Photo by Helen Norman
If you can learn one thing from me I would like it to be to entertain more often and be comfortable with it. A lot of people call this Southern hospitality, whose traditional definition is, "Showing graciousness, kindness, and warmth to others." What better way to show genuine hospitality than opening your home to someone?
When I host my cooking classes and culinary weekends at Twin Oaks, the message I try to get across is, "Opening your home is gift enough." Whether I prepare one of my elaborate menus of quail in a black pepper crust with corn pudding stuffed with mustard greens followed by pineapple short cake with crème brulee ice cream or just grilled hot dogs I feel comfortable that my guests will enjoy being here.
My brother-in-law Dr. Bob Brahan, whom I consider very wise, said to me not long ago that we are creating a society of people who are losing the ability communicate face to face; by texting, emailing, and Twittering we are becoming a faceless society. He wonders if our youth will not have the ability to make eye contact in the future.
Like Bob, I believe we need to be around people. I feel so fortunate that I have constant contact with such a variety of people. I have my morning coffee group; seven mornings a week I start my day out with a group of fractious but entertaining gentlemen (the same group I play Thursday night poker with--they are even more fractious and even more entertaining when it comes to our weekly Texas hold 'em tournament).
I have a continuous stream of family and friends visiting. I have my guests that come for the weekend cooking classes. And I have my eight or ten brides a year who, by the end of creating their perfect day, become friends for life. As much as I open my home and enjoy it, I have to confess I also relish my Sunday nights where I can have my PJs on by 6 p.m., a glass of red wine and remote control in my hands--I need "me" time as well.
I am a chef, and cooking comes easily for me, as cooking is what I do. I understand that cooking and entertaining is more of a task for others. So I am going to share some of my secrets that make entertaining more enjoyable:
• Find a dish that becomes your signature dish that people look forward to having when they come to your home, preferably one you can make the day before.
• Entertain within your budget. There are many great dishes that are not expensive to make. Shop for a wine that is in your budget and make it your "house wine"; pour it into a pretty decanter, and it will taste better. Use greenery from your garden for centerpieces, or use anything of interest for your table. It does not have to be expensive flowers. You may have a bottle collection, rock collection, even seashells from the dollar store, or you can always let the food be the centerpiece.
• Create traditions with your friends. I have two friends I enjoy seeing, but we all stay busy, so when we get together it is spur-of-the-moment. I always prepare omelets (that is our thing). I have a party every year for Balloon Race weekend, and I always have the same menu: my pumpkin chili, grilled sausages, and candied apples.
• Decide a night or day that is the easiest night for you to entertain. Maybe you have a housekeeper that comes on Thursdays so entertain on Wednesdays so you will have help cleaning up, or entertain on a Friday because your house is already clean.
• Prepare in stages. Set your table two or three days in advance. Shop two days in advance, as most of your ingredients can be purchased two to three days in advance.
• Cook and freeze. I cook and freeze all the time; soups, flavored butters, bread, and many dessert recipes freeze. The best pastry chefs in France freeze their cakes.
• Buy (some) prepared items. It can be a salad dressing or a rotisserie chicken from your market. If you can find something to enhance your meal without work, go for it and build around it. If you find a good rotisserie chicken then you can focus on a couple of good side dishes. If dessert is not your thing, buy one or serve an ice cream-blended cocktail for dessert such as a Brandy Alexander or grasshopper with crème de menthe in a pretty glass.
My recipe for a successful dinner party: Invite people you know, new people you would like to know better, or a mix of the two. Prepare a meal (any meal), and make it easy on yourself--don't be a martyr. Never share the amount of work that went into the meal. Never apologize even if dinner is overcooked or undercooked. Make light of it, we are all human--just have plenty of bread (and wine won't hurt). Whether you live in the North, South, East, or West, hospitality is hospitality--it is always a gift.
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