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Shabbat Meals: A Cocktail Party for Three

The way I always saw it, Shabbos dinner was a meal with a sizable reputation to uphold. It had to be not only festive, but also massive. When I was a kid, weekday dinner would involve a main dish, a side dish, maybe a salad. But a typical Shabbos meal at my parents’ house was a parade of at least seven courses.

There was the wine and challah portion of the evening, the latter accompanied by a series of sweet and savory dips (honey, hummus, guacamole, tapenade). Then there was the gefilte fish course, followed by the sweet-and-sour-meatballs-on-a-bed-of-rice course. Then came the soup course (chicken or vegetable), the salad course, all leading up to a hefty chicken (plus a vegetarian alternative) and variant sides. Then, inevitably, there was always room for more challah, which was always followed by several desserts.

So it’s in my blood to relish a Shabbos meal that’s something of a three-ring circus. There’s something deliciously comforting about the feeling that all of the cups (and bowls and plates) are overflowing and that there’s a little (or, OK, a lot of) something for everyone.

But now, as an adult, there’s also this element of Pavlovian fatigue that sometimes comes up for me when I hear the words “Shabbos dinner.” When a friend proposes plans that include Friday night eating, I’m always excited but also a little heavy-hearted despite myself. I can’t help but immediately picture hours of list-making, shopping, cooking and coming up with a Thanksgiving-grade spread post-work on a Friday.

It’s a funny thing — the process of carrying over childhood cultural Jewish traditions into adulthood both honoring and adapting them in the ways that make them most yours. I want to love Shabbos dinner — be it gargantuan or small — and to have every experience of it feel at once age-old and brand new.

One week several years ago I got a bit of outside help with this. A dear friend from out of town announced that she was coming over to visit my sister and me for Friday night dinner. I instantly went into my neurotic Woody-Allen-brain about it, fretting about how many soups I might have to make, when suddenly, something subtle — yet crucial — clicked: It was only going to be three of us! Not only that, it’s just us, in our living room, on our own, having some Friday night dinner. It can be whatever we want it to be! And — for a change — this one was going to be tiny.

For my first experiment in Shabbos-dinner-lite, I wanted to retain both the celebratory and ritual qualities of the kind of Shabbos meal with which I was familiar. I realized that a primary element of this was that there had to be multiple pieces. No one-pot-one-burner dinner would replicate that awesome, rhythmic, course-after-course Shabbos sensation. I also wanted to make it artful –—the kind of meal that makes you want to linger over it even though the bowls aren’t quite as overflowing.

So I went for lots of pieces and just made them smaller. I foraged at the grocery store for items that were pretty, small, self-contained, and, yes, party-worthy. Roasting was key: I made spicy roasted Brussels sprouts and gingered roasted beets. I roasted and caramelized turnips and shallots. I made hot-sauce-glazed tempeh and fried tofu cubes with a tamari dipping sauce. I put out cheese, garlic-stuffed olives, cherry tomatoes and Kirby cucumbers with tahini dressing, mini-pickles and crackers with several spreads. Recipe books and food blogs weren’t really necessary — I just let myself get creative. My sister baked a beautiful honeyed challah and we bought an extra large bottle of red wine. Obviously we didn’t forget the party napkins and the festive toothpicks.

I arranged everything on a large platter and put out wine glasses. When our friend walked in the house to the tune of hugs and loud hellos and to the smell of baking challah, it felt like some blend of Shabbos and cocktail party. At first it felt a little bit strange but after a sip of wine or two and after we broke open the steamy fragrant challah it felt completely natural. Because, after all, bite after savory bite, we wanted to linger. We wanted to make it last. We talked endlessly, dipped, drank and admired each colorful bite.

Of course, I have no intention of swearing off sumptuous Shabbos dinner spreads. But it is nice to have Shabbos Dinner: Cocktail Party for Three as an option in my arsenal for the next time it feels just right.

Cook’s Note: Like many of my Shabbos concoctions, the recipes below come from the heart and not from a cookbook, so please note that they’re general guidelines and not exact specifications.

Spicy Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 pound Brussels sprouts, washed and cut in half vertically
2 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 400.

Put Brussels sprouts in shallow pan and coat with oil, salt, pepper, garlic and red pepper flakes. Roast until sizzling and browned, around 35 minutes. Shake the pan once or twice to make sure roasting is as even as possible. Serve hot.

Gingered Roasted Beets

3-4 medium beets
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400.

Wash beets. Roast whole foil-wrapped beets for around 45 minutes, or until tender. Once the beets have cooled, remove the skins and cut into cubes. Sauté beets in olive oil, ginger and balsamic vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

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