Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mom's Top 10 Dinner Party Tips

With Sunday being Mother's Day, I think most of the wonderful local PR folks I know expected me to post a list of their clients' Sunday brunches. But no. I'd have to include pretty much every restaurant in town and, well, I'm just not going to do that.

Instead I'm going to celebrate my mom, Evie Golden, and one of her most celebrated talents among those who know her -- entertaining. For as long as I can remember, she's pretty much been the queen of dinner parties. My dad was in the museum "business" so curators, donors, artists and other colleagues were always coming over. Plus, my parents have always loved to have friends and family at the house for meals. My mom is an astoundingly good cook, someone whose gift I continue to aspire to. I regularly served as her sous chef, server and dish washer (actually, I still do). I was told, "watch and learn" -- and that continues today. She doesn't do that much entertaining any more but she did have eight guests over for Passover last month and some habits die hard. For weeks ahead of time she was chopping, cooking and freezing. The day before the Seder, the table was set. The day of, only the last-minute cooking and reheating were involved. By the time the guests arrived, she was (fairly) rested, ready and able to enjoy the meal along with everyone else.

So, what's her secret? I sat down with her for lunch at a little Vietnamese restaurant recently and asked her straight out what she thinks are the keys to a successful dinner party. Watch and learn:

1. Plan your your meal around one special dish and keep the rest simple so you can have a focal point. Most people think that's the big protein -- a leg of lamb, roasted chicken -- but it can also be a very special, exotic side dish.

2. Don't feel that you have to make every dish. Make some yourself and buy some that are prepared -- like side dishes, desserts or appetizers. "Back when I was really entertaining a lot, there wasn't much available so we had to do almost everything ourselves, but today you can go to Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Bristol Farms or ethnic markets and get some very good prepared foods," she says.

3. When planning the dishes, try to make them stand out in color, texture and, of course, flavor. (I took this to heart. For a recent dinner I planned to serve roasted chicken and rice with dill and fava beans but I was stumped over the vegetable. Mom shook her head at the idea of asparagus or baby artichokes. "Color!," she decreed. So, I decided to head over to Specialty Produce to pick up multi-colored mini carrots and red-and-green micro beet greens. The carrots were trimmed and steamed, then tossed in melted butter and honey, lemon juice, the minced greens from a stalk of green garlic, and salt and pepper -- and placed on a bed of the beet greens.)

4. Make what you can ahead of time and freeze it. That could be soup stock or homemade ice cream or even a pot roast.

5. Along the same lines, do your prep work in advance -- chop herbs, marinate proteins, make your salad dressing. Then, the day of the dinner, much of what you have to do is just heating up and putting everything together.

6. Feel free to use short cuts. Make a pie using a prepared pie crust (I like the ones Trader Joe's sells) or a tart with puff pastry dough.

(photo by Indra Gardiner)

(I cheated twice here. I used puff pastry squares I found at a Hispanic market and I had a container of lemon curd that I had made in the freezer. All I needed to do was pre-bake the puff pastry squares, fill them with the lemon curd, slice the strawberries and melt a little dandelion preserves for the glaze. Easy.)

7. The day before the dinner party, write a time chart of what needs to be done, step by step, so you know when to pre-heat the oven, when to take out meat from the refrigerator to come to room temperature, when to start heating soup, when to start the grill -- whatever. Add time for getting yourself (and your family) ready, feeding the dog, vacuuming. Basically, you want everything in your day to be accounted for so that you don't have a last-minute crisis and to make sure that your dishes are ready to serve at the right time. And -- very important so that you won't be exhausted by the time your guests arrive -- with a detailed time chart you can pace yourself throughout the day with little tasks.

8. On the day of the dinner party, take out your serving dishes and utensils, write their function on a post-it note, then tag it. That way, you don't have to think about what goes where when your company arrives and you're distracted.

9. Set the table the day before or early that morning. Pull out wine glasses or whatever you'll need for apertifs, clean them and set up that space.

10. Clean up and put things away as you go along so you're not facing piles of dirty dishes, pots and pans after your guests have left.

And, most important, don't worry so much about impressing your guests with your cooking and focus more on making them comfortable. The more relaxed you are, the more fun everyone will have.

She's right. She always is. Thanks for everything you've taught me and continue to show me! Happy Mother's Day, Mom!

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  1. Caron, what a lovely tribute to your Mom, and a great read. Who could resist? Your lead pulled me into the posting. I learned from Evie's suggestions and also felt reassured that maybe I'm not so bad at entertaining after all. Happy Mother's Day, Evie! (And lucky you, for having a daughter who appreciates and emulates you, and shares it all so beautifully!)

  2. Thanks for sharing all these wonderful tips!

  3. What a lovely and loving tribute to your mom, Evie. Your mom has always been a welcoming host when I've visited your family at events... we all learn from her. Enjoy Mother's Day. Big hug!

  4. Caron, I love this!! Can I please use the photo on the LA Times Food blog ( and link to your post? Let me know! Rene ( or @latimesfood) And Happy Mother's Day Evie!

  5. Yay! I love this post, I'm so glad I got to meet your mom! Please tell her I say Happy Mothers Day and I hope that she will come in again soon ;) Color is a must!

  6. What a lovely post... and how gorgeous is your Mom!!? She looks fabulous. I love that she enjoys entertaining. I hope my son will write a similar post about me someday when he's RecipeBoy :) Have a great weekend!

  7. I know that a great hostess can make everything look "effortless," but your mom's tips reveal a lot of planning. Maybe I wouldn't greet guests with wet hair or a dirty dog if I planned a little better.

  8. Hi Susan:
    I guess that's exactly the point. Putting together a plan makes entertaining so much easier and more successful -- and less stressful. At least, that's been my experience! ;)

    Thanks for writing!

  9. Great post and tips. Our Moms have the best advice and teach us so much.

  10. Caron, I so could have used these tips when I was in my 20s and test driving dinner parties and pre-wedding brunches for 60 (what was I thinking, I started cutting fruit salad the day of the party!). My mom would entertain once every few years for the family X-mas party so I had no training. Great to see this story getting some exposure in the LA Times, hopefully it will save some folks from taking on more than they can, well, chew :)

  11. Hi Caron,
    Nice tribute to your mom. Say hello from us. She looks great!

  12. Hey, Evie, you're my hero! Having my first dinner party in a new house in a new town tomorrow and your tips are perfect. Pretty much what my own mother taught me, but a good reminder list for anyone. I always put little post-it notes on the dishes I'm going to use. People walk in the door, wine starts flowing and you forget!
    Thanks for sharing with Caron and then with the rest of us!
    Paula McDonald

  13. Caron- In addition to being chock full of great advice, this is a wonderful tribute to your mom! It appears that your love of food and cooking are just further evidence that 'apples don't fall far from the tree'.

  14. Thanks for all the comments! My mom says that if she'd known this is what I was up to she'd have given me much better tips! But she's very touched by all the attention she's been getting.

  15. I found your blog through Cheryl. I love this! It's quite lovely.