This is a story for those of us who love to have friends and family gathered around our table, sharing good food and conversation, but usually find ourselves fretting and fussing in the kitchen while everyone else is having a great time. A thoughtfully constructed menu can help you coast through the preparation and have enough energy left to be the life of the party. These tips smooth the way to happy, well-fed guests and — best of all — a calm cook who can join in the fun with confidence.
Bring on the buffet. For a larger number of guests, buffets are best. Pick less time-critical dishes like casseroles, curries, deli-style platters and pasta with separate serve-yourself sauces. Accompany them with a variety of salads and veggies and a selection of condiments to suit a range of palates. An array of buffet-style dishes can look more generous and mouthwatering than a neat plate, and you won’t need to guess on the quantities for each person.
Take advantage of cookware that’s designed to be seen. Choose dishes that don’t need to be transferred to serving bowls and platters. Cookware that goes straight from the oven or stovetop to the table saves lots of fiddling, stays hot longer and cuts down on washing up.
Tip: If you don’t have permanent buffet furniture, setting out dishes on the kitchen counter or island is a sociable alternative. Read about some ways to free up counter space.
Know your audience. As part of your invitation, find out about food issues. Many allergy sufferers realize that they put an extra load on a host and offer to bring a dish that suits their diet. My advice would be to accept the offer and add a dish of your own that they, and everyone else, can eat. A couple of grain and vegetable dishes, for example, with quinoa or wild rice, will suit vegetarians and gluten-aware diners. As long as you know what has gone into the food you serve, you can inform guests on restricted diets.
Consider the age range of your guests. Generally, elderly diners and young children prefer milder dishes to very spicy ones. Include some familiar foods for them and more exotic fare for guests with more adventurous palates.
Tip: With mixed ages and tastes, leave chili out of a recipe and put chili condiments on the side to let guests decide how hot they want to go.
Find a focus. Planning a meal is a lot like planning the decor of a room — with a focal point, the rest falls into place. Is tender spring lamb appearing at your local butcher? Maybe you’ve found superb, ready-to-eat avocados or irresistible strawberries? Does your local supermarket have a big special on particular kind of produce? Start from an ingredient and work a menu around it. Another tactic is to choose a dish or course you’ve made before that’s always a hit, such as a knockout dessert. It doesn’t matter what you decide on — use it as a reference point.
Balance the (cook)books. With numbers, ages, allergies and a food focus in mind, here are some tips for putting it all together:
Vary flavors. Don’t repeat ingredients such as herbs or spices; seafood in multiple courses (unless you’ve invited seafood lovers); cream in soup, sauce and dessert; or a first course with bacon followed by a pork dish.
Vary colors. Chicken in white wine sauce with rice and roasted parsnips is delicious, but it gets zero for looks, especially on a white plate. Play with vibrant colors to enhance taste.
Tip: Choose a plain serving plate to allow your food to shine. White is a safe choice, but for something more exciting, consider oversize slate plates, wooden boards or colorful platters with a festive vibe.
Vary textures on the plate and in each course. Contrast smooth and crunchy, soft and chewy, liquid and solid.
Vary temperatures. Sandwich a hot main between a cold starter and a chilled or frozen dessert. This is a well-tested meal structure that allows time flexibility (if guests are late) and lets the cook focus on a hot main course.
Vary cooking methods. Don’t plan the whole meal around the oven — you may run out of room or need to adjust temperatures for different dishes. Use a combination of stovetop and oven.
Go easy on extras. The pre-dinner drink period can be an appetite-buster. Protein-heavy nibbles such as cheese and lots of carbs are hard to resist for hungry guests who haven’t eaten since lunchtime, so stick to light, veggie-based finger foods. This time is supposed to whet appetites, not satisfy them.
Tip: Avoid juicy morsels that are hard to handle and may drip on clothing.
And don’t automatically put a never-ending bread basket on the table at the start of a meal, especially if it’s followed by rich, hearty and filling courses. Pop a portion on side plates.
Tip: Mediocre bread is just a filler. Buy bread worth its crust — a crackling baguette, tangy sourdough or a grainy loaf from a local baker. A slice of artisanal bread with golden olive oil for dipping (or butter and a sprinkle of sea salt) could easily take the place of an entree.
Match the menu to the occasion. Entertaining today has taken a turn for the casual, and this is good news for challenged cooks. Barbecues, buffets, potlucks and build-your-own-pizza or burger occasions have largely taken over from the formal sit-down three-course meals of past years. These sociable and relaxed events are easy on the host. Just focus on unfussy prepare-ahead dishes and top-quality ingredients, and then sit back and enjoy your guests.
Think twice about raw fish and meat. There are certain items that regularly make the list of least popular foods. Unless you’re familiar with your guests’ tastes, go easy on things like carpaccio, steak tartare, ceviche and sushi. Other foods to consider steering clear of are Brussels sprouts, kale, tofu, liver, oysters, anchovies and other fish with bones.
Don’t put your guests on a diet. You may be watching what you eat, but don’t impose your restrictions on others. While we all like to present healthy meals and while low-fat dishes can be delicious, an entire meal stripped of what you consider “bad” may be bland and unsatisfying to your guests. Present some variety, and let your guests decide how much and what they eat.
Cook to your talents. Watching too many MasterChef and My Kitchen Rules episodes is bad for your confidence. Do what you do best and forget about becoming an overnight sensation. Maybe you make a great pasta dish or a mean casserole. Play to your strengths — a simple bowl of homemade soup with crunchy croutons that’s done well is better than a failed masterpiece.
Tip: Food stylists tweak food in cookbook photos to make it look flawless and appetizing. Don’t let them tempt you to experiment on guests — practice at least once on your family.
Watch the clock. A well-composed menu helps you present an unruffled and welcoming demeanor when guests arrive. If you’ve scheduled for a day when you’ll come straight from work, plan dishes that can be fully or partially prepared ahead — even days before — or frozen. Build in contingency time for setting the table, sprucing up the house, getting yourself party-ready and taking a few deep breaths.
Outsource the sauce. Don’t feel pressured to serve dishes you’ve made from scratch. Lower your standards. Convenience foods are getting better and better, and a smart shopper knows how to pick great-tasting meal components and work a little homemade magic on them. Here’s a quick balanced menu based around fast-food ingredients.
Finish a ready-made deli vegetable soup with a swirl of Greek yogurt and some chopped herbs, or a round of French bread topped with cheese melted under the grill.
Grab a ready-made tabbouleh salad and beef it up with heaps of herbs, arugula, black olives, juicy tomatoes, fresh lemon juice and olive oil. Serve with a baked salmon fillet (or even a take-home roast chicken) and buttered new potatoes (you can even buy these ready to microwave).
Trot out a decadent ice cream with a bowl of waffle cones, fudge sauce, crisp wafers and a scoop. Dinner done.
Be the host with the most. Many cooks take feeding the multitudes in their stride. For the rest, remember the immortal words of Jenny Craig: These occasions are social events with food present. In the end, it’s all about people interacting with one another and not about whether the soufflé falls flat.
Tell us: Share your tips on keeping entertaining easy and fun in the Comments section below.
By: Janet Dunn (Houzz)
Jours & Nuits, original photo on Houzz
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