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My husband and I love to entertain in our home. We will have the occasional cocktail party but sitting down to a meal that is served and enjoyed over a couple of hours just seems to be the best way to carry on a conversation and get to know people or just simply catch up with friends.
Having catered for several years before my son was born, cooking a meal for 3 friends or 30 friends is all the same to me, but this isn’t true for everyone. Even if you can’t cook or don’t like to cook, I’m going to help you to entertain in your home with minimal cooking skills. How to do this you ask? Order out in advance!
Let’s Set The Menu
Cheese Board with Fruit and Crackers (no need for a charcuterie board, just cheese)
Bruschetta (see blog post Bruschetta Made Easy)
Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc
Pinot Noir or a Chianti
Pecan Green Beans (see blog post Pecan Green Beans)
Italian Lemon Cookies
Grandmother’s Fudge Pie (see blog post Grandmother’s Fudge Pie)
Wow you say, Amy, that’s a big menu! It is, but it’s varied. Some will not like red meat and others will not like chicken. Some may not like either, but manners dictate that at times you put something on your plate and nibble and push it around and just enjoy the next course.
Under no circumstances would I ever fault someone for picking up “take out” for a meal to serve at a dinner party. Personally, I prefer to cook, but I enjoy it. Not everyone enjoys it and frankly, not everyone is good at it. So go with it, don’t fight it. Enjoy having friends over and don’t cook! “Make” take-out. The defining line in all of this is how you present your take-out. You must always take in to consideration the old adage… presentation is EVERYTHING! First, let’s order some Italian.
In Nashville there are several Italian restaurant chains and several locally owned delicious Italian restaurants. I chose to use Maggiano’s due to its convenient location near our home. They actually offer a “family meal” for pick up. You choose a pasta dish and a chicken dish. I chose Mama’s Meat Lasagna and Chicken Marsala with mushrooms. This meal came with a freshly prepared Caesar salad with dressing on the side, hard crusted, gooey inside bread (it was even perforated for easy slicing) and Italian Lemon Cookies. I chose to add fudge pie for a more substantial chocolate ending, but the lemon cookies looked so pretty on fancy plates on the table when I served dessert. A little chocolate, a little lemon, it’s all good. The “family meal” at Maggiano’s serves four people. We had six for dinner, so I ordered 2 meals. The servings were very generous even if you were serving eight. We have a thought process at our house that there is never anything wrong with leftovers. Always, err on the side of too much. There is nothing worse than running out of an item.
For the cheese board, I shopped at our local Trader Joe’s. They do seem to have a cheese selection beyond other grocery stores, but I assure you that wonderful cheeses can also be found at Kroger, Publix, Fresh Market, Whole Foods or any other close-by grocer. It doesn’t all have to be fancy-grade cheeses, just varied. If you purchase a block of cheddar, get medium or sharp and cube it yourself. Cutting it your self gives it that homemade look, not preprocessed cubes. These firmer cheeses I just leave a larger chunk on the tray for “looks” and place the cut pieces around it. That chunk is also a good place to cut-in your cheese knife and give it a place to hang out. Next, look for a “truffle” cheese. These usually are white in color with little specks. Of course, a wedge of blue cheese is always expected. Not always liked by everyone, but expected. A smidge of Danish blue cheese on a cracker with a drop of fig spread is heavenly. Goat cheese is always a winner. Its smooth, creamy texture is yummy and you can find so many varieties; herbed, cranberry, blueberry-apricot, garlic. A room temp Brie offers sophistication to any cheeseboard. Finally, simply sprinkle strawberries, grapes, blackberries or any other fruit in between the cheeses and you are set and ready. Want to take it one step further? Add tiny little bowls of accompaniments; pepper jelly, fig spread, pumpkin butter, or just simple strawberry preserves. Drop in small spoons and you’ve just knocked it up a notch. Place little bowls of crackers around the cheese board. Oh, and no Ritz crackers allowed. Look for two or three varieties. Sesame crackers, Parisian toast squares, and wheat crackers are good starters, nothing too wispy that breaks easily. No fancy cheese board is required. A platter, an oversized serving plate or a cutting board works great.
You could just stop with the cheese board, but you’ll impress your guests with homemade Bruschetta. There are three store-bought ingredients involved here. All that is needed is a little assembly. (Maybe a fourth ingredient if you top it off with a light sprinkle of parmesan cheese.) See blog post Bruschetta Made Easy.
How do I present my take-out you ask? With pride and panache! I have collected many pieces of Le Creuset cookware and in many colors and shapes. I put the lasagna in a shallow double-handled Le Creuset skillet. I actually only used three of the four lasagna squares that Maggiano’s included and immediately froze the fourth one. After transferring the lasagna to the skillet I sprinkled it with fresh shredded mozzarella and shaved parmesan. Both cheeses were purchased pre-shredded at the grocery. I covered the lasagna with the skillet lid and placed in the oven at 200º for an hour before we actually set down to dinner. Just before we were ready to have dinner, I turned it up to 350º for 10 minutes. I used the same method with the chicken marsala and mushrooms. I transferred it all to a Le Creuset covered skillet and kept it in the oven with the lasagna. If I hadn’t used the heavy-duty but oh-so-pretty cookware, I would have used my white French Corningware casserole dishes with glass lids. The handles on the Le Creuset made it easy to serve my guests at the table. Serve from the left…pick up from the right. I learned this at age 13 working for a caterer. The pre-scored bread was easy to pull apart. I wrapped it tightly in foil and let it sit in the warm oven with the entrees. In advance, I had placed tiny saucers of softened butter on the table. I dispensed with using bread and butter plates and knives for this almost casual evening. The two tiny serving dishes of butter made individual service unnecessary.
As for presentation at the table, in my opinion, an attractive properly set table is expected no matter what is being served. I used my mother’s wedding china, Blue Danube, and Williams-Sonoma fall-themed dishes. Along with fresh flowers I used tiny, fresh pumpkins in two colors and a sprinkling of acorns and several clear votive candleholders with unscented candles. (Scented candles at the dining table are a no-no.) As always, I prefer cloth napkins and most of the time, they are monogrammed. P.s. When I spiffed the table after dinner before dessert, I removed the cloth napkins and in about 30 seconds had spritzed them with Spray-N-Wash and had them in the washer. When dessert was served I placed paper cocktail napkins at each plate. I find them perfect for dessert.
Before our guests arrived, I had already divided up the Caesar salad on the salad plates and sprinkled with a few extra croutons and shaved parmesan cheese. I placed in the refrigerator and when I served, the plates were chilled to perfection. I did however, place the Caesar dressing (which arrived on the side from Maggiano’s) in a serving bowl with a ladle and let the guests apply whatever quantity they wanted. I prefer to toss a salad but this cut out one step and one bowl and not everyone likes salad swimming in dressing like I do. I served the salads prior to dinner as a course by itself. Why? It keeps the table less messy and the conversation going longer. Just always include a salad fork to the outside left of your dinner fork. Then your guests can leave the used fork on their salad plate. When you remove that course, you can pick up the plate and fork in one motion.
So we have salad, pasta and two meats. I chose to add some dark green with my recipe for Pecan Green Beans (See blog post Pecan Green Beans). They add a little more color, a little more texture and the wonderfulness of toasted pecans. I brought these to the table in a pretty serving bowl and let our guests pass to each other.
After enjoying our meal, I sat with our guests on the porch while John made everyone a cup of espresso with steamed milk. This allowed me to visit with them and enjoy some caffeine. After John joined us on the porch I left to clear the table of dinner dishes and spiff it up a bit. I set the Italian lemon cookies on the table on interesting little plates. I pre-cut the fudge pie and had it on dessert plates and waiting in the “Grand Central Pantry.” (That nifty room is an entire blog post.) I set the ice cream out when the guests moved to the porch and by dessert time it was softened and perfect to serve on the pie.
Dessert was devoured and it was a wonderful evening of laughing and talking. In full disclosure, I did tell our guests that the meal
itself was from Maggiano’s and that they were full-on victims of a blog post!