Secrets to a Fancy Dinner Party

Secrets to Hosting a Fancy Dinner Party

I have a confession. I love hosting a fancy dinner party. It makes no sense¬†for a busy gal like myself. I cook for days, I barely sit down even during dinner, and cleanup is awful. Yet I love it anyway. My cooking skills are on display for everyone to see and praise, plus I get to personally judge my organization and time management. Why is that fun? I don’t know. When you’re a self-employed person, I guess you start coming up with weird ways to assess yourself. I also serve a LOT of booze, so it’s like my guests are all reliving college, but in a fancier way.

My annual fancy dinner party is coming up soon, so I thought I’d write a little series about it as I get prepared. I’ve been doing this since 2010, and shockingly they’ve all gone quite well. My cuisine has gotten better, and my timing last year was about perfect, so I think it’s a great time to share my secrets. Do you need to know how to cook to host a fancy dinner party? Yes. Don’t kid yourself on this one. Your only other option is to have someone else cook it, whether family, friend, or caterer, but then they might as well host it themselves, right? Luckily, if you follow my schedule, you’ll have plenty of time to learn.

Secret #1 – A fancy dinner party is not a weekly event.

I said my fancy dinner party is annual, and I’m not kidding. You guys, it is so much work. I’m a bookkeeper and I work with CPA’s who try to smother me in paperwork every March and April. That’s why I celebrate the end of tax season with something nice. My husband and I invite over 6-8 of our friends, tell them to dress up, and then serve them dinner. But, I don’t have time to do all the cooking and prep work every week, and he would probably balk at the cleaning if I tried. I’m not saying you can’t do it more than once a year, but if you’re serious about providing good food that you yourself cooked, you’re going to want a break in between.

May I have 4 bites of lobster tail, please?

Also, this may not be a secret, but fancy dinner parties are expensive to throw. I coupon from time to time, but we do alright for ourselves and I prefer not to spend my precious time driving from store to store looking for the best deal. What kind of ingredients do fancy foods have? The pricey kind. By only throwing one or two a year, you save yourself the hassle of trying to cut costs for every course. There’s also cleanup to think about. I try to be a green hostess when I can, but my husband and I agree we will not be using dishes we have to put through the dishwasher. Think about it. Five courses for ten people is fifty plates. Kill me now! But we’re being fancy, so we have to get the high quality disposable plates to make sure it looks nice.

Secret #2 – Practice, practice, practice.

The other important part of hosting your fancy dinner parties sparingly is the time you have to practice your courses. I legitimately give myself a year to find the recipes I want and perfect them. Actually, I keep a list of potential menus in my to-do list, so I could potentially be practicing courses for years before I wind up using some of those recipes. Sure, you could cook the four dishes you always cook and call it “fancy,” but people aren’t going to dress up for that. You should be serving elegant dishes you wouldn’t serve all the time, and that requires more than day-of practicing.

With a little practice, I’ll make this soup beautiful!
With even more practice, you’ll be able to tell these are crab cakes! ūüôā

You might also want to start practicing your plating skills. Have you ever been to a fine dining establishment? The food doesn’t look the same way it does when you go to Chili’s or Outback. Plating food is not a natural skill, and I’m still not all that great at it. But, I get better every year. That’s because ¬†of practice! You don’t have to make anything fancy to practice plating. If you’re making a full meal one day, why not dress up the plate a little? By the time you get to hosting your party, you’ll have an idea of what you’re doing.

Secret #3 – Do not invite picky eaters.

Don’t invite the whole world, don’t invite people who couldn’t hold a conversation over their meal, and definitely, one hundred percent, don’t invite picky eaters. You are going to be so irritated if you spend a year working towards this beautifully plated meal and then your guests won’t even try it. I actually have rules when I host. I serve an amuse-bouche while I tell the guests the rules so it comes out nicer, but they’re pretty simple. Unless you’re allergic to it, you need to try it. I don’t care if people like it. I really don’t. What are the chances that ten people would all like every dish you serve? Not good, probably. But, oh man, if you won’t even try it, why did you come?

Good luck with the picky eaters when you serve them Moroccan cod with harissa!

When you’re making up your guest list, this will pop into your mind. Maybe you will feel guilty if you have one friend you really want to invite, but you know she’ll tell your other friend you don’t want there. Oh well. Be an adult, just tell the other friend you don’t want to do all that work for people who aren’t going to eat it. In the past, I’ve invited two out of three of my very close coworkers. I’ve invited one of my next door neighbors but not the other. If they get all bitter about it, you can make something up. Say you got to choose one friend and your spouse¬†got to choose one friend and that’s all you can fit at your table. Whatever. Just don’t do all that work for people who won’t appreciate it.

Secret #4 – Put thought into your menu.

You can go willy-nilly if you want to. Serve a cucumber¬†salad, borscht, fried chicken, and a flan. See how that goes. Hint: It won’t be the best. I had no theme at all for my very first dinner party, other than that I found all my recipes on Food and Wine, but I’ve gotten better since then. Last year it was French, the year before was spring. Spring was actually one of my most successful menus. Every course featured a beautiful fruit or vegetable. This year I’m doing… Wait for it… Disney! Yes, a Disney-themed fancy dinner party. Believe me, there was more thought put into this menu than any other one I’ve ever done. I’m going to write more on that specific meal¬†in a later post, but I do think it will be great.

A spring asparagus soup.

It’s not just a theme that matters though. You should decide ahead of time what kind of courses you want to put out. I do appetizers and a cocktail while people arrive and I finish up my prep. I serve an amuse-bouche to tell people the rules. Then I have a salad course, a soup course, a main course with a side, and dessert. Everything from salad on gets it’s own wine. That’s the one thing I have guests bring, by the way. I don’t want them cooking and ruining whatever theme I’ve got going, but they can bring the type of wine I tell them to. Anyway, you don’t have to follow my plan, but you should have your own. Don’t serve three soups and a cheese plate. Just don’t.

Coming up: Planning and Organizing

I said at the beginning this was going to be a series, and I meant it. You don’t want to sit here reading all day, do you? Maybe you’ve already started thinking about holding a fancy dinner party, and now you know what will make it successful. Next time we’re going to talk in detail about planning and organizing the party, because if it’s going to be successful, that needs to be a category all its own. Unless you have two ovens, it can get really tricky to get everything out on time, and that’s just one concern. Enjoy your week and I’ll be back soon!

food-drink-kitchen-cutting-board

Holding an Easy Mini Wine Tasting Party

If you aren’t a drinker, then a post about wine tasting is not the one for you. I try to make food and booze interchangeable, but unless you’re going to do a mini-prepackaged food party, it would take a lot more work to incorporate food. I’ve talked about having mini-cooking competitions before, so maybe that is the way to go for you. But if you do like wine, one of my favorite ways to have a classy little gathering is to host a wine tasting.

Readers, you do not have to be a wine expert to do this. You honestly don’t need to know anything about wine at all, as long as you can read the labels when you’re buying the bottles. If you do want to know a little something before you start, you might want to pick up The Wine Bible or Wine for Dummies. Be warned: They’re not quick reads. There are other books about wine that are a lot smaller, but I haven’t read them so I can’t recommend any. When my sister and I started drinking wine, we went all in. You don’t have to read the whole book to host a little party though; once you decide what you’re tasting you’ll be able to find that specific chapter.

Preparation

Okay, so this is going to be a super easy prep. First choose, your guest list. I usually invite a couple or two, or friends that really love wine. Sometimes I’ll do a combination, but I try not to make anyone a fifth wheel during a wine tasting. I don’t personally mind being a third or fifth wheel, normally, but if you put me in Napa Valley with two couples and not ¬†my husband, I think I’d wind up drinking too much.

Anyway, who you invite isn’t really that important, except for their level of wine knowledge. Do they like wine, but basically know nothing past red or white? Are they so advanced you’ll have to impress them with a tasting of Bordeaux’s by year? (Good luck with that one.) Knowing this will help you pick what wine to drink. Now, you can ask them to bring wine, or buy it all yourself, but that’s up to you. Just make sure they know what to bring. Last time I did various white wines; we each picked one and tried to see if we could guess what it was. Fun fact: We could not.

Execution

You already decided whether or not you’re buying all the wine or not. If you are, better go get some! You also absolutely need to make sure you have enough wine glasses. Guys, this is the easiest kind of gathering to throw. You’re not cooking or decorating anything. It would just be silly to your good wine in plastic cups to avoid cleaning a few glasses. Everything else is going to go straight in the garbage, so get out the good dishware.

Next, you’re going to want some kind of a palate cleanser (like oyster crackers), or even little bites to go with the wines. Again, this is something you can ask your guests to bring if you like. Sometimes if I get the wine, my sister will get cheese, or vice versa. If you don’t already have a wine guide, a quick Google search will tell you what to pair with which wine. Set it out nice and pretty, and then cut a few pieces of printer paper in half for tasting notes. If you want to get really fancy, you can print out your tasting notes instead. That’s it! How easy is that?

Wine Tasting Example

White wines

Need: 3 bottles of wine (1 chardonnay, 1 sauvignon blanc, 1 pinot grigio)
Cheese Pairings: Brie & chardonnay; mozzarella & sauvignon blanc; ricotta & pinot grigio
Tasting notes: You’ll definitely want to list what type of wine it is, along with taste. Some other ideas are aroma/smell, taste, finish, appearance, and points. I’m attaching a downloadable version of my own super simple notes here.¬†Notes for Wine
Things to write on tasting notes if you are not into wine but want to feel like you are: fruity, leafy, earthy, oaky, buttery. Or, my personal favorite, bramble. A sommelier once told me to call all wines brambley and everyone will be confused enough to agree.

I really do hope you can enjoy a little tasting party like this. There’s not a lot of effort to it, but you know what? Making wine the focal point of the event honestly does make it seem like it’s a high class affair. I don’t know why that is – I guess rich people have succeeded in their trickery of getting us to believe whatever they want to tell us. We’ll talk about beer tastings at some other time; strangely enough, I do not throw those the same way. If you don’t drink at all, I do apologize! I’m sure you could come with an alternate; apple cider maybe? That actually sounds kind of fun, it is a little chilly right now. Maybe next time…