Monday, November 30, 2009

The Simple Menu in Dinner

People are so busy and so health- and weight-conscious these days that most of your guests will be perfectly pleased if you count the hors d’oeuvres as the first course. You can serve hors d’oeuvres, attractively arranged on platters placed around the room for people to sample, during the cocktail hour. This setting lends itself to the great variety of prepared foods available today. Avoid user-unfriendly foods that are perilous to furniture and clothing. Everything should be simple enough to be picked up with fingers, speared with a toothpick, or spread with a knife.
Your main course can be as simple as a casserole with a salad or baked ham. It is a good idea to avoid roasts, which depend on a precise serving time and taste like shoe leather if left uneaten for too long.
Don’t think that you must purchase expensive food for your party. I once attended a dinner for out-of-towners given by a famous Philadelphia hostess. She served scrapple—a traditional Philadelphia cornmeal dish—lentils, scrambled eggs, hashbrown potatoes, and chocolate ice cream with raspberry sherbet. She told her guests that she was treating them to “a flavor of Philadelphia.” The guests loved it. And, of course, the story of Eleanor Roosevelt serving hot dogs to the Queen of England is legendary.
You can also take advantage of the gourmet take-out shops, which will have your food ready for pickup or delivery just when you want it. If you’re trying a shop for the first time, talk to the owner and taste the food in advance. These shops can be a godsend for “everybody works” households.
Balance is important. If your main course is light, a heavier dessert works well, and vice versa. In any case, dessert is important. I have noticed that otherwise dietconscious people quickly develop calorie amnesia when dessert arrives at someone else’s table. However, when a guest doesn’t eat what you are serving, don’t think you have to whip up something special just for him or her. If you like exotic foods and plan to serve them, ask your guests when you invite them if they like, say, moussaka. A guest who is too polite to refuse something he or she doesn’t like after you cook it often will not hesitate to tell you candidly about his or her dislikes beforehand.
As a guest, you should let your host know if you have special dietary needs. If you are a vegetarian, have serious food allergies, are kosher, or avoid certain foods for health reasons, make it known when you are invited. The host then can create a menu that will please everyone and still take your needs into consideration. Or the host may prepare an additional side dish for you, augment the side dishes, or just advise you to bring your own food. Carol Channing is famous for bringing her own food to parties.

Buying and Serving Wine Etiquette

If you’re not a wine connoisseur, get advice on buying wine from either a knowledgeable liquor-store owner or a friendly restaurateur. Describe the menu and ask for moderately priced selections. One of my friends simply went to a liquor store and purchased a case of its most costly red Burgundy. The proprietor was thrilled, of course, but the value of the wine was lost on most guests. You don’t need to be extravagant to be elegant. What you need is to be generous and make sure there is enough to go around.
Many parties these days do not have “hard bars,” meaning they do not serve hard liquor. If you are serving only wine, plan on a bottle per person. If you are serving wine only during the meal, plan on half a bottle per person.
Serve red wine at room temperature. To allow the wine to breathe, open the bottle about 30 minutes before you serve it. Opening the wine permits the air to develop the bouquet and improve the taste of the wine.
Chill white wines about two hours before serving them. If you must chill the wine more quickly, the best method is to immerse the bottles in a tub of water and ice cubes up to the neck. It doesn’t help to put the wine in a freezer.
When the meal begins, the host should stand and walk around the table to fill each wineglass. If it’s an informal party, the host can simply fill the glasses of the people closest to him and ask them to pass the other glasses down. The host’s job is to make sure the glasses are replenished. Guests should not help themselves to wine or ask for more. It is fine for a host to offer the wine bottle to a guest with an empty glass and say, “Please help yourself.”
Fill wine glasses about halfway so that the imbiber can appreciate the bouquet of the wine. Don’t wrap your wine bottles in napkins when you serve. Inviting people into your home involves careful planning and considerable effort, but entertaining at home repays many times over. Having guests under your roof provides a special pleasure. And you flatter people by inviting them because you are bestowing a gift that only you have the power to give—the hospitality of your home.

The Caterer

A caterer can be a godsend for a large party. Costs vary widely, depending on how elaborate your menu needs are, the kind of help you need, and the time of your party. Night hours are more expensive, as are prime-time occasions, such as New Year’s Eve.
Many caterers require a retainer of half the amount of the food costs. This payment is an assurance that you won’t back out at the last minute. Tip caterers’ employees unless a service charge is added to the bill. Otherwise, give the head waiter 20 percent of the total bill to divide among the workers. If you’re not familiar with the caterer’s work, make sure you see his or her equipment and taste the food before you sign a contract. And make sure the contract specifies that payment of the bill will depend upon fulfilling the contract. If possible, ask if you can peek in on a party the caterer is doing. Many catered parties are so big that a brief visit can pass unnoticed.
Keep in mind that communication is vital when it comes to making catering arrangements.
Whatever you leave unclear is bound to go wrong.