One of my most favorite things to do is to make dinner for friends and family.
I love hearing the commentary and conversation that develop when you set food on the table.
And then there’s that perfect moment when the chairs are pushed in and everyone raises their glass to cheers one another. It signifies the start of something wonderful.
When I spent a week with my family in Maine over July 4th, I offered to make dinner one night. Instinctively, I headed to the fridge, not the store, to use up whatever ingredients we had in stock to complete the meal.
I rarely let food go to waste. In my New York City’s small kitchen, I run a tight ship. I buy ingredients that I know will go to use immediately. So my fridge, sorry to say, is a dismal scene. There’s guaranteed to be eggs and a host of condiments in the door, but unless I have something spectacular planned, the shelves are empty.
So when I swung open the door to my parents’ refrigerator I saw fresh garden peas, an eggplant, a bag of onions and a seemingly endless supply of cheeses, meats and beyond.
I utilized my parents’ newly planted herb garden and planned my menu around that. I decided on doing my steak with sauce verte.
Sauce verte, simply translated, is ‘green sauce’ in French. It’s a rough combination of parsley, garlic, capers, olive oil and other fresh herbs.
Tip No. 1: Plan your menu and prep your food ahead of time
Planning ahead is the most obvious rule of any dinner party. And it’s also the one that will make your party as stress-free as possible. For my steak dinner, I made the sauce verte first. Always make what can keep the longest, first.
Tip No. 2: Decorate the table
Setting the table is for everyday occasions. Decorating the table is for dinner parties. So get creative. The table cloth pictured below is actually a curtain.
I used tea lights (a Fieldhouse necessity) for candles, and I floated them in water in martini glasses.
Have fun with your decor but follow one rule of thumb: the tallest item on your table should be the wine bottle. Try not to crowd the table with candles and vases that will make it hard to see over your guests.
Tip No. 3: Make food your friends will love
Sound like an obvious tip? In a last-minute effort to please my sister’s boyfriend and my dad, I added some potatoes that I found in the pantry to the menu. I simply washed them, sliced them, drizzled them in olive oil, sprinkled them with fresh chopped rosemary, sea salt and pepper, and roasted them for 30 minutes at 425 degrees. They were both thankful for this starchy addition that I would normally forgo.
Tip No. 4: Serve no more than 4 things
If you serve more than four items at a dinner party, it’s going to start looking like Thanksgiving. And your guests may get a little confused.
I’ve found it’s best to minimize your dinner menu so that attention to detail does not get lost. Here was my menu for this dinner: Grilled steak with sauce verte, grilled eggplant with caramelized onions, minted pea and arugula salad, and roasted rosemary potatoes. (I would have eliminated the eggplant but it was going to be thrown out the next day so I decided to add it to the menu… I typically aim for a protein, starch and veggie to keep the party happily balanced).
Tip No. 5: Boxed desserts go a long way
Don’t stress about dessert. Sure, it’s the last thing people will eat and may be the last thing they remember, but no one is expecting you to break out the blowtorch and start caramelizing the tops of crème brûlée.
I once made this ornate floating rose meringue dessert that was dainty and lovely. I served it to my girlfriends after dinner on the sun porch and afterward, they made a bee-line for the box of brownies in the pantry.
As long as it’s something sweet to cap off the meal, people will be happy, even if it comes from a box. So don’t go crazy. And hopefully by now, having read these tips, your next dinner party will be far from crazy.
Let me know how it goes.
And, p.s., one last tip: be the chef in your kitchen. Don’t let anyone tell you how to grill that steak or bake that boxed cake… You know what you’re doing.