Blog posts have come hot and heavy over the last week or so. Maybe more than you bargained for when you signed up. This has been an unusual series that seemed to require extensive blogging. I hope you have enjoyed them and found them useful. Posts will now return to their far less frequent pattern.
Note: This is the sixth post in a series.
Part 1: A Conversation with Myself, click here.
Part 2: Party Parameters and Menu Planning, click here.
Part 3: Organizing Tasks & Time, click here.
Part 4: Shopping, click here.
Part 5: Countdown to Guest Arrival, click here.
Several months ago Christina and I contributed to the Philadelphia Theater Company’s Sweetheart Brunch Silent Auction. Our contribution was a dinner with us in our home for four guests. We both have long connections to the Philadelphia Theater Company. Sunday evening our guests joined us.
I began planning and preparations nine days prior in keeping with At Home’s principles of spreading tasks over time — ideally beginning one full weekend prior to your party. My goals were for entertaining at home to be a pleasure and not a chore; to have one relaxed hour prior to guest arrival; and, to spend time with guests. Of course I wanted a very nice meal for our guests.
I wanted to use the occasion of our party as a model for you to encourage you to have More Parties. Better. Easier. While I am not suggesting that you tackle my menu — I do this professionally — I was hoping that in following how I approached planning and executing my party — including my struggles, you would gain insight that you could use in planning your next party.
Sunday morning I read the newspapers and watched the usual line-up of news shows. Late morning I headed into the kitchen to do some odds and ends — primarily around the Spring Vegetable Antipasti — and begin pulling things from the refrigerator that could sit out. We made a game time wine substitute of a wonderful chardonnay we had for the Viongier.
At 4:30 PM I was comfortable on the couch in the den alternating between the NBA play-offs and the start of the Phillies game. Our guests arrived a few minutes past six and by around 10:30 we bid them bon voyage with small boxes of chocolates that I ordered online from Recchiuti Confections in San Francisco. In between we got to know two interesting and delightful couples by, as I say in At Home, “sharing the warmth of your home (our home) and a good meal.”
Note the large flower arrangement in the background. As I was enjoying my final few minutes of relaxation on the couch, I got an alarmed call from Christina and Jill (who was our Frog Commissary helper). It turned out that the tall flower arrangement I had made on Saturday of pink apple blossoms and lavender lilacs had sprung a leak! Not a big leak, but a hairline fracture through which water leaked onto our breakfront. We had no vase of the required scale to make a quick switch and it would have made a mess to re-work the arrangement in a smaller scale — plus some lilacs were already looking none too good. I made an executive decision and banished the arrangement from the scene.
Ready to receive dishes. A bus pan to collect dirty dishes. A small container with soapy water for silverware. An empty sink because…when your sink is full, you’re sunk. Empty drain board and dish rack.
My menu with notes (on the right) and final prep tasks (on the left) were posted on a kitchen cabinet on re-positionable labels along with an admonition to myself to “KEEP PORTIONS SMALL.” As tasks get completed I move completed labels off to the side. Using re-positionable labels also enables me to group and/or re-group tasks.
Each place setting had a menu card. Toward the end of the night we all signed menu cards to keep as souvenirs of our evening together. Regardless of how elaborate or simple the dinner – menu cards take only a few minutes to make and let your guests know that they are special — a hallmark of hospitality. It’s not every day guests sit down to a dinner with a menu card! I simply typed out the menu in Word, printed it on nice heavy paper and cut it down to size. Easy.
The first course of Spring Vegetable Antipasti was laid out before guests arrived — absent last-minute touches of balsamic syrup, a wonderfully green and spicy olive oil drizzle, pink sea salt and chervil leaves.
My menu objectives were to rely on fresh, local products and keep things reasonably light. We knew our guests were well-traveled and enjoyed wine so we wanted a series of interesting wines. Most critically, my menu was planned so that I needed to spend a minimum amount of time in the kitchen.
On Behalf of the Philadelphia Theater Company
Steve & Christina are pleased to host Lisa, John, Ken & Teresa
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Spring Champagne Cocktail with Honeydew & Mint
Fragrant Star Anise Lotus Root Chips
Lancaster Red Radishes with Sea Salt
Dill-cured Salmon with Honey Mustard
Spanish White Anchovies & Piquillo Peppers on Crostini
Chilled Jerusalem Artichoke Bisque
with Hackelback Caviar
Spring Vegetable Antipasti with Sorrel Mayonnaise
Grilled Asparagus, Ramps & Baby Artichokes
Rainbow Chard • Fiddlehead ferns
Roasted Beets • Fava Beans
Prager Gruner Veltliner 2007 • Wachau Austria
Malfadine with Wild Mushrooms
Morels, Honey Cups and Miatake
Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc 2008 • Martinborough New Zealand
Pan-seared Striped Bass dusted with Wild Italian Fennel Pollen
Lentils du Pay salad with roasted butternut squash and sun-dried tomatoes
Kistler Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 1999 • Sonoma Valley
Assorted Cheeses from Pennsylvania & New Jersey
Shellbark Farms Fresh Goat Cheese – West Chester, PA
Cherry Grove Farm Asiago – Lawrenceville, NJ
Cherry Grove Farm Shippetaukin Blue
Cherry Grove Farm Toma Primavera
Paraduxx 2004 • Napa Valley
Meyer Lemon Sorbet
Rhubarb Relish Scented with Rosemary
Anne’s Raspberry Hearts
Felsina Vin Santo 1999 • Chianti Classico
Spring Vegetable Antipasti on over-sized plate. I had meant to get a little squeeze bottle to control adding the balsamic syrup, but never got to it. As a result, the balsamic syrup ran into places I didn’t want it. I felt this course did what I wanted — namely to be a reflection of the arrival of spring. I particularly liked my decision to decorate plate with chervil leaves. Could have used two ramps per person rather than one. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the rainbow chard, but ended up wilting it quickly in a little olive oil and folding up into little packages. The nasturtium blossom and lemon wedge made for the perfect notes of color.
Melfadine pasta with wild mushrooms and mushroom broth — needed more mushroom broth, under-salted and maybe could have used some garlic in addition to shallots. Earlier in the evening I lightly sautéed the pasta in butter and shallots and let it sit in the pan until a final heating with peas. In a separate pan I sautéed the mushrooms in shallots, butter and added a little white wine. The mushroom broth was slowly heating on the stove. To turn I got everything hot, distributed the pasta between six bowls that I had heated in a 2o0 degree oven, distributed the mushrooms and ladled the broth. Finished with fresh chopped parsley.
Pan-seared striped bass dusted with fennel pollen on a salad of French lentils, roasted butternut squash and sun-dried tomatoes. Another easy turn-out: the lentil salad was cold and placed in the middle of the plate. Added four roasted grape tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil to dress up plate. Forgot to dust plate with additional fennel pollen — I had not written this down. I cooked two pieces per person, but decided that one looked better and more consistent with my goal of keeping portions small. The fish just had to go on top of the lentils with a little mound of microgreens added. Christina felt her fish was over-cooked and I hoped that only Christina got unlucky. I was rushing to get this out, started to take the fish off the flame, got concerned that it needed a little more time as I did not want to serve fish under-cooked in the middle. Overall, I thought the course worked well.
The cheese course (I forgot to photograph) was surprisingly great. In keeping with my fresh and local theme, I bought three of my cheeses at the Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market from Cherry Grove Farm, Lawrenceville, New Jersey. The fourth cheese — a fresh goat cheese from West Chester — came from DiBruno’s. The Cherry Grove cheeses included a firm “asiago,” a softer and mustier “toma” and a blue.
I forgot to temper the sorbet — meaning to let it get a little soft. When I took it from the freezer to serve it was hard as a rock. I stuck it in the microwave for one minute and it was perfect. The sorbet sat on the rhubarb relish with the addition of a heart-shaped Linzer cookie — cookies that had been given to us the week before by Anne Clark, a dear friend, my first baker, co-author of The Frog Commissary Cookbook and author of the Baking Required recipes in At Home. Two candied Meyer lemon rinds, two blood orange segments and a tiny sprig of rosemary — homage to the fragrance added to the Rhubarb relish — finished the plate. Together they made for a wonderful mix of fresh flavors, colors and textures.
Our final gesture of hospitality was to bid Bon Voyage to our guests with little ribbon-tied boxes of chocolates from Recchuiti Confections. Michael Recchuiti is one of the world’s leading chocolatiers. Based in San Francisco, Michael used to work in The Commissary’s bakery. Christina and I served Michael’s chocolates at our wedding along with those of famous Belgium chocolatier Pierre Marcolini.
At dinner’s end, one diner left “stuffed.” “Pleasantly sated” the consensus of the rest.
Lessons of Company’s Coming
I don’t mean to pretend that this dinner is something you should plan. Though frankly, I believe you could do this with coaching. Home entertaining is much more a matter of aspiration and planning than unique culinary skill.
Of course, the subject of home entertaining came up during dinner. One couple did it frequently and the other infrequently. The later couple had done it more, but stopped, as it seemed reciprocation was rare — the result of people just finding it too hard. We all agreed that entertaining at home is special and that our spending this time together in a noisy restaurant would just not have provided the warmth and connection of this evening together. I reiterated what I often say: “I don’t care if you order out pizza and make a salad. Just do it at home.” I resolved to create some home entertaining menus that are easy and not just easier. Look for these in future blogs.
Postscript: Conversation with Myself
The Good Enough Entertainer: Well, how did it go?
The Entertaining Overachiever: I guess OK.
The Good Enough Entertainer: What do you mean by OK?
The Entertainer Overachiever: It wasn’t perfect. Christina’s fish was over-cooked! The balsamic syrup ran!! The pasta was under-seasoned and lacked the broth that was a key part of the dish — not just another sauteed pasta!!! And I forgot to dust the striped bass plate with fennel pollen!!!!
The Good Enough Entertainer: STOP! Perfection was not one of your goals. Your goals were for this to be a pleasure and not a chore — for you to have fun. And not to be bound to the kitchen. Anything else was a bonus.
The Entertaining Overachiever: But…
The Good Enough Entertainer: No buts! Here’s another At Home principle. It’s similar to the Home Entertainers Deserve One Relaxed Hour thing. When all is said and done, Home Entertainers Deserve a Big Pat on the Back from Themselves. Inviting guests into your home is special…even noble. You did this and in so doing, you enhanced human connection. With that — and I don’t mean to turn overly spiritual here — you made the world a better place for yourself and for people about who you care.
The Entertaining Overachiever: Wow!
Reminder about At Home’s Mother’s Day Special
Last Monday At Home blog readers received an email from me about At Home’s Mother’s Day Special. The special includes an inscribed book by me to your mother, a Pascal Lemaitre Mother’s Day Card, a recipe card with my mother’s Stuffed Cabbage Recipe, and an At Home book plate for you to inscribe your own message. Check your Monday email. Note: At Home’s Mother’s Day Special is not available from our online store. You have to use the order form that comes with the email. You can also access the At Home Mother’s Day Special and download the order form by going to the blog site. If you read the blog via email or on Facebook, just click on the blog title to get to the blog site.
Next: Don’t Try This At Home…Behind the Scenes at The Franklin Institute Awards Dinner
At Home’s planning principles are based upon my more than 35 years experience as leader of Frog Commissary Catering. We have catered more than 15,000 events. Thursday evening, Frog Commissary Catering will serve a great dinner to 800 guests in conjunction with The Franklin Institute Awards. These annual awards are given to individuals across a spectrum of scientific disciplines. In addition, the Bower Award is given to a business person who has made a particular contribution to science. This year’s recipient of the Bower Award is Bill Gates. We have catered this event for many years. I will provide you with a behind the scenes look of how we cater for this large group in space designed to be a museum and not a catering hall! Certainly the scale is different from my little dinner for six, but you may be surprised at its similarity to what I encourage you to do at home.
Thank you for visiting.
Your Home Entertaining Coach