Dinner Planning

The best laid plans for a smooth dinner party can run amok when last minute requests have to be accommodated!

The secret to enjoying your own dinner party is planning ahead.  Depending on the busyness of your schedule, you need a few days to a week to have as much as possible done in advance.  It begins, if course, with the menu planning.  You consider the season. Fresh and light in the spring. Warm and comforting in the fall. Then you cruise the shops to see what’s in season and looking fine. Suggestions from magazines can help with ideas for menu items with an element of the unexpected to delight your guests.  Once a decision has been made for the main event, you need to consider the supporting players. If you are making paella, for instance, you might want to choose appetizers and desserts to support your Spanish theme.  Not to be obsessive, but just to give it thought. Beef Stroganoff is not best supported by a Caprese salad.  At this point, you should also consider how much of the meal can be done in advance.  No guest can relax over cocktails when their host/hostess is flapping around off in the kitchen  like a chicken on amphetamines flinging a last minute dinner together.  

What can be done a week before and frozen?  Perhaps a nice semifreddo…   What can be done a day or two ahead and refrigerated?  Vegetables chopped?  Sauce made?  What can be done in the morning?  The salad?  And what absolutely must be done at the last moment?  

We’ve all enjoyed being a guest at a dinner where the host joins us for cocktails, calm and cheerful, producing appetizers seemingly out of thin air, disappearing for a few moments before dinner magically appears. The secret?  Perfect planning! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, there’s the guest who, upon arrival, corners the host “just to mention that he/she/or her husband eats everything except anything with meat, flour, sugar, salt, dairy, melon, corn, citrus, any carbs, greens, nuts, eggs, tomatoes or ‘I only eat raw, but I’ve brought a bag of vegetables.  I just need to use your sink.., and a knife…Do you have a cutting board I could use? A bowl?’

Don’t be surprised if you get cornered by several guests or more with different food issues.  If they have true allergies, you have probably been informed and have factored them into your planning, but many of these issues are simply dietary choices. You say, “Oh, I wish I’d known! (Like last week). Invariably they say, “Oh I didn’t like to say. I don’t want to be a bother. I’ll just eat what I can”.  Host does a quick mental inventory of the menu and realizes that this person won’t be able to eat any of it. Host does a quick inventory of the refrigerator/pantry wondering what can be quickly tossed together as all of that careful planning circles the drain. 

Now, in addition to the punctiliously managed menu, the host is negotiating and obstacle course of last minute prep in an effort to accommodate special needs, and mentally striking folks of future guest lists. So much for the relaxed pre-dinner conversation with guests.

Oh it isn’t that all this is impossible, but having planned a nice, seasonal, beautifully balanced dinner, it is difficult for everyone to have that person munching the limp celery stick fortunately found at the back of the vegetable bin, repeatedly saying how, “Everything looks wonderful!  I only wish I could eat that.”.  It makes for as much fun for the rest of the group as taking a cranky man on a shopping trip.  

What to do if you have a special diet that cuts out most food groups and/or condiments?  How about this:. “I’d love to join you for dinner, but I’m afraid I have a meeting that evening. Perhaps I could join you for drinks?  I’m no trouble. No alcohol, sugar, fruit or anything carbonated these days. I’m just being careful. But perhaps a glass of water? I’m only sorry I can’t stay!”

Your host will appreciate your consideration. 

And for the rest of us:

Nigella Lawson’s sublime Honey Semifreddo!  

(Can be made and popped into the freezer well in advance)

Serves: 6-8

1 large egg

4 large egg yolks

⅓ cup best-quality honey (plus 3 tablespoons for serving)

1¼ cups heavy cream

3 tablespoons pine nuts (toasted)

Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap

Beat the egg and egg yolks with the honey in a bowl, over a saucepan of gently simmering water, until the mixture is pale and thick.   I use a wire balloon whisk for this, but if you feel like a bit of culinarily aided whirring, it will certainly be quicker with a hand-held electric mixer.

Whip the heavy cream until thick, and then gently fold in the egg and honey mixture. Pour into the prepared loaf pan, and cover carefully with plastic wrap before putting it in the freezer for about 2-3 hours or days or weeks. 

When it is ready to serve, turn out the semifreddo on to a suitably sized plate and drizzle this manilla-coloured log with honey, and sprinkle with the toasted pine nuts, before slicing. It thaws quickly as it stands, but that is part of its heavenly-textured charm. If you've got some dark, syrupy - indeed, honey-coloured - dessert wine to drink while you eat this, so much the better.

Happy Thanksgiving and good luck to those planning fabulous feasts!