I rarely “entertain”. I do often have family or friends over for a nice meal, it’s just that everything about the event is pretty casual—non-eventful, in a good way. Even calling the “invitation” that is a bit much for what’s nothing more than the spontaneous discovery that we are all available a particular night. Once the date is set, the expectations are simply that I remember that someone’s allergic to X or maybe that Y makes them want to puke, and that friends come ready to eat a lot, even if it’s just a pot of spaghetti or a recipe I’m testing for this magazine. But that’s just “having people over for dinner”, right? You wouldn’t call that entertaining. I think the thing that sets entertaining apart from simply eating and drinking together is the sense of purpose. To mark a birthday. To say goodbye. To ring in a new year. An occasion.
There are telltale signs that your non-event is a bonafide event, one being that you wonder what to wear. Whether to get a little ‘fancy pants’ about it, like literally, do you maybe want to find those fancy pants of yours and attempt to get that huge wrinkle out of them. As far as planning goes, a fancier-pants occasion makes me scratch my head and stare into space for days on end while trying to come up with a menu. I try to figure out the main course first, at last deciding on something just perfect! And then scrap it minutes later when I realize what I’ve picked takes 5 days to make and is guaranteed to have James and I whisper-fighting in the kitchen while everyone else is sipping a cocktail in the living room. Eventually James and I both agree on a menu that we know our guests will really enjoy and one that is special enough for a celebration. The menu within is just that, and the recipes are not so strict that you can’t tweak them to fit your own party perfectly. Maybe your guests don’t like lamb, some of mine don’t either, but the flavours in that roast would go equally well with beef. Maybe you’ll have vegetarian guests at the table, so do what I do and double the risotto bundles which are rich and filling enough to be the main course (I created them to be a main course when I was on a meat-free diet myself). And you’ll notice a note here and there about what you can make in advance, as well as a very straightforward cocktail, appetizer and dessert. Simple and special can go hand in hand, plus this menu saves the most memorable things for the meat of the meal as it were.
My parents, aunts, cousins–they entertain often and I have learned a thing or two about the art of doing so successfully from them. At our large family events, regardless of who’s hosting, no rooms are off limits, especially not the kitchen, however busy. They fit extra seats into every nook and everyone ends up hanging out with everyone regardless of age or how well they know each other. The kids table is about a time (slightly earlier than the standard 9pm dinner bell ring) rather than a place, since sometimes all of the seats are full and you eat on the staircase. The best events, even though they may employ the good glasses, finer spirits and special ingredients, always have an air of ease. The hosts are not fussing over people or flow or conversation, they charge their guests with making themselves comfortable which, I think, is a great trick to make people feel at home in what is not their home. There’s something about feeling free to walk into an unfamiliar kitchen, refill your drink, and maybe even someone else’s, to make you feel like you are part of the party. Most importantly, the hosts do not stress. Not about spills or late guests and definitely not about food that’s taking a long time to re-heat or that might not taste like it just came out of the oven, because it didn’t. So while I have tips inside about how to make the recipes with ease, my best tip is the one I picked up from these hosts, which is to worry less about the whole thing overall. Put your fancy pants on and then really enjoy.