Last week, I had the pleasure of giving a talk to the Kitchener Heritage PROBUS (PROfessional and BUSiness) Club. My presentation focused on easy entertaining ideas that allow one to "entertain like a caterer." As you know, although I love to entertain, I'm fully aware that it can be quite stressful and intimidating for many people. If you are less than eager to entertain, there is always the option of taking people out to a restaurant for dinner, but if you're feeling a bit more daring, here are my top 10 tips to make entertaining at home as easy as possible:
• Prepare dishes that can be made in advance. In colder months, serve dishes that taste better the day after they are made, such as coq au vin, beef bourguignon, chicken marsala, curries, pasta bakes or another one of your favourite one-dish-meals that can go from oven to table. In warmer months, serve cold or room-temperature dishes such as grilled salmon, cold sliced chicken or flank steak, potato salad and a platter of roasted vegetables.
In addition to the food, prepare whatever else you can in advance. For example, have your coffee set up so that you only have to press the start button, have your cream and milk already poured into the creamers and stored in the fridge, select and set up your music, have your matches or lighter out near the candles.
• Serve buffet-style or family-style whenever possible. Plated meals take a lot more time, more fussing about and the food can get cold easily. I love serving buffet because your guests are able to choose their own portions and avoid taking something that they aren't as fond of.
• Consider renting dishes and stemware if your budget allows. It goes without saying that renting makes for much easier clean up.
• Hire a server if your budget allows. An additional hand to help with cleaning, topping-up drinks or collecting coats can really come in handy, especially for large groups.
• Set up a self-serve bar.
• Consider serving only wine, beer and perhaps a signature drink (in addition to a non-alcoholic choice, of course). It's often the little touches that your guests will remember.
• Take something basic and make it more exotic by introducing a "twist" or using a small amount of an expensive or "luxury" ingredient. Some examples include topping traditional devilled eggs with crab or lobster and garnishing them with smoked salt.
• Don't forget the importance of presentation. Remember, people eat with their eyes first. Try making your food more interesting by presenting it in an unconventional manner. Choose a vessel, container or stemware piece (from your own kitchen cabinets, hutch or attic) that is not normally intended for that food item.
For instance, fill your old-fashioned teacup and saucer sets with fresh fruit salad and top with a dollop of lemon curd or whipped cream and a sprig of fresh mint. Teacups also work beautifully for appetizer-sized portions of hot or cold soup, and are also a great way to serve shrimp cocktail.
• Don't forget the music and candles. Have music playing throughout the duration of your gathering. Don't forget about lighting — dim the lights and light some candles.
• If you don't like to cook or are pressed for time, consider assembling good-quality store-bought food instead of creating it. For example, buy great-quality sausages and cold meats, sliced cheese, marinated or pickled vegetables and artisan breads and let your guests prepare their own antipasto.
To quote Ina Garten (the Barefoot Contessa), "Your friends aren't going to have more fun if you spend two weeks making the hors d'oeuvres."
Which brings me to my corollary – your guests won’t have a good time if your husband is tense – so pour him a stiff vodka tonic 30 minutes before your guests arrive – and refresh it a couple of times over the evening – you’d be surprised how much more engaging / charismatic / helpful he’ll be... It’ll remind you of why you married him in the first place. (Works like a charm for me every time!)
Tangy Lemon Curd
recipe adapted from Fine Cooking Magazine
yields about 2 cups
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 whole eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
- In a large bowl, beat the softened, room-temperature butter and sugar with an electric mixer for about two minutes.
- Slowly add the whole eggs and egg yolks. Beat for one-two minutes more. Mix in the lemon juice. Please note, the mixture will look "curdled" but it will smooth out as it cooks.
- In a medium heavy-based saucepan, cook the mixture over low heat until it looks smooth. (The curdled appearance does disappear as the butter in the mixture melts.)
- Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 15-22 minutes. It should leave a path on the back of a spoon and will read 170 degrees F on a thermometer.
- Do not let the mixture boil. Remove the curd from the heat, and then stir in the lemon zest. Transfer the curd to a bowl. Press plastic wrap on the surface of the lemon curd to keep a skin from forming and chill the curd in the refrigerator.
- The curd will thicken further as it cools. Covered tightly, it will keep in the refrigerator for a week and in the freezer for two months.