I have my friends and family fooled. They think that all my parties and dinners are done effortlessly. The truth is, I’m a neurotic over-planner.
Everything is planned days or weeks in advance – the menu and the to-do list worked down to an hour-by-hour strategy. I am Miss Mise en Place. Anything that can be chopped, blanched, measured, sauced or tablescaped in advance is done, and I can enjoy the party.
In the spirit of creating a French ambience, the evening is allowed to sort of organically evolve on its own – nothing is rushed or forced.
A good party, whether a small gathering of half a dozen friends or a big birthday bash for 100 or more, consists of 3 basic things – people, music, food. Of these, the most important is people.
La Liste des Invités
Invite the right mix of people and they will make their own party regardless of whether you’ve done everything right. Invite the wrong mix of people and you get … (sound of crickets).
I put a lot of thought into the guest list. I like creating a diverse mix of people with more to talk about than what they do for a living. If you are inviting a bunch of friends who all know each other – no sweat. If you start inviting people outside your own circle, you need to invite enough “outsiders” that they at least have that in common. Not gonna lie, I literally have snuck out the back door at a couple of parties where I was the only guest that wasn’t part of the “gang”. If you do invite just a few outside your immediate circle, think about who on your guest list they might enjoy and make sure to hook them up so that none of your guests feel like outsiders (and start looking around for the back door).
If you’re planning a seated dinner party you need to have seats, so think about the number you’re inviting and where you will put them. My dining table will comfortably seat 8 and uncomfortably seat 10, after that it becomes more casual with people seated in various living room chairs with plates on their laps. Nothing wrong with that – but you don’t want 2 or 3 people exiled to the living room while everyone else cozies around the dining table. So if I’m inviting more than 10 I will bump it up to at least 16-18 and let them land where they please.
I can’t imagine entertaining without music. It sets the mood, breaks the ice, and fills the sometimes awkwardness of people warming up to get their party on.
Our almost 100-year-old French-Norman style cottage came equipped with an indoor-outdoor sound system – something I may not have thought to install but we enjoy almost daily. We’ve installed Sonos which is amazing. Most often I entertain to the Pandora Edit Piaf station, of course.
This is the really fun part. Planning the food is almost as much fun as the party.
Small dinner parties are my favorite, usually done full-on French with my guests waiting for the next course like lovely little hungry birds. Here’s how the typical French meal rolls out, along with some suggestions. Honestly the fancy suggestions are about as easy as the easy ones, so be bold!
A little something to get the appetite started – usually a light cocktail or glass of champagne with a splash of Crème de Cassis or St. Germain and maybe a few nibbles such as olives or nuts.
Do not confuse this with an American entrée or your meal will be tres petit.
Fancy schmancy – I enjoy serving escargot as an appetizer. It’s very simple to prepare, tastes delicious and looks incredibly impressive – along with fresh baguette and a glass of champagne.
Easy peasy – Escargot are actually pretty darn easy. Just smash up some room temperature butter with a little dry white wine, salt and pepper, a pinch of nutmeg and some finely minced garlic, shallots and parsley. Put about a teaspoon of the butter schmutz in a snail shell (a zip-lock bag with a corner cut off works great for piping it in), tuck in a snail (which you can buy canned from the gourmet market) and pipe a little more butter on top. Assemble on escargot plates or a baking dish with a layer of salt (to keep the shells from tipping over). All this can be done as much as a day in advance (if you do it in advance, let them come up to room temp before baking). When it’s time to serve dinner just pop the little buggers in a 450 degree oven for about 12-15 minutes.
If slugs just aren’t your jam, crab cakes or pots of French onion soup are also great choices that look like a lot more work than they are.
Le Plat Principal
The main course is generally beef, chicken or fish accompanied with vegetable and/or starch.
Fancy schmancy – Steak au poivre with haricots verts amandine.
Here is an amazingly simple recipe for steak au poivre courtesy of the New York Times that will knock your socks off. http://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1017319-simple-steak-au-poivre
For the haricots verts (green beans) this is simple and delicious. Blanch the green beans – this can be done in advance. Just clean the ends from the beans and pop them in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes until they turn beautifully bright green. Immediately plunge them into an ice water bath to stop the cooking. When it’s time to serve dinner, melt about 2 tablespoons each of butter and olive oil in a skillet and sautee 2 finely chopped shallots over medium heat. Throw in the blanched green beans (dry them first on a clean towel or layers of paper towel), and add the juice and zest from half a lemon. Add toasted almond slices and toss until thoroughly warmed – 2 or 3 minutes.
Easy peasy – Crispy skin salmon with … haricots verts amandine. Nothing could be simpler but so good! Season the fish with just salt and pepper. Heat a cast iron skillet with olive oil (almost smoking hot) and cook skin side down until the skin has fully browned. Don’t turn it too early but you can sneak a peep under the edge to see how it’s doing. Flip it over and sear the other side. Stick the skillet in a 400 degree oven for about 5 – 10 minutes to finish, while you finish throwing together the green beans.
In either case I will usually add a potato dish – garlic smashed potatoes or buttery oven roasted potatoes – because I like potatoes.
The main course may be followed by a salad as a pallet cleanser.
For the cheese course I generally like to serve 3 or 4 cheeses, or more depending on the size of the party – including a soft cheese such as a camembert or brie, a hard cheese (maybe a parmesan or aged gouda), and something else smelly and interesting.
Fancy schmancy – Add fresh and/or dried fruit and nuts (my favorite are Marcona almonds).
Easy peasy – ok there’s nothing really hard about cheese.
Serve good bread and of course, more wine.
Dessert can really be anything you like but is generally much smaller than the desserts we serve in America. Le Café may be served with or following dessert.
Fancy schmancy – Banana Nutella crepes with roasted hazelnuts. The first time I made crepes it was like watching a skillet give birth. I was so nervous – only to witness the miracle of a perfect crepe!
Crepe batter is amazingly simple and you can find a jillion recipes on the interwebs. Here’s a piece of advice though – add your flour to the blender after you’ve added your eggs and milk, that way it won’t clump on the bottom. Let it sit at least 15 minutes (hours is fine – another do-in-advance thing) before cooking. Pour about one-third of a cup of batter in a buttered crepe pan or non-stick skillet (also buttered), swirl it around a bit, and behold the magic of butter! You can prepare all the crepes and stack them up – they’ll be fine. Place a crepe on a plate, schmear with a little Nutella, add banana slices and fold (I like to fold in half and in half so it’s a triangle- some people like to fold it like an enchilada). Top with chopped toasted hazelnuts and sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Easy peasy – Ice cream with Nutella sauce and toasted hazelnuts. Did you know you can make Nutella into a sauce? Just warm it in a bowl placed over a pan of boiling water, and add enough heavy cream to make it a desired consistency. Cool slightly and pour over rich vanilla ice cream, top with toasted chopped hazelnuts.
We finally top off the evening with a little cognac or brandy and call it a night.
No wonder the French meal takes 4 hours!
You can do this! Try it experimentally for a party of 2, or just do what I do and throw caution to the wind, invite a few close friends over and know that if things don’t work out, you can always order pizza.
Let me know if you want more details… or more easy recipes!