To say that I love to throw a party would be an understatement. Dinner/lunch/brunch/stuff-your-face-with-dessert parties, birthday/anniversary/farewell/just-because parties – I’ve done them all. For me there is no greater joy than gathering my close friends and family around a table laden with good food.
I would love to say that I’m highly organized and that my kitchen is an oasis of calm, but I would be lying. In fact, I could probably give you an excellent list of what you should not do. (For example, you should not start cooking at 5 pm for a 4-course dinner for 12 people. And you should not try that new recipe which involves stuffing and roasting a leg of lamb when you have guests arriving in an hour.) Nevertheless, the parties are always a success – my friends are the best and there is good food and wine and laughter well into the night.
When I realized that the next Project Food Blog* challenge was to throw a luxurious dinner party, I knew that I would challenge myself, not just with an elaborate meal, but by doing it in an calm and organized manner. (Friends reading this: Please stop laughing!) It’s been nearly a year since I saw my family and close friends and a dinner party would not be the same without them. (I’m from Bombay and currently in Canada for work.) But good food is a great way to get people together and make new friends. So I decided to invite colleagues, some of whom had just arrived in Canada. (I also invited some fellow food-bloggers, who I met through #PFB2010(!), but unfortunately, they could not make it.)
Thanksgiving is just around the corner and before any of you think I have a distorted sense of time, let me tell you that Canadian thanksgiving is celebrated in October to give thanks at the close of the harvest season. But a traditional Thanksgiving dinner was out when I realized most of my guests were vegetarians. I needed an impressive menu with no bacon, no lamb, no beef, no seafood, and at least one dessert with no eggs. I decided to stick with the spirit of Canadian Thanksgiving and celebrate with a ‘Fall Harvest Dinner’. A reinvention of classic French and American dishes would introduce my Indian guests to new flavors.
Even a vegetarian menu can be impressive if you get creative – I used the market as my inspiration. Bosc pears paired with arugula, cranberries and walnuts in a simple salad started off the menu. It was accompanied by a twist on a traditional cheesecake – herbed goat cheese and sundried tomatoes baked in a parmesan and bread-crumb crust. For the main course, I replaced the classic Bolognese with a rich mushroom version baked with polenta. Artichokes braised with white wine and fall vegetables formed the base of a slow-braised chicken. Pumpkin or apple pie seemed too obvious for dessert, so I paired them in an Autumn trifle. And I was sure a rich salted-caramel and chocolate tart would be more than acceptable for an eggless dessert.
Two hours before my dinner party had even started, I knew it was a success on at least one count – I was done! All the food was prepped and ready and just needed last-minute baking/assembling. I had time for a long, luxurious bath and a lovely chat with some old friends (who I called just to inform them of this miracle).
Here are the three main rules that helped me achieve this:
Keep it simple. Even though this is a cardinal rule, we all know we want to impress. So pick recipes that have a wow-factor but are still ‘do-able’. Avoid dishes that have a hundred different components on the plate. (Unless you have an army of sous chefs prepping for you, in which case, can you send some over to my place?)
Stick to what you know. All the entertaining guides will tell you this. But life’s short and I love experimenting with new ideas. However, even if the recipe is new, make sure the technique is not (as any contestant on Top Chef who got kicked out because of this will tell you).
Do Ahead. This is one rule that I’m not attaching any ‘But’ to. Stick to it! Pick recipes that can be prepared ahead of time or can be prepared up to a point. It will help you eliminate that famous dinner-party-assassin – stress.
Other tips and tools (feel free to customize the attached templates* to suit your needs):
Invites: Prepare a personalized invite* that reflects the theme of your party – again, keep it simple.
Shopping: Make sure your shopping list is complete. There is nothing worse than starting to cook and realizing you forgot to buy an important ingredient. (You know you’re an analyst when you have an excel spreadsheet as a shopping list*!)
Cooking: Have a game plan* ready and stick to it. Get your guests to help with last-minute touches – a common task is also a great ice-breaker when guests are not familiar with each other.
Relax: A party is supposed to be fun! If things go wrong, breathe and remember: your friends are there to see you and will most likely not notice all the tiny imperfections that are driving you crazy. And even if they do, the best ones won’t care.
Having implemented everything in my bag of tricks, I was ready to welcome my guests as they came through the door. We chatted over wine (apple-cranberry for the many teetotalers) and mustard batons. The creamy goat cheese(cake) proved to be the perfect foil for the light, bitter-sweet salad. The braised chicken came out of the oven, skin crackling and meat tender. The vegetarians exulted over the rich mushroom Bolognese. The autumn trifle with its many layers was a joy to behold and the chocolate-caramel tart had even a non-dessert lover going for seconds. I’d been worried about how my guests would respond to a decidedly non-Indian menu, but knew my work was done when one of them thanked me for introducing him to a new cuisine.
We lingered over our plates, sharing stories and anecdotes; laughter and camaraderie were our companions at the table. Someone once asked me the secret to a successful dinner party. It’s no secret. Themes, invites, menus, table settings – these are the bells and whistles. Just like in life, good food and good company are all you really need.
*PFB voting is now open. A big thank you to everyone who voted for me!