I truly love nesting, and I adore entertaining. I love planning menus, shopping for groceries, and cooking up a storm. Setting the table, lighting the candles and pouring the wine thrill me. But the best, the very best, part is watching all my guests have a wonderful time.
However, sometimes I feel the pressure. Not from my spouse, or from my friends, or anyone. I feel the pressure that I put on myself. I start to believe that if it's not a gourmet creation, it isn't worth serving. And that's not good. When this happens, it's just a slippery slope to culinary disaster. So I have learned that when I'm veering into Stepford territory, it's usually a good time to kick it back a few notches.
Take this week. We were attending a potluck to which I had agreed to bring cupcakes. And of course, because I'm me, I planned these cupcakes. I decided on two flavours, two kinds of frosting, and hand made fondant decorations. I purchased special jewel tones muffin liners. On the day before (when I planned to bake and create fondant delights) I woke with a horrible pain in my back. No matter, I baked up my two batches of cupcakes. It was well into the evening when I took my package of homemade marshmallow fondant out of the refrigerator and placed it on the counter next to the new shade of paste icing colour I had purchased just for this occasion! I sighed deeply and began to unwrap the fondant. If you've never worked with fondant before, let me tell you just this: it requires kneading. Lots of kneading. Usually, this is the sort of task I live for, but tonight the thought of working that mass of sugar was making me weepy. It was then that my dear husband pointed out that everyone at the pot luck would just be happy that there were cupcakes to eat, and wouldn't I rather relax and watch television with he and the dogs? The decorations would be missed by no one but myself. With grudging relief, I agreed with him. (And hey, who eats the fondant decoration anyway?)
It felt good to relax and have fun with it. And he was right, everyone was happy with my "plain" little cupcakes with their simple chocolate rosettes frosted on top. I felt so good about it that later that week, I decided to keep going with the laid back fun. We were having our good friends and their children over for supper, and I was trying to decide what to make. I often find that I miss out on the conversation and fun because I'm busy sauteeing, reducing, or grilling. This time, instead of concocting a multi-course meal featuring the foods of distant lands, I turned to an old favorite, hot roast beef sandwiches and fries.
Folks, it was wonderful. I threw the roast in the oven and then picked up my knitting and sat down with a cup of tea. When the roast came out half an hour before our guests were due to arrive, I put in a tray of oven fries, put some corn niblets in the steamer, and made gravy. I actually chatted with our guests as I arranged everything buffet style and put a second tray of fries in the oven. Everyone served themselves and we had a great time.
Have I given up gourmet completely? No, of course not. Cooking is my thing, it's what I do. But every so often, it's perfectly alright to do things "homestyle." After all, we gather to eat together as much for the friendship and laughter as for the food.
Here's a few more tips for having friends over for dinner and living to tell the tale:
- Graciously let them bring something if they offer. Of course, tell them they don't need to bring anything, but if they insist (especially if it's a good friend) give them something to bring. Wine, dessert, whatever they offer. The other night for dessert we had a wonderful fruit and cookies pizza that our friends brought, and last week we enjoyed a wonderful homemade apple wine when we grilled steaks for another friend.
- Pick one "Wow" item and go simple with the rest. If you're making homemade lasagna from scratch, for example, feel free to use a kit for the Caesar salad, and everyone loves that garlic bread that comes in the foil bag. Steamed frozen veggies, oven fries, and sauce mixes are other great ways to save time and stress.
- Consider plastic. I know, it's not green, and it doesn't work for all events, but if you're having a big crowd or are serving something casual (like barbecue or corn on the cob) go for it. Clean up will be a breeze. Just make sure that the plate you pick out can stand up to the food it will be holding, or clean up will be a royal pain in the neck.
- Self Serve. Buffet or "family style" serving is great because people can take as much as they want of what they want. Nothing's more awkward than watching someone try to choke down a food they hate or wade through a plate that's holding way more than they can consume. It's not just limited to food, either; try a self serve bar or coffee and tea station at your next get together.
- Plan for your audience. If you're having a family with kids, make the food kid-friendly. I don't mean that you have to serve chicken nuggets, but perhaps leave the rare steaks and stinky cheeses for another time. We had a build your own pizza night with some friends and their kids one night and it was a big success.
- Don't be a clean freak. Get the dishes out of the way, but leave the actual washing up until later. Your guests came to see you, not the sight of your back disappearing into the kitchen for the better part of an hour. I really love the "great room" style of our house, since I can be in the kitchen and still be a part of the conversation.
- When necessary, use your space. If you really need to keep people out of the kitchen, place a bowl of punch and / or some appies in the space where you want your guests to congregate. It's hard to resist the appeal baked brie or a shrimp ring. I like company when I cook, so it's not a big deal for me, I just pour them a glass of wine and give them something to do.
Do you have a great casual entertaining tip? If so, please share in the comments. Have a wonderful holiday weekend, and to those of you heading back to work or school next week, best wishes for a wonderful year!