Cooking for A Dinner Party, Part I

Cooking for A Dinner Party, Part I

Am I the only one who has had this experience?  It's 6:15 pm and I've spent an entire Saturday in the kitchen making dinner for friends.  They're arriving at 7:00 pm and I'm still in what has become a food-spattered tee shirt and yoga pants.  I head to the shower only to detour back to the kitchen to make an overlooked dressing for the salad.  The candles still need to be lit, I can't find any matches, and I'm trying to get the music set up before anyone arrives.

I'm already exhausted and the evening hasn't even begun.

When my role switches from cook to hostess, there have been times I'd just prefer to leave everyone a note as to where to find dinner, and disappear to take a nap.  Plus I don't have one of those HGTV kitchens where you can offer a seat at the center island and ask them to slice a loaf of bread so to be part of that festive end-of-cooking moment that segues into dinner at the table.

In my apartment the scene is more my steering guests into the living room and away from the cooking remnants.  If someone follows me into the one-tush over-heated kitchen, I'll plant a stool in the doorway, ask them to sit down and hand them a drink while I get back to work. 

I don't mean to sound like I am complaining because there is little I love more than to spend a day cooking for others followed by an evening lingering at a dinner table.  But candor requires the admission that the task has its challenges.

When cooking for someone for the first time, I will always ask -- "Any food allergies or issues?" -- hoping they say, "Nope.  I eat anything."  But food allergies are part of life, as are personal preferences.  So if someone has rules, I will do my best to accommodate them.  I've been known to make a single portion of pasta puttanesca (minus the anchovies) for the vegan daughter of a friend and to poach a piece of salmon for the single non-meat eater when everyone else was having osso buco.  A vegetarian?  I'll make extra portions of the side dishes.  I have a sister-in-law with gluten allergies so I will have fruit or sorbet on hand if I've baked a tart for dessert.  In other words I try to please my guests without having to build the entire meal around one person's requirements. 

It's always been my preference to have intimate dinners because I enjoy the kind of conversation that can only occur with a small group.  I know this isn't always possible because some gatherings are just naturally bigger -- whether it's large families or an event that requires more inclusion than exclusion.  Still, when it comes to asking friends to "come to dinner," I will keep the number at six or below.  It's also practical.  My dinner table is not big, I only have six chairs, and the same goes for my edited supply of dishes, wine glasses, and other tableware.

Finally, for me any dinner party is as much about the cooking as it is the company.  I want to enjoy the process of making the meal but I still want to have some of me left over to be at the table with my guests.  That's why cooking a dinner party in a small city kitchen requires extra planning and strategies, whether it's Thanksgiving or a casual supper for four.  As more of us entertain at home instead of seeing friends at restaurants, we don't want to be put through a stress test anytime we want to invite someone over for a meal.  So here are a few lessons I've learned in the years I've spent cooking for company that may help.

Planning the Menu

Create a Menu With Balance

I think this is one of the most essential aspects of planning a meal.  You want to create a menu that achieves the following: 

Or if I want to make hot fudge sundaes with home-made vanilla ice cream for dessert, I will make sure the rest of the meal is light enough to end with such a splurge -- plus there will be no other dairy in the rest of the meal.  Hot fudge sundaes are a great dessert for dinner parties because everyone loves them, you can make the sauce in advance, and if making your own ice cream isn't convenient, you can buy excellent ones.  My current favorite is Horizon's vanilla -- it's much less expensive than Haagen Dazs and has a lighter, almost milky flavor.

Remember that your friends aren't expecting fancy or costly ingredients and in my experience, most will prefer a stew or rustic pasta to a costly roast. 

Look for Part II of this article that has ideas for recipes that are city kitchen friendly plus some detailed menus for apartment entertaining that may give you some inspiration for picking up the phone and inviting someone to dinner.





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