For most of us there has been less wiggle room in the budget, and less time it seems, for spontaneous dining out at local restaurants with friends. Even if you’re OK in that respect chances are that more than a few of your regular friends are feeling the pinch and may drop out from the get togethers.
The camaraderie you get from socializing is more important than the location or sampling the more interesting menu items at your local bistro. With just a little planning you, and each of your friends as well, can keep the relationships rolling by making your house or apartment the friendly meeting place and entertainment center.
Here is a list of just a four items to have on hand that make it easy to entertain, no matter how little time you have to prepare. Everything can easily be adapted to your budget and the culinary tastes of your friends as well.
Dinner parties are about the food. No getting around that. If your group has a very favorite local restaurant with a specialized or unique menu then you can draw on that for inspiration. Depending on your culinary skills you can either try to duplicate parts of their menu or craft your own variations.
You don’t have to be a professional chef to craft great meals. We all have our personal collection of recipes and cooking books but there is one particular book that I would recommend to even the most experienced dilettante chef, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. Alton Brown of Food Network fame reviewed the book and said that “having a ratio in hand is like having a secret decoder ring that frees you from the tyranny of recipes”. Much of the book is focused on baking but there is plenty of other material to work with for things like custards and dinner and dessert sauces.
Every menu plan should include an appetizer, a main course, and a dessert. Depending on your time available, budget, and expertise you can swing for the fences on all three or pick just one to make it as special as you can. Believe me, people will remember a great appetizer as much as a five star entree.
One possibility for the main course are any of the new, packaged steam-prepared dishes. The big advantage with prepared dishes is time savings. You can pop a complete main course in the microwave and serve it up minutes later without ever touching a pot or a pan. No clean up either. Try a few of these prepared dinners on your own before serving them to your guests. I’ve found a few that are pretty good but as with anything culinary personal taste is just that.
You can assemble a dinner-time playlist for your iPod in no time at all. You can vary the mix for the mood or even for the geography of the cuisine. A docking station with speakers is the only other thing you need to have enjoyable background music always available.
People respond viscerally to flame. Even a tiny candle flame imparts warmth, comfort and friendliness. Keep a drawer full of small candles on hand to warm things up. Better to stick with unscented candles so you don’t trigger an allergy. Besides, you do not want any other aroma competing with your table.
4. Water and Wine
Inexpensive wine does not mean inferior wine. You would be surprised at how inexpensively you can build a formidable wine cellar just on grocery store specials. Experimentation is essential – and perfectly enjoyable too. Try different wine growing regions. Chilean wines are often on the low end of the price scale and more than adequate for the job. If some of your guests are wine snobs then decant the wine first and never show them a bottle.
Mix up the Big Reds, like Merlot and Cabernet, with some whites like Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio and you will have the bases covered. You will quickly develop your palette, and with the feedback you get from your dinner guests your wine list will become something everybody will look forward to.
Water, water everywhere. It doesn’t have to be bottled. Too expensive. If you or your crew are dead set against tap water then get one of those pitcher-filter outfits. Leave it on the counter next to the sink so your friends can see it and know you filter.
Grocery store brand carbonated water is a must. Slice up a few lemons and you’re good to go. For something a little different have quinine water on hand also. It has a different taste that some will find quite refreshing – even without the rum.