Reviews and recommendations are unbiased and products are independently selected. Postmedia may earn an affiliate commission from purchases made through links on this page.
Our cookbook of the week is Company by Amy Thielen.
Jump to the recipes: cast-iron garlic shrimp with chorizo and green olives, devilled egg dip and mincemeat baklava.
“I feel like there’s a lot of affinity between Canada and where I live in the U.S.,” says chef and James Beard Award-winning author Amy Thielen. Take the climate, for starters. As I write this column, it’s the same frigid temperature in northern Minnesota as in Regina. Reading Thielen’s third book and second cookbook, Company (W. W. Norton & Company, 2023), reminded me of how I grew up — and how I imagine many other rural Canadians grew up — visiting each other’s homes. “In my corner of the world, in-house entertaining is more than a way of life — it’s pretty much the only option,” she writes.
The book chronicles the dinner parties Thielen has thrown at the home she shares with her husband, visual artist Aaron Spangler, and their son, Hank, in the woods four hours north of Minneapolis.
“I host a lot because I am a cook, and it is what I do to blow off steam. At the end of a long week, having people over is what I do to relax. And so, a lot of these menus are based on real-life menus and different things that I’ve made for many years.”
Thielen wanted to write a menu cookbook because one hadn’t been done in a while. (Diana Henry’s 2018 cookbook, How to Eat a Peach, is the last one I can recall.) And people often ask her, “How do I put this all together?” In Company, she answers that question with recipes, menus and advice.
“In the process, I found that making a book of menus was interesting, because when you’re doing a full plate, you have to incorporate some things that are kind of like contorni (Italian vegetable side dish) or the rhythm section,” says Thielen, laughing. “It’s not all your hits. It’s the B-sides, too.”
The 20 menus are primarily carnivorous (two are vegetarian) and follow the “standard meat-and-three middle-American formula.” For Thielen, it’s all about the ratio. She balances the meat with exciting vegetable sides and starch recipes, some complex but most straightforward, based on beautiful ingredients.
After cooking in restaurants for 10 years, Thielen takes a relaxed approach to throwing dinner parties. They’re always buffet-style. Instead of focusing on the intricacies of tasting menus, as she did in professional kitchens, she considers the creativity in making a full meal and composing a plate.
“It has to be tonal and have rhythm and high points and low points. It has to go together, and it has to be healthy, too,” says Thielen. “There are some really, really special moments sometimes where, let’s say, the creamed corn runs into the cooked squash. That’s a little moment that, as a cook, you get to make — the juxtaposition of things. And I started to think about how creatively, as home cooks, that’s where it’s at. That’s the height of it. And it’s, in a sense, similar to what I did as a chef in fine dining. If you look at fine dining cooking, small plates, or tasting menus, it’s the progression of those dishes, which are about moments of the protein, maybe, and the sauce and the starch all coming together in a couple bites.”
From a Nordic backcountry ski supper to a lazy day’s summer lunch, Thielen has thrown the gatherings in the book many times, sometimes with different ingredients and components, depending on the season and what’s available.
Most of the recipes serve six to eight people. The holiday menus suit tables of eight to 12, Perennial Parties (such as family brunch around the firepit and a deer camp feast) feed groups of six to 10 and Casual Walkabouts, including an Argentinian-style asado, make buffets for 15 to 20 or more.
The striking still life on Company’s cover is by Toronto-born, Athens, Ga.-based painter Holly Coulis. As soon as Thielen saw her friend’s work, with bold lines, bright hues and the geometric forms of everyday kitchen life, she knew it was the perfect fit. In a pleasing parallel, art critic David Pagel described Coulis’s work as “casually thrilling.” For her part, Thielen considers cooking for others a “radically casual art,” a sentiment reflected in the subtitle.
“To me, it means to get rid of this aspirational, perfectionistic thing that keeps us from having people over as often as we would like to. So, it’s casual in that sense. But it also does reference, for me personally, the radical hospitality movement in art. It’s about making space for people in an intentional way.”
Company has a sense of intimacy, which is how Thielen intended it. She wrote the book “for a circle of exactly three: you, me and our cooking practice.”
Unconcerned with the trappings of “the E-word,” table settings, wine pairings and seating arrangements have no place here. Instead, she thinks of it as her “so-called” entertaining book — a pre-party conversation between her and the reader, which ends when company arrives.
“This book is really an introduction to a lot of my rhythms of cooking, of prepping ingredients and doing things and in what order that works for me,” says Thielen. “I’m not going to presume to be some sort of entertaining goddess. I’m just talking to people about their cooking, which is the joyful part, hopefully. That’s the part that’s this indulgent, by yourself, cooking-for-other-people lovely time.”
CAST-IRON GARLIC SHRIMP WITH CHORIZO AND GREEN OLIVES
Serves: 10 as an appetizer
1 Valencia orange or tangerine
1 lb (454 g) large shrimp (about 20), shells removed but tails left on
7 garlic cloves, minced
6 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1 tsp minced fresh rosemary
1/2 tsp fine sea salt, plus more to taste
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3/4 tsp sweet paprika
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 oz (57 g) hard chorizo, thinly sliced (or substitute 10 dried red chiles)
16 large green olives, such as Cerignola or Castelvetrano
Remove 3 wide strips of zest from the orange and set aside. Halve the orange and squeeze the juice into a small bowl; reserve.
Combine the shrimp, garlic, orange zest, bay leaves, rosemary, salt, pepper and both kinds of paprika in a mixing bowl and drizzle the orange juice over all. Toss to combine. Cover and marinate the shrimp in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, and as long as 24.
When you’re ready to cook the shrimp, preheat the oven to 350F (177C).
I bake the shrimp in two batches because they need to cook in a single layer, but feel free to cook them all at once in one enormous pan.
Heat a heavy ovenproof sauté pan over medium-low heat and add 1/3 cup of the olive oil. When it feels warm to the touch, add half of the shrimp, including half of the orange peels and bay leaves. Add half of the chorizo and olives and toss to coat. Pop the skillet into the hot oven and bake for 5 minutes, then flip the shrimp. Continue to bake until the garlic sizzles and the shrimp have curled into loose C shapes, another 3 to 5 minutes, depending on their size. Keep a close watch on the oven to keep from overcooking them; when you think you can smell the garlic hitting the smoky olive oil, they’re pretty close.
Set the pan on a trivet and serve with plenty of bread for dipping into the rusty, garlicky oil. When the shrimp have disappeared, add the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil and then the rest of the shrimp and aromatics to the same pan, building on the compounded flavour, and cook the second batch.
DEVILLED EGG DIP
Serves: 6 to 8
8 large eggs
1 tsp white vinegar (rice, wine or distilled)
5 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 tbsp salt-packed capers, soaked in cold water and drained
Aleppo pepper or paprika for garnish
Extra-virgin olive oil for garnish
Partly fill a deep wide-bottomed saucepan with cold water and bring to a boil. Add the vinegar and a pinch of salt and, one by one, crack the eggs into the simmering water. Gently troll the bottom of the pan with a spoon to make sure the eggs don’t stick, and cook just until the yolks feel hard to the touch, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and drain them on a paper towel-lined plate.
Drop 2 whole poached eggs into the bowl of a food processor. Pop out the rest of the yolks and add them to the processor as well. Finely chop 2 of the egg whites for garnish; reserve the rest for another use. (I’m sorry I couldn’t incorporate the extra whites into the recipe; I hope you’ll find a use for them.)
Process the whole eggs and yolks to a fine fluff. Add the mayonnaise and process again until smooth, stopping once to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire, salt, and pepper and pulse to combine. Don’t overmix, or the mixture will become tough — you want it to be soft and luscious.
Spoon the devilled egg dip onto a platter. Chop the capers, and sprinkle across the top. Scatter the reserved chopped egg whites over the dip and garnish with a few strong shakes of Aleppo pepper or paprika and a thin swirl of extra-virgin olive oil.
Serve with bread or crackers or thinly sliced radishes, carrots and kohlrabi for dipping.
Makes: a 9- x 13-inch (23- x 33-cm) pan, serving dozens
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 1/4 cups water
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 1/4 cups (8 oz/227 g) walnuts
1/2 lb (2 sticks/227 g) unsalted butter
1 lb (454 g) phyllo dough, thawed
1 shy cup prepared mincemeat
Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 325F (165C).
Make the syrup first to give it time to chill. Combine the sugar, honey and water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook, whisking, until all of the sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, remove from the heat and set aside. When cool, refrigerate until needed (the syrup can be made up to a week in advance).
For the baklava, spread the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Let cool, then chop the nuts to rough bits, the size of small lentils, and set aside. Turn the oven up to 350F (177C).
To clarify the butter, heat it in a frying pan over medium heat until it foams and then until a thin layer of brown crust forms around the perimeter of the pan, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the butter settle for a few minutes. Tipping the pan, carefully skim off the surface froth with a serving spoon and deposit it in a small bowl. Pour off the clear, clarified butter into another bowl, and then pour the milky liquid and browned milk solids at the bottom into the bowl of froth. You will now have about 2/3 cup of clarified butter and a small dish of browned butter “lees,” which can be added later to soups, beans, mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs, etc.
Brush a 9- x 13-inch (23- x 33-cm) baking pan with a thin layer of the clarified butter.
Unfold the phyllo dough and trim it to fit the pan, lopping off about an inch (2.5 cm) from a short side. Cover the phyllo with a towel if you think you might be called away from the process, to keep it from drying out. If the clarified butter has solidified, warm it to liquefy.
Lay 2 sheets of phyllo into the baking pan and brush with a thin layer of clarified butter. (You can layer the dough singly, but two-by-two is faster and it will still be perfectly crispy.) Repeat until you have used about half of the phyllo, stacking the sheets with a light hand, to keep the baklava crispy and airy.
Stir the mincemeat into the walnuts and spread it across the phyllo dough in an even layer, making sure not to press down on the pastry below. Continue layering butter-brushed phyllo sheets, two-by-two, on top of the mincemeat until you’ve used them all. Brush the rest of the clarified butter over the phyllo. Cut the baklava diagonally, at roughly 1 1/2-inch (4-cm) intervals, into a diamond pattern, making sure to cut all the way to the bottom of the pan.
Bake the baklava for 20 minutes, or until it begins to take on colour. Reduce the oven temperature to 325F (165C) and bake for another 50 to 60 minutes, until the baklava is deeply browned.
Remove the pan from the oven, cut it again through the fault lines and pour the cool syrup over the hot baklava. Let cool, then transfer the baklava pieces to a plate. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar before serving. Store leftover baklava in an airtight tin for up to 2 weeks.
Note: Warm baklava, served fresh from the oven with a ball of vanilla ice cream, makes for a ridiculously good dessert.
Recipes and images excerpted from Company by Amy Thielen. Copyright ©2023 by Amy Thielen. Photographs copyright ©2023 by Kristin Teig. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Our website is the place for the latest breaking news, exclusive scoops, longreads and provocative commentary. Please bookmark nationalpost.com and sign up for our cookbook and recipe newsletter, Cook This, here.