and blaring heavy-metal music from his poster-lined bedroom as a teenager. I also imagined there were many delicious tarts like the ones we dined on made nightly in his mom's kitchen for supper. Despite being exhausted from an early morning rendezvous at the marché, I partook in bit of French conversation and a ton of French tartes. I don't know why I don't make tarts more often - they're so delicious and not a ton of work since you can easily buy the pastry at any supermarket. I think my favorites were the bacon and onion tart and the goat cheese and three-pepper tart, but I found myself replenishing my plate more than twice with a simple vegetable salad of short-stemmed green beans, peas, carrots and mayo - a new salad that I'm adding my regularly-referenced recipe repertoire.
Last night, our soon-to-be-married friends came over to see our place for the first time and they stayed for dinner. This time, I made a shrimp tagliatelle that I adapted from a seafood spaghetti recipe that I've been hoping to test out. I got so lost in the moment that I didn't take any pictures of our dinner, but I did somehow manage to snap a shot of the ingredients I prepared for the pasta. The tomatoes were by far, the most important ingredient of the recipe and THE best sundried tomatoes I've ever eaten. I still have a couple left in the jar that I know won't last more than a day or two on the shelf - they were just phenomenal.
I was explaining to our guests that I'm still learning how to host a proper dinner in France. I told them that it's nothing like at home when, after my mom cooks up an entire meal, it's all placed on the table or counter for everyone to serve themselves, with things like "can you pass the mashed potatoes" and "did everyone get some beans" being shouted across the table. After living through a French Christmas, it's slightly the same idea, but as far as normal dinner parties go, it's rarely an entrée, plât, dessert, café type of occasion - at least in my circle of friends. We usually start (and end) with an aperitif, serve ourselves when the food is ready, eat on the couch, recliner, floor or other makeshift seat and talk about how great the food is, while someone occasionally makes a drink run to the fridge to see if anyone's drink needs replenishing.
Being slightly afraid of being the slightly awkward outcast, I find myself scrutinizing every detail of the dinners I attend in hopes of gaining greater insight into what's expected of me as a host. I've learned that it kind of depends on the company, the number of guests (and how intimate we are with the guests), the time of day and the reason for the occasion in the first place. Generally, I feel more comfortable in a formal environment even when it's not totally called for. I like serving the olives, crackers and mini-cheeses before starting on the entrée and so on. And, the after-dinner coffee and/or tea is my favorite part of the meal - I just need to scoop up another French press or tea pot to be sure I can accommodate all of my guests' requests. Desserts are not my area of expertise, so I'll have to work on finding a good go-to recipe that doesn't require too much effort so I can use it regularly.
After last night's dinner, I am feeling a little more confident about my role as "dinner host" here thanks to one of the best compliments I've ever received from someone enjoying one of my culinary creations. Gui's lifelong friend told me (in half-French, half-English) that the best cooks are those that have been exposed to a variety of different styles of food and cooking and take with them only the best things from each place, each experience; he went on to say that he could tell I was one of those people, or at least I was well on my way to becoming one. It's a similar sentiment that I find myself constantly reinforcing when I worry about my ability to integrate - I don't have to change everything about who I am to fit in, so long as I keep all the good parts.