Visualization and planning are the keys to a smooth-flowing and disaster-free evening. Begin by selecting a set of recipes with which you feel comfortable. When creating a complete menu, mix recipes that can be fixed in advance with those that need to be prepared or finished during the party.
A few days ahead of the dinner, spend half an hour during your commute to work (or whenever your mind tends to take cat naps) and focus on the number of guests, the food, the cooking facilities and the working space in which you will be cooking.
Picture yourself preparing the dishes you intend to make and serving them in the manner you have chosen. If the act of visualizing the preceding steps causes butterflies in your stomach, select alternative recipes, simplify the menu and/or plan to do more of the cooking in advance.
If you are a certified dinner party phobic attempting to overcome your anxieties, select a recipe that can be prepared earlier in the day (i.e., a curry) and serve it with a simple salad of baby greens. Buy a finger food and a dessert or, simpler still, ask two guests to bring them. In so doing, you can put the mental block of food preparation behind you and focus on the deep-rooted source of your phobia.
It is not always possible, and never crucial, to prepare all of the food during the last 90 minutes before your guests arrive or in their presence. The flavors of some foods, like soups and curries, actually improve after sitting for a day. Other foods can be prepared in advance and frozen--although I confess to having little experience in this area because the freezer section in my aesthetically pleasing ‘50s refrigerator functions exclusively as a frost factory.
The corollary to food improving with time is that some foods lose their zest if prepared too far in advance. Before serving any food, taste it. If necessary, “refresh” it with salt, pepper, lemon and/or a generous portion of the same herbs that were used originally to flavor the dish.
Sizing the Servings
Unless you have specifically asked how hungry individual guests are, it is desirable to make all portions equal.
The first phase of portion control takes place when shopping for ingredients. Sometimes a little hardball may be required. For example, if you were to request twelve one-inch thick salmon steaks from your local fishmonger, he would probably cut them from a single salmon. Unfortunately, the cut from the middle of the fish can be twice as wide as the cuts nearest the head or tail. There’s almost always another salmon “in the back,” and you must stand your ground to get what you need. After all, you are the customer and, per the retail credo, that makes you always right.
To avoid running out of food, prepare a little extra--even if it means having leftovers. When planning for casual parties when additional guests may drop by or arrive in tow with your invited guests, it’s always wise to prepare extra portions of the main dish. At least be sure to have lots of something (i.e., salad, bread, veggies, etc.).
If you are assembling plates for a seated affair, don’t let any plate out of the kitchen until you are certain that you have enough of everything to complete the remaining plates.
Timing is Everything.
Having settled on a menu and decided which items to cook in advance, slide back into the visualization mode for a moment and imagine that it’s 15 minutes before show time. Will everything be ready at the same time? Are the garnishes prepped? Did you put the rice on?
Return to the present and create a “critical path” by establishing the sequence in which each dish needs to be started, refreshed or reheated. When in doubt, scribble out a running order and stick it on the refrigerator.
When show time arrives, wait until the last minute to put the finishing touch on delicate foods. As a rule, begin steering your guests toward the dinner table before tossing a salad, adding shrimp to a sauce or steaming vegetables.
The Accelerated Assembly Line
Assembling a large number of plates quickly is a challenge for professional chefs and amateurs alike. Before you begin, think about how you would like the food to look on the plate and how the colors, shapes and textures will interact. Create a blueprint in your mind and plan to assemble each plate identically. Then:
* Have all of the food and garnishes ready to be dished out.
* Have the appropriate serving utensils in hand.
* Set the (warmed) plates out on the available counter space.
* Confirm that all of the guests are seated.
* Make up the first plate according to the blueprint in your mind.
* Then, with the help of one or two guests-cum-chefs, dish it all out as quickly as possible, assembly-line style. (If you have a cassette deck in your kitchen, play the William Tell Overture.)
* Wipe any drippings from around the edge of the plates with a clean dish towel and check that garnishes are in place before allowing each dish to leave the kitchen.
Oven space, counter space and refrigerator space are valuable commodities when cooking for large groups--and another reason to keep the menu simple. A shortage of counter space is the most common hindrance in a small kitchen.
Sometimes a little ingenuity is required to convert dead space into a functional prepping area. Cover the sink with a cutting board, turn a cookie sheet upside-down and place it over the stove’s burners (heat off, please) and clear the decks of any appliances or items that are not required for the meal (i.e., the juicer, toaster, bread maker, coffee maker, coffee grinder, kettle, cookie jar, popcorn maker--I think you get the picture).
The Grill Drill
The advent and popularity of propane grills has significantly reduced the inconvenience factor of grilling. If you are using propane, refill your tank before the party and/or keep a spare tank--a party is a bad time to discover the gas gauge is broken.
I still swear by real hardwood charcoal (often available only in mesquite), which I believe provides the best grill flavor. This may stem from my difficulty in conceptualizing how petrified lava rocks can duplicate the smoky flavor of natural wood.
When grilling with real charcoal, light your coals 30 minutes in advance. Extra charcoal may be required to keep the fire burning, but it beats fighting to get the coals lighted while your famished dinner guests cheer you on.
Never use starter fluids to light your coals. They make food taste like a gas rag, not to mention being one of the worst known air polluters. Use crumpled newspaper, ideally in combination with the very politically correct starter chimney.
Whether you have chosen gas or charcoal, beware that grilling for 6 to 12 people can require a surprisingly large area of grill space, especially if you have chosen to accompany the entree with grilled vegetables. Be prepared to grill your food in shifts or borrow a second grill so that all of the food can be cooked at once.
Help! I Need Somebody
Once your guest list hits the double digits, the sheer volume of people becomes an impediment to merely “winging it.” In most cases, guests are willing to lend a hand or even arrive early to help, though occasionally circumstances may make this inappropriate or undesirable. In these cases, you might consider outside help.
Help comes in the following flavors: bartender, sous-chef or general kitchen assistance. Consult a friend who uses help, check the Yellow Pages or hire the kid next door.
Hiring one person to assist with the prep, cooking and cleanup can make the difference between enjoying yourself and feeling like the “help” at your own party.
If You Can’t Stand the Heat . . .
Throwing a dinner party is supposed to be one of life’s little pleasures. But there is work involved. Hard work. Even the most enjoyable parties have their trying moments.
Compose your own cooking mantra and repeat it to yourself with fervor whenever the inevitable disaster rears its ugly head. Not only will this save you untold aggravation, but it will start you down the path toward an understanding of the true Zen of cooking.
PEAR AND CAMEMBERT QUESADILLAS
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
8 (8-inch) flour tortillas
4 jalapeno or serrano chiles, seeds and membranes discarded, diced fine
2 ripe pears, peeled, cored and sliced thin
3/4 pound ripe Camembert cheese, sliced into 1/4-inch slices
2 cups lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves
This unusual combination of ingredients is a great starter for almost any meal and a guaranteed crowd pleaser. As easy to prepare as uno, dos, tres.
Zest limes, then juice them. Blend zest, 2 tablespoons lime juice, salt and sour cream with fork until mixture is smooth. Set aside in refrigerator.
Heat 10-inch saute pan or cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Place 1 tortilla in dry pan for approximately 40 seconds on each side, or until it just begins to brown. Remove. Repeat with second tortilla. (If your tortilla expands like a blow fish, poke it with a fork to release the hot air.)
After second tortilla has browned, leave it in pan and reduce heat to medium-low. Immediately sprinkle 1/4 of diced chiles onto tortilla. Cover with 1/4 of pear slices. Place 1/4 of Camembert strips over pears. Top with 1/4 of cilantro, then cover with second tortilla. Cover pan with lid and cook for 2 minutes.
Flip quesadilla with spatula, re-cover pan and continue cooking for 2 more minutes. (Don’t worry if a bit of cheese escapes and begins to sizzle loudly.)
Remove quesadilla from pan, let sit for 1 minute, then cut into 8 wedges (just like a pizza). Fill small bowl or teacup with chilled sour cream dip and place in middle of serving plate. Serve immediately (you may wait until the second batch is completed, but these are best served directly out of the pan). Repeat process for the remaining quesadillas.
Makes 12 servings.
Each serving contains about:
202 calories; 456 mg sodium; 29 mg cholesterol; 12 grams fat; 16 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.74 gram fiber.
* Le Secret: Use very ripe pears and ripe cheese. If the pears are not ripe enough, saute them in butter over medium heat for a few minutes.
* The Adventure Club: Go crazy and invent your own fillings (but if you use jack cheese and avocado, it doesn’t qualify).
* Garnish: Top the sour cream dip with a dash of lime zest.
* Alternatives: Pears may be replaced with fresh papaya, mango or canned pears. Camembert cheese may be replaced with Brie or Gorgonzola.
Prep Time: 15 minutes.
Cooking Time: 20 minutes.
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Prepare an entire meal made with ingredients of the same color or the same two colors. If you are stuck for ingredients or inspiration, exercise poetic license and add colored namesakes like red snapper, Black Forest cake or duck a l’orange to the mix.
Do not divulge the menu and keep everyone out of the kitchen. Let guests pick up on the theme at their own speed. Be a little playful and drop subtle hints (i.e., serve something incongruous like cheese puffs before an orange dinner, or use flowers and napkins that match your color of choice).
White bean salad
Garlic mashed potatoes
Chilean sea bass
White chocolate mousse
Wine: Sauvignon Blanc
Music: The Beatles, “The White Album” (Capitol/EMI)
Yellow curry chicken
Yellow bell peppers
Music: Yellow Man, “Yellow Man Rides Again (RAS Records)
Black bean soup
Squid ink pasta with “blackened” chicken
Dark chocolate mousse
Wine: Black Tower
Music: Prince, “The Black Album” (Warner Bros.)
Vodka and orange juice
Smoked salmon appetizers
Cheddar cheese sticks
Carrot or pumpkin soup
Sweet potato stars
Stuffed orange bell peppers
Music: XTC, “Oranges and Lemons” (Geffen)
Vodka and pink grapefruit juice
Cream of tomato soup
Strawberry ice cream
Wine: Pink Champagne
Music: The Band, “Music from the Big Pink” (Capital/EMI)
Roasted red bell pepper soup
Red pasta with tomato sauce beet risotto
Music: Simply Red, “Stars” (East West America)
A French (some say British) dinner party tradition: At midnight couples discreetly leave the room, trade clothes with each other, and return to the party. Now, I’m a pretty liberal guy. but cross-dressing is not prominent among my list of fantasies. Nonetheless, for those of you who have “done it all,” I am assured that this makes for some pretty interesting conversation.
Music to Switch By: Various artists, “The Crying Game (Featuring Boy George)” (SBK Records) and/or “Original London Cast Soundtrack: The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (First Night Records).
Wine: Chances are you’ve had enough already.