These days, photographer Nancy J. Parisi is known, in her wide circle of friends, as a virtuoso of the dinner party.
Parisi's Red Party, held near Valentine's Day since 1997 or so, draws 100 or more for an evening of scarlet food and drink. Even for intimate gatherings, she'll ponder the colors of foods that she'll serve, and even the shape of the plate, to heighten her guests' experience.
You'd never suspect that into her college years, Parisi, The News' March Cook of the Month, thought little of food beyond peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
When people ask about how Parisi learned to cook, they assume, from her Italian surname, that her mother taught her, Parisi said. Her mother is Polish, actually, and Parisi never cooked as a kid.
"I was really turned off by cooking, because it seemed that when I tried, everybody was like, 'Oh no, you have to follow these rules. You have to do it this way. You have to,' " Parisi said. " 'No -- don't play with the dough. This is how you do it.' And I just thought, 'This is not for me.' "
It would be the late 1980s when the budding photographer, artist and writer, working as a waitress as she finished at the University at Buffalo, started to become passionate about food.
At D'Antonio's, a "mostly vegetarian" place on Elmwood, Parisi "really, totally fell in love with cooking," she said. "Every sauce was homemade, dressing was homemade. It was really beautiful food."
Later, at Bean Alley Cafe, Parisi served the food of two young cooks who would become leading Buffalo chefs: Paul Jenkins, now at Tempo, and Mark Camalleri, now of 31 Club. She would taste dishes and pepper them with questions: "What's in that? What kind of red wine do you use in the sauce?"
Parisi remembers being at a dinner party and "absolutely falling madly in love with the taste of pesto. Oh my God."
So while Parisi honed her craft as a photographer and artist -- in Artvoice and Buffalo Spree magazine, shooting weddings and assignments for the University at Buffalo, among others -- she worked on her edible art as well. (Bringing both worlds together, there will be snacks aplenty at Parisi's solo show of her black and white and color photography Friday at the Nichols School, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.)
"It's only been in the last 10 years that I've really, really cooked," said Parisi. With a busy work and social schedule, for years she only prepared meals once or twice a week. "Now I cook four times a week, where I'm really making a solid meal."
She tries to plan ahead and make sure there's a healthy meal in the fridge for herself and her boyfriend, David.
Asked for tips for dinner parties, Parisi's suggestions overlapped food and art, starting with one word: balance.
"What I like to do is have balance, and choices," she said, imagining the finished plate and the table, and making menu decisions accordingly. "For a dinner party, or even an everyday dinner, I'm thinking of different colors and different textures. A yellow vegetable, a green vegetable, whatever color the meat turns out."
For a recent dinner, she served plates with four different dishes with four different colors, including a fennel salad pink from blood oranges.
"I also believe you have to give people choices. For a dinner party, I like to present two proteins," she said. "The last really big dinner party I did had a vegetarian option and meat." That way, Parisi said, "When we're sitting down at the table and we're serving family style, no one thinks, 'Oh, I really don't like X.' "
One more thing, Parisi said: Plates -- they're the frame for your edible artwork.
"I really think you need a wardrobe of plates," she said. "I have a wardrobe of beautiful, different plates. I'll use these big wide open white plates in summer."
She gets some of hers at Target, so you don't have to spend a bundle, she said, and the payoff is worth it.
"You spend a lot of time planning your menu and cooking, and you want your plate to look gorgeous," said Parisi. "Every time you make something it should look as beautiful as the plates at a fine restaurant."
> Lamb Chops with Caper-Orange Crust
1/2 2-ounce bottle capers, drained and chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed
4 tablespoons olive oil
8 4-ounce lamb loin chops
Salt and pepper
Grate zest from orange, avoiding bitter white pith. Juice orange, reserving zest and juice separately.
In a small bowl, mix together capers, orange zest, garlic and 2 tablespoons olive oil.
Place chops on a large plate or platter and season with salt and pepper, both sides. Scoop 1 heaping tablespoon of the caper-orange mixture onto each chop. If there is more of the mixture, divide evenly over the chops. Firmly press the caper-orange mix into the meat.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Place the chops, coated sides down, into hot pan. Drizzle half of orange juice over and around the chops. Cover pan.
Cook approximately 8 minutes per side, 140 to 150 degrees for medium-rare, or do the press-test for doneness (meat should be firm and you should not see red juices if you insert a paring knife).
Take chops off stove and place them on plates or serving platter. Let them rest for 3 to 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook orange and pan juices over low heat, swirling pan, until thickened moderately. Drizzle remaining juice over chops. Serves 4.
> Couscous and Vegetable Salad
1 1/2 cups uncooked couscous, preferably Israeli/pearl couscous
1 cup water
1 pinch salt
1 small red onion
1 small yellow squash
1 small zucchini
1 small red pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
Juice of one lemon or orange
3/4 pound feta cheese
This is a colorful dish featuring a colorful array of raw diced vegetables. The small pieces of diced vegetables will be steamed by the fresh, hot couscous that will be mounded on top of them.
Boil 1 cup water in a 1 quart saucepan. Add uncooked couscous to boiling water. Reduce heat, give it a stir, and cover the pot. Let the couscous simmer for approximately 10 minutes.
Uncover the pot and examine the couscous. You should be able to fluff it with a fork and see no water in the pan when it's fully cooked.
Before cooking the couscous, or while it simmers, cut your vegetables into 1/4 -inch dice, approximately.
Toss diced vegetables in bowl or serving platter. When couscous is fully cooked, scoop it over the top of the vegetables, and let sit for a few minutes. Do not mix the couscous with the vegetables; they are steaming.
After 2 minutes, gently mix the vegetables and couscous. Drizzle olive oil and lemon or orange juice over the top and continue mixing. Then top salad with crumbled feta cheese.
Season with freshly ground pepper if desired, and salt, though the cheese should provide enough salty flavor.
Serve as a side dish, or a main dish with tossed green salad. Serves 4.
Name: Nancy J. Parisi
Dish: Lamb Chops with Caper-Orange Crust
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to instant meal: Shrimp with vegetables and Thai coconut curry
Guilty pleasure: Chipotle burrito bowl