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Three steps to the perfect party

A professional party-giver tells how you can enjoy your dinner party as much as your guests will.

My mother was a tremendous cook and baker. She rarely gave dinner parties, but when she did, they were double pleasures: Not only were they eagerly anticipated by her guests, my mother also derived vast pleasure from preparing and serving her dishes.

All dinner parties ought to be enjoyed both by guests and host or hostess. Alas, that's rarely so. Many party-givers dread the idea of preparing a large meal. The worry and work can wipe out the fun aspect.

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As an upscale caterer, I "give" dinner parties several times a week. Based on my own experiences, here are some helpful suggestions for a worry-free, low-workload party that you will enjoy right along with your guests.

Divide preparty tasks into manageable units

1. Decide in advance how many guests you want and whom to invite. Ask everyone if they have dietary restrictions. (You don't want to serve steak to a vegetarian, and some vegetarians might eat seafood.)

2. Plan a menu with items that may be prepared in advance and require only short last-minute work. Think of a good balance in flavor, color, and texture for each course. If possible, make everything yourself, including the dessert. A simple dessert made by you is far more appreciated than an elaborate creation from a bakery.

3. Prepare a complete shopping list, including plate and table garnishes, and list items according to categories (dairy, produce, meat, bakery, etc.) to help you shop more efficiently. In general, figure on four ounces of side vegetables per guest, four to five ounces of starch (or two to three ounces of dry pasta or a quarter cup of uncooked rice), and five to six ounces of uncooked meat, poultry, or seafood. Add an extra serving or two, just in case.

4. A few days before, assemble all china, glass, flatware, serving platters, serving tools, linen, napkins, and table garnish.

Establish an orderly kitchen flow

1. Two or three days before your party, prepare a detailed work list that includes every step and preparation for the dinner. Place a preparation date next to each. Many items – soups, sauces, salad dressing, marinade, dessert, plate garnishes – can be completed fully or partially well in advance.

2. Wash, cut up, chop, and dice on early the day of your party. Many vegetables may be blanched early and finished in a sauté pan just a few minutes before serving. If you decided on a vegetable that is served baked, such as sweet potato-stuffed zucchini, note the time they should get in the oven to be ready with the rest of the course. Meat, poultry, and seafood may be trimmed, cut up, de-boned, or otherwise prepared hours in advance. Leave no more than 20 to 30 minutes total work in the kitchen before serving time, giving you more time to enjoy your party.

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Salad, soup, and dessert must be ready to serve with no more than a few minutes' work.

3. Remove hors d'oeuvres from the oven, pour beverages, and have bread and butter ready before guests take their seats. Even better, have the first course waiting for them before they sit down.

Choose a serving style

Whatever style you choose (family, buffet, or preplated), remove all dishes from the table before serving the next course. Don't rush slow eaters. Wait for everyone to finish, and encourage plenty of social time between courses. Here are three styles suitable for home entertaining:

1. Family style: Dish out the various courses into attractive (prewarmed or chilled) serving platters and bowls, put them on the table with suitable serving tools, and let everyone dig in, passing the platters.

2. Buffet style: When you expect a crowd (20-plus), buffet style is quick, efficient, and cozy. Most people like to serve themselves, and a buffet line promotes social interaction.

Garnish serving platters, with sprigs of fresh herbs clustered along the top edge, for example, and make the serving area look attractive. Serve in small bowls and platters and replenish often, replacing half-empty serving pieces with full ones. Put the plates at the head of the buffet, but put napkins, silverware, and bread and butter at the far end for your guests' convenience.

3. Preplated style: A small number of carefully prepared garnish items dress up a plate like nothing else. Plus you'll have no serving dishes to wash, and you control the portions. But you must be well-organized and confident. First, visualize how the finished plate will look. Have all garnishes ready and waiting on your counter. When guests are seated at the table, spread as many plates on kitchen counters and tables as you have space for, place the garnish on each at the 12 o'clock position, and carefully spoon out the steaming-hot food. Wipe the plates clean of any spills. One helper speeds this process; more than two slows it down. Err on the side of small portions, not large. Your guests will appreciate it.

Whatever serving style you use, think presentation. Food's appearance enhances appetite and anticipation of good food to come. Color-coordinated garnishes on lovely serving platters or individual plates, a prettily set table, and good ambience of the dining area are your responsibility, and are well worth the effort.

An assortment of good menu choices

Hors d'oeuvres

• Bruschetta with a spread of your choice

• Spread or dips over vegetable slices or crackers

• Thin melon wedges wrapped in prosciutto

• Marinated steamed shrimp with dip or cocktail sauce

Entrées:

• Oven-roasted meat and poultry (must be served soon after done, but let all meats "rest" for 10 minutes or so before carving)

• Simmered and braised meat and poultry served in sauce (holds very well)

• All soups and stews (hold very well, may be prepared in advance)

• Main-meal salads (hold well, may be prepared hours in advance)

Side starch dishes

• Oven potatoes of any kind

• Mashed potatoes kept covered and warm in oven (holds well for short time)

• Pasta, cooked ahead; immerse in boiling water just before serving (holds well, may be prepared far in advance)

• Rice or wheat pilaf kept covered and warm in oven (holds well for short time)

Desserts

• Cakes, tortes,

• Pies, tarts

• Cookies, squares, bars

• Puddings, custards

Bruschetta

Bruschetta are popular hors d'Oeuvres, easy to prepare and easy to eat. They may be spread with any topping of your choice, or you may offer them with two or three different toppings. The base and toppings may be prepared well in advance, but spread toppings shortly before serving.

Ingredients:

Baguette type bread, thinly sliced

Olive oil

Toppings of your choice

Brush both sides of bread slices with olive oil. Preheat oven or toaster oven to 400 degrees F. and toast slices directly on oven rack or on a wire rack until just beginning to color (if too dark, bruschetta will be too crispy). Toasting time varies with the type of bread: about 7 minutes for white, up to 15 minutes for denser breads.

Once toasted, keep them covered in a plastic bag.

Simply spread thick topping on toasted slices up to 30 minutes before serving.

A few topping suggestions:

Tomato-garlic: rub each slice with a cut garlic clove, top with thinly sliced tomato, sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Parmesan cheese-walnut: Mix equal portions of grated Parmesan and walnuts with enough olive oil to make a paste and minced garlic to taste. Purée. After spreading on toast, top with a thin slice of tomato.

Prepared pesto sauce

Prepared tapenade


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