Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Taking the stress out of entertaining at home

I've always enjoyed entertaining people at home. Perhaps it comes easy for me because I spent 16 years in the catering and hospitality business. But for many people, it is intimidating and stressful. I'm here to tell you that it needn't be.

First of all, why entertain? Isn't it easier to just meet friends at a local restaurant or bar? Sure. But here are 2 reasons not to:

1. It's loud. When was the last time you can remember eating in total peace and quiet at a restaurant, let alone a bar? Plates clanging, waiters rushing about, people talking too loudly, kids crying (my favorite). What could possibly be relaxing about that? How can we have truly enjoyable conversation with people when we are vying for their attention and screaming over the din? I realize this is a foreign concept to many Americans, used to "grabbing a bite", but dining should be a time to sit and relax, unwind, savor the pleasures of eating, and enjoy the social interaction that takes place over a meal shared together.

2. It's healthier, and less expensive, to eat at home. You control the quality of the ingredients. You have not cut corners, as many dining establishments do, to cut costs and increase the bottom line. It's not about that at home. In the confines of your kitchen, you are in charge. Completely.

And there's really a #3 here as well: cooking for others is my way of showing friends and family that I love them, that I care enough about them to take the time to plan a menu, shop for the ingredients, cook and set a nice table. If you are invited to someone's house for dinner, make sure to return that love by reciprocating. Once you do it yourself, you'll understand that it's also nice to be cooked for.

Now, let's talk about the stress of doing this. First of all, never compare yourself to anyone else. What someone else does may be right for them but not so for you. That said, if you've ever been invited to someone's house for dinner and liked some aspect of what they did, there is no harm in borrowing good ideas and implementing them at your own dinner party. Copying is the greatest form of flattery, they say. If you're the creative sort, it's a little easier. If you're not, then countless magazines out there are full of ideas for what to cook, how to set a nice table, and how to create ambiance. The main thing is to not stress out over any aspect of it. Relax and enjoy the process, finding joy in every aspect of the preparation.

Ok, so that may seem easier said than done. So, let's break it down.

First, choose a date. Saturdays are probably the best day. You have all day to set the stage, and this helps reduce stress because time is on your side. As you do this more and more frequently, you might be inclined to plan dinners during the week. If you're smart, you'll make these potluck.

Next, choose your guests and then the menu. Depending on the former, you will then choose the latter. If you don't already know your intended guests' food preferences/dietary restrictions, then make sure to ask at this stage of the game. Are they vegetarian, on a low-sodium diet, don't drink alcohol, trying to lose weight, diabetic, allergic to anything? These factors should play a major role in determining the menu. Taking these preferences and needs into account will go a long way in showing your guests that you care about them and make them feel special. Which they are - they will be your guests of honor.

Another influence in determining the menu is the time of year. Choose ingredients that are representative of the season and are "in" season so that these ingredients are at their peak.

Choose beverages according to the menu and / or the taste of your guests. Offer non-alcoholic choices as well as the customary beer and wine or mixed drink. Make sure plain or bubbly water is always available.

Setting the table nicely is another way to add a special touch to your evening. For a table centerpiece, choose items that are appropriate for the season. It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive. A beautiful glass bowl filled with fresh fruit in season or vegetables that you will be using in the menu is a lovely, thoughtful touch. When it comes to the dishes, if you have a set of china you got for your wedding and never use it, I say get it out. What are you waiting for? Dining with those you care about should be enough of a "special event" that warrants breaking out the good stuff. So too for glassware and flatware. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow. On your deathbed, you'll ask yourself why you didn't just use the "good stuff". And while you're at it get out the nice linens and cloth napkins. There are few occasions where paper napkins look good. And light candles - everyone looks better in candlelight.

So now that we know who's coming, what they like and don't like to eat, what season we're in, and have a vague idea of what we want to make, how do we decide what works together? Well, for starters, check out my post about composition. I touch on that. The most important thing you should keep in mind is choosing things that will not create you stress or at least not too much of it. Read the recipes through completely before cooking, make your shopping lists, and then read and perhaps even re-read them again so that you can organize your prep time wisely. Cooking is not a linear experience. You jump around. For instance, even though pasta is one of the last things you cook, it's one of the first things to start. The water, since you need so much of it to cook pasta properly, will take quite a while to come to a boil. So, plan accordingly. The longest things need to be started first. That might mean you start with making dessert first, then the entree and sides, and then the salad last, even though you'll be eating it all in reverse order.

Do not attempt to make too many courses or complicated dishes unless you are comfortable cooking. Remember our ultimate goal: to bring people together and ENJOY one another. If you are so stressed out from trying to make everything perfect, you will not accomplish the goal and the experience will not be fun for you.

People around the world use the dining experience to create and solidify the social bonds that connect them to other people. Enjoying the company of those we care about while savoring a lovingly-prepared meal at someone's dining table, makes life that much sweeter. Perhaps this could be a new year's resolution for you. So, this is my last post for 2010. I wish you and yours a happy New Year and happy cooking in 2011!

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