Authors: Anna Post
Casual Gatherings &
Elegant Parties at Home
ANNA POST & LIZZIE POST
Photographs by Sara Remington
For our mother, the most lovely and gracious hostess–
your warmth, laughter, and sparkling wit has taught us what a joy entertaining can be.
You not only set a beautiful table but a shining example as well.
e grew up entertaining. Our mother, like her mother before her, is a host both at heart and in every sense of the word. Whether it was our traditional twenty-five-person Thanksgiving dinner, our birthdays, or casual dinners with family friends, we learned at a very young age what it meant to entertain and the wide range the phrase “We’re having people over” truly covers.
has a few definitions: “1. To hold the attention of pleasantly or agreeably; to amuse. 2. To have as a guest; provide food, lodging, etc. for or to show hospitality to.” As a verb it simply means “to exercise hospitality.” Entertaining is about having a good time, being in good company, enjoying yourself. Our mom showed us through her parties and dinners that to entertain guests is to provide an environment that will raise their spirits, capture their attention, be enjoyable to all, and have just a dash of something special. One thing it doesn’t mean is to focus on good manners or etiquette at the expense of having fun. Emily Post didn’t blink when a fork was misplaced or a wineglass was the wrong size. To her, what was unforgivable on the part of a host or hostess was neglecting to “do what was comfortable, both for those around you and yourself.” That is good manners—nothing more, nothing less—and it applies to hosts of all ages.
The possibility of entertaining brings to mind so many questions. Even just the passing thought
We should have Will and Susan over for dinner
causes one to think further:
Do we invite other couples as well? Whom would we invite? Maybe we’d like to keep it simple? Should I try serving that new dish I’ve created? When was the last time Will and Susan had us over? What did we do that time? They have kids; do we want to make it a kids night, or just adults? Isn’t Will allergic to chocolate...should I double-check?
And all this before you’ve even committed to plans. Not to mention the many questions that arise with having people over in general:
What if something breaks? What if guests don’t get the hint that it’s time to leave? How do I handle Uncle Randy’s politically incorrect sense of humor? Do I have to serve the wine that Ms. Pinot brought over because she says it’s her favorite?
Suffice it to say the world of entertaining has options, lots of options, and lots of surprises.
Entertaining can be as simple or complex as you choose to make it, and we think that’s what is so wonderful about it! Pizza and beer with a few close friends can be just as enjoyable as a six-course formal dinner. If you’re not a master chef there are tons of prepared dish options and catering services to assist you. Decorations can be as simple as wildflowers in a can or as extravagant as all-out themed parties where you transform your home into your fabulous fantasy. Some parties will focus on an event such as an election, an awards ceremony, or a competition. Others might focus on an honoree for a special occasion: Jim and Laura’s fifth anniversary or Mary Kate’s birthday. Simple “girls night” and “Sunday night football” evenings pop up all year round.
Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned host, we hope to inspire you with the menus and ideas in the following pages, as well as encourage you to reach beyond this book and look at Web sites, magazines, and blogs about entertaining to further your creativity. We hope our advice on the nuts and bolts of entertaining will give you confidence, especially if things don’t go exactly as planned. We hope you’ll be so entertained by the thought of entertaining that you’ll experiment and create distinctive parties that will wow your guests—and be fun for you! All the delicious food, the fabulous setting, and the perfect music is just the ribbon and the wrapping for the real gift: the gift of your hospitality to your friends and family, a way to stay connected, to share good times, and to build traditions. It’s why we gather, why we celebrate...why we entertain.
Our good friend Carrie Brown—caterer and stylist par excellence, inventive cook, and owner of the famous Jimtown Store in Healdsburg, California—has graciously worked with us on the menus and recipes for this book. Our goal is to provide a core collection of recipes and menu suggestions that are not only yummy but also easy to prepare, seasonal, and interchangeable. They could become the base of a host’s party repertoire. Except where noted, the recipes are from
The Jimtown Store Cookbook
, by Carrie Brown, John Werner, and Michael McLaughlin, and from the Jimtown Store’s current offerings, created by Carrie Brown and Chef Peter Brown. With Carrie and Peter’s kind permission, we offer you menus and dishes that are exciting and delicious. Menu suggestions without accompanying recipes, such as tomato bruschetta, for example, are easily found in cookbooks, food magazines, or cooking and recipe Web sites.
et’s face it: The secret to successful entertaining is hardly classified information. In fact,
can throw a great party—even raw beginners—as long as you follow some basic advice: Stick with what you know, then build on your knowledge base. Even if your only party-giving experience is inviting friends over for pizza and beer, you can take it up a notch by throwing a make-your-own-pizza evening, using store-bought dough, sauce, and toppings. Add a bottle of wine, toss a salad with your own vinaigrette, light some candles, and you’re in business (see the Basic Vinaigrette recipe, page 12). The quickest way to trip yourself up? Making the leap from take-out pizza and beer to a full-blown multicourse dinner requiring dazzling culinary skills, exotic ingredients, pricey equipment, and all the pots and pans you own—
if you’re not really much of a cook. At least not yet!
This, then, should be your mantra: Start simple and grow with experience. Every time you throw a party, give yourself a couple of new challenges: a more complicated dish from your repertoire perhaps, or a serious centerpiece. Over time you’ll gain the confidence and know-how to pull off that twelve-person five-course extravaganza. And most important, you’ll be having fun doing it.
The Impromptu Party
ot every party is a planned event. In fact, some of the best, most memorable parties are those that happen on the spur of the moment, like the time we picked too many mussels and Mom and Dad called all the neighbors over for mussel spaghetti. Soon, eighteen people were crammed in the living room eating one of the best spaghetti dinners ever—laughing, joking, having a wonderful time. People still talk about what a great party it was.
What to Have on Hand
You can be party ready anytime simply by having some basic items on hand. While this may seem like a lot, you don’t have to run out and buy everything all at once. Over time, here are some items to collect:
The Chef Is Out
Too busy to cook or just not that into cooking? Don’t worry: You can still throw a great party. Many a celebrated hostess has served delicious food someone else has prepared. Here are a few ways to go:
at farmers’ markets for gorgeous fruit and crudités (raw veggies for dipping); at specialty stores for cheese and salumi; at a favorite pastry shop for desserts and breads.
Buy prepared food,
like lasagne, that you just heat in the oven. Many specialty markets prepare casseroles, entrées, side dishes, and salads.
from a local restaurant or specialty food store and just heat and serve. This can range from the simple—picking up ribs, for example—to something more elaborate, such as arranging for a restaurant to cook a salmon or roast beef. (Lots of Thanksgiving turkeys get to the feast this way.)
Hire a caterer.
Caterers’ services aren’t limited to big events like weddings; they do small parties as well.
Now turn on the music and it’s a party!
Certainly if you’re just having one or two friends over for dinner, the prep and planning is fairly simple. But for something a little grander you’ll need to take stock of what you have and what you can do: for example, how many people your party space can accommodate; what “party stuff” you already have, such as dishes and glassware; how much you can spend; and where to find party help and supplies. The good thing is that once you’ve completed your inventory, you’ll know just what you have or need for any party in the future. You only have to do this once!
The Party Space
hile visions from the Food Network
dance in your head, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of planning your party. First, size up your entertaining space. How many people can fit comfortably in your living room, dining room, kitchen, or outdoor space? Is your outdoor space available at this time of year? If you have a small apartment with no dining room, can you rearrange your space and your furniture to accommodate your guests? Your answers will determine where and even when you hold your party, and how many guests you can have. If you’re having trouble visualizing how many people will fit—and there’s no easy way to figure this out—start by inviting only a few guests. That will give you an idea if you can accommodate more—or fewer—people at your next party.
Your goal is to make sure your guests can move about comfortably and everyone has a place to sit. Expandable tables, folding tables, tabletops (placed on top of smaller tables and covered with a tablecloth), and folding chairs can turn dinner for four into dinner for six or eight. Plus there’s no rule that says dinner needs to be at a dining room table. Smaller tables placed around a room are a cozy and relaxed way to entertain. If you don’t have a formal dining room, you can set up folding tables in the living room. No tables? At the most casual parties, guests can eat on their laps.
Your Party Stuff
ake stock of your stuff—and by that we mean dishes, glasses, cutlery, serving dishes, linens, vases, the works. Determine exactly what you need for the party, and then buy, borrow, or rent to fill the holes. If you’re hosting a dinner party, do you have enough place settings? If you’re having a cocktail party with hors d’oeuvres, do you have plenty of serving dishes, glassware, and small plates? If you’re going the disposable route, will you be using paper or plastic—or going green (
see “Green Entertaining,” opposite
)? If you’re on a budget, this is a good time to get creative with the stuff you have. Borrow a giant metal tub and fill it with ice, beer, and wine or use wooden bread boards as serving platters.
It’s a good idea to invest in at least one
or a set of
along with a set of eight to twelve
. White is very formal; colors or patterns may be more versatile: A colorful tablecloth can work overtime as both a table covering
instant décor. Over time, you can add
additional sets of napkins
(eight to twelve) in colors that complement your other dining accessories. Think of it as building a wardrobe for your table.
If you plan on doing a lot of entertaining, consider investing in inexpensive
glassware, extra flatware
dinner and dessert plates
. Enamelware (aka tin) and melamine are attractive and well-priced alternatives to china. You can buy stylish and quite inexpensive wine and beverage glasses at national home-goods chains like Bed, Bath & Beyond and Target. If you have the room to store them, it could save not only on rentals but on your everyday or formal dinnerware as well. Our parents purchased four dozen Champagne glasses just so they’ll have enough for their annual New Year’s Eve party. The forty-dollar investment has more than paid off over the years—and they don’t worry if a glass gets broken.
Finally, think about any kitchen equipment you might need to prepare your party food:
pots and pans
or specialized equipment such as
mixers or food processors
. Appliances are a convenience and a time-saver, but before you shell out the big bucks for one, think about how often you’re really going to use it. Think, too, about your available space—is there room in your kitchen for a big appliance? And of course, consider your budget: Is this something you simply can’t live without, or can you improvise with what you have? For instance, instead of investing in a big, bulky, expensive stand mixer, you can get a small hand blender or use a whisk to beat egg whites into stiff, frothy meringues—and get a great arm workout at the same time! Instead of a large food processor, consider going with a mini version (ours is a real workhorse).
These days, you can find great alternatives to plastic dinnerware. Enamelware or melamine is an investment, but are unbreakable and reusable. We love plates and utensils made of bamboo—a renewable resource and a reusable product. Look for bamboo plates and, if you really want your tools to multitask, “sporks”— a cross between a spoon and a fork, perfect for outdoor parties. Bamboo products can be washed and reused several times, making them economical as well.
If your neighborhood, homeowners’, or condo association has occasional potluck suppers, do as one California group does and have members bring a dish and their own dishes—plate, knife, and fork! It saves on the landfill and on cleanup, as everyone takes their own dishes home to wash.
One thing we don’t recommend skimping on is a
. Trust us, a sharp, well-made knife will cut your prep time in half. Lizzie particularly favors her Wüsthoff 10-inch chef’s knife, and Anna can’t live without her L’économe paring knives. Also, a nice-size, good-quality
will go a long way in any kitchen. Beyond the basics, we think the following items make party prep much easier:
ecide up front what you can spend on your party. For most party givers, food and beverages are the main attraction, so first and foremost, budget whatever you need for that. A gorgeous floral centerpiece can be a beautiful mood setter, but not if it means skimping on the food and drinks to pay for it. If you’re planning a big party, your budget will also determine if you can afford to hire help or rent supplies.
If your budget is limited, don’t feel you have to pull the plug on your plans. Instead, consider the following cost-cutting tips:
Your Party Helpers
etermine whether you need to enlist help to throw your party. If you’re planning a big event, research options for caterers, bartenders, and servers (
see Chapter 5, When You Need a Supporting Cast, page 49
). Know that for liability reasons, it’s always a good idea to hire a professional bartender. Check with a local caterer or a favorite restaurant to see if they can recommend one. If you can’t afford professional waitstaff, enlist the help of your neighbors’ high school–age children or local college students to pass hors d’oeuvres, serve food, clear, and clean up the kitchen. (We’ve waitressed many parties for our mom and her friends.) Pay them by the hour, and be sure to include a 10 to 15 percent tip.
A Tip from Anna
INFO AT YOUR FINGERTIPS
Having your resources at your fingertips makes your planning easier. Keep a sourcebook (or file on your computer) with business cards, contact information, prices, and notes for florists, caterers, wine and specialty food sources, take-out menus, and rental companies. Added bonus—your friends will start looking to you as the ultimate resource.
hatever your budget or the size of your party, you’ll want to offer the best you can for your guests. Base your choices on quality, not just price. Learn to forage and gather great components for entertaining. Think about: