Perhaps the most delightful use of a kitchen is to spend time in it with friends. To prove this, I’m going to insist that you invite three friends over to dinner tonight (or two, if you’re partnered.) Do it right now, before we go any further. Trust me. Go on.
It’s a fraught request, I know, and you will have many excuses: My kitchen is too small; I’m too broke; I’m too busy; I cannot cook.
Number one: No kitchen is too small. The meal I am about to propose can be made on a hotplate. It can also be made on a vintage Aga cooker—or even over an open fire, I suppose. But seriously, any stove will do. If your kitchen is not big enough to eat in, this meal transfers well to many forms of table, including a coffee table.
Number two: Prices vary from city to city, but I bet you can get by with spending less than $15 on ingredients. You could spend more, of course, but $15 to feed four people a dinner party–worthy meal is very reasonable.
Number three: I reject your busyness.
Number four: The following meal is possible whether you can cook or not. If you love to cook, you will recognize this recipe, or at least have your own version of it. You will be chomping at the bit to add your personal embellishments, barely refraining from chiming in to correct my mirepoix ratio. For you, this meal is an easy-peasy-breezy endeavor. Obviously, this post is only a reminder to go forth and do what you do so well. So go on!
If you don’t cook much, this meal is still very possible. I can even tell you how to make it if you don’t own a knife and cutting board. You will need a pot, however.
By now you are wondering why. Why should I bother having people over for dinner tonight? Here’s my answer: There are many, many reasons to gather friends for a dinner party—philosophical, historical, social, and biological reasons. Practical reasons. But the bottom line is that a small dinner party consisting of good friends is a deeply pleasurable thing to experience, both for the giver as well as the receiver.
When we gather together with a small band of people we trust, we relax in a way that’s all but impossible in any other setting. Anchored by a pool of light and something hot in the middle of the table, assured by the presence of others that the shadows in the corners are not a threat, we release our constant vigilance and allow a deep contentment to take over. Yes, we are filling our bellies, but even more than that, we are enacting and affirming our humanity. Delicious food, beautiful shelter, interesting companionship. Add a decent soupspoon, and what more do you really need on a cool, early-fall evening?
OK. Here’s your meal plan for your dinner party four:
Invite enough people over to make a party of four. If you’re inclined, ask one or two of them to bring the wine—preferably at least one bottle of red—and another to bring a good bar of chocolate.
On your way home from work, stop at the corner store and get a bag of green or brown lentils, a carrot, an onion and maybe a stalk of celery (if they sell it by the stalk instead of the bunch.) Find the smallest bulb of garlic you can purchase or, if you don’t have any scruples and they sell it by the pound, click off a clove or two. Grab a bag or several handfuls of arugula or other flavorful lettuce. If you don’t have a decent cutting knife or if you’re really pressed for time, go to the salad bar section and load up on about a cup each of chopped carrot, onion, and celery (but still get the garlic cloves and arugula.)
Pick up a small, decent loaf of bread (or a few rolls) and a small, decent wedge of cheese. If there is any money left over from your $15, a bunch of thyme and a lemon would be fabulous.
When you get home, take off your coat, wash your hands, and immediately begin chopping the onion, carrot, and celery. Add a little bit of olive oil or butter to your pot (enough to generously coat the bottom) and slowly cook the vegetables (this is known as sweating them) until they are soft. It should take about 10 minutes.
Rinse 1½ cups of lentils and add them to the vegetables, along with 3 cups of water, about 1 teaspoon of salt, and the whole (peeled) garlic cloves. Bring the pot to a lively simmer and then lower the heat and let things cook gently. The lentils will take about half an hour to soften, and when they do, your main course (aka lentil soup) will almost be done.
While the lentils are cooking, set the table with bowls, napkins, spoons, and knives. Cut the bread or leave it dramatically whole in the middle of the table—you and your guests can pass it around and tear off chunks for extra tribal bonding points. Place the cheese on a plate and the plate on the table. Light a candle or two if you have them.
After 20 to 25 minutes of cooking, check your lentils. You want them soft but still intact. Locate the whole garlic cloves, which should be super soft by now and, using the back of a spoon, mash them up against the side of the pot until they dissolve into the soup. Add a little more water if the soup looks dry, and salt and pepper to taste. Keep warm by covering and lowering the heat to the lowest possible setting.
Toss the arugula/lettuce in a bowl with a little olive oil. Add salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon (or a touch of vinegar), and toss again. Place the bowl on the table.
When your guests arrive, take their coats and seat them at the table. Open the wine and splash a little into the soup—just a glug—before pouring a glass for them. Bring the pot of soup to the table and serve, garnishing each bowl with several sprigs of thyme and a handful of the salad. Be sure to bring the bar of chocolate to the table. Later, you will unwrap it and pass it around the table. This is your dessert. And it is enough.
Dana Velden is a Zen priest who lived and studied for 15 years at the San Francisco Zen Center. She’s the author of Finding Yourself in the Kitchen (Rodale Books), and has been writing for The Kitchn since 2008 and contributed to the James Bears award–winning The Kitchn Cookbook (2014). She currently lives among apricot, pear, persimmon, lime, and apple trees in Oakland, California.