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Throw a Stress-Free Dinner Party
Hosting a party doesn't have to be stressful. Over time I've developed a system that lets me serve good food and still enjoy time with my guests. The keys to success are planning and preparation. This article will help you plan both casual get-togethers and more formal affairs. Whether it's a football party or Christmas dinner, taking the right approach makes all the difference.
The Main Course
Choose your main course carefully. Pick something that you can prepare ahead and then bake or reheat on the day of the party. Baked pasta dishes like ziti or lasagna are perfect for this. You can do all of the cooking the day before and then pop it in the oven before serving. Spiral-cut hams, turkey, beef, or pork roasts are other good choices. You can trim and season the roast and place it in a roasting pan to make it oven-ready the day before. Just remember to take it out of the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to put it in the oven. Casserole dishes like paella, cassoulet, or jambalaya work nicely as well.
Choose the side dishes to accompany your main course. Try to select things that are easy to cook or can be prepared in advance. Don't get carried away with side dishes. A salad and crusty bread are all you need for pasta dishes or casseroles. Add green beans and a potato dish when serving roasts. There are many recipes for side dishes that can be prepared in advance.
Trays of cold appetizers can be prepared in advance and put out a little early. This way the party starts as soon as the guests arrive. I usually have at least three. Here are some ideas.
- Antipasto - A tray of cold cuts, cheeses, olives, and marinated vegetables. For a traditional Italian antipasto, I use pepperoni, sharp provolone, several varieties of olives, roasted red peppers, and marinated artichoke hearts. This is just a suggestion, you can use whatever meats and cheeses you want. I also put out crackers or Italian bread with the antipasto.
- Fresh Mozzarella with Tomato and Basil(Caprese Salad) - Classic, easy, and pretty to look at. Slice some fresh mozzarella about 1/4 inch thick. Top with a slice of tomato sprinkled with salt and pepper. Top with shredded fresh basil. When ready to serve, top with a little olive oil
- Crudite - A tray of raw vegetables served with Spreads or Dips. Sliced carrots, celery, radishes, brocoli spears. Serve with spreads, dips, or salad dressings - homemade or store bought. I like spinach and artichoke, or onion dip, as well as blue cheese or ranch dressing.
- Deviled Eggs - Hard boil some eggs, let cool, then peel. Cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the yokes. Mix the yokes with mayonnaise, a little Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper. Spoon or pipe the mixture back into the egg whites. Sprinkle with paprika or chili powder. (I like to add chopped anchovies or anchovy paste into the mixture, but I usually do this when my wife isn't looking.)
- Shrimp Cocktail - I recommend that you cook the shrimp yourself and make the cocktail sauce from scratch, but you can buy precooked shrimp and cocktail sauce from a jar. Cook the shrimp - Boil a pot of water with carrot, onion, celery, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Add a dash of white vinegar. Let this simmer for about 15 minutes. Add the raw peeled and deveined shrimp to the boiling water. Stir for about 30 seconds. Turn off the heat and let the shrimp continue to cook for a couple of minutes until they are pink. Place the shrimp in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. When cool, drain and refrigerate. Make the cocktail sauce - Mix a half cup of ketchup with some prepared horseradish to taste. Add the juice of half a lemon. Add cayenne pepper if you like it hot. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
- Olive spread - 1/2 cup of chopped olives. I use a mixture of different olives. Add 1 clove of mashed garlic, 1 ounce white vinegar, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and 1 teaspoon of ground coriander. Refrigerate until serving. This can be made a day or two ahead. Serve with crackers or flat bread.
You can never go wrong with potato chips and/or pretzels and dip.
Hot appetizers add a little more work to the mix because you will be cooking or heating them while the guests are at the party. I won't put all of the recipes here as some are a bit involved. As I add those recipes to my list of Hubs (articles), I'll put the links here. Don't plan on frying any appetizers because it's too involved and can be dangerous when you're under pressure.
- Chicken Lollipops or Chicken Wings - Choose traditional Buffalo, honey and mustard, or Asian style.
- Pigs in a Blanket - Who doesn't like them? Wrap cocktail franks in dough from canned biscuits, like Pillsbury Grands or similar products. Place on a baking sheet. Bake according to the temperature and time listed on the biscuit can.
- Tomatoes with Feta - I use Campari tomatoes which taste like they're homegrown. Use the best tomatoes you can find. I like the ones that are about the size of a golf ball. Mix 1/2 cup feta cheese with 2 cloves of mashed garlic, 2 tablespoons fresh oregano, finely chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried), and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Cut the tops off the tomatoes and scoop out the flesh. Stuff each tomato with the feta mixture. Place stuffed tomatoes on a rimmed, oven-proof plate or baking sheet. Refrigerate until needed. To cook - drizzle a few drops of olive oil on each tomato and sprinkle with Romano cheese. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 400F for about 20 minutes.
- Mini Tostadas - Little tortilla baskets filled with taco meat, salsa, and cheese. (Recipe)
- Mushroom Strudel - Sauteed mushrooms with spinach and cheese in a phylo or puff-pasty crust.
- Shrimp Pescatore - Shrimp stuffed with garlicky breadcrumbs and baked in an oven.
- Stuffed Mushrooms - There are many recipes for stuffed mushrooms. Most use breadcrumbs and cheese. Some use shellfish. Find a recipe that suits your taste. They can be prepared in advance and cooked during the party.
- Set up an area for beverages. Provide plastic drinking glasses, ice, and napkins. Let guests help themselves. If alcohol is provided, make sure the beverage area is high enough that small children can't reach it and located where adults will always be nearby.
- Serve the main course buffet-style and let everyone help themselves.
- Use disposable flatware and plates. There are some really nice plastic plates that are inexpensive and look like china. Clean-up is just a matter of tossing everything into a garbage bag. No stressing over broken plates or who's going to clear the table or load the dishwasher. I resisted this for years, but once I tried it I was hooked. I know this isn't very eco-friendly, but washing dirty dishes and silverware probably isn't that much better.
- If you have an automatic coffee maker, set it up in advance so that all you have to do is push the button when everyone's ready for coffee. I pour the freshly brewed coffee into a carafe/Thermos and immediately brew another pot.
- Guests will probably bring dessert, but have a pound cake or two on hand just in case.
- Relax, it's a party!