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
- Think about serving before you plan the food. Most apartments don't have dining rooms and some don't have table seating for more than two or four places. So think about the serving and the eating before you determine the menu. If guests will be juggling plates on their laps, make it easy on them (and not too messy for you) with single-dish meals or soups served in mugs. And really big napkins. If your dining table is small, make a meal that can be completely plated in the kitchen instead of bringing serving bowls and platters to your table.
- Think about serving pieces and plates while deciding what you'll serve. It can be annoying to have to wash the forks or plates in between courses. Make sure you've got the right -- and enough -- dishes and flatware and serving pieces for the menu you've chosen. I'm also fussy about napkins: I want them to be all cotton (synthetics aren't absorbent) and preferably really big.
- The season should influence your menu. We're now well into spring and the Greenmarkets and farmers' markets are beginning to bring us local fruits and vegetables -- a great place to look for inspiration. Cooking from the ingredients up is always the route to the best flavor, plus in-season ingredients are usually less expensive. I go the market with a menu in mind but I let myself be flexible; so if I'm planning sliced pineapple for dessert but then spot plump, sweet early cherries, I make the switch.
- Resist making new recipes for company. You may have friends and family who love being your guinea pigs and will encourage experimentation (and forgive any misses), but doing a new recipe adds to the stress of the cooking. Besides, you want the meal to be about everyone else, not your cooking adventures.
- Plan a meal with four elements: 1) An hors d'oeuvres or salty nibble to go with a cocktail or aperitif; see our articles about pre-dinner hors d'oeuvres. 2) A starter that begins the meal, e.g., soup or salad or a combination of light elements like smoked fish or a vegetable antipasto. 3) A main course like a stew, pasta or tagine that includes vegetables or else an entrée like fish or a roast or chops accompanied by sides of grain and vegetables. 4) Dessert. Depending on what you're making, there may also be foods to complement the meal, such as chutney, sauce, grated cheese, breads, etc.
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:
- Diversity of ingredients. For example, if you're planning cheesecake for dessert, don't make a salad with goat cheese for your starting course. There are so many kinds of foods and flavors, we can always find something that's not redundant.
- Diversity of color, texture and sweet/savory/heat. If you're making a spicy chili for the main course, serve a first course that's lightly seasoned. And watch out for the all-too-easy all-white-meal, particularly risky at Thanksgiving, by making sure your whole meal has color. If you plan to start with a pale celery soup, don't follow it with spaghetti with white clam sauce and coconut flan.
- Balance big and small, complex and simple. If your starter is elaborate, has big spicy flavor, or has a luxurious ingredient like salmon roe or truffle oil, have your main course be less fancy. For example, if you're starting with spring salad greens and a little scoop of lobster salad, follow that with something like chicken and dumplings and steamed asparagus for your entrée. This kind of balance can also help stretch the cost of the meal.
- I like meals in which there is one major showpiece. A showpiece doesn't have to be the most complicated dish on the menu, but it's the element around which you plan the rest of the meal -- and also your time and budget. For example, if I'm serving a beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce (easy to make but luxurious and pricey), I will do a simple salad to start, one plain green vegetable like broccolini or little roasted potatoes to go with the roast, and a refreshing dessert like lemon sorbet and blueberries.
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.
- This one is for the cook: don't make everything really complicated. Acknowledging the volume of work will make the difference between being able to enjoy the time with your guests or being too exhausted. Give yourself the option to make simple roasted vegetables if you've decided to hand-blend your own hollandaise sauce or bake an apricot tart tatin. You don't need to cook everything at full throttle. This isn't "Top Chef."
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.