Laura’s Rules of Entertaining

Considering that the holiday season is now winding down, I probably should have published this post sooner but, like many of you out there, I was very busy the past week with houseguests (my husband’s old room mate), entertaining (Christmas Eve dinner) and general holiday shenanigans (consuming lots of wine, playing Cards Against Humanity).  We also managed to squeeze in a weekend trip to the Alsace region of France, where more wine was consumed.  Upon our arrival back to Germany, we learned just how “helpful” people here can be.  We arrived to a snowy, icy wonderland and since we live on a hill, the car got stuck.  Instead of helping, the many Germans walking around laughed and pointed. One older couple even approached our car and seemed to want to discuss the hilarity of this situation as we helplessly rolled backwards down the street. We ended up parking at the bottom of the hill. When we got out and struggled walking up the hill with our luggage and pillows under arm (we always take our own pillows to hotels), I fell spectacularly and there was more laughing and pointing and staring.  No offers of help (except from my husband) as several people walked by. I was slightly annoyed…

At any rate, I chose to take the day off from work to relax and do things I enjoy, such as writing. I do a lot of entertaining, mostly dinner parties, and over the years I have developed a few rules that I always follow.  Now, I share my wisdom with you in a concise list:

1. Think like a restaurant chef:  A lot of party planning guides will tell you to “make things ahead.” And that is great, but sometimes you just can’t and sometimes you don’t want every dinner party to be served out of a crock pot.  So my mantra is more about thinking like a restaurant. When I am planning a party menu, I think about what elements of the dish can be done in advance, even if the dish as a whole cannot be cooked ahead.  I will chop vegetables the day before or morning of and put them in a baggie, for example.  I will make sauces and dressings ahead of time and store them in plastic containers. I will even pre-measure spices or liquids I might need. If I can assemble the dish entirely to be popped in the oven later, even better.  This way, when it comes time to cook, it is more about assembling the pieces than starting from scratch.

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This is my prep for a soup–a copy of the asian broth at Japanese steakhouses– I made the broth 2 days ahead, sliced the mushroom and green onion the day before and divided into bowls to have the warmed broth poured over it right before guests arrived. In the plastic container: little apricot cakes made the day before for the dessert. On the post-it note: what other dishes to pull out for the next 3 courses.

2. Spread the love: When planning a menu, always think about how it needs to be cooked.  I always try to do something in the oven, something on the stove and something cold.  If I plan a menu where everything is cooked in the oven, I have to worry about space, timing and temperature.  Spreading the cooking duties out among various appliances just makes things easier.  In the spring through fall months, I almost always bring the grill into the mix as well.  This means my husband (and usually all the male guests with beer in hand) will handle some part of the meal outside while I focus on side dishes, garnishes and assembly inside (usually with all the female guests, wine in hand).

3. Assemble the platters: Before guests arrive, I always pull out all the serving dishes I plan to use with their accompanying utensils. I will label what they are for with a post-it note and then there is no last minute scrambling through drawers or “oops, lemme get you a spoon” moments.  If I don’t have counter space for everything, then I pull out the bigger serving pieces and have a post-it near by with a list of what to pull out with each course. Post-it notes are also great for writing down any last minute cooking directions (“Put in oven at 350 for 40 mins”) and sticking on the oven door.

Platters and utensils at the ready. I also pulled out the steaks here to warm up (don't put cold steaks on the grill!) and hand to my husband for him to handle.

Platters and utensils at the ready. I also pulled out the steaks here to warm up (don’t put cold steaks on the grill!) and hand to my husband for him to handle.

4. Have a drink station FAR from the kitchen: I always think of Julia Child when it comes to this rule–the oft cited incident when she dropped something on the floor and puts it back together saying “you’re alone in the kitchen, who’s to know?” Unfortunately, with today’s open floor plans, the kitchen is usually a stage with people all around. Some people love it when guests join them to cook; I am not one of those people.   I want to spend time with my guests but I don’t want them in the kitchen asking where glasses are etc. and so to avoid this I will try to make a drink station somewhere else.  I set out the booze, wine, beer and plenty of glasses.  If I am really planning ahead, then I will also set out a pitcher or bottle of water.  I show this to my guests when they arrive and then I have relative peace when I am in the kitchen assembling courses.

An incomplete drink station, awaiting some wine and water. Notice that I already laid out the wine opener and decanter

An incomplete drink station, awaiting some wine and water. Notice that I already laid out the wine opener and decanter

5. Store bought is OK: I am a big proponent of fresh, from scratch food.  But that doesn’t mean that everything has to be– a few good quality, store bought ingredients can really help. For example, at my Christmas Eve dinner, I used store bought hoisin sauce.  No one had a meltdown over it. I also almost never make my own bread, the bakers do it better.  I also am a big proponent of store bought for appetizers– a bowl of good roasted nuts, a tray of cheeses and cured meats.  It really takes the pressure off.

6. Empty dishwasher, empty trashcan: This accomplishes 2 things — you know all the dishes you need are clean and you have plenty of space to put dirty stuff. I don’t like to do dishes in front of guests and I don’t want to make them feel like they have to pitch in and do some cleaning with me. If I have an empty dishwasher than I can quickly rinse and hide the dishes– even if I am going to hand wash them later.  But that leads me to rule 7.

7. White bistro plates: I love white plates because you never have to worry about finding matching patterns if one breaks and they let the food shine.  You don’t need fancy patterned plates (there’s a reason you don’t usually see them at good restaurants), the food should be the beautiful star of the show.  The other great thing about white plates: they are durable and almost always dishwasher safe. I do not want to spend the entire day after washing plates–fancy china is overrated and usually not really noticed.

8. No scented candles: The food cooking is your aroma.  Don’t blend it with “Christmas Spice” or “Butter Cookie.”  Ew.

9. Involve the co-host: I am running the show when it comes to cooking for these parties, but I always bring my husband into the mix. Before the guests arrive, I will give him a “tour” of all I’ve done.  I will show him what I’ve already prepped and walk him through what I am going to do that night, I show him the drink station and, most importantly, I discuss with him what I would like for him to do.  It might be “run interference on people hanging out in the kitchen!” or “help me clear the plates after each course, then rinse them while I start the next.”  Discussing these expectations before hand really helps things run smoothly– if I need him to quickly hand me the broth for the soup, for example, he actually knows where it is since we discussed it before.

10. The Cook’s drink: This is an important one.  I always have a glass of wine or champagne for myself throughout.  I am usually so busy that I struggle getting through the whole thing, but it is important to remember that this is a party.  Relax, sip a little bubbly and enjoy the act of cooking for your friends and loved ones.

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I say “drink” but in full disclosure, I often set aside a bottle of bubbly just for me. I rarely actually drink the whole thing, but it is mine and stored in the kitchen for easy access.

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Categories: General, Techniques

Author:apointgourmet

A former English teacher living in Stuttgart, Germany who finds some sanity and peace through cooking.

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One Comment on “Laura’s Rules of Entertaining”

  1. Kim
    December 29, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    Laura, I love these tips! Great post – thanks for sharing.

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