The Lost Art of the Dinner Party

Someone asked me the other day if I thought dinner parties were a lost art. My first instinct was to say yes. After all, we live in a fast-paced society. Everything is now, now, now, gimme, gimme, gimme. We drink our coffee on our way to work, while talking on our cell phone, and simultaneously writing an email on our Blackberry. Do people really take the time, or more importantly have the time, to plan and coordinate a dinner party? I think the answer is in fact yes.

I used to be intimidated by throwing a dinner party. I would get myself so worked up, as if I was hosting the Queen of England. I'll never forget my first Thanksgiving (thanks in part to a scar from a second-degree burn) with my husband. We had just moved into a new house two weeks before, boxes still piled high and random junk scattered throughout, and I invited fifteen guests for dinner. I created an overly-ambitious menu, complete with elaborate hors d'oeuvres and cocktails, a 22-pound turkey, countless side dishes, homemade rolls, and several desserts. Honestly, what on earth was I thinking?

I started cooking the day before, excited to get started in my brand new state-of-the-art kitchen with four ovens and a six-burner stove. I thought I was getting a leg-up on things, but little did I know what was in store for me the next day. I woke up early to get my oversize turkey in the oven and make the roll dough and the pies. The hours were going by, and I found myself getting behind.

It was time for my guests' arrival and I had yet to even get dressed for the party. As the first car pulled into the driveway, I quickly put the mini-mushroom tart hors d'oeuvres in the oven, told my husband to serve drinks, and rushed upstairs to get changed. Ten minutes later, I realized it was time for my tarts to come out of the oven, so I raced back downstairs. As I hastily pulled the hot pan from the oven, it slipped through my oven mitt and onto my exposed forearm, singeing my flesh. I felt the tears well up into my eyes, but stoically wiped them away. I was completely frazzled at this point, but I knew enough to not let my guests see me cry. Instead, I grabbed a bag of frozen peas and attached them to my arm with a rubber band.

My turkey was still not done, though it had been cooking all day. About an hour past the scheduled dinner time, I made an executive decision to just serve the white meat, which appeared to be done and return the dark to the oven. (I've since learned that it is best to buy two smaller birds for a large crowd.) The rolls were in the second oven, which had smoke coming out of it. My poor rolls that I had painstakingly made from scratch, were now black on the top and raw on the bottom. Turned out that the oven in my fancy new kitchen had not been properly calibrated. Nice.

Somehow, I managed to pull it together (a couple glasses of wine certainly helped), and we had a nice Thanksgiving dinner. Afterwards, though, I went straight to bed instead of spending the evening with my husband and our guests.

Looking back on that night, I'm surprised I ever wanted to throw a dinner party again. I learned so many invaluable lessons from that gathering, the most important being to keep it simple and never take on more than I can handle.

Now, I entertain at my home all the time. I love every step of planning a dinner party, from designing the menu, to preparing the food, to getting dressed, and most of all, the actual event.

If the dinner party is a lost art in your home, try my tips to bring it back...

1. Decide how many people you can manage. Master a small group before you move on to a large crowd. I think six to eight people is a good amount of people to start.

2. Design a menu and make a grocery shopping list. No need to be too fancy with your menu - no one is expecting the French Laundry. When entertaining, it's a good idea to make dishes that you have made before and feel really comfortable preparing.

3. Set the table the night before. The day of the dinner party, you will have enough to think about with the preparation of the meal. Be creative with your table décor, using unexpected items along with flowers and unscented candles.

4. Set out all of the serving dishes and utensils you plan to use. I like to label each dish with a post-it note of what I will be using it to serve. This helps me to be more organized when serving time comes.

5. Designate time for yourself to get ready. I always allot for one hour to primp before my guests arrive. It's essential to present yourself in a stylish manner when entertaining so that you feel confident.

6. Have drinks and hors d'oeuvres ready for your guests' arrival. This is my most important tip. Make hors d'oeuvres that are completed totally in advance so that you can spend time with your guests as soon as they arrive.

7. Have fun and relax! The host sets the tone for the party.

Recipe by Sara Moulton

This is the recipe for the mushroom turnovers I made on my infamous first Thanksgiving. I wanted to make them after taking a cooking class from Sara Moulton at Gourmet magazine. They are delicious and perfect for freezing and popping in the oven when unexpected guests arrive.

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 4 tablespoons
2 medium shallots, minced
10 ounces cultivated white mushrooms, finely chopped
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme, or 1 teaspoon dried
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/4 cup sour cream
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, for making egg wash
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
16 slices very fresh thinly-sliced home-style bread, crusts removed

Heat 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring often, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until all the liquid has evaporated. Add the thyme and the sherry. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook until the mixture is almost dry. Remove the skillet from the heat. Transfer to medium bowl, cool slightly, stir in the sour cream, and season with salt, pepper, and paprika, to taste.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Roll out bread between two pieces of waxed paper with a rolling pin until very thin. Brush bread on both sides with melted butter. Place 1 teaspoon of the filling in the center of each sliced. Fold making a triangle shape, trim edges. Press with your fingers to tightly seal. Brush the tops and bottoms with melted butter. Brush egg wash over tops of turnovers, sprinkle with paprika. (At this point, the turnovers can be placed in a zippered plastic freezer bag and frozen for future use.) Place on parchment lined baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes (20 to 25 minutes if taken out of the freezer). Serve warm.