Category Archives: Entertaining with ease – or not

Waifs and Strays Christmas

Christmas dinner turkeyMy partner and I were alone one Christmas. We realized a few of our friends would be too so we invited them for Christmas dinner. As you do especially at festive seasons, we said “bring anyone”. We thought we’d have about eight total. That was about all we could comfortably seat, ten at a squeeze.

We had a big turkey and everything else we needed, including a home-made pie my partner had made. It was red currant and gooseberry, from berries we’d picked from our bushes and frozen that year. We’d said don’t bring anything, we’ve got it covered.

Late afternoon, guests started arriving. Got the first ones seated and put eggnog in their hands. Then more, bringing friends with them. Got them seated and nogged. And more arrived, and more – some we knew, some we didn’t. Twenty-five or thirty people turned up. We needed more seating and more tables. Guests rummaged through the house, finding tables and chairs and moving them into the kitchen. I found table cloths and rooted out more plates and cutlery. Fortunately, some guests had brought something with them – a salad, dessert, buns. I found serving spoons.

Christmas dinner relay fashion

The room was long and narrow with furniture on both sides. Four tables were placed end to end, table cloths thrown over them. They weren’t all the same height so care had to be taken where they met. Chairs, stools and wooden boxes were placed along either side. People filed into place, human legs found their way around table legs. When the food was ready to serve, I stood at the end nearest the kitchen and passed the bowls and platters to those at that end of the table. They passed them, relay fashion, down the length of the table. As the bowls were emptied, they were passed back up. There wasn’t space to leave serving dishes on the table.

Probably their turkey was cold by the time people got their gravy and potatoes. But the turkey always goes cold – it’s a law of Christmas dinner. The gravy simmered on the stove so gravy boats and bowls could be refilled quickly. Everything else that fit sat on the woodstove near the tables so they kept warm and were handy for refills. After dinner, we couldn’t go anywhere else. There was too much furniture to move and people were too full. So we cleared the table as best we could, piled everything in the kitchen, and sat around the table for several more hours.

It was chaotic and crazy, and I can’t think of a better Christmas dinner. The food was wonderful, the laughter even more wonderful.

Here’s the recipe for The Perfect Roast Turkey (pictured at top).

Coleman Stove Stir Fry

beef and tomato stir fry - dinner partyThis is a success story, a risky entertaining move that worked. Years ago when I knew something about cooking but not a lot about having dinner parties, I wanted to have one.

My then-partner and I were renovating a house. The living and dining rooms had been drywalled, the floors were bare boards not yet sanded. The kitchen was totally ripped apart. The refrigerator was in the hallway, the sink worked but there was no countertop. There was no stove. We cooked on a two-burner Coleman stove.

My partner talked about having a big party when the renovations were finished. I was terrified by that idea. I felt safer having a gathering while work was in progress. That way, expectations would be low. If anything was edible, people would be pleasantly surprised. To his credit, my partner agreed to this rather insane plan. We invited ten or twelve people. There was no furniture in the house, so we laid a hollow-core door across saw horses. We dug out big cushions for seating around the table.

Stir fry for a dinner party

The only thing I could think of to cook in a large enough quantity to feed a dozen people using only 2 burners and an electric rice steamer was a stir fry. I made beef and tomato with peppers, both red and green, onion and water chestnuts. I’d done all the chopping and slicing beforehand, had the rice washed and ready to go. People had pre-dinner drinks while sitting on their cushions or walking around looking at our construction site. I put the rice on to cook, brought everything else to the wok and the Coleman stove sitting on a board on sawhorses in the dining room and began stir frying. When it was done, people helped themselves to rice straight from the steamer and I served the stir fry straight from the wok. It was delicious – everything hot, tomato chunks slightly softened, other veggies slightly crisp.

It was an evening that was talked about, in a good way, for a long time after. I also never did a planned dinner party like that again. I figured it had worked once and best to quit while I was ahead.

Here is a recipe for beef and tomato stir fry. The Amazon link below is for a round bottom wok, which can be hard to find and are preferable to flat bottom ones in my opinion.


Meal plans

When you’re making a meal, buy the right parts and remember all of it. I learned this one New Year’s Eve. I cooked dinner for three friends.
round roast beefI’d decided to make roast beef with potatoes and carrots roasted with it, gravy and green beans.  I bought an eye of round roast.  It looked beautiful in the butcher shop.  It had no fat, a plus for me since I dislike meat with fat.

In my opinion, a roast is the easiest thing in the world to cook.  Put it in a roasting pan, brown it maybe, pour red wine over it, cover it until the juices start flowing.  Leave it there for a few hours and it’s done.  Magic.  Well, don’t do that with a round roast unless you add fat to it.  And don’t put the vegetables in with it.  You need fat in the meat to make the juice, and you need lots of meat juices to cook vegetables with the roast and have anything left over for gravy.

Roast beef with no pan juices – uh oh!

Well into the cooking time, I realized I had a problem.  A roast roasting away, with no pan juices.  So no lovely browning vegetables.  Just carrots and potatoes slowly drying out alongside the roast.  I added wine liberally, poured some oil over it, took the vegetables out to cook separately, kept the lid on the pan.  That generated enough juices to make a sort of gravy sauce, with the addition of sour cream and flour to the vegetable stock.

In the panic of dealing with the roast that was not cooking itself the way I’d expected, I forgot there was another pot sitting on the counter beside the stove.  I’d topped and tailed the green beans earlier, put a bit of water with them and put them aside, with the lid on, ready to steam.

While eating the passable roast beef with a sour cream and red wine sauce, sautéed carrots and mashed potatoes, I kept thinking there should be something else.  The others complimented me on the food.  But something’s missing, I thought.  There shouldn’t just be carrots.  Then I noticed the small covered pot sitting in the kitchen.  The green beans.  It was too late in the meal to introduce them then. So we laughed about it, drank more wine, and said “green beans sure would be good with this!”

The next day, I cut up the leftover roast beef, stewed it for a couple hours with the leftover carrots, added the rest of the gravy sauce.  Served on rice, with green beans, it was a fabulous meal.  Too bad our guests weren’t there for it!

Here’s a recipe for top round roast, as pictured above

If you don’t eat it, don’t cook it

This was the stupidest meal I ever made, even though it worked out liver dinner with onions beef liverfine. When I was young and foolish, I invited a young man I was trying to impress for dinner. He liked liver. I didn’t. But I decided to make a liver dinner for him, despite never having cooked it or even knowing how it should taste.

Advice on cooking a liver dinner (don’t!)

I called my Dad and another liver-liking friend. One said cook it high and fast, the other said low and slow. I didn’t have a cookbook, or know anyone else I could consult. So I did both. Fast over high heat for a little while, then slow over low heat for a while. It looked horrible but, in my opinion, cooked liver always looks horrible. I can’t remember what else I made – fried onions, potatoes and vegetables maybe. I didn’t eat any of the liver. My young man did, and said it was good. What else could he say?

Thinking about that meal later, after I’d learned more about cooking and dating and dinner parties, I wondered what exactly I had been thinking. But it served as an illustration for me of a few key points about cooking, especially for others. Making him an edible meal from something I liked and knew how to cook would have impressed him just as much. Second, eating the food you cook is always the best way to know how the meal is. Third, a good cookbook is worth the investment for times when your dad isn’t around or you get conflicting opinions. My intentions were good, but the way I expressed them – well, I imagine he dined out many times on the story of that liver dinner.

My husband, who likes liver, says his favourite way to do liver and onions is to go to an old-style restaurant where they cook it on a regular basis.

Here’s how to cook liver and onions.

Entertaining with ease – or not

Entertaining at Home with Ease, Baugh & StewartEntertaining at Home With Ease
is a book co-written by my late mother-in-law, Dr. Marjorie Stewart. Her main point about dinner parties is make it easy for yourself and that, in turn, will make it easy for everybody else.

Do as much preparation as you can the day before so you’re less rushed the day of. And, when you’re pulling the meal together and your guests are there, involve them in it. Doing so decreases the amount of work you have to do, thereby lessening the frazzle factor and it allows the others to feel invested in the meal and the evening. They helped. These are valuable things to remember.

There are few feelings worse than being a guest for dinner and sitting there twiddling your thumbs, feeling absolutely useless, while you know your hostess and/or host are frantically organizing food and plates and cutlery. I’ve done both – sat like a garden ornament, and been the frantic cook trying to pull the meal together, set the table and serve hoping only that I didn’t look half as frazzled as I felt.

Guest-Participant balance

Sometimes it’s just easier to do the cooking yourself. Too many cooks spoil the broth, as the saying goes. But, to the extent that your kitchen and the meal itself allow, involve your guests in the preparation. Unless they really really want to, I don’t involve them in the clean-up. Time enough to do that after they’ve left. If they aren’t showing signs of leaving when you wish they would, you can always then ask “do you want to wash or dry?” That should get them hunting up their coats and saying their goodbyes.

Entertaining with Ease Marjorie Stewart 1988
Dr. Marjorie Stewart, U of Kentucky

What I’ve learned about entertaining? Cook what you know and know what you’re cooking. Do as much prep work as you can beforehand, don’t lose track of what you’re planning to serve. Get everyone involved if you need to and always make some extra. Often the second day’s meal, made from the leftovers, is better than the first. Lastly, if it’s really good or really awful, people will remember it and talk about it – and, yes, laugh about it. So will you, in time, even the really really awful meals.