Earlier this week I had the pleasure of being a guest on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, on WAMU (88.5) radio in Washington, D.C. My fellow guests were Meagan Hegenbarth of RSVP Catering, and Chris Lowery, store captain at Trader Joe’s in Bailey’s Crossroads, VA. Among the topics covered: what to serve at a progressive holiday party (BBQ beef brisket sliders), cocktails for a Cajun-themed event, and why you should stay away from scented candles at your party. You can listen to the entire podcast here (click on the word ‘listen’ at the top left of the page).
In the mean time, I thought I would share with you my 10 tips for planning a great party without making yourself crazy. These tips were published in my book, Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends, Italian-Style, and they have seen me through countless parties and get-togethers. As you read them you will notice that they are geared to DIY parties-in which you do the cooking. For me, a huge part of the enjoyment of having people over is cooking and sharing my food with them. More and more of us are taking up recreational cooking and having fun in the kitchen. What better way to spread the joy than by sharing the fruits of your labor with your friends? Happy Holidays and Buon Appetito!
1. KNOW YOUR PARTY. Are you having a sit-down dinner in which you expect to have an intense discussion? Or are you inviting the neighborhood to an open house? Do your guests have adventurous palates, or would they prefer steak? Having a clear idea of whom you are cooking for can help you determine the other factors, including the type of gathering, the menu, the seating (or standing) arrangements, and so on.
2. PLAN AHEAD. It sounds like a no-brainer, but many of us have a tendency to let things slide until the last minute. Decide on your menu well in advance of your party. If there are unusual or hard-to-find ingredients in any of your recipes, make sure you give yourself enough time to search them out or special-order them. If you are going to be roasting a whole beef tenderloin or a capon, make sure you have a butcher or meat department that you can count on to provide such ingredients for you.
Make a detailed grocery list. Buy as much as you can in advance, but leave the most perishable items-meat, fresh vegetables, and the like-until shortly before you plan to cook or set them out. Stock up on useful pantry items, such as crackers and chips, olives, and other condiments. I almost always have two or three cheeses in the refrigerator that I can set out with crackers and olives if I need a last-minute appetizer.
Do you have all the equipment you need? Lasagne made in a disposable aluminum pan will taste just as good as one made in a ceramic dish, but the one in the ceramic dish will look a lot more appealing on your buffet table. Consider investing in a couple of round and rectangular dishes of different sizes that you can use over and over again. If you are making fresh pasta for the first time, consider borrowing a pasta-rolling machine from a friend before buying your own. Once you’ve tried it and decided you like it, then you can decide whether to purchase one.
Dinnerware and barware. Most of the time we can get by with what we already own. But suddenly, when we start setting the buffet table we realize we don’t have enough soup plates or ice cream bowls or wine glasses. For large parties, I have used sturdy, attractive paper plates. But they never seem to hold up as well as I would like, and the generate a lot of trash. This is a good time to remember rental places, which were created for just this sort of situation. Cookouts aside, most people would rather eat on china than paper. If you are serving mixed drinks you will need barware. If it is wine you are pouring, make sure you have many more wine glasses than guests, as they will invariably set them down and forget where they put them. For some reason, people like to give me those decorative wine charms that fasten to the stem of the glass so I have lots of them, and since I like things that sparkle I use them.
3. SET THE TABLE. It is a good idea to do this the day or night before your party, especially if you are having a lot of people over. For a buffet, set out the platters, bowls, and utensils that you plan to use. This will give you the opportunity to think about where on the table you plan to put your various dishes. Remember to position the individual plates at the beginning of the buffet, but the utensils and napkins at the end. It is not easy to negotiate a buffet table with a plate in one hand and your fork, knife, and napkin (no to mention a drink) in the other. For brunch, remember to set up a station, whether in the dining room or the kitchen where guests can help themselves to coffee and other beverages.
Don’t be afraid to mix colors and patterns on the table. I have plenty of ceramic platters, dishes, and bowls, but they don’t all match. I use them anyway-they add color and variety to the table, and many of them have sentimental value. Think about height as well. Place two or three cake stands one atop another with the largest on the bottom, and arrange a different finger food on each tier.
For a sit-down gathering, a set table is a cure that you are organized and ready. After all, you don’t want to be sitting out forks and knives and plates while you are attending to last-minute cooking details and trying to make your guests feel welcomed and relaxed. On the other hand, when it comes to family gatherings and dinner with close friends I usually let this rule fly out the window and have them set the table.
Choose a table centerpiece that won’t obscure the view. It’s hard to carry on a conversation when you’re trying to peer at your companion through a flower arrangement. When my daughter did a third-grade science project involving fresh flowers we purchased four short rectangular vases at a craft store. Now I use that quartet of vases on my dining room table. Sometime I put stones and votive candles in them, and sometimes I fill them with short bouquets of flowers.
4. SPRUCE IT UP. Even if all the beds upstairs are unmade, make sure the areas where the guests will congregate are cleaned and tidied. Vacuum the carpet, fluff the pillows, and set out a vase or two of fresh flowers. Clean the bathroom and put out fresh hand towels.
5. WELCOME YOUR GUESTS. Make your guests feel welcomed even before they set foot in your house. Turn on the porch light and open the front door. For one cocktail party that my husband and I threw, we borrowed a set of tiki torches from a neighbor and set them out along the front walkway to guide people to the door. If possible, be at the front door to greet your guests when they arrive, or assign the task to a family member or reliable friend. If you have a fireplace, having a nice fire going on a cold winter night will go a long way toward spreading warmth and cheer.
6. PROVIDE MUSIC. Music is a personal choice, so play what you like. But be sure to decide what you are going to play beforehand so that you don’t have to scramble at the last minute. Tone it down for a sedate dinner and turn it up for a big bash.
7. CHECK YOUR LIGHTING. In my kitchen I have a large island that is toped with pure white Formica (thanks, previous owner!). Above the island is a giant fluorescent element that emits the most garish light you can imagine. Eventually I will get around to remodeling, but for now when I have people over I keep the overhead light off and line up several hurricane lamps or candles on the island. It makes a huge difference. Set candles out in other rooms as well. But please stay away from scented candles. They will interfere with all of the wonderful aromas emanating from your kitchen and give everyone a headache.
8. OFFER AN ASSORTMENT OF BEVERAGES. For most casual gatherings I find that a selection of wine and beer, plus the makings for an occasional mixed drink, more than suffice. I also provide some nonalcoholic choices for guests who prefer not to drink. At the table I set out pitchers of ice water and, in keeping with Italian tradition, a couple of bottles of sparkling water, one at each end of the table. Keep fresh ice on hand for chilling beverages.
9. COOK WHAT YOU KNOW. I was an English major in college, and more than one professor encouraged me to “write what you know.” I’ve heard the same advice applied to cooking-that is, cook what you know. Why try something you have never made before if you are going to be serving it to others? It is good advice-and yet, I have never been able to follow it. For me, part of the fun of being in the kitchen is trying new things and feeding the results to my friends. Has this backfired? You bet. Some years ago I cooked dinner for my husband’s boss, a man who very much enjoyed eating and knew about good food. I happened to be the parent of a particularly high-maintenance baby. So perhaps I was tired. Still, I opted to try to recreate an intricate pasta dish that my husband and I had eaten in Italy. The pasta took forever to cook and was hideously chewy. I don’t remember what I served for dessert but I do remember that (mercifully) it turned out well, so at least that part of the meal was saved. I was terribly embarrassed about it then, but now the memory makes me laugh. Today I would probably do things a little differently-I would cook something I know well for the boss and save the experiments for close friends.
10. KEEP A CASUAL ATTITUDE. My point is this: not everything is going to be perfect every time. But so what? You do what you can, and the rest will take care of itself. A casual attitude, perhaps. But, happily, that’s what sane entertaining is all about.