The kitchen in the Exeter home of Jim and Denise Landis is not just a place for whipping up a couple of eggs for a quick breakfast. It’s a home kitchen, yes, but it’s also Denise’s work place. The chef in this home is a recipe tester for The New York Times and for the books of many other cooks. Last month, she published her own first cookbook, “Dinner For Eight: 40 Great Dinner Party Menus for Friends and Family” (St. Martin’s Press, 2005). All of the testing for the thousands of recipes that have come across her slick, smooth kitchen counters for the Times and now for the dinner party menus in her book were experimented with, created, adjusted and served from the couples’ comfortable test kitchen. More importantly, they were tasted and enjoyed by family and friends around a rustic 11-foot dining table decorated with flowers and glasses filled with extraordinary wine.
Forty menus divided into four seasons make for a lot of cooking, testing and tasting, but the Landises had plenty of practice in a year’s worth of gatherings and were able to come up with a system that works. Dinners usually start with a sparkling wine offered by host Jim, a novelist who writes under the name JD Landis. He is also a wine connoisseur and chose all of the wines for the book.
Guests begin the evening sipping wine in the author’s den just a few steps below the open kitchen and dining area. The den is a warm space with a cozy stove, low cushy sofas and shelves holding thousands of books. Small bowls of spiced nuts and herbed olives and cheese rest on a small table, and the conversation begins while Denise prepares the rest of the courses.
Everything she needs is at her fingertips in a kitchen that’s equipped for convenience and efficiency. A bi-level center island might hold more hors d’oeurves at the upper level, while the chef preps on the lower level with its convenient embedded sink. Large metal-lined bins hold flour and sugar and slide out from the island. Pots and pans, whisks and spatulas hang within easy reach on the brick chimney of another small glowing stove that adjoins the cooking area.
Guests will often mill about talking to the chef in anticipation of the flavors to come, but Denise prefers to run the show herself and, while offers are fine, no help is needed — she has it all under control.
“I’d been testing recipes for the Times for 14 years for the dining section and for the magazine. I went to the book editor at the Times and said I was interested in doing a New York Times cookbook. I thought, ‘There can’t be anyone else who has been testing recipes for that long.’”
“The editor suggested entertaining and he said, ‘How about dinner parties?’ And I’m thinking, ‘I do that all the time!’ It was perfect.”
Denise collected and wrote recipes for the first year, then began to put them together and match them up into menus. It was more than just a matter of testing individual recipes but also how the menus worked together, including the flow of the evening itself.
“I also went to other people’s houses and did the menus in their kitchens. It’s not easy to work in someone else’s kitchen.”
The recipes came from many sources. “Some of the recipes I’d been making for over 20 years from even before I was in the food business. Some came from recipes I’d tested for the Times and every recipe needed to be adjusted because the Times rarely has recipes for eight people, it’s usually for four and you can’t just double the recipe.”
Many of the recipes came from friends and family and those entries are often introduced by an anecdote describing how they came to be included in the book, anecdotes retold around the dinner table. When, after their initial nibbles and sips, guests are called to dinner, Jim pours a fine wine and Denise can sit and enjoy the dinner party she’s created — a combination of tasty ingredients and dishes but also of friends, family and warm hospitality.
Hummus with Toasted Pita Triangles
Eggplant with Chopped Tomato Vinaigrette and Spiced Chevre
Bourbon-Marinated Roast Pork
with Savory Mashed Potatoes (Recipe below)
Florida Apple Pie
This recipe was given to me by fashion designer and New Hampshire resident Vasilka Nicolova, who had received it from her mother-in-law, Lorna Barnett. I was given a photocopy of the recipe, and was amused to see that across the top of the recipe Lorna had written “Not for the Common People.” Once I made the recipe I agreed. Although it is very simple to prepare, I like to save this recipe for the most special of friends.
Bourbon-Marinated Roast Pork
“Not for the Common People”
For pork marinade:
1/4 cup bourbon
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 boneless pork roast loin, 5-6 pounds
Vegetable oil, for greasing pan
For sour cream sauce:
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup sour cream
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon white or red wine vinegar.
Prepare pork marinade: In a small bowl, combine the bourbon, soy sauce and sugar. Mix well. Place the pork tenderloin in a heavy-duty plastic bag. Pour the marinade over the pork, close the bag securely and turn the bag so that the pork is well coated in the marinade. Place the bag (with the sealed opening up, to prevent leaks) in the refrigerator.
Prepare sour cream sauce: In a small decorative bowl, combine the mayonnaise, sour cream, chopped onion, dry mustard and vinegar. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a baking pan. Remove tenderloin from marinade and place in pan. Bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center reaches 180 degrees, about 50 minutes.
To serve, transfer meat to a carving board and cut diagonally into thin slices; keep warm. Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan, return to medium heat, and stir to deglaze the pan. Arrange the sliced pork on a serving platter and drizzle the liquid from the pan over the top. Serve with the sour cream sauce passed separately.
WINES: Gewürztraminer, Riesling Spätlese or Cabernet Franc, or try a Pommard
TO MAKE AHEAD
The day before serving: Marinate pork and refrigerate. Eight hours to one hour before serving: Combine ingredients for sauce. Cover and refrigerate. One hour before serving: Roast pork.
From “Dinner For Eight: 40 Great Dinner Party Menus for Friends and Family,” www.thecookscook.com
This article appears in the December 2005 issue of New Hampshire Magazine