The following chapter is included in my first book, Levana’s Table: Kosher Cooking for Everyone, and is all about planning a party. My readers have always found it very useful, and I gave lectures on the subject several times. Recently I participated in the food preparations of a party for a very dear friend, spending a wonderful and fun day with her cooking up a storm. We were both delighted at how delicious everything came out, and I helped her into her car to take everything to her house. However, when I arrived at her house on party day, the house looked as if everything that could go wrong did indeed go wrong. After all the minor disasters were averted, and after a wonderful party, it was my friend herself who suggested I post this chapter, admitting sheepishly she had read it and had enjoyed it, only she hadn’t read it before her party, and didn’t remember some of the golden rules. So here comes!
Planning a Party: The Hostess’s Survival Guide
My mother, who cooked up a storm every day of her life when her children were living at home, for some reason could not reconcile herself to my choosing catering as a profession. “Tu vieilliras avant l’age,” (You will be old before your time) she would tell me each time she would visit me in my catering kitchen. I am happy to report that after all these years her dire prediction has not come true: not yet!
Cooking and entertaining are among my greatest personal pleasures and, since opening my catering business and starting my bakery and restaurant, they have also been my profession. But you don’t have to make cooking your life or your livelihood to enjoy delicious dishes or serve them graciously and elegantly at home. If you are an experienced host or hostess, many of the following tips for planning a party will be second nature to you, but they represent my commonsense philosophy of entertaining, and I hope they will be helpful to
Remember that your guests take your invitation seriously
My mother always says, “Don’t invite them: they might come!” In other words, don’t invite guests unless you intend to provide them with a wonderful experience. My sister, whose family used to summer with us in the mountains, once invited my son Yakov, then nine years old, to lunch on Saturday after services. As we all walked home from the Synagogue, my son waved good-bye to me and followed his favorite aunt, sauntering eagerly behind her and her children. When my sister arrived at her door, she told him cheerfully “Ok, Yakov. Have a good Shabbos,” and turned to go inside. But Yakov didn’t move. Shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other, his hands digging self-consciously into his pockets, he finally managed to say in a voice barely above a whisper, “Have a good Shabbos too, but you invited me!” Keep in mind that your guests are setting aside time to devote to you in honor of the gathering. Make their evening worth their while: Good food, good mood, good treatment and more!
Determine a realistic budget and timetable. If you have both money and time at your disposal (lucky you!), you can prepare as many dishes as you want to on your own and hire a caterer to do the rest of the cooking, along with all the serving and cleaning up. For those occasions when you must go all out, call the florist (and any rental companies) well in advance. Describe your preferences for flowers, china, linens and glassware as specifically as you can. For a big party, you can hire a party planner to coordinate every aspect of the event: location, food, linens, china, flowers, wine and liquor, staff, party favors, room layout and invitations. However, you don’t need endless hours and an unlimited budget to entertain in style. If you have little money but lots of time and energy and an honest desire to please your guests, there are great menus for you in this book. If you have a more generous budget but a less flexible schedule, see my time-saving menus at the end of the book. You don’t have to prepare for days to have a successful party. Above all else, remember a host must always enjoy the occasion. There is nothing a guest senses faster than the host’s lack of generosity, effort or spirit.
Choose your menu carefully
Create a reasonable and not overly complicated menu, reflecting your own personal style and creativity rather than the latest food fads. Then you will appear to be a competent rather than a pompous host, and you will avoid having dinner conversation focus on the food. Do not answer the question, “May I have the recipe for this dish?” by saying, “Let me see, 4 eggs, 2 cups of sugar,” and so on, but with a gentle and firm, “Call me during the week.” Likewise, if a guest grabs you and tries to share a recipe for her latest creation, politely steer her away from the topic. Food, no matter how delicious, should be an unobtrusive vehicle for the event.
Do not try too many new dishes at one meal. If you are creative, a dinner party is a good time to try one (just one!) new dish. If you are a novice, or unadventurous, remember that you will never go wrong with the classics. Who will accuse you of being repetitious or dull if you serve the juiciest roast, the tiniest roasted baby potatoes, the freshest asparagus, the most tender corn, the ripest tomatoes, the crispest salad greens, the most fragrant fruit, the meanest chocolate cake? Such dishes are as safe, timeless and foolproof as a Chanel suit (and much more affordable!). Incidentally, let me confess that after all my years of cooking and hosting, a meal of classic favorites is the one that gets me the most hugs from my family.
When planning your menu, look for seasonal items at the peak of quality and flavor. This will not only enable you to prepare a delicious meal at considerable savings but to pay a personal tribute, which will not escape your guests, to what nature has to offer at different times of the year. Baked baby pumpkins are wonderful at Thanksgiving and an anomaly at Passover. The best doesn’t mean rare or hard to get. On exceptional occasions, we must make sacrifices and buy out-of-season strawberries or artichokes at exorbitant prices. But for the most part, there’s no need to go crazy: guests can eat asparagus when asparagus come to town.
Do not duplicate textures or tastes within the same meal. For example, don’t serve lemon chicken followed by a lemon tart, or a fruit-stuffed turkey followed by fruit salad, or quiche followed by pumpkin pie. One of my good friends makes the best gefilte fish, the best matzoh ball chicken soup, the best potato kugel, the best stuffed cabbage, the best chopped liver. So what’s the problem? She serves them all at the same meal! A delicious, but monochromatic, homogenized meal. Also, make sure that most items on your menu are recognizable. For example, if you are serving a first course that is minced or ground, do not serve a stuffed or “en croute” main course. You are having a dinner, not a camouflage party. Likewise, don’t serve more than a couple of unfamiliar or very spicy dishes. You will only turn a guest full of anticipation into a wary diner. No one should have to ask more than once or twice during the course of a meal, “What exactly am I eating?” If your guests include people you do not know intimately, don’t risk serving an organ meat or a very pungent dish as a main course. Serve unusual cuts only as accessories to the meal and spicy items only as condiments, that is, on the side. You should also avoid serving an assortment of very rich foods at the same meal. Even if you are bored by diet obsessions, for your guests’ sake, if not your own, have a heart! Naturally, the opposite holds true: Don’t serve a spartan, steamed dinner under the lame premise that “it’s good for you.” Your guest did not save this evening to be treated like a convalescent and be reminded of recipes, calories, cholesterol, blood pressure and all those dreadful things he reads about every day, thank you very much!
Mise en place. Plan ahead
So many things can be done in advance: setting the table, polishing the silver, chilling the wine, chopping parsley and other herbs for garnishes and lining up all the platters and serving pieces you will need over the course of the meal. La mise en place is every bit as important as the meal itself and very easily accomplished. Avoid making too many dishes that require your last minute attention (soufflés, stir-fries, tempura). And don’t attempt to do everything yourself. Help is a bargain at any price, and a competent kitchen assistant can make a world of difference, allowing the host to be, well, a host. Who among us doesn’t have dismal memories of a dinner party during which the hostess disappeared into the kitchen, whisking away her husband to boot, to engage in a mighty struggle with slicing, unmolding or carving, while the hapless guests tried their hardest to be gracious and converse with unknown dining companions? A perfectly charming evening with good food and lively talk can easily turn into a strained and tedious gathering. The impression you create with your cooking prowess will never compensate for the offense of leaving your guests to their own devices while you are voluntarily “stranded” in the kitchen.
In Arabic we say, “The eye eats first.” Whatever your budget or artistic ability, you can create an atmosphere of plenty. Pile food generously on beautiful serving plates. These don’t have to be luxurious china or crystal; visit flea markets for unusual and inexpensive serving dishes. Luckily, Mediterranean food presentation does not require sculptural talents. You will not see radish roses or zucchini boats “gracing” a traditional Mediterranean serving dish, just beautiful food served on beautiful dishes, simply and elegantly.
Start your meal on a high note
If the meal is composed of several courses, and one of them is giving you some grief, do not start with it. Likewise, do not replicate the “restaurant look” by plating and decorating more than the first course and perhaps the dessert. When your guests want to eat as in a restaurant, they will go to a restaurant. In my own catering business, I always tried to replicate the “home” look, never the other way around. This may well have been my trademark. A happy customer wrote me about a party I catered for him, “It was as if you were entertaining us in your own home. You were not just attending to Rebecca’s party, you were having one right along with us.” So, show them what you’ve got!
Do absolutely everything you can before your guests arrive, and resist the temptation to let on how hard you have worked, or worse, how much money you have spent, not even if asked directly. I had a literature teacher who used to say, “A good writer is a writer who sweats blood to make us believe he didn’t sweat.” The same can be said of the talented host. So, not a word about that fallen soufflé, or those frozen berries you had to substitute for fresh ones, or purchased cake you (and your guests) had to settle for because things got backed up and you couldn’t find the time to bake.
It’s perfectly acceptable to take up your guests on their offer to help for small tasks, but if you get overcome by all the work that your menu requires, pick something simpler in the future or supplement your dinner with some good gourmet store-bought items.
Just a word about the friend who offers to come before dinner so that he or she can help while at the same time catch up on your life a bit. I learned a long time ago, and mostly at my own expense, that not everyone has the good housewife’s knack, or rather genius, for peeling, chopping or frying at lightning speed while she talks and laughs with matching intensity. If your friend’s hands can keep up with her storytelling, you are a team. But if her hands are frozen in the air, a potato in one hand and a motionless peeler in the other, make a mental note to save this friend’s charms for the dinner table next time, and surround yourself in the kitchen with helpers who can do two things at the same time.
A little decorum
It is fine to have a friend clear plates and bring them to the kitchen. It is most decidedly not okay to accept the friend’s offer to do the dishes, no matter how close the friend or compelling the offer. It is nice to pass your adorable baby around for hellos. It is not okay to “forget” him on a guest’s lap for the remainder of the evening. You may ask a guest who calls on his way to your home to pick up the ice. It is not okay to ask him to pick up the cake or the Champagne. It is acceptable to share psychiatrist jokes with a guest who is a psychiatrist. It is not okay to ask a guest for “informal” advice about the course of action he recommends with your rebellious son, your mother’s surgery or your unreliable contractor. Why not? Because no matter how assertive your guests might be ordinarily, while they are your guests they are in your debt, and saying no to you will be next to impossible for them, unless they don’t mind appearing like boors. Do not exploit your position or theirs and turn innocent guests into unsuspecting babysitters, errand boys, consultants or dishwashers.
Finally, be sure every guest receives the attention he or she deserves. Do not slight a shy, single, unglamourous guest by seating her next to a frivolous or snooty guest who will ignore her and turn her into a wallflower for the evening. Try your best to seat most guests near someone they have already met, so they might forgo the boring openings and proceed with the fun stuff.
Enjoy yourself and the rest will follow
So, what makes an evening a great evening? The food is unquestionably important, but it is not, by far, the only factor. Everyone has his or her own style, and it cannot be denied that some people are more talented than others at entertaining. But if you invite people you like or want to get to know better (and learn to cope graciously with less appealing obligations), have good food and good humor, plus a real desire to please your guests rather than just impress them, why shouldn’t it be a great evening? Before your guests arrive, remind yourself that you have done your best. Look forward to an enjoyable evening, but be prepared to laugh off a couple of inevitable mishaps. Take a shower, have a cup of coffee, compose yourself and, when the guests arrive, look and feel ready and in control. Most important, relax, and have a good time. You deserve it! Remember that it is worrying, not cooking or entertaining, that will age you before your time!