500 dinner parties: How we roll

The boys with a grand aioli
Friends and family came to dinner over the summer; among many memorable, lively evenings was a summer tradition, a grand aioli party.

A dinner table alive with laughter and talk is a pleasure we've enjoyed for 28 years.

I read many excuses reasons why people don't host dinners: "too much work" is top of the list. They cite food restrictions among guests; others are concerned about cost, imagining the month's food budget blown before dessert.

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.

Food restrictions

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. 

Too expensive

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!
"Having a few people for dinner" is never without effort, which is returned times over by the joy. Like winter camping, it's not everyone's idea of fun–you have to like, if not love, to cook–but the more you do it, the easier it gets. 

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?  

Even better.


Kristien62 said…
Your dinners sound delightful and your enthusiasm is infectious. I wish I had your confidence. My excuse has always been that I am a dreadful cook and so we host friends at restaurants, and only rarely.
What a joy to read something from someone who likes to cook and to host. I love it. I can never understand why so many people moan and stress. Perhaps it is a confidence thing. The more you do it you more you realise that it can be done but taking that first step seems to be such a big deal. Mind you I am astonished at how many people don't cook at home even for themselves and their families. Perhaps we need a campaign to bring food back home.
You have inspired me to host more dinners...thanks for all of you wisdom!
Une femme said…
Chicken Marbella is one of my favorite dishes, and always a winner! Over the weekend, we hosted 15 people for the Yom Kuppur "break fast" (as in literally breaking the sundown to sundown fast). Because I couldn't take time off work, and I had a few "keep koshers" coming, I ordered some poached salmon fillets from the deli, made a couple of quick veggie dishes, got challahs and desserts from the kosher bakery, and guests pot-lucked the rest (brisket and a couple other side dishes). I'm a fan of casual entertaining, and think people tend to sweat the details too much. As long as there's plenty of food, some wine, and people who relax and enjoy each other's company, it's usually a success.
Swissy said…
I just loved this post and thought it was written directly to me. I've almost despaired recently when prospective
guests announce not only allergies and dietary choices, but also preferences/dislikes. I don't recall this happening years ago. When did this become okay? I love to cook and eat almost everything, so it's especially trying. But you give me heart, so when my new porch/dining room is finished, I'll give entertaining another chance. (I don't include vegetarians in this complaint, since that's easy for me to arrange.)
Duchesse said…
Kristien62: You might stick your toe in by buying all good prepared foods. plating it out of sight and serving at home. The point is not to pass it off as your cooking but to acclimate yourself to home entertaining.

Elizabeth: I think some people moan and stress for the reason you cite, confidence, and others so they do not have to reciprocate.
I don't mind being taken to a restaurant or to another form of companionship (a friend recenlty took me to the musueum and then for hot chocolate) but if there is only ever accepting hospitality, that's not my idea of community.

Pam: Great, have fun!

Une femme: You last line says it beautifully and thanks for another example. Been awhile since we have has 15, it is usually another couple or up to 6-8.

Swissy: One of my eariest posts was abut this rise of people delivering long, involved instructions on what they want to eat. A friend told me that
one prospective guest stipulated only organic meat!

I often ask, with a smile, "Is there anything you will eat that will cause you to die?" This serves notice about the level of issue we will accommodate. If they go on about what they don't •like•, I ignore it. And the man who only "ate right for his type"- ate alone. We never saw him for a meal.
see you there! said…
You did a great job covering all the ins and outs of dinner parties. We too dislike pot lucks. I find a group of 6 easiest for both the food and the conversation. Of course there are times that call for larger gatherings. Both DH and I like to cook and enjoy sharing our table with others. Believe it or not I've never invited someone who responded with their wishes/needs. We have vegetarian friends, we know and they know we will keep their choice in mind when they are invited.

coffeeaddict said…
Your parties must be very warm and loud, filled with people talking and laughing and eating... Can I come :-)
Entertaining can be exhausting and expensive but I've learned through many of my mistakes where I can simplify whether it's downsizing the amount of cleaning or going with a tapas style party. Even expenses can be seriously curbed with some simple, delicious recipes that require little ingredients but have become party staples in our house i.e. chili, lasagna, quiche or tortillas
spacegeek33 said…
We also host dinners quite regularly. If we both are home and not working on a weekend, invariably we'll have a passel of guests. Practice makes it easier--I have the tried and true dishes we serve which means I don't have to think hard. I'll often do the entire thing from partially purchased items--hummus and pita and pre-cut veggies as appetizer, a quick cold gazpacho soup in the summer and a tri-tip on the grill. Salad and corn and everyone eats. I'll do ice cream or a pre-made purchased cake and no one complains. The main thing is to make the guests feel at home and have plenty of food and booze. Laughter and a humble attitude takes care of the rest.
Lorrie said…
This is a wonderful post. We love to have people in our home. I love cooking and people who appreciate good food.
Great advice on how to deal with the ever increasing number of picky eaters/allergies/ways of eating.
Northmoon said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Northmoon said…
I had the opposite of dietary restrictions happen to me once, and it was just as disconcerting.

I invited a friend for dinner, asked if there was anything she didn't eat, got a "no anythig at all will be fine" response. When she arrived and I put veal parmigiana in front of her, she told me she was vegetarian!! I could easily have made a vegitarian dish - she ruined the experience by not telling me.

LPC said…
I used to love to give dinner parties. Haven't done so in ages.

Yours sound wonderful, like everyone cheers when the invitation comes in:). Want to host all of us?!?!?!
Anonymous said…
A great post, Duchesse. I'm with you and le Duc on potlucks (except for very large group-picnic parties) and cleaning up (I don't enjoy cleaning when I'm out for the evening, so I don't expect it of my guests.) I'm also not a fan of those come-help-with-the-cooking parties. I once arrived hungry at a "Mexican Feast" to find no food prepared--guests were expected to hand-roll the tortillas! It was hours before we ate a bite.

I like to keep hors d'oeuvres to a minimum--a big bowl of pistachios or something else small & tasty with drinks--then get people to the table before they've lost interest in eating. There, a flavorful, slow-cooked, one-pot entree with good bread and wine, a salad that compliments the main dish, and the best dessert and coffee I can muster--all made ahead except the salad dressing--makes most people very happy. When vegetarians (like our daughters) will be dining with us, I serve a side dish substantial enough for their main course, like a vegetable tian or pasta.

I think that the secret to less stressful entertaining, as your experience illustrates, is simply to do it more often. A good meal shared with friends is one of life's great pleasures, after all.

A delicious post!
We used to have dinner parties on a regular basis and now our group of friends are having dietary issues, Celiac, gluten intolerance and lactose intolerance. I have sat down with cookbooks and tried to sort this out but I seems too challenging so we usually just have another couple and I can prepare for those dietary issues much easier.
Great thoughts that you have shared.
Duchesse said…
Darla: You are lucky; most people give me at least one or two things they cannot eat! But in my child-to-mid- adulthood, no one ever did that.

Lorrie: Appreciation goes a long, long way to making the next dinner happen!

Northmoon: I wonder •what• was going on there, for her not to tell you.

LPC: Anytime!

C.: Your table sounds delightful! I rarely serve hors d'oeuvres. I go directy to the "enhanced appetizer", telling people this is the first course, and hope people govern their appetites.

hostess: There are some good gluten-free cookbooks and sites out there, and it's easy to avid dairy, but it is a labour of love to depart from one's favourite recipes to suit other's requirements. Having just them over seems like a good idea. The lactose intolerant person might take Lactaid before the dinner.

Duchesse said…
Barbara C.: What a great idea! (All, Barbara said via e-mail that she brings dinner to friends' homes' as is not able to host these days.)

That reminded me of a friend who was widowed. She found entertaining at home overwhelmed her with memories so she would arrive with a "picic" which we and several others would eat at my place. Eventually she had people over again but this was her preferred way for a year or two.
Anonymous said…
Great points! I used to entertain quite a bit in New Zealand.Usually only sit down dinners with family, more casual buffet or BBQ things with friends as we wanted to cover as many people as possible. We haven't had anyone over yet to our small one bed flat in England, but I thinking about a 'strange liquors' cocktail party to try and use up those strange bottles that we get given or accumulate somehow.
Jean S said…
We entertain all the time, too. Yes, it's work, but it repays us a thousand-fold.

And I had forgotten Chicken Marbella--I think it might be on the table during the next neighbor dinner!

Sadly, I have become "that person"--I have issues with gluten and dairy. I can handle a little gluten, but dairy seems to be out, at least for now. So strange...and a reminder that I need to ask others if there are issues.
Duchesse said…
birdy: Maybe you could research some cocktails that use those odd liquors."Come over and help us polish off the Hawthorn Cream" is somehow not an invitation I'd pray to get :)

Jean S. I too feel a Chicken Marbella dinner coming on.

One of our party dish standbys is another Silver Palate recipe, Chicken with Figs (but I have always omitted the pecans):

Very simple, can do prep ahead and no dairy or gluten in it!
Madame Là-bas said…
I love to try out new recipes and to host dinners. I always ask about dietary issues. Unfortunately, my husband does not enjoy entertaining so I invite my friends to dine.
Martina said…
I have my sisters over often, we celebrate birthdays without the husbands! I love having my friends too, it's so much fun to plan and cook (but I like to cook so it's not stressful).
Anonymous said…
Not a comment , just info . There is an exhibition at the V & A museum in London on your favorite subject - pearls . The Guardian has info & some great pictures ( the grain of sand myth is mentioned )
Duchesse said…
Mme.: I take your comment to mean, girls' night in. The best table is one of willing participants.

Martina: Sounds like a delightful celebration. If one likes to cook, (and has the time) and the cook can venture into more complicated dishes.

Wendy: Thank you! I saw a similar exhibiton sponsored by NCY's Museum of Natural History and thought it was the same, but notice this one is in collaboration with the govt of Qtar. Any pearl exhibiton enthralls me.
materfamilias said…
I love this post! We've been making some resolutions and a bit more entertainment is on the list. . .
DocP said…
I try to do Sunday Dinner for friends once a month. I have resigned myself to two main courses to accommodate dietary/religious needs. Do you have a solution for the failure to RSVP? I usually spend the preceding Wednesday chasing people down so I can shop appropriately.
Duchesse said…
Doc P: If you haven't heard, contact them via the medium you use (phone, e-mail etc.) and say, "It's Thursday, 10 am., and I haven't heard if you're coming. Please confirm by the end of the day, I have to do my shopping.

When they reply, thank them, and also thank them quietly, when you see them on Sunday. This is called "reinforcment" of the desired behavour :)

If the not-RSVPing behaviour persists, I say, Anyone who can't be bothered to RSVP, I can't be bothered to cook for.

Duchesse said…
materfamilias: Some of the meals you've shown I have absolutely salivated over. You both seem dab hands at this.
Tiffany said…
We host dinners (and lunches and bigger parties) all the time, but notice that it is rarely reciprocated. I get quite annoyed by people who say 'oh, we can't have you over, you're such a good cook'. I don't CARE what their cooking is like, I'd happily go to someone's house and eat macaroni cheese or takeaway ... Next time I get one of those excuses, I think I'll send them a link to this post!

One friend who always reciprocates is a vegetarian (has been since childhood), but I quite enjoy the challenge of cooking a fancy vegetarian meal from time to time. I'm afraid I have no tolerance for food faddists - a genuine allergy I will respect, but I cannot be bothered with anything else :)
Duchesse said…
Tiffany: You might be better served by linking ot THIS post, which about reciprocity:


I have a friend who's a chef; people always say "Oh I'd have you over but I'm so nervous about cooking for you. Bob replies, "Listen, I eat at Burger King! Invite me, I'd love to come."
Mardel said…
I love dinner parties and used to host them all the time, and the truth is I missed them while my husband was ill. It doesn't have to be a big deal and you are right, the more you do it the easier it becomes.

I'll admit though that I was a tad nervous just before the guests arrived at my first solo dinner party, this past summer. Shouldn't have worried....
MJ said…
I am going to try to take your message to heart. Thank you for the inspiration and suggestions.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: Illness in a family changes every single routine. I am glad you plan to get back to them as I can tell you are an avid cook.

MJ: The main thing is to have fun; I think there are even more ways to host without work but- that's called "caterer".
Susan said…
What a wonderful post Duchesse!

We enjoy hosting dinner parties at our farm, where a casual but hearty meal seems just right. I often make homemade bread (from the NY Times no knead recipe) and a wonderful one dish meal accompanied by a big green salad. Dessert can be anything from homemade cookies, eaten on the screened porch, to Texas chocolate sheetcake.

You are so right that preparing ahead of time makes it all quite easy.

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