My modus-operandi is such that even if I knew I had guests coming a week or more in advance, I still would do everything at the last minute. To make it more of a challenge, I refrained from even straightening up a day or two ahead which is something I might have done.
The keys to dinner party success are lists, time allocation and keeping the meal somewhat simple using familiar recipes. I had three different kinds of cookies already freshly prepared so I didn't have to think about dessert. I invited my guests the evening before by phone and e-mail. Everyone accepted which was great news. I compiled my lists and timeline while watching TV later that evening. I set the clock for 7 a.m.and slept well knowing I had a busy day ahead.
7 a.m.: The alarm goes off. Was I crazy? It was a really cold morning and I cowered under the covers for a half-hour more immediately throwing off my timeline.
7:30: I set out with list in hand to Pathmark, my local supermarket, not dressed particularly well and hoping not to run into any acquaintances at that early hour. To simplify and save time, I decided to purchase everything in one place rather than run from store to store. If I couldn't find an item, I'd rethink and adjust my menu. I did, however, stop at a bakery for bread but it was in a store I passed on the way home.
8:30: When I pulled up in front of my house, I had everything I needed for the menu and decor. The week before I'd seen willow branches and pussy willows in the supermarket. This is an unusual item for Pathmark and I hoped they would still be there. I was in luck! In addition to those, Pathmark's fresh flower department cooperated with a new shipment of tulips in the colors I wanted.
8:45: While unpacking the bags, I made some tea and toast, organized the fridge and put my purchases away. The tulips went into a large vase to be cut and arranged a bit later.
9:00: I was ready for some cleaning. I dusted all of the furniture except for the dining room, fluffed the pillowS, vaccumed and put away stray items that sneakily find their way into the kitchen in the course of a normal week. Mail and newspapers were placed in one of the shopping bags and stored in my laundry room. I did a downstairs bathroom cleaning and checked to make sure there were enough supplies. The dining room chandelier was going to be decorated with the branches and after the cleaning was done I was ready to go.
10:00: Gathering the branches I purchased in Pathmark, I trimmed and randomly placed them into the crystal tiers and prongs of the lighting fixture. To cover the ends of the branches, I packed some dried moss left over from a craft project around the center creating a kind of nest. I didn't want to overdo the chandelier since it wasn't a holiday and I liked the starkness of the branches. I did find some white clip-on tiny birds stored in my buffet from Christmas and I thought they were perfect.
10:30: Once that was completed, I was ready to remove my table pads and get to 'tablescaping,' a favorite thing of mine to do. For this dinner, I was using white piqué place mats with matching napkins and an bright spring green accent napkins that would sit together in wine glasses folded to look like a white rose withbgreen leaf. I also decided to use my everyday dishes (Butler's Pantry from Lenox). The dishes are white and a bit ornate on the edges. I thought they would blend into the place mat making the tulip centerpiece (in orange) and the green napkins pop. The folded napkins will be detailed step-by-step in tomorrow's post. These are perfect for Easter or Passover dinner and really easy! Tulips are a great centerpiece for a novice horticulturist, they literally arrange themselves! Trim the stems and choose a round medium height bowl. Position 8-10 stems around the edges leaving one for the center. When the bulbs open they'll bend casually toward the tabletop, filling out nicely. I added some small curly willow and pussy willow stems that were too short for the chandelier.
11:30: The table was set. I was ready for an early lunch break, on schedule and feeling pretty good. Let me detail my menu because noon was when I was going to start to prepare the meal. Rather than get into lots of snack foods, cheeses or dips, I opted to make fresh pizzas as an appetizer using prepared fresh dough from the dairy section of the supermarket. I was planning on three large pies all with homemade pesto: one with fresh sliced tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, one with just mozzarella and the last with mozzarella and ricotta cheese. The pizza dough was never put away when I came back from the store earlier and it was rising nicely on my counter top. Next on the menu was salad. I used a mixture of spring mix lettuces and baby spinach leaves. I prepared the salad dressing using a simple recipe from this past week choosing not to 'candy' the pecans. The main course was walnut and pesto pasta. I also tried the pesto last week and you can find the very easy directions for both on the attached link. Dessert was going to be three cookies also part of last week's posts. My guests supplemented with delicious gourmet ice creams and chocolates. The only extra dessert I added was homemade sugar-free biscotti for two guests who are diabetic.
Noon-2p.m.: I was ready to start cooking and first up was preparing two kinds of pesto, one a traditional basil pesto, the other the walnut- parsley pesto. These are easy to make and took less than a half-hour for both. One completed, the pesto was refrigerated and I turned to chopping and grating cheeses and vegetables needed for pizza and the salad. I set aside some parsley and walnuts for garnish and saved some whole leaf basil for the pizza. The lettuce was washed and rebagged, craisins and nuts for the salad were measured and placed where I would remember them. Two other items for the salad, blue cheese and sliced apples, were left unprepared in the refrigerator and accidentally forgotten later being out of sight. I'll be looking for a good blue cheese recipe for this week so it doesn't go to waste! The pasta was set out and the bread and breadsticks still packaged, were set nearby. I used two small ramekins for butter and refrigerated them covered for later. Fresh pecorino romano cheese was grated, covered and set aside.
2 p.m.: Disaster strikes!! OK that was a bit dramatic but things were going so well. Too well. I decided to check on our wines and moved a small wine rack that rests on a buffet server in the dining room. A bottle of red slipped out, breaking on the floor, shattering glass and splashing wine on the wall, floor, table and three of the white place mats! The carefully set table had to be redone in part. I used a wine stain remover I'd had for years finding that while it worked really well, it had a rather unpleasant smell. I opened the kitchen windows, hand washed and then machine washed the mats, cleaned the wall and floor and repolished the table. Sigh.
3 p.m.: Biscotti time. These were easy to make and tasted pretty good using granulated Splenda and a recipe found online. I set the biscotti and other cookies out on a dessert table and added some jelly beans and pastel M&Ms for accent. The biscotti recipe follows.
4 p.m.: Time to take a shower and choose clothes that would be comfortable but appropriate for later.
5 p.m.: I prepared the pizzas before getting dressed. My husband arrived home and I asked him to select some dinner music on his iPod that would last throughout the night. I cleaned the counter, set up the bar, and did a last minute check before getting dressed.
6 p.m.: Basically, I was done with an hour to spare so I took some photos and made sure all of the ingredients were within reach without looking too sloppy. I used an acrylic slotted tray I purchased in a dollar store and it neatly held sliced cheese, tomatoes, garlic, kosher salt and greeted cheeses needed for the pizza, salad and pasta.
7 p.m.: Everything was ready. The guests started to arrive and we had a great evening, eating well but saving room for the ice creams and cookies.
So, yes, you can throw a party in one day, not using a caterer or wait staff. I did forget the sliced apples and blue cheese for the salad and I probably could have squeezed in preparing the candied pecans but I think that I really didn't want to wash another dish! Cleaning the cooking utensils: pots, food processors, chopping block, knives, spoons and forks used in the food preparation eats into time, not to mention cleaning up accidental spills like the wine. I forgot to light the fireplace.
But dinner with good friends and leftovers the following day: priceless!!
Sugar-Free Almond Biscotti
1/4 cup finely chopped almonds
1/2 cup sugar (use granulated Splenda)
2 tablespoons margarine
4 egg whites, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons almond extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
- Preheat oven to 375 degree F. Place almonds in a small baking pan. Bake 7 to 8 minutes until golden brown (watch carefully to avoid burning). Set aside.
- Beat sugar and margarine in medium bowl with electric mixer until smooth. Add egg whites and almond extract; mix well. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl; mix well. Stir egg white mixture and almonds into flour mixture until well blended.
- Spray 1 loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray. Shape dough into a rounded oblong shape, using flour if too sticky. Top with some loose sliced almonds. Bake 15 minutes or until knife inserted into centers comes out clean.
- Remove from oven and turn onto cutting board. As soon loaf is cool enough to handle, cut into 16 (1/2-inch thick) slices. Place slices on baking sheets covered with parchment paper or sprayed with cooking spray. Bake 5 minutes; turn over. Bake 5 minutes more.