Anatomy of a Stress-Free Dinner Party

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I like to go to dinner parties, but I really love to host them. For many people, hosting a dinner party sounds great a couple of weeks away, but as the date of the soiree nears, they start to panic. The fun party becomes an overwhelming episode of marginally controlled mania, where the minutiae of an overzealous menu consume the host. Rather than just relaxing and having fun (what a dinner party is all about, isn’t it?), the host focuses on making everything perfect. I think a lot of young couples go through a similar situation on their wedding day: they have these unrealistic expectations of “perfection” and all the things that have to happen to have a successful wedding rather than just focusing on the two most important things (one, get married, and two, have fun).

So, for me a successful dinner party comes down to two basic elements. First, did my guests and I have fun? Second, did I provide them with some reasonably tasty food? That’s it. That’s why I’m comfortable with sending out an email at noon on Friday for an impromptu dinner party that evening. I make it simple on myself, and we all have fun.

Of course, having plenty of wine is pretty damn important, too!

My wife and I hosted 15 other people this past Saturday, on the evening that we were expecting two to four inches of snow. People cancelled at the last minute because they were tired or their sitter backed out on them. Did I worry about having way too much food? Of course not. We just called some other friends and invited them at the last minute. I love friends whom you can call on a whim and they’re not angry they didn’t get invited in the first place!

So what did I serve? Five courses (including the pre-dinner focaccia), all of which involved fairly simple preparations. Here’s the official menu, which sounds a lot grander than it was (and you’ll notice that I’ve already written about some of these ideas).

Pre-Dinner Cocktails

Pre-Dinner Snack

  • Rosemary, Olive Oil and Sea Salt Focaccia
  • Linguiça, Taleggio and Smoked Salt Focaccia

Dinner

  • Mixed Green Salad with Goat Cheese, Toasted Pumpkin Seeds and Apple Cider Vinaigrette
  • Pan Seared Sea Scallops with Butternut Squash Risotto and Chive Oil
  • Roasted Rack of Pork with Heirloom Beans, Asparagus, and Veal Demiglace
  • Meyer Lemon Pots de Crème with Almond Lace Cookie

I’ll write about each of these items over the next several days, but the key thing is that nothing required a ton of preparation. Moreover, nothing demanded my undivided attention for an inordinate amount of time. Platings were very simple. Finally, all of these items were accessible to nearly all tastes. I had two non-red meat eaters, so they just got some more beans instead of pork. There was enough food such that no one went hungry. Moreover, I had assigned people to bring wines with each course, so we had a Team Bivalve, who was assigned to bring the wine for scallop dish.

As far as handling all of this, it did take me two days, but I could have done it in one (OK, maybe not the demiglace). I broke down the menu into stuff that I could do in advance and what needed to be done a la minute. So, I made my vinaigrette, prepared my demiglace (Whole Foods actually has veal bones for sale – have them cut them into 4-inch long pieces for you), whipped up the chive oil, and made the pot de crèmes. The next morning I made the cookies with my kids. I also cooked some butternut squash in the microwave and mashed it for the risotto. Oh, and I made some of those wonderful Rancho Gordo beans, starting by sautéing shallots, carrots and garlic in duck fat and then adding the beans and water. So easy. So damn good.

I also had my kids squeeze the lemons and limes and pre-mixed, or “batched”, the cocktails, requiring only a quick shaking with ice to prepare. The dough for the fococce was a “no-knead” variety, making it very simple.

I prepped the rest of the items, and the only mise en place I needed was for the risotto. I had to make the bread crumbs for the pork roast, but a blender did the trick for that (and for the garlic and herb-laden emulsion that went into the crust). I patted the crumbs on the roast a couple of hours before the guests arrived, and I was ready to go.

Guests helped with plating and serving. They also helped clear the tables, mix cocktails, and open wine. I didn’t need to do it all, and they liked to help.

All in all, it was a very fun night. Hell, the moonshine made an appearance at the end of the evening, so you know that folks were in a fine state of mind. It was a stress-free dinner party, enjoyed by everyone, without a bit of pain or agony involved. Except for the clean-up with a hangover.

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6 Responses to Anatomy of a Stress-Free Dinner Party

  1. Dana says:

    Sounds fantastic! I’m impressed with your comfort in whipping it all together. I missed the paragraph about spending 3 days cleaning the house (that’s what happens at our house!)

  2. Cheryl says:

    Yeah, that part about cleaning the house—before and after—that’s what I can do without. The cooking/baking aspect…I’ll take that, although my menus aren’t as sophisticated as those of Mr. V.

  3. lomantik says:

    All these and you have kids? haha awesome!

  4. Varmint says:

    “Only” 4 kids, although I had to feed dinner to 8 on that day, before the guests arrived!

  5. Maura says:

    My pre-party house cleaning consists of cleaning the bathroom, sweeping the floors and straightening up a little. God made candles and lowlighting for a reason.

    Like Varmint, I do as much as possible ahead of time, and don’t serve anything that has to be prepared at the last minute. I set up a food preparation timeline in a spreadsheet, starting at the end and working back. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s the only way to keep myself organized.

    I’ve learned not to overdo it, and I’m able to enjoy my own party.

    Varmint, that’s an impressive menu. It sounds wonderful.

  6. Omolabake says:

    Good luck my frined. You are MORE than qualified to take this title – I hope you go far!

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