OK. Thanksgiving is tomorrow. Your turkey is brining, your pies are baking. It’s too early to cook the sweet potatoes, blanch the green beans, or roast the turkey. So we have time to cozy up for a nice chat.
The first Thanksgiving I ever cooked without the August wisdom of my mother and aunts was my junior year in college. I was studying abroad in London, and our study abroad program had been kind enough to purchase the fixings for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and offer to host it at the center where we took classes (which was a gorgeous Georgian terrace house with a huge kitchen). My roommate and I, filled with the cockiness of youth, volunteered to host. Then the requests started. “We’re having mashed potatoes, right? It’s not Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes.” “My family always had roasted potatoes.” (Dramatic sigh) “It’s hard to be so far away from family on Thanksgiving.” “What do you mean you can’t find sweet potatoes in London?” (It was true — things that proved difficult to make in London in 1998 included sweet potatoes with marshmallows, cornbread, and cranberry sauce.) Even the Brits, who by all rights should have had no skin in the game — offered an opinion. “We always wrap our turkey in bacon.” “What do you mean you don’t know what parsnips are? You have to have parsnips with turkey!”
Eventually we shooed them out of the kitchen, opened (several) bottles of wine, roasted the turkey (sans bacon), the potatoes AND the parsnips, mashed potatoes as well, and even managed to get marshmallows and sweet potatoes kindly brought over by my roommate’s parents who visited the week before Thanksgiving. Dinner was a raging success (if I do say so myself), but it’s possible that I had had enough wine that I’m not exactly remembering correctly. There are a couple of photos from that dinner, including one of my then-boyfriend, now husband (wearing what appears to be an undershirt, which he would never get away with now), and we are DEFINITELY a few sheets to the wind.
It was a learning experience, though. Thanks to that Thanksgiving, and a few more I picked up over many years of Thanksgivings, here are some tips I have on hosting Thanksgiving.
- Overbuy on the wine. Family gatherings can be seriously fraught. Tempers run high, people get stressed. Things are said. One year my father in law came to our family Thanksgiving and my grandmother had told our whole family his name was Bruce. Which it is not. Wine is a social lubricant. If your family doesn’t drink, well, spike the punch. Thanksgiving is an EMERGENCY. Just watch Uncle Mort’s glass — there’s just enough wine to make everyone happy and relaxed, and then there’s too much wine. Have some sparkling water or juice to offer as a chaser.
- You can’t please everyone. Most people have a VERY SPECIFIC IDEA of what Thanksgiving dinner looks like. I believe that Thanksgiving dinners should be potluck — make it your guest’s problem. If your friend John NEEDS to have green bean casserole on Thanksgiving, tell him to bring it. Anyone can make Green Bean Casserole. Seriously.
- Turn off the football. At least for dinner. That’s what DVR is for, right? We as Americans are constantly distracted. There should be ONE meal a year where everyone sits down and focuses on what they’re eating and who they’re eating it with.
- Seating Charts are Lame. One year we went to my husband’s family for Thanksgiving, and we were seated at the kids’ table. With the kids of some friends of theirs. We were 25. We were seated with an 8 year old and a 10 year old we had never met before. Rule of thumb: If you are paying taxes, you do not have to sit at the kids’ table. If there are only 2 kids, make their parents sit with them, instead of forcing them on strangers. Or you know, let people sit where they want. I know! A novel concept in this day and age.
- Nobody cares about the food. I mean, I care about the food, because I like to cook, and I like to eat good food, but honestly, once you’re sitting down, with the warm glow of wine and family, nobody’s treating this like a restaurant meal. Nobody really cares if the turkey’s a touch on the dry side, the cranberry sauce is too tart, the pie crust isn’t flaky enough. This holiday isn’t really about food — food is just an excuse. It’s a holiday about gathering together and being thankful to have people to gather with. To take a day to think about our blessings, to celebrate our luck. Food is what it always is — the glue that binds people together – the universal experience. The things you remember about Thanksgiving aren’t that year Auntie Suzi made the mincemeat pie (although my Auntie Suzi makes a great mincemeat pie), but the experiences and the people you share them with. The funny stories, the awkward seating arrangements, the holidays in a foreign land. Relax, and be thankful.
Holiday dinners, holiday parties, intimate gatherings with family and friends — cooking is key, but you have to decorate too. You could buy the obligatory bunch of grocery store flowers and stick them in the vase that those roses came in last Valentine’s Day, or you could exercise a little thought and creativity and come up with a simple centerpiece on a budget.
I’m no whiz at floral arranging, but I have a few tips on designing your own centerpieces:
- Keep it low. The last thing you want at a dinner party is to discourage conversation by plopping a giant arrangement in the middle of the table! Let your guests see each others’ smiling faces!
- Forget the flowers. Flowers can be great, but they’re also a little expected. There are all sorts of other interesting items you can use in an arrangement. See below for some ideas.
- Move away from the mixed bouquets. If you do use flowers, avoid those bouquets of 10 different types. Either they cost a fortune or they scream “grocery store!” Stick to one or two types of flowers with interesting colors and textures.
- Go crazy with your container. There’s a place for a simple glass vase, but other containers can also lend some pizzazz to a plain arrangement.
Below are ideas for five simple centerpieces you can recreate at home or adapt using the materials you have:
1. A pumpkin we will go
A hollowed pumpkin makes a great vase that lends any arrangement a seasonal air. Here, I combined tiny yellow mums (from the grocery store) with purple Mexican sage (which is taking over my garden). These are combined in a glass jar that’s placed inside a hollowed-out pie pumpkin.
2. A study in scarlet
Seasonal fruits are beautiful and always appetizing on a table. Here I’ve arranged a few pomegranates — one of my favorite, striking fruits — on a bed of cranberries, with their deep red shine. To give this an extra holiday flair, I’ve used a green dish.
3. Chestnuts roasting and an open fire
I always think chestnuts are beautiful and seasonal, and I want to buy them but I don’t want to peel them. Using them for decoration solves this problem. Here, I’ve arranged several chestnuts on a low white tray and placed tealights among them.
4. Citrus Shine
A large bowl of fruit is beautiful and seasonal, and guests may be tempted to help themselves after dinner is finished! I always associate clementines and their scent with the Christmas holidays, and the bright color is welcome on a dark day. I think a simple silver bowl sets off the shining orange beautifully.
5. Christmas Classic
Most arrangements have all the color up top in a rather plain container. Placing cranberries in a glass vase and arranging greens in the berries (here, sprigs of rosemary, which offer a lovely piney scent and also grow like a weed in my garden) inverts expectations and provides holiday colors and fragrance.
All of these took less than five minutes to put together, and would add to any holiday table. What are your favorite holiday centerpieces?
It started with the smell.
I arrived home from work Friday night, Nuni in tow, and was greeted by a smell, emanating from the kitchen. A TERRIBLE smell. It wasn’t the trash — Friday is trash day, and ours was empty as a result. Knowing that we had four people coming over to our house the next day for a fancy dinner party, Ken and I spent Friday night tearing apart the kitchen, scrubbing every surface, and spraying Lysol with abandon, trying to find and eradicate the source of the smell. An overnight with the windows open and a generous application of Lysol had relegated the smell to the background, but I should have known then that this was a harbinger of things to come.
When I saw the Project Food Blog Round 3 Challenge, throw a luxury dinner party, I thought, “No sweat.” I had just had twenty people over to my house for a three year old birthday party. I was channeling Martha Stewart. How hard can dinner for six be? I invited friends and proceeded to plan a menu.
When it comes to menu planning for a dinner party, the three principles to keep in mind are timing, balance, and cohesion. Timing — You don’t want to spend the entire party in the kitchen, so meals that require lots of last minute fiddling are inadvisable. Balance — although it’s tempting to load up on rich dishes at a fancy dinner party, you don’t want your guests to feel like they have to roll home. Think about finding a balance between heavier dishes and lighter ones — dishes that lull the palate and those that wake it up. Finally, think about cohesion. Unless you have a theme of eclecticism, you might want to think twice before serving miso soup followed by tacos. In a good menu, each course should feel like it belongs together and proceeds logically from the previous one.
I knew from the moment I read the prompt that I wanted to make tarte tatin, the classic French upside down apple tart. It can be made in advance and is always impressive and delicious. Tarte Tatin heavily features butter and apples, two specialties of the Normandy region of France, which led me to decide on a main course — Pork Tenderloin cooked “a la Normande” – with butter, apples and cream. Looking for both balance and cohesion in the rest of the menu, I decided to go with an apple theme, alternating the richer courses (Pork Normande, Tarte Tatin, and hors d’oeuvres of a creamy chicken liver pate and a cheese spread both served on apple slices) with lighter fare (a beet and apple carpaccio with horseradish cream and an endive and apple salad to clear the palate before dessert). Once I had set the menu, I turned to the experts for wine pairing advice — in this case my aunt Suzi, who used to work at a winery and is a fabulous cook to boot. The menu was set.
Saturday morning I woke up early, hoping to hit the road and go shopping. Two and a half hours later (I have a three year old. Have you ever tried to get out of the house with one? It’s a project.) the Nuni and I were on the road, hitting the first of THREE stores. Turns out Cabernet Franc? Not so easy to find. And I’m picky about apples — I miss the New England varieties we used to get in New York, and Washington State apples that have been shipped to California just aren’t the same. I came home with all my ingredients, and a boatload of apples, only an hour or so behind schedule and without wine to serve with the main course. No sweat. I placed an online order at BevMo for Ken to pick up later, packed the Nuni off to her Nonna and Pappi’s, set the table for inspiration, and proceeded to cook.
The next wrinkle popped up when Ken informed me that instead of acting as my sous chef, house tidier and delivery boy, he had work to do. No sweat. I had built in some extra time into my schedule. I sat down with my apple peeler and got to work. Beets roasted, pate made, cheese spread chilling in the fridge. Ken relented enough to pick up the wine. I set the table so I wouldn’t have to worry about it. And I set to making my tarte tatin. Apples peeled, cored and halved, butter and sugar bubbling away. The apples weren’t cooking down the way I thought they should, but I didn’t worry about it. The sugar was looking very, very brown, but I didn’t worry about it. Popped on the pastry top, and popped it in the oven. When it came out, Ken, who thinks I’m a klutz (probably with good reason), offered to flip it onto the plate for me. He fitted the plate to the (HOT) pan, eyeballed it, and did a flip, spraying tarte tatin juices all over himself. Burning hot, caramelized sugar, sticky napalm tarte tatin juices. Which promptly raised huge red blisters on his unprotected foot. Worse than that, I looked at the tarte and my heart sank — the sugar had caramelized too much, the apples had disintegrated and blackened; the tart could not be served.
Now I was starting to sweat. But not panic. I should probably note that if I were sane and this were not a blog dinner party, I would have moved on to plan B for dessert — good vanilla ice cream with dark chocolate over it; my killer chocolate chip cookies, or these gooey chocolate puddings that take ten minutes to make and are perfect for situations like this. But we’re talking Project Food Blog here, so sanity went out the window. Ken was dispatched to the store to fetch more apples; I calmly sliced up the beets for the carpaccio and the endive for the salad. He brought back apples, which I peeled, cored sliced and quartered, and caramelized on the stove, this time watching like a hawk. This time the apples yielded their juice before disintegrating, the caramel cooked the apples before burning. I was ready to put on the pastry lid and pop it in the oven, when I realized the sheet of puff pastry I had bought earlier had thawed to the point that it was stuck together in a block, not a sheet. Knowing it was just laminated dough, I folded it up and rolled it out, and that was that. Only it wasn’t, of course, No matter how well I rolled that dough, the second I tried to remove it from the rolling surface and place it on the apples, it would shrink. I rerolled it; it re shrank. I stuck it in the freezer for a few minutes to chill before rolling; it still shrank.
Now I was sweating in earnest. There may have been tears. I may have thrown a cutting board across the kitchen. When my husband innocently asked if I had begun the main course, he may have been the target of a stream of invective. Ken was dispatched to the store AGAIN to get more puff pastry.
And I turned to the number one principle of throwing a dinner party: NEVER LET THEM SEE YOU SWEAT. I started a load of dishes, took a shower, put on a chic little black dress, gold flats and some mascara, and chugged a glass of champagne (very few domestic crises can’t be vastly improved by a LBD and a liberal application of champagne). When Ken returned, the kitchen was cleaner, the wife was party-ready, and the main course was at least begun.
By the time the guests arrived, the tarte tatin was in the oven (and the old one hidden away), the main course was simmering on the stovetop, the first course was plated, and cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were on the coffee table. And I had a champagne flute in my hand, and was smiling cheerily.
Continue reading Luxury Dinner Party — It Began with the Tarte Tatin…