500 dinner parties: How we roll
|The boys with a grand aioli|
A dinner table alive with laughter and talk is a pleasure we've enjoyed for 28 years.
I read many
We've hosted at least 500 dinner parties, no sign of stopping. We too had a family to raise, guests who didn't eat this or that, and intense workloads. But we wanted to do it.
Only two were flops: one due to a disgruntled man's behaviour (and his wife's disgust), the other, when we ran out of propane for the grill and everyone was blotto by the time we finally served. (See "BBQ Myth".)
Here's how we resolve some issues, live with others, and have lots of fun.
Too much work
The fix is simple: make the meal (or most of it) ahead so you aren't scrambling when your guests, showered and ravenous, show up. Forget those food shows that have you sautéeing with one hand, whipping up gougères with the other, and bantering.
Countless web sites feature make-ahead menus; Kitch Kitchen posted, for example, an especially luscious meal by Food for Thought's Claire Thomas that is served entirely room-temperature, so you don't even have to heat it.
You can also do the Takeout Trick. Buy every other course: buy the appetizer, make the main course, buy the dessert, or vice versa. This is a more expensive option, though.
Thanks to cooking show one-upmanship, hosts set the bar too high.
Skip a seated first course and serve a communal platter of, for example, salami, cheese, nuts, roasted or raw vegetables, good olives, little shrimp dressed in lemon juice and a dash of tabasco (or red pepper flakes), dips, cherry tomatoes...anything people can eat with fingers or a toothpick as they sit in your livingroom. We call this course "enhanced appetizers". To serve, buy a stack of inexpensive small plates at a dollar store.
For this course, one friend buys rolled sushi, another grills a flank steak well ahead of time, slices it thin and serves iroom temperature, and a third heats those mini-spanakopitas or spring rolls from the grocery store.
If you prefer a first course at the table, serve a soup. The idea here is to relieve you from tightly-timed cooking.
Once at the table, a bowl of pasta, some decent bread, a green salad and a couple of pints of ice cream, and Bob's your uncle. As far as the house goes, if the bathroom guests use is clean and the cat's box is out of sight, you're set. Turn down the lights and use candles.
Bar-b-ques: red hot myth
Just because you're dining al fresco doesn't make it easy. Bar-b-qued main courses are prepared à la minute, often by a host who is distracted, slightly tipsy or both. You have to traipse in and out schlepping dishes and drinks.
Instead, make one-pot meals like a gumbo or your pick of the million varieties of lasagne and serve them outside if you wish. Use a washtub or planter as a giant ice bucket for wine, beer and water.
There's work you can avoid, like fussy last-minute recipes (Beef Wellington, never again) and work you can't, like the cleanup. After everyone leaves, turn up the music, pour another glass of wine or make yourself coffee and get on with it. We've never let guests help; it takes the charm off an evening.
Other than Deborah's date, who wouldn't touch anything but bread (I suspect a social disability) every guest has been at minimum a willing eater, though occasionally someone has skipped a dish.
We'll work with dietary requests but there's a difference between requirement and preference, right? If a person doesn't like braised meat, she can buck up for one evening.
I'm grateful when people will tell us ahead of time that they don't eat an ingredient I'd be likely to use (garlic, tomatoes, wheat flour). One prospective guest told us he only "ate right for his food type" and that time we said, Restaurant.
We have an Official Dinner #1 for every first-time carnivorous guest: roast chicken. There are summer/winter versions, maybe the soup changes, but having an Official Dinner makes planning easy.
My friend Marion served Chicken Marbella at every one of her parties for at least 15 years– and she was a restaurant critic!
When we have a carnivore/vegetarian table, we make sure that "platter first course" has lots of veg options served on separate platters. The main course is vegetarian, e.g., mushroom risotto.
Vegans are welcome and also welcome to bring their own main course to complement the appropriate salad and dessert we'll prepare. We have a limited repertoire when both dairy and eggs are off limits, so that's our compromise.
One way to screen for finick is to say, "Would you like to come over Friday night for Susie's Texas Red chili?"
If someone voices a concern, you can say, "We make two pots, veggie and beef", if you're flexible.
You should feel equally free to say "Another time, then" if they go on about "How spicy is it?", "Beans give me, uh, you know..." or "I only like my Mom's chili". In other words, you don't have to accommodate every issue under the sun, just the throat-closing, gut-wrenching kind.
Regarding religious dietary customs, we ask rather than make assumptions. Some guests don't observe them, others appreciate our accommodation.
There's no way around the fact that exponentially increasing the number of diners rolls up the grocery bill. Our friends Mrs. and Mrs. A. are staunch advocates of potlucks for this reason; they even make quilted casserole-carriers for gifts.
Le Duc loathes potlucks. He has assented when someone wants to bring a dessert, but he's an expert, control-freak cook who guards his domain. We've occasionally hosted and attended themed dinners to which everyone brings a course. Fun, but not much less work than doing it all.
If you tote up the cost of a few restaurant or take-out meals, forgo those, and then shop adroitly, you can entertain quite a few guests for the same cost. Look for specials and stock up. Make homemade soups from leftovers and freeze until your party. If someone at work gives you a big bag of zucchini from her garden, ratatouille's on the menu.
Lift the late James Barber's technique of stretching expensive ingredients by serving, say, a shrimp and vegetable couscous instead of shrimp brochettes. You can curry damn near anything and it's really good, same with pasta sauce.
A neighbour served a soup in a tureen made from a hollowed-out pumpkin. Made from turkey necks, marked-down vegetables and orzo, it cost pennies per serving but the presentation dazzled everyone.
|Ricky D. enjoyed it!|
I see the purpose of meeting friends in restaurants; we do that, too. But breaking bread together at home, with your music playing, your pacing, someone scratching the dog and no one presented with a bill?