I remember when I first started hosting dinner parties, I had a huge new respect for my mother. I was struggling to prepare a simple meat-starch-vegetable meal for four people and I couldn’t seem to get everything coordinated so all three elements would be ready at the same time. Meanwhile, my mom had (seemingly effortlessly) made dinner for our family of eight – not to mention dinner parties for much larger groups – day after day and never once did I hear her say, “Ooops – dinner’s going to be a bit late because something’s not ready yet.” It took me quite a few years of cooking to approach her level of ease in the kitchen. Along the way, I’ve accumulated a few tricks that really help me pull everything together in a cohesive way:
Make a schedule that includes tasks that can be done a few days ahead, the night before, and during the day before your dinner party. Include how much time it will take to prep and cook each dish and build in cleanup time as well. Being organized is truly half the battle!
Lots of dishes can be made hours, days and even weeks ahead so choose menu items that won’t mind the cold. Mashed potatoes freeze beautifully, for example. Most desserts, including cheesecake, pies, mousses and more, can similarly be made ahead and frozen.
Many meat dishes can be cooked to the halfway point then immediately refrigerated. Pop them back in a preheated oven or onto the barbeque to finish cooking for the remaining time and you’ll be freed up to prepare other elements while the main finishes. There are lots of make-ahead sides that can be similarly ‘suspended’. One of my favourite tricks is to blanch (par-cook) vegetables and reheat them in a little butter in a frying pan immediately prior to serving. No soggy, overcooked veggies in my house! Two more great examples of foods that can be suspended are pasta and risotto. Many restaurants partially cook their pastas then drain them. Just before serving, the par-cooked noodles are plunged into a pot of boiling water to complete the cooking process and rewarm them. Rice for risotto can be par cooked in a similar manner. Spread it out on a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate, then return to the pot and add more warmed stock to complete the cooking process.
You’ll enjoy that step a lot more and even if the food’s not ready when your guests arrive, they’ll feel welcomed and you’ll give the illusion of having everything under control. This step should include getting out all the serving dishes you’ll need, filling candleholders and vases and selecting the music you’ll play. These things take time but are much more pleasurable when done ahead of time.
Have wine open or a pitcher of cocktails prepared, as well as nibbles like nuts, fruit, cheese etc. set out for your guests to enjoy when they arrive, freeing you up to complete food preparations.
There’s a reason this is a must in commercial kitchens. It’s hard to work in a cluttered space and easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re faced with a mountain of prep dishes.
Not everything at the table has to be hot, even in the winter. A composed salad (components are artfully arranged on plates in advance, then drizzled with dressing but not tossed immediately prior to serving) can be an impressive, delicious appetizer. By diversifying your menu, you won’t be relying on one appliance (e.g., your oven) to do all the cooking.
Nicole MacPherson recommends buying a portable oven. “They’re about $35. And they do take up a little bit of room when you're not using it, but think of them as a giant, more efficient crockpot. I make turkeys in them and have full use of my ovens for other things. Or sometimes I will set side dishes in them to either stay warm or cook quickly. They heat up very, very fast compared to a conventional oven and cook things much more quickly (think 6-7 minutes per pound for turkey instead of 12+) but they also have a very good thermal range and can be set to 150-200F to keep things warm.”
Speaking of tools, this inexpensive yet essential gadget takes the guesswork out of trying to decide if the roast turkey is actually cooked or if Uncle Les’ steak is going to be extra-rare, the way he oddly likes it.
Remember that steaks, roasts, whole chickens, etc. need standing or resting time before you carve them. Remove them from the oven, stove or barbeque and tent loosely with foil. Let sit 10 – 15 minutes. Use this time to finish preparing your vegetables or have a glass of wine with your guests.
I don’t want to get all Grinchy about fruitcake, but seriously, the gorgeous weather in September shoved all thoughts of starting Christmas food preparations way back then completely out of my mind. I do love the flavour of traditional fruitcake (I’m a light cake lover, definitely NOT dark fruitcake), but just cannot get my act together to spend months on an expensive dish that might be underappreciated by some to whom it gets served.
Enter the delightful fruitcake cookie. Think of it as the humble fruitcake’s sassy new cousin from the big city – bright, fresh, full of life and ever so fast.
A quick soak in brandy for some chopped dried fruit (none of that cloying, candied stuff for this contemporary cookie, if you please) and you can pull together this dough in minutes. As with all the best cookie recipes, it’s important to let the dough rest before baking so the flour becomes hydrated.
Another bonus? This dough freezes beautifully, as do the baked cookies.
1/4 cup diced dried cranberries
1/4 cup diced dried apricots
1/4 cup diced dried dates or figs (if using figs, be sure to remove stems)
1/4 cup diced dried blueberries or cherries
1/2 cup brandy (or 1/2 cup water + 1 teaspoon imitation brandy)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 cup salted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup assorted chopped nuts (pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts or macadamias)
Put diced, dried fruit in a broad, shallow dish. Pour brandy over top and stir to combine. Cover and let rest at room temperature 6 – 24 hours, stirring occasionally.
Begin preparing cookie dough by scooping marinated fruit onto a paper-towel lined plate to remove some of the excess moisture but do not blot on top.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, cornstarch, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Set aside
In a large bowl, combine butter, brown sugar, eggs and vanilla. Stir until well blended and no brown sugar lumps remain.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir just until incorporated.
Add the fruit and nuts and stir gently until blended. The dough should be sticky but hold together.
Cover bowl and refrigerate for one hour.
Proceed to baking stage or divide the dough into two equal portions. Roll each into a cylinder about 1- 1/4 inches in diameter and wrap tightly in plastic. Put cylinders in a freezer bag and store in fridge up to a week or in freezer up to three months.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350F and line baking sheets with parchment paper.
If baking from unfrozen dough, use two spoons to create 36 round dough balls and place on baking sheets. Flatten with your fingertips so they are about 1/4 or 1/3 inch thick.
If baking from cylinders of refrigerated or frozen dough, let dough stand at room temperature for a few minutes while oven preheats.
Slice cylinders into 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick rounds and lay them out on parchment-lined baking sheets.
Bake cookies for 8 – 10 minutes until just beginning to brown. Remove from oven, let cool slightly then transfer to a wire rack.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week, or wrap well and freeze for up to three months.
Makes three dozen cookies.
One of my biggest sanity savers is keeping a few basic party supplies on hand at all times. That way, if I want to be spontaneous and either invite people over on the spur of the moment, or accept an invitation where I know I’ll be expected to contribute food, I don’t have to panic. The three recipes below are made primarily from fridge, freezer or shelf-stable foods, making it easy to whip them up on short notice. Not only are they a cinch to make, they’re all gluten free! Consider unique ways to serve up these appetizers (like filling celery sticks with them) and people may not ever realize you’re just a three-trick kitchen pony.
To serve, cut cucumber in 1/2 inch slices. With a sharp spoon (a melon baller works well), scoop out a small circle in the centre about 1/4 inch deep. This will help the salmon spread stay in place on top of the cucumber rounds.