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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.


            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!

                1. Thanks for your replies... I think I did get carried away by the thought of an impressive menu and fancy (for me) food. And ended up driving my poor husband crazy and myself a bit ragged, and lost sight of the fact that the evening was supposed to be FUN! I'll just have to practice more! And, thanks to Chowhound, I'll never run out of ideas. Now to get my cooking abilities to match my aspirations....

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Chao

                    I'll be the odd duck and say that I usually go half and half: half things that I've successfully made before and half new dishes that I'd like to try.

                    I often get requests for old favorites from friends, and they provide me with a secure base for the dinner which I then fill out with more adventurous fare. It keeps it interesting for both my guest and me as a host.

                    And personally, unless it's truly a formal dinner, what's the worst that can happen? If there's not enough food we can always order pizza.

                  2. Chao, The lesson I've learned is planning the menu so you can enjoy time with your guests and not be melting down in the kitchen. For example, this past weekend, I pre-made a Corn Chowder as a first coarse that only required heating to serve. I also pre-made a French salad with mesclun herbs. Prepared in advance were Coburg potato dumplings that only had to be boiled prior to serving. A reduced mushroom sauce for grilled veal steaks required simple microwaving to be ready. So the only actual "cooking" I did besides boiling the dumplings was grilling veal steaks which took about 4 minutes. What's really great about this approach is serving several courses without appearing to be really doing anything. It mystifies non-Chowhounds.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Leper

                      i don't know that chowhounds is the word you're looking for here, but it certainly amazes folks who aren't all that proficient in the kitchen.

                      when i entertain i usually make dishes i've never made before. that being said, i've been to culinary school and worked in fine-dining for many years. so being organized and realizing the value of mostly everything done ahead of time is a natural for me. i have a solid understanding of progression, both in menu planning and prep, and a very essential knowledge of how something *should* taste.

                      however, for budding cooks, that k*i*s*s* is the best advice. experiment on your family, learn the importance of things like mis en place and making lists and enjoy your party! don't stress!

                    2. I never would have considered doing a 'test run' of everything, but I just heard about a-friend-of-a-friend who does this EVERY TIME. It completely baffled me! Part of the fun is making something and savoring it with friends - if you've made it before, to me it would lose some of its newness. Plus you'd have twice as much food.

                      I experiment on my hubbie. Usually it works out pretty well (to his enjoyment) and when it doesn't, the local pizza place does a great job too. :)

                      1. To me, part of the fun of having a dinner party for friends is trying new things. Usually recipes that serve 6 or 8 that don't lend themselves too well to scaling down to 2 people (whole side filet of halibut, for example). While I don't want to jinx myself, I have to say I almost always make a menu of entirely new dishes when we have parties. I just make sure to read everything in advance and I make a detailed plan so that I can have some things done in advance to maximum my cocktail socializing time. With experience you will be able to amend recipes while cooking so that they turn out to be fabulous. Happy cooking!

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: gourmanda

                          "Usually recipes that serve 6 or 8 that don't lend themselves too well to scaling down to 2 people".

                          I agree. I like to try new recipes for holidays and dinner parties, but generally don't have the opportunity to try them out beforehand, due to time constraints, and also due to the fact that my husband is a moderately picky eater. He is not the always the best judge of whether a dish works or not. My (almost) 3 year old eats everything, but I'm not sure if she's the best critic either!

                          Having said that, I will spend a lot of time reading new recipes and if something sounds very complex, I won't attempt it when I'm having company, particularly on a holiday. I make a combination of some tried and true recipes plus mostly new ones, albeit relatively simple new ones. I also come up with a detailed plan on timing, including everything from when I'll go food shopping and what I will buy where to how much time each thing needs in the oven and at what temperature. I also do as much as possible in advance. All of this helps me, and in the end, the food is generally pretty good.

                          1. re: valerie

                            I usually just cut recipes for 6-8 in half to cook for the two of us and rarely have an untoward outcome (other than leftovers, which are good for lunch the next day).

                            1. re: MMRuth

                              Yes, and some recipes certainly lend themselves to that. I'm talking about menus for 6-8 or 10 that typically are more involved (lots of prep time, several dishes, etc) and therefore seem to be worth the time for a larger group, not always for just the 2 of us. (Not that I don't also slave away on occasion for my darling husband!)

                          2. re: gourmanda

                            Mine is not a scaling down issue but sometimes a dietary one. I usually save those 'OMG that looks sinful' recipes for potlucks and dinner parties. That way I can have a little bit and share the rest.

                          3. Chao, your objective, clear-headed self assessment of the food and the process by which you got there last Saturday night indicates you will be having few problems in the future. Do have fun.

                            1. A few easy tips are, make yourself a prep list of absolutely everything that has to be done to get yourself ready. If the list is making you short of breath before you even get started, cut out whatever causes panic.
                              If you want an involved menu, choose things that don't happen all at once, or take up space in the same place. Maybe some things can be served at room temp, and held in the fridge, something can be braising in the oven, and if you feel a little green, be sure to have no more than one item that takes a lot of attention once your guests arrive.
                              For a little zim zam zoom without the worry of one chance and one chance only of success, have a tasting party. Make a marinated grilled chicken that you love, a few salads that you love, two different stuffed soft tortillas (spinach and hominy or shrimp and scallop?) and three gazpachos recipes for tasting. Make three different drinks alcoholic or not and a flan or buttermilk cake with two different toppings (even as simple as fresh berries with cream or berries purred with orange zest and sugar.

                              1. I throw dinner parties all the time. My rules of thumb are to keep it simple while highlighting your best dishes. Think thematically so everything compliments one another and be inspired by seasonal ingredients to change it up and make things interesting. I never practice in advance but if I am having anxiety, I turn to cookbooks for inspiration. My favorite are Rocco DiSpirito's. He has easy recipes and complicated ones, but there is always something there to inspire me and keep me focused. The only times a dish doesn't turn out is if I follow someone else's recipe too closely instead of following my own instincts (in the case of someone saying to add salt to a seafood dish or something). Stay organized with your prep work and pay attention to doing multiple things at once.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: gottasay

                                  My advice to you, would be to go out and buy "Ina Garten's/barefoot contessa Parties" cookbook. If you don't want to buy it, take it out of your library. She has had many dinner parties over 30 years, and give lots of great ideas. She also shares her stories of her least happy experiences. It's a great read, and lots of great, easy recipes. One of the things about Ina Garten's recipes, is they may be easy, but she uses expensive ingredients. However, I love most everything I tried.

                                  And good luck with entertaining. When I was young and just starting, it was difficult for me also, as it is with most. Now, I have simple food, good company, and many laughs.

                                2. Bravo for trying something new. I think by trying new stuff, you learn. As long as it doesn't stress you out or keep you in the kitchen too long (and away from your guests), it all sounds good to me.

                                  1. i tend to try recipes that i've never tried before for dinner parties and bbq's. it's because i want to serve something different to my friends every time they come over rather than make something they've had before (unless they specifically request i make something again). i also like trying out new recipes and cooking techniques because it's fun, but i need some help in actually eating it all so it turns in to a dinner party. of course, many of my friends either don't cook and/or live off of pizza, subs and beer. so, they tend to be good test subjects.

                                    i have been burned before though. i thought it would be a good idea to try making coq au vin one sunday afternoon for our friends coming over to watch football. i used a tyler florence recipe and it was just awful. easily the worst thing i have ever made. we ended up ordering pizza.

                                    if i'm trying something very new, i tend to start the dinner out with a disclaimer like "i just want you guys to know that this is my first time making this dish/using this technique so if it's bad i apologize in advance." of course i would only do this if i'm cooking for close friends.

                                    1. I'm sure this sounds silly, but I feel like I am cheating if I cook something I have done before. Perhaps the trying of new things is part of what I enjoy so much about having people over --kind of my own mini Iron Chef. Even for Thanksgiving I will only, maybe, cook one thing the same way I have before. It is too boring!!

                                      The only thing I have tried to replicate more than once for guests is the homemade pizza that my husband and I make. We love it, but every time we cook it for someone else it tanks -- and I mean three out of three times. It is like a curse!

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: gridder

                                        I never thought about it as cheating, but you're right. For Passover, I always make my brisket which everyone loves, but then I like to keep them on their toes with lots of new dishes. I generally only repeat things at times when there are a different/new set of guests involved.

                                        And part of the fun of having guests over is going through cookbooks, websites, and of course Chowhound, to see what new and different stuff I can come up with to serve.

                                      2. I do make new dishes all the time but I stick within my capabilities. The only time I do a practice run is when I need to master a new task or work with a ingredient that I haven't used before or in a long time. I find that really studying a recipe beforehand and tasting and adjusting really helps a lot. The last thought I have on this subject is one I am not sure I can convey very well. In my experience, the more I cook, the more I learn and increase my ability to adapt to surprises ( I've had sauce reduction issues too). Practicing the recipe itself doesn't makes me successful, practicing at cooking as a whole is what makes me successful.