How to impress my foodie friends?
September 3, 2007 4:46 PM   Subscribe

My friends are really into good food, good wine, good conversation. How can I throw a dinner party that will knock them off their feet? I am reasonably comfortable in the kitchen, and generally don't have a problem finding decent recipes. I want the party to seem effortless and casual, like it's not something I spent all of Saturday working on, but leaves them desperate for an invite to the next one. Give me your tips!!
posted by ms.v. to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I asked a question awhile ago that might help out.
posted by sciurus at 5:06 PM on September 3, 2007

Best answer: Organize the menu around food from a particular (intriguing, offbeat) locale. Invite a couple of fascinating people from outside your circle don't know. Pay attention to presentation of the food.
posted by cocoagirl at 5:24 PM on September 3, 2007

* who they don't know
posted by cocoagirl at 5:25 PM on September 3, 2007

"... I want the party to seem effortless and casual, ..."

Why? Truly memorable dinner parties aren't casual, in the least. They are well organized, and flow well, but they do so precisely because they are not casual. If you go to the trouble of doing a first rate standing rib roast, it is fitting to serve it beautifully in the midst of appropriate appetizers, soup, salad, and dessert courses, accompanied by good wines, aperitifs and fine coffee, and you should go the extra mile to make it look good, and serve in courses. The head of your table should be able to carve and plate the roast, as if they'd done it before. If you're serving in courses, you'll need appropriate amounts and types of dinnerware, and you may find it useful to set up some pre-staging of areas in your kitchen so that clean dinnerware and utensils for the courses are ready to hand, and an area for receiving returns from the table is ready to hold dirty dishes, as they come back.

There is a necessary "dance" that a host does at good home dinner party, which is wonderful to watch, when done really well. Nothing seems rushed, the host is not harried, and his/her command of his/her kitchen and table is an extended invitation to all who join him/her to enjoy that evening's fare. If you haven't mastered this, you'll need some practice, and some planning in doing it. Start with a single couple, and do a 5 course meal for 4. When you can do that, without breaking a sweat, scale up to dinner for 6, and perhaps add additional courses, or more complicated dishes. Few American middle class homes comfortably seat 8 or more for dinner, but if yours does, and you enjoy giving dinner parties, the only real limitations are those of your kitchen, wallet, and ambition.

If you want to party with your friends, instead of cook for them, and serve them, hire help, or make your friends share the work, by laying on a buffet or a single course thing, like chili. They might very well remember and enjoy it, too, but that's hardly a dinner party.

Personally, I do dinner for six, in 5 courses several times a year, by myself. But my kitchen is very well laid out, and organized, such that service to and from the dining room never crosses the cooking area, and there's ample counter space to plate, etc. In a smaller kitchen, the challenges of moving 30 servings of food, on time, can be considerable, particularly if you lack refrigerator space, or have limited dinnerware.

During the holidays, I sometimes have occasion to serve up to 10 or 12 people, including children, and for these occasions, I hire a kitchen helper for 4 hours, who shows up 2 hours before dinner to help with prep, assists with service from the kitchen during dinner, and starts the clean up. This frees me to enjoy cooking, and allows me to keep the children present from running amok, if their parents won't, without compromising dinner. I just asked around a number of local caterers, and got recommendations of a few people who work for the caterers part-time, and offered some of them work helping me. I have 2 or 3 people who've helped me at holiday gatherings, and if I'm planning something like this, I try to confirm one of them several weeks in advance, especially around holidays.

If I were called upon to do more than 12 people in a basic 5 course meal, I wouldn't have enough dinnerware, nor would my collection of pots and pans, or my stove or refrigerator, be adequate to the task. Mine is a home kitchen, not a commercial one. So, if I for some reason needed to entertain a group larger than 12, I'd need to rent tableware, and plan the menu to make considerable use of my outdoor grill and garage freezer for extra cooking and food storage capacity. At some point, that kind of thing stops being, for me, recreational, and I'd get a caterer involved, if only as sub-contractor.
posted by paulsc at 5:27 PM on September 3, 2007 [6 favorites]

Unless you have mad pastry chef skillz, I'd suggest going to a good local bakery and buying a fancy dessert. That takes a lot of time pressure off your hands, and (in my experience) what people really remember about a dinner party is the dessert. No matter how much effort you put into the main food, when you wheel out that chocolate ganache with candied violet blossoms, all else is forgotten (and forgiven, in some cases).

Also, you might want to ask your guests to bring the wine. Give them a general idea of what's on the menu and let them decide what to get. It gets them involved and provides a ready topic for conversation (wine pairings generate an inordinate amount of discussion among my co-workers).

Shopping for fresh seasonal vegetables at your local farmer's market is another way to impress foodie friends, as well as getting high-quality produce and supporting small agriculture.

Lastly, some dishes actually improve after a day or 2 in the fridge: soups, stews, some pasta sauces. If you cook one of these ahead of time it will make life easier on the day of the dinner.
posted by Quietgal at 5:29 PM on September 3, 2007

Best answer: Great ingredients simply prepared is the key to an impressive and effortless dinner. For example, serve a cheese plate either as an appetizer or dessert, but get recommendations from a great cheesemonger in your town, spend what you're able, and do what you can to learn a little bit about what you're serving (not limited to, but including how to serve it properly and with what). If your friends are true foodies, they'll enjoy learning a little about the artisans responsible for the product as much as they enjoy eating it.

(By the way, I'm not coming over unless there's Prosciutto di Parma involved in some fashion. Please and thank you.)
posted by peacecorn at 5:29 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Make something homey, like Ina Garten's chicken pot pie or lasagna with turkey sausage. A dish like this isn't showy or pretentious, but is sophisticated enough to wow your guests. When your guests rave, you can say, "oh, this was so simple. I made it last night and popped it into the refrigerator."

Serve with a crusty bread from the bakery, a green salad, good wine, and a decadent store-bought dessert.

If you want to do pre-party nibbles, serve nuts and olives in attractive bowls with drinks and wine.

For your table, a white table cloth, a few tea lights or votives surrounding an inexpensive centerpiece of fruit or short-stemmed flowers.

And last but not least, good background music.

Have fun.
posted by LoriFLA at 5:36 PM on September 3, 2007

Best answer: I absolutely love to do Italian when we entertain - there's something so casual and homey and convivial about an antipasto that's already arranged on a table when guests arrive, wine that's chilling (or not) and rows of glasses so folks can help themselves, and conversation in the kitchen while we finish mixing the spaghetti carbonara. If ersatzjef and I decided today that we were having six people over tomorrow, here's what I'd do: Pick two pasta dishes to cook and jot down any ingredients that I don't have on hand. (I think it's lots more fun to have smaller portions of a couple different things than slaving over a HUGE vat of ziti, for instance - also makes it easier to include a vegetarian option). I'd check the wine in the basement to make sure we have at least 4 interesting (and previously tried) bottles of wine that will go with.

Tomorrow during my lunch hour, I would hit the market in Bethesda for any groceries and wine, and ersatzjef would go to The Italian Store in Arlington to fill out anything we don't already have for the antipasto. I always overdo the antipasto because I'm a fool for nibbles - I like a couple meats, a couple cheeses, a pepper, a spread of some sort, and some bread or a cracker-thing. If we meet at home at 5:30, we can be ready for people by 7.

Dessert is never fancy at our house, but people always talk about it the next day. We buy these enormous chocolate chip cookies from the hippy bakery and have them with ice cream, or we have figs and honey and shortbread cookies, or we have a really glorious bar of dark chocolate broken up into shards with glasses of red wine to drink. We always make sure we have containers on hand to send leftovers home, and we always have a little nibble and bottled water to send for the drive home.
posted by ersatzkat at 5:38 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

When assembling the menu, reject any dishes that need to be finished at the last minute. You don't need the stress. Select appetizer, salad, soup, entree and dessert that can sit on your counter, stove or in the refrigerator as guests arrive.

Gazpacho or vichyssoise are memorable cold soups; marinated salads can be made ahead and taken out of the fridge just long enough to take the chill off; antipasto can be arranged and await your guests. Stews, Indian or Thai curries, coq au vin, boeuf bourginon, chicken mole, seriously Hungarian goulash, etc. etc. can all be made a day or two ahead and warmed in the oven to great effect.

Prepared desserts, as mentioned by many, are a gimme.

But the one exception, for the fall, might be a dessert that you can pop in the oven as guests arrive. I'm talking about a peach cobbler or apple crisp type dessert, with seasonal fruit. (I would only recommend this if it's a recipe you've made before and are comfortable with.)

The upside, besides making a memorable closer, is that it will make your house smell wonderful.
posted by sacre_bleu at 6:07 PM on September 3, 2007

A successful dinner party is about good food in excellent company. There are definitely things you can do to improve both the food and the company. Let's start with the people.

- Invite people that you like and that you think will get along. It's great to add interesting new people to the mix, but invite them in pairs (or you might get a lonely fifth wheel).
- Arrange your dining area to facilitate intimacy and conversation. Keep the (candle) lights dim, don't put flower arrangements between your guests, provide plenty of nice wine, and seat people closely (but make sure there's enough space in your dining area to move around).
- If you want to keep the conversation going, build your meal around finger foods, antipastos, mezze plates, tapas, etc. As every Mediterranean knows, asking someone to pass the olives is the first step towards making a friend. If you serve formal dishes with elaborate individual table settings, it will make people feel more isolated and formal, and have a stifling effect on conversation.

And now, the food. If your friends really are foodies (i.e., culinary hipsters), they're looking for novel finds, interesting stories, unique pairings, and one-of-a-kind experiences. They want to learn something new from every meal. So, when you're planning the meal, use your own curiosity and sense of adventure to find things that will not only be delicious, but interesting.

For instance, don't just buy a store-made dessert. Either:

1. Find a new or little-known patisserie with a unique style, and get their signature dessert -- or,
2. Present a couple of delicious single-origin chocolates, paired with a few perfectly ripe, locally-grown fruits and an unusual aperitif.

It doesn't need to be overly fancy -- just put some thought into it. It's like you're giving your friends a gift. Personalized and unique is better than generic and expensive. If you have any interesting family recipes or personal favorite cheeses -- this is the time to bring them out.

As for some practical tips:

- Find out if your friends have any dietary restrictions before you plan your menu.
- Plan your meal carefully so that most of your dishes can be prepped ahead of time. You should have no more than one dish that requires last-minute cooking. If you plan right, most of your dishes will be pre-plated in the fridge, there will be a soup or sauce in the slow-cooker, and no more than one item in the oven or on the stovetop.
- Remember that the food is not done until it's garnished. Don't feel like you have to individually plate everything -- but everything must look good when it comes to the table. Attractive serving dishes and some finely chopped herbs can go a long way.
- Have a wing-man (or woman). Sometimes, despite all your preparation, something goes wrong. You don't have to panic if you've arranged to have a close friend on call, ready to go out and pick something up for you at the last minute. Give this friend a nice bottle of wine.
- Don't stress out. Remember, it's about good food in excellent company -- and the company is actually much more important than the food.

Good luck! Have fun!
posted by ourobouros at 7:31 PM on September 3, 2007

While a standing rib roast is certainly impressive, it will definitely convey "spent all day in the kitchen."

paulsc is right that a dinner party is traditionally defined by 4 - 10 people sitting down for a plated dinner of multiple courses. Are you more concerned with having what is officially considered a dinner party... or in having your friends over for dinner, in a way that's conducive to the sort of entertaining you all enjoy most? Some social circles love formal dinners, and some do better with a more organic, free-flowing event. I host both... but my people prefer the latter so that's the bulk of my experience.

Either way, here are some of the things that I always aim to execute, which I think make for the best event:

- Start with the budget, then decide what kind of party you want to throw. Budget amount รท rough cost per person = # on guest list. Then, take meticulous care over your menu; from menu, plan shopping list and a to-do calendar that counts down to event. (i.e. "Six days ahead: order steaks from butcher. Three days ahead: purchase all items but seafood...", etc.) I do this right down to the hour before the event, and include my own time to get ready.

- Take care that your menu does not require you to spend all night in the kitchen. Or if it does, hire help. (Contrary to the old-school notion that it demonstrated what lengths a host/ess would go to fuss over his guests, I believe that today it just makes guests uncomfortable.)

- No untested recipes. I will no longer pull recipes from Epicurious that "sound good" and then hope for the best that day; it always ends in disaster.

- Set a lovely table. Use your best stuff, especially if it's china, crystal, linen -- this is what you have it for. Keep centerpieces low so that people can see one another over them, and talk comfortably. Light your candles before people arrive.

- Greet every guest at the door as they arrive. If you're juggling dishes on the stove and getting the ice in the coolers, and everyone already knows each other, it can be tempting to let whoever's near by answer the door... but it's your event and your home, and you should be the first face a guest sees.

- Decide whether you're going to let people pour their own drinks, whether you will bartend, or whether you will hire out. If you are doing just wine and beer, I think it's just fine to let people pour for themselves. Designate a bar area with the wines, plenty of appropriate glasses, corkscrew, foil cutter, decanter if needed, cocktail napkins, and a clean white towel. Don't forget a chiller or bucket if you are serving whites or bubblies.

- Plan for extra wine glasses unless you have hired help who can wash during the evening. IKEA and restaurant supply stores are good resources for $1 wine glasses.

- Have self-service food out when guests arrive. The aforementioned olives, nuts, cheese plate and antipasto plate are all lovely. Don't forget service items like picks or tongs, small plates, and napkins. Spread the nibbles out around the space -- a bowl of spiced cashews here, a bowl of blue-cheese-stuffed olives over there; this encourages movement and mingling.

- Have a menu card near a high-traffic area. It can be as simple as a list of the evening's courses, nicely scripted on a plain ecru card... or you can get witty / artistic / formal with it. But, this lets people know what to expect for the meal, so they can pace themselves appropriately and also get excited for your wonderful food. If I am having a seated dinner, I like to put menu cards on the table or a sideboard.

- If you are seating a multi-course dinner, the seating chart means everything; do not leave it to chance. Use place cards -- it doesn't seem stuffy or bossy, and anyone who thinks so doesn't go to enough dinner parties.

Tradition says: The host/ess sits at the head of the table, and the spouse at the other end... put long-established couples across from each other, never next to each other... always seat boy-girl-boy-girl.

I say: If you don't have a head of table, seat yourself where you can best access the kitchen if needed. Go ahead and mix up the couples... they see each other all the time and welcome the opportunity to visit with new folks. But, guests with plus-ones that don't know the group should be seated near each other. The old rule of seating everyone boy-girl-boy-girl is no longer mandatory, but I still follow it when possible as I think it keeps a nice energy going.

Definitely mix up the chatty butterflies and the introverts.

My favorite first course right now during "cocktail hour" is a cheese platter. Four or five cheeses (best results: vary between hard/soft, strong/mild, domestic/imported, goat/cow/sheep's milk)... proscuitto just sort of wadded up... a nice local honey... a bunch of grapes... some flatbreads... maybe some sliced pear or apple... a bit of homemade crostini. (Warning: your European friends won't be impressed, since cheese courses are served at the end of a meal there.)

I try to serve wines lighter to heavier. If I am serving a new wine that night, I try to learn enough about it so I can talk about it as we pour -- region, vine, trend, pairing.

Having people over for dinner is one of my favorite things ever. I hope your party goes well and you all have a fabulous time!

Oh, and something will go wrong the night of the party. Take it in stride, and handle it with grace. Your guests likely won't even notice.
posted by pineapple at 7:38 PM on September 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

Best dessert I had at a recent party, hosted by friends who are Serious about food:

Wicked fresh (local) ricotta
small chunks (1/4-inch square) of (local) honeycomb
Crushed praline made from sugar (and a little salt), toasted pine nuts, fresh rosemary

How we ate it: a couple scoops ricotta, a chunk of honeycomb, a sprinkling of the praline - take a bit of each in a spoonful; eat; die from happiness

Verdict: unfuckingbelievable
posted by rtha at 7:59 PM on September 3, 2007 [7 favorites]

The Menu:

Mache Salad with Shaved Red Onion and Dried Cranberries
Lobster Bisque Soup
Steamed Mussels with White Wine and French Bread
Sauteed Lobster Tails w. Roasted Green Beans & Optional Crab Cake
Chocolate Bread Pudding or Cheese course

Wine Pairings for all courses

Do a nice salad- try mache, shaved red onion and dried cranberries with a balsamic vingerette. Next do a lobster bisque (easy enough to find a recipe), then steamed mussles with white wine next serve up some sauteed lobster tails which you will cut in half, throw them meat side down in a sautee pan then flambee with some congac. You might even want to couple that with some crab cakes (if you have hungry guest).

You can do roasted green beans to go with it- if you want a starch do some twice stuffed baked potatoes, then just get a nice dessert (you could do a chocolate bread pudding yourself) or do a simple cheese course. Pair up all the courses with some wines and you will have a good time and some damn good food.

If you prep it up ahead of time you will find it will simple enough to throw together and knock your company's socks off. End the night with some peppermint tea and then clean up in the morning.
posted by bkeene12 at 8:04 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Are you more concerned with having what is officially considered a dinner party... or in having your friends over for dinner, in a way that's conducive to the sort of entertaining you all enjoy most?

I am definitely more concerned with the latter, with having a free-flowing, casual atmosphere with superlative food and attention to detail. I love rtha's suggestion of a dessert: that's something that would blow away my friends. So, to add on, any suggestions for recipes that are in that vein, simple yet out of this world?
posted by ms.v. at 11:34 PM on September 3, 2007

Mark Bittman's The Minimalist Entertains is absolutely phenomenal. There are ten menus for different seasons but you can mix-and-match recipes to your heart's desire.

I find the key to success in any party is plenty of preparation. Be completely familiar with your menus so you don't have any last minute surprises, and try to plan out the timing of all your dishes so you feel relaxed when it comes time to cook/entertain. Lists are your friends. Make lots of lists.

Most of all: relax and have fun.
posted by cooker girl at 6:15 AM on September 4, 2007

any suggestions for recipes that are in that vein, simple yet out of this world?

My preference is to make really decadent, well-executed, simple recipes -- nothing that needs twelve hours and six different supermarkets to achieve, yet my guests have still have enjoyed some local flavors, and feel really well-fed and spoiled.

I have a friend's killer recipe for a cream cheese torta, layered with pine nuts, fresh basil, pesto, and a puree of sundried tomatoes, email me if you'd like it. It's perfect on baguette slices and presents really well, with the colorful red/white/green layers. (It's very simple to make, but it takes a while -- 5 minutes of attention every so often. Fortunately can be done the day before.)

Another dessert course, not far from rtha's: the last of the summer strawberries, served with a balsamic vinegar syrup and fresh ricotta, sweetened a tiny bit with honey. The balsamic vinegar works some sort of magic with the berries, and any respectable foodie will appreciate the elegant simplicity of a good balsamic on fruit.

I love seafood risotto for a main at dinner parties; it's impossible not to get excited about sitting down to a big bowl of delicate flavors, piled high with buttery scallops and shrimp and squid.

I believe that steak tartare is experiencing a (welcome) resurgence as an old-school delicacy. Since it's best prepared right before serving, you'd save lots of time and also get to entertain people with the process. The trick is using extremely high quality beef; this isn't a recipe for chuck.

If you've got people too squeamish for raw beef, but who don't mind raw fish, a tuna poke would be lovely. Ceviche garners similar appeal but can be made in advance and left in the fridge.

I had an appetizer recently of fresh tuna with local chevre, and thought I would die from the pleasure of it; you just don't think tuna + goat cheese but it works so well.

I also recently had a fried goat cheese starter that I've vowed to duplicate at home, for its wow factor -- medallions of chevre were flash-fried in panko, and served with a jammy plum sauce, they were gooey and divine. You could also serve the fried rounds atop a tossed salad of microgreens, maybe with a sweet vinaigrette.

I've done this asparagus with gremolata butter a few times, it's a nice veg add, and again would use seasonal produce. It's simple but the flavors are fantastic. I love cooking brussels sprouts too, with some shallots in a bit of oil so that nutty flavor comes out.

I recently made a lemon ice cream, served in lemon halves I'd scooped out, garnished with mint and served with ginger biscuits. Very cute, rustic presentation. You have to make this one in advance, obviously. (I cheated and mixed lemon zest and lemon juice into softened Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean, but I wanted a v simple frozen dessert which precludes making ice cream from scratch.)

You could also forego a sweet dessert and close with a port flight. Port is usually paired with cheese, and you could also add almonds, some fruits. Port is not overly popular at the moment (it sort of flies under the radar as people are swept up in herbal-based cocktails), so you'd be quite the trendsetter (unless your friends just happen to be huge port fans already).
posted by pineapple at 9:08 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just had breakfast, so I shouldn't even be thinking about food, but as a main course, how's about a cheese souffle? I know, I know - souffles have this rep as being difficult and delicate and whatnot, but they're really, really not. The first time we made one we were terrified that something would go Terribly Wrong...and it didn't. You grate some good cheese (cave-aged gruyere, Cheddar, parmesan), you make a sort of cheese sauce, you whip some egg whites, you fold everything together, and you put it in the oven for about 40 minutes (IIRC). Then you make that mache salad that bkeene12 mentioned earlier, and TA-DA! Impressed friends. If you're lucky, there will be a little souffle left over, and it is delicious (cold) for breakfast.
posted by rtha at 9:23 AM on September 4, 2007

Fantastic ingrediants, preferably from a local farmer's market. The more unique the better. Also variation. For instance, meat and cheese plate, and for dessert perhaps a sampling of creme brulee's (it's pretty easy to add different ingrediants and to make this), along with a couple other items.
posted by xammerboy at 11:03 AM on September 4, 2007

A friend of mine in a similar situation recently asked me the same question. I suggested doing upscale twists on breakfast foods. It was different, a bit quirky and a big hit.
posted by Cyrano at 5:12 PM on September 4, 2007

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