Lessons From a Party

Learning never stops–it’s one of the few constants in life. I find that whether it’s something as simple as a new flavor combination or a more efficient way to complete a task, the kitchen offers plenty of opportunities the learn something new. Even if it’s what NOT to do!

Last weekend I hosted a small Wedding Shower. Here’s what I learned:

“Just Enough” Can Still Look Abundant

How sad is it to walk into a party and see a few small amounts of snacks laid out on large plates on a large table? That sort of thing makes me hesitant to take anything, not wanting to make the spread even more meagre for folks coming behind me. Guests who see an abundance of food and drink, though, will freely help themselves.

Of course, we’ve talked about figuring out how much food to prepare and, in the case of small parties, the choice seems to be between making just enough and making enough to fill out your serving pieces. I was facing this particular dilemma since the Shower had a limited guest list (and an even more limited response!).

  1. Instead of bringing out the larger folding table I usually use for parties, the small kitchen table was just large enough to hold the various serving dishes I’d purchased to go with the theme. If the gathering is very small, tray tables arranged around the party room, the tops of low bookcases (or even cleared shelves of tall ones) or a card table may make the most of a smaller spread.
  2. Keep the serving pieces smaller and pile the food upon them. Rather than spreading out the food, pile it up and on! The smaller the item, the smaller the plate. There’s a fine line between abundance and overwhelming, so just make sure guests can easily serve themselves from the bowl or plate without knocking anything off or spilling.
  3. Create varying heights on your table. Whether you have multi-level stands available (stacked cake pedestals make a nice display) or place boxes or crates under the plates and bowls, adding height takes up some of the extra space on a table. If your risers are pretty (glass blocks from the hardware store, for example) leave them in plain sight but it’s easy enough to camouflage cardboard boxes or other items by adding an extra tablecloth or tea towel to the arrangement.

I was able to make only what was needed for the party without letting the table seem bare at all! It’s the first time, ever, that I’ve not over-prepared by fridge-filling proportions!

The Cupcake Conundrum

Who doesn’t love cupcakes? They make great buffet items: self contained, easy to serve and just enough for a bite in miniature. The only problem is that iced cupcakes cannot be stacked and therefore can take up ridiculous acreage on the party table or require frequent replenishing, taking up the hostesses time.

My solution? Take out the icing issue! Instead of icing several dozen Red Velvet mini-cupcakes, I left them plain, piled them in the two lower bowls of a 3-bowl stand (height!) and filled the top bowl with the cream cheese icing and a decorative spreader. Guests loved adding as much icing as they wanted and I was free to enjoy the party without having to constantly police the refreshment table.

I may serve all my cupcakes with do-it-yourself icing from here on out, it worked so well. If the spreader idea doesn’t sound like enough fun, what about filling several disposable piping bags with various flavors of icing and setting out an array of toppings (sprinkles, candies, and berries)? I bet most guests would love the opportunity to play decorator!

All in all the party was a wonderful success: the two sides of the family got to mingle a bit before the wedding (it was a couple’s shower), everyone enjoyed the games and I was left with a happy heart and tired feet–the mark a truly good party in my opinion!

The Omelet Station

This weekend was my not-exactly-annual BYOP (bring your own pumpkin) Party and it was a little different than the other’s I’ve hosted in the past. For one thing, it was ON Halloween instead of the weekend before (the reason being that carved pumpkins don’t last that long down here in Florida’s humidity) and it was held in the morning to allow guests plenty of time for other gatherings that evening or trick-or-treating.

Which meant, of course, that the meal changed from dinner to brunch–something I’ve not served to a group in quite some time.

While contemplating how to serve egg (buffet eggs can become rubbery or unpleasant as they sit plus the fact that eggs + aluminum (as in the disposable steam trays) = green eggs and, while I enjoy Dr Seuss, I tend not to disguise my food on most occasions. Enter the grill.

Grilled eggs? Not exactly. At our housewarming party this June we’d been gifted a lovely gas grill that came with a side burner. Do you see where this is going? We used the grill to hold various add-ins (diced bell peppers, mushrooms, bacon, salsa, green onions, ham and cheese) and created a satellite omelet station as part of the buffet. Allowing 2 eggs per person (plenty for an 8″ pan) plus a little milk (water can result in fluffier eggs but they can also end up watery and tasteless–I prefer to use fat free milk which adds a little more flavor), I cracked and beat enough eggs for the party and then placed them into an easy-pour 2 qt container which was kept in a cooler of ice below the burner.

Our Omelet Station Set-Up

Our Omelet Station Set-Up

Some other tips if you’d like to replicate this for your own party:

1) Remove the knobs from the main grill to prevent any accidental flare-ups.
2) Place a baking sheet on the grill to hold your mix-ins and cover it with a tea towel or large napkins–even the cleanest grill still looks like a grill: dress it up a bit.
3) Make sure there’s a spoon or tongs for each ingredient option as well as a spatula.
4) Non-stick pans are great, but a little cooking spray (kept on the opposite side from the open flame) never hurts.
5) Have 2 pans available in case there’s an accident with one and it needs cleaning, the spare keeps the line moving.

As I was beating those eggs before the party I wondered would anyone really want to make their own breakfast? Granted, I had both quiche (broccoli-Swiss) and hash brown casserole (with 2 types of sausage, eggs and cheddar cheese) on the main buffet, so it’s not like they had to, but I was surprised how many people did partake of the do-it-yourself egg station. Definitely something I’ll keep in mind.

It also occurs to me that it would make an excellent pasta station with the same setup. Have a large bowl of pasta pre-cooked and oiled at the ready (bowtie, penne or rotini–something easily scooped up) with a variety of mix-ins (blanched veggies and pre-cooked meats, all cut to a uniform size) and a trio of sauce variations (garlic-butter, marinara and Alfredo?). Guests could then make their own selections, give them a quick toss in the frying pan to heat up and have just the supper they want.

No such gas grill? Check out the camping section of your local sporting goods or discount store for a camp stove and can of fuel. Same results without the grill-sized footprint.

The Party’s Over

Put down that calendar! Before you plan your next party, how about spending some time going over the one that just finished to see what worked, what didn’t and what could have been better.

The Guests

Look back over your guest list, this time concentrating on the ones who came. Did anyone make a fool of them-self, cause a problem or generally show themselves as an ungrateful boor? This is especially helpful when evaluating new members of your guest book so you know who not to invite in the future. More than the obvious offenders, were there more subtle clues that the guest was not right for your party such as not mingling, finding there own space amidst the party or even, say, spending more time inside when the party was out. They may not be bad guests, it just might not be the best party scenario for them. Also keep in mind who really enjoyed themselves, who got best into the spirit of the party and joined in the fun to the fullest. These are the people you definitely want to have back!

The Menu

While you munch on a few leftovers, consider what dishes were popular and which, if any, got a lukewarm reception. I’ll use my recent party as an example:

Appetizers & Nibbles

Crudites platter (pea pods, broccoli, carrots, celery, radishes) with dip
Spicy Black Bean Dip* with chips
Bacon-wrapped Artichoke Hearts*
Smothered Spuds*
Spinach Dip in Bread Bowl

Main Course

Barbecue Chicken Breasts
Shredded Beef, with Rolls and choice of sauces (including au jus and horseradish sauces)
Farfalle with Peas, Ham and a Tarragon Cream Sauce**
Cold Cucumber Soup**
Salad of Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Jicama & Radish with a Creamy Citrus dressing**

Desserts

Blueberry-Lemon cupcakes with Lemony Cream Cheese frosting
Mexican Chocolate Fondue w/a variety of dippers & fresh fruit
(cookie bars, brownies, marshmallows, graham crackers, cake cubes, strawberries, pineapple, red & green grapes, blueberries and apple slices)

Beverages

Sparkling Citrus Punch (non-alcoholic)
Melon Balls (alcoholic)
Beer, Wine, Water and Sodas plus a full bar

*=old favorites, the dishes everyone expects at one of my parties
**=brand new recipes, never before tried

The old favorites continue to be popular and the main dish spread was balanced and mostly popular. The pasta dish was very tasty and a good gamble, as was the salad and dressing, even though I could have made a lot less but that goes for the entire party as there were a lot of no-shows from the maybe and non-responder segments. The only no-go was the cucumber soup: the taste was okay but most people found it very unfamiliar. Also, I’d served it in shot glasses (which is an idea I picked up a while back from magazines and television) to avoid the need for spoons and so forth but some people thought it was an adult beverage and not a soup. I opted not to do signage for this buffet, maybe I should have.

Of course the desserts were popular, even though the blueberry-filled cupcakes ended up as blueberry-bottomed ones (the filling sunk, unexpectedly, sank–should have stuck to fresh or frozen berries instead of prepared filling!). A few people found the fondue a bit odd as the mexican chocolate included bits of cocoa nibs so it wasn’t 100% smooth. It was still really tasty, though, and more of a one-time thing since we’d brought the chocolate home from our cruise in January and won’t be repeating the trip any time soon (more’s the pity).

The Entertainment

Even though some of the best parties I’ve been to just offered a platform for people to mix and mingle, I like my parties to have something for the guests to DO (like carve pumpkins, watch–and critique–movies or play yard games). This depends as much on what you provide as well as the people you invite as to who enjoys what. Did one game receive a better reception than others? Bring it back! Others not go over so well? Try it on a new group or retire that idea and look for something better. Never be afraid to try something new but don’t be so married to one idea that you stick with it even when it doesn’t work.

Now, pick up that calendar and address book and plan the next shin-dig with another fabulous success under your belt and the knowledge of what worked and what to change.

The RSVP

Répondez s’il vous plaît. Please respond. Such a simple concept but something that is so often overlooked.

RSVP, whether placed as corner copy on a larger invitation or as a separate response card intended to be returned by mail, is a simple request that your guests let you, as host[ess], know who will attend and won’t. Depending on the type of party, this information can be crucial to both planning and the budget.

For my parties, if it has a printed invitation, it has RSVP information included. The less formal a get-together the less I need a for-sure head count but most of the time there are rentals involved (tables and chairs) and a menu to plan–I like having leftovers but there’s a line between not having to cook for a few days after an event and just plain waste. So it can be frustrating when someone doesn’t pick up a phone or send an email to let me know they have other plans.

First thing to consider is how much lead-time your party may require. For a wedding with a sit-down dinner, for example, your caterer should be able to tell you when they need an absolute number. If you’re doing it all yourself, try to figure out how late you can squeeze in extra chairs or make one last trip to the grocery store. When you have that information, add it to the invitation or response card.

When you’re hosting a pot-luck or something where it’s just a case of adding another pizza to the order or a few more burgers to the grill, you can consider who you invited and deduct about 10%. Small dinner parties or game nights being the most common exceptions, any time you invite a group of people over for anything you can guarantee that at least a tenth will have other plans or just not come. If it’s a holiday or other big event day, it might actually be 15 to 20-percent.

If you have included RSVP information (a name and phone number for the short notations, emails are appropriate for less formal situations) and it’s a week or so before the party with the majority of your guest list unresponsive, it’s completely appropriate to call or email those you know well to as if they will be joining you at the party. But only do it once–hostessing isn’t about badgering the guests, after all. A quick note about how much you’re looking forward to seeing them again is a nice way to make them feel, truly, like an honored guest and not just a name on a list.

Still, if even that doesn’t work you’ve got 2 choices: prepare for those who replied or count the non-responders as maybes and prepare accordingly. Since my biggest nightmare of having a party is running out of food, I go with the latter and send leftovers home with willing guests.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie Clueless is the debate over Hatian refugees. In it, the main character, Cher, says

. . . when I had this garden party for my father’s birthday right? I said R.S.V.P. because it was a sit-down dinner. But people came that like, did not R.S.V.P. so I was like, totally buggin’. I had to haul ass to the kitchen, redistribute the food, squish in extra place settings, but by the end of the day it was like, the more the merrier!

And that’s what really matters, isn’t it? In a perfect world everyone would RSVP, there would be no glitches during party preparation and we’d all meet our guests at the door in a calm manner and not scrambling to get that last dish (or 2) out onto the buffet. Until then, we just have to deal.

The Guest List

I love to entertain and I take my job as hostess very seriously, trying to put together the best possible experience for my guests with each occasion. But after a theme and date are chosen and before much of anything else can be done, I have to create the guest list that will be a perfect fit for my party.

Now, you might be thinking, what’s the big deal: invite your friends and be done with it. Sure, for some events that’s totally acceptable and will result in a wonderful party. Sometimes, though, you might need to be a bit more selective.

An Open House gives you carte blanche to invite anyone and everyone in your address book because the party is very fluid, it’s mix-and-mingle for the duration and people are free to come for the whole thing or stop by for only a moment or two. Hors d’oeuvres and cocktails are the menu, in most cases, and those are easy to replenish throughout the evening.

Your available space is a deciding factor that can drastically limit your guest list. Of course you think about how many can comfortably sit around the table for a dinner party or on your couches for a movie party but something you also need to consider is how much parking your home or venue can offer. The last people you want crashing your party are the cops or angry neighbors because you’re blocking streets or driveways.

Plus you should consider the kind of party you’re throwing from the guest’s perspective. Say you’re throwing a wine tasting party (which is totally on my party-to-do list for Fall) as a for instance. The entire party is about tasting wine and what foods go with the wines and wine, wine, wine. If you invite someone who is allergic to or just doesn’t drink wine, they’re gonna be completely left out of the festivities. Knowing who likes what will help create  a guest list that ensures fun for both them and you.

Finally, there’s always the horror story about weddings where you can’t seat Mrs. Hatblossom at the same table as Mr. Feltenberger because they used to be together but he ran off with her sister and now no one speaks to each other. Don’t invite rival factions or sworn enemies to a party unless it’s a) a very big party or b) you’re looking forward to a bit of extra drama. Save yourself (and the rest of your guests) the hassle and even though it hurts, choose a side. If you just can’t invite one without the other, make the tough call and don’t invite either of them.

Crafting a guest list is more than just printing out your address book onto labels and calling it a day. Choose your guests with an eye towards how they’ll mix with each other and the event you have in mind and you’re that much closer to a perfect party.

25 Things, 10

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The really unfortunate thing is that 2008 was totally devoid of parties thanks to one thing or another. The first half of 2009 is suffering the same fate, unfortunately, but plans are already underway for a June bash that I’ve wanted to throw for 4 years! I expect at least 2, if not 3, parties before the year is out. Maybe more, it all depends on my schedule.