Take a bit of the stress out of entertaining with this essential guide to hosting. Lucy Waverman answers all your questions on planning, etiquette − and how to be a good guest.
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How should I respond when I invite people for a meal and they ask, ‘What can I bring?’
The answer depends on what kind of meal it is. If it’s an informal dinner with children, it is a perfectly appropriate question, and you can certainly ask your guests to make a dish their kids will enjoy. If it’s a grown-up dinner party, however, the question should never be asked. If it is, my answer is “yourselves.”
When throwing a dinner party, the host usually puts a great deal of thought into how the evening will unfold. My first consideration is always the guest list because it is the interaction of people at a table over good food and drink that makes the evening stand out. Next, I plan the food, along with matching wines. Lastly, I plan a tablescape – evergreens from the garden perhaps. Keep it low so people can see one another.
So what should you bring? Here are some suggestions: Good-quality chocolates, not standard supermarket fare; flowers, but in a vase, not a bunch, so your host doesn’t have to waste time looking for a container that fits; a plant – white orchids are popular; wine, although don’t expect it to be consumed that night, as the wines have already been chosen. My husband hit on a good plan: He labels the wine and we drink it the next time you come for dinner. A foodie gift is always appreciated – local honey or jam, a great pickle or a special cheese you would like us to try. Cocktail napkins, especially cloth as these are coming back into style. Hand soaps. And always include a note, otherwise at the end of an evening, we spend time trying to remember who brought what.
But the absolute best thing to bring is yourself, along with your A game, which sparks conversation and creates a convivial atmosphere around the table. You have to sing for your supper.
How do I plan a dinner party menu for guests with allergies?
My husband is deathly allergic to peanuts. Going out for dinner used to be a trial. We would tell our hosts or the restaurant about his allergy, but still, peanuts crept into a Caesar salad and we would end up at the hospital.
Today everyone is more allergy conscious. Some schools have banned nuts, for example, and restaurants are accommodating requests from patrons with allergies. One restaurateur told me that one night he had 10 allergies at one table and the kitchen coped.
The most common allergens are milk, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, shellfish and eggs. If you are hosting a dinner party, you must consider food allergies, as well as dietary preferences (paleo, vegan, etc.) when planning your menu.
Dinner parties provide warmth and friendship and being sensitive to allergies is a part of this. As a host, it is your responsibility to ask your guests about allergies when you invite them, and if you forget to, the guests must make sure that you know about them.
It may seem like more work at first, but there are ways to turn it into a positive and to ensure the workload in the kitchen isn’t doubled.
Use the allergy as a jumping-off point to look for new recipes, for instance. Don’t make Pad Thai and simply leave out the nuts, go for a whole new approach. Increase your repertoire and experiment. Try looking at food blogs that deal with these issues – it is a good way to find recipes.
If you are entertaining vegetarians and meat eaters at the same party, make a large vegetable dish such as vegetable lasagne or a bean and chickpea stew with a grain or bean side and keep the meat separate.
Be sensitive to your gluten-free friends and avoid all products that contain gluten. If you are annoyed that you can’t make Aunt Emily’s magnificent pound cake, use Cup4Cup gluten-free flour. It works beautifully. Find it at health and gluten-free stores.
Chinese restaurants, where food tends to be shared, can pose a challenge. If someone in your party has an allergy, try to avoid communal dishes involving that ingredient. If that isn’t feasible, be aware of cross-contamination; don’t plunge your chopsticks into the shrimp and then use the same chopsticks in the vegetables.
Lastly, if a label says the product was made in a factory that handles allergens (usually nuts) use a different brand. It is always better to err on the side of caution.
As for my husband, he only had one incident this year and it was a close friend’s house, which should remind us guests to always reiterate the allergy information – even when it is a friend.
How do I properly set the table for a formal dinner?
My mother believed that good table manners and setting the table properly were essential to one’s upbringing. She used to say, “You never know when you might eat with the Queen.”
Most of us won’t ever dine with royalty, but setting a proper table does add a regal touch to a dinner party. It also makes it that much easier to pick out the correct fork and knife, and avoid the potential embarrassment of reaching for the wrong one. A properly set table provides a structure to help people have a good time. Here are a few simple rules that will help you set the perfect table.
Generally speaking, knives and spoons are placed to the right of the plate, while forks are to the left. Work from the outside of the place setting to the inside. In other words, if your first course is soup, then the first piece of cutlery, the one farthest from the plate on the right-hand side, is the soup spoon.
Follow with the fish knife and fork if you happen to have a fish course and own the right cutlery. Next come the meat knife and fork, and finally the dessert spoon and fork on the inside. (If you’re following the English style, the dessert cutlery will be at the top of the place setting, parallel with the table edge.) If there is a salad course, then a smaller knife and fork are provided, but the placement will depend on whether you have the salad first or after the main.
If you run out of cutlery, wash it quickly and replace.
Wine glasses are placed over the knife, with water glasses to the left of the wine glasses.
I never use a bread and butter side plate, because it takes up too much room, but if you choose to, it goes to the left beside the fork. Butter knives go on the bread plate. Napkins go between the knives and forks where the dinner plate will be placed or on the side plate.
And I think charger plates are very formal and out of style, but if you use them, they sit on the table for the soup and app courses and are removed for the main course.
Open salts are best. I put Maldon salt in a small dish and let guests take a pinch with their fingers, French style. (Salt tarnishes silver spoons, which is why old salt spoons were gold.) For pepper, a small mill is preferable.
Candles, votives and flowers are optional, but remember to keep centrepieces low so people can see each other across the table.
And cellphones are left in another room.
Should I serve hors d’oeuvres before dinner?
The purpose of the hors d’oeuvre is to take the edge off the appetite while you have a drink before dinner – they are not a meal themselves. In Southern California, where I am spending some time, drinks before dinner is the expectation and served with them is a series of heavy hors d’eouvres. Some are excellent, but they are mostly too heavy to serve before dinner.
Hors d’oeuvres should be tasty and light. It is also wise to think about what people will be drinking. Do you have a house cocktail? If so, try to match the food with it. James Chatto concocted a citrusy martini-like drink called Home James for the party to launch the book we co-authored, A Matter of Taste. We served it with thin water crackers topped with Comté cheese and droplets of icewine syrup or honey. It was a brilliant match.
A pet peeve is the cheese tray or charcuterie board as an hors d’oeuvre. People tend to gorge on them and then are not so interested in dinner. Cheese trays should be properly served after the main course and before dessert. Charcuterie trays make a good first course on the table for people to help themselves.
Light hors d’oeuvres may be veggie based. Forget the ubiquitous hummus or baba ganoush. Use your imagination; try a spicy mushroom dip or a cheesy warm fondue in a little pot with Belgian endive to scoop it up. Right now, the big trend is to make bagna cauda, a warm garlic- and anchovy-based dip, which is wonderful with vegetables such as radishes, asparagus spears, lightly steamed cauliflower or broccoli. The best one I have had was at the restaurant Savio Volpe in Vancouver. It was cooked very slowly for hours until everything was melted together. Served with seasonal vegetables, it was decadent and a good match for spicy cocktails.
Other good hors d’oeuvres choices include:
- Mixed nuts and olives – a classic and tasty nibble. Warm the olives with some rosemary, chili and garlic.
- Light crackers, seaweed sheets, thinly sliced cucumber, Belgian endive, sliced radishes, even vegetable chips. Bread is too heavy. These are all easy on the diet and make colourful, flavourful bases as dippers. I once used potato chips with a little smoked trout mixture for a play on fish and chips.
- Smoked trout on apple slices.
- Parmesan chips with creamed anchovies.
Remember that hors d’oeuvres are just a prelude to the main meal, so keep them light, tasty and pretty. If you do want to serve heavier bites, skip the first course. It does make having the party easier.
(And here’s the recipe for the Home James: Put some ice in a cocktail shaker then add 1 1/2 ounces Plymouth gin, 1/2 ounce dry white vermouth and 1 ounce freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. Shake or stir until well chilled and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a long twist of orange zest. Bottled or canned grapefruit juice is not acceptable.)
Does cooking together spice up a relationship?
Depends. Do you want to curry favour with your partner or have a chillier relationship? Does it bring out the saltiness in your language? I find when my husband cooks, it provokes peppery comments from me.
Most activities a couple share are good for the relationship, and cooking is one of them. Who doesn’t like to chat with a glass of wine while stirring the risotto?
But there are pitfalls, so I heartily recommend trying it out early, before the relationship goes too far.
Cooking together lays it all out on the table. You immediately see how the other behaves in the kitchen, a precursor to what kind of partnership you might have. It’s also a form of communication, which can make or break a relationship.
If one of the partners is messy and the other is a neat freak, it could be a lifelong problem. What about creativity? If an ingredient is not there, do you substitute or run out to buy it? If the cake falls, do you weep or turn it into a trifle? Organization is another key area. Do you have all your ingredients prepped while your partner just throws things together? I can see the tension rising. My daughter worked it out: She cooks and my son-in-law cleans up. This is an excellent use of different personalities.
So if you want to cook together, here are some rules to help ensure a spicier future:
- Have common goals.
- Discuss the recipe and who does what.
- Each choose to do what you do best.
- Share the shopping, knowing that you will have all the ingredients.
- Use a baking sheet to lay out all your ingredients, and prep them.
- Cooking and washing dishes are different activities. Some are better at one than the other.
How do I maximize space in a small kitchen?
I never realized how small my kitchen was until I rented a vacation house with abundant counter space. I loved being able to spread out and have room for more than one person to cook. How, I wondered, could I increase space in my kitchen without renovating? It’s all about organization.
When not in use, a stovetop can be covered with a large cutting board for extra prep space. Similarly, if you have space over your sink, it’s the perfect spot to put a drying rack, rather than on the counter.
I have an island stove above which I hang my most-used pots and pans from a rack. You can also hang large implements on the inside of cupboard doors rather than leaving them on the counter or in a drawer.
Use fold-down shelves in out-of-the-way areas to hold your prep when making dinner. Or, buy a small rolling cart that can be stored easily. It provides mobile counter space, while doubling as a drinks trolley, serving piece or extra storage.
Whether you have tiles on the wall or not, add a rod and attach small baskets to it. And wherever there is dead space, add shelving – narrow shelves over the countertop if there is room between the counter and top cupboards, or to the side of the fridge. They’re all alternatives to storing items on the counter.
Cupboards need organizing, too. Adding another shelf inside them creates a surprising amount of space. And consider replacing lower cabinets with pull-out drawers. The contents will be much easier to access, and you’ll spend less time searching for items. Store flour, sugars and spices in containers that fit against each other. Label the tops so you can see without pulling them out.
Drawer dividers are essential for keeping cooking tools organized. And a pull-out garbage unit will help keep your trash under control, ideally with separate containers for trash and recycling. If you have enough space, add a third container for compost.
And try turning that empty kick space under your lower cabinets into drawers. I store baking equipment and table mats in mine.
Kitchen design stores have lots of good ideas; check the internet, too. I got some great ideas at IKEA – you do not need an IKEA kitchen to implement them. IKEA store manager Janice McGowan says, “We plan solutions for everybody’s need. Our first task is as problem solvers and we are here to help.”
With a few small solutions, your kitchen can be a much more workable space. Now all you have to do is cook.