Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Six rules for stress-free entertaining

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Sometimes you don’t think straight. Or maybe you don’t think at all, when you make plans and suddenly find yourself committed to hosting three different events in five days. That was us last week, when we opened our home to house guests from Chicago, a pooltime playdate with the girls’ schoolmate, and a neighborhood gathering in the form of an ice cream social.

Just thinking about it exhausts me, but you know what? We survived. For an introvert, quiet days at home are usually my style, but oddly enough, I also enjoy entertaining. I loved that we got to connect with people from so many parts of our lives - friends from our past, new friends who used to live in Chicago, and people who live around us, living disparate lives, brought together under our roof solely because of the proximity of their homes.

If you haven’t noticed already, we’re totally crushing on Austin, and finding a network here to ground us has been a driving force behind many of our activities, probably because we desperately want to belong. We know it would take time to get the kind of connections we had in Chicago, but, at the same time, we aren’t willing to just sit and wait for it to happen. We’re just not built that way.

So there we were, moving from one occasion to another, except there’s a certain fluidity to our motion since we’re no strangers to this whole entertaining business. The downside is, I’m constantly cleaning. The upside is, I’m constantly cleaning. I mean, when you have a five- and three-year-old whose job is to make a mess, it’s nice to have the chaos contained for a prolonged period of time.

But honestly, after years of organizing parties and playgroups, and social gatherings of all kinds, I’ve learned that simplicity is key. If you’re wondering how we did it, I’m happy to share.

RULE NUMBER ONE: Fuck hors’ d’oeuvres.
Individual servings have been replaced by a community bowl of an easy dip or two. If I have time, I’ll make them. If not, store-bought is fine. I no longer crucify myself for running to Trader Joe’s or Costco for premade stuff. Five years of “first, be gentle with yourself” parenting has apparently influenced every aspect of my life, and I like that. Fuss-free entertaining means I don’t cry into my cookies as I frost them like I did with Little Miss’ first birthday party.

Never. Again.

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RULE NUMBER TWO: Go for big pots and family-style eating.

If I have to prepare a more elaborate meal, the slow-cooker is my friend. As is a pot of curry simmering on the stove because that’s always easy for me to make, and it feeds plenty. It could be a go-to pasta sauce or soup for you, but to avoid stress, now is not the time to try new recipes.  

RULE NUMBER THREE: Fancy plating is easier than fancy cooking.

Thanks to the ubiquity of charcuterie boards on many trendy restaurants’ menu, having a tray of assorted meats and cheeses plus some fancy olives and pickles with crackers or bread arranged beautifully on a sturdy, wooden board doesn’t mean I’m too lazy to cook. It means we have a charcuterie board! Fancy.

It also means I get to pick my favorite items (like cured meats and cheeses from an exotic origin, or better yet, from the farmer down the road) from my favorite deli (and it could be as no-frills as your neighborhood grocery store or froufrou like Publican Quality Meats in Chicago, but the point is: no cooking!), and just like that, I manage to satisfy carnivorous appetites and vegheads who go nuts for cheese. Even the kids are happy to chow down simply because they adore “finger foods”. Everybody wins.



RULE NUMBER FOUR: Mix and match different colors.
When my menu calls for salad, I reach for veggies with bright, contrasting colors, like French green beans, grape tomatoes and English cucumbers tossed in a bowl with mint, parsley and feta in a lemon vinaigrette. It’s festive and it looks like I made an effort, even if it’s just tossing a bunch of prepped veggies from the store. If pressed for time, a bag of spring mix leaves, sliced strawberries and crumbled goat cheese in balsamic and olive oil will do the trick too. Pretty, but not fussy. Never underestimate the power of aesthetics. Same goes with fruit.

RULE NUMBER FIVE: It’s okay to delegate or accept a dish.
Someone often offers to bring dessert, and I always say yes. Or better yet, if it’s a larger group, I plan a potluck and unabashedly tell everyone what to bring. People are often happy to help out and they like having a task, instead of having to figure out, hmmm...what should I contribute to the table? What if someone else brings a cherry pie? To eliminate having five kinds of pies and no appetizers, I make sure people know what portion of the meal is their domain. Essentially, I help them help me.

RULE NUMBER SIX: You don’t have to make anything if you don’t want to.
With our “Sunday of Sundaes” party, the only thing we did was go to the store to purchase a variety of toppings and ice cream flavors to make things fun. I spent hardly any time on the food, which was why I decided to present it more creatively (see RULE NUMBER THREE). I put the ingredients in matching jars from our kitchen and created fun tags to identify each topping. The best part was I could include Little Miss on this task, who helped me decorate the tags with dots and attach it to the jars. Kids love helping, but when it’s a fun project, even better.

While dotting the tags, she asked, “Why do we have to make all this pretty?” and I responded, “We don’t have to. But because it takes time to do it, it shows that we care and it makes people feel special when you do something nice for them. It makes them happy, and that makes me happy.” Again, win win.

So there you have it – how we kept it simple to survive our own scheduling fiasco.

It’s not easy to admit that I no longer spend hours slaving in the kitchen for my guests. I love cooking after all – it should come through in what I serve the people I care about. BUT. And here’s the big BUT. The world of fussy canapes and bite-sized scones is now consumed by little fingers tugging at my skirt and voices relentlessly demanding, “watch this! look at me!”

Who has the time?

My Guy, who is thankfully less neurotic than I am, reminds me that people care less about the mini cheesecake tarts and stuffed mushroom caps - yes, I used to make those too - and more about the company. (Oh, and in these 90-degree days, our pool.) But what terrible company I used to be when I was constantly running around refilling platters and trying not to burn the fresh batch of crostini in the oven.

At the end of my parties, I would sometimes not remember a single conversation I had with a friend, mostly because I didn’t have time to have any. I could scarcely keep up with my own ambitious menu, let alone my guests, and what a shame, when it’s really the interactions that should’ve been the highlight of our time together.

When so many of us are away from our own family and are looking to make deeper connections to help us make our place in this big, wide world, finding other people who find the same things funny, who share similar views, and whose kids play well with ours - that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

At least I hope so.

And that’s why I had to do something to carve out some time to cultivate these relationships. Hence these stress-free rules for myself so, I, too, could get in the pool and have fun with my guests. If I’m going to do this often, I might as well enjoy it.