Party time

December 18, 2007

As someone who recently prepared eight dishes for seven people in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, you can trust me when I say that entertaining in small spaces is not impossible. Be ye not daunted by diminutive kitchens and minimal counter space, folding chairs, a full-time job that doesn’t involve being a domestic diva, or the lack of proper serving utensils. All you really need is to make a few savvy decisions from the outset, and the rest will fall into place.

  1. Call for take-out. Fine, I’m kidding. But do consider what kind of things can be perfectly prepared elsewhere. There’s no reason to bake a homemade baguette, for example — something I have been crazed enough to try in the past. A platter of cheeses, nuts, cured meats, and pickles makes an excellent first course, and requires minimal extra work on your part. Nobody is going to be disappointed you didn’t cure your own meats.
  2. Pick your take-out wisely.
    You only need one pièce de résistance. No matter how much you enjoy showing off your cooking prowess, you still only need one “ta-da!” dish. Furthermore, it doesn’t have to be the main course. Maybe you did really want to try your hand at baking a homemade baguette; go for it. But then take it easy with the rest of your dishes. A fast track to pulling your hair out would be to make that baguette, plus pasta from scratch, plus homemade chicken stock while soaking your own beans. They’ll remember the baguette longer, anyhow.
  3. Plan a savvy menu. One you’ve picked your Big Ta-Da Dish, the rest of your items should be things that reheat easily or can be whipped together quickly; think tarts, quiches, soups, gratins, casseroles, and salads. Avoid anything that requires a last-minute pan-searing, especially if you have more items than fit in a single sauté pan.
  4. Put time on your side. I am a plan-ahead fiend. I hate rushing. What this translates to is my one above-all-else rule of party planning: If it can be done in advance, it should be. A week ahead of time, I make a list of the things I want to make and order them by date, from those items which can be made furthest in advance (tart dough, ice cream) to those which absolutely must be made at the last minute (tossed salad, things which cannot be reheated).
  5. Plan ahead and be ready to pour the bubbly on time.
    Don’t ignore needling details. Don’t get tripped up on something obvious. Because I have a limited number of plates, glasses, and flatware, I’ll even decide in advance which dishes each course will use, often opting to put soup in mugs when I realize we have more than one course that requires bowls. Mildly OCD? Of course. But I’d rather be that than frantically hand-washing dishes between courses, while all my friends are laughing and drinking in the next room.
  6. Liberate your inner Martha Stewart. Here’s the thing with too much perfectionism: it makes everyone a little uncomfortable. Perfectly matched table settings and perfectly arranged everything while all dishes are presented just so can be too much. People want to relax and have a good time; they don’t want to feel that they are inside a china cabinet. So don’t be afraid of mismatched table settings, and consider picking your battles. Paper plates, for example, can be just perfect for dessert.
  7. Put your friends to work. Your friends — yes, even those who have never turned on their ovens — want to help, so leave things for them to do. Easy ideas include whisking the vinegar, oil, and Dijon into a salad dressing, plating food, slicing bread, stirring anything, and chopping garnishes. Figure out what the easily distributed tasks are, and start delegating.
  8. Pick a quitting time. About one hour before everyone is supposed to come over, I quit, take a shower, and put on some cute clothes. I cannot feel festive if I’m still wearing a filthy apron — and yes, my aprons are filthy after I cook with them, never pressed and pristine like those you see in entertaining magazines. Whatever isn’t done yet just isn’t getting done. My time would be better used for other things, like testing the Prosecco to make sure it’s good enough for guests.

Deb Perelman lives in New York City, where she writes about tech and the daily grind while maintaining the home-cooking blog Smitten Kitchen.

Also on Culinate: Solstice party suggestions.

There are 7 comments on this item
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1. by bipolarlawyercook on Dec 20, 2007 at 11:31 AM PST

You’re so right about having only one knock-their-socks-off dish-- thanks for the helpful advice.

2. by Xani on Dec 21, 2007 at 11:21 AM PST

Great suggestions! I make tons of “task lists” with completions dates/times-- it’s very satisfying to cross things off the list!

3. by JEP on Dec 21, 2007 at 4:02 PM PST

Excellent suggestions!! I need to work on #‘s 2,5 & 6 :(

4. by Caroline on Dec 27, 2007 at 1:24 PM PST

Here’s one I just used - give your significant other or trusted friend a couple of time-sensitive chores for later on. I’m usually so focused on all the food that I forget to put the coffee on. Or didn’t have a musical playlist ready. My lovely husband tackled both those things (without me asking - thank you Christmas miracles!) and it made things go a lot more smoothly.

5. by anonymous on Dec 27, 2007 at 1:47 PM PST

Once, when I was planning a dinner that was going to be buffet-style and wasn’t sure which of my limited serving dishes fit best with which, I put them all on the table and labeled them (“couscous,” “salad,” etc.). A (male) friend who came over early made vicious fun of my pomo virtual buffet. End result: 1) I was perfectly organized and didn’t run out of dishes and 2) he was never invited back again, so there.

6. by Tammi on Dec 27, 2007 at 2:48 PM PST

Nice article! I need to work on #6, but you are so right.

7. by Denise on Mar 4, 2009 at 9:35 AM PST

We opened our house up to those who had no where to go for Thanksgiving and I tried this (70% of the dinner was cooked by me and 30% was ordered through a couple of great standby’s that I have. And you know, a few of the guests still complained that EVERYTHING WAS NOT HOMEMADE?! The things that I ordered (desserts, gravy, mac n’ cheese, rolls) were actually homemade but just not by me... Can you believe these petty people?! They will NOT be invited again...

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