I was cocky. I had nearly finished cooking school, I could make a genoise and a decent hollandaise. But, in much the way an amateur juggler who has mastered the basic three-ball cascade assumes she's ready for four, I was overconfident. In juggling, difficulty increases exponentially as you add objects. I'm pretty sure the same holds true in cooking.
My first dinner party, and many to follow, were studies in reckless overambition. Too many dishes, too many things that had to be done last minute, too many showy and expensive ingredients. I would open the door to my dinner guests feeling shaky and disheveled, the evening spent in a swirl so I was never quite in attendance at my own party.
I'm wiser now. Here are the things I've learned.
• Make food ahead. Certain cuisines lend themselves to this. A French boeuf bourguignon is impressive and really tastes better if it sits a day or two. Indian food — lentil dal, chana masala, chicken curry — it can all be made ahead and frozen, then the day of your party make rice, put out chutneys and condiments, pop some poppadum in the microwave. Or how about a chili party? A traditional beef, one with chicken and tomatillos, and a third veggie version (all freezeable), then all you need is corn bread, chips, sour cream, shredded cheddar and a deep arsenal of hot sauces.
• More in the mood for hors d'oeuvres? Phyllo dough and puff pastry lend themselves to freezables. Make a couple each week in the month before a party and the freezer will be full of bake-and-serves. Supplement these with doctored store-bought items: cucumber rounds piped with salmon cream cheese; a "meze" platter of purchased hummus, feta, olives, roasted red peppers and pita wedges. If you are doing passed hors d'oeuvres, stagger hot and cold dishes so that the voracious don't camp out near your oven door.
• People can, and will, congregate in the kitchen in the most inconvenient location, in plain sight of a perfectly lovely living room couch. Arrange food in different parts of your house — wine and cocktails on the patio, a buffet table in the family room, desserts in a hallway. This gets people out of your kitchen and circulating. If carpeting is an issue, consider throwing down a cheapie area rug.
• At the beginning of a party, there's a bottleneck at the bar. Premixing batches of "signature" mixed drinks (maybe something retro — Harvey Wallbangers? Monkey Glands?) or punch can get a drink in everyone's hand in no time. Once your pitchers are empty, people seem content to mix their own drinks (you can even have a couple of recipes out for inspiration) or switch to wine.
And feel adventuresome: People get hung up on vodka being the "universal solvent." Most party guests are willing to try a featured cocktail, especially if it has a fun name. (By the way: Martini glasses get very sloshy as guests get likewise. Regular highball-shaped glasses are safer and all-purpose.)
• Know how much booze to buy. A standard bottle of wine or liquor (often called a fifth) holds 750 milliliters, or a little more than 25 ounces. Let's say you're prebatching a pitcher of margaritas that uses 8 ½ ounces of tequila. You'll get almost three pitchers of margaritas from one bottle of tequila. That same size bottle of gin or bourbon will make 16 individual drinks. Plan accordingly.
• People will lose their drink and pour another one. People will use an unconscionable number of napkins. Count on five paper plates, napkins and glasses per person, and try to limit standup cocktail party foods to those that can be eaten with fingers or only a fork. And although inelegant, it's important to have garbage cans placed near any buffet station and the drinks station (with recycling bins for bottles and cans).
• Here's the most important one: Accept help. Invited a wallflower or two? Ask them to do something specific in the kitchen. They'll be more comfortable and you can use the extra hands. This means that before the party starts you need to identify tasks you are willing to delegate. And even if you prepare party food and drink yourself, consider hiring a server to pass food, scoop up empties and clean the kitchen as the party progresses.
Contact Laura Reiley at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.