Our doyenne of dinner parties expounds on hosting a fabulous fête for a crowd, while pointing out how many calories we burn getting ready for a party
I’m not proud to admit that I never exercise, but it’s true. On an average weekday, the only workout this sister gets is pulling on her Spanx. So imagine how delighted I was when a recent Time magazine cover story about the magical, medicinal benefits of exercise pointed out that any kind of movement can be considered exercise, stipulating, as an example, housework. Which got me thinking that for those of us who don’t have staff, party-giving entails housework, sometimes quite a lot, depending on how badly we let things go to seed between parties. I don’t know about you, but I personally get a great workout when I have people over.
Even for the most casual party. Even if I don’t cook a thing, I end up huffing and puffing before the doorbell rings. But I enjoy it because hey, … I’m having a party. I don’t mind schlepping groceries in from the car, making trip after trip up and down the stairs of our three-story house, scampering here and there to get things spiffed up. And now that I know that my efforts can officially be counted as exercise, I will revel in it.
Speaking of revelry, we are fast approaching the festive season, when many of us will be doing the calisthenics required to fête large, multi-generational groups of family and friends. Here are some guidelines for feeding a meal to a crowd, and by crowd I mean any number that is more than can squeeze at your dining table.
Seating arrangements: use your imagination
You can conscript all kinds of furniture so everyone has room to sit somewhere: ottomans, piano benches, stairsteps. Combine your living room furniture with your dining chairs to create clusters for seating. Folding chairs look civilized if you cloak them in fabric; chair covers are available online for a song. (I like tableclothsfactory.com.) Don’t forget that in every crowd there are those who will gravitate to the floor in front of the coffee table. Just make sure there are comfy pillows and spaces to set drinks.
Oh, fork off
I usually advise hosts planning a menu for people who will be dining with plates on their laps to avoid serving items that require a knife. That’s tricky if you’re serving a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. You could adopt the custom used in some places in the South, where the turkey and dressing are served together in a casserole. (Email me for the recipe!)
When feeding the multitudes, you always want to think twice, darling, about taking your favorite recipe that serves six and doubling it or tripling it; it probably will need to be tweaked. (Oil or butter for sautéing need not be multiplied, for example, as long as you have enough to cover the bottom of the pan.)
Think smart, think simple
Even for a big holiday meal, you don’t need to serve a smorgasbord. Keep it simple. Choose dishes you can prepare ahead of time. If you want to make matters especially easy on yourself, select things that can be served at room temperature. But it’s lovely, especially during the cold months, to dish out something piping hot. If chafing dishes are too fussy-looking for you, wrap a couple of bricks in aluminum foil and heat them in the oven. Place them on your table (use a heat-proof pad) underneath your hot dishes to keep them warm.
Consider a menu featuring one or two spectacular homemade items combined with trusted selections from the wholesale club, grocery store or your favorite restaurant. Assume some of your guests will be vegetarians. Avoid serving dishes that are swimming in watery sauce.
Make sure you have oven space to accommodate your hot dishes. Choose items that require roughly the same temperature. Figure out your required fridge and freezer space as well.
Be astute about amounts
When figuring quantities, remember that not everybody is going to eat everything, and most people will go for the meat and carb-y things first. A portion of meat per person is a quarter- to a third-pound. A portion of vegetables, rice, pasta or salad is a half cup. And a nine-inch pie or tart will serve eight to ten.
If you are hosting a collaborative Thanksgiving dinner with others bringing assigned dishes, I recommend telling each bringer to prepare a serving amount equal to half the number of guests. Thanksgiving is such a glorious hodgepodge that (other than the turkey and mashed potatoes) most guests take a “tasting” serving.
If you want lots of leftovers, go for the serving-per-guest formula.
Paper plates are tacky, Sweetie. So are plastic cups and flatware. Use the real stuff. Rent if you must, but keep in mind that things don’t need to match. People are coming to your home, and that’s more interesting than going to a restaurant. Don’t get hung up on thinking everything needs to have that restaurant polish. Just think of the calories you’ll burn washing everything up.
Set up a logistically brilliant buffet
If possible, position your table so people have access from both sides. Arrange things in a logical progression, remembering that guests will have one hand with which to serve themselves. Deploy clean plates and cold items at the beginning of the line, hot entries last. Label food or ingredients not easily recognizable.
Place silverware and napkins (cloth—and oversized, preferably) at the very end. For easier portability, roll a napkin around a fork and spoon; tie a pretty ribbon around it if you are so inclined. It’s thoughtful also to provide extra loose napkins.
Vary the angle and height of items on the table. An easy way to do this is to pile books or sturdy boxes under select platters or bowls, then cover the entire table with an oversized tablecloth, or big swaths of burlap or gauze. A smaller table with platters and bowls grouped together is more appealing than having them spaced evenly down the table. Remove a leaf from your table if necessary.
To avoid gridlock, set up the bar far away from the buffet. If you have room, set up dessert service on a separate table.
Prior Post-its prevent poor performance
Test your table plan by laying everything out a day in advance of your party. Place Post-it notes where things will go. Include condiment bowls and all serving implements.
Lastly, go easy on yourself. Accept help. Hire staff, if it’s in the budget. Relax, and remember that your guests are coming to have a good time, not to scrutinize.
And have lots of plastic containers so you can send them home with leftovers. Or not.
Six Buffet All-Stars
• Turkey-Stuffing Casserole. The aforementioned solution for a Thanksgiving dinner that must be eaten without a knife.
• Smoked Salmon Lasagna. A tasty twist on the classic crowd-pleaser.
• Shrimp Caneel with Creamy Lemon Rice. My go-to dish for big crowds.
• Mushroom Strudel. Will bring joy to vegetarian friends.
• Brisket with Prunes. Delicious served at room temperature.
• King Ranch Chicken Casserole. Tex-Mex comfort food. (Snobs beware: calls for canned soup.)