Why is it that the same cook who thinks nothing of casually bringing a dozen hungry friends home for potluck dinner will agonize at the very thought of a "planned" party at home for the same number?
Could the answer be "anticipation"?
When we entertain spontaneously, guests are invariably dazzled our virtuosity. But when we issue formal invitations, we worry that setting a date and giving notice will be interpreted to mean "Expect fabulous eats, stylishly served."
We fear that, no matter how fabulous and stylish our efforts, we will never be able to deliver what our guests anticipate.
In most cases we're wrong and the event goes swimmingly.
But why waste emotional energy fretting when, with good planning, we can arrive at party day confident that everything will work out well?
Start first with the event. Write everything down.
Is the party to be casual, formal or somewhere in between?
Decide at the very beginning and keep everything -- menu, decorations, serving style -- in the same vein.
For our daughter's high school graduation party, for example, the menu featured country foods -- ham, chicken, baked beans, pasta, homemade breads -- served on white ironstone plates and in rustic bowls and baskets. I made tablecloths from patchwork-patterned cotton and provided afghans and potato sacks for those who wanted to picnic on the lawn.
For a wedding rehearsal dinner, I'd want each table to wear a pretty skirt -- made from a new floral sheet -- and something feminine such as an organdy square for a tablecloth. I'd plan garden or wildflower centerpieces and a menu that looked pretty on the plate.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you get organized.
*Is your home big enough to handle the number of guests you want to invite?
If it isn't, can the party go outdoors? Our tiny house couldn't possibly handle 30 guests in the heat of a spring day, so we planned to spread the graduation party out on the lawn and under the trees on our property's four acres.
Parking is another consideration for bigger parties. We had room around the perimeter of the property but a party in the city could be disastrous if guests had to circle the neighborhood for an hour looking for a parking space.
*In warm weather will your house be cool enough to be comfortable? If it rains, where will guests go to stay dry?
We couldn't take a chance on having guests huddled on our small porch, so we rented a small, open-sided tent for the graduation occasion. By shopping around, we were able to find one we could pick up a day ahead of time and set up ourselves. The cost was around $80.
*Where will your guests eat?
A seated and served meal will require serving help. If you want an inexpensive alternative to hiring catering help, how about tapping a local youth or church group? See if it will lend a hand in exchange for a contribution to the organization.
If you want guests to serve themselves from a buffet and then sit down to eat at tables, will you have enough room for tables and chairs to fit comfortably? Folding chairs are fairly inexpensive to rent. If your party is dressy, you can always outfit the chairs with prettily patterned cushions and back covers. If you sew and there's time enough, the covers and cushions can be made inexpensively.
If you serve buffet style without dining tables, guests will need comfortable places to sit.
*How conservative are your guests' palates?
I let our teen-ager tell me what she and her friends would enjoy eating. For family members, I had only to look back to what "they" served on festive occasions to know that the food would need to be good-looking and delicious but not exotic.
Try to remember that many of today's guests are health-conscious and would welcome good-tasting foods that aren't loaded with saturated fats, calories or cholesterol.
*How much time do you have before the event?
If you give yourself plenty of time (in my case that was two months) and have an empty freezer, you can make and freeze much of the food. I shopped for and made one or two items a weekend for several weeks before the graduation. Big foil pans that held about 30 servings of each recipe were bought at a discount house that specializes in such things. If you lack time, it's wise to keep your menu simple.
*Do you have a way to heat hot foods and keep them hot?
You can always rent, borrow or buy chafing dish-type servers, but that will add to the cost and make the room in which they are served warmer. A better idea for home entertaining in warm weather is to limit the number of hot dishes and focus on dishes designed to be served at room temperature.
*How much do you have to spend on the party?
The more money you can spend, the more work-saving shortcuts you can employ and the less time you'll need. We were on a fairly limited budget, so I shopped for supermarket specials on things like the meat and poultry, but I did take advantage of some convenience items such as refrigerated pie crust for the desserts.
*If you have helpers, what will they do?
Make a list, then review it with your helpers before the party. Post a copy on the refrigerator door.
Helpers should know everything -- from which direction you want guests to approach the buffet table to where to put the dirty dishes and trash.
And that's another thing. Have a big trash container handy. You'll need it.
*What will make the party more memorable?
Try to think of something that hasn't been done by your family or friends. Our family had never had live music at a party, so I found father-and-son musicians to stroll around the grounds with the father playing guitar for us older guests and the college-age son serenading the graduate's friends with his mandolin and guitar.
How did I find my musicians? By calling a music store that gave lessons.
*What about recipes?
Favorite dishes or recipes from trustworthy cookbooks are the best choices for a host or hostess who wants to approach party day confidently.
Dishes served at room temperature work wonderfully well for summer entertaining. The following recipe is from the Robert Mondavi Winery. It is a good dish to have on hand for the vegetarians who seem to turn up at every dinner party these days and a heart-healthy choice for everyone.
Penne with broiled ratatouille vegetables
Makes 8 servings.
From "Lee Bailey's California Wine Country Cooking" (Potter, $30).
1 medium eggplant
2 large red bell peppers, roasted
4 medium tomatoes
1/2 cup olive oil
8 ounces penne, cooked al dente
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 medium garlic clove, finely chopped
freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
Wash and dry eggplant, cut off the top and cut into 1/4 -inch slices. Sprinkle with salt and set in a colander over a plate. Allow to drain for 30 minutes.
Cut pepper in half lengthwise. Drain on paper towels. Roast over gas flame or under broiler until blackened on all sides. Place in paper bag and fold closed. After 15 minutes, remove peppers and peel and seed under running water. Drain well. Set aside.
Cut tomatoes in half horizontally and remove seeds. Put them on a baking sheet cut side up and broil until they begin to brown, about 5 minutes or less. Set aside.
Rinse or pat off salt from eggplant and brush with olive oil on both sides. Broil until golden on both sides, several minutes.
Cut cooked eggplant in strips and tomatoes into large chunks. Place in a mixing bowl. Add peppers and toss. Add vegetables to cooked penne. Pour vinegar, remaining olive oil, shallot and garlic over all. Toss and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sprinkle with parsley before serving. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 12 or more servings.
From "Lee Bailey's California Wine Country Cooking," here's another easy, make-ahead dish that can be served at room temperature.
2 quarts chicken stock
1/2 cup olive oil
5 pounds fresh asparagus, trimmed and peeled
1 large red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
zest of one large lemon
Place chicken stock and olive oil in a large pot and bring to a hard boil. Add asparagus and, when the liquid returns to a boil, cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until barely cooked and crisp.
Remove with a wire strainer and allow to cool. The stock and oil may be used in soups.
To serve, arrange neatly on a platter interspersed with strips of pepper and sprinkled with the lemon zest.
Georgia beef barbecue
Makes 26 to 30 servings.
This recipe, perfect for a casual outdoor party, is from "The Fine Art of Cooking," the Philadelphia Museum of Art's fund-raising cookbook (Philadelphia Museum of Art, $21.95). The dish may be prepared up to three days in advance.
10 pounds beef brisket
1 cup liquid smoke
4 cups diced onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 (12-ounce) cans tomato paste
5 to 6 cups beer
1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes with liquid
1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
3 to 4 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons molasses
4 tablespoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Set rack in bottom of roasting pan. Arrange meat in single layer on rack. Add liquid smoke to pan (meat should not touch liquid). Cover and bake at 325 degrees, turning once, until meat is tender, four to five hours. Set meat aside. Reserve 1/4 -cup fat from surface and all pan liquid. Cool and refrigerate meat and fat overnight.
To finish, melt fat in large, heavy, covered casserole over low heat. Add onion and garlic, cover and cook until soft, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix in tomato paste.
Measure reserved pan liquid and enough beer to make 5 1/2 cups liquid, total. Blend into onion mixture. Stir in all remaining ingredients except meat and bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer sauce for at least 30 minutes.
Shred meat and add to sauce. Cover and simmer 1 hour. If sauce seems too thin, uncover pan, increase heat and boil to reduce. May be prepared up to three days in advance.
To serve, spoon over split sesame buns. Accompany with coleslaw, sliced tomatoes and onion rings. Makes 26 to 30 servings.
Makes 12 to 14 servings.
This is another refreshing, easy-to-make-ahead dish from "The Fine Art of Cooking" that will appeal to health-conscious guests.
1 1/2 cups bulgur wheat
1 1/2 cups chopped parsley
1 cup canned chick peas, drained and rinsed
3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 cup scallions, finely chopped
1 cup carrots, cut into 2-inch strips
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
1/2 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
toasted pita bread, cut into quarters
Soak bulgur in 3 cups boiling water for 1 hour. Drain well and squeeze out excess water. Mix bulgur with all other ingredients. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Serve on a bed of lettuce with wedges of toasted pita bread.
Kentucky pecan pie
Makes 8 servings.
Use refrigerated pie-crust dough and this dessert from "The Fine Art of Cooking" is super easy to prepare. It also holds well.
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dark corn syrup
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons (1 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup pecans, plus 8 pecan halves
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon bourbon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 pint heavy cream whipped with 2 tablespoons bourbon and 2 tablespoons sugar
In deep bowl, combine eggs, sugar, syrup, flour, salt, butter, pecans, vanilla and bourbon. Mix well. Add lemon juice and mix well.
Pour mixture into pie shell and decorate with reserved pecan halves. Place on baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 55 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and chill before serving. Present each wedge with dollop of bourbon cream.