Image by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons license.
I recently read Bill Buford’s memoir Heat, about the year and a half he spent working in Mario Batali’s kitchen at Babbo. I really loved the book and highly recommend it to those who are interested in cooking, Italian food, or excellent creative nonfiction.
But the part that struck me most was when Buford recounts his pre-Batali days as an overambitious dinner party host. Before he was Batali’s slave, Buford would throw dinner parties with challenging menus; parties where the guests would show up to smoke pouring out of the kitchen and a cranky host who, really, just wanted to be left in peace.
Ah yes. We’ve all been there—when your guests are arriving and you’re in the middle of making some elaborate sauce that requires constant whisking, so you don’t really want to get the door. And I think we’ve all been those guests who stand awkwardly in the living room, sipping our wine and trying to steer clear of the intense anxiety emanating from the kitchen.
Dinner parties are fun and exciting, and it’s easy to get carried away with the thought of the elaborate recipes you’ll make to wow your guests. But I’ve found that if I actually rein myself in, I end up having a much better time at the party—and everyone else does too.
Here are some of my own personal dinner party tips:
- Now is Not the Time To Try That New Soufflé Recipe: I know, I know, the dinner party is a time where you can give yourself free reign, where you can finally tackle that fourteen-course Mongolian menu that you saw in the back of Bon Appetite. But there are so many unknowns when you try out a new recipe—ingredients you don’t have, cooking times you haven’t accurately calculated—that there’s a high probability that you’re going to be incredibly stressed out come dinner time. I’ve had much better success with making an old favorite (like roast chicken) but with a new twist (baste it with honey and ginger). And serving food that I really know how to make perfectly is always a better culinary experience for myself and my guests.
- Have Your Guests Help Out: It may not seem like a big thing, but having guests contribute something easy – like a cheese plate or a baguette with dip that you can serve while you’re finishing up in the kitchen, can be a huge boon to a hostess (and help lighten the load on your wallet). It’s one less thing you have to buy, one less chance to forget something at the store, and one less thing to worry about.
- Embrace Your Stock Pot, Casserole Dish, or Dutch Oven: By and large, I have a much better time at my own dinner party when I can make a “set it and forget it” dish where I do most of the preparation in advance, rather than make something like blinis or crepes or anything else that has to be served immediately. A piece of meat braising away in a stock pot, a steaming macaroni and cheese browning in the oven, or a soup bubbling on the top of the stove—these are the kinds of dishes that I love to serve at a dinner party. Perhaps braver souls than I can do the “let me just whip up the final course while everyone enjoys their cocktails” type of dishes, but for me that’s a one-way ticket to grumpiness land.
Of course, there are always exceptions, and I tend to overstep my own groundrules in the dessert category. As I’m sure faithful ModernDomestic readers are aware, I do love to make elaborate and fanciful desserts for parties, mostly so I can foist them off onto my guests. And the degree to which a new recipe will stress you out is largely a matter of temperament, skill, and experience.
Still, in my case, keeping things simple in the kitchen is my secret weapon to being a better hostess and, believe me, my guests are incredibly thankful for it.