In her new cookbook, Amy Thielen argues hosting should be more party than performance

a pink book cover and a woman cooking
Minnesota author and chef Amy Thielen is out with her third book, which she refers to as her “so-called entertaining book.” In it, she encourages hosts to drop the Martha Stewart act and reframe entertaining as the “radically casual art of cooking for others.”
Kristin Tiegs

Minnesota author and chef Amy Thielen released her third book this week. It’s called “Company: The Radically Casual Art of Cooking for Others.”

And it was obvious to host Tom Crann and me: When a two-time James Beard award winner writes a book about entertaining, you invite yourself over for dinner.

Luckily, she agreed. And luckily again, our dinner date fell on her first outdoor cookout of the season.

For dinner: grilled sausage, asparagus, fresh greens, a punchy chickpea salad and Amish chicken topped with chimichurri so fresh it took a search party to find the oregano in Thielen’s early spring garden. All of it seasoned with a hearty pinch of childlike energy that only a group of Minnesotans with a whole warm season ahead of them can have. Oh, the things you’ll pack in.

And oh, the things you’ll pack onto your plate.

That’s the idea behind one of the tips in Thielen’s book, which features full menus and advice for entertaining. But we’re not talking about Martha Stewart perfectionism here.

Beneath the headline, “We should probably talk about money,” Thielen says this:

In the grand tradition of cooking and giving it away, the rules remain the same: serve the best you can afford, with plenty of cheap starches and simple seasonal vegetable sides to pad it out, and always err on the side of too much food. You want to hide your thrift behind a multicolored façade of surplus.

“For one thing, that makes the vegetarians and non-meat eaters very happy,” said Thielen, who started writing the book during the pandemic, when the price of meat began to skyrocket. “But also, there's really no room on your plate to load up on meat. There's just no room.”

Indeed, my hand gravitated toward the frilly, crisp lettuce dressed in Thielen’s tangy and deeply comforting “invisible vinaigrette.” Her marinated chickpea salad woven with multicolored ribbons of Swiss chard was so pretty it took center stage on my plate. And in the corner of my eye, a picture-perfect raspberry-rhubarb pie whispered, “Pace yourself.”

a house with lights on inside
Author and chef Amy Thielen hosts friends in her home near Park Rapids a lot. In rural Minnesota, there isn't much nightlife to come by, so neighbors' homes stand in as the restaurants and cocktail rooms where friends gather.
Tom Crann | MPR News

Thielen selected the dishes from multiple menus in her book and encourages readers to do the same. While it’s loosely organized by season, occasion and group size for intimidated hosts who want a roadmap, Thielen said the point isn’t to be rigid. Take some detours.

And that’s really the whole point of the book.

“If the host is all nervous and worried too much about things being absolutely perfect, it really kind of infects the group in a bad way,” Thielen said with tongs in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. “Is it a party, or are we performing food here?”

And that brings us to another tip. If dinner parties were performance, it’s OK if folks wander backstage — onstage, even.

At some point it’s time to drop the knife, stop prepping, go take a shower, put on a clean shirt, and throw some daisies into a jar. The kitchen may not be in perfect order, but then, productive, creative workspaces rarely are. They’re flexible, chaotic—and fun. And when people start arriving, that’s the vibe they’ll catch and follow.

On that gorgeous spring evening, conversation developed between noisy swirls of the food processor. One guest minded the walnuts toasting on the stove as Thielen put the chicken on the grill. And when the food was ready, there were no silver-domed platters. I couldn’t even find the definitive words, “Let’s eat,” in my audio recordings of the night.

Instead, the party unfurled and bloomed without calling attention to itself. And as we headed back out onto the dark country roads, we marveled at its fullness and beauty, not at the fact that the advertised asparagus never made it to a serving platter.

As Thielen promises in “Company”:

When you’re having people over, the food doesn’t really matter. If we do this thing right … the food will fade into the background. The next day, it will resurface as an idyllic sense memory of flavors and textures that everyone will remember as better than they actually were.

Except on this night, the food actually was that good.