CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Pierre doesn't know what to do about Cary's birthday," my husband alerted me just days before our dear friend, the proprietor of one of my favorite restaurants in Charleston, was turning 40. "Let's have a party," I answered, without hesitation. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, my brilliant idea had a few potential flaws: The actual date was just a few days away; the birthday girl, not wanting anyone to go to any trouble, had all but rejected the idea of a party; and, finally, how does one go about hosting a dinner party for a local celebrity chef?
We set about quickly addressing the various obstacles, beginning with a call to the birthday girl. Cary Charbonniez, a trained chef, is an expert at feeding people really great food and spoiling them on her turf. I wanted to reciprocate and she wasn't making it easy. After much persuasion, she reluctantly agreed to "something really small" and urged "please don't fuss," adding "no balloons, no presents, no cake." I promised to fulfill her wishes, even though I wasn't in full agreement with these illogical requests.
With only a few days to plan this no-cake celebration, I phoned a few of her closest friends and invited them over. As if prompted, each person inquired, "Can I bring something?" I hadn't even thought to ask, but instantly answered, "Sure, how about an appetizer? Can you pick up bread? Toss a salad? Bring some wine?"
With that, the bulk of the work was done. I had scarcely spent 20 minutes on the phone and my impromptu party was essentially catered. All that was left for me to do was make the main course and dessert. No problem.
To stick with the "no fuss" request, my husband reminded me to keep it simple. To observe the birthday milestone, I decided on the classic "Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic," and because cake was forbidden, I chose to make rustic tarts with local fruit from the market. Simple.
The chicken dish is deliciously foolproof, a combination of fresh vegetables, the aforementioned garlic, and boneless chicken thighs that braise in some wine for exactly an hour and a half. That's 90 minutes to assemble the free-form tarts and then greet and mingle with guests as they arrive with their chosen dishes. Easier than I expected.
Our patio table began to fill up with delicious nibbles and drinks that our guests toted in. A homemade lemony hummus and colorful veggies platter arrived. Another guest brought a beautiful display of chilled shrimp with spicy cocktail sauce from the fish market. Golden crusty baguettes from the bakery and a gorgeous watercress salad appeared as well. The birthday girl and her husband arrived with champagne and we shared a toast and sat down to a casual feast.
Hosting a dinner party doesn't have to be stressful and formal, even when you're cooking for a "celebrity chef." Even though I've spent most of my life in the kitchen, it doesn't take a trained chef to put a casual, fabulous meal together for friends. Especially if they help. It's truly about sharing a meal with good friends.
Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic
This recipe is deliciously simple: Layer aromatic vegetables in a pot with seasoned boneless chicken, pour in a little wine, cover and bake. To dress this up for company, I like to add sliced leeks -- an extra chopped onion can be substituted. Serves 6.
1 small bunch leeks
4 stalks celery
40 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
6 sprigs fresh parsley
6 sprigs fresh thyme
Zest of 1 lemon
1/3 cup olive oil
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup white wine
French bread for serving
PREPARE vegetables: Chop onion coarsely and place into a large bowl. Slice white and light green part of leeks, rinse well and drain, and add to the onion in the bowl. Cut the celery into long, thin diagonal slices and add to the bowl, along with the garlic, parsley, thyme and lemon zest.
HEAT oven to 375°. In another large bowl, toss the chicken with olive oil.
COVER the bottom of an ovenproof pot with one-third of the vegetables. Lay 4 of the oiled chicken pieces over the vegetables and sprinkle with one-third of the salt and pepper. Repeat to make 2 more layers. Pour the wine over the chicken.
COVER the pot tightly with foil. Bake for 1 1/2 hours without removing the cover. Remove from oven and let stand a few minutes before carefully removing foil.
SERVE the chicken with the vegetables and pan juices, along with the French bread, which is delicious spread with the garlic squeezed from its skin.