My husband, George, and I live in the idyllic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Yep, that’s the actual name. It’s a European-style village perched on a hillside above Carmel Bay, filled with charming fairytale architecture, misty Pacific sea breeze, and about 3,000 residents.
In downtown Carmel, there are no street lamps, no traffic lights, and most important to maintaining our “village” feel—no street addresses. Meaning, we have to hike it to the post office to pick up our mail, guaranteeing daily run-ins with at least one or two neighbors (in Carmel, everyone is your neighbor).
Life moves slower in a small town. There are no cabs to frantically hail, no restaurants at which to wait hours for a table, no fashion trends to uphold (unless you consider Patagonia jackets to be a fashion trend, in which case, Ocean Avenue in Carmel is practically a catwalk).
Living in a small town also means that bonds are built more easily. Walk into the hottest new restaurant in New York City, and I guarantee you that the owner of that restaurant will not take down your phone number and invite you over for dinner if you tell him that you live in his neighborhood. So do a couple million other people, after all. But in a small town?
When George and I told the owners of the best new restaurant in town, Stationaery, that we lived just down the street, we became fast friends. Now, not only do we eat beautiful breakfasts in their restaurant several times a week, but we also venture to each others’ homes for what we have coined “linner”—lunch meets dinner—at least once a week.
“Linner” was born out of necessity. Finding a window to get together between the nap times, bath times, and bedtimes of George’s and my 3-month-old, and Alissa and Anthony’s 6-month-old and 2-year-old, was not easy, and we wound up with a standing “linner” date from 4 to 6 p.m. every Wednesday. When you have a baby, if you ever want to see your friends again, you have to make not easy work for you.
In the spirit of small-town congeniality, I want to share our “linner party” tips with you, aka, how to host a dinner party when you and all of your friends have tons of babies.
Step One: Throw Perfection Out the Window
Up until recently (Jan. 24, to be exact—happy birthday, baby Mattis!), in preparation for hosting a dinner, George and I would clean the house impeccably, shine the wine glasses, set the table beautifully, and plan out multi-course menus. With a kid in the house, the game has changed. There’s no chance of having a “perfect” dinner party, so instead, we’ve opted to strive for imperfection.
So many of my friends tell me that they never host because they “don’t have the time.” Well, I’m here to tell you, if you don’t pick up a single toy, or wash the guest bathroom hand towels, or put on any makeup, or put clothes on your kid—you can make time!
If you’re having friends who also have kids over, they’ll totally get it. And if their kid knocks a plate of food off the table, they’ll feel relieved because your floors were already dirty! Last week, Alissa and Anthony’s son took every single pot and pan out of my bottom cabinets, and then combusted into toddler tears and had to be immediately evacuated. Which brings me to step two …
Step Two: No Apologies
Alissa was mortified that Giaco had left my kitchen such a mess, but I assured her, and meant it, that it was actually kind of lovely to be forced to reorganize my extremely disorganized cabinets. Entertained toddler, forced organization … win-win!
Your baby might wreak adorable havoc on your friends’ house, but at linnertime, there’s no room for apologies. We’re all on this wild child-rearing ride together, and we gotta have each other’s backs.
Step Three: Cook Ahead of Time
You’re inviting a hoard of tiny human tornados into your home, so don’t think for one second that you can cook dinner once they arrive. Either serve linner room temperature, or make something that you can cook entirely ahead of time and simply reheat.
One-pot meals are big linner-winners. Anthony made the daal from my cookbook when we went over to their place last week, I made a hearty ragu that we put over orecchiette the week before that, and I’m making these one-pan basil chicken meatballs with orzotto—orzo cooked risotto-style—when they come over this week.
This recipe can feed two very hungry eaters on its own, or four hungry eaters with the addition of a simple salad. I’ll make the entire dish ahead of time while Mattis is napping, and then just add a splash of chicken stock to loosen the orzo and reheat the dish when it’s time to eat. The egg and panko keep the meatballs from drying out, and the orzo is meant to be softer than usual, so you don’t have to worry about overcooking it.
Step Four: Guests Bring the Drinks
The guests get to take the night off from cooking. Ask them to bring the booze, and nothing else. This works especially well if you get into a rhythm with your friends where you’re trading off hosting duties every week or two.
Step Five: Divide and Conquer
Preparing dinner can be fun and romantic if you tackle it together. These meatballs with orzotto are great for busy weeknights because they require so little prep work: just chopping up the garlic and basil and zesting the lemon. After that, it’s just a matter of mixing up the meatball mixture, forming the meatballs, and searing them, and then they finish cooking in the chicken stock that is simultaneously cooking the orzo. It’s a true one-pot wonder, full of bright flavors from the lemon and basil. The chicken meatballs are light, while the orzo brings some heft to the dish.
This recipe is so easy that one of you might even have time to set the table! With placemats! And wine glasses! This is strictly a bonus, however, as the true meaning of linner is simply to get together with friends and share a meal—even if it is at an unconventional hour.
One-Pan Basil Chicken Meatballs With ‘Orzotto’
Serves 2 with leftovers
- 1 large egg
- 1 pound ground chicken
- 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided, plus more for garnish
- 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh basil, loosely packed, plus more for garnish
- 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
- Zest and juice of 1 organic lemon, divided
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken stock, plus more as needed
- 1 cup orzo pasta
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 cups frozen peas
- Lemon wedges, for serving
Crack the egg into a large bowl and lightly whisk. Add the ground chicken, 1/2 cup Parmesan, basil, panko, lemon zest (save the juice for later), and 3/4 teaspoon salt to the bowl. Use your hands to thoroughly combine. Roll chicken mixture into about 10 meatballs, each a little larger than a golf ball. The mixture will be sticky and wet; if you need to, wet your fingers between meatballs to prevent sticking.
Warm 1 tablespoon oil in a 10-inch nonstick skillet or pan over medium-high heat and swirl it around to coat the pan. Use tongs to sear the meatballs for about 2 minutes per side on three sides. They will start to look a bit like triangles after you sear them, but don’t worry, they’ll round back out as they cook. The meatballs will not be entirely cooked at this point—you’re just getting a nice golden brown sear on the outside.
Scoot the meatballs to the outer edges of the pan to make a clearing in the center. Add the chicken stock, orzo, garlic, lemon juice, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt to the center of the pan and stir to combine. The meatballs, orzo, and chicken stock will all mix together in the pan, just be sure to spread the orzo out evenly so that it’s covered in liquid.
Raise heat to high to bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and stir often until all liquid is absorbed and orzo is tender, 10 to 15 minutes, adding the peas and Parmesan for the last minute of cooking. The orzo should be the consistency of risotto, not too thick, not too thin. If it gets too thick, just add another splash of chicken stock or water. If it looks too thin, keep cooking.
Garnish with fresh basil and serve with additional Parmesan and lemon wedges.
Just like risotto, the orzotto will harden and clump together when it cools. To bring it back to life, simply add a splash of chicken stock or water and reheat over medium heat.
Want more veggies? Stir in a handful of fresh spinach or kale when you add the peas and Parmesan! Not into peas? Frozen corn, halved fresh snap peas, or cooked asparagus are all great substitutions.
Caroline Chambers is a recipe developer, food writer, and author of “Just Married: A Cookbook for Newlyweds.” She currently lives in Carmel, California, with her husband, George, and brand new baby boy, Mattis. Follow her on Instagram for cooking tips and snippets from her life in Northern California @carochambers.