There are so many reasons to entertain at home. When you live in a small town as I do, you have limited dining choices and sometimes you just want something else. Although I love restaurants, it’s not the same as having people over. It’s my home, my kitchen, my dining room, my vibe. My Dutch husband has taught me a wonderful word, gezellig, which means “a cozy, warm friendly ambiance.” Gezellig perfectly describes the feeling I have entertaining at home and I know my guests feel the same.
Entertaining at home also saves money. You have control over menu and costs, even more when you consider the savings on cocktails and wines. Our favorite house wine, a Cotes du Rhone, costs $14 at the wine shop and $36 at the restaurant.
Think of entertaining, whether its a dinner party for eight, cocktails for a holiday open house or the morning after brunch, as a production and you are the director and producer. It can be a really fun experience free of fear, panic, or worry – especially if you follow my five rules for Entertaining 101.
#1 PLAN, ORGANIZE, MAKE LISTS
The first step is get organized. People who know me know I love lists. When I cater parties, my lists have lists! When I owned the Ridgefield Food Company, I would handwrite my lists and then excel spreadsheets changed my life. What a great organizational tool. Once you set up a list, you’re on automatic.
I’m really a home economics teacher at my core. I love being organized and efficient – definitely something Miss Martha (Stewart of course) and I have in common. One of my favorite cookbook authors, Maida Heatter, (my go-to cookie guru), writes in the header of her bar cookies section that she loves making bar cookies because they are so ordered and the same and she feels such satisfaction seeing them lined up and perfect. I totally relate. Like I said, spreadsheets really do it for me!
Planning means being prepared, which really does eliminate the last minute drama and fear. Write it down. Take your mental notes and make lists from them. Start with who, when, what and time. And then plan the menu. Once the menu is planned (featuring seasonal, organic, locally sourced ingredients, of course), you can prepare your spreadsheet with columns of bought, prepped, finished, and notes. There’s such satisfaction when everything is checked off!
#2 MAKE-AHEAD FOODS
Plan ahead, make ahead. Make sure that the menu planned allows for dishes and recipes that can be made ahead and frozen, or kept in the fridge for a few days. Be prepared and do as much as possible hours before your guests arrive. You will really enjoy entertaining when you can actually spend time with everyone.
Fall and winter are the season for braises and, great news, they freeze so well. Pot roasts, short ribs, chicken thighs, even meatballs are all braises that can be made weeks ahead, frozen, reheated and end up tasting better than the day they were made.
A large brisket (my choice of cut for pot roast) feeds eight and really all the work is done by the oven. A simple version involves three main pantry ingredients plus some spices. Simply lay the brisket on top of a bed of thickly sliced onions in a heavy Dutch oven or the old fashioned blue speckled enameled roasting pan. Rub the brisket with salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder and cumin. Then add the liquid. Typically I use a combo of ketchup, homemade beef broth and red wine. It should come halfway up the pan. Cover with double thick aluminum foil, if you’re not using a Dutch oven. Now, low and slow in the oven with four to six hours at 300°. When fork tender and nearly falling apart, remove the brisket from the pan, let it come to room temperature and freeze it uncut. Take what’s left in the pan and process it until smooth. Freeze the gravy separately. Defrost both the day before and cut the brisket against the grain when still slightly frozen (much easier), carefully return to the pan, cover with some gravy, and heat and serve. It’s a winner and couldn’t be easier.
Soups also freeze well and are a great first course or the main part of a brunch or lunch. Winter squash purées are perfect right now and they add such beautiful color (see image above). Never underestimate eye appeal.
Cookies, bars, brownies and cakes can all be made ahead, frozen and pulled out the day of the party. Freeze separate cake layers, unfrosted. Cookies can be fragile, so be sure to carefully freeze them with a sheet of parchment between each layer of cookies in a box.
A concept used by all restaurants is mis en place, which means “everything in its place.” For the home entertainer it means do whatever you can ahead of time and have all the parts ready to go in plastic bags or bowls. Then, when you’re ready to cook, the recipe is easy to assemble.
#3 WELL-STOCKED PANTRY
A well-stocked pantry includes basics (as well as seasonal items) on the shelves, in the refrigerator and the freezer.
Most important is a non-food item: parchment paper. Since I have a commercial Garland oven, I buy full pan-sized sheets of parchment from a restaurant supplier, but it’s also available in rolls at the grocery store. I use parchment for everything: roasting, baking, wrapping, decorating and reducing clean-up mess.
Maintain your pantry. When you finish something, put it right on the “buy” list. Avoiding those last minute runs to the store, really cuts down the drama. Your personal pantry depends on your tastes and the cuisines you like to cook, but there are basics, which include: broths and stocks, tomato products, pasta, grains, rice, cereals, beans, oils and vinegars, and spices and herbs. I am so delighted that Penzeys finally opened in Albany. I recently updated all my spices that were more than 6 months old. If you start with the best ingredients you can afford, including the herbs and spices, you are much more assured of successful dishes in the end.
The refrigerator should also have some requisite staples on hand, including condiments (I always have at least three mustards), dairy products, capers, olives, and pickles. I keep nuts in the freezer, as well as breads, homemade stocks, and foods prepared ahead. I freeze almost everything, even small amounts of sauces, chopped herbs, or grated cheeses. I am always adding these bits and pieces to other recipes, saving me time and money.
#4 BUILD A REPERTOIRE
Everyone needs a few good go-to dishes, whether meat, fowl, fish, vegetarian or vegan. The tried and true recipes, the ones that you’re sure of and are consistently delicious, are the recipes you want to build your party around.
Party foods can be quite simple and still be successful. The menus I created as a caterer for weddings oftentimes featured courses that were familiar, recognizable foods. Guests feel very hesitant when those hors d’oeuvres trays come around and they have no idea what they’re being offered. Start with a classic dish or a family favorite, then make it personal. Add a particular twist or a variation on a theme, but always keep it simple. Try working with one flavor profile or cuisine for all the courses and dishes, this will help develop your repertoire.
I have several “go-tos” that can be used for entertaining at different times of the day and evening. An herb roasted salmon is a great option for many parties. It works equally well for brunch, lunch, dinner or leftover salmon croquettes. A frittata is another one of my favorites, as it can be enjoyed from breakfast through dinner, including hors d’oeuvres, and can be served at room temperature (which is a big favorite entertaining how-to of mine). We raise our own chickens, which makes our frittatas even more delicious, especially when combined with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Although I feel chocolate should be part of every meal, there are times when another flavor is required, especially if your party is in the morning or early afternoon. An almond polenta cake is my go-to for these occasions. It’s easy to make, freezes and presents beautifully, and tastes delicious morning, noon, or night.
Finally, do not experiment on guests and make something for the first time when you have twelve for dinner. Test out a new dish at least once, if not twice, before adding it to your personal catering repertoire.
#5 DISPLAYS & DECOR
Decor should be background and the food is the star. My experience in food styling has taught me many tips and an important one to remember is food looks best plated on white. Build a stash of white platters, bowls, and trays in a variety of sizes, shapes, and styles. White dishes work well with any holiday, and you can add accents of whichever color suits your party best. Choose one color or a monotone theme for both the flowers and the accoutrements. Again, the background should enhance and showcase the star.
The bounty of the fall and winter seasons are perfect for edible displays, centerpieces and decorating. Winter squash, oranges, persimmon, cranberries, quince, or pomegranates grouped in a basket or bowl produce simple beauty. My garden is still providing beautiful sage, kale and other greenery, and I love to incorporate the outdoor elements of branches, bittersweet or pinecones in my decorating. To add interest and “wow” factor, use smaller acorn squash and mini pumpkins as dip and sauce containers on your winter crudités dips platters.
Think about where you enjoy going out to eat and what you order. Consider your individual family traditions and ethnic favorites. Start small and go from there. Build your confidence. You only need to do things once to have experience and experience is all it takes to be successful and enjoy entertaining at home.
What’s your biggest rule to follow when you entertain at home?
Photo Credit: Nancy Meyer
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