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How to Throw an Effortless Dinner Party

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How to Throw an Effortless Dinner Party
Photo by Tim Hussey

There are many things about throwing a dinner party that can be intimidating. Growing up, my parents entertained often, whether for work obligations or their general hospitable southern nature. Through these routines, I innately picked up good tips for how to make dinner parties seem “effortless.” Here are just a few to help with upcoming get-togethers:

  1. Do everything that you possibly can ahead of time. Lay out the cheese display with garnishes, make the sauce that will accompany the meat and set it aside, blanch crudités the day before, etc. This includes even laying out the serving pieces and utensils (sometimes we even go so far as to put post-it notes into each serving dish so everyone knows its purpose—nuts, crackers, etc.) Your system doesn’t have to be this refined, but it does help when asking others to pitch in at the last minute so they know the plan.
  2. Always stick to what you know. Plan your menu around recipes or dishes that you can do in your sleep. This is not the time to get creative. As tempting as it may be to want to show off your new crème brûlée skills, you will not be in a good mood when you find yourself agonizing over the unset custard that is sopped with water from its surrounding water bath. Even if oatmeal cookies seem bland to you, it’s the fact that you made them and the amiable atmosphere that guests will find entertaining. My mother was always surprised how guests would rave over the simplest meals, such as ham or chocolate cake. Most of the time, all people want is a good, home-cooked meal.
  3. Entrée selection is crucial. This is not the time to pick a main course that requires last-minute attention. The ideal dish is something that can sit and wait, as long as needed, depending upon the course of conversation or late arrivals. In this realm, roasted meats, baked pastas, braised meats, and stews/soups are best. Don’t be afraid to serve things family style. Most home kitchens don’t have the counter space for plated dishes, and this adds a more relaxed, comfortable feel at the table.
  4. Make dessert the day before (or buy it!)  The last thing you want to worry about is whether the tart cooked properly or if the custard is set. Plus, who wants to deal with cleaning up the mess the day of your party? So do yourself a favor and make it the night before so you know it’s ready and you know it’s good. Most cakes are better the next day anyway.
  5. It’s not about the food. Yes, of course, the food helps to create a memorable evening, but remember that the reason for everything is to spend time with friends or family. When you keep the overall goal in focus, then that will help put everything else in perspective. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s caviar or Cracker Jacks that you serve—the evening is about the company.

This Tarte Tatin is one of my mother’s stand-by classic desserts that is better when made the day before.