As fellow diners will attest, I can turn any meal into communal dining. Regardless of germophobia or some people's need to keep their plates to themselves, I will finagle my way to get a bite of what's on that plate. At a new restaurant, never order the same thing as fellow diners unless there's only one item on the menu or the place is known for one specialty. With participating company, I can turn any meal into family style dining (passing plates). Part of the joy of eating is the company, the people, the social aspect. The company in which you share your food turns good meals into great experiences.
This underlying philosophy dictates they way I cook and serve. Always with a central theme (sometimes even loosely, but it can be a particular cuisine, a specific ingredient, a particular inspiration such as a book or memory of a trip), I cook with as much variety as possible, balancing out not only taste and texture, but also social involvement. You can talk while simultaneously tearing into a baguette. An appetizer requiring your bare fingers is a great way to dig in and break the conversational ice (a glass of wine doesn't hurt either). A salad requiring only a fork needs little commitment or hand-eye coordination. Then you have a steak or a beautiful slice of albacore sushi, where the first bite(s) should be enjoyed in silence, requiring your full physical and emotional commitment to the food. Then you resume your meal, tasting every dish on that table, talking not just about the food, but about anything that you want to share.
In the tradition of small plates to share, I cooked a relatively healthy meal for my girlfriends Jen S, Jenny P, Hannah, and Courtney (six months pregnant w. baby girl - yay!). A few of them are ardent Weight Watchers, so I had to twist their arms to not bring their own food (and still they did) or continually count the number of points. Even with what I deem a healthy meal, the points add up with multiple courses. The central theme (and this one is a common one for me) was healthy with an Asian flare. We started off with watercress and cranberries salad, topped with avocadoes and a sesame-citrus vinaigrette. Then I made a few kinds of spring rolls, a combo of lemon-soy sautéed chicken, fried tofu, asparagus, herbs. Served with a plum peanut sauce. I usually make a plum-coconut peanut sauce, but I was trying to cut fat where possible. Then I made mini entrees of steak (grilled without the usual cubes of butter), sweet mashed potatoes (sans the usual cup of butter and cream), and vegetables. Topped with my signature soy-port reduction. I finished the meal with simple sugar cookies (okay, so they were coconut-ginger cookies). We drank plenty of red wine and finished the evening with cordials of port.
So, it wasn't a lot of dishes, but there was a lot of variety. The meal had over fifty ingredients, from the seven ingredients used to marinate the steak (shiitake mushroom stock, soy, sesame oil, honey, Asian black vinegar, sesame, pepper) to the many ingredients in each spring roll (lettuce, herbs, vermicelli, etc.). It was a delight (and a cinch) to cook. The prep was laborious as usual, but I got my timing down. I served on time, each course within 20-25 minutes of each other, giving us enough time to commune and catch up. At a restaurant, I would have served each course within 10-15 minutes of each other, probably bringing out all the spring rolls and salad at once.
The work (and it wasn't that much) that went into making a meal for my girlfriends was worth the smiles, appreciation, and communal experience of sharing not only our food, but our lives.