With the holidays upon us and the cold weather creeping in, there’s no better time to invite friends and loved ones over for a dinner party. If this sounds like a daunting endeavor, don’t fret—a little planning (and maybe a cook’s cocktail or two) will keep the stress at bay.
Downtown Manhattanite Kendall Roberts plans events for Dean & DeLuca by day but hosts casual, fun dinner parties for friends by night.
Click through her guide to throwing a manageable soiree that will surely garner you hostess points and a rep as a fantastic chef!
At my table, the ideal dinner-party guest list includes six to eight invitees who range from reserved to garrulous and share a few common interests.
If time allows, send a handwritten invitation to your guests. As a great alternative, the website Paperless Post allows you to send “fine stationery” via e-mail and tracks your guests’ responses on the site. Be sure your invitation clearly states that the event is a dinner party and requests that your guests repondez s’il vous plait.
TIP: Be sure to invite plenty of conversationalists and seat them at different ends of the table to keep conversation flowing.
Place cards look nice on the table, but they’re also a great way to avoid the awkward game of predinner musical chairs.
Selecting a general theme for your party can be a helpful reference point to get you started with the planning process. This theme doesn’t have to be spelled out for your guests, but it should be the inspiration behind your menu selection, libations, decor, music, and even the guest list.
A few seasonal examples include:
December in Paris (Grand Marnier cocktails, warm duck, squash soufflé)
Après-ski (fondue, coq au vin, mulled wine)
Latkes and lagers (ask guests to bring their favorite beers to pair with a classic Hanukkah dinner)
New Year’s in New York (think pizza and drink champagne)
Consider the occasion of the dinner party when choosing the flowers, colors, and the vessel for the arrangement. The container doesn’t have to be a fancy vase! Mason jars, planters, glasses, or bottles with the label removed are all great options.
When selecting your flowers, one easy concept to go with is to choose several different kinds of flowers in the same hue. For a professional-looking arrangement, grab something woodsy, something full, and something wispy.
Some of the best red winter blossoms include roses, anemones, amaryllis, calla lilies, and cymbidium orchids. Don’t feel as though you can use only flowers! Pinecones, fruit, or berry branches and candles are great additions too.
TIP: I love grabbing wildflowers from the Union Square Greenmarket, or if time allows, I’ll make a domestic pilgrimage to the flower district, where you can find fresher flowers for a better price. Much of the business is wholesale, but many shops welcome walk-in customers, too.
TIP: If you’re creating a centerpiece for a dinner table, don’t exceed 12 inches in height, so your guests can see one another across the table. This is also a money saver because the shorter the flowers, the fewer you’ll need to make a full arrangement.
Making a Scotch-tape grid across the vase is a great way to hold the flowers in place when making the arrangement.
Choose a simple menu that’s made up of plenty of things that you can cook in advance and, most important, things that you have cooked before. The key to a good party is a relaxed host who is having fun! For this menu, shopping can be done two to three days in advance. Purchase bread and seafood the day of to ensure freshness.
TIP: Write out your shopping list broken down by aisle or section of the market rather than by recipe.
Whole Foods Market is a one-stop shop for a busy girl! The Greenmarket in Union Square is great for local cheese, flowers, and produce, and there are dozens and dozens of other great Greenmarkets throughout Manhattan.
Leek Soup With Croutons, serves 8
Cook’s note: Soup can be made three days in advance
Olive oil, 1 teaspoon
4 slices thick-cut bacon, sliced in ½-inch pieces (called lardons)
8 medium leeks, trimmed, leaving white and pale green parts only, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon white pepper (or to taste)
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 large sprig of rosemary
1 large Idaho potato, peeled
2 tsp champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 cup dry white wine
6 cups chicken stock or reduced-sodium chicken broth
½ cup chopped parsley or chervil
½ cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 baguette, sliced in 24 slices
1 cup aged Gruyère or aged goat cheese, grated
Wash sliced leeks in a large bowl of cold water, agitating them to remove dirt and sand, then lift out and drain well in a colander.
While leeks are drying, place a large pot over medium heat and add a small drizzle of oil. Add the bacon lardons and sauté until crispy. Carefully remove the bacon from the pot and reserve it over paper towels, leaving the drippings behind in the pot. Turn up the heat to medium-high.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Sauté the leeks, onion, carrot, celery, salt, pepper, bay leaf, and rosemary in the bacon drippings, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the potato into ½-inch cubes and add to the pot. Deglaze the pot with vinegar, add the wine, and let the liquid reduce for a couple of minutes. Add the stock and lower heat to a steady simmer, partially covered, until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
Toss the baguette slices with 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and lay on a sheet tray. Place the tray in the preheated oven and lightly brown (about 5 minutes). Remove the croutons from the oven and flip them over. Top each crouton with a pinch of aged cheese and return to the oven for a few minutes, until the cheese is just melted.
Discard the bay leaf and rosemary from the soup, add parsley or chervil, and blend the soup until smooth and return it to the pot (be very careful blending hot liquids). Add the cream and plenty of salt and pepper to taste. Garnish each bowl of soup with three baguette croutons and a sprig of parsley or chervil.
Duck Breast With Cherry Sauce, serves 8
Five Moulard duck breasts, skin on
Coarsely ground pepper
3 tablespoons thyme leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
Directions for the duck:
Prepare the duck: Generously sprinkle both sides of the breast with salt, pepper, and thyme leaves. Allow to rest in the fridge for several hours, bringing to room temperature one hour prior to cooking.
Preheat two large cast-iron pans or large sauté pans on a low heat with a small amount of oil (just to coat). Meanwhile, remove the excess moisture and thyme from the duck breasts until the breasts are dry.
Place the breasts on the skillet, skin side facing down, without overcrowding the pan, and cook on a low heat for approximately 10 minutes (until most of the fat has rendered down). Turn the heat up to medium-high and cook the breasts until they are golden brown and crispy. Flip the breast over and cook until golden brown (approximately 5 minutes).
Remove the breasts from the pan and allow them to rest for 3 to 5 minutes. Slice thinly and serve over greens of your choice.
Cook’s note: Can be made three days in advance.
3 dozen dark sweet cherries, halved (and defrosted if frozen)
2 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup beef stock
1 cup port
2½ teaspoons vinegar (preferably sherry)
5 fresh thyme sprigs
1 pinch salt
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 teaspoons warm water
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, cut into ½-inch pieces, room temperature
Bring cherries, chicken stock, port, vinegar, salt, and thyme to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Simmer until mixture is reduced to about 3/4 cup.
Add cornstarch mixture to reduction. Bring to simmer and whisk constantly. Slowly incorporate butter, whisking until each cube of butter is melted before adding the next piece. Adjust seasoning as necessary.
Squash Soufflé, serves 8
Soufflés have a bad reputation—but this recipe couldn’t be easier. Make the soufflé one day in advance and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Pop it in the oven about 30 minutes before you’re ready to eat—and voila!
Cook’s note: Soufflé can be made in one large soufflé dish rather than individual ramekins.
2½ cups roasted butternut squash
½ cup Cheddar cheese, grated
2 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for buttering the ramekins
3 egg yolks (reserve the whites)
1 cup heavy whipping cream (chilled)
1 teaspoon ground mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons flour, plus more for flouring ramekins
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoons sugar
5 egg whites, room temperature
Rub each ramekin with a very thin layer of butter. Add flour to coat the inside of each buttered ramekin and shake off any excess flour. Place the butternut squash in a bowl and whip until smooth. Add cheese, melted butter, egg yolks, cream, and salt and whip until fluffy. Add the flour until just incorporated. In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites with 1 tablespoon sugar until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites in with the butternut squash mixture and divide batter among ramekins. Bake the soufflés at 325 degrees F for about 35 to 40 minutes in a water bath.
Serve a spiced hot wine after the meal, with dessert for a full-circle dining experience.
Digestif: Vin Chaud, serves 8
1 bottle red wine (such as Côtes du Rhône)
¼ cup of cognac
¼ cup of Grand Marnier
2 cups of port
1 large cinnamon stick, halved, plus more for garnish
Slices of orange stuck with 10 cloves
Heat the wine until hot and turn off the heat. Add the rest of the ingredients and wait five minutes before serving. Garnish with a cinnamon stick if desired.
Who or what doesn’t look better with candlelight? Scatter plenty of tea lights and candles throughout your space. For the table or bar area, place a candle inside a hurricane or wide clear vase and partially fill the container around the candle with an edible decor such as peppercorns, cloves, or cranberries floating in water.
Fill a few small bud vases or small glasses with any remaining flowers or greenery from the centerpiece arrangement, and don’t forget an arrangement and a candle for the bathroom!
TIP: Use unscented candles on the dinner table so they don’t compete with the aromas of home cooking.
To start the evening, play music that complements your dinner theme to set the tone. I often look to Pandora One (personalized Internet radio without commercials) for my playlists, and for this franco-fete I selected former Hotel Costes deejay Stephane Pompougnac’s station. Later in the evening, I turned to my Quintette du Hot Club de France CD for some classic French jazz.
TIP: In New York City, we’re fortunate to have an abundance of talented musicians at our fingertips, and, if you’re lucky, they might just be looking for an extra gig. Call your neighborhood restaurant with live music or the local music shop for contacts, and book a small theme-appropriate band for affordable and unique cocktail hour entertainment.
Upon your guests’ arrival, cocktails are always a nice way to welcome them and make the evening feel like a real party. Instead of shaking each guest’s cocktail individually, I suggest making a big punch bowl of one seasonal cocktail before guests arrive. Not only does it look festive, but friends can easily help themselves. Remember to put out a few snacks that don’t require much fuss such as olives, spiced nuts, charcuterie, or shrimp cocktail.
TIP: Refer to bar references Mix, Shake, Stir and The Savoy Cocktail Book for inspiration and guidance. For only $16, the MoMA Store’s website sells these fabulous Japanese spherical ice trays that create a perfectly circular 2-inch ice “cubes.” Try freezing lemon or rosemary inside the ice for extra flair.
West Elm offers reusable stainless steel straws that keep your drink chilled. Another perk? They keep the lipstick on your lips instead of on your cup.
TIP: If you’re already planning to cook several dishes, make like a Parisian and grab something sweet from your local Patisserie for dessert. Alternatively, set out a nice cheese plate and some quality chocolate for nibbling.
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