The secret: it’s all in the planning
A lack of time today means many women of our generation cook less often and rarely host. The good news is that more and more boyfriends and husbands are picking up the slack. Nothing beats a joint effort to lighten the workload and have fun at the same time. There is no need to throw in the towel at the enormity of the task at hand... organization is the key. Far be it from us to tell you how to manage your time. However, we have learned a lot of things after hosting so many times over the years which have made our lives a lot easier.
1. Rule # 1: planning is paramount, from making ice to the last coffee of the evening. You have to act like your own catering service. Even the music can be planned before the first guest arrives. It is usually the small details that make you want to kick yourself: forgetting to buy mineral water, wine not properly refrigerated, uncut bread...
2. Decide the menu in advance: forget about a seven-course meal if there will be more than six or eight people. From experience, most people enjoy a meal where everything arrives together and where the hosts are not always on the run. A complete or partial buffet is often an excellent choice for groups. If you want to prepare a big dinner, here is the usual order of a gourmet meal: hors d'oeuvres, cold appetizer, soup, hot appetizer, main course, salad, cheese, dessert, coffee and mignardises (bite-sized desserts). Select the courses that interest you.
3. Write it all down: take the time to outline the menu on paper. List everything that is required for each course, including the dishes that will be used. Stick these notes on the fridge. This way, it will be all clear and precise if someone offers to give you a hand... like a recipe. We keep these notes handy from one celebration to another and have modified and improved them over the years. This reduces the planning time for future events. Be confident. It’s important to give the impression that you know what you’re doing.
4. Figure out the dishware you will need before guests arrive: you don’t want to go digging in the depths of your hutch for that bowl you use once a year after the doorbell rings. We always decide in advance what dishes we will use to serve the appetizers, the main course, dessert and other courses, if any. It is easy to forget about grandma’s beautiful dessert plates in the heat of the moment. It is also good to know beforehand if you need to wash dishes between two courses.
5. Buy alcohol in advance, as soon as you have finalized the menu.
6. Coordinate the aperitif and hors d'oeuvres: offer hors d'oeuvres when alcohol is being served. Two or three choices should be enough. If you don’t have time to make anything, some good olives in oil, cheese straws lightly heated before the course or raw veggies with dip presented in hollow lemon halves can save your bacon. Lay out the appetizers and napkins in more than one place to encourage people to circulate and save you the trouble of serving it.
7. The appetizers: It is easier to start the meal with a cold appetizer (vitello tonnato, smoked or marinated salmon, terrine, antipasti plate, greens with goat cheese and fruit or soup.) The less last-minute cooking to do, the better off you will be. The cold appetizer can even be prepared and placed in the fridge in advance, if the number of guests warrants.
8. Focus on the key element of the meal: the main course. This requires the most planning and preparation. Again, avoid last-minute cooking if you are hosting a large group. Prepare it in advance and keep in a casserole dish which can stay warm in the oven. This way you won’t have to do too much work after the actual cooking is done.
9. Stick with tried and true recipes: this is not the ideal time to try out that new recipe. You can be sure, among other things, about how long it will take to prepare and cook things if you have already tested the menu you plan to make. You will also know if you really like that recipe. This brings to mind a friend who invited us over and made a new recipe. The dish was supposed to be ready in 30 minutes. The pork was still in the oven an hour and a half later. We finally ate at 9pm... and the children dozed in their chairs.
10. Last-minute dishes: if you have to make a recipe just before the course, cut the ingredients beforehand and place them in small bowls (like you see on cooking shows). This makes it easier to make the recipe at the last minute.
11. Side dishes: make side dishes the day before that simply need to be reheated or that can be served cold, such as scalloped potatoes, flan, glazed carrots… You can also make the dressing and wash the lettuce. Toss them together just before serving.
12. Dessert: as we advised with the main course, avoid a dessert that has to be made at the last minute, like sabayon. Start by preparing the dessert. This often requires the most attention and is generally what guests will remember most about the meal. Most desserts can be made the day before, like a log, pie, truffles, fudge, crème caramel, etc. Don’t do what a member of our family did (who shall remain nameless for fear of reprisals!) and announce during the main course that you have to go peel the apples for the crisp. We finally ate ice cream... minus the apple crisp! If you don’t have a lot of room in your fridge, plan a dessert that can be left at room temperature: pie, log, cake without whipped cream, etc. You can always run to the bakery if you run out of time or pastry is not your specialty.
13. Cheese: if you plan a cheese course, remember to leave it out an hour before serving. Save time by cutting and arranging the cheese in advance. Place it on a platter or plate with small bunches of grapes (preferably seedless), nuts and other fruit (pears, figs, etc.). And keep it in a cool place.
14. Water: Make sure there’s a pitcher of water on the table as well as water glasses. Carbonated water is becoming more and more popular. We like to offer both. Cool or cold? It’s a question of taste.
15. Advance orders: there are some products that must be reserved or ordered in advance: special bread from the bakery, oysters (if you buy in bulk), turkey roast at the butcher, pastries and fine chocolate, shaved chocolate at the chocolatier.
16. Think about the children: We sometimes hire a babysitter so an evening with friends is fun for both parents and kids. A babysitter can look after the kids and let the parents enjoy a good meal. We decorate a table for the kids and add some surprises like presents hidden underneath the chairs.
17. Chilled alcohol: not enough room in the fridge to store the soft drinks and alcohol? Not a problem. Fill a large tub with snow in the winter or fill that same tub with ice and a little water in the summer. Some people even use their bathtub!
18. Coffee: get the coffee service ready before the first guest arrives... ground coffee, sugar, assorted teas. All that’s left to be done is press the coffeemaker’s on button. If you’re hosting a large group, it’s good to know that many grocery stores rent out 20-cup coffeemakers.
19. Set the table: ideally, you should not be setting the table or thinking about a centrepiece just ten minutes before your guests arrive. Place Christmas flowers in a vase filled with red cranberries and water. Using something like an ice star as a centrepiece is guaranteed to get a lot of attention.
20. Leave room to improvise: there may still be some chaotic moments, despite the most thorough planning… but what great memories. If the carrots are forgotten in the fridge, no worries, we just eat them the next day with the rest of the leftovers. That happens about once a year!