Forking Fantastic!: Put the Party Back in Dinner Party

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The innovative hosts of a hot-ticket underground supper club invite you to crank up your oven, break out the vino, and save the dinner party from extinction Twice a month, two veterans of the New York food world prepare a big meal in a tiny kitchen, serving heaping plates of spectacular cuisine to twenty diverse people (or more). Friends old and new at their Sunday Night Dinners supper club make spirited conversation while feasting on sumptuous cooking. Never obsessed with perfect place settings or fussy details, Zora O'Neill and Tamara Reynolds instead focus on the practical joys of down-to-earth entertaining at home. In Forking Fantastic, they showcase their very best recipes for making mouthwatering dinners-and for having the time of your life. With a healthy dose of irreverent attitude and infectious spirit, here Tamara and Zora take the pressure off and encourage us to reclaim the lost art of cooking delectable meals for the masses. Forking Fantastic! includes: * foolproof, party-tested, delicious menus that are easy to master, each with a "Plan of Attack" for preparing multiple recipes without panic. * practical tips on everything from shopping and stocking a kitchen to making creative vegetarian substitutions and trussing a whole lamb for spit-roasting * hard-won advice from the trenches and an inside look at Tamara and Zora's own cooking disasters Food-forward but always realistic, Tamara and Zora celebrate seasonal, local ingredients while also extolling cornbread mix and the frozen pea. Quirky, funny and fresh, this book arms intimidated cooks everywhere with the courage, confidence and tools they need to have people over for the sake of food and community, not for the prize of being the best hostess on the block. A manifesto for bringing back a time-honored ritual one mind-blowing feast at a time, Forking Fantastic! makes dinner parties rock.


Tamara Reynolds
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Forking Fantastic!: Put the Party Back in Dinner Party
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With a subtitle like "Put the Party Back in Dinner Party," you know right from the start that the cookbook, Forking Fantastic! is not going to describe a Martha Stewart-style dinner party complete with place cards and elaborate centerpieces.  In fact, the two authors, Zora O'Neill and Tamara Reynolds, are big on fun and don't care much if you don't have enough wine glasses (use mason jars) or furniture (try visiting the dump) for your guests.

Neither of the authors is a trained cook. And that's the very point. Despite no training, and the fact that they often don't really know what they're doing, they've been running an impromptu dinner club that feeds 20-odd people every Sunday, since 2003. Their method: just jump in and try. The idea is to have fun with your guests, not necessarily to produce a picture-perfect meal.
If the title of the book has not alerted you to the tone Zora and Tamara take when discussing dinner parties, perhaps I should warn any potential readers that they do use some foul language throughout the cookbook.  I felt this fit in with their style and it did not bother me, but I am told that some have found it distracting and inappropriate: consider yourself warned.

Julia Child used to stress her number one rule of the kitchen: Don't be afraid. And that's the authors' credo. Indeed, these two aren't afraid of anything.

This cookbook is all about having a good time.  The authors start with a pep talk, encouraging everyone to try their hand at throwing a dinner party.  They cover the basics for beginners and write with such enthusiasm, that I was soon daydreaming about when I was going to have people over next. 

 Between recipes for foolproof seasonal meals and more challenging, advanced dinners, there are many funny stories about the regular "Sunday Night Dinners" thrown by the authors and the multiple mistakes they have made and survived.  The recipes are grouped by meals that include a main dish, a salad, one or two side dishes and a dessert.  They do offer suggestions for hors d'oeuvres (which they call Scooby snacks), such as cheese, figs and nuts, but don't have recipes for anything more advanced in this category.  The meals include wine suggestions, which I always appreciate, and many helpful suggestions for pulling the special event off successfully.

When the authors included the more advanced recipes in a section titled, Get In Over Your Head, they aren't kidding around.  They enthusiastically encourage you to "jump in blindly" (hey, there's always pizza delivery), then include a diagram for building a lamb grill, complete with a 50-gallon steel drum and cinder blocks, with a recipe for a whole roast lamb on a spit.  Now, that is adventurous.

For my first dish I chose a slightly tamer meal than an entire roast lamb, opting to try part of their winter menu: Overnight Chuck Roast with Red Wine and Mushrooms and a side dish of Wee Salt-Boiled Potatoes.  True to their description, the roast made my home smell heavenly and was fall-apart tender.  Instead of doing this overnight as suggested, I did start it early in the day.  I am not a morning person and absolutely do not want to jump out of bed at dawn to pull the roast from the oven and sauté some mushrooms. Instead, my roast finished in time for a late dinner, and then I let the rest sit in the fridge for the flavors to blend as the authors direct. 

This is an easy dish to do for a party, as you are encouraged to serve the dish re-heated, once the flavors have intensified.  Unfortunately, I felt the flavors were too strong, even after the initial roasting.  However, I don't find any fault with the recipe.  The suggested wine pairing was lovely and like any good pot roast, the meat was tender.  It was simply personal taste that this combination of flavors was too strong for me. I like all of the components –rosemary, garlic (lots of it), tomatoes, mushrooms and kalamata olives.  I just found the finished product to overpower everything else.  Long after each bite, it was all I could taste and the flavors drowned out my side dishes.  I also wished I had thought to put the rosemary in cheesecloth, as the needles mixed in with the tomatoes and mushrooms and are not a texture I enjoy whole. 

The Wee Salt-Boiled Potatoes suggested as a side dish were fairly straight forward, but I was intrigued by their description that stressed they were so delicious that people devoured five or six in the kitchen before they even made it to the table.  This recipe used small potatoes boiled in water that is so heavily salted (about a pound) they float.  The result was indeed very good, but I didn't discern any difference in flavor between this and oven-roasting.

For dessert, I tried a recipe from their spring menu, titled Salzburger Nockerl for Beauty School Dropouts.  After looking at all of the recipes in the book, it became apparent that these two don't have near the sweet tooth that I do.  And they admit as much.  Some of the desserts are classics like Apple Spice Cake or Peach Cobbler, and some are simple, like Melon with Lime and Salt or Dates with Almond Paste. 

The Salzburger Nockerl appealed to me because I love trying new desserts and this is one I had not heard of before.  It consists of jam and cream in the bottom of a pie plate, with a soufflé-like topping baked over. They said the recipe would serve six generously, but again, they must not be dessert people.  I found it served four moderately. 

I enjoyed the dessert.  It was denser than a good soufflé, but still lighter than a cake, and received bonus points for being somewhat unique.  For a dinner party, I prefer desserts that can be prepared ahead, but it was fairly quick to mix and get in the oven.  It would need to be served immediately though, as it began to deflate right away.

As should be apparent, the recipes are not particularly earth shattering. Rather, they are work-a-day dishes, the kind you probably already make for your own family, albeit in smaller quantities. But I don't find that to be a problem. This is a book about stretching your wings by entertaining for a crowd, not one about fancy cookery. Which is part and parcel of their message.
Even so, I enjoyed reading this book and found Zora and Tamara's enthusiasm very infectious. Their style is fun and no-nonsense, which is great for someone just starting to cook or entertain.  They give you permission to mess-up and have fun with friends anyway.  However, as much fun as I had reading about their parties, I wasn't overly impressed with the recipes and don't expect to turn to this book with any great frequency in the future.  But, if you have been meaning to cook for friends and keep putting it off with various excuses ranging from a small apartment to not enough friends, this book may be a good choice for you and will give you the guidance and courage you need to jump right in.

Salzburger Nockerl for Beauty School Dropouts

Serves 6-8

5 eggs
¼ c cream
¼ c berry or apricot jam, or passion fruit curd
½ tsp salt
½ c sugar
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
Confectioners' sugar for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400º F. Separate the eggs – this is most easily done when they're still cold, and you simply crack the egg into your hand and let the white run through your fingers directly into a large mixing bowl.  (You can also slowly tip the egg between the two shell halves.)  Put 3 yolks in a smaller bowl and set these and the whites aside to come to room temperature.  Pour the cream in the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate and tilt to spread it all over the bottom.  With a small spoon, dab the jam all over the pie plate too.  And resist the temptation to add more than the required amount.  Contrary to all cooking logic, more jam does not make it better – believe us, we've tried.

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites and salt with a mixer on high speed until foamy.  With the mixer running, scatter the sugar slowly over the egg whites.  You may get impatient by the end – that's OK, so long as the egg whites are nice and glossy and have stiff peaks when you're done.  Turn off the mixer and remove the beaters.  Scatter the flour over and fold it in.  In a smaller bowl, beat the egg yolks and vanilla together, just until foamy, then fold that quickly into the egg whites too.  Don't get too compulsive about mixing it all together, or you'll deflate the whites – it's fine to have some yellow streaky bits.

Now for the fun part: With a big spatula, blob the eggs into the pie plate.  Style as desired.  Does your Salzburger nockerl rock a Mohawk, perhaps?  Or does it have big eighties bangs?  Or maybe cute little spikes all over?  Stick your coiffed confection in the oven and bake for 13 minutes, until the egg whites are nicely browned.  (If you got a little carried away with the styling, the tips may get quite dark brown.  That's fine – someone at the table will like those little burnt-sugar bits.)  Be careful not to bang the fluffy thing down on the counter when you pull it from the oven; serve shortly after, with a dusting of confectioners' sugar, if you like.

Recipe courtesy "Forking Fantastic," written by Zora O'Neill and Tamara Reynolds, published by Gotham Books, 2009.


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