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?

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

nic December 1, 2011 at 11:17 am

This looks amazing! Thanks for sharing–especially the apples:)


s'mee December 1, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Thanks so much for sharing the recipe for collard greens! Believe or not, this SoCal girl has never had them, but they sound yummy!
This post sounds much like my Gramma, only she went a tad more north for her inspirations. But one thing she insisted upon for every special occasion was a “relish tray” set at the table to be eaten while she served up the plates. Always fresh slivers of young tender veggies, carrots, celery, green onions, sweet gherkins, no dip. Another famous “must do” for these dinners was a garnish of two bright magenta spiced crab apples on each plate! Yum! It’s just not a holiday without them. : )


AmberLee December 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm

s’mee! I love the idea of a relish tray. that is something I’d love to perfect. what wonderful things we learn from our Grandmas. and she even added crab apples as a garnish!? what a woman.


Tammy Johnston December 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm


Thanks so much for sharing these recipes and the books! I think I’ve found my next read and my next Saturday afternoon cooking project. I enjoyed this post so much! I will be thinking about my personal magic dish and let you know!



AmberLee December 1, 2011 at 2:00 pm

tammy, I love you for saying that, and l-o-v-e that you have such a thing as a Saturday afternoon cooking project.

and yes, please, I would love to hear what magical dish you come up with.


Cmbhbg December 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I love the idea of crab apples!!!!
And I wish I would have had this post last night before DH grilled all of the oomph out of our porkchops : {
When we have pork again, it will be done simply as you shared : )
Will you share more rules of 4 menus with us?
Especially after the holidays when there is more time to try new menus :)
Thanks again..I do enjoy your writings : )


AmberLee December 3, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Thanks for the note! and, that is such a great idea, I will have to start brainstorming few new rule-of-4 recipes. It really does sound like so much fun to explore, doesn’t it?


Moana December 1, 2011 at 3:46 pm

I have two Lee Bailey cookbooks and absolutely l-o-v-e them: Country Deserts and Good Parties. I think it’s about time to add to my Lee Bailey collection. I’ve never logically figured out the rule of four, but it makes so much sense. Every time I prepare a meal of three it seems empty… trite… incomplete. I’m sure I will share it many times. Thanks!


AmberLee December 3, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Moana, oh goodie! I am so excited to find out Lee’s cookbooks really are as good as they seem. I am going to need to get one or two and start cooking.


Kariane Noble December 1, 2011 at 4:11 pm

I loved this post! I read every word. My two favorite kind of books are cooking books and cookbooks. I’m also so happy to know I’m not the only one who remembers whole paragraphs from books which ultimetly become one of the voices in my head! One of my favorites, which I’ve read several times is Bread Alone by Judith Hendricks. Thanks for sharing your dinner!


AmberLee December 3, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Kariane, I love you for reading every word of this post. And for recommending the read, I can’t wait to go check out Bread Alone.


Cecilia Madden December 2, 2011 at 7:31 am

What an great tip. i always try to add a wow factor, but this is a great guideline that goes just beyond adding dessert. Those crab apples look amazing.


Frankly Entertaining December 2, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I’m Canadian, but I married a Louisiana boy, so I’ve had to learn some southern recipes along the way. I think one of the meals that makes my husband really feel at home is Red Beans and Rice, that and the crawfish boil! Crawfish only happens once a year, but Red Beans and Rice happens once a month!
I absolutely loved this post. I would love to have some of those amazing experiences, but I guess the trick is making those experiences for yourself.


Tabatha December 4, 2011 at 5:09 am

Great post! I am Southern and love seeing these recipes! I’ve never eaten baked crab apples before — thanks for suggesting it.


AmberLee December 5, 2011 at 6:00 am

thanks so much for the note, Tabatha! And I’m happy to have the menu approved by an authentic southern girl : )


Eliot December 4, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Great post. I will remember the Rule of Four the next time I plan a dinner party.


Jessica January 17, 2012 at 10:01 am

I love being so inspired by seemingly simple concepts. i get those moments too when i see something on tv, in a blog or in a book. like i just cracked the code. recently i’ve been having trouble transitioning from a young woman into a full grown woman (i recently had a baby by surprise at 24, so i’ve been needing to grow up fast) but then one day i watched that show Extra Virgin on cooking channel and there was this one scene where debbie mazar and her husband go to a bee yard and she’s really anxious and nervous. and then her husband starts explaining how she was scraping the honey off of the beehive and was much more relaxed and calm and he mentioned how he was proud of her for being his “tuscan wife” he’s always wanted. i don’t why that part just really got to me, and although i’m nowhere near italian (i’m mexican), i thought Wow, that’s what i want to be…like a tough, no nonsense, go-getting Tuscan wife. and since then i’ve used it as like my coping method.

i know this is a bit more heavy than figuring out an entertaining method, but i felt it related. i think it’s part of growing up and firguring out your groove – you find little secrets and you keep them with you forever. and when people ask you how you did it you say “well i try to be like a tuscan wife” or “i use the rule of four”.

oh and thanks for your lovely blog :)


AmberLee January 24, 2012 at 10:35 pm

LOVED your comment. You can come talk about life on my blog any time. And I am totally with you. I’m a 33-year-old and I feel like I’m still getting the hang of this grown woman and mom-wife thing. It is such a balance, such a delight in some ways. You put it so right, it really is about finding out your groove, the little things your friends and kids will remember you for and the things you truly enjoy doing for them. I’m still amazed and surprised at the things I end up finding satisfying, and some of it I think is just by virtue of being a woman.


Kari March 16, 2012 at 7:31 am

Hi AmberLee! I came across this blog post and fell in love with it! I would love to feature these recipe ideas in one of our upcoming posts for Anniversary Week: Food. It is scheduled to air on Wednesday, April 18th. Would it be okay with you if we featured this meal in our post? Thank you!

Sincerely, Kari


Olivia May 8, 2012 at 10:15 am

This is my first time reading your blog (I found it by searching for a chocolate butter recipe) and am pretty sure I just fell in love! I love a good story followed by food for the soul!


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