The Rule of Four (or how to amaze your friends at a dinner party)


A few years back I picked up this book on a whim from the library shelves. But as soon as I started reading it was clear I was going to need my own copy so I could mark all the good parts.

I adore much about this little volume. Adore hearing about twenty-something Nora arriving in NY and acting like the full grown up, finding circles of friends and attending dinner parties and making herself a devotee of one cook book after another. I remember when feeling so grown up when I first started cooking on my own. Don’t you? When you first have your own kitchen and are responsible for feeding people from it.

And speaking of being a grown up, I also enjoyed reading that there is another full-grown woman who has a terrible time at trying to commit to a good purse. Thank you, Nora.

But back to the cooking.

One part of the book stuck in my mind word for word, and I was immediately sure I’d just been let into a big secret of being a proper grown up, and a charming hostess. The kind of hostess everyone talks about, no, writes books about after leaving the party.

This big secret is what Nora calles the rule of four.

“The most important thing I learned from Lee was something I call the Rule of Four. Most people serve three things for dinner—some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable— but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected, like those crab apples [more on this in a sec]. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate to match it and contradict it.”
[p. 25, I Feel Bad About My Neck]

Brilliance, right? I am a sucker for a good, classic recipe, well made. Serving a few classics and then adding something magical? so so brilliant.

And who is Lee? this friend and host who served one magical simple meal another? It is Lee Bailey, who has written cookbooks I am going to need to own some day soon, with titles like Cooking for Friends and Soup Meals and Country Weekends.

I love having friends who are great cooks (but I have to admit that none of them have written their own cooking volumes, yet) and adore picking up recipes and little tips from my cooking friends. And I am now adding Nora Ephron and Lee Bailey to that list.

So just to aid in my imagination that I am BFFs with Mr. Bailey and Ms. Ephron, and was peeking over Lee’s shoulders as he cooked, I decided to cook up Lee’s first meal for Nora.

“And then dinner was served. Pork chops, grits, collard greens, and a dish of tiny baked crab apples. It was delicious. It was so straightforward and plain and honest and at the same time so playful. Those crab apples!”
[p. 25]

Incase you are as totally inspired by Mr. Bailey as I am, I’ll add the particulars below incase you’d like to give it a whirl.

I’ll share in order of how you’d need to prepare for a dinner party, incase you want to try this out on some friends. The whole shebang is pretty simple, though your are going to need to get your oven going and a few burners on your stove.

Baked Crab Apples

We’ll start with the star of the show. Those crab apples. Crab apples come and go at my grocery store during the fall, so call before you shop. And if you have lady apples available, they’re just as small but more sweet than tart. I started with this recipe I’d seen a year or two ago and adjusted.
12 crab apples (three or four per guest is plenty)
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temp
1 cup sugar

Preheat your oven to 275. Smear each apple with butter, either by using a paper towel or doing it corn-on-the-cob style, and then roll in the sugar. Place in a baking pan and bake for up to an hour, when apples begin to look browner instead of pink, but while they still are a bit firm and before they wrinkle.

Now won’t those darling apples impress your dinner guests? They are perfect for eating with a fork and knife, or by hand. And you’ll have more time for conversation since they don’t go down as fast as applesauce.

Classic Grits
Now it’s time to get out a couple sauce pans. You might want to start the water boiling for the greens at the same time you start the grits. And as for the grits, I love this recipe from my man Alton Brown.
2 cups water
2 cups milk
1 tsp kosher salt
1 cup stone ground cornmeal (i like course ground yellow or white)
4 tbsp unsalted butter
4 oz sharp cheddar, shredded OR 3 Tbs bacon fat (optional, depending on if you want to impress your guests or be healthy)

Bring water, milk, and salt to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Slowly stir in cornmeal so it doesn’t clump, I use a whisk. Allow to cook on low for 20-25 minutes, stirring as constantly as possible, every two minutes if you can manage, until creamy and oatmealy but not too solid. Slowly stir in butter, add any additional salt you like to taste, and if you like, stir in bacon fat or slowly stir cheddar an ounce or two at a time so it fully combines.

Sauteed Garlic Collard Greens
I love the melt in your mouth collard greens, boiled for an hour with a couple ham hocks. But I also love the sauteed version, which leaves them with a little more zing.
2 bunches collard greens
2 tbsp butter
1 clove garlic, minced

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, cut the center stem from your collard greens and discard. Chop greens into large pieces, then boil for about 7 minutes, until they are wilted but still hold a little shape, then drain. Meanwhile, heat your pan for saute-ing to medium high. Melt butter, then toss in garlic and toast for a minute or two, and finally, toss in your greens and saute until they have just a little but of a brown fond on them.

Is it strange that I am completely craving collard greens right now?

Simple Porkchops
And the final piece, the chops. Pork chops are so good on their own, I like to keep them simple.
4 good quality chops
fresh thyme
1 Tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat your pan to medium high, pat chops dry with paper towels. Sprinkle chops with thyme and newly ground sea salt and black pepper. Add oil to pan, and saute. I usually saute for about six minutes on each side to get a nice caramelized chop, then reduce heat to medium until the chops are cooked through.

And now,

if any of you are still reading after that very lengthy post of me gushing over food,

I need to tell you that I am a huge fan of Southern fare. So if any of you are southern cooks, lets be friends! I would love hearing a thing or two about what you cook up.

And southern or not, what would your magical dish be?

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