Saturday, September 29, 2012

Making Your Party A Successful Event...Entertaining, Part II,

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The following is Part II of the presentation I gave at the Dawson County Arts Council in Georgia last Friday, September14, 2012.  Keep in mind these are notes. I think I covered the main points from my perspective but if you have additional tips or ideas that you would like to share with us they would be gladly welcomed.  I would like to leave a copy of this to my children and grandchildren for posterity as a blueprint should they ever want to entertain like we did "in the olden days".  

A successful party doesn't just happen.  It takes careful planning, work and organization. I don't have a magic formula to give you but I can share some of the things that have always worked for me...and a few that haven't!

In my estimation,  two things are critical in making a party a successful event. The host or hostess and her guests.   That is why I dedicated an entire post on by blog to the subject. 
The host or hostess' responsibility is to provide an environment in which the guests will  have a delightful time;  but it is the lively conversation and the "magic" of the evening that will leave a lasting impression in the minds of those who were lucky to attend.  The food and the ambiance are her domain but it is the guests who will put on the finishing touches;  so choosing and mixing them carefully is one of the most important steps in putting together what you hope will be a successful event.

No matter the occasion, organization is key to making entertaining a breeze.  Whatever the type or size of your party,  the same rules apply and they start with establishing the basics and asking yourself these questions:

 1 What is the purpose of your party? social, business?

2. What is your budget - be realistic and overestimate!

Determining your budget is perhaps the most important step  as it will determine the type of party you can have, the amount of guests, and what you can spend on food and entertainment, if any. Consider liquor, food, rentals, service, music or entertainment, and flowers or decorations to establish your initial budget. Think drinks first, as alcohol can be a major expense. Don't feel as though you need to be as well stocked as a restaurant but buy good brands.  To minimize expenses, consider serving a signature drink such as Daiquiris or Bloody Mary's.  Be inventive with your food choices as well  -- instead of a dinner party with fillet of beef or leg of lamb, have a Mexican or Tapas party by the pool.  In the Fall, Oktoberfest is a good budget conscious choice.  Serve different beers, forget hard liquor and have red and white wine for those who don't like beer.

A tailgate picnic is an easy and less expensive alternative

3. How many people do you want to invite.

Determine who you must invite first and work on other guests that will complement the group later (see my handout on the guest list post)

4. What is the date and time of the year?

Spring and Fall are a great time to entertain because of the weather, particularly if you have a beautiful garden.  I seldom entertain in the summer due to the heat and humidity, even at night, in my neck of the woods. Christmas is a great time to give a party since you already have the decorations.  Think Tree Trimming party...easy menu and you will get new ornaments for your tree to boot! (there is a menu on the blog)

A Halloween dinner party (for adults, no costumes) is my favorite in the Fall.

5. What is the location. do you have an alternative location?

Can you use the outside of your home like the garden, deck, or pool area? Do you have enough room in your house for the party you want to have.  How many can you accommodate for a sit down dinner?  How many for a cocktail party or a barbecue?  what if it rains? As a young hostess I was once stuck with 100 people inside my small house eating pit barbecue, beans and coleslaw on paper plates when it poured on my Fourth Of July picnic.  It was a nightmare!
6. What can you handle?

Will you need outside help and can you afford it.  Can you do it alone, perhaps recruiting your escort or husband to take care of the drinks and serve the wine at the table?. THIS WILL HAVE A MAJOR INFLUENCE ON THE KIND OF EVENT YOU HAVE. Keep it simple and don't take on more than you can handle.  You don't want to be maid, bartender and hostess at your own dinner party.  Young adults are more casual and lackadaisical about their parties these days, and for them it works; .but for those of us of a certain generation that  much informality does not fly.

These six questions are important and will determine the kind of party you can have, how many guests and what you will serve;   and whether it will be a dinner party, cocktails, luncheon, event party, game day, or outdoor barbecue.

Putting It All Together

Once you have answers to these questions, the framework for your party is in place -- the time, place, and style have been established. Now use this information to figure out the details. The type of party will dictate what you need for equipment, the season and budget can inspire the menu, and the budget will factor into the type of entertainment you choose and if you use a caterer. Outside of that, be creative and tailor a party you would want to attend.

Now for the fun part!

The Guest List

As I have mentioned before, guests can make or break a party so spend some time thinking about who you want to invite.  Try to come up with a good mix.

Send Out the Invitations

If by mail, send them at least three weeks in advance. Four to six weeks for a Christmas party.  Follow up with a phone call if you haven't heard from your guests about 10 days before the party

Plan the Menu

  • What time of year, what is fresh and in season?
  • What does your budget allow?
  • Is it a casual party or a more formal dinner party?
  • What are your tried and best recipes? Never serve something you haven't made before.
  • Plan on purchasing some ready made things such as the appetizers.  Skip the cheese tray.  Cheese is expensive and guests will hardly touch them if there are other more interesting alternatives around.  As an alternative, make a cheese log or serve cheese wafers.  
  • Don't overwhelm yourself or your guests with too many dishes. Your main dish should be something you can make ahead or that needs minimal cooking before serving unless you are having a BBQ.  Think casseroles for side dishes and salads that can be made ahead.
  • Plan a dessert that can be made the day before and kept in the fridge.  If you are making an appetizer ditto.
  • Make sure the menu is balanced

Via Southern Accents

Plan your grocery list
Plan the decorations if any for a theme party.

Make a list of "incidentals"  Do you need scented candles for entry, guest bathroom and living room.  Do you have enough unscented candles for the table, cocktail napkins? What flowers will you need? on the table? throughout the house?
How about the guest bathroom? guest soap? guest towels? scented candle?
Setting the table.

Plan a theme for your table ahead of time.  If you are having a sit down dinner, choose the tablecloth, napkins etc. Plan the flowers. Come up with a flower arrangement or arrangements for you dinner table that are low so guests don't have to strain to see each other.  You will need place cards! thus eliminating a headache trying to remember who sits where at the last minute.   Take everything out and rehearse with one place setting.  Choose your serving pieces.  Does anything need to be polished or replaced?

Liquor and wine.
Make a list of what you will need. Don't forget to include the mixers such as tonic and soda water. While you are at it, add lemons and limes and olives to your grocery list. This is one of the things you can plan ahead and purchase right away. Serve good brands.  If you can't afford them, just serve a signature drink such as daiquiris or Kir Royal and wine.  Bloody Mary's and Bellinis are my favorites to serve for a luncheon.
Get as much of this done as you can one week before the party.  If I am not having live music, that's when I pick out the Cd's I want to play that night, a very subtle mix.  Diana Krall is high on my list

David Hicks bar via Habitually Chic

The day before the party is your big work day.  That's when you will set the table,  the bar, make dishes that can be prepared the day ahead, arrange the flowers and take out all your serving pieces.
The day of the party is for incidentals, and making one dish that must be made that day such as rice or a green salad. Plan on having a friend or the help pick up extra ice. You want to be rested and relaxed... the best is yet to come!
By the time I go upstairs to dress, everything is in place.  If I have service staff, I have them come in at least one  hour before the party starts so I can detail the menu, the drinks, when dinner will be served, what needs heating etc. I leave hand written notes in the kitchen with temperatures for warming etc. to remind them.   I have a thing about uniforms for the staff, whether it's one or more,  which I will not go into right here.  Suffice it to say if they don't have a uniform and I don't have one for them, black skirt or pants and a white blouse is a must.  If the party is formal and I am paying professionals, I expect a bartender in jacket and tie and a maid in maids uniform.  I give myself at least an hour to get dressed, have a drink to fortify my spirits and take one last look around the house.  When that door bell rings, it's showtime!

Truman Capote getting ready for his Black And White Ball

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Key Lime And Lemon Verbena Pots De Creme

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I have been staring at my lemon verbena pot now for a couple of weeks and, aside from drying some for the winter months, I have been thinking about what to do with the rest while the fresh leaves last. No matter how much I give away or trim , it keeps coming back like there's no tomorrow.  The leaves are not as green or aromatic as they were during the summer months, but they still carry a lot of oomph and I hate to see them go to waste.  If you have never grown lemon verbena in your garden, you need to reconsider.  It is great in teas, lemonade, pastas and anything else that would benefit from a little lemon zest.  Together with lemon balm and basil, it is one of the herbs I use the most during the summer.

These pots de creme are delightful at this time of the year, particularly after a heavy meal.  I used key limes mainly because I had purchased a bag in lieu of the puny Persian limes they had for sale at the grocery store.  Regular yellow lemons would be just fine.

If you want to make the recipe lighter substitute, like I did,  all of the cream with 1 cup cream and 1/2 cup regular milk.  I think custards also benefit from a pinch of salt.

Oh, and one more thing, this recipe only makes enough for four, even in pots de creme molds like the ones shown.  Double the recipe for six or eight.

Recipe after the break.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The (Lost) Art Of Entertaining, Part I

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The following is Part I of the presentation I gave at the Dawson County Arts Council in Georgia last Friday, September14, 2012.  I think I covered the main points from my perspective but if you have additional tips or ideas that you would like to share with us they would be gladly welcomed.  I would like to leave a copy of this to my children and grandchildren for posterity as a blueprint should they ever want to entertain like we did "in the olden days". 

Before I share with you some of the entertaining tips and ideas that have made my life a bit less stressful and more enjoyable when it comes to having guests, I would like to go over where we have been and where we are today in the way we entertain.

But first let me give you some background about myself and why and how I came to speak to you today.

I write about food and entertaining in a blog called Lindaraxa.  I am not a chef, or a caterer, and definitely not a party planner.  I have never had a cooking lesson in my life nor attended the Cordon Bleu.  I am a former investment banker from New York who, because of circumstances, came to live with my daughter on a lake here in Georgia.  I was born in Havana to a family of substantial means whose world turned upside down in January 1959 with the advent of the Cuban Revolution and  subsequently moved to New England in the early 1960's.  Although I have spent most of my life in the Northeast, I have also lived in the South on two occasions.  First in North Carolina in the 1970's and now here in Georgia since the Fall of 2010.  I have also lived for a few years in Miami, Florida but I don't consider that the South, for it is mostly a Latin American city that happens to be in the United States. Miami  beats to its own drum.

I started my investment career in 1976 with Merrill Lynch and later went on to senior positions on Wall Street which gave me the opportunity to travel and entertain clients all over the world.  I am now retired, dabble in the stock market, and write about food and entertaining in my blog where I also share with my readers some of my recipes and menus.   I am a self made cook and hostess and come from a family of avid gourmets who from an early life implanted in me a love for the art of cooking and entertaining.  That is why I am here today.

One of the reasons for all this background is to show you that you don't need to go to school to be a good hostess.  And there is no secret formula.  All you need is to observe and do what works best for you.  I remember one day when I was helping my daughter set up for a small dinner party and she did something that made me ask her where she had learned what she was doing.  She looked at me for a moment, with that "dah" expression that young adults use these days, and replied,  "Mom, I have been watching you all my life".  That made me feel that everything wrong I had done as a PARENT had suddenly been erased and I had accomplished my goal as a MOTHER.
Like my daughter, I watched my mother give dinner parties and entertain all my life.  I am sure she did the same with her mother and her mother with hers. Learning the art of entertaining starts at home and develops as you grow older and new things and new ideas come into your life.
When I was growing up, entertaining at home was not just an art, it was a necessity.  People did not go out to eat as often as they do today.  There were not many restaurants or movie houses and there where only three channels on TV.  There was nothing to do on weekends to keep us "entertained" except going to a dinner party at a friend's house.  Christmas was the busiest time of the year and hostesses made plans as far back as the summer to corner the best dates, which were usually the two weekends right before the holidays.  If necessary, a weeknight was okay, but only during the holidays  God forbid you planned a party mid week any other time of the year.
A hostess worked for days preparing for the night of the event, starting with drawing up the guest list, making the phone calls or mailing out the invitations, coming up with a menu, and starting the process of cleaning up the freezer to fit all the make ahead food before the party.  Table cloths and cocktail napkins had to be ironed, the silver polished, the crystal shined.  If she had live in help, the service was no problem.  But if she didn't, she would often talk her cleaning lady into coming in that night or sending a friend.  Sometimes that was not possible and I remember helping my mother with the arduous process of the before and after on many occasions. It was a thankless task but it had to be done.  The alternative was Siberia.
As women began to enter the workforce in full force in the l980's and families had more money to spend on leisure and less time to spend in the kitchen, changes began that drastically changed our entertaining habits. Gradually all kinds of restaurants began to open,  from high end to fast food; and later, with globalization, ethnic restaurants from Greek to Vietnamese opened their doors to the new worldwide gourmet.    Nowadays you don't have to travel to India to have Indian food .  You can have it at the local Indian restaurant or in the comfort of your own home.  All the ingredients are easily available, and you can find plenty of books on Indian cooking on the shelves of your local library or bookstore. If you are lazy and don't feel like cooking, there is even ready made Indian food in the freezer section of your local grocery store.
I remember living in Hendersonville,  North Carolina in the 1970's and buying the only cook book available at the time on Chinese food for American cooks. It was Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee's Chinese Cooking. Nothing fancy or extraordinary, but it sure satisfied the yen! My husband tackled the pizza,  for there were no Italian restaurants within at least 60 miles of where we lived. Things have definitely changed from those days  and I find myself cooking Chinese food and making pizzas at home again, not because I have to,  but because I like to.

And this brings us to today...

Entertaining Today
In the past couple of decades entertaining has evolved from a rigorous affair full of rules and regulation to a more casual and personal approach.  The sky is the limit as far as the type of entertaining you can do.  From the more formal cocktail and dinner party, it is now okay to have a barbecue, a picnic, a tapas party or a Super Bowl Party.  Gone are the days of white linen table cloths, fine china and Waterford crystal.  Today many people prefer to hang out around a large kitchen island sitting on a stool while the hostess puts the finishing touches on the main course. The kitchen has evolved into the new living room and is not only the gathering place of the typical modern dinner party but the center of every day life. Look at the way we are designing our kitchens today, they are the height of luxury. Granite or marble counters, top of the line appliances and sinks, bar stools and even chandeliers and TVs grace the new kitchens. And forget about selling your house if your kitchen is not upgraded!

If you want to have a party these days, any kind of a party, and need someone to plan it for you, all you have to do is turn on your computer, or IPhone,  type a couple of keywords and a whole bunch of party menus, ideas and decorations pop up on your screen, including my blog.  You don't have to think.  All you have to do is implement.

Ironically, all this abundance of options and resources have only made us lazier about entertaining at home. I often wonder what people do with all this information for it is seldom these days that I hear that somebody is having a party at home.

In spite of all this, there is nothing, really nothing that can supplant the old forms of entertaining, particularly the dinner party.  For the guests, the expectancy of a dinner party was almost as good as being there.  What to wear always translated into an excuse for a new dress.  For the hostess, and as a woman, it was her moment to shine.

I remain, to this day, an old timer even though I have adjusted somewhat to the new times and to the new forms of entertaining. If nothing else, my options have expanded which is something I gladly welcome as I get older and lose some of my enthusiasm for ironing tablecloths and polishing silver. No matter the times or the circumstances, we still have to entertain. There is no excuse these days for not reciprocating an invitation or a kind deed. You don't have to be lavish or put on a dog and pony show, but you do have to reciprocate and you do have to do it well.

What is important about entertaining is getting together and having a good time. The tablecloth and the silver, the menu and the flowers are just the icing on the cake. 
Next...Entertaining, Part II...Making Your Party A Successful Event

top Alberto Pinto
 bottom San Francisco Decorators Show

Monday, September 17, 2012

Bay Scallops Meuniere

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Scallops are one of the few things you can confidently buy flash frozen.  They perish quickly after being harvested, so they are almost always shucked at sea and iced down or frozen.  Some of the best bay scallops come from the island of Nantucket  and when you come across them during their short autumn season, grab them.

I used to get them in New York at my fish monger on the upper East Side but here in Georgia that is a pipe dream.  Last week I bought some flash frozen from my local Publix and was surprised at how sweet and tender they were.  We had them with a mustard sauce one night and tonight I decided to cook them in butter, or Meuniere style.  They did not disappoint.

One word of caution.  Bay scallops defrost fairly quickly, so don't rush them.  If you can, take them out the night before and leave them in the refrigerator.  Otherwise, you can start defrosting them early in the afternoon,  but put them back in the fridge once they are almost defrosted.

You can accompany them with white rice, like we did, or with a crusty French baguette.  If you can splurge, a white Puligny Montrachet would be divine, although a less expensive French Muscadet goes rather well with shell fish.

 Serves two as a main course, or four as a very elegant appetizer.

For the recipe, click below

Monday, September 10, 2012

Night Jasmine

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I think I can say with all confidence that I am probably the only person north of Atlanta with a Night Jasmine blooming on her deck.

Night jasmine or Cestrum Nocturnum is not a very attractive plant but the flowers are beautiful and the scent is enchanting.  Once night falls, you can smell it from a block away.

Night Jasmine is indigenous to the West Indies and blooms a few times during the year.  In Cuba we called it Galan the Noche or Gentleman of the Night.  I gave my Mother a plant once for Mothers Day which grew so big she cut it down and replaced it with a rose bush.  I never forgave her.

I  ordered this plant online and it arrived in a sealed box with a couple of leaves dried up.  It was 6 inches tall.  This was a couple of months ago.  Look at it now!  It has even bloomed and the scent is to die for!

See how they open at night? I am not going to put it in the ground this year.  I will leave it outside and when it gets too cold, I will bring it in.  I will sleep with it if I have to!

There is nothing in the world as bewitching as the smell of Night Jasmine.  NOTHING!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Veal Scallopini With Mushrooms And A Mustard Cream Sauce

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A couple of nights ago I got a call from my friend Silvia saying she had just made my Sauteed Scallops in Mustard Sauce and loved them, particularly the sauce.  Could she use the same sauce on something else? This, if you don't know her, is a major event.  At last count I think she makes about three or four of my recipes and never tires out.  Sometimes I call her to get one of those recipes that are now long gone from my repertoire.  Over the years, as she gains more and more confidence in her cooking,  she gives them her spin  Every so often she tells me she is going to take cooking lessons.  Never happens. One thing about Silvia, though, she loves her food!

When she calls with such enthusiasm I jump at the chance to throw her a line and see if I can finally hook her into cooking more often.   Last night I actually found a recipe that I thought I could get her to try.  Just so she would branch out  and give the old stuff a rest.

Veal in a mustard cream sauce is a classic.  So is wild rabbit,  for that matter.  But I know the latter would never fly. When I read the recipe I thought either the mustard or the tarragon had to go;  but I was wrong.  Everything works here and the recipe is perfect for a quick Sunday dinner like we had last night or a dinner party for six.  If you get all your prep stuff done ahead of time, it comes together in less than 10 minutes.  Accompany, as suggested, with orzo or yellow rice as an alternative.  At this time of the year, the peach cobbler I served for dessert would be perfection!

I am a sucker for veal as I don't always find it where I live now.  When I do, I stock up and save some in the freezer.  Fresh scallops is another luxury here, but I never buy them because I can always smell them and I never buy fish I can smell.  Every time I go to New York  one of the first things I do is walk down to my old fish market on the Upper East Side and,  if they are in season, stock up on my favorite bay scallops. (You can never smell a thing in that place.  They might as well be selling stationary).  Then I go back to Silvia's apartment and cook them in a mustard sauce with white rice, accompanied by a dry Muscadet from Sherry- Lehman.   Nirvana!

 For the recipe click below.

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