Although Bryan and I never shied away from hosting dinner parties in our small living spaces, owning our own house and finally having a real dining table has really made hosting friends for dinner that much more cozy and comfortable. Since we moved in we have hosted a number of gatherings including, a pizza party for 8 on the patio, dinners of 4 for family and friends, a soup and salad dinner for 10, a 1st birthday party for 12 adults and 5 children and a New Year/Holiday dinner for six. Planning menus at HM gave me some good experience learning what flavors and textures go together and how to go about creating a prep list. However, you don’t have to have worked in a restaurant before to do that. Below are some of the things I do when planning a menu and dinner party that I think would be helpful for anybody.
- Try to find out if any of your guests have special diets. We have friends who are allergic to anything from pine nuts to carrots and while it can make things a little tricky, it is important to have items that everyone can eat and enjoy.
- Choose items that can be ready ahead of time. Soups, stews and braised meats are prefect for this. They can be prepared a day or two in advance allowing for convenience and depth of flavor. I have discovered that meatballs freeze beautifully, I have made them up to a few weeks in advance and then had them on hand for when family comes to visit. They are a great comfort food and are a hearty dish to center a menu around. Preparing things that can sit a few minutes before being served also allows you to have time to be an attentive and engaging host, as opposed to running around and not getting a chance to visit because everything on the menu has to be done at the same time. (This is something you eventually learn from experience – I have been that crazy person too many times!!)
- Try to plan your menu a few days in advance. I have stuck to a 3 course formula – salad, main dish with one side and dessert. You can play with this however you like. Since I have made a lot of one pot stews and braised meats there is no need for multiple side dishes, I simply have made rice, polenta or mashed root veggies to go along with it. In the warmer months when you are grilling you could simple cut out a side dish and serve grilled meat with a hearty colorful salad. I enjoy flipping through my cookbooks a few days in advance. When I find something I really want to make I build the meal around that. If I want to make a salad with corn, avocado and other Mexican flavors I might then look for a pork stew with tomatillos or black beans or a grilled meat option with similar flavor profile. Italian is always easy and allows you to use a variety of ingredients trending from traditional to slightly more of a Mediterranean feel. Besides cookbooks I find Epicurious and Food and Wine to be very helpful when planning a menu. Epicurious has an APP that is wonderful.
- Make whatever you want. Some people caution to only make things that you have made before. I don’t live by this rule, I often see something I want to try and use it as an excuse to have people over. Do whatever you are comfortable with, if you are nervous about serving something new to people make something you are familiar with.
- Plan to do your grocery shopping at least a day in advance. Even when I am preparing something simple it makes for a much more relaxing preparation if you don’t have to go to the grocery store and cook all in one day.
- Always plan to have light snacks and a glass of wine before the meal. This allows guests to arrive, relax and visit before the meal begins. Two types of cheese (one soft, one firm) crackers and some fruit is usually more than enough.
- Invest is a nice pitcher, fill with ice and water and have it on the counter or table for guests to serve themselves with. I like to put a few slices of lemon in it, guests always want water and this way they don’t have to be pouring their own from the sink.
- Music, candles, soft lighting are all things that help create a cozy atmosphere. Aretha Franklin and Nora Jones stations on Pandora are always a big hit and I try to make sure I have an array of unscented candles to scatter around the house.
- This last tip is borrowed from Julia Child and one I find myself remembering every time I put food on the table. “You should never apologize at the table. People will think, ‘Yes, it’s really not so good.” Most likely even if you don’t think what you put on the table is the best thing you ever ate, the people you made it for will enjoy very much.
Over the next few months I hope to blog a few simple recipes that I have served to friends and family. Recipes that I have enjoyed preparing and eating. One of the main reasons I love to cook and bake is the feeling of love and friendship that is created when eating together. Please feel free to write questions in the comments and I hope to be able to discuss them in my new “Dinner Party 101 Series”.