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At the start of her (fantastic) French cookbook À Table, Rebekah Peppler outlines a philosophy for pleasure in hosting that calls for being "dom in the kitchen, sub in the dining room." Ooh la la, indeed.
As titillated as I was to find these terms in a book on entertaining, I was also struck by how often I'd had the opposite approach. Though I could fake my way as the commanding host when guests arrived – years of being a theater kid meant I was always ready for curtain – I usually spent my prep and cook time being slavishly submissive to recipes.
Many are the days I've lost going to four different stores to find one specific ingredient, or dirtying every pot and pan in my vicinity because I refuse to take any shortcuts. In my mind, those were the painful pleasures of hosting: the mountains we move in our pursuit to do things The Right Way. And truth be told, I still get a thrill out of knowing my victories were all hard-won.
But you know what else is fun sometimes? Doing none of that shit at all.
One of the best dinners I've thrown lately fell when I was tired, hungover, and would rather be anywhere than my own goddamn kitchen. So for the first time in my fussy dinner-party-throwing career, I turned to a pre-made marinade: the Jerk Sauce from Sauces by Jrk. To be clear, I've used pinch hitters for myself countless times – I'm not a total monster – but they're the easy lift I'd never allowed myself when having guests over. It took quite the hangover to overcome my hubris…
But my god was that jerk chicken good, and it required nothing more than pouring a bottle over some skin-on thighs and taking a trip to the grill. The truth is, we're a far cry from the days of Wonder Bread, where time-saving culinary products abandoned quality ingredients. The marinade I used, for example, came from the wildly popular Jrk! Restaurant in Miami, and is just one of many new bespoke brands that are hitting the market.
With all of this in mind, as well as my decree that this year us hosts should fully let our hair down, I thought I'd ask my chef friends what they turn to in a pinch. What are the condiments, the salad dressings that are even better than their from-scratch efforts, the ones we don't have to feel guilty breaking out – because even the pros do it too?
So for this third installment of In Good Taste, I've made it a proper Family Meal. Below, six of my very talented food friends wax rhapsodic on their indispensable go-tos – and they've got plenty of advice for how to save yourself some hassle.
SIX COOKS, SEVEN FAVORITES
Alexis DeBoschnek (contributor, Food52; author, To the Last Bite: Recipes and Ideas for Making the Most of Your Ingredients)
"My go-to sauce for absolutely everything is Karam's Garlic Sauce. It's got just the right amount of garlic without being too overpowering and lends itself to so many preparations. I use it for marinating chicken, dressing up roasted vegetables, topping burgers and hot dogs, slathering on sandwiches, with 7-minute eggs, and even in salad dressings. Even better, it's run by a family business that's been making the garlic sauce for over three decades."
Colu Henry (contributor, New York Times Food and Food & Wine; author, Colu Cooks: Easy Fancy Food)
"I generally pride myself on being a frequent chicken stock-maker. It gives me purpose and makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something even if it’s all I’ve done all day. That said, lately things have been hectic and the idea of adding one more quart container to my already overflowing freezer gives me anxiety. Enter Better Than Bouillon – a weeknight dinner game changer. I often make soups and stews with leftover bits and bobs in the fridge and knowing I can rely on this golden, salty paste to oomph them up makes me feel invincible.
I also keep the beef version around for the occasional Beef Bourguignon or braised short ribs. I don’t eat a ton of red meat, so I don’t generally make beef stock from scratch and why would I when all I have to do is add a spoonful of this? And if nothing else, I’m a people-pleasing host, so I also keep the vegetarian version around for the friends that don’t eat meat at all."
"Recently I was asked to cater a friends' engagement party. Thirty people. I had my kid Elle with me. They are 16 and they were hungry, but I only had three hours to make everything. I grabbed some cauliflower on the way home to use as a side for the filet rather than mashed potatoes. But after I roasted the cauliflower and puréed it, it lacked depth of flavor. Normally I would sweat onions and garlic down as slowly as possible to become sweet and unctuous for the purée, but I didn't have time...
I was panicking. The purée tasted like a paper plate. My kid was getting more hungry and opened the pantry. They grabbed a bag of ramen noodles for me to cook, in doing so exposed a pouch of ranch powder. Eureka!!! That Hidden Valley ranch powder went right into the cauliflower purée, and damn it was perfect. Since I still needed to cook the filet, which was now looking sad with just salt and pepper on it, I used the rest of the ranch powder to season the filet before grilling it. Long story short, I still get compliments on the filet and cauliflower to this day. Ranch powder has become my go-to flavor booster in a pinch these days. And it's even better in mac and cheese."
Adam Roberts (food writer, The Amateur Gourmet; host of the podcast You've Got to Taste This)
"If I’m really in a jam, and I’m making meatballs or lasagna but don’t have time to make my own sauce, I buy Rao’s. Granted, I’m not the first to discover the merits of Rao’s jarred tomato sauce: Ina Garten was the one who turned me on to it. Well, not personally... on her show. But, as with most things in life, Ina’s completely correct: this jarred sauce somehow has the freshness and zip of one you’d make yourself and if you do the math — price of garlic, price of olive oil, price of canned tomatoes — can even be a more economical choice. My only hope is that by promoting them in this article I can actually eat at their NY restaurant someday."
Nik Sharma (2x James Beard finalist; author, The Flavor Files and The Flavor Equation)
"Some of my favorite go-to store-bought marinades include the Signature Harissa from New York Shuk and Mother-in-Law's Original Gochujang Fermented Chile Paste. I mix the meat with either of these marinades and leave them for an hour or so before sticking them into the oven or the grill along with a few chopped vegetables. Both of these marinades are also fantastic for making stews and soups. Both of these pastes are hot (not too crazy), but the harissa paste leaves a rich flavor that's slightly smoky while the gochujang paste is slightly tangier and sweeter by comparison. A tip when working with the Gochujang paste: it usually contains a small amount of sugar, so roast or grill the meat gently to avoid burning."
Susan Vu (recipe developer, food stylist, culinary producer)
"As a devoted lover of all things mayonnaise, my life was forever changed the day I first tasted Japanese Kewpie mayo. I believe I was sitting at a crowded izakaya in New York’s East Village at an hour that is way too late for most sane humans to be up. The heavenly condiment was drizzled on top of an order of hot, crispy takoyaki and that red-capped bottle of Japanese mayonnaise has been in my refrigerator ever since. I mean, it comes out of a star-shaped nozzle (if you unscrew the cap), which if that doesn’t spark joy in you, I don’t know what will.
So when I spotted Kewpie’s line of prepared dressings while out shopping at my favorite Asian market, I grabbed it without hesitation. The Deep-Roasted Sesame Dressing has now become a mainstay in my kitchen. It is deliciously nutty and the perfect combination of deeply savory and a touch sweet. I not only use it as a dressing or dip, but also as a base for so many recipes. Mixed with a bit of soy sauce, black vinegar, and spicy chili crisp, it is my new go-to 'put it on everything' sauce. My very favorite cousin and BTS partner-in-crime, Cindy Tran, stirs a bit of the dressing into her peanut dipping sauce for Vietnamese summer rolls and it makes the sauce downright addictive. I’m stealing her idea and so should you."
And there you have it, dear reader: our full permission to cut corners if it's in service of better dinner and better quality of life. The epicureans above (and little old, masochistic me) are certainly no stranger to going the extra mile, to embracing the Project Meal worth ceding your whole Sunday to. But the good news is, you can find just as many treasures when you take the easy route.
A dinner party should be the highlight of your weekend, not its ball and chain. Unless of course – no judgment here – you're into that.