Don’t Stress Over Your Dinner Party
There was a post on the Internet earlier this fall entitled “How to Host a Crappy Dinner Party.” The premise was that people don’t throw as many dinner parties as they’d like because they are too much work to pull off with any kind of flare. The author’s solution was to hospitably open your door to friends on a designated night while cutting the stress level by neither doing venue prep – that is, cleaning – nor meal planning, because cooking whatever was in your fridge would have to suffice.
That is not a dinner party, folks. That is an average weeknight when your friend running the soccer carpool stops to vent as she drops off your child, explaining that her partner is traveling for work and she has no idea what to make for dinner. You tell her to watch out for stray Legos on the floor, guide her to a glass of wine and a seat at the kitchen island, and pull together a vegetable bin stirfry and enough rice to stretch dinner to feed two more.
A dinner party is an elevated hospitable event by definition. And I’d argue that with a bit of mental planning while you’re walking the dog and carried out in short spurts leading up to the meal, you’ll significantly cute stress levels along with chance that your guests will have to settle for anything resembling crap.
Decide on the guest list early so that you know dietary restrictions up front and only invite two people less than your table can accommodate so there is room for inevitable last-minute additions.
Keeping the menu flexible is the key to cutting down on dinner party anxiety. Instead of mentally committing to a specific recipe – say Julia Child’s method for roast leg of lamb – plan on a simple roast, giving yourself the option to buy the cut that both looks the best on market day and fits your budget.
Lay the table before you start cooking for the day. Even if you end up way behind in the kitchen as dinner time nears, you will appear very well put together if your table is lovely and ready to receive guests.
Make a batch of a seasonal cocktail, offer one wine, one beer and one simple, flavorful nibble to offer to guests as they arrive.(see recipe for “Cheddar and Hazelnut Sables”) All are seemingly hands-off items for you and go a long way to lubricate conversation between friends or colleagues who don’t know each other well.
Always serve soup first (see recipe for “Side-by-side Beet and Celeriac Soups,” page 10). You can make it well ahead of time from whatever you have on hand and garnish it with fun things you didn’t think you had in the house. For example, toss a cup of oyster crackers with two tablespoons of melted butter and a tablespoon of finely chopped parsley, bake them in a 350 degree oven until crisp and you’ve got a garnish that goes with everything from carrot to cream of mushroom soups.
For a mixed bag of carnivores and vegetarians at the table, make sure the roast is the only thing on the menu that is not vegetarian and make a vegetable tart to go with it. The vegetable tart (see recipe for “Potato and Broccoli Rabe Tart) can be made ahead, warmed while the meat is resting, and serves as both a thoughtful main course for the vegetarians as well as a nice side dish for the omnivores.
A cheese course served with a lightly dressed salad and good bread after the main dish is chic (it’s traditionally French), easy, and highlights local cheese makers, farmers still growing greens in season-extending high tunnels and artisan bread makers. You are simply the classy curator.
Top off the night with a small chocolate dessert. Whether that’s a broken up bar made by an artisan bean-to-bar maker or single-serving pots de crème, serving them will spark a conversation about ethical chocolate and give your guests an opportunity to savor the good stuff.