It’s O.K. to be selfish. The first thing to consider when selecting a menu is where you want to spend the majority of the evening. If you are fortunate enough to have a kitchen that opens into a living room, and you consider cooking a spectator sport, then starting the meal preparation after the guests arrive is no problem. If, on the other hand, you are the type who prefers to mingle with a glass of wine in hand, a selection of dishes that can be completed entirely in advance might be more practical. A mix of the two, weighted slightly towards pre-prep, is always a safe choice.
I use one fundamental rule when determining how many different items to prepare: Make a minimal number of dishes, but make each one memorable. A finger food, a salad and an entree served with fresh bread should be enough to satiate any guest’s hunger, as well as their palate. The equation is simple:
distinctive + robust = memorable
These days it’s virtually impossible to randomly select a half dozen people who will eat everything placed in front of them. The closer one gets to California, the more this rule holds true -- and the more the quirk-o-dex goes haywire. As a person with a few quirks of my own, I have learned to accommodate my guests’ eating habits when planning a menu. Here are the eight most popular quirks and the culprits that set them quirking:
1 The allergy quirk (dairy products, nuts)
2 The health quirk (cholesterol, red meat, dairy products, yeast)
3 The religious quirk (pork)
4 The ulcer/hernia quirk (garlic, hot spices, onions)
5 The politically correct quirk (grapes, veal, the cause de jour)
6 The vegetarian quirk (meat, poultry, fish -- though, if pressed, many "vegetarians" will eat fish and seafood)
7 The low-fat quirk (butter, oil, cream)
8 The fussy eater quirk (liver and Brussels sprouts... yuuccchhhh!)
There are two ways of dealing with these quirks. The first is to poll your guests before you set the menu. Do this by including a "quirk questionnaire" with your invitation, or inquiring when they RSVP. Be forewarned: This can be akin to opening Pandora’s box. A more manageable solution is to take affirmative action as follows:
1 Avoid the most common offenders. I was once invited to a lavish dinner party where veal -- a meat that has the unique potential of belonging to half of the quirk categories -- was served. Of the eight people dining, only three finished the meat, while the others ate their veggies and pushed the offending cutlet around their plates. If you plan to serve veal or red meat, it is a good idea to ask your guests in advance whether they eat it.
2 Where possible, add ingredients from the quirk list (i.e., nuts, cheese, meats, etc.) at the last minute. This provides your guests with the opportunity to catch you in the kitchen and ask for their meals to be dished out before the problematic ingredient is added.
3 Prepare extra salad and vegetables so that there will be enough to create meal-sized portions for anyone unable, or unwilling, to eat the main course.
4 If you suspect that your dinner party may turn into a quirkfest, try to prepare a safe alternative -- usually vegetable-based, or serve one of my "build-your-own" dinners.
One or two finger foods will whet your guests’ appetite and keep their eyes from wandering to the timer on the oven. Too many can be counter productive. last Christmas I attended a dinner party where the host set out a bountiful selection of canapes, crudites, cheeses and dips. Unfortunately, the stuffed Cornish hens took much longer to bake than anticipated, and what at first seemed like an over-abundance of starters was devoured to the last radish. When dinner was finally served, everyone was too full to eat. Moral of the story: Be frugal with finger foods. If the meal takes extra time to cook, let them starve. They will appreciate your culinary skills all the more if they are hungry when dinner at last arrives.
A crusty Italian of French baguette, served hot from your oven, will improve the taste of almost anything it accompanies. At less than $2 a loaf, it’s the ultimate affordable luxury. There is a good old-world bakery in just about every city. Search it out.
If your bread has lost its freshness, baptize it with a sprinkling of water and toss it, uncovered, in the oven for about 6 to 8 minutes at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, or until it’s hot and crispy.
Theme parties are a tricky -- and risky -- business. Half-baked themes tend to die slow and miserable deaths. If you’re determined to proceed, be sure the there is a clever one, as well as one that your guests can live with.
It is inevitable that you may sometimes want, of feel obligated, to invite someone who you know will not be eager to participate. In order to make that person feel comfortable (or less uncomfortable), create an alternative role him or her, such as a sous-chef, bartender, or costume judge. For those who "overlooked" the fine print of the invitation, stock a few simple props (i.e., a funny nose and glasses for Halloween, or a plastic lei for an island theme).