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4 simple, elegant party tricks from a professional caterer

Stefanie Tortorella preps for a dinner party in her home.

Ashley Capp/The Globe and Mail

As the owner of the Salt & Pepper Catering Co., Stefanie Tortorella is no stranger to creating menus that have to feed several hundred people. For her own dinner parties, however, she prefers more intimate affairs, particularly since six is the maximum number of friends that can squeeze around her Saarinen dining table or mingle comfortably in her 550-squarefoot Toronto apartment Conveniently, her company's headquarters in the city's Annex neighbourhood is a block away from her home, perfect for when she has to sear something on a hot stove but doesn't want to smoke her guests – usually a mix of new and old friends – out of the house. "I'll just run around the corner and throw a beef tenderloin on the indoor commercial grill, then head back to my apartment and finish it in the oven," she says. In the absence of a grill, Tortorella recommends using a cast-iron pan placed over high heat to seal in the meat's juices and of course cranking up the fan and opening the windows to keep the indoor smoke to a minimum.

Starting things off

While everything cooks, Tortorella sets out bowls of salted pistachios, store-bought root-vegetable chips and uncomplicated d'oeuvres such as her "BLT eclairs" to go with one of her signature drinks. A favourite is the Sbagliato, a cocktail she discovered recently at Terroni, a well-known chain of local Italian restaurants. "The waiter wrote the recipe down for me on a napkin," she says. A variation on the Negroni, it consists of equal parts sweet vermouth, Campari and prosecco, stirred and served over ice.

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Reaping the rewardsof pre-prep

Preferring to enjoy the libations and the company of her guests, Tortorella will prepare as much as she can in advance and pick relatively low-maintenance dishes that cook largely uninterrupted, such as the aforementioned tenderloin (marvellous with a black pepper, kosher salt and olive oil rub) or hearty roast chicken Marbella.

Tortorella's version of chicken Marbella, adapted from the beloved Silver Palate Cookbook , involves marinating skin-on boneless chicken breasts and whole prunes in red wine vinegar, olive oil and oregano overnight, then transferring them to a baking dish, sprinkling everything with brown sugar and white wine and roasting it all in a 350-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes.

Choosing sides

When choosing what to serve with a main course, Tortorella always considers presentation and seasonality. "I want the plate to look pretty, so definitely something green," she says, noting that white plates are the best way to showcase food. At this time of year, she favours French beans, which she blanches and then rewarms in butter and olive oil before mixing in orange zest, salt and pepper. A rich starch typically rounds out the meal: either roasted fingerling potatoes or mashed russets with whipped cream, butter and a drizzle of decadent truffle oil overtop.

To complement the food, Tortorella will uncork both a medium-bodied red such as a Valpolicella Ripasso and an oaky California Chardonnay. A tossed salad – usually baby arugula with shaved Parmesan – is brought to the table after the main course is finished, allowing guests who are still feeling peckish to help themselves.

Setting the table

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Reflecting this casual atmosphere, Tortorella keeps the table mostly unadorned except for rustic French-linen tea towels that she uses as napkins. Instead of an obstructive centrepiece, she places festive groupings of unscented tapered candles and fresh flowers around her apartment (at Christmas, she adores paperwhites and red amaryllis). To further enhance the laid-back mood, she'll play soft jazz or loungey tunes from the popular Hôtel Costes CD compilations.

Rather than a fussy dessert, the caterer likes to end things with a selection of award-winning Canadian cheeses – two of her current favourites are Ontario's Thunder Oak gouda and Quebec's Louis d'Or organic cow's-milk cheese – paired with something sweet, such as the snowflake-shaped gingerbread cookies that Salt & Pepper sells at the small takeout counter it opened late last spring.

One thing that Tortorella never offers after a meal is coffee: "It's a palate killer," she says. "Plus, nobody ever asks for it, not even at the events I cater." Of course, another round of cocktails is a different story; she will pour them while everyone hangs out in the living area or, if a change of scenery is desired, everyone will head downstairs for a nightcap – one of the perks of living above a lively strip of restaurants and bars. "I'm kind of spoiled," she admits.

As are her guests, who will invariably offer up a toast to Tortorella to thank her for her outstanding (and easy-going) hospitality.

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