Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is updated on Fridays, and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.
Question: Hi TMN. I liked your food Non-Expert last week but it didn’t help me with my peeve—how do you actually assemble all the things for a dinner party in time for when the guests sit down? Do you write out a schedule beforehand? Do you screw everything up, like I do, by still cutting onions when the guests are on their second martinis?? —Tim O.
Answer: Tim, I might as well out myself now: I’m not exactly a non-expert in the food department. Write in about what your chances are of a chunk of the shuttle hurtling down on your head, or how to really understand currency exchange rates, or where to find anyone’s G-spot, and I’m your clueless non-expert. But dinner parties are my milieu, and because you were left at a loss by our most recent culinary Non-Expert column, our fearless and well-intentioned editors called upon me, the resident food geek, to help. So let’s start, shall we?
Like most home cooks, your biggest problem is image. How a host dresses, comports himself, mingles with his guests is without a doubt the most important thing for which any self-respecting wanabee Martha Stewart should strive. So what does the Countess of the Clink have that you don’t? Composure. The no. 1 rule of good hosting is: Regardless of how harried you feel, how badly you screw up dinner, how many times you slip in the kitchen on that same olive-oil slick, never let them see you sweat.
How to answer your query, here are some suggestions and tips—all of which I’ve used—to make entertaining the near-orgasmic experience the food magazines purport it to be:
—Cut up a few slices of lemon or cucumber and drop them into your water pitcher. They add color and taste, and give guests something to talk about if dinner’s late. Oh, and don’t even think of using store-bought lemon juice that comes in those tacky plastic-lemon containers. Too acidic and metallic tasting.
—No matter what a recipe says, never sauté minced garlic more than a minute or so. It can burn in the time it takes to rummage for butter in the fridge.
—“Cooking wine” is a misnomer; it should be called sewage. If you wouldn’t drink a wine, don’t cook with it.
—If you find you’re an hour behind, open the kitchen door and shout, “Did I mention we’re dining European-style? Dinner’s at 10:30.” Your guests will burble with anticipation and nod to each other, signifying approval of their newly attained chic status.
—If you mess up a recipe, salvage what you can and give it a new name. One time I was making steamed mussels in a curry broth. When the mussels opened, they released a sandbar worth of grit into the liquid. So I removed the mussels from the shells and rinsed them. I then strained the broth and ladled it all—minus the shells—into bowls. The new name: Curried mussel soup, No one was the wiser.
—If you incinerate dinner, calmly walk out to the living room with a tray of olives, chunks of cheese, bread, olive oil spiked with red-pepper flakes, Marcona almonds, dates, prunes—anything in the cupboard, actually. Then smile and announce that dinner will be tapas. Toss out the name Ferran Adrià and the restaurant el Bulli, and it’ll be smooth sailing.
—Having a lot of people over? Think potluck. I’m throwing a party for 100 of my closest friends next month, and even I wouldn’t undertake cooking for all of them. I simply sent out invitations urging them to bring along their favorite covered dish. All right, so it’s actually a fundraiser for America’s Second Harvest. But if I may be honest, it seems as if you’re in need of a bit of charitable relief yourself. So make it easy, and ask your guests to bring something. Even if it’s a potato gratin or Tuscan flatbread, it’s that much less you have to do.
—If you insist on cooking everything yourself, you have my deep and abiding admiration, and sympathy. Nothing is more crazy making than running around the house five minutes before guests arrive wondering where in the world that wife of yours put the freaking duck breasts she was home-smoking in the garage. To hell with à la minute cooking. The secret is to have most of the dishes or their components done the day before, or at the very least, no later than noon the day of the dinner. That means picking out food that can sit overnight and be reheated or assembled last minute. Think things like mushroom empanadas, quiches, crab cakes, stews, vegetable braises. You get the idea.
—If you still refuse to heed my advice and are dogged about cooking right there, in vivo, in front of everyone, at least make sure all your ingredients are prepped before the doorbell rings. Also, remember large joints and roasts can sit a spell before getting cold. Time things so that it comes out of the oven about 40 minutes after guests arrive. You’ll have a good hour of wiggle room to enjoy your company and your appetizers.
—Don’t forget you can hire kitchen help. I always breathe a sigh of bored entitlement worthy of Brideshead Revisited when I know, for at least the several hours during my party, I have staff. Of course, if like me you have Windsor Castle taste and a lean-to budget, call your local culinary school. Most of them post jobs for students, and you can usually get a talented cook in the kitchen for around $150 for the night.
—If the thought of all this has you lying on the floor next to the stove in fetal position, go the cold-food route. Make everything ahead of time and store it in the fridge. (I like to keep it behind that big box of wine I’ve been meaning to rip open.) Some favorites: melon lollipops wrapped with prosciutto, barbecue shrimp, and dips for appetizers; cold poached salmon, Vietnamese turkey and glass noodle salad, or grilled chicken salads for entrées, and gelato for dessert. Just pull them out when you need them.
—Okay, now, to veggie or not to veggie? I maintain that with a menu full of choices, the vegetable platter will becomes the leper of the hors d’oeuvre table. Yes, I’ve heard there are people who actually prefer slivers of fiber-filled rabbit food instead of slices of bloody London broil and horseradish cream on bruschetta or a pile of Sevruga on a blin, but, hey, this is America. And it’s everyone’s constitutional right to deny themselves pleasure. (Lord knows the Red States do.) In a pinch, the veggie platter is a good way to go. It prevents guests from getting peckish and buys you some time. But for heaven’s sake don’t just heap the food in a pile, but artfully arrange it, preferably in concentric circles of color. Also add different veggies, such as cold steamed asparagus, haricot verts, marinated mushrooms and cipollini onions, and roasted peppers. And make sure to quickly blanch hard vegetables like carrots and broccoli for a minute or two until slightly tender, then plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking. You’re having humans over to your home, not farm animals.
—Speaking of farm animals, nearly all grocery stores, including the market whose name I dare not speak, carry wonderful prepared foods such as deviled eggs, rotisserie chicken, barbecue ribs, osso buco, roasted salmon, etc. All you have to do is take it home and heat it up. Then you can sit back and enjoy your own martini and wait for the crush of guests. That is, of course, unless you’re like me and start obsessing about whether you printed the right date on the invitation. Ah, a neurotic’s work is never done.