Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Handling Hospitality

Seven years ago, I would never have invited  friends over for a bucket of fried chicken.  I knew how to fry my own chicken, thank you very much! But let me tell you about the only time I ever tried to fry chicken for company. My grease caught fire, I poured a full bag of flour on it, and we all ended up in the front yard eating take-out pizza while the smoke cleared.  Thankfully, the man I was trying to impress didn't mind too much and now lets me burn food for him all the time.  So glad I went that homemade route!

I think that those of us that enjoy cooking and entertaining have the hardest time doing it. We are so full of ideas. When it comes to executing all these ideas under time constraints  and with an audience, things often unravel.  My inner Crazy-Hostess still haunts me, but I've learned some things that help me be more realistic and successful with entertaining.

1. Set limits:
I once read in a book on hospitality that cautioned, “Never serve more than two kinds of cocktails at a dinner party.” Excellent advice! And it works well with lemonade too.  It happens to me all the time: I'm hosting a picnic and plan to make lemonade.  Except I can't decide if you want to serve strawberry or raspberry lemonade.  So I decide to do both.  Then I remember all the frozen blueberries in my freezer and the three matching punch bowls, and I can't help it.  I add blueberry, pomegranate lemonade to the menu. (This never happened.  Not with lemonade anyway).

What I've realized is that when I think like this, I’m not really thinking about my guests; I’m thinking about myself. I’m making food that I like to eat that always gets me a lot of compliments. No matter how many compliments I get, I don’t enjoy serving it if I’m stressed. Now I make fewer, bigger portioned dishes, and keep those other recipes up my sleeve for the next time I entertain.

2. Prepare ahead of time:
We live in an age of refrigerators, crock pots and microwaves.  Utilize them!  As you browse the Internet and Pinterest for recipes, look for things that are make-ahead. I try to have at least one make-ahead dish per meal. Not only does this mean less work in the last minutes before my company arrives, it also means I have something to serve if the kitchen catches on fire!

Favorite Make-Ahead Dishes:
macaroni and cheese
Asian slaw
slow cooker chicken chili
caramel apple pie

3. Remember the grocery store is your friend:
Have you ever watched Downton Abbey? Do you ever notice Lady Grantham rushing around frantically before a dinner party putting those finishing touches on everything? No, you see Lady Grantham’s servants downstairs rushing around, and you see Lady Grantham upstairs serenely entertaining her guests. I don’t have an Upstairs/Downstairs, but I have my servants nevertheless. While I’m at work, my dishwasher washes my dishes, my washing machine washes my clothes, and little scrubbing bubbles keep my bathrooms cleaner. I work hard to earn the money to buy these things and keep them in working order. No one has ever looked me up and down and said sneeringly, “You mean you didn’t wash your own clothes in a washtub?” So why am I so hesitant to serve food that I didn’t prepare myself?

I do most of my shopping at Publix and Whole Foods. Both of these stores have great prepared food that cost same as it would cost me to make the same item. When I need a last-minute item to bring to a brunch, I don’t hesitate to buy a loaf of banana bread and whip up some flavored cream cheeses (or buy flavored cream cheese). It doesn’t matter that I have that blue ribbon recipe for banana bread; it won’t be a win for me if I'm stressed about making it.

4. Balance creativity with realistic expectations:
Gone are the days when dinner parties consisted primarily of crown roasts and molded Jell-O salads with mini marshmallows. And this is good news for me because I’ve never made a crown roast, and I don’t eat Jell-O salad (even if it has mini marshmallows). This gives all of us a lot more options for being creative and stress-free.  On occasion, I’ve ordered a large, specialty pizza from a locally owned pizza parlor, and then served a “gourmet” salad (like this favorite) on the side. The salad says, “I can cook!” and the pizza says, “I am feeding you!”

My fallback, easy meal is pasta. Two different pastas, two different (jar/homemade) sauces, some grated Parmesan, a loaf of crusty bread, a green salad and I've got myself a pasta bar. Or I dress up just one type of pasta by serving it with bread, olive oil, dipping spices, and little plates for everyone. Trust me, nobody can resist little individual plates!

Easy Pasta dishes:
pasta with baked tomato sauce
summer pasta
spaghetti with ricotta
Martha Stewart's deconstructed lasagna

5. Adapt and be flexible:
Hospitality does not have to look like anything other than generosity.  Few of us will ever host a impressive dinner for twenty at a gleaming dining room table. I learned to love serving up dinner buffet-style. This allow for people to just sit anywhere, it works equally well for dinner or just dessert, and it keeps all my dishes near the sink!  Plus, buffet is a French word, so it automatically makes my meal more gourmet.

Buffets are also useful when considering dietary restrictions.  I grew up in a town where a majority of the population is vegetarian. A popular meal there is Mexican stack- up: a build your own taco salad buffet. I use it now if I know I’ll be serving people who can’t eat gluten or meat or for casual parties.  I make the chili every time. Everything else: rice, salsa, chopped veggies, shredded cheese, sometimes I prepare it myself, sometimes I buy it. It doesn’t matter – the meal gives me the option to be flexible.

Mexican stack-up
Any basic chili recipe
corn chips
tomatoes, chopped
red onion, chopped
sour cream
anything else you want

6. Accept help:
This one is always hard for me. I take a lot of pride in my food, and I want a comprehensive meal that is prepared perfectly by me. But I’ve gotten to the point where 9 times out of 10, I let people bring things if they ask. What do I really have to lose if they offer to bring brownies and I was planning on making that six layer chocolate, marshmallow cake? Nothing. I get to eat delicious brownies, and it was one less thing I had to prepare myself.

7. Consider the what and where:
It has taken me 5 years to realize I should not have company over on weeknights. I think to myself, “If I do it on Saturday it takes all day. But if I do it on a Friday, it will force me to be more organized.” The only thing Friday night entertaining forces me to do is stress.

Also, my house is neither child proof nor child friendly. It doesn’t have to be - I don’t have children. But this also means that when our little friends come over, they spend the evening looking longingly at the dog toys. So sometimes, when friends are talking about getting together, I offer to bring a meal over to their house and eat it with them there. If they have children, the children are in their own comfortable environment, and I don’t have to do any of the cleaning beforehand!

8. Decorate on a dime:
I’m not really going to tell you how to decorate, because I’m not that good at it, and there are some wonderful resources out there. However, do remember that sometimes even just a $3.99 bouquet of flowers from Trader Joe’s can make you feel like you are Martha Stewart. I went to a dinner party once where the hostess had made napkins from scrap fabric and tied them all up with name tags and twine. As a hostess, those inexpensive touches give me a boost of confidence and distract from all the imperfections that are so glaringly obvious (to me).

9. Keep records:
I have my parents over for dinner, and everything turns out great. I realize that creamed spinach is earth shattering with BBQ ribs, and those paper plates from Fresh Market make everything really easy to clean up. The first thing I do?  Write it down! Almost every time I try a new recipe or menu combination for company, I print everything out, make notes, and put it in a binder. Later, when I’m thinking about having the pastor and his wife over, there in my binder is a combination that I already know is successful. It might sound cumbersome, but it will save you effort in the long-run.

10. Enjoy yourself!
It’s true that hospitality is about your guests. But it is also true that in most cases, if you are enjoying yourself, your guests will enjoy themselves too. Just the fact that you have invited people into your home will mean something. And if your guests are looking for something more, chances are nothing you could have done would have made them happy (not even that chocolate cake from #6).  When nothing else is appearing to go right, I just remind myself to take a deep breath and have a fantastic time.  And it never hurts to keep a bag of flour near the stove along with a number for pizza delivery.

What is your favorite trick for easy hosting?


  1. This is very good, Liz! You are a great writer.

  2. Alaina McAllisterApril 3, 2012 at 5:02 PM

    Love this post! ... I so identify with each of your points and I love the story about the fried chicken. Let's face it, we all have those stories. I always have plenty of ideas of what to fix until we actually invite someone over. Then my mind is a blank slate ~ so I'll have to try the notebook idea :-)

    1. Thanks, Alaina! I will never get tired of telling the fried chicken story. The notebook works well for me - I hope you find it helpful,

  3. Let's get together sometime! This post made me hungry for yummy food and for your fun presence. I'll try to suggest a date...

    1. I would love that! E-mail me some dates, and we'll work something out.

  4. Great ideas. I have started "letting" people bring stuff too.

    1. I don't know why it is so difficult (hello, free yummy food), but it is! Thanks for always reading, Carrie.

  5. I need to try to remember to use #3 & #6. We will make that cake! How about you cook the cake layers and I bring the frostings. Add #11 Teamwork!

    1. You. Are. A. Genius! Right after Easter, you are on! (You know I've had my eye on that cake for a while, don't you...?)

  6. Since you asked for my favorite tricks for easy hostessing: I copy creativity and good ideas. Specifically, I have this fun friend Liz who always serves up amazing dinners and fabulous times, and I try to copy her. Seems to work every time=)

    1. Ha ha, Charis, you crack me up! I hope it works for you better than it does for me. You are just too nice. :)

  7. One thing I've learned from helping at parties and hosting is to always take the offers on clean-up. If my friends are volunteering to clean the table, put dishes in the dishwasher, pack up food, I gladly accept their help. And I agree with Charis ^ ;)

    1. Agree! I used to turn those offers down, but I don't even think twice anymore.

  8. True friends will be there for just a good time! What a great post!

    1. Thank you, Lydia. You are right, and I am blessed with some wonderful friends!


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