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Dinner Party Blandness: Advice Needed

  • c

My husband and I threw a small dinner party (for 6 people) this past Saturday night. As usual, I got a little carried away. I had originally planned to do a very simple roast chicken/asparagus risotto/salad/chocolate raspberry tart/cheese plate. All of which I have cooked successfully many times before (and am rather bored with). But then I, unfortunately, got fancy. I made several dishes I'd never tried before that night, including gazpacho, Moroccan Cornish game hens (recipe from Epicurious) and couscous. Everything turned out... okay. Nothing spectacular, most of it pretty bland. One of the sauces was a disaster because I got my timing wrong and it was still reducing when we sat down to eat. The only thing that worked was the dessert, which I've made roughly 5,000 times before.
So, my question is this: how many of you practice what you are going to prepare for a dinner party before the actual event?
I haven't thrown many dinner parties (I fell like I'm just now entering the "grown-up" stage of being able to cook for people, instead of inviting folks over for pizza and beer), and I'd like to learn the elements of timing, poise, and how to cook good food for good friends. Any advice gratefully accepted!

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  1. I rarely cook food I've not cooked before for a dinner party, unless it is for v. close friends (two couples come to mind). I tend to get overly ambitious in my menu planning, and on the day of often remove one or more items from the menu ( more often than not, dessert). I've (finally) come to realize that when I have a dinner party, in addition to wanting to feed people good food, I also want to enjoy the company myself, and keeping the menu simple, or at least limited to items that I've cooked before, allows me to do that (as well as pouring myself a glass of wine 1/2 hour ahead of guests arriving, regardless of how ready I am, or how annoyed with my husband I am given that he is still unshowered!). I now experiment mostly on my husband. But, there are also times when things just don't turn out for some random reason I can't identify. Case in point - cooked rack of lamb last week for the two of us for the umpteenth time, same recipe, and it came out overdone. Absolutely no idea why, and kept berating myself - though at least it was a $12 costco rack of lamb, and not something pricier.

    So, my advice is, stick with what you've cooked before, do figure out the timing with a "T-x" schedule, pour yourself a glass of wine, and enjoy.

    Edit - I wouldn't say that I "practice" per se, but just draw from things I've made before in designing the menu.

    7 Replies
    1. re: MMRuth

      Hah.....I just had a backyard party for 45 people and made 3 dishes I had never cooked before. Everything came out just fine....except that DH (who insists on doing the grilling) overcooked some of the pork and all of the salmon. The dishes I made, that I had not made before, were nothing too complex. First was a quinoa side dish that included corn and scallions. Since it was basically like an orzo dish I wasn't too concerned about it not being successful...just tasted it alot while making it. Second was a garlic lime pork tenderloin with an onion marmalade. Again, it was not a complex dish...just a marinade that I hadn't made before and a marmalade I could have omitted if it hadn't worked out. Third was a lime butter sauce for the salmon. Had the salmon not been overcooked it would have been beautiful.

      My point is (sorry it took so long to get here) that if you're doing simple dishes - variations of which you've done before - you can usually pull it off. Just taste it frequently while you're making it.

      Oh, and don't let your infrequent grill-jockey husband do the cooking! ;)

      1. re: HungryLetsEat

        So that was the reason for so much left over salmon. I had been wondering.

        1. re: HungryLetsEat

          I suppose practice cooking of the salmon is a lot like asking for directions.

          1. re: yayadave

            Yayadave - exactly. He doesn't cook very much....even grilling. I think he wanted to grill for the party for appearances' sake. So when I try to coach him on how long to cook it he gets all p.o.'ed at me. It's as if he thinks the ability to grill something correctly is inate in the male species. Men!

            1. re: HungryLetsEat

              Believe me, I've had the experience of not knowing what in the world I was doing over them coals. The frustration and embarrassment left scars. Maybe next time you could stage a practice run for things you're not sure of and have Mr. Grillmaster perform. A run through always helps.

              Come to think of it, this past Sunday I took a wrong turn in the wilds of West Virginia and went 40 miles out of my way.

        2. re: MMRuth

          MMRuth, I'd have to say I agree with your post most. Over the years, I've learned that I want to enjoy the company as well as make a killer meal. I do try new things, most memorably a mediocre bouillabaisse - but that was a last minute invitation to very close friends, when I was already experimenting in the kitchen. Unfortunately, I don't always have the time, energy, or expense account to practice recipes - so if I'm feeling inspired, I'll try one new dish - but I'll be sure to have a great app, filling salad, tried and true sides, and a tonne of booze! But now that I've gotten over the initial excitement of hosting dinner parties, really, I like to keep things simple so that we can all have a good meal and I'll enjoy the party too. It stresses people out when you're stressed out in the kitchen.
          One way I've found to get around this is I'll just casually invite good friends over for dinner during the week. We love to have people over. No pressure, just a coupla friends getting together. That's when I feel I can experiment a little...as expectations are already low!

          1. re: tochipotle

            Thanks! I should clarify that when I say that I often remove dessert - that doesn't mean I don't serve dessert, but that it might end up being bought ice cream and berries, rather than something I was planning on making myself.

        3. Been there, done that.

          I've learned the hard way that it's usually a good idea to do a "test-run" if I plan on serving a new dish to a group of people, whether it's a dinner party or just my monthly crochet night with the girls. If it turns out, that just means more for me... and if it doesn't, then I can quickly hide the evidence and find something else to serve. I might occasionally wing it if it's a casual dinner with one or two guests, but otherwise I don't like to risk it.

          That said, if it's a very interesting dish that uses expensive or hard to find ingredients, a test run isn't always possible. Which brings us to rule #2 for me: try to limit yourself to one new recipe per menu and stick to more familiar dishes for the rest. This way, you'll be secure knowing that at least the rest of your meal will work out even if this one new recipe is a flop.

          If all else fails... order in and pretend you made it yourself. :)

          1. I too have learned the hard way that it is best not to serve things to guests that you have not made at once before.

            http://meandmyfork.blogspot.com

            1. These days I never have a party with food that I haven't cooked before. Years ago, I would try new recipes out for a dinner party, but much like you, things never turned out like I thought they would. Lots of times, recipes need to be tweaked for your own taste and timing can be really off on a recipe. I love to share great food with company and would many times just get caried away planning and cooking. Now, I stick to recipes my husband and I love, and that I've cooked many times. With all the work it takes to have a successful and fun party, you need tried and true recipes. It's to much work cleaning, shopping, setting the table,etc. to try a new recipe on top of it. To be able to enjoy your friends and yourself, don't try something you've never made before. Your friends will remember how much fun they had, how relaxed and comfortable it was to be in your home as much as they remember the food you make. You'll enjoy having people over for dinner much more and do it more often if you make what you know and love!

              1. Chao, I've been in the situation several times and I came to realize the last minute razzle dazzle stressed me and my guests had no clue. So like others commenting here, I practice ahead, keep surprises for v.c.f. or when I "spring a new dish" on dh.

                As for perfecting timing, I also run thru a party menu several x's beforehand so I'm better at serving and creating a nice flow thru conversation & courses....but practice is really the best advice I have.

                btw-your menu is divine!