November 6, 2010

How to Host a Dinner Party and Preserve your Sanity

A dinner party you say? With an infant? Yes you CAN! The reason you can is that proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance. (The seven p's as one of my friends puts it). Really, an elegant, delicious, fun and low stress dinner party is possible if you space out your preparations over several days.

Let's say your dinner party is on Friday night. Our little one goes to bed at 7, so I try to schedule the start of the dinner parties at 7:30. Here's a timeline of what I do when and by the time Friday evening rolls around, there is actually very little for me to do, which makes me relaxed and able to enjoy the wonderful company!


It's Tuesday, it's time to decide what you are going to serve and give a little attention to your houseplants. When planning your menu, know what you're confident making. One of the things that will stress you out the most is trying a new recipe. It not only takes you longer to make it, but the execution is hard because you've never made it before and it takes more of your focus to complete it well. If it doesn't go well, you get anxious and there's no need to make yourself anxious! As a rule, I typically don't serve recipes I haven't tried at least once to company. If you're just embarking into the world of hosting dinner parties, this might be a good rule to follow! With regard to the houseplants, I water them if they need watering and trim sad looking areas.
When I plan my menu, I usually have one dish in mind that I'd like to make. That might be the main course, or it might be a starter. Once I decide on one thing, it acts like an anchor, I then build the rest of the menu around it. Here's the composition of my menus: cheese, cured meat and olives during cocktails, first course, second course (which is usually meat with one to two side dishes) and dessert (sometimes there is more than one component of dessert). I make an effort to have the dishes be cooperative, if your menu is very fall themed, don't try to force an item that doesn't fit. Think about classic accompaniments, meat with some type of potato dish is always a crowd pleaser and a nice salad is always delicious. The first course doesn't have to always be a salad, it can be pasta for example. You get the idea! So plan your menu on Tuesday and make a shopping list of everything you need at the store.


It's Wednesday! On Wednesday, I go to the store and I buy everything I need. I also start to make some of the components. Let's use this dinner party we just hosted as an example, here's what was on the menu:

Cheeses, Cured Meats and Olives (with cocktails)
Homemade Fettuccine with Artichokes and Lemon
Porchetta Style Pork Loin
Salad of Butter Lettuce with Chives and Tarragon
Smashed Potatoes with White Truffle Oil
Chocolate Layer Cake with Ganache and Salted Caramel
Candied Orange and Grapefruit Peel

So on Wednesday, I made the caramel for the cake, the ganache, and the pasta noodles (I refrigerated the caramel and ganache and froze the pasta noodles). I already had in my pantry the Porchetta rub for the pork, so that didn't need to be done. I already had the candied citrus peel, which I make quite a bit at a time and then store in mason jars, so that was already done, too! I had already bought the cheese, cured meat and olives and crackers, so that didn't need any prep either. We actually went out until pretty late on Wednesday to a wonderful wine dinner.


It's Thursday! The day I baked my cake layers and the dog ate them. We took her to the vet to get vomiting induced, poor little puppy :( The cake contained cocoa powder and espresso, so the vet thought we should get it out! She is absolutely fine, not to worry, she was not home from the vet for more than 45 minutes before she was back to her usual antics... Ah Pele! Ok, so you bake your cake possibly twice on Thursday!

Here's what else you do on Thursday, set the table, iron and fold your napkins, marinate your meat and assemble your cake. Let's take these one at a time!

Setting the table:

We have a dining room table that extends to seat twelve, but it's in a shorter configuration usually. Sometimes we like to have everyone, including ourselves, the hosts, sit on the sides of the table, instead of at each end. We like this because it lets us talk to more than just the people to either side of us. Something to think about! So go ahead and set your table with the silverware, plates and glasses you'll need. If you're having trouble with spacing of the items, a helpful rule is that silverware should be about one inch from the edge of the table and half an inch between each piece. If you have a dessert fork in your setting, it goes at the top of the plate and faces toward the right. When placing your glasses or crystal, the water glass goes directly above the tip of the knife and then there is a specific order that you follow toward the right for other beverage glasses. The first to follow the water glass to the right is the champagne flute (if you are having champagne), then red wine, then white. Give some thought to what plates you'll need. Although we have salad / dessert plates that I'd typically use for the first course, I used dinner plates for both the first and the second course last night. The reason I did that it because the pasta sits very widely on the plate and it a bit messy to eat, so I wanted guests to have as much room as comfortably possible. If our first course had been a mache salad with figs, goat cheese and bacon, the salad sized plate would have been just fine. If you are serving rolls or bread, put out a bread plate and a butter knife to the left of your beautiful and expertly executed setting. For a continental flair, place silverware tines and bowl sides down.


Napkins get their own special entry, which may be puzzling you... Well executed napkins are one of my favorite aspects of the dinner table. A well pressed, starched napkin folded into a lyrical shape is gorgeous! Here's the secret how to:

You may use cotton or linen napkins. Put them through the washing machine as you normally would, but do not put them through the dryer. While they are still damp from the washing machine, spray them with spray starch, but not the scented kind you might use for bed linens or towels. Place them in zip lock bags and freeze them in your freezer until you are ready to press them and use them. I believe in and use this method so much that half of our freezer drawers and full of linens! I label the bags with a sharpie, 12 dinner monogram, 12 cocktail napkins, navy linen, etc. Ok, so you are ready to press them. Take them out of the freezer and, this may take a few minutes, unfold them so they may be ironed. Use the cotton/linen (or appropriate setting) on your iron (without any steam, you won't need any) and press the napkins. You'll be amazed at how perfectly they work this way, you have no creases and the frozen water is your steam!!! What I do is press as many as I need and when they are done, I move each to the dining room table, where I'll fold them.

Marinate your meat! I rub the pork loins with garlic and the fennel and rosemary rub. I cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. When people are finished with the first course, I throw them on our Big Green Egg, which is an outstanding grill if you're in the market for one, at 400 degrees for about 6-7 minutes per side. Let it rest for a few minutes before you cut the pork loin and serve.

Final step for Thursday, assemble the cake! If you're making a dessert, it's nice to get it out of the way the day before the event. In this case, I made a chocolate layer cake with ganache and salted caramel. I had baked two cake layers and then cut them into four layers using a serrated knife. I placed a layer of ganache (ganache is chocolate melted with hot cream and then cooled, it forms a somewhat solid frosting like substance) and then a layer of caramel topped with some sea salt and almonds, repeating with each layer. The remaining ganache went over the top and on the sides, which were then pressed with toasted, coarsely chopped almonds. If your homemade cake is not as neat and professional looking as you'd like, take a deep breath and step away from the cake. Honestly, if you can tell it is homemade, that is INCREDIBLY GOOD because it means that a) your guests know you made it (hooray!) and b) they also know it is going to be INCREDIBLY GOOD because we all know homemade treats are delicious!

So let's say you are not a cake person. You can serve lots of things for dessert! Sorbet, Gelato, a cookie plate, a fruit and cheese pairing with honey and nuts. Serve what you like and are confident serving!


Straighten your house, make your first course, make your salad, prep your potatoes. In the morning on Friday during the little one's morning nap, I straighten the 'public' rooms. These are the rooms your guests will see. If there are rooms you don't want them to see, close those doors! My husband, bless him, is a pile maker. He has piles of magazines (hunting, finance, golf), catalogs, notes, newspapers, and they span the kitchen table, kitchen counter and den side tables. Instead of tearing my hair out and going through these, on Friday I make the bed in our bedroom and I carry all of the piles out of these areas and I simply place them on the bed. Problem solved! I make sure the guest bathroom is presentable, I fluff couch cushions, I straighten rugs. I don't clean the kitchen yet, because I'm just going to mess it up some more.

During baby's afternoon nap, I make the first course and I place it in the refrigerator. When I serve it at the party, I'll just reheat it on the stove. I go ahead and peel the undesirable items off the potatoes and so they don't 'rust,' I place the potatoes in a large bowl of water. I then take a shower and put on some fun make up!

So take a moment to survey everything you've accomplished, aside from the kitchen, your house is straightened and presentable, your dessert is 100% done, your meat is ready to be thrown on the grill or into the oven, your cheese course doesn't need you to make anything, your table is totally set and just needs guests, your first course is made, basically all you have to do is make your salad and get dressed! So when Daddy comes home from work, we feed baby, and then we take turns watching him before bed time. From 6 to 6:30, I make the salad dressing and the salad, slather my potatoes in olive oil and start them roasting in the oven, take the meat out of the refrigerator to come up to room temperature and clean up the kitchen (make sure you have a great dishwasher!) and wipe the counters clean (we use a granite spray from Whole Foods). We switch and Daddy comes downstairs to get the bar ready, (the bar is his domain, he is in charge of wine pairing and cocktails), he makes fresh citrus juice from limes and lemons and decants the red we're having with the main course. Little baby goes to bed, I come downstairs and put on what I'm wearing to the party, we take little Pele outside to go to the bathroom and put her away (if your dog is better behaved they could probably attend the party, Pele would just steal people's napkins). My husband starts a fire in the fireplace, I put out the cheeses and other items that go with the cocktails and that is it!

You might wonder why I clean the kitchen. There are two main reasons. The first is that I find it is hard to keep people out of your kitchen. Especially with more modern house plans where the kitchen has no doors. Whoever came up with this idea should be shot. Seriously. I dream of a house one day where the kitchen has doors and I can close them and no one can see all the pots and pans. Anyhow, I digress... So the first reason is that you can't keep people out of the kitchen and if you're like me, you'd rather they didn't see a mess. The second reason is that it is very calming for you. To have a clean kitchen and then just be responsible after the party for the dishes- that's much better than having to clean it up all at once. That's pretty much my entire philosophy when it comes to cooking, entertaining and homemaking, don't try to do everything at once, you'll get really frustrated and explode, just expend moderate effort on a constant basis and do things well and intentionally, and you'll be more than pleased with the results!
Have a WONDERFUL dinner party!!!!!

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