Company’s Coming Part 2: Party Parameters and Menu Planning

Note: This is the second in a series. If you missed Part I: A Conversation with Myself, click here.

The biggest mistake people make in party planning is not investing enough time in actually planning and too much time doing. (I think that mistake transcends party planning!)

My mantra: More planning. Less Doing. That’s the path to More Parties. Better. Easier.

Step 1: The Consultation
The first step in party planning, whether it is for a group of 300 at The Franklin Institute, or dinner at home for six, is to establish the party parameters. Over the years I have repeated the process of thinking through the party parameters with catering clients many times. (Frog Commissary has catered more than 15,000 events since its first event in 1976.) From this experience I developed for At Home a 7-Step Plan to Entertain. Step 1: The Consultation, is used to establish the party parameters. I have completed The Consultation — a series of questions — for my party and you can view my answers at the end of this blog.

The major points, summarized here, are my Party Parameters:
Dinner for six on Sunday, April 25th at 6 PM.
Format: Cocktails and light hors d’oeuvres followed by sit-down dinner.
Food Preferences: Our guests are world traveled. Preference for fish/seafood, “love fresh ingredients,” salads, vegetables,cheeses.
Avoid raw food, rare meat, coconut. One guest particularly loves chocolate desserts.
Adjectives describing dinner: Friendly, relaxed though with some formality — the result of a planned multi-course meal.

Step 2: Menu Planning
Menu Planning is Step 2 in At Home’s 7-Step Plan to Entertain. It is based on the party parameters you established in Step 1. Then, nearly everything else you do is based upon the menu plan.

My favorite way to menu plan is to roam. So I began this Saturday morning at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market. I was looking for inspiration and checking out what I could expect to be fresh next Saturday. Actually, the pickings were slim as it’s still pretty early in the growing season. I did see just picked asparagus, kale, spinach and beautiful rhubarb. I bought the rhubarb. There are now three stands that offer local cheese and since my guests like cheese, I plan to get my cheese assortment here. Local cheese from these stands may not be as good as the world-class cheese I could get at DiBruno’s, but they will be more consistent with my fresh and local emphasis. Besides, my guess is that my guests have had many world-class cheeses, but not necessarily from New Jersey and Lancaster. Also, there were early flowers at the Amish flower stand so I’ll get my flowers here next Saturday. Still, not too much culinary inspiration.

Next, I decided to do some weekend grocery shopping at my local Whole Foods so that I might find some additional inspiration. The problem with supermarkets — even one as good as Whole Foods — is that their produce comes from all over. So, their produce is not often local — though they try in summer — and they surely have vegetables that have nothing to do with our spring. Maybe Spring in Central California or Florida or Mexico, but not Lancaster. So, one needs to stay keenly aware of what produce is really a reflection of our time and place in the world. See my blog Coming Late to Spring from last week. I did see baby artichokes and, a Springtime favorite, fava beans. I picked up Meyer Lemons — a Spring-time staple for a Meyer Lemon sorbet. Finally, I visited the fish counter. They had beautiful shad roe, but that’s a strong taste not universally enjoyed.

Between the menu parameters I established with my guests and my roaming around, I felt prepared to create my menu. My plan actually is to go to Reading Terminal Market next Friday where I am likely to have the widest choice of local fresh produce, especially at the Fair Food Stand.

My goals are to accent fresh, local produce; be able to do nearly everything in advance including some things during the week so that I can spend time with guests and not all night in the kitchen; to have an interesting and varied multi-course menu, but keep to portions small and the overall total amount of food in check so at the end of our evening our guests will be pleasantly sated, but not stuffed.

My Menu

As guests arrive
House Drink: At Home’s Spring Champagne Cocktail with Honeydew & Mint

Out and Around
Cured salmon with honey mustard I picked up last weekend at Maple Acres Farm. (Note to self: Stop eating this with pretzels!) Not sure yet what I’ll cure this with. One guest does not like raw food, but cured salmon is not raw. Still, I check this out with her.
Assorted olives (picked up from Whole Foods)
Spanish white anchovies (already picked up from DiBruno’s by Christina) on toast
Maybe something with shrimp or crab?

Dinner is served…
First Course
Spring Vegetable Antipasti (Something like a I had at Corton in NYC recently) It will certainly include fava beans, the baby artichokes, asparagus, probably beets. Not sure yet what else but I’ll figure it out next Friday at Reading Terminal. I can arrange these plates before guests arrive and they’ll be perfectly happy sitting out at room temperature.

Second Course
Pappardelle with wild mushrooms in mushroom broth
Everything can be ready to go and basically just in need of re-heating.

Entree
Pan-seared striped bass dusted with wild Italian fennel pollen
Served on a Salad of French lentils du Pay with roasted butternut squash, sun-dried tomatoes and red wine vinaigrette.Maybe work kale into this. The lentil salad will be room temperature (actually I would like it a touch cold to contrast with the hot fish.) I will have to quickly sear the fish. Maybe a bit of microgreens on top of the fish to give it a finishing touch.

Cheese Course
These will all be local — probably from the Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market. Some great bread from my local Metropolitan Bakery. I have some nice honey and Membrilla (sweet quince paste) to serve with the cheese. I will probably do individual plates for each guest. Nothing to cook!

Dessert
So far my plan is Meyer Lemon Sorbet with Rhubarb — plus a cookie — maybe the easy Cornmeal Sugar Cookie that I have mastered from At Home. I’d like to get some chocolate in here, but I want to keep things light. And since I’m not a baker and not about to become one, I am not sure I will accommodate this wish. I could get something from my Frog Commissary bakers. Every aspect of dessert I can do during the week. Maybe some candied lemon rind, leftover from squeezing the Meyer lemons, for the road.

So, I have my basic menu — with a few holes to fill and maybe some slight modifications to make. I will write my menu on an At Home’s Menu Planning Worksheet that I will print from At Home Online.

Christina and I need to talk about wine. Champagne cocktail to start. Certainly mostly white wine. Current thinking is a Gruner Veltliner and maybe a Sauvignon Blanc and a Viognier. (For At Home book owners, see the wine charts toward the end of Part 1) Maybe a red wine with cheese? We have talked about including a dessert wine.

Next: My Schedule/Shopping/Prep Plan

At Home’s Mother’s Day Special
Look for an email from me today about an At Home’s Mother’s Day Gift Special that includes a personally inscribed At Home, a Pascal Lemaitre Mother’s Day Card and At Home bookplate for you to inscribe a permanent Mother’s Day greeting in your gift. The email is being sent to all blog subscribers, but if you do not receive it, drop me an email. Also, please forward the email to everyone you think might be interested in giving the gift of At Home.

Thank you for visiting.

Steve
Your Home Entertaining Coach

The Consultation
1. Why are you having this party—is it a holiday, a birthday or a special occasion, for example?
These are the winning bidders from the Philadelphia Theater Company’s Silent Auction
2. About how many guests do you expect?
Four plus Christina and myself – dinner for six
3. What’s the day and date?
Sunday, April 25
4. So what season does that make it?
Early Spring
5. What meal are we planning for?
Dinner
6. What type of party is it?
Sit-down dinner
7. How much space do you have? In the house? In the kitchen? Outside?
Plenty of space for six.
8. What time will guests arrive?
Early evening – about 6 PM.
9. Generally or specifically, who are the guests?
We do not know them but look forward to getting to know them.  I met one briefly at a recent speaking engagement at Penn. The two guest couples are good friends.
10. How casual or formal is the party?
It should be relaxed, but it is a sit-down dinner so some level of formality.
11. What do you know about your guests’ food preferences? Any dietary or nutritional issues? Gluten-free? Vegetarian? Vegan? Kosher? Other?
My understanding is that I should avoid coconut, raw food and rare meat.  Christina tries to avoid gluten and dairy. One couple has a home in Italy and the other spends time in Napa and Italy. They love fresh ingredients, fish, seafood and chocolate desserts.
12. Where would you place your guests on a food adventurer scale? a) Very safe b) Safe c) Moderately adventurous d) Very adventurous
My sense is they are moderately adventuresome. Favorite restaurants include Le Bec Fin, Parc, Palm, Zahav and Table 31.
13. What kind of time do you have leading up to and the day of the party?
I planned the dinner for Sunday evening so that I would have Saturday and Sunday to spread my tasks. I will have some time this weekend and maybe an evening or two during the week.
14. What kind of help do you have for things like shopping, food prep and getting your home ready?
a) I’m in this alone.
b) I can get some assistance.
c) I have a partner who will help a lot.
d) I plan on hiring some help.
I can get some help. The food part is mostly mine. I plan to get a Frog Commissary server to help on Sunday.
15. What about your budget? Without being specific to the dollar, what kind of budget do you see for your party?
a) Serious budget issues b) Moderate budget c) This will be a pretty lavish event. d) The sky’s the limit.
This is not a major concern. There is not need for this to a lavish dinner – just very nice. Since it is a small number of guests, I am not especially worried about the costs.
16. What adjectives would you use to describe your event? Any themes or motifs?
Relaxed. Very nice – worth the money bid on the dinner.  Friendly. Seasonal. Light. No special themes and motifs other than very Spring-like.

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