When I was a teenager, my sister Pamela lived in a studio apartment in New York City. When her fiancé was out of town, I’d often visit for extended periods of time. I remember days of walking all over the city, and nights of going out to clubs and sushi bars, but mostly, I remember D’Agostino’s. Pam had a store card. On her way to work, she’d tell me to go ahead and use it to pick up something for lunch. Invariably, I’d call her at her office a few hours later and instruct her to invite six people for dinner.
Luckily for me, Pam is one of those rare individuals who don’t balk at a 90-degree change in plans, let alone faint at the sight of pasta being steamed in the shower. Luckily, too, she had many friends who were always up for a good meal, or, considering I was making it up as I went along, something approaching real food. On a plate. With non-plastic cutlery. I’d pick out a few recipes from the Silver Palate Cookbook or Gourmet and go to town, stacking up dirty dishes in the tub and even the laundry baskets, as the kitchen was about the size of my desktop. Somehow we managed to make memorable feasts and great times despite not having adequate seating, unless you count the edge of the bed as a bench for two, and even if the chicken Marbella was a tad dry or the carrot cake lopsided.
Time passed, during which I lived in a series of scummy apartments with quirky roommates. It wasn’t till I settled down with my future spouse that I was able to scratch that itch that is my penchant to have people over for dinner. Often. But once a year we’d throw a very special dinner party, with themes like Much Ado About Munching (Shakespeare, anyone?) and coordinated table linens and hand-designed table cards. Co-workers would gasp, asking me how on earth I could find the time or energy to throw a . . . dinner party—the two words always offset by invisible but clearly discernible WTF? emoticons. Over the years, I’ve found that most people are very unsure about their cooking abilities, let alone their capacity for entertaining. Maybe because I grew up in such a large family, having one or 12 more people to the table isn’t a big deal. Sort of a loaves-and-fishes thing, minus the spirituality.
When was the last time you were invited to a dinner party? Not a “Hey, we’re having chili, stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.” Not “Don’t forget: Timmy’s birthday’s Saturday and we’re having cake and ice cream at 3.” An actual, dressed-up, invitation-only, meet-new-people dinner party? I must confess, I can’t recall when. The usual excuse—the ubiquitous time crunch—is real enough, but considering how much time people spend Facebooking or catching up on the past season of The Walking Dead, is it truly non-negotiable? The space issue is also a consideration, but who says your dinner party has to seat 12? I think it’s more likely that people, immersed in their social media and e-mailing, have forgotten not just how to interact but how to mix people together and see what happens.
It takes skill, tact and some ability to throw caution to the wind in determining the guest list. Sure, you can go the safe route and invite the friends and possibly a few co-workers with whom you tend to do things, like watching the Super Bowl or warming the bleachers at Little League games. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong about that, but isn’t it a bit of the same old? It’s important to have at least one couple or two friends with whom you are comfortable and whom you can count on helping to anchor the early swells of the evening. Then you have to include somebody who just makes the party happen through a combination of amiability, intelligence and wit. (In the early days, I was lucky to count as friends members of local bands like Donnybrook Fair; they were great guests and raconteurs, without hogging the airspace.) Finally, while you don’t want to invite a complete stranger, maybe a friend knows somebody new to town or you have a cousin visiting from Paris who might make an interesting addition to the conversation.
Once you have the right people, there’s not much else to it. Oh, sure, you should clean up, but don’t fret about using that spare room as a catch-all for anything that gets in the way of the main event, the dinner itself. Now is the time that people who either don’t like to cook or think they don’t know cast hopeful glances at their drawer full of take-out menus. That’s not an option. I have a 1970s-era cookbook, called appropriately, The Dinner Party Cookbook, and several older vintage tomes, which offer snapshots into what preparing this kind of event used to entail—chafing dishes, mousses and pates, even waitstaff. Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be that way. Consider what you cook best. Is it toast? Then put that to use by offering toast points with purchased caviar or smoked salmon. A good rule of thumb is to offer two hors d’oeuvres, nothing heavy or appetite-destroying, and nothing too fussy that requires special forks or extra dishes. This is a good time to break out pretty cocktail napkins you picked up on sale after a holiday or at Marshalls. Decoration is key, but, again, it doesn’t have to break the bank. Candles are a great way to set a mood (and hide dust bunnies). Also nice are bowls of lemons or seasonal fruit and nuts. One time I put sprigs of fresh basil in mason jars. Generally speaking, I think scents at the dinner table can be distracting but in this case, the basil worked well with the Italian-themed menu.
By its very nature, a dinner party should have that little something extra to signify it’s not just, well, dinner. This means considering a small appetizer, despite the fact that with it comes more dishes. In warm weather, cold soups served in delicate glasses or jelly jars is refreshing, and you can’t go wrong with a perfectly ripe tomato sliced with the very best mozzarella or burrata and drizzled with olive oil and chopped basil. When it’s colder, you can go with small bowls of hot soup (preheat the bowls in the oven before serving) or a crisp salad of winter greens, goat cheese, nuts and cubes of roasted beet, pumpkin or rutabaga. As with everything, planning is key: to avoid pileups of dirty dishes (or to not have to resort to using the tub), have your table preset with the appetizer and keep the entrée dishes warming in a low oven. Enlist your partner to quietly fill the dishwasher with anything used pre-entrée so while the machine is humming softly in the kitchen, you’re enjoying dinner knowing that your post-party cleanup isn’t so daunting.
The main course is another cause for worry over cooking times and whether the meal is “fancy” enough. If you’re having a lot of guests, don’t feel the need to grill steaks to order or anything else which leaves three people with food in front of them and three others looking longingly at their vittles. I know people who’ve prepared crepes to order and somehow not ended up in this situation, but that’s not me. I like bringing the food already plated to the table; this isn’t family-style night. That said, there’s nothing to beat the simple elegance and relative foolproof nature of a roast. Chicken, beef, leg of lamb, pork loin, it doesn’t matter. Granted, you often need to prepare the meat a day ahead, allowing it to marinate and gain the flavor of its seasonings, but once it’s in the oven, you don’t need to obsessively tend to it. This time of year, a pork stuffed with dried apricots and prunes and wrapped in bacon emits a tantalizing “welcome to my home” aroma. Don’t knock yourself out worrying about cooking times; choose two sides, with one something that can be tossed with olive oil and herbs and added to the already hot oven, and the other something you can easily steam stovetop. Good bread and softened butter are essential.
As for drinks, when guests arrive, flutes of champagne, Prosecco or a bright-tasting white wine are festive and not too heavy. There are those who fall in the cocktails-are-a-must camp, while others think that they ruin the palette. I think it’s all in the timing; hors d’oeurves that go on too long while the hosts fret over the kitchen can have disastrous results. Ask your most trusted wine-store clerk for his/her recommendations based on your menu, and go with it, taking time to write a note about a new or previously unexplored label or vintage to share with your guests. For after dinner, it’s nice to offer a bit of brandy or similar, but I also think it’s a good idea to have good coffee on hand. The other all-important finish to the dinner party is a very special dessert, which could be as grand as a multi-tiered chocolate-ganache confection, or as simple as a perfectly baked apple pie with Cheddar cheese, or silver bowls of the market’s very best, freshest berries.
The dinner party. It’s old-fashioned, but in a delightful way that reminds us that we come together to enjoy great food and good friendship all too rarely, and when we do, it’s often combined with another event, like poker, fireworks, or something on TV. The dinner party may be a throwback, but it’s also a reminder to us of gracious living and hospitality. It calls to us, a faint but still-present reminder that making time to set a special stage for special people is always, always worth the effort.