We all know hostesses who throw dinner parties every week without breaking a fingernail, but most of us break into a sweat at the mere thought. Fancy dinner parties may be part of my future, but they haven't happened yet (although I did have hopelessly precious place-cards at my last dinner, courtesy of my 3-year-old).
Once in a while, it's nice to knock yourself out, with pressed linens and fresh flowers, and food that people will know you truly slaved over. Then again, one of the best dinner parties may be simple food from the past: Try recipes from the Settlement Cookbook, or Joy of Cooking, to keep yourself sane and your friends at ease.
Either way, some basic rules to get you started:
Rule 1: Don't cook fish on the stove. If you're sure fish is in your future, at least poach it (or roast it, if you have a good exhaust fan). Open-plan kitchens may be a wonderful house design (though I'm weary of everyone being able to see the dirty pots in my kitchen from last-minute cooking), but you don't want to be smelling that fish while you're nibbling a delicate lemon tart.
Rule 2: Puff pastry is your friend. Those frozen Pepperidge Farm sheets can get you out of almost any cooking jam. Try quick pinwheels for an hors d'oeuvres; people gobble these down with unseemly haste when they come out of the oven, but they're easy to prep ahead, and wide open to filling possibilities. Puff pastry works wonders with desserts, especially if you cut it into individual rounds or squares for small tarts. Even people who claim to be on a diet have a hard time resisting food cut especially for them.
Rule 3: Save recipes. Back in my Raleigh babysitting days, all the women in Blenheim had collections of Junior League cookbooks. On boring nights after the kids went to bed, I read through them and copied recipes that sounded interesting. I've never tried at least half of them, but I have a great collection of recipes from then on to inspire me. I keep mine in photo albums with sticky pages that are covered with clear plastic, which keeps the recipes clean while I cook. It also gives me a starting point; I don't spend a lot of time looking for recipes in books, since I can flip through my appetizer album and quickly get the beginnings of a menu. Failing that, go online--but start with a site that has tested, reliable recipes, such as epicurious.com (its recipes come mostly from Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines).
Rule 4: Don't duplicate textures. If you've served a creamy potato soup, don't follow it with a stew and pudding. You need crunch, and a little astringency, too, to balance things out.
Rule 5: Call forth your inner artist. Picture your food on a plate: Is it all gray? Go for color, and think about easy ways to make the food look good. I don't care for food towers, but I do like to stack things a bit. Roasted salmon looks dressed up when draped over a mixed-green salad; lamb chops stand at attention when balanced atop a scoop of sweet-potato puree.
Rule 6: Make lists. Details slip by me with ease, so my kitchen is plastered with notes before guests arrive. Without a schedule of what to "fire" when, I invariably forget some vital element of the meal until we're relaxing with a cup of coffee.
Rule 7: All's well that ends well. No matter how awful the meal is, people will leave happy if you do right by dessert. Unless you're an accomplished cook, stick to the basics for dessert but dress them up a bit. For example, make brownies, but sandwich them with a scoop of chocolate mousse made by whisking heavy cream together with a pinch of cinnamon and powdered sugar, cocoa, vanilla and Kahlua to taste, then beating until stiff. If you're really feeling fancy, melt together a little more cream with some chocolate chips in the microwave on medium power, and drizzle the plate with this.
Still need help? I don't think parties need a theme, but these might get you started:
The It's Only You, So I'll Try Something New dinner party: Actually, this could be the title for every party I ever threw, as I'm not afraid to try new things on guests; the trick is to be sure there's enough variety (and a fabulous dessert) in case the new dish fails. I know that gives most home cooks the jitters; and yet, what's the fun of trying out something fancy (and often pricey) on just the two of us and our 3-year-old? But your best friends will forgive you if the entree fails and they're stuck eating rice and beans. Try this menu: Start with prosciutto and pinwheels, followed by a salad of mixed greens topped with apples, walnuts, and a mild goat cheese, tossed with an apple balsamic vinaigrette. Follow that with roasted salmon fillets perched atop a saffron-vanilla parsnip puree (steam parsnips until tender, then puree with cream, a pinch of saffron and a dash of vanilla to taste, or, better yet, the insides of a vanilla bean scraped into the puree), surrounded by small, sauteed green beans. Finish with small cups of a rich chocolate pudding topped with shards of chocolate praline.
The Ooh, Yuck! Dinner party: For this party, invite all your friends who refuse to eat anything and everything; I have a friend who turns his nose up at "anything that walks on the ocean floor." He can come to this party with my other friends who sneer at all seafood, and who won't eat raw tomatoes, and who think goat cheese is an affront to civilized society. I love these friends, but I've given up trying to reform them. So, fall back on Italian food, which even the pickiest eater can agree on. You could go for pasta, but the ultimate way to make sure your guests leave happy is to let them make the food themselves. All you do is prepare pizza dough, then roll it out ahead of time or on the spot into individual pizzas. Grill the dough rounds until partially cooked. Set up a table full of toppings and let your guests at it; finish grilling the pizzas over indirect heat until the toppings are heated through. Add a simple salad (iceberg lettuce would suit this crowd, with ranch dressing and croutons, and maybe blue cheese dressing and cashews for those who want to live dangerously). For dessert, keep up the DIY theme with homemade ice cream and a table full of toppings.
The Manly-Man Party: Of course, for this you must grill. And no wimpy boneless chicken breasts, guaranteed to get your guests to nod off. Instead, wake up their taste buds with a bourbon-marinated hanger steak (or skirt steak). Hanger steaks have an intensely beefy taste that's hard to match. Since each animal has just one, these special steaks generally have to be special-ordered--but they're worth it. Round out the menu with more grilling: grilled onions, grilled sweet potatoes, and grilled or roasted green beans (roll green beans in olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and roast at 400 degrees until they start to brown). Finish with a classic apple pie. I hope I'm no manly man, but this sounds like good eating to me.
The Delicate Woman Party: A feast of appetizers seems fabulous to me, but to most men it seems to sound like a stomach rumbling ominously; it's just not enough real food to fill 'er up. But for the right guests, a party of heavy hors d'oeuvres can be fun and easy on the host. Instead of slaving away over some big main course at the last minute, you can prepare hors d'oeuvres a day or more ahead of time if you choose wisely. Of course, this means no fried foods (but how many people do you know who've deep-fried anything in the past year?), and few foods that require last-minute baking. Try: Baked eggplant sandwiches (eggplant slices sandwiched with provolone cheese, dredged in flour, dipped in beaten eggs, and coated with herbed bread crumbs, baked at 350 degrees until tender inside and crunchy out); pinwheels; grilled chicken or beef skewers; goat cheese and chive fondue (heat cream, cheese, chives, and salt and pepper until melted) served with raw vegetables, bread sticks, and pear slices; salted pecans (mix pecan halves with melted butter and salt, and roast until toasted); spinach tartlets; tomato-dill dip (made with plain yogurt) and pita triangles. Figuring quantities for parties like this can be tough, but plan on 12 to 15 pieces per person, and go for about 6 to 8 different hors d'oeuvres.
Proscuitto and Gruyere Pinwheels
Adapted from Gourmet magazine
Makes about 40
Use the basics of this recipe for almost any pinwheel filling you can dream up; all you need is a sheet of puff pastry to get started. Some ideas: cheese and cream cheese blended with sundried tomatoes and basil; a smear of honey mustard, Swiss cheese, and chopped crisp bacon; minced mushrooms and rosemary sauteed in olive oil until almost dry; brie, rosemary and walnuts. I almost always double the recipe to use both sheets in the pastry box; pastry logs can be wrapped in plastic, then in plastic bags, and frozen for at least a month before thawing and slicing. Don't try to unroll the pastry sheet until it's thoroughly thawed, or it will crack.
3/4 cup finely grated Gruyere (about 3 ounces)
4 teaspoons chopped fresh sage leaves
1 puff pastry sheet from one 17 1/4-ounce package frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed completely
1 large egg, beaten lightly
2 ounces thinly sliced proscuitto
Mix Gruyere and sage; set aside. On a lightly floured surface, arrange pastry sheet with a long side facing you and cut in half lengthwise, to create two long sheets. Separate sheets slightly; brush far sides of each with a little egg. Arrange half of proscuitto evenly on top of each pastry sheet, avoiding egg-brushed edge, and divide Gruyere mixture between sheets. Starting with side nearest you, roll one sheet jelly-roll style into a log and wrap in plastic. Repeat with remaining sheet. Chill until firm, at least three hours and up to three days (or freeze).
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease two baking sheets (or cover sheets with parchment paper).
Cut logs crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick pinwheels and arrange, cut sides down, 1 inch apart on baking sheets. Bake pinwheels 14 to 16 minutes until golden, swapping sheets halfway through baking. Serve hot or warm.
Adapted from The Complete Meat Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup bourbon
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup light or dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons minced red onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger (optional)
4 teaspoons coarse (kosher) salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Whisk all ingredients together; makes enough marinade for 2 to 3 pounds of beef. Marinate beef for one to two days, covered (or in a plastic bag), turning occasionally. Pat meat dry before grilling.
Adapted from Sunset magazine
6 to 8 pieces
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons milk
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1 1/2 teaspoons cocoa powder
Lightly coat a 12-inch square of foil and a rubber or offset spatula with cooking spray or vegetable oil; set aside.
In an 8- to 10-inch skillet over medium heat, whisk together sugar, butter, corn syrup, milk and almonds. Stir until mixture is bubbly and golden, about five minutes. Stir in cocoa until smooth. Pour onto foil and quickly spread about 1/4 inch thick with spatula. Let cool; break into pieces.