By Mary Beth Evans
Getting friends together for an intimate gathering of great food, wine and conversation has been one of the highlights of my life. It should be an enjoyable time for everyone, including me (the hostess, chef and cleanup crew) but that wasn’t always the case. In the past I’d bring out the latest issues of my favorite cooking magazines, shop for countless ingredients and proceed to spend the entire day in the kitchen. After hours of sifting, whisking and braising, I was exhausted long before the guests even arrived. A half-hour before party time you could find me frantically stashing mail and papers off the counter into any available drawer and running to the shower at a pace not seen since childhood.
And, of course, the house had to be spotless, with everything in its place and not a dust ball in sight. Even the bedrooms had to be straightened on the off-chance someone forgot my directions to the powder room and ventured down the hall. Then, just to keep the madness alive, I would have prepared foods that needed last minute “tending”. Visions of guests lounging by the fire were replaced with everyone hanging out in the kitchen because I could never really leave.
I somehow always managed to pull it off, but I realize now it doesn’t have to be so much work. After 23 years of marriage and countless dinner parties, I started taking my husband Michael’s advice to “do what you know” and “keep it simple”. When I finally gave up the “pageant,” as my husband so irritatingly called it, my experience drastically improved and I began to actually enjoy the process.
Round seating: Many years ago I bought a round table from a party rental company for $125 that I use every time I have a dinner party. I love round seating—everyone can see each other and it makes for great conversation amongst the whole table.
Flea market finds: Flea markets are an incredible resource for so many things for entertaining on a budget. A stack of cloth napkins are a must. They really do make a difference in the overall presentation of your table and with a little spray starch you can keep them looking their best. Flea markets have a great selection of eclectic silverware and plateware that you can mix and match. Mix it up with a few different sets of salt and pepper shakers and your table will look amazing.
Candles: All shapes and sizes! Votives are the best and very inexpensive. I love to dress the table up with candles and vintage candlesticks found, again, at the flea market. Dim the lights or turn some off and have lots of candles burning. It makes the room more warm and cozy—and who doesn’t look beautiful in candlelight?
Flowers: Go to a farmers market and pick up bunches of your favorite flowers. I always save vases whenever I receive arrangements and reuse them. Tulips are great because you can pack 3-4 bunches in the vase and they droop down beautifully, not blocking your view of the person across the table.
Glassware and stemware: Don’t be married to the idea that you have to have full sets of anything. Mixing and matching works great! Try to make things coordinate but don’t make yourself crazy. With the lights low and candles glowing, people will never notice.
The Main Event
Drinks: What is a dinner party without some good drinks? Choose a designated spot for your “bar” and set out an array of beverages. I like to put out a few bottles of wine and some hard alcohols
and mixers and let the guests be their own bartenders. It makes it less formal and gets the evening started.
Appetizers: Think simple. Some loosely layered prosciutto next to some goat cheese, a wedge of Jarlsberg cheese and some water crackers goes a long way. Anchor the platter with a mound of fresh
red grapes, and you’ve made the dish even more attractive.
The main dish: Put the recipe books away! The best thing I ever did was start making dishes that I have made many times, are easy, quick and delicious and offer a nice presentation. One of my favorite “go-to” meals that everyone loves is my salmon filet (see recipe below). I like to serve it with asparagus and my favorite secret weapon—Near East couscous with pine nuts. Not only is it delicious but more importantly it is easy and ready in five minutes. Toss a quick salad and you have a meal that looks like you spent all day preparing when in fact it took about a half-hour.
Dessert: A cake or pie that is made ahead works best when you are keeping it simple. Some ice cream and fresh berries on the side makes the perfect ending to a great night. Another alternative is to ask your guests to bring a dessert. Most people will ask if they can bring something—take them up on the offer! It makes them feel better not coming empty handed and it gives you one less thing to think about.
Clean as you go and your sink won’t be piled up at the end of the night. Put the leftovers away and go to bed. Perfection can wait until morning. When all is said and done, what’s most important is the
company. If you are relaxed and having fun, they will too.
Salmon Filet Recipe:
Take 1 large salmon filet (approx. 1½ lbs) and lay it on a foilcovered cookie sheet, skin-side down.
In a small bowl prepare the glaze:
2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. honey
1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
1 Tsp. lemon zest
Cover filet with the glaze and place under the broiler for 8-10 minutes. Keep a close eye on it so the glaze does not burn. You want the center to be opaque in color when you cut into it. If it is getting too brown and not cooking inside, move it down in the oven until the center is cooked.