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?? :)
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.
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?
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!
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)
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
Here is how I handle this. I don't like " courses" and I rarely cook or serve traditional American style foods at home or when I entertain. So, no salad course, no soup course, no meat as a main and veg as sides with a bread. You sound as if you enjoy different cuisines, why change that for a dinner party?
My focus is making my guests comfortable and ensuring their needs are met and they are having a great time. My focus is not to show off my cooking skills to the point of not enjoying my guests or having the focus shift from their company to only the food. I have to remind myself of that when I am planning.
I fill up a table or two with wine and set up a chosen themed cocktail or two ( serve yourself ) and provide lots of apps in the same theme as dinner will be (Turkish, Vietnamese, Indian, vegetarian, gluten free, whatever). Prep a day or two before is the key. This set up allows for music and relaxed conversation while I finish dinner prep and I can socialize while nibbling and sipping with my guests.
This app and cocktail time is just as "important" as dinner. It bothers me when this is missing or almost dismissed as an "obligation" like throwing out a bowl of nuts to guests with a glass of wine while they wait. I always think "guests are not squirrels." Those dinners are often also where you literally sit down within minutes upon arriving and the host appears only to place a plated showpiece dinner in front of you to ooooh and ahhhh over....clearly more for show than for comfort and friendship. Don't be that host! :)
The table is set up in the morning and I serve dinner in one course. Family style 99 percent of the time. I don't like my host choosing my portions or selections for me -so I don't choose for my guests. I make the serving dishes and table beautiful, not individual plates.
Dessert and after dinner beverages are ready to be plated at the table by me and customized to each guest (half a slice, no whipped cream, extra lemon curd, etc).
My advice is to think of your guests enjoyment first and plan around that, your anxiety about the rest will decrease. Perfection is not a goal.
I like the idea of sometimes giving people time to relax around the cocktails/apps. That's an excellent point, especially to give guests a chance to unwind a bit. How do you choose your drinks, though? Do you offer both alcoholic/non-alcoholic? Always an actual cocktail, a glass of wine, or a bottle of beer?
I'm not a big drinker, although we have a sizeable stash. I spent a good number of prime drinking years doing aid work in a country where it was absolutely illegal, so I missed that part of my education ;) Do you have any websites/books you might suggest?
sounds like you're south of the equator?
even when i put out hard booze or a home-made cocktail, it seems most guests just want wine or beer. especially if they have to drive.
YES, always put out some nice n/a options. i don't always drink at parties and you'd be surprised how many hosts overlook this and all that's available is water from the tap. :(
even just some flavored seltzer or spa water, plus some sodas is enough.
do you know your guests well? If so, it is nice to have 'their' drink on hand. I love a gin and tonic, it would be a nice touch if a host had that specifically for me.
Also consider matching your drinks to your cuisine. going for an Asian theme? How about a sake cocktail to start?
Consider apperitifs, they are specifically made to open the taste buds and get you salivating. But they are not for everyone as they are often a little bitter (think Aperol). But most people will be interested in trying them. After dinner the digestif has the effect of aiding digestion.
Again, if you don't know your guests well, make sure you have a white and red that go well with your meal. If you have a good wine store near you, they can be a huge help with pairing. Otherwise there are many wine pairing search engines. Nothing worse than taking a bite of food and having it ruin my glass of wine or vise versa.
I agree with having some sparkling water and a juice on hand for non drinkers. And a nice glass for them, it is no fun for the pregnant lady or driver having to drink out of an etched water glass when everyone else has crystal wine glasses.
If your age group is relatively young then do a search for trendy cocktails, if it is older perhaps try some classic cocktails. Right now the trend is actually for a lot of classic drinks anyway, so there would be crossover.
You absolutely can vary your chicken menu and invite the same people again. Swap in sweet potatoes, roasted butternut squash or rice pilaf for the potatoes. Change-up the glaze/sauce on the chicken -- orange, or honey/mustard, or soy/ginger.
Make Roxlet's Green Goddess dressing for your salad and they'll beg to be allowed to come back. Recipe link
Or awaken taste buds with Lemon Caper Dressing
Add some roasted asparagus spears to the salad greens while you're at it.
A Bundt cake always looks like you fussed, but they're remarkably easy and can be made in a huge range of flavors. Look at the Food Librarian site for tasty recipes
Oh, that dressing sounds great! I'm adding it to my recipes.
Do you find that cakes go well for dinners? I've been avoiding them lately since people at my buffet parties seem to shy away from eating an entire (even if very small) piece of cake. That said, I can turn the same recipe into cupcakes and those friends will eat 2 or 3 or 4 at a time. I think maybe I should bust out my bundt pan :)
Yes, the couples we invite enjoy cake, most often as an end to the evening after conversation, game, or video although I offer to serve it immediately at the end of the meal. It's usually served with the topping choices of good vanilla ice cream or whipped cream (somehow that "swirly whipped cream from a can" is viewed as a decadent treat, and I'm happy to oblige).
Perhaps with your buffets, folks have trouble juggling the cake plate, don't feel comfortable cutting their own slice (no one wants to be first) or have filled up on the other delicious food.
I like to pick a theme/cuisine and stick to that. It helps me edit cause I can go all over the place with ideas and then have too much food.
A menu with each component listed really helps me. That ways I can cross off when I've purchased the ingredient so I don't wind up cooking with the big component (see cheese: feta for a greek gyro style evening) missing. And I can check local stores sales online to help save some cash/adapt my menu to what's on sale.
The other thing is if you find you are getting good reviews of something, put it in your entertaining rotation. If people like something, they won't mind if you served it again.
When I cook for a group large or small I try to remember a couple of things my father always told me.
1st. The secret of good cook is to make sure everyone Is damn hungry.
2nd. The prep is key *BUT* I always tell my guests that dinner will be served when it's ready.... around seven-ish... or something...
I love great food - but amongst friends getting together and having great company is the goal..
Have fun. It will work out great
I think it is a mistake to definitively plan out a menu before shopping for ingredients. Have an idea of options, and buy based on what's the best quality and price. If I happened upon a bunch of marked-down packages of mushrooms, I'd snap them up and either make a mushroom soup course or include duxelles or a mushroom sauce as part of the main.
A main course of braised meat has much to recommend it. The meats are more economical, the dish is better if made the day before (making preparation less hectic for you), the results are delicious and satisfying, and busy people don't often make braises, so it's a special treat for them. There's a reason why restaurants sell a lot of braised short ribs and osso buco! There's so much comlexity of flavor in braised meats that the sides can - and should - be simple and restrained. A simple starch like egg noodles or mashed potatoes will suffice - it doesn't need to be a gratin or dumplings. Green vegetables can be simply sauteed, braised, or steamed.
In general, I think pairing dishes is, today, a crapshoot. Err on the simple side but people's tastes vary so unless you know your guests' preferences, pick what appeals to YOU.
I cringe when I hear people recommend a chocolate dessert to end the typical American Thanksgiving meal, but to each his own. On a cooking show I saw yesterday, lime ice cream sodas made with prosecco were the dessert for a meal of beef/pork/ricotta meatball tomato sauce with pasta. I thought that was an offputting combo. You've already been given links to cookbooks and sites with menus. I'd also suggest www.foodtimeline.org, which has menus according to event, grouped by decade.
JFood used to post here; you can search and get his recipe for beef short ribs. They are excellent and can be made the day before and just reheated before you serve the meal. I like to use bone-in instead of boneless. (You start 3 days before by marinating the meat in red wine, 2nd day cook, 3rd day serve.)