Even people who are experts at dinner parties can suffer less-than-perfect moments.
By CATHY FRISINGER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
And we're glad.
But we're also a little sorry.
Although we admire her good taste -- "Emboss initials onto plain paper napkins when you're entertaining a crowd"-- as well as her tasty goods -- such as cornmeal-crusted soft-shell crab, sesame-coated pancetta-wrapped asparagus, baked apples with spiced ricotta and maple syrup -- she sets the bar awfully high.
Are you starting to feel a wee bit anxious?
Well, stop that right now. Entertaining isn't about perfection. It's about pleasure -- for your guests and for you.
To help you make your next dinner party less frantic and more fun, we gathered ideas from two women who throw scores of successful parties each year.
Zola Gorgon (not her real name; it's a party persona) is the CEO of a sales training company with offices in Madison, Wis., and Chicago. Despite a job that has her traveling weekly between the two cities, she finds time to entertain clients and friends 40 or more times a year. Her trick: Total prep time for each party, including grocery shopping, is no more than three hours, she says.
Jill Fortney is a professional party planner. She orchestrates many of the galas, weddings and private parties thrown by the Fort Worth, Texas, society set each year. But it's not just the big blowouts that she's an expert at; Fortney loves to entertain in her own home and throws intimate dinner parties for gatherings of friends about once a month.
Here are 10 tips from our two party planners on how to throw a killer dinner soiree that won't kill the hosts.
E-MAIL THE INVITATIONS.
For special occasions, such as a shower, or for themed parties, such as a guys-and-dolls party, you'll probably want to send printed invitations, but for most gatherings, an e-mail invite is simplest (easier even than phone calls) and is perfectly appropriate in today's casual world, says Zola.
Be sure you include all the pertinent information in the invite -- time and date, what to wear, how to get to your home, what (if anything) they should bring, any special reason for the gathering, any theme.
Be clear, both hostesses say. "It's really important to tell people if it's casual or coat and tie, if there are going to be other people there," says Fortney.
MAKE YOUR HOME WELCOMING.
For first-time guests, make the house easy to find with a marker such as balloons on the mailbox. Zola says she greets guests before they even step across her threshold with a chalkboard that says "welcome" and lists the names of the guests.
Inside, open up as much of your house to your guests as possible. Closed doors tell guests to stay out. Lights say welcome. One way to signal to guests where they are welcome to congregate is with groupings of candles. If they're unscented, you can't overdo it with candles.
If you want people to know they're welcome to gather outdoors, tiki torches and strings of lantern lights send that message.
You don't want to start rearranging furniture just before a gathering, but when you have some free time, think about how your furniture is arranged. Seating should be arranged in intimate clusters, with convenient places to set down a small plate or drink.
TURN UP THE TUNES.
"Music puts people at ease," says Zola, "and it fills in the dead spaces in conversation."
She always picks out three CDs to play before her guests arrive.
You can match your music to the menu: zydeco if you're serving jambalaya, for instance; a Dinner in Paris CD for a French meal. Or you can just pick out music you think your guests will enjoy. Ray Charles is hot at the moment, and just about everyone enjoys his music. Motown and Frank Sinatra are pretty much universally enjoyed as well.
Turn down the music during the meal, then raise the volume during cleanup. (see No. 8)
TWO LIQUORS ARE EVEN QUICKER.
One of Zola's tricks is to offer a "drink of the night," which she prepares in advance in pitchers. The drink of the night usually consists of one or two alcohol components (light rum, dark rum, vodka, tequila and flavored liqueurs) and one or two "thinners" (such as fruit juices, club soda, flavored soda, lemonade, iced tea and crushed ice). For example: Mix light rum, peach schnapps, apricot juice and crushed ice and call it a peach blossom.
She prints the drink of the night as well as the menu for the evening on a blackboard or fancy paper and posts it in an area where guests will gather.
"It gives people something to talk about," she says.
Zola also offers wine, beer and soft drinks but says most guests will opt for the drink of the night. It puts people in a festive mood.
PUT GUESTS TO WORK.
One of the best ways to break the ice is to give people tasks to do. Take two guests who don't know each other, offer an intriguing introduction -- "Karen's taking flying lessons" -- then hand each a knife and set them to work chopping vegetables.
You can ask a guest to take a tray of hors d'oeuvres out to the patio or set a couple of men to tending the grill.
Your guests will have a much better time chopping vegetables and talking about flying lessons or chopping technique than they will standing stiffly around the living room asking, "And what do you do for a living?"
IT'S NOT A COOKING CONTEST.
"I have one rule: Your friends are coming to your house for fellowship, not fine dining," says Fortney. "Let that be your main goal."
Both hostesses say a key to entertaining comfortably is planning a menu that's palate-pleasing but easy to prepare. Fortney often orders online from Dean & amp; DeLuca or picks up an item from a restaurant that does something really well.
"Order an appetizer that you can pop in the oven," she says.
Zola says she used to insist that everything she served guests be homemade -- once she made an elaborate pasta sauce that took seven hours to prepare -- but she abandoned that years ago. Now she keeps it simple.
An easy appetizer: Open cans of tomatoes. Add some olive oil and herbs, and cook down. Use to top crostini.
An even easier appetizer: Cut a hunk of good-quality fresh Parmesan into cubes and insert toothpicks.
GO WITH THE FLOW.
Unexpected things happen. It's more important to stay calm and be gracious than to fret about the perfection of your meal.
If a guest unexpectedly shows up with her sister and sister's family in tow, find a simple way to expand the meal. Pasta cooks up quickly, and it just needs butter and Parmesan or garlic to dress it up.
If the cake falls to pieces when you start to cut it, scoop it into bowls and top it with whipped cream.
The key is not to get flustered, and that's easy if you're more concerned about people enjoying themselves than you are about impressing people.
GET THE GUESTS TO HELP WITH CLEANUP.
Once the main event is over, Zola employs what she calls her "patented 10-minute cleanup," which she describes in exactly those words to her guests.
She sets someone trustworthy to washing, hands towels to a couple of people, tells others they are "runners" or "scrapers," then turns up some fast music and sets a timer for 10 minutes, promising that's as long as they'll be working.
"It looks like that scene from The Big Chill," Zola says. "You'll be amazed how much they enjoy the game of trying to get it all done in 10 minutes."
When the buzzer goes off, everyone puts down their towels and leaves whatever's left.
THE PARTY'S NOT OVER.
The evening shouldn't end after the meal. While your guests are doing the cleanup, you are preparing the next course -- dessert or Irish coffee or cognac.
The party can either return to the dining table or move to another room. To get guests to gather in a new room, simply bring the food or drinks in that room. "People will follow the food," says Zola.
You can turn the music a little lower at this point. Serve something interesting (a fun dessert -- but that doesn't mean it has to be hard to make) or a dessert wine that you can talk about. Let people get comfortable, lean back, slip off their shoes, perhaps.
"Often it's the best part of the party," says Zola.
This is the most important rule.
"I think the biggest stumbling block for hosts and hostesses is a lack of confidence," says Zola. "I give my clients some concrete things to do and to say, and those things function like security blankets. It's supposed to be fun. When they realize I'm right, the dinner party ceases to be an ordeal and starts becoming a party."
Says Fortney, "A nervous hostess makes for uncomfortable guests.
"Smile. Enjoy the evening."
For recipes and more tips on entertaining from Zola, visit www.dinnerwithzola.com.
PESTO APPETIZER PIZZA
1 thin prepared pizza crust
3 to 4 tablespoons pesto
Cherry tomato halves
Caramelized onions, or any raw onion, chopped
1 jar gardinera chopped peppers
Spread the pesto on the pizza crust, stopping about 1 1/2 inches short of the sides. (The pesto will spread as it heats.)
Top with your favorite topping ingredients. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes on oven rack or on a pizza stone. If cooking on a rack, slide a cookie sheet underneath pizza to remove from oven.
Serve on a cutting board with a pizza cutter. Slice in wedges or squares, or leave whole for guests to slice.
Makes 12 servings.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 129 calories, 3 grams fat, 20 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 1 milligram cholesterol, 302 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 24 percent of calories from fat.
MERRY BERRY MARGARITAS
This "drink of the day" is nice to serve in December because of its red color.
1 cup white tequila
3 cups margarita mix, such as Sauza
1 cup cranberry juice cocktail
Combine in a pitcher and serve over ice.
Makes 1 pitcher, serving up to 20
Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 20: 48 calories, trace fat, 6 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams protein, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 1 percent of calories from fat.
These taste like those childhood frozen treats Dreamsicles.
1 cup vanilla-flavored Stoli vodka
1 cup Cointreau or Grand Marnier
5 cups orange juice
Combine in a pitcher and serve over ice.
Makes 1 pitcher, serving up to 20
Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 20: 90 calories, trace fat, 10 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 1 milligram sodium, 0 grams dietary fiber, 3 percent of calories from fat.
GORGONZOLA CHEESE AND PEAR CROSTINI
12 French bread slices (1 inch thick)
Olive oil spray
1 cup gorgonzola cheese crumbles
1 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 (12-ounce) can pears in syrup, drained and diced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Spray both sides of French bread slices with olive oil and toast both sides in your broiler. Combine remaining ingredients and mound by the tablespoonful onto the toasted bread slices.
Place crostini on a cookie sheet and broil 6 inches from heat source until the topping browns lightly (sort of like toasting marshmallows). Serve immediately.
Makes 12 servings
Nutritional analysis per serving: 197 calories, 12 grams fat, 17 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 439 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 53 percent of calories from fat.