There are few things I love more than having people over for dinner, except maybe having people over for brunch (the best meal ever invented). There’s something about inviting people into your home that says “I like you and I trust you and I want to get to know you better.”
I like you enough to make you dinner when it would be easier to just meet at a restaurant. I trust you enough to invite you into my space where you’ll not only see my family photos, but also probably a kitchen piled high with dirty prep dishes and a closet or two packed full of all sorts of crap from my pre-dinner rush to “tidy up.” I think whenever you spend a length of time in someone’s house, you automatically leave knowing them a lot better and feeling a little closer than you did before. That’s a nice thing I think.
I don’t think “dinner parties” need to be fancy. I don’t think you need to make gorgeous, fussy food, I don’t think the pates need to match. In fact, sometimes its better when they don’t; we’ve had some of best “dinner parties” serving people on plastic plates with paper towels napkins. I love a beautiful table, place settings don’t make a dinner party–people do. Having people to dinner isn’t about putting on a show and pretending to be a perfectly put-together domestic goddess. It’s about taking the time out to to do something a little out of the ordinary and enjoy a nice night with people you really like.
A good dinner party should always involve a few spills, some chilled-out background music, plenty of wine on hand (and water for those who aren’t wine-inclined), a somewhat outrageous dessert, and lots of laughter. If, at the end of the meal, everyone is laughing and leaning back in their chairs, and no one is moving towards the door, you’ve done your job. That’s all you need for a good dinner party.
I love to cook, but I don’t love to be sweating over the stove when I’ve got good friends sitting out in my living room, wondering when the hell I’m going to come out and whether or not they should brave the hot kitchen to offer me some assistance. No, I’d rather be hanging out with my friends, making sure their glasses are topped off and their plates are full. If I’m stressed, my guests will feel stressed and that’s no fun for anyone.
Sometimes when Chris and I entertain we pull out all of the stops and try all sorts of fun new recipes. Sometimes it works. Sometimes we end up serving our guests raw chicken. The point is, our most fun, most successful diner parties are the ones for which we do almost no cooking and rely instead on an old stand-by of ours: DIY Vietnamese Spring Rolls.
Our Vietnamese spring rolls aren’t very traditional, but they make for a fun, easy meal that’s perfect for a casual get together. The table always looks amazing, the food always tastes good, and its so simple that anyone with a knife and access to an “Asian Food” aisle at the grocery store can pull it off. This is how we do it:
We buy a bunch of veggies: usually cucumber, carrots, sprouts, jicama, but you can use anything you like. We wash everything and julienne it all into thin strips. This is by far the most labor-intensive part of the meal, but if you have a good mandoline (a superb investment to make, by the way-you’ll eat a lot more vegetables if you have one), it takes no time at all. To keep from stressing out last minute, we cut everything up either the night before or early in the morning; then we soak everything in clean cold water in the fridge to keep it crunchy. We also wash some mint and Thai basil and leave it on the stems to keep things even easier. We boil some shrimp and put out some honey-barbecued pork from a local Cantonese restaurant (this is also very easy to find in the States). We also slice up some smokey dried tofu for any vegetarians in the mix.
We usually make a few dipping sauces for the rolls. The mandatory sauce is an addictive peanut sauce made from nothing more than regular old peanut butter, raspberry jam plus a little soy sauce and Siracha. We add some garlic, chilies, cilantro and lime to some fish sauce and put that in a small dish for anyone who likes a little more pungent heat with their spring rolls. We might also put some salt/pepper/lime mix and some sweet Hoisin sauce on the table as well. The more sauces the better, but the beauty is that you can make them all as far in advance as you want to.
For side dishes, we might make a salad, cold noodles, or some Chinese pickles, nothing that requires any last-minute cooking.
We cover every square inch of the table in crisp white plates and pile each plate high with the thinly sliced vegetables, meat, and shrimp. Bowls of dipping sauces and dishes of pickles fill in the small spaces between the plates. Its a stunning table to walk into, colorful and seemingly unending, it looks like a feast. The real beauty of it though is that you can have everything set out and ready to go up to a few hours ahead of time-just cover it all with some damp paper towels to keep things fresh.
You can buy spring roll wrappers at any Asian market, they come in stacks of 10 or 20 brittle disks. We always put a plate of hot water on the table next to someone who doesn’t mind going on “soaking duty.” This person soaks a wrapper for about 20 seconds in the hot water until its soft and pliable. Then he or she hands it to another guest to fill it up for themselves with whatever combination of vegetables, meat, herbs and dipping sauces they desire. Shrimp with peanut sauce, lots of cucumber, jicama, mint and Thai basil is my favorite combination, but everyone has their own.
There are a few things we really love about this meal besides the fact that its almost as simple for us as the hosts as ordering take out would be:
1. It’s finger food. Finger food is informal, it puts people at ease. People don’t worry about how they are holding their fork and instead just focus on enjoying their food.
2. It’s DIY, guests serve themselves and don’t have to feel anxious about eating too little or too much. I won’t be offended if you don’t finish everything on your plate since it’s likely a few vegetables we cut up rather than a recipe we slaved over.
3. Its a great meal for picky eaters and serving folks with a variety of food restrictions. Don’t eat pork, shellfish, any meat? No worries, you don’t have to. You want to eat gluten-free? Easy. You don’t like carrots or basil or jicima? No problem, just don’t put any on your plate.
4. Its a great meal for kids. It keeps their hands busy, they don’t have to worry about silverware, and picky eaters can usually find at least one palatable option on the table.
5. It’s light and refreshing-no one feels so stuffed they don’t have room for dessert…
One of my favorite desserts to serve is homemade ice cream, usually in a few slightly untraditional flavors to keep things fun and interesting. Fennel ice cream is one of my favorites because its just so unexpectedly delicious. This pistachio ice cream recipe is a new favorite as well.
I like to pair it with cookies or cake or brownies, something traditional and a bit heavier for those of us who feel like dessert just isn’t dessert unless there is chocolate involved. I like cake and ice cream with a little bit of fruit sauce because its fun, rich but unpretentious, and a little over the top–especially if you’ve got multiple flavors and sauces on the table.
It’s also an easy dessert because all of it can be made in advance, whenever I have the time. I have a near-flour-less chocolate cake recipe that actually tastes better frozen and de-thawed, and I always have frozen cookie dough already scooped into individual portions waiting for me in the freezer. Ice cream can be made well ahead of time, though the texture is probably best if its done a few days before the party.
To serve dessert, I just put all of the options out on the table with clean bowls and clean spoons. I like people to be able to mix and match flavors if they want to; or not, if they prefer. I also don’t want anyone to have to ask me for seconds or thirds– that just discourages people from eating as much as they’d really like (which leaves me with more leftovers than I’m comfortable with!) Its better when people can cut just one more tiny sliver of cake for themselves and then, before I know it, half the cake is gone.
Chris and I aren’t big drinkers, in fact we never bother to open a bottle of wine just the two of us because we never finish it. That being said, if we are having people over, we like to keep the wine plentiful and easy to access for those who want to drink and aren’t driving home, it does keep things lively. We’ve also begun serving either coffee or limoncello after dessert–just a half a sip in a shot glass for each person. It’s a nice way to end the night if its that time. On the other hand, if people are still enjoying the company and the conversation, it gives people a little something to linger over for a few more minutes.
So that’s it, that’s a dinner party at Chez Dumm. What are your favorite dinner party recipes? What are your entertaining secrets?