menu selection . Visualization and pre-planning are the keys to a smooth flowing and disaster-free evening. Begin buy selection a set of recipes with which you feel comfortable. When creating a complete menu, mix recipes that can be fixed in advance with those that need to be prepared or finished during the party.
A few days ahead of the dinner, spend a half hour during your commute to work (or whenever your mind tends to take a cat nap) and focus on the number of guests, the food, the cooking facilities, and the working space in which you will be cooking. Picture yourself preparing the dishes you intend to make and serving them in the manner you have chosen. If the act of visualizing the preceding steps causes butterflies in your stomach, select alternative recipes, simplify the menu, and/or plan to do more of the cooking in advance.
If you are a certified dinner party phobic attempting to overcome your anxieties, select a recipe that can be prepared earlier in the day, i.e., a curry, and serve it with a simple salad of baby greens. Buy a finger food and a dessert or, more simply still, ask two guests to bring them. In so doing, you can put the mental block of food preparation behind you and focus on the deep-rooted source of your phobia.
pre-production . It's not always possible, and never crucial, to prepare all of the food during the last 90 minutes before your guests arrive, or in their presence. Most of my recipes can be prepared, at least partially, one day in advance. The flavors of some foods, such as soups and curries, actually improve after sitting for a day. Other foods can be prepared in advance and frozen -- although I confess to having little experience in this area because the freezer section in my aesthetically pleasing fifties refrigerator functions exclusively as a frost factory.
The corollary to food improving with time is that some foods lose their zest if prepared too far in advance. Before serving any food, taste it. If necessary, "refresh" it with salt, pepper, lemon and/or a generous portion of the same herbs that were used originally to flavor the dish.
sizing the servings . Unless you have specifically asked how hungry individual guests are, it is desirable to make all portions equal. The first phase of portion control takes place when shopping for ingredients. Sometimes a little hardball may be required. For example, if you were to request twelve 1-inch-thick salmon steaks from your local fishmonger, he would probably cut them from a single salmon. Unfortunately, the cut from the middle of the fish can be twice as wide as the cuts nearest the head or tail. There's always almost another salmon "in the back" and you must stand your ground to get what you need. After all, you are the customer and, per the retail credo, that makes you always right.
To avoid running out of food, prepare a little extra -- even at the expense of having leftovers. When planning for casual parties where additional guests may drop by, or arrive in tow with your invited guests, it's always wise to prepare extra portions of the main dish. At least be sure to have lots of something i.e., salad, bread, veggies, etc.
If you are assembling plates for a seated affair, don't let any plate out of the kitchen until you are certain that you have enough of everything to complete the remaining dishes.
timing is everything . Having settled on a menu and decided which items to cook in advance, slide back into the visualization mode for a moment and imagine that it's 15 minutes before showtime. Will everything be ready at the same time? Are the garnishes prepped? Did you put the rise on?
Return to the present and create a "critical path" by establishing the sequence in which each dish needs to be started, refreshed or reheated. When in doubt, scribble out a running order and stick it on the refrigerator.
When showtime arrives, wait until the last minute to put the finishing touch on delicate foods. As a rule, begin steering your guests toward the dinner table before tossing the salad, adding shrimp to a sauce or steaming vegetables.
the accelerated assembly line . Assembling a large number of plates quickly is a challenge for professional chefs and amateurs alike. Before you begin, think about how you would like the food to look on the plate and how the colors, shapes and textures will interact. Create a blueprint in your mind and plan to assemble each plate identically. Then:
Have all the food and garnishes ready to be dished out
Have the appropriate serving utensils in hand
Set the (warmed) plates out on the available counter space
Confirm that all of the guests are seated
Make up the first plate according to the blueprint in your mind
Then, with the help of one or two guests-cum-sous-chefs, dish it all out as quickly as possible, assembly line style. (If you have a cassette deck in your kitchen, play the William Tell Overture)
Wipe any drippings from around the edge of the plates with a clean dish towel and check that garnishes are in place before allowing each dish to leave the kitchen.
space oddity . Oven space, counter space and refrigerator space are valuable commodities when cooking for large groups -- and another reason to keep the menu simple. A shortage of counter space is the most common hindrance in a small kitchen. Sometimes a little ingenuity is required to convert dead space into a functional prepping area. Cover the sink with a cutting board, turn a cookie sheet upside down and place it over the stove's burners (heat off, please) and clear the decks of any appliances or items that are not required for the meal, i.e., the juicer, toaster, bread maker, coffee maker, coffee grinder, kettle, cookie jar, popcorn maker -- I think you get the picture.
the grill drill . The advent and popularity of propane gas grills has significantly reduced the inconvenience factor of grilling. If you are using propane, refill your tank before the party and/or keep a spare tank -- a party is a bad time to discover the gas gauge is broken.
I still swear by real hardwood charcoal (often available only in mesquite), which I believes provides the best grill flavor. This may stem from my difficulty in conceptualizing how petrified lava rocks can duplicate the smoky flavor of natural wood.
When grilling with real charcoal, light your coals 30 minutes in advance. Extra charcoal may be required to keep the fire burning, but it beats fighting to get the coals lit while you're famished dinner guests cheer you on. Never use starter fluids to light your coals. They make food taste like a gas rag, not to mention being one of the worst known air polluters. Use crumpled newspaper, ideally in combination with the very politically correct starter chimney.
Whether you have chosen gas or charcoal, beware that grilling for 6 to 12 people can require a surprisingly large area of grill space -- especially if you have chosen to accompany the entree with grilled veggies. Be prepared to grill your food in shifts, or borrow a second grill so that all of the food can be cooked at once.
help! i need somebody . Once your guest list hits the double digits, the sheer volume of people becomes an impediment to merely "winging it." In most cases, guests will be willing to lend a hand or even arrive early to help, though occasionally circumstances may make this inappropriate or undesirable. In these cases, you might consider outside help. Help comes in the following flavors: bartender, sous-chef or general kitchen assistance. Consult a friend who uses help, check the Yellow Pages or hire the kid next door.
Hiring one person to assist with the prep, cooking and cleanup can make the difference between enjoying yourself and feeling like the "help" at your own party.
if you can't stand the heat... . Throwing a dinner party is supposed to be one of life's little pleasures. But there is work involved. Hard work. Even the most enjoyable parties have their trying moments. Compose your own cooking mantra and repeat it to yourself with Buddhist fervor whenever the inevitable disaster rears its ugly head. Not only will this save you untold aggravation, but it will start you down the path toward an understanding of the true Zen of cooking.