Jul 2013: The most important thing about entertaining is to make the guests feel comfortable; it is they that should shine—not you. And, the best way to make them feel comfortable is to let them know what to expect. For instance, when inviting people, let them know the theme, if there is one; for instance, a western BBQ; or a Margarita Party; or a casual luncheon in the garden.
The worst party I ever went to was one where the hostess wore all her best jewelry and the house and the food were arranged perfectly; all the guests felt awkward and self-conscious—no one dared touch anything or eat anything.
It is important to set up the drinks where they are visible on entering and away from the food. I recommend serving one kind of cocktail if you want; such as margarita’s. And, have sparkling mineral water, and another non-alcoholic drink like French apple cider or designer ginger ale. If champagne is the drink of choice, be sure to have a bottle or two of white wine handy. If it is evening, some people may prefer red wine. Often, I ask one of the guests to see that everyone is offered something to drink; and then people can help themselves after that. It is very important to make water available. When you want people to leave, stop pouring drinks or wine.
It is also really important to let everyone know what the menu is. That way, they can pace themselves eating-wise. And, never ask ahead about people’s food preferences. Every menu should be adaptable for intolerances, allergies, and food fads. In other words, there should be lots of vegetables, plenty of things like grains and potatoes, and appetizers not on bread. That way people who don’t eat meat, or dairy, or bread can have plenty to choose from. What I often do for a luncheon is lay out everything; so, the guests can do something like assemble their own wrap, or taco, or pita pocket.
Yesterday, I had a luncheon for twelve people of all ages and food preferences. Laid out for them to choose from were: whole wheat tortillas and pita breads, tossed green salad, potato salad in vinaigrette, hot smoked salmon; hard-cooked eggs, tomato wedges, sliced red onions and green peppers, and aioli (garlic mayonnaise.) You see people could just have salads, or a wrap without salmon, or one with everything. It is important that every meal include plenty of fruits and vegetables and some protein and grains. For dessert we had mixed red berries and Shortbread Cookies made by the little kids with fresh mint tea. (Next time I will serve the berries with sweetened mascarpone or vanilla bean ice cream.)
If you are having a dinner party, I recommend putting out bowls of roasted nuts and marinated olives to snack on with cocktails or wine. Serving a selection of cheeses and breads would be fine too. There should always be three courses to the meal. Perhaps a first course of marinated summer vegetables such as my Gratin of Tomatoes, Eggplant, and Zucchini; followed by a do-ahead main course such as my Spanish Rice with Chicken and Chorizo served with green salad on the side; followed by a simple of dessert such as Grammie Snyder’s Lemon Pudding with Blueberry Sauce or my Pavlova with Fresh Berries.
A room temperature first course can be put at each place before people are called to the table. On the table should also be bottles of white wine and light red wine and carafes of water, along with salt and pepper. Before bringing the main course, put a full-bodied red wine on the table and refill the water. You can ask people to help serve the main course on warmed plates, of course. And, let people take their time eating the main course before clearing off the knives and salt and pepper and bringing dessert. I always serve one hot drink at the end of the meal. It could be herb tea or decaf coffee, never ask guests what they want—you are not their servant.
Another good idea is to always have an interesting topic to discuss in you mind for when conversations lags. Traditionally, it is best not to bring up sex, religion, or politics. And, there is nothing wrong with the host or hostess getting up at the end of the evening and thanking everyone for coming. Sometimes, I package up leftover food for a few to take with them. If you are relaxed and having fun, your guest will be too! And, remember Cooking is Fun!