By Nancy Rones
Hosting a Full House
Inviting over a group of guests always sounds like fun. But if you're like many a hostess, the to-dos and "what-ifs" ("What if I don't make enough?" "What if someone doesn't eat meat?") of feeding a hungry bunch can send even a calm cook into panic mode. "Stress levels naturally run a bit higher when you're having a party," says Dawn Simmons, a cooking instructor in Dallas and author of Cooking For Crowds For Dummies. "Planning is the key to alleviating a lot of anxiety, and if you have a great time, your guests will, too." Here, how to serve with success.
Sifting through your pile of "recipes I must try one day" for something that will wow? Unless you have a backup entrée (and why put that extra stress on yourself?), rely instead on meals you can (almost) cook with your eyes closed. Experimenting with new dishes or complicated recipes ups the chances for problems, says Simmons; you should always test-run recipes before serving them to a group. If you're absolutely dying to make something new, stick with an appetizer or dessert as part of an assortment of other reliable recipes-not a dish the entire meal depends on.
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Pick traditional crowd-pleasers.
Go wild when you're hosting your adventurous-palate dinner club. Otherwise, make sure your menu appeals to wide-ranging tastes. Translation: Stay away from quail eggs and anything else unusual. Since it's hard to know everyone's eating preferences, include vegetarian options and avoid weighing the menu down with one particular ingredient or seasoning (cilantro in the rice, cilantro chicken, cilantro margaritas) in case a guest has an aversion, suggests Aaron Albrecht, Executive Chef at Dean & Deluca in New York City, where he oversees the catering department.
What do you get when you leave all your cooking until the day of the party? A hostess who's scrambling around for most of the gathering. "Choose dishes you can make in big batches ahead of time and then reheat just before the party so you can mingle more and be a good host," says Albrecht. He recommends making Italian classics, such as eggplant parmesan and lasagna as well as roasts and soups, in advance. Socializing is difficult when you have to park yourself at the stove to make sautés and stir-fries.
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The amount you need to make varies depending on your guests (adults-only or your teen's ravenous football team?) and when you're serving (plan for bigger portions at dinnertime), says Simmons. The more types of items you offer at each course, the less you need of each. A few rough guidelines from Dummies.com on how much to cook per person: for entrées, about ½ pound of boneless poultry or ground beef or 4 to 5 ounces of pasta; for sides, 3 to 4 ounces of veggies and 1 ½ ounces of grains; and for dessert, about two cookies or brownies.
Free up time and valuable oven space by buying a few pre-made items (we won't tell). Most home kitchens don't have a ton of prep surface, so picking up a crudité or charcuterie plate or a labor-intensive side dish allows you to focus on what you are making, says Albrecht. Consider rounding out a meal with a local favorite-perhaps a pie from a popular stand or some spreads from a great Middle Eastern grocer. A little help makes a less-harried hostess.
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While plated meals are well-suited for formal affairs, they require you to be "on" throughout the event. With a serve-yourself set-up, though, a hostess can tackle most of the work before company arrives and just replenish as needed. Plus, guests love the freedom to choose what they want to eat. Go buffet-style with drinks and desserts too. No-slicing-required grabs, like cookies and brownies, are easiest.
Warning: You may need to tap into your Type-A side to reduce stress overall. From platters to ingredients, make lists of everything you'll need, says Simmons-and cross off those items when you pick up whatever you didn't have. Once you have a clear headcount, gather enough flatware and dishes to cover every guest during each course, with a few extra-you don't want to scrub dirty dishes during your party. The day before the event, arrange empty platters and chafing dishes along your buffet with Post-its indicating what each will hold. If you have the fridge space, group together the items you'll need for each dish or course, so you're not hunting during crunch time, suggests Albrecht.
Don't over-stuff your oven.
When you're short on time and there's a lot to cook, it's tempting to average individual dishes' cooking temperatures so more can go into the oven at once. ("450º for the potatoes and 350º for the chicken? 400º it is!") But that results in unevenly cooked food, warns Albrecht. In fact, the more you jam into the oven, the higher the cooking temp needs to be, though it takes expert instincts to know by how much. So limit the number of noshes you bake at once, and consider mixing in a few stove-top or off-the-grill eats with your oven recipes.
Play it safe.
You want your soirée to be remembered for great food and good times-not sick guests. Start with these bacteria-bashing pointers from the USDA: Nix cross-contamination by chopping veggies and slicing bread on a cutting board that's separate from the one you use for raw meat, seafood or poultry. Use a food thermometer to ensure you cook meats to a safe minimum internal temp: 145ºF for cuts of pork, beef and other red meats; 160ºF for ground meats; and 165ºF for poultry. Reheat all the hot foods you've made ahead to 165º. Trash eats sitting at room temperature for longer than two hours. To keep track, avoid filling half-empty platters with fresh food.
Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.
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