Iadmit, I’m a recovering party over-planner. As a former chef, I further admit there’s nothing like the pomp of a beautiful meal peppered with flowers, various utensils, good china, all the accoutrements of a well-planned gathering. But awhile back, my parties changed forever, and I hope yours will, too. Here’s my story — and a few recipes to tuck away for a rainy or sunny day because any day is perfect for a party.
Some years ago, I received a call from a shipper saying a friend had gifted me 20 pounds of fresh limited run sashimi-grade Copper River salmon coming in two hours (don’t ask). With this kind and amount of premium product and no freezer space to store it, we had to have a party, it had to be tonight, and it had to be a big one. We crossed our fingers hoping people would be available on such short notice and started dialing friends at noon for a party that evening.
Who knew short notice on a weeknight would yield such a showing – we received 40 replies. Turns out people change plans on a dime when the alternative to foraging in the fridge (for the leftover chicken leg and soggy waffle) is all-you-can-eat sashimi-grade salmon and chilled sauvignon blanc!
This was not our usual event, and with four hours’ notice and prep time, we could barely shove the dirty laundry under the bed and fire up the grill before guests began arriving. We threw together some sauces, baked a one-bowl chocolate cake (more on that later), and crossed our fingers.
When the party was over, and the food decimated (the sign of either appreciation or lousy lunch choices), we were embarrassed to discover we’d forgotten to set out glasses (a guest kindly set them out). We also failed to change the bathroom hand towels (ours had toothpaste on them). Somehow, we had even managed to miscalculate the number of attendees: people were sharing plates — literally, and not in the “can I sample that” restaurant way!
Still, we never received more compliments, and invariably, our apologies for the messy house and failure to put on a party with our usual aplomb and finesse were met with…“Are you kidding? That was the best party I’ve been to in years.”
People loved the fresh fish, but it was much more than that. The ease guests felt knowing their presence was not predicated on dressing up, making a 4-hour time commitment, or rushing to find the obligatory hostess gift after a hard day’s work, made the event relaxing for everyone. Seeing the human and everyday side of our piles of mail (much like their own) shoved in a corner, we were told later, made our friends feel more comfortable about taking off their regular weekday game face and enjoying the midweek respite. We learned a few things ourselves: time spent on friendships is more precious and rewarding than time making sure the best napkins are ironed.
Life is about carving out and sharing moments in time with friends; it’s about celebrating relationships. As we mature, we learn the hard way that if we miss our opportunities for fellowship, they might not come around again. Tomorrow is not promised, but if we live right today, such knowledge does not have to loom heavy.
Just have the party!
If you have a couple of hours to share with a few friends, turn it into a party, even if recounting the details might not be an appropriate share later at the church gossip circle. Here are a few ideas and suggestions:
Boldly, Go! Think beyond the house or restaurant gathering; some of the best events often have as their backdrop another activity or view. Any place with a bench or little room for a blanket can make a perfect location for a pop-up party. An old backpack (I call it a Go-bag) filled with a corkscrew, blanket, cutting board, an old tablecloth, some attractive dishtowels, a few unbreakable wine glasses, and some cutlery from the thrift store stored in the hall closet or car means you’re ready at a moment’s notice.
Your community is your oyster. Consider the grassy spot across from a gorgeous fountain, after grabbing some take-out sandwiches and a cold six-pack. Commandeer the public benches on a river walk and enjoy cheese and crackers and a crisply chilled sauvignon blanc. If you’re headed to a relative’s sporting event, practice or tournament, bring your Go-bag and dine with style (even concession fries and an iced tea taste better with festive cloth napkins and a pretty glass).
Saturday morning, park the car at a trailhead and share a tailgate of hot coffee and energy bars with friends before a hike (have friends bring their own cups). When it’s warm, eschew the rush and noise of a pre-theater restaurant crowd; instead, tailgate right in the parking lot! The wine – and your parking spot – will be better, and you don’t have to experience anxiety pangs rushing the server to bring you your check, so you make the event on time. You’re already there, and well fed.
Stock the Bar. Sparkling and flavored waters, and wine are staples in our home, so it’s easy to set out (or pack up) a quick, serviceable, and inexpensive bar. Also, with changes in vintner bottling techniques, “box wine” doesn’t equate to “bad wine” any longer, and you don’t have to settle for corks, or even breakable bottles to obtain good drinkable wines that keep and/or travel well. Experiment with and stock some cans for the impromptu tailgate or picnic (Union Wine Co. makes a pretty decent canned pinot). Save your good wines for those times when you’re inviting friends into your space; jostling them in the car isn’t going to do them any favors.
Can’t get with plastic wine glasses? I feel you. Spanish bodega glasses are stemless, inexpensive ($24 for 6, Pottery Barn), and they stack and travel well for a quick, casual event. They are also multi-purpose: when they aren’t holding cocktails or wine, bodega glasses double nicely as sauce holders, small soup bowls, and even floating candle holders. Instant elan!
Bring Back the House Cocktail. Ah, the ’60s! No need to go through the expense of a full bar. If your pop-up party is at home, make your own signature house cocktail (my mother always served Lillet and soda with an orange twist). Signature drinks cut down on the price of a party and add a bespoke element to your event. My 5-minute go-to cocktail for summer, basil cucumber lemonade, starts out non-alcoholic and but can be spiked. In order to make the drink, you’ll need to choose your favorite lemonade recipe (or buy some frozen, never powdered), and add one muddled cucumber per ½ gallon of lemonade, then place fresh basil sprigs and thinly sliced cucumber in each glass. Guests may opt to add their own gin and vodka, or simply drink it with a fizzy splash of club soda.
Pair it with Pizza. If the wine shop owner told you those expensive wines you bought are drinkable now, don’t wait for the perfect meal; it may never happen (and anyway, who wants to get a stain on the heirloom linen Aunt Flo gave you?). Rather, invite your most discerning wine friends over for a tasting with pizza and salad, and let the wines appropriately take center stage. For fun, wrap the bottles in foil, hand out index cards, and allow people to guess what they’re drinking and describe what they taste (secretly throw a $2.00 bottle into the mix and see what happens).
Sauce Up the Pantry. These days, most grocery chains have hot food tables where you can grab a quick dinner or some fresh, precut vegetables to add to an appetizer table, but having a few reliable staples readily on hand that can quickly satisfy a diverse crowd is far more economical. Moreover, it can turn a good meal into a great one with little effort. My refrigerator is never without Chimichurri sauce, which I can use to create a memorable meal in under 20 minutes. Flavor any vegetable soup with a heaping spoonful, add it to sour cream for a last-minute dip, combine it with fresh tomatoes or cream for a delectable pasta platter, or serve in its traditional South American form with grilled meat.
Chimichurri lasts for weeks in the refrigerator and can jazz up a party with limited prep time. To make it, pack your blender with 1 head (about 1 ½ packed cup) of parsley (stems removed), 6 garlic cloves, ½ cup lemon juice, 1 tsp oregano, ½ tsp red chili flakes, and 1 cup extra virgin olive oil. Store this transformative mixture in a covered jar for up to 1 month, to have on hand and whip out whenever you need to make a quick and zesty meal or create a delicious appetizer.
A giant mason jar filled with sesame garlic sauce can flavor take-out foods, turn noodles into a mean, and even serves as a marinade for everything from portobello mushrooms to pork belly. Just mix 1 cup of good quality soy sauce with 2 cloves of chopped garlic, one tablespoon of fresh chopped ginger, 1 tsp. of sriracha sauce, and ¼ cup each of water, toasted sesame oil, and rice wine vinegar. This sauce gets better and more taste-saturated with age. Refrigerated, it will keep for up to a year.
Keeping ingredients for dressings on hand also allows you to pair vibrant summer salads with pizza or burgers to make a simple but elegant meal in a snap. My favorite go-to dressing that can be dressed up or down (and double as a chicken or fish marinade) is just a whisking of ¼ cup champagne vinegar, 2 tsp. each of Dijon mustard, fresh chopped shallots, 1 tsp. honey, and 2/3 of a cup of extra-virgin olive oil. Add the dressing to fresh baby spinach leaves topped with fresh sliced strawberries and pecans; toss it with mixed greens; drizzle it over fresh sliced tomatoes, or stir it into mayonnaise for the base of a rich and flavorful artichoke and asparagus dip.
Cheese makes a party! At least that’s my motto which is why I always have several small wheels of brie or camembert as staples in the freezer. When the after-work hangout suddenly turns into a domino throw-down at my place, I pull out the salted peanuts and serve a baked brie.
I slice the brie off at the top, place it in a baking dish and sprinkle it with about a ¼ cup of brown sugar and ¼ cup of pecans. Bake the brie for about 20-25 minutes at 325 degrees. Serve the cheese with crisp sliced apples and crackers for dipping while you wait for the Chinese take-out to arrive. Create a snack dinner with fresh hot popcorn drizzled with butter, salt, and – wait for it – white truffle oil.
Dessert closes any gathering on a sweet note. In a pinch, I’ve been known to serve fresh berries with a giant bowl of Chantilly cream (heavy cream whipped and flavored with powdered sugar and pure vanilla). One time, I threw chocolate in and served it as the world’s fastest chocolate mousse (no one was the wiser). If I know the party is going to go long, I’ll whip up a chocolate loaf cake that requires no eggs or milk. Make this handy mix in advance, and store it in a zipper bag for an emergency treat: 1 cup cocoa powder, 2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, ½ tsp salt, 1 tsp baking soda. When you’re ready to make, fold in the dry mix with 1 cup water or soy milk, 1 tsp each of white vinegar and pure vanilla, and 1/3 cup of vegetable oil, then bake for 55 minutes in a greased 9-inch round cake pan at 350 degrees. Let cool for 15 minutes, then remove from the pan and serve dusted with powdered sugar, or if there’s time, decorate it and (if you like) with a bourbon, neat.
True Confession. I don’t think I’ll ever really tire of sitting at a perfectly primped table, eating a 5-course meal expertly prepared and balanced. There’s a time and place for it, and I will always love, seek out, and create these experiences. Nevertheless, I will also remain grateful for that rushed shipment of fresh fish, because it taught me that transforming a day into an event takes no time and pays off in surprising benefits. I’ll take that blessing over a silver fish fork and some Waterford any day.
Cheers, and bon appétit!