Friday, October 12, 2007

Tips for a Fun and Fabulous Last Minute Dinner Party

Situation: Your husband calls to say that your in-laws are coming over for dinner Friday night—and it’s Friday morning. And your mother-in-law is on a diet (again). 

For starters, if you get that last minute call from your husband for an impromptu dinner not to worry, you have lots of options (even if it’s your picky mother-in-law). The first thing I’d say is take a deep breath and relax. Know that when you entertain it’s about creating a warm, inviting ambience, serving simple but flavorful food and spending great time with your guests. It’s NOT about creating that once-in-a-lifetime soufflé, uptight starched linen tablecloths or some sort of witty cocktail banter. When you welcome people into your home you’re inviting them to come in, have a drink and relax (they won’t relax if you’re a nervous wreck) and always keep in mind they are probably happy to be there because it means they don’t have to cook at home!

Q: Can you skip cooking, given the fact that you don’t have much time to prepare? If so, what are the best last-minute dinner take-out options? Can you prepare a last-minute meal and still manage to keep it low fat? If you have last minute guests and there’s not really time to prepare you can always get the main course from a great take out place and then make the sides at home. Just be sure that the takeout you select is along the lines of a roasted chicken, or Cornish game hens, lamb chops or poached salmon…skip the Chinese, lasagna, or ribs! At home you can sauté some vegetables and make a salad and these days you can buy vegetable and salad ingredients that are already chopped up! It seems that just about everyone is looking for a healthier dinner option so you’ll want people to come and enjoy what you are serving instead of feeling like they’ll need to spend an extra hour at the gym working off the dinner they had at your house. A few things that can make the takeout meal more “personalized” is to buy the main course that you can finish cooking in your oven (the smell will fill the kitchen), make your own salad dressing and buy some fresh herbs in the produce section to garnish the plates with.

Q: If take-out or catering isn’t an option, any thoughts on simple, relatively healthy menu items that don’t take a long time to prepare? A few simple, healthy menu choices would be a poached salmon; it sounds fancy but it’s literally boiling some broth and wine, putting a thick piece of fish in it, covering the pan and cooking it for about 8 minutes. Another great choice is pork tenderloin; this works well because the meat is so tender to begin with it’s hard to mess it up! Just sear it on all sides in an oven-proof skillet then pour a few cups of red wine and broth in a pan and put it in a 450 degree oven for 20 minutes and you have pork with a red wine reduction sauce…super easy, impressive and delicious! You can also impress even the pickiest guests with your presentation of the food on the plate, you want to make it as appealing as possible and it doesn’t cost any more money or take any more time. Think about how food is served in a great restaurant, don’t just set everything side by side on the plate; group the vegetables in the center of the plate, rest thick slices of pork (or your main dish) partly over the vegetables, drizzle your sauce over the meat and garnish with a fresh herb sprig. It’s amazing but those last minute touches will make everyone think you’re a gourmet cook! The key to making a last minute meal healthy is to think fresh, don’t buy pre-packaged spreads, dips and side dishes, they are loaded with salt and calories. Also, when you’re cooking think about flavor-builders, broth, wine and herbs are a healthier alternative to thick, creamy sauces and just as full of flavor. You’d be shocked by just throwing a little broth and wine in a pan after you’ve cooked a meat or fish, the amazingly delicious sauce that’s created, just reduce the liquid so it’s cooked down to half of what you’ve started with and you have a fantastic topper for your main dish. A great dessert idea is to have a bowl of fresh whole strawberries (stems on), a bowl of plain yogurt and a plate of brown sugar and let guests dip the berries in the yogurt and then dip them in a little brown sugar, they are the perfect fresh, light alternative to a big heavy dessert and are so easy to serve!

Q: What are easy ways to set the mood for a party? Can you give some tips on lighting and music that puts guests (especially picky mother-in-laws!) at ease? One of the most important things you can do when your guests first arrive is to have some soft music playing, low lighting (get some 60 watt bulbs at the supermarket) and offer them a drink right away. Even if you’re running late, stop everything in the kitchen and set the mood, pour yourself a glass of wine so when your guests arrive you feel under control (there’s nothing worse than arriving for dinner only to be greeted by a harried host, it sets a bad tone for the evening). They can come into the kitchen and talk to you as you’re finishing dinner. As for music choices, light jazz seems to be the best because it’s not too loud or annoying but there’s enough of a beat to keep the conversation going and the mood upbeat, keep it loud enough so you can hear it but not so loud you have to scream to talk over it. Make sure to use lots of candles on the table and don’t worry about getting flowers, they are overrated as table décor and usually your guests can’t see each other over them. I also highly recommend you have some fun and use your good china (that your picky mother-in-law most likely gave you a place setting of), don’t wait for that once a year big holiday dinner, if you have it use it! If you have great table linens you can use them too but don’t feel like you can only use your good china with the good linens, your good china will look just as great on a placemat! Some cloth napkins also make a big difference versus paper and you can always rest a fresh herb sprig on each napkin on the place settings for a special little touch. Just remember to enjoy yourself and your guests, it’s not about perfection!

Q: Any other tips on pulling off a fantastic dinner with less than a day’s notice? Some other tips for a fabulous last minute dinner are to make a list, in addition to your shopping list, of what you are serving and the amount of time each dish will take and keep it in the kitchen. This will help you time the meal so everything comes out at once (which is the problem most people have with throwing a dinner party…getting it all to come out at the same time and keep dishes from overcooking). Open up a bottle or two of wine before your guests arrive so you are not fumbling with a corkscrew as you are talking to them about your day. Set the table, as ahead of time as possible, it will be one more thing that’s out of the way and set out any serving platters or pieces you’ll use as well. Save simple tasks for last, like dressing the salad, warming the bread, slicing the meat and transferring food to platters or plates. It’s unrealistic to think you’ll have every detail in place when the doorbell rings and trust me, you’re guests aren’t expecting it! These are all easy to do as you’re chatting with friends and having drinks (and your mother-in-law is in the dining room noticing you’re using your good china).