A few weeks ago, late in the morning, my cell phone rings. It’s a good friend, so frantic he skips all pleasantries and launches into his many questions about the breast of veal I made last summer: Did I sauté shiitake mushrooms or porcini? Broccoli rabe or regular broccoli? Did I roll the flattened veal narrower side to wider, or wider to narrow … and can he get away with looping string around it since he doesn’t know how to tie it?
What I wanted to know was why he wasn’t at work at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. Because, he tells me, he’s having three guests over for a dinner party, and as he puts it, “You know how people are.”
Well, actually, no, that isn’t how they are. It’s how we fear they are.
Thanks to popular television shows like Top Chef, The Great British Bake Off and Beat Bobby Flay that turn stoves into battle stations, too many home cooks of every age suddenly imagine the friends seated 'round their dining table morphing into the scorekeeper chefs on Food Network. Entertaining at home is a lot less fun if you see it as ending in a trial by hungry jury, whether that jury includes your new son-in-law or old friends who are visiting on their cross-country tour.
So please, turn off the TV, put down the remote and take a few tips from someone who has been a caterer, New York food critic and hospitality consultant for over 30 years — someone who never wants to be on the receiving end of a phone conversation like the one above again. These suggestions will make your life easier and more fun, whether you’ve cooked for company your entire adult life or are just getting started in the kitchen.
1. Ground yourself
Before we get to meal planning, know that no one comes to your home because they need a Michelin-star meal. That’s why God made chefs like Eric Ripert, Bobby Flay and Lidia Bastianich. Your guests come to your house to be with you and enjoy your company. So trust me when I give you these ground rules:
- You never need to cook more than two courses.
- Avoid any dish you have never made before, or never tested out on someone you love and trust — someone who will forgive you if it goes south.
- Never choose to make anything that requires major preparation or attention while your guests are present. They prefer to talk to you face-to-face, not stare at the back of your head while you sauté or deep-fry something.
2. Start with a soup
Everyone loves soup. It’s soothing, guaranteed comfort food. Hundreds of options are surprisingly easy to make (thank goodness for ready-to-go chicken stock), and here’s the best part: Soups can be frozen days or weeks ahead of time with no loss of flavor. I always have at least three different soups in my freezer for just this reason. I lean on favorites such as potato leek, which has only eight ingredients and tastes great cold or hot; lentil soup, which takes less than an hour to make; and of course, chicken noodle soup, because it is one of life’s irresistible, edible wonders.
On dinner-party day, take the soup out of the freezer in the morning. Heat it when you get home. Simmer until guests arrive. Serve with a loaf of fresh bread. Done.
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3. Craft a crave-worthy salad
A great salad needs no fussing. It demands only a little forethought, and freshness. The latter has never been easier to find than it is now. Green markets abound, and even big-chain emporiums feature extensive fresh and organic sections of fruits, vegetables and — often local — cheeses. You can buy produce a few days in advance; just don’t refrigerate tomatoes.
There is no culinary law that demands salads require lettuce, and making a great one involves mostly thinking about which fruits or vegetables you savor now, and which nuts or cheeses turn you on. (And yes, it’s OK to look up an actual salad recipe from there.)
Instead of a salad of romaine, tomatoes and cucumbers, how about one with fennel, grapefruit and watercress? Or fresh peaches, heirloom tomatoes and burrata? I often serve panzanella, a classic and versatile Tuscan salad that ramps up simple vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers by using cubed, day-old bread to soak up the dressing in advance. Most vegetables can be cut in the morning before you leave for work, or as soon as you get home. From there, put them into a handsome salad bowl, under two layers of damp paper towels, and refrigerate. You can add small berries at the same time. Fruits can be peeled and cut before dressing.
Also, there is no need for fussy dressing. Flavored oils (kaffir lime, Tuscan herb, Chipotle) and vinegars (balsamic, port wine, champagne) are readily available at most supermarkets and online. A little dressing goes a long way; go easy to keep your salad from getting soggy. Serve oil and vinegar on the tables should guests like salads “wetter.” Add cheese after you toss. Let guests serve themselves.
4. Lean on one-dish classics
Instead of taking Tuesday off to wrestle with an uncooperative veal breast, it would have been a lot easier if my friend had put up a pot roast the night before while watching The Voice. It would have taken 45 minutes of prep time max, with no hovering required.
The advantage to roasts (cooked open in the oven), potted meats (cooked covered, usually in 350-degree heat) and slow roasts (placed in pot or slow cooker on a low heat and left for hours) is that they cook with little help from you, and usually include side-dish starches and vegetables within the cooking liquid. Best of all, they actually do taste better when made in advance.
If those don’t appeal, or you need a vegetarian option, lasagna offers similar one-dish, make-ahead advantages. Lidia Bastianich even recommends assembling her lasagna a few days ahead.
An added bonus is that this is a kind of cooking most people rarely order when eating out, and increasingly fewer restaurants offer on a menu. So the added surprise, nostalgia and heartiness that such a main-dish choice generates is sure to send warmth your way. If you don’t have one already, get a great Dutch oven or an InstaPot, develop a repertoire of three made-ahead dishes, and sweat no more. Whether you are making a classic pot roast or brisket, root vegetables with kasha or a seafood stew, the main course will always be done long before anyone arrives.
5. Buy a fancy dessert
Sugar is one of our oldest and most effective preservatives, which means you can bake a cake weeks in advance — especially on a weekend when it’s probably easier to find time for the precision baking required — and then freeze it. Last July, I thawed and served a cheesecake left over from Christmas. Not only was no one the wiser, three people asked for the recipe. (I never give out my cheesecake recipe, though. That’s awful of me, I know. But still, no.)
However, in every city, and in many a neighborhood, there are those singular places that make sensational sweets that you and everybody else wait in line or drive across town for.
Well, just go buy that irresistible big yum and present it as your closer to gushes of delight. In the blink-and-you-missed-it hamlet in upstate New York where I have a home, the woman in the local half-bare General Store makes the best apple pie I’ve ever eaten. Now I will never bake another one. Why bother, when hers is so smashing and I earn substantial cred for bringing it to my table?
6. And … cheers!
There you go. Two (or three) dishes made in advance, one freshly assembled, and the possible appropriation of someone's sweetest specialty. That’s it. And you didn’t lose a sick day. Now, go put on something comfortable that also makes you look confident. Then open a bottle of something and enjoy your guests.
Hal Rubenstein is a founding editor of InStyle and former restaurant critic for New York magazine. He is the author of five books, including 100 Unforgettable Dresses.