The Art of Easy Entertaining

Entertaining can mean bringing together friends and family to the table to share a meal. Often, the most memorable meals are those that celebrate the seasons. Holidays are particularly celebratory, but often have a hectic pace and a hollow ring. What we may need more is a slower rhythm and a richer experience. It’s an opportunity to pause and bow to the abundance and generosity of our lives over the past year, even if at times it might not have been like we had imagined. Ritualizing the past and looking forward to the future is part of what celebration offers. It is comforting to know that we can forge ahead with yet another year’s blessing.

Food is the catalyst for our comfort. Although eating out at a restaurant can be a way to bring people together, it is when we invite family and friends into our homes that experience more of what matters. Whether we’re cooking a simple dinner for a few friends or having a party for a small crowd, the way we entertain doesn’t necessarily have to be elaborate. The best parties often consist of a few essential ingredients that offer sustenance, both with the dishes we serve and the way in which we welcome our guests. It’s actually less daunting and more doable than you might think. Here are a few recommendations to entertain with ease and make this holiday season a soulful celebration.


1. Simplicity is best.
When I entertain, I stick to what I know. This is not the time to try a new recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking for the first time. When planning a menu, I like to visualize the finished dishes and work my way back. I start by writing down recipe ideas, then pare them down to a few dishes that focus on seasonal ingredients and harmonious colors and flavors.

2. You don’t have to do it all yourself.
Although I make most things from scratch, I like to compliment the menu with a selection of ingredients that require little preparation or cooking. Serve sliced prosciutto di parma or salumi sausage and a selection of cheeses with savory condiments from your local artisan producer or specialty food store. I am not a baker, so I will either make an easy seasonal fresh fruit cake or cobbler, or purchase something from my favorite baker. I like to stick with what I do best. And, I know I simply can’t always do it all.

3. Shop + prepare as much as you can ahead of time.
Make a list of ingredients that you will need for the menu you plan to make. Shelf-stable pantry items can be bought far in advance. Shop your local farmer’s market whenever possible for the freshest, seasonal ingredients. Wash, chop, toast whatever you can a day or two before the party.

4. Keep it casual.
There is a time of elaborate entertaining, but this is not what we are creating here. The goal is not to impress, but to allow your guests to decompress. The less formal the better, but that doesn’t mean sloppy or uncared for. Be thoughtful about the environment you want to create and the type of food you serve.

5. Planning your table setting.
I have a stash of favorite baking dishes, serving platters and utensils that I use when I entertain. They are versatile and basic in both color and size, so they work for most anything I serve. Pull out your dishes a few days before the party to make sure they are in good condition. Clean them up and put post-its on each platter or serving utensil to identify what you are going to serve in it. Do a run through on the how and where you are going to set it up your platters. Set your table. This is a great pre-party planning timesaver.

6. Keep it natural.
Like our food, we want our decorations to be as natural as possible. It should be simple, but beautiful. The colors of the food itself can often be all you need to enhance your setting. The garden or yard can be a great source of creative garnishes or arrangements. Use leaves or branches on the table and in vases. Candles always add a nice ambiance, but make sure they are unscented so they don’t overpower the aroma of the food. Natural is always best.

7. Greet your guests with a festive offering.
One of my favorite ways to greet guests is with a fun and festive cocktail. It can be as easy as sparkling white wine prosecco with a splash of cranberry juice and frozen cranberries in the glass. Or, a premixed vodka drink with blood orange juice and fresh mint. Whatever you serve, have it already made up and ready to serve in large pitchers. Fill glasses with ice and a garnish ahead of time just before the party starts so all you have to pour the cocktail as your guests arrive. I always have chilled sparkling water on hand for guests who don’t care to drink.

8. Order up some helping hands.
If you are entertaining for a crowd, I highly recommend you hire someone to help. It doesn’t have to be an expensive professional. Ask a high school neighbor to help. They can help pour drinks, replenish platters of food, load the dishwater with dirty glasses, take out the trash, or wrap up food at the end of the party. It might help to do a run through before hand so you don’t have to stop and give directions in the middle of the party.

9. Create a personalized playlist of music.
The Ipod is your DJ. Program a personalized play list from I-tunes or download discs. You can play music right from the stereo speakers for spectacular sound. Create different playlists for the mood you want to evoke. You will be amazed what a difference good music can make creating the right energy for your occasion.

10. Enjoy the celebration!
When your guests see you having fun, they will too. You’ve worked hard to create this party, let it be as memorable for you as it is for others.

Seasonal Celebration Menu

Selection of bruschetta and crackers or crostini topped with artisan-made condiments, such as olivada olive pesto.
Assorted cheese with toppings: piccolo pomodoro roasted tomatoes with bocconcini mozzarella, and caramelized onions + golden raisins over dolci di latte gorgonzola.
Salumi platter of sliced prosciutto and finocchiona salami
Assorted cheeses with roasted fresh fruit, marinated olives and salted nuts
Dolci Nocciola dessert

Buona Festa!!

Buon appetito!
copyright 2009 Alisa Barry

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