Dinner Parties: How To (or at least how I do….)

Now I’ll be totally up front and tell you, I don’t claim to be a complete professional when it comes to dinner parties.  I mean I’m not Ina Garten with a florist and vendors on call, and an industrial kitchen.  Nor do I have a gorgeous center piece floral arrangement that runs the full length of my 20 foot dining table.  I’m just not that good.  BUT, I will say my parties are well planned and well executed and I can tell you if I stressed out at any point about the food during the night, no one was any the wiser.

You see, to say I love throwing a dinner party is a gross understatement.  I live for the parties we have and I don’t think I can tell you what I love more, planning them or executing them.  The whole process is so much fun for me.  So….. I thought I’d share with you my whole process and some of the menus that I’ve cooked.IMG_4829_2

I think it is safe to say my friends look forward to the dinners.  I’ve met friends of friends who don’t know my name but openly refer to me as the “cake lady” or will say “oh, are you the one who throws the dinner parties? How do I get an invite?” Yes.  My present to my friends for their birthday is the cake of their choice; and yes, I throw dinner parties and yes, I’m happy to say I have a reputation.  BUT, the food is really only a small portion of the night.  It’s really the people.  The tribe, the clan, the crew, the team or as we sometimes refer to it…. the band.  Yay!  The band is back together! (P.S. they don’t let me sing….. and I don’t blame them.)

Once you have your crew list set; however many you might be able to fit, you can start planning the rest of it.  I can only fit eight maximum and that’s really a bit too much.  I have an insanely small place and my prep space is our dining table.  Six is really the comfort zone.  Find out what people eat.  Any allergies, aversions, really hates.  Take those into consideration when making the menu.  I have a friend who doesn’t eat fish; a friend’s daughter who is vegan (yes I know that’s a four letter word).  No problem.  I don’t make fish dishes or I can knock out a killer vegan meal for one night.  Consider these preferences a challenge.  Step up to the plate!! After that, choose a theme.  Sometimes I let my friends decide and sometimes I really have something I want to cook.  Now you can totally have everyone pitch in and bring a dish that matches the theme.  Lots of people do that and it works like a dream.  It takes the pressure off of the host, especially if the host doesn’t live to cook.  Now me, I’d cook 24/7 if I could so I always say, I’ll cook and the rest of you bring the wine!  It works well for “The Band”.IMG_6068 2

In some cases I haven’t had a decided theme but just a menu that worked well. Some of the themes from the past include “Comfort Food”, “The Italian”, “The Vegan” and “Come Help Me Put Together Ikea Furniture and I’ll Feed You and Serve Copious Amounts of Alcohol”.  That last one was a hit.  Sometimes I start with a theme and it evolves.  For example, comfort food started out as American food and evolved into comfort food.  Not a big stretch eh? Other times it’s really easy for me to put menus together.  Italian runs in my blood so that’s a no brainer; and with Ikea Furniture night I knew I wanted it to be finger food. Gotta keep the worker bees working!

So I spend some time and put menus together.  I start to decide how many courses I want to serve and as I think about those courses I think about how involved each recipe might be.  When I look at it and start to get overwhelmed I try to swap out really labor intensive recipes out for less involved or for things I can make a day or two in advance.  You want a mix of things you prepare as people are there and those components or entire dishes that can be made in advance.  For me, we literally eat in my kitchen so I’m always in the middle of things, but I always sit down for every single course and eat and talk with my guests.  This isn’t a restaurant.  This is my house and my friends and I want to spend time with them so I need to create a menu that is both impressive and lets me enjoy the night too.

Once I have the menu I start to test certain components that I want to perfect or haven’t made before.  If they’re too fussy I might switch them out for something else.  A little bit of testing will take a bit of pressure off come game day.  Just incorporate that into a nightly meal and you won’t be wasting anything.  Plus if there are others in your household you’ll be able to get a bit of feedback.

The week before the big night I write out a few lists.  I know it will seem like overkill or OCD or whatever other word you want to use to describe it but for me, if it is written down and all I have to do is follow it, I know I won’t forget anything. Sooooo……… 1. I write a list of ingredients for each course.  Yes I end up writing oil, garlic, salt and pepper 10,000 times.  Do it.  2. I condense the ingredient list into a grocery list.  If garlic is on there five times I estimate how many bulbs that is and write it down.  If flour is on there I count up the number of grams or ounces I need and write that down.  Pantry staples I always make sure I have too much of.  If I mess up a batch of caramel you betcha I want extra sugar, butter and cream on hand so I don’t have to run out to the store at the last minute. Considering I don’t have a car, that takes a major amount of time!  3. I write a schedule.  Three days in advance, two days in advance, day in advance and day of. For the day of I break it into 15 minute increments and I also make sure to schedule time for a shower, getting dressed and putting on makeup.  I should look good for my party too.  I also schedule a clean up just before everyone arrives.  4. Now this might be getting a little fussy but….. I write out the menu and draw a diagram of the plate and how the food will be plated.  This is a personal challenge to making the food look more art like. (I’m still working on this….) 5. I pull out my dishes and make sure I have enough dishes and cutlery for each course.  The day of I even set them aside and put a little note on top with what course to use it for.  It takes the guess work out of it and doesn’t rely on my ever fading memory.  The salad and dessert plates I put in the fridge or freezer if appropriate.  6.  Because I live in an Airbnb and the pots and pans aren’t mine and they aren’t a complete collection I also label my pots and pans with which dish belongs in each.  If I had all my pots and pans out of storage I wouldn’t worry at all because I know I have enough to cook everything.  I admit it, on occasion I’ve had to ask a friend to bring an extra fry pan (thanks Bron!) and even extra cutlery and seating as I only have seating for four.  No one ever minds.

Alright, now that you all REALLY know how crazy I am….. Leading up to the party create some hype!  It is a lot of fun and your guests really look forward to the night.  I create Facebook messages and link everyone to it.  I could create a FB event too and that would pop up with reminders but I haven’t done that in the past.  Don’t spam people daily with propaganda but remind people as the event gets near.  I say things like “menu is set and this is the best one yet!” or “two weeks and counting and I cannot wait!”.  I even list the menu or pieces of the menu. About a week or two out I ask for final confirmations because as we all know, life happens and sometimes people who originally wanted to come will not be able to make it. That’s life and that’s why we reconfirm.

So what are some of these menus?  Let’s see…..

The Vegan

  1. Smashed pea, avocado and mint crostini with zucchini ribbons and cherry tomatoes. (just leave off the ricotta to make it Vegan)
  2. Mixed Green Salad with herbed vinaigrette
  3. Roasted portobello stuffed with charred root vegetables and farro, topped with arugula(rocket), lemon and sea salt.
  4. Vegan apple crumble, and sticky toffee pudding for the non vegansIMG_8959_2

The No Theme Party

  1. Smashed pea, avocado and mint crostini with zucchini ribbons and cherry tomatoes. (What can I say? They’re popular!)
  2. Parmesan and herb broth with pumpkin ravioli
  3. Casear salad with garlic croutons
  4. Surf and turf (without the surf for my non fish eating friend) Beef tenderloin, prawns, mashed potatoes, asparagus and hollandaise.  A take on filet Oscar really.
  5. Creme caramel (I may have caught someone licking the plate…. but I’ll never tell!)
  6. Take home treat, salted caramel and chocolate ganache tartlets (I should have never ever made these.  I will now forever be asked to make them!)IMG_6065 2

The Italian

  1. Trio of crostini – white bean and roasted garlic, herbed ricotta mushroom and caramelised onion, and “the caprese”
  2. Steak and gorganzola pizza topped with rocket and parmesan
  3. Pumpkin and sage soup with mushroom and ricotta tortellini
  4. Vegetable “lasagna” (made with Sunday Gravy)
  5. Lamb ragu over homemade fettuccini
  6. Chocolate and kahlua panna cotta topped with kahlua marscaponeIMG_6066 2

The Ikea (this was a completely made ahead of time menu with just reheating required)

  1. Mini steak and mushroom hand pies
  2. Twice baked mini potatoes
  3. Procuitto wrapped asparagus
  4. Salted caramel and chocolate ganache tartlets (the first appearance of these little devils)IMG_6067 2

Comfort Food (Get ready for this one.  There are 9 courses coming your way with this one.  Yes. Total overkill.  Quote of the night and ultimate compliment? “I’m Thanksgiving full”).

  1. Deviled Eggs
  2. Trio of sliders – meatball parm, pulled pork and cole slaw, fried chicken and honey mustard.
  3. Tomato soup and grilled cheese soldier
  4. Cobb salad with homemade ranch
  5. Macaroni and cheese, herbed panko, crispy bacon lardons
  6. Chicken vol au vent (An all time fave for me.  Crispy puffed pastry and creamy chicken filling?! Yes please!)
  7. Red wine braised beef short ribs, mashed potato, charred carrots
  8. Apple pie cheesecake slice, vanilla ice cream, homemade caramel
  9. Chocolate mini cupcake and Italian meringue, vanilla mini cupcake and chocolate buttercream, Mexican hot chocolateIMG_6064 2

The French (now this one hasn’t happened yet. The menu is mostly locked in but still subject to change)

  1. Chicken liver parfait, baked brie, onion and garlic jam
  2. Ham, spinach and mushroom crepes.  Hollandaise
  3. Mixed greens, asparagus, roasted beets, chèvre, tarragon vinaigrette
  4. Roasted chicken, broccoli puree, mushroom confit, crispy chicken skin
  5. Beef tenderloin, potato dauphinoise, crispy Brussel sprouts, red wine demi
  6. Deconstructed peach melba.  Thyme roasted peaches, vanilla gelato, cookie crumble, raspberry sauce, candied thyme

Part of being able to execute the night stress free is being able to work on the fly. If something doesn’t work, adapt and conquer.  Believe me, no one knows the difference.  I promise.  Shit you think you totally screwed up?  Whatever, people know no better.  Don’t get upset.  Play it off as if was supposed to be like that.  If your broccoli puree is more saucy?  Call it a sauce and throw some charred broccoli florets on the plate.  Done and dusted.  Always, always act cool as a cucumber. And for this one night only (and I’m saying this more for me than for anyone else) leave all your self deprecating comments in the closet where they belong. If you really need to, you can beat yourself up when everyone goes home. But if all goes as well as I know it will, you will be delightfully full and oh so perfectly toasted you won’t have a bad thought in your head for the rest of the weekend!  Get an amazing night’s sleep.  You’ve earned it.

**Executing a dinner party, food styling, and taking high quality food photographs do not mix.  If you want awesomely perfect photos, do it during testing (and yes, I’m still learning on the photography front)……  iPhone photos are what we go with, on the fly as dishes are plated.  Thanks to Court for taking and sharing her photos, for bringing extra seating (#citylife, #tinyapartmentliving), being the third hand I need, for help cleaning each course and for just being your awesome self!


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