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Entertaining for the Hesitant Host 

And a low-pressure orzo to serve

click to enlarge Stop stressing out and make some orzo.

Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Stop stressing out and make some orzo.

I was nervous the first time I gave a dinner party but it turned out to be a blast. Two friends from the Vancouver Unitarian Church annihilated the tuna fish casserole I served. An unlikely trio, we spent a merry evening in my studio apartment laughing, telling stories and looking out the bay window at passers-by below.

Forty hosting years later, I still get nervous but I'm good at fooling guests into thinking I'm more confident than I really am. Here are some tips from an imposter hostess.

First, let's dispense with the stuffy phrase "dinner party," which sounds like something out of Noël Coward. We are not, I trust, bringing out our finest Wedgewood china and Waterford Crystal wine glasses. How about, "We're having a few folks over."

But why bother? Why not just meet in a restaurant? About a month ago my husband, Barry, and I were trying to get together with a very busy couple. Scheduling a time was getting ridiculous. "Oh, let's just do lunch somewhere," Paula wrote in an email.

"We'd rather meet in a less structured environment," I wrote back. A few days later, when they finally came over, I thought about my phrase "less structured." The four of us had space to move around in different-sized pods and conversations. At one point Barry took Paula to see the view, leaving Jack and me in the living room discussing that perennial boomer topic: hearing aids. And not only did I appreciate the freedom of movement but (speaking of hearing aids) I liked the sound, or lack thereof. Restaurants are loud — and getting louder. A recent Dining Trends Survey found that the No. 1 complaint of restaurant-goers is noise.

Having established where, what about when? Don't plan too far in advance. (You don't want people expecting things to be too elaborate.) Invite within the week or, if your friends are busy — in our case, they always are — the following week. How early? We prefer around 5:30 p.m. because, as early risers, we fade around 8 p.m. and we enjoy a post-dinner stroll in the gloaming.

We keep the maximum number to five or six. After several single friends raised our consciousness about the prevalence of "couple culture" — couples socializing exclusively with other couples — we find it stimulating to mix it up. Five is perfect.

Table setting? A festive tablecloth and candles, which make everyone's skin look wrinkle-free and five years younger. I don't mess with centerpieces, which get in the way. In fact, I ask guests not to bring flowers because then I have to hunt around for a vase. (Wine, however, is always welcome.)

Ceremonial as the tablecloth is, we don't necessarily sit at the table, partly because its Euclidian angles remind Barry of his upright (and uptight) British childhood. He's always happier eating out of a bowl on his lap so we often invite guests to serve themselves from the dishes on the table, then retire to the sofa and armchairs to actually eat.

The coordination and timing of the meal is a tango unto itself. I divide the world into two types: folks who are happy to keep cooking as the guests arrive and those, like me, who prefer to have everything done beforehand. I am not a great delegator, nor do I breathe calmly and mindfully when preparing multiple dishes and working to synchronize the timing. My solution is to cook a simple one-pot meal and either keep it warm in our crock pot or reheat it on the stove.

As for the choice of dish, my first tip is what not to prepare. About 30 years ago, during a visit by my father and stepmother, I invited my new client and his wife for dinner. For reasons beyond me now, I chose to bake a completely unfamiliar dish: spanakopita. As an inexperienced cook, I knew it was a spinach-and-feta layered Greek pastry but little else. I didn't even have a clue where to find the necessary phyllo dough in the supermarket (FYI: freezer section). Instead of using frozen spinach, I insisted on fresh, thinking it would taste more elegant. That would have been fine, had I bothered to rinse the leaves. As we all dug in, you could hear molars around the table gnashing into the dirt particles embedded between the spinach leaves. To make matters worse, my father, not always known for his tact, kept making jokes about it, while my stepmother shushed him in loud whispers. That was the last time I ever invited a client for a fancy meal (though he and I are now Facebook friends, so I guess all is forgiven).

Lesson learned: I no longer venture too far into unfamiliar terrain (and thoroughly wash my greens). I have several go-to meals I choose from, like bleu cheese and walnut pasta, szechuan noodles with peanut sauce and, in spring, Mediterranean orzo salad with feta (see below).

If I don't feel like preparing an entrée and dessert, I'll offer halvah, the crumbly, dense Middle Eastern sweet made from ground sesame and sugar, available at the North Coast Co-op or Eureka Natural Foods. People love it. The fudge-like hunks are very rich, so a little goes a long way.

After dessert, if it's still light, we head out for a spot of air on the boardwalk, where we watch the kayakers and bobbing seals. Later, after we've all said our goodbyes, Barry and I retreat to our respective rituals: The New York Times crossword and newspaper. And then I sleep well, contented that, despite a few flutters, I kinda-sorta know how to host.

Mediterranean Orzo with Feta

Serves 6; doubles easily for a crowd.

Ingredients:

1 cup orzo (rice-shaped) pasta, uncooked

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 spring onion, sliced

1 yellow, orange or red pepper, diced

1 cup white button mushrooms, sliced

1 small zucchini, diced

2 tomatoes, diced (or 2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved; or ½ cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, chopped

¾ cup feta cheese, crumbled

¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon basil

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, heat water to boil. Cook the pasta in rapidly boiling water according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Combine the remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Add the orzo. Toss well and serve warm or cold.

Louisa Rogers is a freelance writer based in Eureka and Guanajuato, Mexico, who loves to cook. She prefers she/her pronouns.

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