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Help Me Entertain?

I'm not talking buffet for 40 or having a friend join us for dinner. I'm talking a nice, sit down meal. See, most of the time I'm either throwing a party with more people than I have chairs or I'm adding a friend or two to family meals. But.
Lately, I've been in a position to have people a little bit older or more sophisticated over. Some of them are food snobs, some are just more formal or are in a position that means breakfast for dinner or a taco bar just won't cut it. Either way, I love to feed people & I'm capable in the kitchen. But the idea of creating a cohesive meal without killing myself or breaking the bank...it scares me. I think because when it's a plated meal, or just a formal setting, I only get one chance to get it right. At a buffet or family meal, there are always second or third options if someone doesn't like something or a particular item doesn't 'flow' So, I spend a couple of days thinking, pondering, attempting to make flavours work.

So. What are your go-to menus? How do you get the flavours to work? Link up the courses so the meal "flows"? How do you serve a starter--and what do you serve?? So far all I manage is to throw some nuts and olives or cheese/crackers on the table. It's not totally formal, so serving dishes on the table are fine. But it seems like the starter/dessert should be plated...I just can't figure out how to do that! Also, does the main always need to be a meaty dish with sides? If not , what do you serve? Pasta? Stew? I keep defaulting to roast chicken, salad, and potatoes. How...exciting. I also can't invite people over twice with the same menu... ;)

A couple of notes:
-I don't have access to places like Trader joe's, Sam's Club, etc.
-I sometimes have to leave and come back during the dinner hours (so i prep, someone else serves/entertains, then I make it back), so pre-prepped meals are key.
-I have a very diverse group of friends. Dinner last week was American/Australian/British/Indo-Chinese. The week before added Indian or Peruvian.
-I get bored making the exact same dishes over & over--but I love to tweak stuff to make it work.

I enjoy having people over, but here I am a grown woman intimidated by inviting a couple of people over. Give me 50 people, I can do it. Give me 5 and I'm dying. Can you help?? :)

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  1. you don't need specialty grocers to entertain well. the proliferation of places like trader joe's and warehouse stores is a pretty recent phenomenon and people were entertaining in spectacular fashion long before their advent. you DO however need to buy good quality ingredients. if you can't afford pork tenderloin, buy good pork butt. if you can't afford rack of lamb, get a few shanks.

    do you have any particular cuisine that interests you? for example, get a diane kennedy book for mexico, patricia wells for provence or a paula wolfert for mediterranean rim and pore through the pages. then work with apps, mains and sides from that. this way the flavors will be cohesive and it's easier to make the meal flow. i'm a HUGE fan of wolfert and most of her recipes have a little thumbnail history or anecdote that further illuminates the dish.

    cook seasonally. don't serve tomatoes or corn in winter or butternut squash in summer. sure, it might be in the market, but it's not going to have much flavor and will essentially be a waste of money.

    don't repeat main ingredients, but accent flavors running through are fine. for example, you don't want a tomato salad before a pasta/marina entree. :) but a shaved fennel salad with oranges and olives would be lovely before a dish of garlic-fennel sausage over polenta.

    nuts and olives are fine for salty snacks while people mingle over cocktails, but i never serve cheese before a meal. it dulls the palate and is very easy to overeat. people have a few ounces before they know it and wind up too full for the meal that awaits. whatever are the nibbles and the app should whet the appetite, not kill it. something salty, something with a bit of acidity are always good bets. skip anything cheesy or creamy.

    the main doesn't need to be meat, but shouldn't be too saucy or challenging to eat. be conscious of your guests not wanting to splat tomato sauce on their white shirt or gnaw tiny quail bones in front of others. if you wouldn't eat it on a job interview? don't serve it a "formal" dinner.

    as for the leaving and coming back? that's an unusual challenge for sure and am curious why you have people at a time you can't be there with them? in any case, you will need to be as organized as a brain surgeon. does your partner-in-crime also finish the cooking? or just do the serving/plating? you may want to work on foods that are forgiving about serving temp, like braised meats, as opposed to pan-seared flounder. make yourself a detailed timeline. review it a million times to ensure you haven't forgotten anything.

    many people prefer to do a test-run with a new recipe to help prevent a fail and to boost confidence.

    don't stress about the diversity of your friends. it's a wonderful problem to have. if they are decent people they are happy to accept your hospitality and will enjoy the meal and the company. unless they are food-phobes, i'm sure they will enjoy eating foods not from their everyday life too!

    lastly, if you get too stressed out to enjoy this, have people over for just drinks and snacks, or dessert, cordials and coffee until you feel more comfortable with a bigger repertoire of dishes.

    9 Replies
    1. re: hotoynoodle

      And keep track of what worked and what didn't.

      1. re: sr44

        yup. plus a record of what was served on which date and to whom.

        1. re: hotoynoodle

          Considering that I have kept track of my bigger parties, including recipes/menus/shopping lists, I'm not sure why I never thought to track smaller events.
          I'm going to retroactively track some recipes and menus now!

      2. re: hotoynoodle

        I started looking into cookbooks and websites by the authors you mentioned. You're right--my guests will be gracious about whatever cuisine I choose to serve. Perhaps I'll choose a cuisine to focus on for a while, just so I can get a feel for the way a meal flows. Hmm...

        So, how do you know WHICH sides to serve with a main?

        For example, when a cookbook is divided into "apps" "mains" "sides" and "desserts" how do you choose which go together? When I'm serving a LOT of people, I just choose a bunch of different options. As long as they're in the same family, it works. But for a more focused meal where I've essentially chosen what everyone gets to eat, it seems that the components need to be more cohesive. Of course I don't want to serve tomato soup, lasagna, and rosemary cookies with tomato jam (although those cookies are pretty good... ;). But how do I know if I should choose THAT salad, this meat, and those vegetables?

        1. re: Ama658

          when i was first starting to entertain as a young noodle, THE IT cookbook was the silver palate and they had sample menus sprinkled throughout the book, often based on a theme, like 4th of july, or pre-symphony cocktail party. this was so helpful to me.

          am sure there must be newer books that still do this.

          the other possibility would be to google search something like welcome spring menu. some lovely options pop up!

          1. re: hotoynoodle

            Epicurious.com has lots of menus to peruse and get inspiration from. Here are a couple of links to get the OP started:

            http://www.epicurious.com/recipesmenu... (the seasons are in the left nav

            )

            http://www.epicurious.com/recipesmenu...

            http://www.epicurious.com/recipesmenu...

            http://www.epicurious.com/recipesmenu...

            1. re: Ama658

              I think when you are pairing sides there are some suggestions but don't get too hung up, some of it will depend on your guests. As someone mentioned they don't like to serve a cheese course first (it is not traditional), but I always like it with my cocktails.

              The biggest thing I look for is cooking in season, where possible, I like soups in winter & fall, fresher cooler apps in spring summer. I think a salad after a soup is a nice palate cleanser and you can add things that make it seasonal, such as beets in the fall or asparagus and peas in the spring. Learn to make your own dressings if you don't know how already, this is very important to a nice salad.

              Also be aware of richness and texture and acidity. If your main will be quite rich, have something lighter more acidic before. If dinner is soft/mushy, have something crisp before. Be careful of rich, then rich, then rich or cheese with every course try to think of balance.

              Again, start with one recipe that appeals to you, in a certain cuisine. Such as Osso Bucco (Italian), then do some research on what is typical for Italians to eat with Osso Bucco, this can be online or sometimes it will say in a cookbook. Also different cuisines eat things at different times, such as Italians having salad after their main. This will help you start to build the menu.

          2. I like to choose an Ethnicity that I like or am curious about then build a menu from there. I like a meal where I can do as much as possible ahead of time. Heading into fall now soups and braises are your friend and can easily be done ahead of time. Last night I had friends around and I did a french stew that I made first thing in the AM (only needed to be heated) served over polenta. The Polenta was a bit time consuming as had to be made at the time and stirred every 10 mins, however I was able to do that while guests were around.

            Some other tips:
            Heat your plates (gives you a bit of extra time if you are dishing up and serving)
            Consider wine pairings, a great way to elevate your meal
            Set your table the day before
            Consider pot luck, helps take some pressure off, most people are happy to help
            Try not to stress, emulate Julia Child, you will make mistakes and get flustered, have fun, no one will care (even food snobs)

            PS: here is one of my all time favourite soups that always impresses.
            http://www.jamieoliver.com/magazine/r...

            This is the other thing you can do, find one really great recipe you are dying to try, then build your meal with that in mind. And bring the menu back to Chow, the advice here is often priceless!!

            5 Replies
              1. re: hotoynoodle

                I saw a lot of recipes like this, however (surprisingly!) this was my first time making polenta so thought I would try stove top. Also at the time of planning I wasn't sure if the stew (cooked in oven) would be done before hand or still be taking up my oven.

                Next time for sure, since my SO loved the polenta, think I will put it in regular rotation. It went perfectly with the stew.

                1. re: cleopatra999

                  I tried making polenta once using a microwave recipe. Fail. MAJOR fail. But, I having some in the pantry so there's no reason not to try again... :)

                  1. re: Ama658

                    originally (and years ago) i saw that oven-baked polenta in a wolfert book and have been making it that way ever since. the hassle and mess of stove-top stirring has sworn me off the stuff.

                    it is a no-fail.

                2. re: hotoynoodle

                  I agree, the baked polenta is easy and great. There's a recipe for baking it on the Pheasant brand package.

              2. I love cooking up a storm and entertaining. So here are some guidelines that have worked through the decades.

                Guests arrive on time and serve their own drinks. I greet them at the door and mingle. My kitchen was a galley style out of sight and off limits. I had enough counter space to lay out 12 serving plates. Table is set and candles lit.

                Salad course. If it came out of a bag or a can, it worked for me. So lots of cornichon, asparagus, artichoke hearts in oil, olives, three bean salad, sweet peppers, etc. would be found next to a small pile of mixed lettuce out of a bag. Top with fresh herbs, shaved air dried ham, hard cheese. Bottles of vinegar and oil and Ken's on the table.

                I have a 1 meter fish poacher. So snook, red fish and mackerel where easily accomadated. Large poached fish have a reasonable time span to allow for fluctuating conversations. Present on a platter and then carve on a side board onto the fish plates.

                I love serving ravioli made from wonton skins and stuffed with hard squash and gorgonzola. What was daring 30 years ago is still a tried and true favorite. Offered on a bed of red Ragu with some fresh basil or gorgonzola white sauce.

                Baked shells also are not time sensitive and work well.

                For the main, I love stews. If I like you, my fried chicken kept warm in the oven. If I love you, a whole deboned chicken stuffed with veal and aromatics. I also do a Kessler ham. A cheap whole ham cooked in white wine with a onion and a couple of cloves. A jewish couple always call it pink salmon. It is that good.

                Veggies are whatever is in season and will cook in a few minutes. Which means you need a large stockpot boiling away and/or your wok ready to go. Unless you know your guests well, stay with the classics such as green beans, boiled potatoes, rice, canned whole corn.

                I like ending a meal with fruit salad, sometimes ice cream, usually Key Lime pie. My special caramel sauce comes out of a jar and has additional butter swirled in.

                You need to have courses that are not overly time sensitive. You should be enjoying this gathering as much as your guests. Preplanning as well as prepping as much as possible will allow the evening to flow naturally. Do not become a slave in the kitchen.

                What cured me of entertaining friends with long drawn out trendy recipes was watching a friend spend almost an hour and a half making 15 crepes (3 each) for desert. On his just installed professional gas stove. After cooking on electric for years.

                7 Replies
                1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                  Off topic:

                  how do you keep your wonton ravioli from sticking together between the boiling and sauteing phase? no matter how much I oiled them, I wound up prying them apart and losing quite a few to a globby mess.

                  to the OP: this was a meal I served to friends, I was mortified, but they loved it!! LOL, I try to block out the fact that my pie was completely undercooked and unservable, I sent them home with dessert!! This, is part of the keeping it light while entertaining, anything can happen!!

                  1. re: cleopatra999

                    not irf, but...

                    are you boiling then holding the ravs?

                    make ahead then freeze raw and individually on a sheet pan then store in a ziploc til day of party. when ready to serve, boil gently then as soon as they hit the surface of the water toss into a hot saute pan. these 2 final steps take moments.

                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                      I held them only because I was boiling in small batches (as per recipe) to avoid sticking. Could I have boiled them altogether?

                      1. re: cleopatra999

                        i find if you boil them from frozen they are much less fragile and i don't have a sticking problem. i wouldn't boil a hundred at a time, but a wide enough pan should fit quite few. just keep them moving. and don't overcook.

                        1. re: hotoynoodle

                          In the time it takes to sauce the plates, they are usually fully cooked. Since I over fill the large skins, there are normally a max of two per plate. Plus a 20 qt. pasta cooker with 5 inserts.

                          The Malabar Munchers are use to the stuck together mass and happily carve it up to the desired portion size. Even swimming in sauce will eventually result in a solid clump.

                          1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

                            Are you serving the ravioli as a pasta course or a main? I think I think I'll give the wonton ravioli a trial run soon. Do you have a recipe you typically use for the filling?

                            1. re: Ama658

                              Sorry about the delay. I live on a boat without the internet.

                              I was given this recipe from a small inn in the Italian Alps just south of the Brenner Pass in the late 70's. As a warm rain had washed the last of the snow away, we spent the weekend cuddling and eating as opposed to skiing and freezing.

                              There is a specific squash used for this in Italy, but I like any undercooked, non-stringy red to orange squash. It is just as flavorful. The specific recipe that the cook first showed me in the kitchen and then wrote down for me was lost with the roof of our house due to a hurricane in the mid ninties. So here we go.

                              Bake your squash until almost done. Save seeds for roasting later and pass the flesh through a ricer. Add salt and nutmeg that you have grated on your finest grater. Keep adding nutmeg until you can just taste it. Now add more salt. If the pulp is juicy, let it drain in a colander for a few minutes. Correct seasoning.

                              Now add a beaten egg or two and a dollop of heavy cream. Bind the wonton skins together with eggwash and allow to dry. If the filling is too moist, they tend to rupture if put immediately in the boiling salted water. She used a 2 percent salt concentration in her water. Since seawater is normally around 3.6 percent, I use half sea, half fresh. And that is it. Simple with great flavors.

                              Gilding The Lily: Roughly crushed toasted pine nuts.
                              Medium diced gorgonzola cheese rinds.
                              Fine dice hard cheese. I have had success with 6 year old gouda and cheddar. Plus the yellow Greek cooking cheese used in stew.
                              Grappa. Really undercook for this one. The cheapest you can find. Hers' came out of a ceramic jug with the local swill.
                              The shelled roasted squash seeds that you saved from the last time.
                              Add only one of the above. It is all about the flavor of the squash.

                              The sauce: She used burnt butter with sage.
                              Béchamel with too much sweet gorgonzola is a crowd favorite, along with mine.
                              Pesto was also available, but didn't work for me. Others love it. All a matter of taste.
                              She was very robust in stating that marinara is totally inappropriate for this.

                              Which is why there were no exact measurements for me as well as for you. With the wide variety of flavor in the squash based on type and climate, everything is adjustable. Hers' were exact, but for that specific regional squash.

                              Have fun, get messy, make mistakes and learn. Good Luck.

                2. To save time and headache prepare some items ahead of time (i.e. soups, pâtés, salad dressings, etc). I also always like starting w/ a near table full of antipasti such as white bean salad, salumi, cheeses, w/ glasses of sparkling wine (or white vermouth on the rocks; real Italian).

                  1. The first thing is to take deep breaths and stay calm. To help you stay that way, planning ahead is the key.

                    1. Put together your menu in a document of any sort: on paper, on your computer, on your phone. Tweak it until it sounds good to you. It helps to pick items that can be made ahead. It also helps to pick items that you've made at least once before!

                    2. Make a grocery list.

                    3. Put together a schedule for 2 days before, 1 day before, and the day of (or whatever your meal needs - if you can make a soup a week in advance and freeze it, cool). Knowing what you have to do in what order keeps panic from setting it.

                    4. Figure out what dishes and serving utensils you want to use for each course. Set those out, in order of the courses, so you aren't scrambling for dishes in the middle of dinner.

                    In terms of the menu, take it slow -- don't feel like you have to do a 5-course plated meal right away! Start with a soup course, which is easy to make ahead and easy to plate and garnish individually.

                    A salad course is also easy to plate individually when you plan ahead. Have all the components washed and prepped before dinner and all you have to do is assemble last minute. If your main is heavy and rich, a bright salad is a nice contrast. If you feel like making it more substantial, grill or saute some shrimp or scallops to put on top of the salad.

                    For your main, don't be afraid to serve something family style. A beautiful bowl of pasta and a platter of roasted vegetables makes a simple, delicious meal. Or a whole poached fish or a roast of some sort with a jus or gravy, a bowl of couscous or potatoes and that same platter of roasted veggies. Or a curry or other stew, etc. etc. You get the idea. Whatever you make, put it in a beautiful serving dish on a beautifully set table and you can't go wrong.

                    For your dessert, keep it simple. Make a cake, tart, pie or anything that can be cut into single servings. Put a piece on each plate and garnish with whatever works: fresh fruit, cream, herbs, chocolate shavings, etc. So now you have individually plated desserts that you didn't have to make individual desserts for.

                    Oh, in additional to your paper schedule, having all your ingredients mise en place is your best friend!

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: TorontoJo

                      What types of soups do you serve for a soup course? Do you think pureed or brothy soups are best? Do you choose soup vs. salad based on the season? We're just hitting Spring here--should I go for more salad courses and save soup for fall/winder?

                      1. re: Ama658

                        I like pureed soups, mostly because they are super easy to make in my VitaMix. :)

                        If it's spring there, an asparagus soup would be delicious and appropriate for the season. You could also look at cold soups for a refreshing first course.

                        1. re: Ama658

                          Serve your soup in a lovely teacup with saucer! Specially if it is a creamy pureed soup, it makes a great appetizer for sipping. A cold soup in summer, like a watermelon gazpacho is gorgeous in a tall tumbler too.