Having friends or family over for dinner can be a nightmare for some, but for the home-cook foodie, it’s like being a kid in the candy store. It’s a great excuse to dive in to your cookbooks, favourite food blogs or Instagram or Pinterest boards and get excited about preparing a meal. It means creativity, requires planning, and forces dedicated time in the kitchen engaged in a hobby that you love. There are more grown ups to feed, and, generally speaking, grown ups tend to be less “fickle” with food than kids. You can try different things that may not necessarily go over well with just your own family. Grown ups’ taste buds aren’t as sensitive. You can play with stronger flavours and ingredients such as horseradish or a spicy peanut sauce (what?!?). Basically, you can step it up a few notches, really challenge yourself in the kitchen and embrace your culinary passion.
Wake up meal planner extraordinaire!
Now that you have put out the invitation, your mind is racing with different menus, themes and dishes that you are dying to try. Of course you have to think about your guests when planning your menu. Are they adventurous eaters or do they prefer more plain food? Do they have any dietary restrictions or allergies? Are kids coming? If so, what kid friendly option will be available? That kind of stuff. Some of my favourite family style dishes are pork tenderloin with an amazing peanut sauce, or a no mayo potato salad that can be served at room temperature, or, and this is if you really want to impress and make the house smell AMAZING, a homemade french baguette. Just a few ideas to build your menu around. But if you are a passionate home cook, you already know how to plan a meal. You will most likely be having a ball coming up with a complementary menu that is both easy for you to execute, and exciting enough to challenge your culinary prowess! Run with it!
But what about the execution?
Have you ever spent days planning and preparing for a dinner party only to have something unexpected come up that completely overshadows the amazing meal that you undoubtedly made? The devil is always in the detail, or in this case, the execution.
Last summer, I was cooking dinner for 15 at a condo rental in Southern California. I picked a menu that was fairly simple to execute, as I wasn’t in my home environment, and I knew that everyone would love it. The main dish was Roasted Pork Loin, and I wanted to take advantage of the outdoor sitting area and bbq pit that the complex had.
The view of the ocean and sunset was amazing. So amazing in fact that I got distracted and lost track of time. As the sun set (rather quickly I thought…) I scrambled to get dinner on the table. It was pitch black within minutes, and there was no outdoor lighting that we could find. We ended up having to strap our cellphones with flashlights to the table umbrellas just to see what we were eating. It was a disaster. I missed a step in the timing of the meal; I don’t think anyone remembered or even noticed what we ate. Frustrating to say the least! I beat myself up over that one, but luckily, as Henry Ford said “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”. Amen!
So with my failure comes some tips to help ensure that you don’t fall flat on your face when it’s time to put food on the table:
Plan a Family Style Dinner
In contrast to a plated meal, with family style the food is brought out either as a buffet or placed in the centre of the table. Guests can help themselves to the food and portions that they want. Serving a family style dinner allows you to focus on cooking in advance, without the pressure of timing, plating and serving. Way more fun imho!
Choose your cooking method carefully. A braised dish, casserole or roast is great for a family style dinner as you can make it in advance. Grilling is good too. Make sure everything else is ready, however, before you put your meat on, or have someone else take responsibility for grilling.
Prepare in Advance
Prep as much as you can earlier in the day, and in fact many days before if you can. Use the oven to quickly bring your dishes up to temperature, or select some meals that can be served at room temp.
Even with a family style dinner, timing is important. Do a workback schedule for when you want to sit down. Plan to have all food cooked 30 minutes prior. That leaves 15 mins for slicing, organizing serving trays and getting the food to the table, plus 15 minutes buffer for the unexpected (and there always is unexpected!)
Pan Sear for Service
Use this chef’s trick to warm your meat for serving. Instead of searing and then roasting your meat, you do it the opposite way. Cook your meat to just below your ideal temperature earlier in the day or even the day before. Sear it at high heat just before you sit down. This is especially good if there is even a small chance that your meat will take longer to cook than you plan for. Get it ready and cook it in advance, and then brown and finish it off right before service. This works amazingly well with a sirloin, pork loin or leg of lamb roast. For a better understanding or for target internal temperatures for the initial roast, check out this article on Serious Eats on the Reverse Sear Method.
Ask someone to be responsible for slicing the bread, bringing out the plates, pouring the drinks, etc. There are a lot of little things to be done when bringing a meal together, and guests are generally happy to have a small job.
Serving Spoons and Condiments
When serving a family style dinner, ensure condiments and serving spoons are on table ahead of time. Such a pain in the butt to have to grab them at the last minute.
Visualize the Serving Area
Is there an island for you to put out all the food? What is the logical order for the food to be laid out? Is the table big enough for the platters? What platters are you going to use? Putting a little bit of thought into how the food will be served should ward off any last minute scrambling.
Check for WHATEVER variable you’re dealing with
Beat the Sunset. Trust me on this one. Double check the timing if eating al freso. You should be sitting and reflecting on a great meal while the sun goes down. Not scrambling to serve dinner when you realize it’s getting dark.
Cleaning up the Table in the Dark Sucks
See tip 8. Plan accordingly.
Bringing friends and family together around the table is absolutely a great opportunity to run with an amazing meal plan and have some fun in the kitchen – what we foodies cooking for *sometimes* fickle families absolutely crave. Taking a few extra minutes to plan out the execution will limit the stress and room for unnecessary error.
You can make the most incredible meal in the world, but if you screw up the timing or make a mess of the service, that’s what you will remember. Of course, what your guests remember will depend entirely on how much grace and humour you can pull off – eating by cell phone light wasn’t so bad once my husband pointed out I looked 10 years younger in the glow of an LED light.
But as the sun sets on any meal, it is the laughter and the love that linger longest. To paraphrase a common expression, “don’t let a perfect meal get in the way of great night.”