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Entertaining Without Stress

Let's face it. If you are stressed, agitated and flitting about, your guests will be uncomfortable and won't be able to relax. Here is an easy test of how well you are doing. How many times do your guests ask if there is anything they can do to help? It is reasonable that guests may ask when they first arrive but if you hear the question over and over again, you are doing something wrong.

The Dinner Party: Do you become a shrinking violet at the mere thought of hosting a dinner party? Here are some quick and easy tips on how to host a successful party and not be too wiped out to enjoy the effort.

  • Plan it out on paper. Use the basic Who? What? Where? When? How?
  • Don't over compensate. Your guests will not be impressed by 10 appetizers, 3 entrees and a dessert cart for a sit down dinner party. If you are doing a buffet that is a different situation.
  • Balance Colors. Bad move: all of the food in a neutral color. This not only indicates that your food choices are boring but are also lacking in nutrition. Good move: Lots of color!
  • Use the foods of the season. For example: Do not plan a menu using strawberries in the middle of winter as it may be difficult to find any that are top quality. Do use apples, pumpkin, and squash in your fall dinner menus.
  • Dress to impress?the food that is. Plan a menu that looks elegant, but doesn't consume three days to prepare. It is all in the presentation. The simplest dish can look exquisite.
  • Have everything staged and ready to go in advance. Your guests will be uncomfortable if you are flitting in and out of the kitchen.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Use your family for regular practice runs. Always set the table with matching cutlery and dishes and put food in serving dishes. This way you know what you have and are not floundering to figure out how to present your meals to guests.
  • Here is a quick plan for a holiday/winter dinner party: Make a list of 6 of your closest friends and invite them over for an evening dinner. If you are in a panic just thinking about dinner for 8, you need to register for our Entertaining Workshop but for an immediate fix, read our tips below:

    Prepare a simple menu that does not require a lot of ingredients and a lot of stove watching (bird watching is easy in comparison).

    For red meat:

    • Salad with vinaigrette dressing, cranberries and nut of choice (pecans, walnuts, almonds)
    • A lamb or beef roast with red potatoes, baby carrots, onions and seasonings
    • A red wine with dinner. We are partial to Breaux Vineyards Lafayette if you want a local Virginia wine.
    • Cheese and grapes for dessert
    • Port or Dessert Wine with dessert
    For chicken:
    • Salad with vinaigrette dressing, cranberries and nut of choice (pecans, walnuts, almonds)
    • Champagne Chicken (contact us if you want the recipe)
    • Saffron Rice
    • Steamed Asparagus or Broccoli
    • A white wine with dinner. We are partial to Breaux Vineyards Vidal Blanc if you want a local Virginia wine.
    • Cheese and grapes for dessert
    • Sherry or Dessert Wine with dessert
    Notice we did not offer a heavy dessert or a lot of food choices. During the holidays we all tend to overeat and a simple but elegant meal is a welcome change.

    Larger Parties:

    If you feel that you have the small dinner party under control and are ready to branch out to large group entertaining, here are the basic steps to making a gathering a success:

  • Decide what type of party you are going to have. Cocktail hour, dinner buffet or hors d'oeuvres. This will drive your menu as well as your cost and party supplies.
  • Determine the area in your house where you want to have the party.
    • How many people can stand or sit comfortably in this area? This isn't a crowded bar/night club. Having to say "excuse me" and bumping into people loses its charm very quickly.
    • Check your room arrangement. Is it an open floor plan if you intend for people to stand? Move the furniture out of the way. Bruised shins from coffee tables are no fun. Is it conducive to conversation if you are using your seating areas? Rearrange furniture into conversation areas.
    • Are there places for people to set drinks? Nervous nelly coaster girl/guy is not attractive. If you want your guests to use coasters, have them strategically placed throughout the area ahead of time.
    • Ventilation: Keep the temperature a little lower than normal in an area that is going to be full of people. It will heat up fast when everyone gets in the room. If you are using candles for ambiance, remember that they add heat to a room.
  • The "Bar": If you are having a cocktail hour, then a fully stocked bar is more essential than if you are having a dinner buffet. Keep these facts in mind.
    • Bars are very expensive to stock because there are essentials you must have to satisfy the drink needs of your guests.
    • A bartender is essential if you have a full bar. It doesn't have to be a professionally hired bartender but it needs to be someone who knows his/her way around a bar and the drink menu.
    • If you are having a dinner buffet where the focus is food rather than drink, then make choose signature drinks. Have one or two specialty drinks for your guests that you can make in advance, serve in pitchers or decanters and have on a min self-serve bar. Again there are essentials you must have like an ice bucket but you do not need a fully stocked bar and a bartender in these situations.
    • The placement of the bar is key. It needs to be in an open, accessible area.
  • The Menu. We could write a whole article on your menu so here are a few key reminders.
    • Have a theme. That doesn't mean you have to don a sombrero for Mexican or throw plates for Greek food but you need to have some commonality for your menu or you will end up with a hodge podge of random items and probably too many of them to boot. Your theme does not have to be an international food either. It could be "winter foods" or "seafood" for example.
    • Keep dietary and religious restrictions of your guests in mind.
    • If having a cocktail hour, keep the menu to a few appetizers no more.
    • If having a dinner buffet, keep the menu balanced. Appetizers should not overpower main course or dessert.

    An Alternative to a Dinner Party - A Wine Party

    Do you have to be a sommelier to know something about wine? Well, if you want to tout yourself as an expert, perhaps but if you just want to enjoy a good glass of wine, go with your gut - or rather your mouth - and enjoy what tastes good to you. Once we survive the holidays, not many people want to throw another lavish bash in the winter months. So, why not host a wine tasting party? Now before you hit the panic button, get uptight and claim to know nothing about wine, stop! We aren't proposing you sit around discussing bouquet and barrel fermenting. We want you to have a little fun.

    You can buy wine tasting party kits from various sources on the internet and local shops. Don't want a kit? Here's what you need:

    • Guests - think about whom you know that likes and drinks wine and keep the numbers small
    • A few bottles of wine that you think you might like - both red and white. Depending on the size of the crowd plan on 2 bottles of each type. Or for an added twist, ask your guests to each bring 2 bottles of their favorite wine. If you do this you will need them to email or phone you with the wine information ahead of time.
    • Printed wine tasting cards that list the wines you purchased with some information from the bottle
    • Pencils in case guests want to make notes about their favorites
    • Wine glasses. We recommend 2 per person. One for tasting and one for later
    • Plain saltine or oyster crackers for guests to cleanse their palates
    • Still (plain) water for rinsing
    • Some good music, good conversationalists and a sense of fun!

    At the end of the event, serve some crackers/bread, cheese and fruit or some other small/light appetizers and offer each guest a glass of his/her favorite wine. Wine charms are a fun thing to introduce at this point. Each person can pick her/her own and attach to the glass. Put on some music and enjoy the company. However, above all things, drink and serve responsibly!

    Crank up the wine party one notch

    Even though the farmer's market is closed and the weather has turned quite chilly, the fall and winter have a lot to offer our palate. As we have told you before, leverage what you have and embrace the winter weather. Serve your guests wine, cheese and winter fruits.

    One of our favorites is eiswein (pronounced ice vine). Eiswein or Ice Wine as it is called in this country is a wine that is made with the late harvest fruit by pressing it while still frozen...thus the name. Now here is the catch. Eiswein is not something you can pick up at your local supermarket and it doesn't come in bargain basement $5/bottle prices. Here are a few of our picks and where you can get them.

    Eiswein is usually sold in 1/2 bottles due to the high sugar content of the wine and the cost...less is more!

    Locally: Total Beverage Check with your particular store because they don't all carry the same items. Most of them have the Hubert Ganz Riesling Eiswein (1/2 bottle $40) and the Selaks Wines Ice Wine Kumeu (1/2 bottle $14). Some of them also have the Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine (1/2 bottle $70...and a favorite of ours)

    On the Internet:www.champagnewines.com and www.internationalwine.com

    And who says an eiswein has to be made with grapes. La Face Cachee de la Pomme in Canada makes a scrumptious apple ice wine (cidre de glace). For more information, visit appleicewine.com. In case you don't feel like making the trek to Canada in the winter, check their website for US locations.

    Now that you feel like you speak several other languages, what cheese do you serve with these delectable wines? We recommend Roquefort. You need something with a little punch to it to counterbalance the wine. However, we do not profess to be wine or cheese experts so buy a bottle of eiswein and some of your favorite cheeses and have your own private tasting party before you serve to your guests. The wines could also be paired with some not-so-sweet desserts.

    So the quick recap to plan your party:

    • Eiswein (not as many bottles as for regular wine)
    • Seltzer or Club Soda for non-drinking guests
    • Cheeses - 4 or 5 types
    • Fruits - apples and grapes
    • Non-sugary desserts (cheesecake is good) - 2 or 3 items
    We hope that all of these pointers will convince you that you too can entertain without a lot of stress. Entertaining is meant to bring a group of friends together for relaxation and fun and it should do just that.

    Indra A Books, author of this and many other lifestyle articles is the owner and founder of ON THE GO 4 U, Personal Shoppers & Concierge Service in the Washington DC metropolitan area. The company's creed is to provide its clients with the ultimate life management experience. In addition to its shopping and concierge services, ON THE GO 4 U also publishes a monthly e-zine and conducts workshops on wardrobe, entertaining and decorating. For more information about the author and ON THE Go 4 U, please visit http://www.onthego4u.net ? 2004 Indra A Books, ON THE GO 4 U.

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