I don’t know where I first heard about Samin Nosrat’s cooking manual Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (2017), but it was probably NPR. I was intrigued by the concept, and when on a trip home to Georgia I found a copy displayed at the public library where my mom works, I pored over it hungrily. A few months later, I received a copy for Christmas. I read the introduction and skimmed the pages, noting the beautiful, instructive illustrations. If I’m honest, the book laid fallow on my shelf most of the following year, more useful as a stage for a pretty teapot (never used) than the manual Nosrat intended it to be.
Maybe the reason I didn’t look to those pages more often is that their mere existence affirmed concepts I’d already implicitly come to know from my own cooking adventures: the correct application of salt, fat, acid, and heat in various quantities and forms at different stages makes food taste good. Nosrat wouldn’t be offended to hear someone call her method — her “cooking philosophy” as she often describes it — basic. She writes in the Introduction to SFAH that when she first ran her theory by a chef at legendary restaurant Chez Panisse, he responded as if her observation was obvious. All good cooks know the primacy of salt, fat, acid, and heat — it’s how they’re able to make such delicious food without recipes — yet before Nosrat, no one had written it down or thought to explain it in just that way.
When Netflix started streaming a new four-part series on SFAH, I realized with chagrin how long it had been since I cracked the book I’d coveted so acutely just a year earlier. I pulled it off the shelf — out from under the virgin teapot — and put it on the ottoman in my living room, the place of priority in my apartment, determined to leave it there until I had read all 480 of its pages. It’s still there. I’m making progress.
I loved the limited series on Netflix (you can read my review here), and I knew I wanted to do something more than just recommend the show on The What-to-Watch List. I wanted to host a SFAH inspired dinner party.
I’ve been intrigued by the concept of the dinner party for a while because I’ve seen a lot of them on TV but haven’t experienced many of them in real life. I’ve been to my share of potlucks and barbecues, picnics and birthday meals, but isn’t a dinner party a little different? The type of thing where you light candles and plan a menu and sit at a table to eat, eschewing the lap-balancing and torn papers towels of the everyday?
I’m not sure if I think the table or the napkins or the candles are essential to a dinner party, but I think they gesture toward the spirit of the thing. I wanted to give it a try.
I had a decision to make: what type of dinner party did I want to host? How did I want to design it? Back in 2017, five famous food writers wrote essays for a New York Times Magazine series on dinner parties. Each one detailed the essential elements of a dinner party, to them. I drank them all in thirstily, but my favorite was Nosrat’s. In addition to the primacy of salt, fat, acid, and heat, she described a fifth principle: cooking is a social activity. Not just eating, but cooking. At her dinner parties, everyone pitches in, even the children.
“At this point in my cooking life, everyone I know is aware that…a dinner invitation from me is also a mandate to pick herbs, grate cheese, chop vegetables, roll out dough, set the table and wash the dishes….I love the way cooking together unfailingly puts everyone at ease, so when I’m in charge, the cooking is the party, rather than an obstacle to overcome on the way to pleasure with my guests.” (“All Hands on Deck Dumpling Party”)
I took my inspiration from Nosrat, and decided I wouldn’t start cooking until my friends arrived. We’d all do it together.
The recipe I chose wasn’t from SFAH, but it felt right to me. We would make spaghetti with meatballs, using a NYT Cooking recipe. Beforehand, I filled fancy ivory salt and pepper shakers that I’d never used since I received them at my wedding five and a half years ago. What better time to break them in? I put out cheese, crackers, and pistachios, and opened the chianti. Then my guests arrived.
Tess sliced apples and chopped parsley, while Ben parsed the onions and garlic. I whisked together eggs, almond meal, ricotta, parmesan, red pepper flakes, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper and dropped the ground beef and pork on top. Ben mixed it all up, gingerly, with his hands and formed it into walnut sized balls. I browned the meatballs in a little olive oil, and then Liz cooked the onions, scraping up the delicious brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Michael stirred the sauce and washed basil leaves which I set on top of the simmering sauce before putting on the lid.
Someone boiled pasta.
Someone washed a few dishes.
Someone lit candles.
Someone laid the table.
Someone selected a playlist for background music.
We all sat down to eat.
My five chairs were mismatched, and so were my plates. I didn’t have a plan for dessert, and my narrow galley kitchen isn’t well-suited for multiple cooks in the kitchen. It didn’t matter. We had a delicious meal that we’d all created together, and relaxed, comfortable conversation. I can’t wait to do it again.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat hasn’t revolutionized my cooking (yet), but it has made me more connected to it. The meatballs we made, for instance, showcased fat spectacularly: delicate, succulent orbs of beef, pork, ricotta, parmesan, eggs. You use intense heat to brown them on all sides before using low heat to simmer them in tomato sauce. The balance between the rich fat of the meat, the bright acid of the tomatoes, and the salt in the meatballs, the sauce, the pasta water, makes every bit perfect on the palate. I understand why it tastes so good now. Before, I only accepted that it did.
That matters to me, since food — cooking it, eating it, sharing it — is a big part of my life. But now the pleasure of cooking together matters to me too. I’m learning that your home doesn’t have to be perfect to welcome people into it. And your meal doesn’t have to be ready-to-serve when your guests walk in for you all to enjoy it. That takes the pressure off of a dinner party, and leaves behind only the joy.