There's nothing worse than throwing a party for your friends and not having time to enjoy it. No host wants to be stuck in the kitchen juggling last minute dinner details while everyone else is having fun.
But how do you manage to get everything done and still be able to participate in the festivities? How about a few tricks of the trade from a professional chef to assist in the planning of your next get-together?
As executive chef at Chateau Souverain Winery in California's northern Sonoma County, Martin Courtman is responsible not only for the winery restaurant but a range of private events from large weddings to small cocktail parties. He has picked up a few helpful tips that he uses when he and his wife entertain at home.
First and foremost -- plan ahead. “The best parties are those that give you time to prepare, relax and have fun. Choose your menu, make lists, do the shopping, and make as much of the food in advance as possible,” says Courtman.
Second, be realistic when deciding what kind of party you want to have. If it's a party for 20 or more, maybe a cocktail party with heavy hors d’oeuvres would work better than a big dinner. When Courtman is preparing a menu for a wedding or large party at the winery, he focuses on unique recipes that are also easy to make. His recipe for Crostini with Apple Puree and Brie is an example of a delicious hors d’oeuvre that you can make almost entirely in advance (see below).
If you have a smaller group, consider a casual dinner featuring your favorite comfort foods. Choose menu items that can be made in advance and easily reheated. For smaller groups, you can partially cook parts of the menu and then flash cook at the end so time in the kitchen is limited.
Here are some suggestions for impressive, yet simple-to-make menu items:
* Hors de oeuvres -- Easy and elegant: cheese platter with fruit and crostini. So many great artisan cheeses are available now. Get suggestions from your local deli or charcouterie for interesting and fun cheese selections that go well with your favorite wine. They’ll often offer serving suggestions as well.
* Skewers and kabobs are easy and popular with guests. They can be made in advance -- pick ingredients that fit with your theme or are fresh and in season -- a guaranteed smash hit.
* Main dishes -- For larger dinner parties, pick favorite comfort foods like soup, cassoulet or slow cooked meals from crock pots. Hint: If using a crock pot, be sure to sear your meat first before adding it to the pot with the other ingredients. This way the meat won’t break down, and will preserve the flavor and juices.
* For smaller get-togethers, choose larger pieces of meat such as rack of lamb, roast beef, turkey or rib-eye steak that can cook while the guests arrive. Create interesting compound butters and marinades you can make ahead, and then serve alongside the meat.
* Choose side dishes that can be partially cooked in advance. Blanch vegetables ahead of time, then shock in cold water to stop the cooking. Do a quick sauté before it’s time to serve and you’re done. Root vegetables are perfect -- roast in the oven in advance with olive oil, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Simply reheat.
If you plan ahead and choose the right menu items for your next get-together, you’ll have no problem getting out and enjoying your own party. Here’s a great hors d’oeuvre suggestion you may want to try:
Martin Courtman’s Crostini with Apple Puree and Brie
Makes 40 pieces
1 large French baguette, sliced on the diagonal in 1/4-inch thick slices
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
Turn on the broiler or gas grill. Spread one side of each slice of bread lightly with butter. Arrange the slices on a baking sheet (you may have to do this in a couple of batches) and broil until golden brown -- approximately 1 and 1/2 to 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a rack to cool. The crostini may be made up to 2 days ahead and kept in an airtight container at room temperature.
1 pound Granny Smith apples peeled, cored, and cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon lemon zest, finely grated
1 lemon, juiced
1/4 cup water
Place the apples, lemon zest and juice in a non-reactive saucepan. Add a dash of sugar to taste (just enough to balance the tartness). Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until the apples have fallen apart. Remove the lid and let cook gently until reduced to a thick texture, stirring frequently. The time will vary depending upon how much water the apples contain. When a thick texture is reached, pour into a bowl and chill.
8 ounces Brie cheese, cut into 40 pieces
Spread a small amount of apple puree onto each crostini and place a piece of softened brie on top of the puree. Sprinkle a little freshly ground black pepper for a nice finish and serve. (The cheese may be cut in advance -- bring to room temperature before proceeding with recipe.)
Martin Courtman recommends Granny Smith apples for this recipe because the tartness and acidity in the apple, together with the brie cheese offers balanced flavors that go well with wine. Wine pairing suggestion: 2002 Chateau Souverain Sonoma County Chardonnay ($14) or 2001 Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($19)
For more recipes and information, visit www.chateausouverain.com.