My husband and I will soon be "required" to entertain his colleagues at home. Now, while I am not new to cooking, I am new to entertaining at a more formal level.
When creating menus, how do you decide what dishes go together? Do you mix cuisines or stay with one unified theme? Any other tips?
And stick to fairly mainstream tastes until you've entertained said colleagues several times...tastes vary widely, and you don't want to serve strongly bitter, spicy-hot, or overwhelming flavors or organ meats until you know that they'll be appreciated. Your dinner conversation can explore their favorite restaurants and/or foods, and then you'll have a better idea of what will be a hit.
I am always tempted to try out new dishes for dinner parties. Nearly always a bad idea. Stick with one of your classics and dress it up a bit. Easier foods will give you more time to get used to the other aspects of hosting. Cheese plates and fruit deserts are always good. Do as much as you can ahead of time. You are the hostess not the chef.
This hard-learned lesson is one that many hosts and hostesses wish they'd thought of earlier. I have always asked about food preferences, since those early disaters, and keep a file of who likes - and dislikes - what. Serious food allergies are especially problematic. Those pesky medics responding to anaphylactic shock certainly interrupt the flow of a dinner party!
When looking at your mythical plate, think of complimentary flavors, textures and colors. Have a crunchy to compliment a smooth, for example. I like something brightly colored, usually green, for interest. Must have been scarred by the famous all-white dinner in the wilds of the UK many years ago - boiled fowl w/ white sauce, mashed turnips and some cauliflower did not make for visual delight. Also, one of the choices on your plate ought to be "a place for your palate to rest", polenta, rice or mashed potatoes fit the bill. Choosing a cuisine for a specific geographic region makes it easier to construct a menu because you already know that these foods work well together. Of course, a wise hostess will have few items required diddly last-minute attention. If you have to carve a roast, make gravy, portion vegetables, pipe the topping, slice the bread and brown the top of a gratin simultaneously your guests will feel your frazzle. Something that waits well - either in the oven or refrigerator or counter - is a boon.
Until you're more comfortable with entertaining, make food that you and your husband enjoy. At least one of you will have a nice meal (for years, I couldn't taste what was on my plate).
My husband and I entertain about twice a month for either family, friends or coworkers. I tend to stick to a single region when cooking and create "themed" events (Italian will have one very simple lasagna, several more adventurous pizzas, a green salad, garlic bread, some Italian cheeses - like tallegio - with soft bread, for dessert I'll serve coffee and a few pastries from the Italian bakery, Italian music - Puccini or Dean Martin - depends on the guests).
Don't make overly complicated food. Do as much as you can ahead of time. It's more important that you mingle with your guests than spend your time slaving over the stove.
Write out your menu ahead of time and base your shopping list on it. Its easy to forget something if its not written down. Build up your pantry.
Stick to what you do well (it builds confidence) and get help with what you don't. If you're serving something from an outside source, don't assume its good, taste it ahead of time!
The food file is a great idea but don't expect your husband to ask the question and relay the information. Where possible, talk directly to the person who cooks at home (cooks tend to more on the ball when remembering food allergies or dislikes). You can test the waters on certain allergies by sending food to work with your husband (to find out if anyone has any nut allergies, I'll send in some hazelnut chocolate chip cookies or brownies with walnuts - if someone avoids them, I note that down).
Test recipes ahead of time and not just on yourself! I have a small group of people that function as my guinea pigs for tweaking recipes. If you don't have time to test the recipes, stick with something you know.
Buy a small wine fridge and keep it stocked with a selection of reds and white (I would go with 2/3 red, 1/3 white and one bottle of port). Also keep a nicely stocked bar (doesn't have to be fully stocked but make sure that what you have is a quality product). Have a glass of water at the table for everyone (in case they don't like the wine) and keep some juice (usually orange) in the fridge in case you get a teetotaler.
Run any appliances that make a lot of noise before the guests arrive (coffee grinder, mixer, food processor). The coffee grinder is the one that usually gets forgotten.
Get into the habit of cleaning your house on Thursday so if your darling husband surprises you with guests on the weekend, it's not too much of a clean up. Make sure all lights are in working order, the bathroom has full roll of toilet paper, the front garden looks tidy, etc. Decide which rooms are "public rooms" and which are "private rooms", keep the public rooms tidy at all time (requires a bit of training for all family members but it makes getting ready much less stressful). Keep the doors to the private rooms closed. If your bathroom door is confusing in a maze of hallway doors, hang a little sign on it to make it easier to find (and so your guests don't stumble into your bedroom).
Find out as much as possible about your guests ahead of time so you know what to study up on before they arrive. If you ask intelligent questions, you'll come off as charming and a good conversationalist.
An easy menu is to serve a raclette or a fondue. It does require a bit of investment to buy all the paraphanlia but it reaps rewards for easy entertaining. All the work is in the set up and guests cook the meal themselves so they can pick and choose what they want to eat.
Break out all your crystal, silver and china a week ahead of time (if you're given the time) to make sure its in tip-top shape. Keep a stack of doilies on hand for serving on silver trays. Check your linens. Where possible, set the table the night before. A tip for your silver - if you wrap it in plastic wrap after you polish it, it won't oxidize as fast.
If you're having more than 6 or 8 people over for dinner, consider presenting the food as a buffet. Guests can pick what they want and you don't have to worry about the food getting cold while you plate it.
Go to the library and check out some old-fashioned entertaining books. I wouldn't follow the recipes and some of the "housewife" tips are a bit amusing but they usually have some good advice.
Practice, practice, practice. Invite some friends over and practice your time line, your hostessing skills and your recipes. After dinner, ask the guests for their honest appraisal of your hosting, the cleanliness of your house and your food. You can't get better unless you know what's wrong.
Best of luck to you!
We entertain fairly often & find that its best to create a story for the evening. The last dinner party we threw was in mid September... so I went with a Mexican independence theme... then went about on creating a coherent menu that involved foods traditional to the festivity as well as Mexican harvest foods. As such we ended up, serving:
> Silver Patron Tequila with Preserved Limes
> Shredded Chicken in Red Mole Sauce & paper thin onion slices served on a Queso Fresco rectangle over a slice of Corn Tamale all over a banana leaf with a dusting of Cilantro & Mint. (Think very small plate) + Korbel Chardonnay Sparkling Wine
> Squash Blossom Cream Soup with a dollop of Crema Fresca, Chopped Epazote & Fried Chile Negro strips + La Crema Chardonnay
> Chile en Nogada (Poblanos stuffed with braised meat, olives, cranberries & nuts, served over walnut sauce with a smattering of pomegranate arils) + Chateu St. Jean Riesling
> Mango Mousse + Tres Generaciones Anejo Tequila
All the courses worked because, I started with a theme. And this theme can be fusin cuisine if you desire... just make sure that you tie all the dishes among various dimensions:
> Progression in Textures & Colors
> Use some ingredients across various courses
> Think about flavor build up & palette cleansing
> What should your libation progression be like?
My most important advise is to create a timeline first of all and stick to it.
Themes: Regional food and specialty items, be creative and work your wine list. Non-alcholic beverages should be something other than soda.
Sometimes its fun to have retro food with retro cocktails
Plan the music well and the decor/lighting
And as they said, do what you can ahead of time. I always hire a couple of teenagers to help serve if its a big party. Actually one holiday I hired several highschool choir members who were all dressed up and sang a few carrols during cocktails.
I never experiment with new recipes when entertaining. I have always found that to be a disaster waiting to happen. Try them out ahead of time once or twice until your cofortable with the outcome and ease of preparation before serving at a dinner party.
I usually stick to the basic recipes- roasted chicken-pork-beef and do more exotic sides/veggies/ or desserts. People on the whole prefer basic tastes- not everyone enjoys french cuisine or pate so my theory is the simpler the better for everyone including the cook!
Another thing is to be prepared to tell people what to bring. Many guests will ask what they can bring. If you've already got the menu all planned out, I usually just say they should bring a bottle of wine or something to drink. You don't have to serve what they've brought, and if it's plonk, you can always dump it down the drain after they've left.
But, if you say nothing, you will still receive stuff and some of it you won't want (do I serve the dessert that I carefully prepared to go with this meal, or this concoction purchased at a bakery?). Of course, no matter what you receive, you give the gracious smile with the exclamation, 'how thoughtful!' or what-have-you.
I always try to give the, "I've already got the menu all planned, but a bottle of wine would be lovely" line.
Keep it simple - Keep it scrumptious - Keep it Semi-Homemade. JUST KIDDING, couldn't resist from my last post.
Great advice on all the other posts - simple menu; don't try new recipes; prepare as much ahead as possible; and get someone to help, makes a world of difference. And most importantly, HAVE FUN !