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From 2006 to 2008, Brooklynite Cathy Erway swore off restaurants and began cooking her meals at home, as documented on her blog Not Eating Out in NY.
"The first time I threw an elaborate, multicourse dinner party, I made the mistake of making portions of each course that could have been an entire meal in its own — plating sparsely was a totally foreign concept to me at the time! My guests liked the food so much that they tried valiantly to eat it all up, but by the would-be dessert, it was just impossible, and no one could even stand.
Now, I realize that's what restaurants do, and that's why when you get a salad or individual appetizer there are only about two things on the plate. So just remember: Skimp on portions or else you'll stuff everyone silly!"
Give Up Control (Just a Bit)
Sara Morris of Sprouted Kitchen loves to cook. A frequent host, she enjoys spoiling her guests by doing all the work — but sometimes it's best to relinquish full control. "While it's nice to have control of the menu, I find that giving up either the appetizers or desserts is one less thing for me to worry about."
Have guests bring wine or dessert. "I find that friends actually like being involved and contributing in some way," she says.
Let Your Kitchen Guide the Guest List
Chicago-based Natalie Slater conjures up creative baking recipes inspired from punk rock on her blog Bake and Destroy. Her tip for dinner party success? Know how much your kitchen (and dining) space can handle.
"I recommend keeping your guest list small and manageable. Unless you're a professional caterer, trying to coordinate a meal for a large group in an average-sized kitchen is just asking for trouble."
No matter how much we plan, there are always surprises that surface when entertaining. That's why both Slater and Black always try to plan their menus around dishes they can make ahead.
Baked pasta dishes like lasagna work out well because you can assemble them ahead of time and then just pop them in the oven when it's time. "But you don't have to be stuck with just lasagna," says Black. "I recently made a wild mushroom ragout topped with a poached egg where all was done in advance except the eggs, which took a few minutes each." Another one of her go-to favorites? Molten chocolate cakes. "They might be the most trite, overdone dessert, but they are delicious, easy, and they are somehow incredibly impressive at home."
Just because you're not doing all the work doesn't mean it's not a party anymore. Slater is a fan of potlucks. "It takes a lot of the pressure off you as the host. If you go that route, be specific about what you ask people to bring so you don't end up with five salads and nothing to drink. As the host, you should be responsible for the main course and the beverages, in my opinion. I always claim dessert as my own, too."
Buy Into Braising
As the author, along with her husband Andy Ward, of both the blog Dinner: A Love Story and book by the same name, Jenny Rosenstrach knows a lot about how to make family meal time a realityand delicious. She applies many of the same tips and tricks when entertaining at home.
So what do she and her husband make? "For us it all comes down to one word: braise! It means you are putting together dinner hours before people arrive so that you can relax once it's countdown time." Their favorite is lovingly called "Dinner Party in a Pot," or pappardelle with braised pork ragù. "Our readers have gone wild for it!"
For Rosenstrach and her husband, it's essential to have everything ready to go before dinner — including having the glasses filled. "If there are kids around, I always make sure there are a few pre-filled sippy cups around because, for me at least, it's always the thing that a guest will ask for right as I'm trying to get everything to the table." Same is true with adults — don't leave filling water glasses to the last minute.
Make Something Familiar
For Jane Black, who writes about food politics and sustainability for The Washington Post, The New York Times, New York Magazine, and The Atlantic, a cardinal dinner party rule is to always make something that you've made at least once before. "There is nothing worse than finding that a recipe doesn't work or takes longer than you think it will while your guests sit and waitit stresses you out."
That said, she never follows her own rules, which often leads to hilarity (or tears) because she views dinner parties as a chance to splurge. "I like to try recipes I am not willing to spend the time or money on for a regular weeknight."
Keep It Simple
As a professional cook and baker who spent 13 years in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, David Lebovitz knows what it's like to cook in a busy restaurant kitchen. Yet, when it comes to entertaining at home, he sticks with what's simple.
"No one wants to come over and have you slaving away in the kitchen while they're all enjoying themselves." That means you should make things in advance and opt for tried-and-true recipes, which lowers your stress level. "You know what you shop for and how it'll turn out. And don't run out of wine!"
Know Your Audience
No host likes to see a plate go uncleaned. So instead of relying on guests to inform you of their dietary restrictions, Lebovitz suggests asking guests if there's anything they don't eat when you invite them. "You don't want to be pulling roast octopus out of the oven and find out your guests don't eat anything with tentacles."
We've all been there you're trying to cook that fillet of fish one cocktail in, all while chatting up guests and trying to find a vase. "No matter how simple you think the recipe may be, if you have to cook it at the last minute, you are prone to getting distracted," says The New York Times columnist and acclaimed cookbook author Melissa Clark. "I've overcooked more dinner party entrées than I'm comfortable admitting, all because I got caught up in a conversation or was running around looking for hangers on which to put away my guests' coats!"
Put Your Guests to Work
"Anyone who comes to my house for a dinner party knows they will be assembling canapés and slicing bread whilst imbibing their welcome aperitif," says Clark. "It's nice to have their company in the kitchen, too, and guests really love lending a hand."
It's also a great ice-breaker for people who don't know each other well, adds Clark. "Ask two guests who've never met before to help set out the cheese platter together. It's an easy way to inspire conversation."
Focus on the People
As managing editor of The Kitchn, Faith Durand has dispensed a fair amount of dinner party advice over the years. "It's good advice, but I think that I would also say there is time to disregard all of that."
For Durand, the point of a good dinner party is to enjoy great food with interesting people. "Think about the conversations you'd like to have; think about how the evening will flow. For larger parties of singles I am a big fan of the old-fashioned seating customs, trying to mix the personalities and people so that conversation flows well all evening and a shy, quiet person isn't stuck on the far corner of the table with no one to talk to."
Be True to Your Hunger
After years of throwing dinner parties with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm, Berlin-based food blogger of The Wednesday Chef (and former cookbook editor), Luisa Weiss, now takes a more pared-down approach. "It may be fun to plan elaborate menus in advance, imagining your guests as they nibble on complicated hors d'oeuvres, multi-layered entres and a towering dessert," but then reality sets in.
"I noticed this most acutely at a dinner I threw two years ago. I spent days figuring out the menu. The night of the dinner, my guests happily ate everything in sight, but somewhere between the days of planning and hours of cooking, my appetite went entirely out the window. All I wanted for dinner was a bowl of cereal with cold milk."
Stray From the Norm
Just because we might indulge in an appetizer, entrée, and dessert when dining out doesn't mean we have to include all three when entertaining, says Weiss. "I no longer try to make everything from soup to nuts from scratch. If there will be dessert, I skip an appetizer. If I'm making an appetizer, the guests get fruit after dinner. And I always try to keep in mind that a beautiful cheese plate is as stunning as a homemade dessert and a lot easier to put together (though not necessarily cheaper)."
Balance the Elaborate with the Simple
For Boston-based French expatriate Béa Peltre, author of the blog La Tartine Gourmande and cookbook of the same name, impressing her dinner party guests doesn't mean everything is made fresh from scratch at home. "Try not to overdo it. If you want to prepare a meal to impress friends, I find it works best to have an appetizer or a dessert that will wow your friends, and maybe a more humble main. Or vice versa, have an easy appetizer or dessert and a more elaborate main course."
Be Relaxed (and Keep Quiet)
Dinner parties and disaster seem to go hand in hand. There is the time you lost the platter of meatballs, or the cocktail "hour" ran too long because you lost track of time. But that's not the case for Alejandra Ramos of Always Order Dessert. "I've actually never had a dinner party gone wrong." She's had dishes not turn out the way expected, and even dropped a cake, but her dinners were never a disaster.
"My own dinner party style is very relaxed, and when I forget something or things don't turn out 100 percent the way I expected, I just keep quiet about it. Nobody has to know that you meant to make a dressing or that the lovely trifle was originally meant to be a cake until you dropped it. I've even served underbaked chocolate cake and called it 'molten lava;' people loved it! It's all about being creative and quick on your feet."
Don't Beat Yourself Up
Should something not go as planned, "never ever beat yourself up in front of your guests," advises Ramos. "It makes them uncomfortable and then they won't be able to ignore your mistake. Just pretend that's totally what you meant to do, and people will never notice. (Or they'll notice, but won't say anything about it to your face, which is just fine with me!)"