HOME > Chowhound > Home Cooking >


Practicing my hostess skills

  • j

I'm recently married. Living in a small one-bedroom NYC apartment, my husband and I have done almost no entertaining. I'd love to start having people over for dinner but definitely need to practice my cooking, timing, etc. I'm going to invite one couple over -- they are VERY close friends so I can't be too nervous. Now, what to serve? I'm not a huge cook, although I enjoy cooking when I do, so don't want to try anything too complicated, and I'd love to do as much as possible ahead of time.

Here's what I have: Cuisinart Griddler (can be used as grill), food processor, KA mixer, stick blender, pizza stone, plus all the basics.

Here's what I'm thinking for the menu:

Butternut squash soup
Roasted chicken? (have never made one) or some sort of grilled fish -- salmon?
Side fall vegetable dish?
Roasted new potatoes w/rosemary & olive oil
Salad/cheese plate

What do you think? Any tips? Thanks so much!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Never make a dish to serve for guests that you have never done for yourself. Now learning a good roast chicken is a skill that you will be very glad you put time into. I extol Anthony Bourdine's, others like different recipes. a good Roast Chicken is simply perfect.

    The butternut soup is great, easy do ahead.
    Think in terms of cooking groups. If you are going to roast a chicken, then roasted potatoes fall in fine... are in oven...think baked apples or baked onions as well.
    Be kind to yourself, as a 1st time hostess. As many things you can do ahead, and at one time (roasting) go for it. But juggling a grill, a roast, a pilaf a salad....Oh My!

    Since you are starting small and with close forgiving friends...do simple, let the food speak dishes, with maybe one "headliner"

    And it is OK , since this is close friends, if they ask..can we bring anything...say YES! dessert.

    1. Jenn: The menu sounds lovely. The soup you can definitely do ahead and reheat. Cheese platter can be assembled and sitting at room temp. Something green on the dinner plate would be good -- green beans, petit pois and pearl onions, a wedge of spinach pie.

      Are you thinking of a whole roasted chicken for the wow factor, carving at the table? If so, since you've never made one, do at least one trial run. Shredded chicken off the bone freezes well, so even if you over- or undercook it, pack it up for later soups or stir-fries and practice on another one. Make broth out of the bones before you toss the carcass (concentrate it if you don't have the freezer space).

      However, if you're going to plate in the kitchen, consider roasting pieces. Brown thighs, legs and/or breasts stovetop, then put in a 350 oven for 45-60 minutes. You may want to do a test drive on this method as well for timing.

      You're very smart to invite a close couple for the first dinner. Everyone wants to help, so let them! There's ice in the freezer, would you please do the water glasses. Could you please open that bottle of wine. Hey, would you please grab those plates and help me with dessert.

      Also, I keep a list taped to an eye-level cupboard door of my menu, what needs to be done in advance (make extra ice cubes two days ahead) and the count-down for the day of.

      1. Great menu, I'm with the others, keep it simple, and do a trial run of new dishes...even seasoned home cooks do trial runs (some are hits - like tonight's tuducken, and some are misses)

        Otherwise, invest in a copy of Joy of Cooking if you don't already have one. There is a plethora of information on menu planning and entertaining in the front, to go with the amazing depth of recipes and how-to's in the rest of the book.

        1. the menu sounds great though I would make sure you are comfortable carving the chicken. I imagine that you will be doing this in front of your guests, so it is good to feel at ease. Other easy dinner ideas would be a great bolognese sauce, spaghetti carbonara. Coq au Vin is actually a fairly easy dish too and once it is cooking you can forget about it.
          Good luck and have fun!

          1. it's easier to do a good chicken than a good fish (fish dries too easily, chicken is more forgiving). use a good, heavy and sharp knife for the carving and let it find its way into the joint. I'm serious, start where it looks like it should and with little effort and just a little wiggle it will find the right place (ok maybe not exact and it won't be fast) but better than trying to do it in one fell swoop.

            and the leftovers (if any) make great sandwich/casserole fodder and the bones an excellent stock base. if you can, drain the schmaltz into a jar for soup, noodles, etc. in the fridge. keeps forever.

            1. I love doing braises when I'm entertaining. All the prep work can be done in the morning, and it gives me plenty of time to clean up and relax. Plus, you actually get to spend time with your guests instead of being hidden away in the kitchen.

              This is my current favorite : http://www.ranchogordo.com/html/rg_co...

              It's quite possibly the best thing I've made in the last few months. When the braise has about an hour left, I put halved acorn squashes with a chipotle-honey glaze (read: dump honey, butter and chipotle powder into cleaned out center, baste twice while it's cooking) in a casserole dish, and cook them right alongside. If I want more veggies, I make a caeser salad with avocado.

              If you wanted to a slightly more formal dinner with courses, I'd suggest a fruit and cheese platter for appetizers....I'd probably add a bit of a spanish/latin twist, like jamon iberica wrapped figs, machego cheese, membrillo (quince paste) etc. Serve with an inexpensive Spanish cava.

              Then the caesar with avocado. Then plate the acorn squash, meat, and beans, served with a zin or syrah, or whatever you used in the braise!

              Finish it off with a desert of your choice!

              Everything can be prepped well in advance, and the only thing you'd need to do while your guests are there is dress the salad and plate the main course.

              1. Good luck...you are on the right road.

                For that perfect roast chicken, I would highly reccomend the recipe from Anne Hodgman's wonderful 'Beat This!' Cookbook. It is simple to the point of idiot-proof and it looks and tastes fabulous. I don't have it in front of me, can't find it online but if you can't find it (you live in NYC, you can find anything!) , I will write it out for you tomorrow. I promise you, you don't even have to practice this one in advance.

                Listen to the rest of the advice: keep it simple!

                However, though I hear you about that salad/ cheese plate idea (as opposed to a more classic dessert), I might re-think that...it is the easiest part of a meal to buy to augment without guilt: a few excellent pastries added to the table is a good way to signal to your guests that you really thought it through-go out with a bang, not a whimper!

                2 Replies
                1. re: LJS

                  That Hodgman cookbook is great - excellent recipes and very amusing commentary - reminiscent of Peg Bracken. Another one for the great, lesser-known cookbook list. Beat That and One Bite Won't Kill You (about feeding children) are also a lot of fun.

                  1. re: buttertart

                    I have all the Hodgman books, including the One Bite Won't Kill You which I purchased about 3 years ago on the chance that I may someday have grandchildren (only daughter married in July, got a dog in September, bought a house last week with 4 !FOUR!) bedrooms) so I think that is a safe bet. Love Peg Bracken, too!

                2. I think your menu sounds very doable and delicious. I agree with those who say that a dinner party is not the time to try out a new recipe. Chicken is indeed more forgiving than salmon. My favorite recipe is the Zuni one (you'll find tons of threads about it on this board). And may I suggest to try roasting your potatoes in duck fat instead of olive oil? It's really decadent and makes roasted potatoes extra special.

                  1. I think a roasted whole chicken is great to serve. Why not make one in advance first though? They are pretty forgiving, but you want to make sure you cook it thoughly without overcooking it. I find a 4-5 lb. bird takes about an hour in a 400 degree oven, but dont' go by time. Go by temp, using a thermometer. Rosemary roasted potatoes would be awesome with a roast chicken and easy to do at the same time.

                    Also a whole chicken gives you time to hang with your guests while it's cooking requiring little attention.

                    Also, let it rest a good 10 minutes before slicing.

                    Your soup could be made a day ahead and reheated...easy! Thin sour cream with a bit of water and drizzle a design on top. Place drops on soup, then run a knife tip through to make heart or leaf shapes. Impressive and very easy. You could fry sage leaves in butter until crispy a day head to garnish the soup.

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: scuzzo

                      Sorry to disagree with almost everyone above but I say it's your first time and they are very good friends. Just do it!! I mean how bad can it get, and besides, who cares, that's what good friends are for.

                      The Barefoot Contessa has a fail proof recipe for roast chicken, with lemon and herbs, fantastic!! We've made it many times with excellent results - definitely no need to rehearse this one.

                      Your menu sounds wonderful. I think if you do the vegetable and the potatoes there is no need for the salad. I love the idea of a cheese plate, and perhaps you could add some fig spread or something to enjoy along with the cheese but that's a no brainer.

                      Go for it and have a great time. Besides if worse comes to worst that's why they invented take out pizza. Enjoy and please write back to tell us how it went.

                      1. re: millygirl

                        I always try out one new dish each time I entertain. Although I do tend to make more dishes than needed "just in case". It's fun to try new things and fun to impress close friends and definitely fun to laugh with close friends if something new turns out to be a disaster!

                        1. re: millygirl

                          I'm with you millygirl. Good friends love to be invited and the food is secondary. I am always trying out new recipes, otherwise, I would waste a lot of food since I live alone.

                          Roast chicken is actually easy and you already have a lot of good suggestions. You could serve the chicken on a platter to the table and surround with your roasted potatoes. You could also roast root veggies and put them around the chicken. This makes life easy - it is basically a one plate meal.

                          I agree, make the soup ahead and reheat.

                          Cheese tray at room temp. It looks like the cheese plate will be served at the end of the meal. I would also add some fresh fruit for lightness and flavour. Pears and apples are in season. Grapes would be nice. I would slice apples or pears and treat in a bath with lemon juice to prevent browning. Serve grapes in clusters.

                          We all started somewhere. I remember a meal when I first graduated from university. My friend's father was a minister and I served this terribly presented meal of ham steak and veggies. He looked at it, and calmly said, "it has been a long time since I have had a meal like this." I was flattered but years later, I realized what he was really saying. But he ate and enjoyed and never once made me feel like I had no idea how to cook!

                          1. re: millygirl

                            millygirl, "if worse comes to worst" -- i thought that is why they invented WINE!


                            1. re: alkapal

                              "Well, the bird caught on fire, but the soup and wine were lovely!"

                              Actually, I think that very phrase came out of my mouth once.

                            2. re: millygirl

                              I'm with you. I make things for friends all of the time that I've never made before. For me, it's part of the fun. I also agree with the person who suggested Jenn buy the dessert. I do that all the time too as I'm not a very good baker or dessert maker. Then I can focus on the other aspects of the meal.

                          2. For a Rookie, I'd recommend that you simplify your menu. Perhaps roast the Chicken, Veg and Potato together. That's one pot to watch instead of three! It's hard to screw up, can be homey or upscale depending on ingredient choices and presentation is always impressive. No one said you have to make everything, so if time is short or stress level is high, purchase the pastries or breads rather than make them.

                            The three most important things to remember when entertaining at home are (1) garnish hides all flaws (e.g. red or green leaf lettuce hides a chip in the serving platter, fresh herbs make everything look better), (2) have plenty of finger food or snacks on hand in case of a delay or disaster and (3) if a disaster occurs, pour yourself a glass of wine, laugh it off and call for take out!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: oldbaycupcake

                              I also disagree with most of the posters about trying everything out ahead of time. For me, a lot of the fun of entertaining is being creative and trying out new foods or recipe attempts. In my experience quests will tell you its good, regardless of how it tastes to me. I also agree that roasting a chicken is easy and its a great easy menu. In my experience, the two things that can go wrong is..you can smoke up your kitchen and house, and the chicken can be underdone. Recently I made underdone chicken. When I cut it up, it was too pink. A guest said, "just microwave it for a few minutes". I did that with the platter of cut pieces and it looked more appetizing.

                            2. Thanks so much for the thoughtful and helpful replies!

                              I'm a little nervous about the chicken. I know this isn't a very chowhoundy thing to say, but I tend to get a little grossed out by raw poultry, and also have my own issues about eating meat that is attached to a bone. That said, I still think roasting a chicken is an essential skill and I need to start sometime! I had the Zuni chicken at the restaurant in SF and it was amazing, but I'm wondering if the Barefoot Contessa recipe is easier? Is the Zuni worth making without the bread salad? Or should I revert to my original thought about salmon and skip the chicken entirely? I'll definitely practice the main course ahead of time and will probably ask my husband to do the carving. To answer someone's question, I'm thinking I'll serve this family-style instead of plating in the kitchen.

                              Sides...I am all set with the potatoes -- in fact I made them last night and they came out great. Would roasted veggie sides be too much...roasting? I'm wondering if there's some veggie dish I can do to lighten things up a little? Definitely need something green. Recipes welcome!

                              I'm a huge fan of European-style salad and cheese plates after the main course, and was thinking about serving the cheese with some nuts, figs, preserves, etc, but I don't know if that's too much and people will be too full to enjoy it. Maybe I'll do the cheese thing as appetizers instead and do a more traditional dessert. I'm actually a decent baker and make a great cinnamon apple crisp, but I'd like to do something a little fancier. Any great apple dessert ideas?

                              These are definitely the type of friends that I can put to work and they'll also give honest opinions. This is getting really exciting already!

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: JennS

                                I haven't done the Barefoot Contessa one. But all of her recipes have turned out very well for me. The Zuni one isn't hard at all. But there is a lot of flipping of the bird during cooking, which may take time away from your guests. And you definitely don't need the bread salad with the Zuni. I generally serve it with roasted potatoes or mashed potatoes. And I think the family style presentation of the chicken would be quite impressive!

                                Roasted veggies? I would love something like roasted brussel sprouts and bacon. But I can understand wanting to have something a bit lighter and fresher in your menu. I think a saute of blanched green beans and grape tomatoes in butter, salt and pepper and thyme would work well in your meal. Or perhaps some sauteed spinach with a bit of garlic.

                                And I don't think the salad and cheese course is too much. Just wanted to mention that I've noticed that some people aren't familiar with the whole European salad course served at the end, and would probably be wondering why you didn't serve salad with the meal.

                                Apple crisp sounds great. You may want to jazz it up by serving some ice cream with it. Or pair the apple crisp with cheese for something a bit different.

                                Good luck with your dinner!

                                1. re: Miss Needle

                                  Thanks for the veggie suggestions -- I like both the blanched green beans/tomatoes and the sauteed spinach. Leaning toward the spinach with garlic.

                                  I'm still debating when to do the cheese and the more I think about it, the more I'm leaning toward the cheese course at the end of the meal, with some fruit to lighten things up. One of our guests is British so they'll totally get it. If I serve the cheese at the end of the meal, do you have any suggestions for good, easy and not too filling to serve with pre-dinner cocktails/wine?

                                  The dinner is still almost 2 weeks away but I will definitely report back!

                                2. re: JennS

                                  Definitely do the cheese part as appetizer: there's your 'grace time' if you need it without adding a component. And if you already do a great apple crispt, just jazz it up by using pears instead and add a nice slab of Maytag Blue Cheese when you serve.

                                  1. re: JennS

                                    Your menu sounds delicious. The one other thing I would suggest is to build in what I always think of an an escape hatch -- something you can skip or simplify if things get away from you. For example, if you were planning the blanched green beans/tomatoes you could skip the tomatoes and serve plain beans. And do as much ahead as humanly possible.

                                    For a simple thing to go with cocktails, how about some sort of spiced nuts, or toasted baguette slices with black olive tapenade or eggplant caponata, any of which you can buy instead of making yourself. But don't let them fill up too much you have so much gorgeous food coming.

                                    1. re: JennS

                                      Hmmm...as a blossoming hostess myself, I think I'm going to go against the grain and vote for nixing the roasted chicken. The cold months are coming, and you'll have all winter to perfect the chicken then.

                                      It took me a while to master "doneness" with a roast chicken, and even with serving just my family, it was awkward to keep pulling the bird out, taking its temp, putting it back in for 2 min, etc, and then all the juices leak out and it's dry...(eventually you learn your oven's tendencies and can eyeball or feel when the bird's done).

                                      For what it's worth...my .02 would be to go with baked salmon with lemon and dill - either single servings en papillote, or one large filet baked/steamed in a covered dish.


                                      It's really easy, and maybe you can put that extra leftover effort into baking - a tarte tatin has 10x the wow factor of an apple crisp


                                      I defer to the pros on this board though - have already learned a ton from them in the last year!

                                    2. This is an excellent general menu for a low-stress dinner party. Soups can be done ahead of time, so they're much less stress than, say, pasta or risotto. Roasted or stewed meats are good for the meat, because they don't involve a lot of attention on your part. Boeuf bourguignon, blanquettes, things like that ... or roast pork, roast veal. A whole chicken is easier to screw up than roast veal, but once you get the hang of it, it's easy, so it's well worth learning. And close friends are great for that sort of thing.

                                      I'd have some fruit around at the end, in case someone wants something sweet. Much easier than a dessert. Your chicken will probably be just fine (especially if you get an accurate oven thermometer and a timer so you remember when to run back into the kitchen). But in case you have a problem, it never hurts to have some Italian sausages in the fridge as a nice 15-minute insurance against the worst case scenario.

                                      1. Wiggle the thigh of the chicken. If it moves freely, it's done. I never use a thermometer. Also, it is next to impossible to overcook a chicken if you keep an eye out. You could turn the oven down and let it sit if it is done early. I eat chicken all year long and love it. How about a chicken cacciatore then? Or a coq au vin? Or a beef bourgignon? I make these the day before and reheat. They taste better the second day anyway. Then it really is stress free.

                                        1. With menu planning, why not ask your friends what they like? The best tip is to try to make things as easy as possible so that you can enjoy your friends. Some other tips: Roasted chicken is made moist by inserting a halved lemon in the cavity (or you can buy skinned parts if you've never carved a chicken before). A super-easy crowd-pleaser is to spread pesto over salmon, then bake at 350 until the white fatty bits drip out (make the pesto the day before). A sprinkle of chives and a dollop of creme fraiche will add beauty and flavor to your soup. Try adding other root vegetables - carrots, beats, turnips, fennel, onions - to your roasting pan for variety (roasted mushrooms are great too). An easy green to serve is arugula, because you can basically use it as an edible garnish (place meat or fish on top to allow heat to wilt and juices to flavor). Pair a selection of blue cheeses (Stilton, Blue Castello, Gorgonzola dolce, and even a Valdeon) with a sweet dessert wine for after dinner nibbling. And buy fresh flowers for decoration. Good luck!

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: sondrac

                                            the other root vegetables sondrac mentions (esp. onion, fennel, carrot) also go very nicely into the bird's cavity for flavor and aromatic effect - should you take the chicken option.

                                            and I 2nd the idea of making pesto or aioli or whatever when using significant garlic at least a day before.

                                          2. We had our friends over last night. The meal was a success and we had a lovely evening.

                                            I ended up serving the cheese plate while we had cocktails/wine. Humboldt Fog, Manchego, and a NY cheddar served with whole wheat crackers, water crackers, almonds, dried apricots, and grapes. The Humboldt Fog was the clear favorite -- that cheese is pricey but amazing.

                                            Dinner started with Golden Winter Soup from Cooking Light. Thanks to everyone who replied to my "how do I thicken my soup" thread. I used a mix of cornstarch and water and it turned out fine -- I think I was being a little paranoid about it being too thin when it really wasn't, but next time I will use more veggies and/or less chicken broth. I also added some spices and did not serve the bread/cheese included in the recipe, since we had just eaten a ton of cheese and we had bread (from Balthazar bakery) with dinner.

                                            Main course: Wild Alaskan King salmon with a mustard/herb sauce. I broiled the salmon and it came out great but I would have liked more of a "crust" on top. I also made Brussels Sprout Hash with Carmelized Shallots (from Bon Appetit -- recipe is on epicurious.com) and the roasted new potatoes with rosemary and olive oil.

                                            Dessert was chocolate pound cake served with Haagen Dazs wild berry frozen yogurt. The cake was store bought but next time I will definitely make my own dessert.

                                            Thanks so much for all the helpful advice and tips. I'm ready to start planning my next dinner party!

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: JennS

                                              jenn, congratulations. it all sounds delicious!

                                                1. re: JennS

                                                  Wonderful news! Congratulations Jenn! :)

                                                2. So pleased you got back to us and with such an excellent report! I will be looking out for Humbolt Fog Cheese...it is new to me, but what a great name.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: LJS

                                                    Humboldt Fog is AWESOME cheese. Cowgirl Creamery has it , I believe, online, if you cannot find it at your local grocer or cheeseshop.

                                                  2. Hell, a roast chicken is not rocket science. Put the (roughly) 4-pound bird on the counter to warm up a bit. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Generously salt and peeper the bird and place it in a shallow roasting pan. Put in the oven for one hour. Let rest 15 minutes before carving.

                                                    5 Replies
                                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                                      FYI, this thread is over a year old. Just so ya know.

                                                      1. re: Phurstluv

                                                        There are many threads that pop up years later. I like them.

                                                        1. re: pikawicca

                                                          I know, I do the same thing, but sometimes I've caught myself giving someone advice whose meal has ended YEARS ago, and then I'm like, D'OH!

                                                          1. re: Phurstluv

                                                            When you give advice here, you shouldn't think of yourself as giving it to the one person who posted whenever. You're giving it to the thousands of people reading along, both today and in the future. I don't think it matters at all how old threads are on this board- cooking advice never goes out of date!

                                                            I ws just reading the Krissywats cracker threads from the Great Cracker Epiphany of '05 and it made me as determined to make my own crackers as it did back then... and I"lll get around to it any day now :-)

                                                            1. re: Chris VR

                                                              **You're giving it to the thousands of people reading along, both today and in the future. ***

                                                              So true, like me! :) Love the old threads. I do feel silly when I give specific suggestions to people whose meals are long past though.