In the words of Bob Dylan, we all gotta serve somebody. In my case, it’s my esteemed employer, Truman Medical Centers. Before that, it was Hallmark Cards, Inc., and before that a health care conglomerate. Readers sometimes assume writing this column is my job, and the rest of my time is spent planning and hosting parties. In truth I have always had a full-time corporate communications job and been grateful to have it. Most of us—whether a parent, volunteer, or CIA operative—have a demanding job and many limits on our time. We also crave the singular pleasure of gathering the faithful under our roof and offering them a drink and a satisfying meal. Here, then, is some advice about how to focus your precious time when you are having people over. Remember, the food should always be secondary to the sense of hospitality you create.
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
Entertaining friends in one’s home is part of having a gratifying social life. But no one expects you to put on a massive, home-cooked feast. Concentrate on assembling a convivial group, creating a welcoming atmosphere (music! booze! good smells!) and having one spectacular, memorable menu item. Give yourself permission to serve carryout or store-bought food, and to let guests bring something when they offer. If you have the budget to do so, hire staff. I can tell you from personal experience that Party Personnel of Kansas City (913-451-0218) has highly capable, good-humored servers and bartenders who won’t be horrified at the condition of your basement. They charge $32.50 an hour per server; there is a four-hour minimum. You have to book ’em in advance, though, especially during the holidays and on Saturday nights.
Mixology takes too long.
Perhaps you’ve noticed how “craft cocktails”—in which every element is fussily handmade—are all the rage right now in Kansas City’s bars and restaurants. Which is where they should stay. The busy home host should not be expected to be a “mixologist” on top of everything else. Do we really need house-made cranberry-thyme shrub syrup to make a decent vodka cranberry? Nyet! Realistically, all you require to serve cocktails to a merry group is the makings for gin and tonics, vodka sodas, rum and Cokes, some red and white wine and maybe a little beer. Oh, and at least a pound of ice per person.
Have you tried St. George Terroir Gin? It tastes heavenly, and the bottle makes any bar look hip. Have your featured cocktail be a St. George Gin with a wildly overpriced, artisinal tonic water, such as Fever Tree. Serve in a handsome rocks glass, garnish with rosemary sprigs or sage leaves. Craft cocktail-ish, darling.
If you want to make a pitcher of something, it’s never a misstep to mix two parts of Simply Lemonade (available in grocery stores and top-rated by me andConsumer Reports) with one part citron vodka and a splash of limoncello. Pour over ice in a tall glass, garnish with a thin slice of lemon and a basil leaf.
Swallow your pride. Go packaged!
In the fresh-lettuce section of your grocery store you will find an assortment of Dole “salad in a kit.” The first time I purchased one, I felt like the laziest, most unimaginative slattern in the universe. But I was desperate for time, and no one was watching. You know what? Not half bad. Especially if you doctor up the dressing with a few chopped chives, which works well with any of the (sniff) pre-packaged dressings included in the kits. My favorite is the kit called “Endless Summer.” Speaking of prepared salad dressings, my clever friend Bernie Ashcraft introduced me to Panera bottled red-wine vinaigrette, available in the salad section at your grocery and better than any I have made from scratch.
Talented Brian Justice, who illustrates this column, is a fabulous host and a fan of Knorr’s Hollandaise and Béarnaise sauce mixes. “They are absolutely no-fail,” he says. ”Butter and milk and that’s it.” He presents the Hollandaise atop steamed asparagus and the Béarnaise alongside a beef filet. And yes, he serves them to company.
Have you ever heard such a crock?
Among the food cognoscenti, crockpots are now referred to as “slow cookers.” Whatever you want to call them, they are a worthy solution for the time and/or budget-challenged host. Cheap cuts such as pork shoulder, lamb shoulder, beef brisket and chicken thighs transcend themselves after eight hours in le crockpot. The cold months approach, perfect weather for one-pot meals like Yankee pot roast, beef stew and Southwest-style posole. You can set your table real purdy and load up the slow cooker in the morning, toddle off to be a corporate tool all day, and dinner awaits when you walk through the front door.
Well, isn’t that sweet.
When local artisan Christopher Elbow, he of boxed chocolate fame, started making intensely flavored, small-batch ice cream, that became my last-minute party dessert of choice. I take three flavors—fleur de sel caramel, dark chocolate and roasted strawberry, kind of a food snob Neopolitan—and present them in little scoops in a footed dessert glass. I’m lucky because Christopher’s Glacé shop in South Plaza is minutes from my house, but he also has a store at 119th and Roe, and his ice cream is available in Cosentino’s Brookside and Downtown markets.
Boxed Belgian chocolates, plated on a pretty serving dish and plopped down at the center of the table, also make a nice finish to a very casual dinner with friends. A doctored-up brownie mix is another easy dessert solution. Any brownie mix can be vastly improved by adding a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a tablespoon of instant coffee to the batter. You also can stir in chocolate chips, chopped macadamia nuts or chopped candy-bar-of-your-choice. And while it’s baking, it will make your house smell just as divine as if you made it from scratch.
ROSEMARY’S MYSTERIOUSLY NAMED SPINACH PITA
Five simple ingredients make a hearty main course.
At some point in my childhood, my mom got this “Spinach Pita” recipe from someone in her bridge club. She went on a mad jag of making it for brunches, lunches and the occasional dinner. I have no idea why she called it pita, as it is not remotely Greek, and there is no pita bread involved in the serving of the dish, which is sort of a crustless spinach quiche. It’s a perfect recipe to feed a vegetarian. You could make a simple supper for carnivorous company by presenting it with a green salad or coleslaw, a grilled andouille sausage and some warm ciabatta bread.
Serves four to six, depending on sides and appetites.
1 10-ounce box frozen, chopped spinach, thoroughly drained and dried
1 lb. small-curd cottage cheese
12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, cubed (I use Kraft, already cubed)
3 large eggs, don’t beat
3 tablespoons flour (I use Wondra)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl and pour into a greased, 10-inch pie pan. Place in the oven, with a cookie sheet underneath it to catch any spillage, as it might runneth over. Bake for an hour; then let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
Questions About Entertaining?
Merrily would love to answer them. Email them to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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