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Hesitant hosts can have a ball with tips on entertaining Good Parties tart with a List

So you're going to have a party?

AAAAARRRRGGGGHHH!

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What a hassle. It's not just the food -- there's a myriad of questions to be answered and details to be sorted out before you can start the first preparation: Formal, informal or casual style? Formal invitations or phone calls? Hors d'oeuvres or a full meal? Buffet or sit-down? Indoors or out? Paper and plastic or silver and china? What about music -- classical or soft rock? Do salsa and chips go with country ham and biscuits? How many people? How much beer? Wine? Soda? Coffee?

With the holiday entertaining season coming up, those are questions that a lot of people are going to face, some of them for the first time. So what's a poor host to do?

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Fortunately, there are people to turn to -- experts who entertain all the time. People who've got it down to an art, down to a science. They can tell you everything from how to prepare the bathroom to how to park the cars. From arranging the furniture to dealing with cooking disasters. From how to carve a pumpkin to how to set a festive Christmas table to how to prepare a holiday dessert buffet.

First, however, there is good news from the champion of at-home entertaining, Martha Stewart. These days, fussy and formal is out; informal is in.

"People have been forced, because of their busy schedules to become more relaxed, to not worry so much about the food as about good company and good conversation," said Ms. Stewart, whose latest book, "Martha Stewart's Menus for Entertaining," is a '90s version of her first book, "Entertaining," published in 1982.

That translates to simpler menus, less elaborate table settings, less formality in general, Ms. Stewart said.

It even means that you don't have to knock yourself out in the kitchen any more: It's perfectly OK to cut down on the number of dishes you prepare for Thanksgiving, to buy good bread instead of baking it yourself, or to supplement things you make with "some things maybe not homemade," Ms. Stewart said, noting that a dozen years ago, she baked her own French bread two or three times a week.

And there's no need to become obsessive over details. Despite Ms. Stewart's reputation for meticulous preparations, in her menu for a "Crabs and Corn" feast, she calls for crab spice from Baltimore's own Obrycki's restaurant. "It's good crab spice, and I'm not out there grinding my own spices."

"I'm not opposed to buying a part of the dinner," said Ann Grieves, who has two Take Five cooking schools, one in Baltimore and the other in Nantucket, Mass. A mesclun salad would be a good example, she said; this mix of exotic baby lettuces would be impossible for the average home cook to assemble. She also mentioned bread: "Thank heaven we can get good bread now."

Ms. Grieves said her entertaining style tends to be informal. "My favorite way to entertain is a seated dinner party for six people." That makes for an intimate gathering, she said. "With six people you can share a conversation."

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The open plan of her condominium in Roland Park encourages interaction between cook and guests, she said. "I love involving my guests, and inviting them into the kitchen -- it turns out sometimes to be a cooking class."

Cookbook author Lora Brody, who is making it her mission to help people survive in the kitchen, said before she wrote her latest book, "The Entertaining Survival Guide," she surveyed all her friends -- "both people who entertain a lot and people who have never entertained. . . . The people who entertain a lot, I asked them, what are the things that keep their lives sane when they entertain? And the people who never entertain, I asked them why? What are you afraid of, what's the worst thing that can happen?"

What they told her forms the first part of the book, which is subtitled, "A Handbook for the Hesitant Host." It's full of information on styles of entertaining (there's a difference between "informal" and "casual"), how to compile a guest list, how to make handicapped guests feel comfortable and how to handle unexpected guests ("Always cook for at least two 'invisible' guests"), what to do about dogs and children, how to handle spills, stains and smashed china.

A previous keeping-it-together-in-the-kitchen book was "The Kitchen Survival Guide," written with her teen-age son in mind. That one was for learning how to cook, she said. The new one is for those who've learned to feed themselves and can now venture into cooking for other people.

Getting ahead of the game is the key, Ms. Brody said. "Again and again and again I heard from people who entertain a lot: Plan ahead, cook ahead, keep lists." There's no need, she says, to turn your home into a restaurant.

She discovered she had done just that before she was forced to stop entertaining while her kitchen and dining room were remodeled. When she began to entertain again, she found her style had changed.

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"I really regrouped . . . I did things like make pizza dough in the bread machine ahead of time, and then when the company came, I'd let them hang out in the kitchen, and I'd make pizza and let them choose their toppings, or I would just serve very hearty soup and a salad that I had made ahead of time, and I did things like brownie sundaes for dessert. I made the things that I really love to eat, and didn't worry about them thinking that this was Lutece, because it isn't Lutece . . . It's really a relief."

She suggests skipping hors d'oeuvres; she puts out a bowl of good olives (with a dish for the pits), and provides something unusual to drink, such as hard cider, sangria, or, "if I'm really feeling energetic, I make frozen mango daiquiris."

Ms. Grieves agreed. "I'm philosophically opposed to hors d'oeuvres. I usually have pistachio nuts and olives." Occasionally, she said, she will make rosemary bread sticks and put those out before dinner. And she tries to keep the menu light. "Typically, I serve soup and something that I've fixed ahead, like osso buco, or cassoulet, and a salad and good cheese. Then a fruit tart for dessert.

"I like my table to look pretty, but I don't go to an extreme amount of trouble with it," Ms. Grieves said.

A certain amount of relaxation, however, does not mean that all rules can be ignored.

"You still choose the best ingredients," Ms. Stewart said. "You still practice your recipes before you entertain, you still set a pretty table -- it may not be all Baccarat and Limoges, but it doesn't have to be. We know that now . . . You still invite people who are compatible, you still have to be a good hostess, you still have to serve good food.

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"I still polish my silver, I still iron my napkins" -- linen, not polyester, because "polyester scratches," she said.

And she still keeps lists and tries to do as much as possible beforehand. "I do my shopping the day before, so I know what I have to work with. And I have everything washed and cleaned, ready to prepare on the day of the party."

"I always start three days ahead," Ms. Grieves said. "You can set the table a weekend ahead. I do frozen things. You can do a pie crust ahead, or a casserole."

"Casserole" has a sort of downscale image, she noted, but it's perfect for a party. "You can make it ahead -- it's very practical. Just call it by a wonderful name -- something French."

Sometimes, despite the best of plans and preparations, things can and do go wrong.

A common disaster is undercooked food, Ms. Grieves said, but that's easily remedied. "One of the benefits of the microwave is ++ that you can recuperate. I think a sense of humor is the most important ingredient for entertaining. A sense of humor can retrieve a whole lot."

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About the worst thing a host can do is loudly lament any mishap, regardless of who's at fault, Ms. Brody says. The best thing to do is clean up spills quickly or make the best of the situation.

Ms. Brody recalls the night she made spaghetti for guests who were having such a good time talking they wouldn't leave the living room. The pasta was getting cold. So she decided to turn it into a casserole, by adding beaten eggs and bread crumbs and popping it into the oven. "Finally we sat down, and I brought this thing out, and I tell you, it had the consistency of a basketball. There was no way . . . I couldn't cut it with a serrated knife. I said, 'This is a problem.' " How did she recover? "We had a lot of Italian bread, and wine, and we sent out for pizza."

"You know what Julia said, she has this wonderful philosophy," Ms. Brody said, and she gave a perfect imitation of beloved cooking doyenne Julia Child: "You just pretend that's exactly the way you meant it to be."

"People are so genuinely delighted to be invited to somebody's house for a meal," Ms. Brody said, "they don't come with preconceived standards or expectations of what it should be."

"Just jump in and do it," Ms. Stewart said.

*

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For novice entertainers, Ms. Stewart suggested, "Try something simple, a simple brunch, a simple lunch, and give yourself plenty of time to prepare."

This recipe is from "Martha Stewart's Menus for Entertaining" (Clarkson Potter, $30), part of the "Fried Green Tomatoes Brunch" menu.

Southern Shrimp with Grits

Serves 6

12 slices smoked, lean bacon

unsalted butter (if needed)

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2 large onions, quartered and thinly sliced

1 medium green or red pepper, seeded and cut in strips

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced

1/2 cup all-purpose unbleached flour

3 pounds (about 60) medium shrimp, peeled and deveined

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3 cups water

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 teaspoons soy sauce

juice of 1/2 lemon

hot pepper sauce

1 tablespoon chopped thyme leaves

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2 tablespoons chopped parsley

salt and freshly ground pepper

white grits

In a heavy skillet, cook the bacon over medium heat until brown. With tongs, transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain, reserving the bacon fat in the pan. There should be about 5 tablespoons of fat; if there is less, add enough butter to reach that amount. When the bacon has cooled, crumble it and set aside.

Add onions, pepper, garlic, and jalapeno to the skillet and cook over medium heat until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove them to a bowl with a slotted spoon and set aside, reserving the fat again.

Pour the flour onto a plate and dredge the shrimp lightly in the flour. Reheat the bacon fat and brown the shrimp over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate.

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Return the onions, pepper, and garlic to the pan. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the flour and saute over medium heat to brown. Add the water, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, lemon juice and hot-pepper sauce. Simmer uncovered for 30 minutes over low heat.

Add the shrimp, thyme, and 1 tablespoon of the parsley to the mixture. Season with salt and pepper and continue cooking over low heat for 20 minutes, adding water as needed to create a thick sauce.

Serve the mixture over hot grits and sprinkle with the crumbled bacon and remaining parsley.

White Grits

Serves 6

6 cups water

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1 1/2 cups grits

1 teaspoon coarse salt

In a large, heavy saucepan bring the water to boil over medium-high heat and stir in the grits and salt. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to a simmer.

Allow grits to simmer until all the water is absorbed, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.

*

The next recipe is from "The Entertaining Survival Guide: A Handbook for the Hesitant Host," by Lora Brody (William Morrow, $20). It's versatile enough to be served as a main course or side dish, or for lunch or dinner.

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It can be made up 24 hours in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator, it can be doubled, tripled or halved.

For a heartier dish, add 2 cups of diced cooked chicken or tofu.

Curried Rice Salad

Serves 8 to 10

1 cup mayonnaise (regular or no-fat)

2 teaspoons curry powder

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1/4 cup soy sauce

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and coarsely chopped

juice and rind of 1 lemon

3 cups cooked white or brown rice (about 1 cup uncooked rice, prepared according to package directions, cooled

1 16-ounce can pineapple chunks, drained, or 1 1/4 cups fresh pineapple, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces

1/2 cup golden raisins

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1 cup slivered almonds

1 16-ounce can mandarin orange sections, drained, or fresh clementine or seedless tangerine sections, for garnish.

In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, curry powder and soy sauce. Set aside.

Place the chopped apple in a large serving bowl and add the lemon juice and rind, tossing to coat. Add the rice, pineapple, raisins, and almonds and mix well. Toss the rice mixture with the dressing. Garnish with the oranges. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.



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