Lately I've been doing a lot of entertaining....almost every weekend as it turns out. I love it. With so much practice, I have fine-tuned my 'formula' to the point where entertaining has become effortless and a pleasure- the way it should be. It wasn't always this way. Not that long ago I used to find it stressful and exhausting. It would put me off inviting friends over. So here are a dozen tips on how entertaining can be made easy (with a couple of sample menus below): 1. Keep it really really simple. Less is more. For example 1 home-made dip for appetizer made with real fresh ingredients and served with vegetable sticks is, in my view, better than 2 or more store
bought dips served with nutrition-less crackers (and much much cheaper!!). 1 nutritious meat dish for the main is perfectly acceptable (rather than 2 or more smaller fiddly dishes). And don't be afraid to serve 1 (or 2 max) basic salads with 1 main meat dish. There's no rule that you have to have a number of different courses. I like the Mediterranean way of entertaining where all the food is laid out in one hit on the table and people help themselves. Easy. It's perfectly fine to serve a gorgeous cheese platter with various Australian or international cheeses instead of (or for) dessert. Cakes and sweets are time-consuming to make! When guests ask what they can bring ask them to buy a couple different cheeses from a local cheese shop (I love Occello) or the markets or David Jones food hall. If a couple of guests each do this you've got a lovely cheese platter. No crackers required. Just get stuck into the cheese or add some fresh fruit... and Bob's your uncle.
2. Serve food that doesn't require you to spend much if any time in the kitchen when guests arrive. In winter soups, casseroles, roasts and salads can all be prepared ahead of time and brought out when the guests arrive. The only thing I really want to be doing when guests arrive is serving drinks and conversing. And in summer the Aussie quintessential meat on the BBQ with 1 or 2 salads and home-made tomato sauce works perfectly.
3. Ditching the grains has made entertaining and catering incredibly simple. No soaking or sprouting required. No making and rolling out pastry. No boiling up pasta at the last minute to make it al dente. No furiously stirring risottos to ensure they haven't stuck to the pan when main is served. No empty fillers. What a relief! Just more delicious nutritious bang for your buck and more free time! Vegetarian meals are time-consuming!!! Traditional meat dishes on the other hand take a fraction of the time. It takes me a couple of minutes to throw casserole ingredients together or assemble a roast meat dish. There's no chopping or cutting of the meat. Its either pre-cut by the butcher or whacked in the oven whole. When the meat dish takes centre stage the sides can be incredibly simple (e.g. a garden salad, steamed buttered veggies).
4. Increase the volume of food with the number of guests - not the variety of the dishes. Whether I'm catering for 5, 10 or 20 people - I keep the number of dishes the same - I just increase the amount of each dish and not the variety of dishes. So for example, I make a larger garden salad rather than 2 different salads. I make 1 larger meat dish instead of 2 different meat dishes. The additional effort to cater for 20 people than 5 people is marginal (assuming no space issues!) if you are simply making more of the same thing rather than more different things.
5. I'm not exotic with drinks. The choices are filtered water (with sliced lemon and mint), red wine, white wine, sparkling or beer. No fancy time-consuming cocktails. But that's just me. If shots, cocktails and mocktails are your thing.... then all the more power to you!
6. Clean up (a little) as you go from time to time.The clean up job is for me more time consuming than preparing the food as my food prep is very simple and straight-forward as I've set out above. So to avoid a massive clean up job at the end of the night, what I do after the main is finished is alternate conversing with guests with cleaning up a little if I don't think that I'm being rude if I dash into the kitchen to start stacking the dishwasher for a few minutes before returning to the guests. It's a bit like my strategy with juggling kids and housework - I play with the kids/attend to their needs for a bit, then get on with housework for a bit, then return to playing with kids for a bit etc.
7. Accept people's offers of help or don't be afraid to ask people to help. My husband calls it being bossy but I'd prefer to say that I'm a good delegator. I usually accept a guests' offer of help and get them to do the next task I was about to so I can move onto something else. e.g. "Can you please do the rounds to see if people want more drinks?" or "Can you please take these plates to/from the table", "Can you please offer this dip and carrot sticks to people?". Don't put pressure on yourself to do EVERYTHING or you'll exhaust yourself and feel resentful. I want to feel energised when guests leave, not depleted.
8. If kids are on the scene and they have scattered toys, dirt and the contents of your pantry from one end of the house to the other (as kids typically do!), I tell them that they must tidy up BEFORE they get dessert. This is usually a pretty significant motivation for kids (and their parents) to help tidy up so that the place doesn't look like a bomb's hit it when they leave. Also, with rare exception, the kids always eat the same thing as the adults. The sooner kids (after the age of 1) eat the same meals that the rest of the family is eating the easier it is cater for them. Kids have a choice in my house: eat what I offer or don't eat at all. If you don't like it, there's nothing else. They will soon learn to love what you serve.... or starve!
9. Accept that as the host you probably won't get to indulge in a long D&M with every guest. If I can get around to talking to every guest even for a few minutes then I think that's ok. Asking people to swap seats before dessert is a good way for you (and your guests) to converse with different people.
10. Its ok to start the prep work a couple days before the event and do a little each day, rather than leaving everything to the day of the event. I was always a diligent study nerd at high school and uni. I never crammed. I would have found it too stressful. I plugged away from day 1 term 1 so that when exam day arrived it was all under control. Once a nerd, always a nerd. So with entertaining, I write up the menu a few days ahead and start preparing the things that I can. Home-made dips easily last 2-3 days in the fridge so can be prepared ahead of time. Meats for casseroles can be bought 2 days ahead and marinated to infuse the flavours and banged into the oven the day before to slow cook for 24-36 hours. Most cakes/desserts can be made the day before, as can frittatas. Stock and soup can be made days or weeks before and frozen and defrosted and reheated. As a busy mum I accept that I no longer have the luxury of time to make everything on the day of entertaining and murphy's law is that if I leave everything to entertaining day one or both of my kids (or other life circumstance) will require more of my attention than planned, making entertaining very stressful.
11. Don't blink an eyelid if your plates, cutlery, glasses, chairs etc don't all match, as no none else will. What's important is the quality of the food on the plate, not how expensive (or chipped) the plate is.
12. Relax, enjoy, have fun, and play some games if that takes your fancy.
I set out below the menus I put together for 2 recent events I held at home. The first was a more formal dinner (my close friends 'Great Gatsby' themed 40th birthday bash) in early August. The second was a very casual lunch with close friends last Sunday.
Menu for 16 adults for my friend's 40th birthday dinner:
- Appetizers: tzatziki (Greek yogurt cucumber dip), caramelised onion and fig chicken liver pate, wild salmon dip - all served with vegetable sticks, activated almonds, and olives
- No entree (remember: keep it simple)
- Main: 30 hour slow cooked Morrocan spiced lamb shoulders served with 2 salads (one Greek salad, and one garden salad with sliced apple and activated walnuts). Tzatziki dip from appetisers brought to table to serve with lamb.
- Birthday cake (dessert): activated almond coconut cake with orange syrup served with ricotta and rehydrated figs
- Afterwards: herbal chai tea or coffee
Menu for 9 adults and 6 children for casual long lazy Sunday lunch:
- Appetizers: tzatziki (Greek yogurt cucumber dip) with carrot and celery sticks, activated almonds, and olives (assembled on the day of lunch)
- Entree: fish soup (I baked the fish and steamed the veggies the day before. Then on the day of lunch I added these to the fish stock that I had made and frozen weeks before and defrosted)
- Main: roast vegetable frittata (made day before and heated on the day), crab salad (kindly brought by a guest) and garden salad (made day of lunch)
- Dessert: fruit and activated nut bar (made days before) topped with home-made vanilla ice-cream (in freezer from months before) and Alpine goats yogurt dusted with cinnamon powder
- Afterwards: cheese platter (kindly brought by a guest) with herbal chai tea and coffee
I'll soon be writing a post on catering for kids birthday parties following my son's recent 7th birthday....so stay tuned!