The end of the year is often a hectic time for people from all walks of life, but especially for those of us who get a kick out of entertaining and hosting. Too often we will decide to have “a few” friends over for drinks and snacks, and it quickly snowballs into something about as manageable as cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people.
I love to entertain, and at times I feel like it’s what I was born to do. A weird calling in life, for sure, but I really do enjoy it. I throw a lot of parties, mostly centered around food and wine. I’d like to take a moment to share with you some of the tricks I’ve learned over the years to help make entertaining as affordable and easy as possible for the gracious host, so you can spend more time with your guests.
- Get as much of your prep done ahead of time as possible. This is something caterers have known for ages – sometimes preparing (and freezing) ingredients weeks in advance. Many recipes will tell you what can be done ahead of time, and that combined with some common sense is a great way to get ahead of the curve. Chop all of your veggies, juice your lemons, make your salad dressings, purée your dips, mince your garlic, make your soups, and anything else you can think of the day before. Focus especially on things that are time consuming, like snapping the ends off your green beans.
- Find ways to make ingredients stretch and repurpose leftovers. Entertaining for a large group of people can be very costly, and nobody wants to ask their guests to chip in to help with the cost of food. Did you cook a pot of beans earlier in the week? Turn the leftovers into bean dip. That stale, day-old bread? Crostini. Last night’s risotto? Arancini. Restaurants do this, so why can’t you? My favorite trick: Go pick up some fresh pizza dough from your local grocer and make flatbreads with all the odds and ends in your refrigerator that need to be used up. Just because it’s left-over, doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious and worthy of a spot on your table.
- Don’t wait until the last minute to sort out your menu. Seasoned pros do a lot of planning, so if you are feeling overwhelmed it’s probably a good idea to plan everything out ahead of time. I like to use spreadsheets to keep track of the dishes I’m preparing, what ingredients I need, URLs to recipes, what I need to buy vs. what I already have in my kitchen, etc. Spreadsheets can be color-coded and are a great visual planner, and if you upload it to Google Docs you can also use it as your shopping list. It’s a good way to organize your thoughts and to prevent forgetting things like tarragon.
- Prepare things that are rich, filling, comforting, and inexpensive. One of my favorite family-style appetizers is ricotta cheese topped with honey. The two ingredients on their own might not be especially inexpensive, but they are super rich a little goes a long way. All you have to do is plop the cheese into a bowl, cover it with honey, and serve it with bread or crackers. Another idea is to serve a fresh, sliced baguette with a side of olive oil and sea salt, like you get an Italian restaurant. Home-made hummus can be prepared ahead of time, and garbanzo beans are very inexpensive. Make a big platter of carrot sticks, celery, and other dip-worthy veggies as vehicles for your hummus or bean dip (your paleo friends will thank you!). Make a huge, healthy arugula & shaved fennel salad to cut the richness of your cheese plate.
- Ask your friends to help out by bringing a dish or a bottle of wine to share. It’s easy to take it all on head-first and not ask for any assistance – believe it or not, your guests are more than happy to help. If you want to deal with the food, ask your guests to help out by bringing a bottle of wine or a fancy beer. If you blew your budget on exotic wines and cocktail provisions, ask your friends to help out by bringing snacks to share. My point is, if you crowd-source your parties, your life becomes much easier. It’s way classier than asking people to chip in a few bucks as well.
- Be aware of the food allergies and dietary restrictions of your guests. I have several friends who have serious seafood, nut, and dairy allergies, along with a smattering of vegetarianism. While you don’t have to make everything nut, seafood, meat, and dairy free, it’s a good idea to make notes of what has what in it and to make sure you alert your guests if your dishes contain any food allergens. If I have a vegetarian friend coming, I ensure that nothing meat-related is touching the foods s/he can eat, and I also make sure that there is no cross-contamination during preparation. Your guests will be thankful that you went out of your way to accommodate their needs.