Here’s a question from a reader that I thought might be best answered on the blog. (Note: I edited the letter for brevity’s sake.)
I’ve been reading your blog now for six or seven years, though I’ve never commented. I really enjoy your humor and down to earth advice about cooking. I started reading your blog when I was in grad school and loved it as an escape from reading research articles.
One thing I’ve always loved about your blog is when you write about entertaining your friends at your home. You seem like such a natural, warm and welcoming host. Your dinner parties look like the kind I always hope to be invited to or put on myself. Plus, the food always looks delicious.
I’m usually pretty stressed [when I entertain]. I worry about everything. I can’t seem to do the lovely casual meals I see you put together for your friends and guests. How do you plan? How do you figure out how much food to make? What do you say when guests offer to bring something? I’d love to be able to do the warm, effortless-looking, casual, beautiful and delicious entertaining you seem to do on a regular basis.
Thanks in advance for any advice,
Well thank you, Anne, for your kind words. That’s very flattering!
Here’s how I go about things when I’m having people over for dinner. I start by thinking about who’s coming over: are they vegetarian? Adventurous eaters? Health-conscious? Total gluttons that are hard to impress? Based on who’s coming over, I start planing the menu. So that time I cooked for vegans, I enjoyed the opportunity to make something that felt special without using meat or dairy.
When I cook for my friends Mark and Diana, I try to make something new and exciting (since they’ve had so many of my usual dinner party staples). When I cook for Craig’s male film school friends, I tend to make something very meaty, like that time I made a Sunday gravy for his friends Luke and Rob.
The key is not to think of guests’ dietary restrictions or tastes as limitations but rather prompts for menu-planning. I think good hosts want to please their guests; so guests that give you any direction are actually easier to cook for than guests who give you no direction. Rather than starting with the “What?” as in “What will I make?” start with the “Who?” as in “Who am I cooking for?”
Then it’s time for logistics. I almost always start out by choosing an entree then work backwards: what appetizer would go well with that entree? What dessert?
Let’s look at my most recent dinner party: Diana’s Birthday Dinner. So, as stated earlier, Diana and her husband Mark know my cooking repertoire inside and out (after all, Diana used to be my roommate) so with them, I really try to reach for something new. So I started by thumbing through a recent cookbook purchase, Braising by Daniel Boulud (which I scored for $10 at The Strand). The Smoky Beef Chili in that book really called out to me because: (a) Mark and Diana really like meat; (b) Mark and Diana really like spicy, Mexican-inspired food; and (c) I could make it earlier in the day and set it aside or refrigerate until it’s time to serve.
That last part–the ability to make it ahead–is the key to what you refer to as my “warm, effortless-looking, casual” dinner party vibe. I never ever ever cook anything “à la minute” when I have guests. I don’t sear steaks, I don’t grill fish, I don’t flambé cherries and I don’t fry doughnuts to order. Everything I do I do ahead so I can relax, sit down for a drink, snack, hang out and then casually dish up dinner. The dinner party is always a million times better because of that.
And it all starts with the entree. Your best bets are roasts (because they can rest while you hang out with your guests), braises (because you can make them ahead and they get better with time) and casseroles (like lasagna which you can assemble ahead and bake just before your guests arrive).
Once you have your entree picked out, let it inform everything else. With the Smoky Beef Chili I made for Diana’s birthday, which came from a Daniel Boulud Braising book, I turned to another Daniel Boulud cookbook for dessert. His recipe for chocolate ginger pound cake seemed wrong for a Mexican-inspired dinner, so I swapped out the ginger for chiles and made a Chocolate Chile Pound Cake which I served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. As for the appetizer, I turned to Rick Bayless because of the Mexican theme and chose this jicama salad.
Timing-wise, I usually do dessert first to get it out of the way, but if it’s a braise that’ll taste better the longer it sits, I sometimes start with that. The salad you can leave for the very end; an hour before your guests arrive, get all the ingredients into a bowl (unless they’re ingredients that discolor, like apples, in which case you’re going to have to cut them up just before) and have your dressing ready.
No matter what the dinner, I always make sure I’m done cooking an hour before guests show up. At that point, I like to set the table, turn on some music, maybe even pour myself a glass of wine. Nothing’s more unnerving than showing up to someone’s house for dinner and having them scrambling about, sweating and cursing and ruing the day they ever decided to cook you dinner. It makes the guests feel awful.
If you give yourself that final hour, chances are your guests will immediately pick up on that relaxed vibe (the one you mentioned in your e-mail) and will begin to feel relaxed/comfortable themselves. That, I believe, is more important than how perfect the food is. If it’s a choice between less-than-perfect food served by congenial/happy hosts vs. perfect food served by stressed out/perfectionist hosts, I’ll always choose the former (though I’ve had many experiences with the latter).
Hope you found this helpful! Lots of luck to you and next time you have a dinner party, invite me.
The Amateur Gourmet
P.S. I realize I didn’t answer two of your questions! In terms of how much food to make, I always make more than I need because (a) nothing’s worse than not having enough food for your guests; and (b) nothing’s better than having leftovers. So if you’re cooking for 6, make enough for 8. As for your other question, rarely do people want to bring things; but if they do want to make something, I usually ask them to make dessert. Otherwise, I ask everyone to bring wine.