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For Perfect Dinner Parties, Don’t Worry About Dinner

Dinner party chicken salad with grapes, mandarin orange segments and sliced water chestnuts. Credit: Barbara Haber

Dinner party chicken salad with grapes, mandarin orange segments and sliced water chestnuts. Credit: Barbara Haber

Back in the day, I remember attending dinner parties and finding the hostess exhausted from having pulled off one of the more complicated recipes from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” I know a woman who worked so hard cooking all day for a party that by the time her guests arrived, she had to suppress the impulse to seat them all at the table, bring out the food, and then promptly excuse herself and flee upstairs to bed.

By the 1980s, meals that were less of a production were often prepared from “The Silver Palate Cookbook.” One could almost predict that chicken mirabella would be making an appearance when you were invited out to dinner. But today, there is no need to wear out one’s self or serve up something boringly fashionable.

To be sure, meeting friends in restaurants avoids the effort of cooking altogether and can be fun, but to me, nothing beats entertaining at home. For one thing, the chairs are usually more comfortable. But, more to the point, we can nowadays find so many ways to cut corners on effort without reducing the quality of what we serve, and in so doing greet our guests with energy and sincere good cheer.

A go-to repertoire of recipes

Dinner party meals that are delicious and not time-consuming are possible to turn out, what with the availability of high quality prepared foods that can be adapted to recipes of your choice, or maybe even to something you’ve invented. For instance, in the warmer months I put together a chicken salad that guests seem to love. The original recipe calls for cooking whole chickens, which I seldom do.

Instead I go to a local place that makes wonderfully juicy rotisserie chickens and cut them up when I get home into good-sized chunks instead of the tiny pieces or shreds one comes across in typical chicken salads. Mixed with grapes, mandarin orange segments and sliced water chestnuts, the salad has a toothsome texture that comes through boldly because I don’t smother the ingredients with too much mayonnaise. Another trick is to keep everything separate until just before serving so that the dish doesn’t get soggy.

I have also learned to serve the same dishes more than once to friends who have enjoyed them, convincing myself that I don’t have to be novel every time I give a party. “Come on over,” I say. “I’m making that chicken salad you like.” And so a noble dining tradition is born.

Don’t sweat dessert

It is also possible to serve a store-bought dessert and still hold your head up high. (The French do this all the time.) I have something planned for this weekend that is bound to be successful, maybe even exciting, to my guests, friends who all remember an extinct Brooklyn bakery that used to make a Blackout cake.

Blackout cake cupcakes. Credit: Barbara Haber

Blackout cake cupcakes. Credit: Barbara Haber

It is a treat from the past that people still rhapsodize about. As it happens, a newly arrived bakery not far from me sells a wonderful cupcake version of this cake that I will serve with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

For this same gathering, I plan to accompany pre-dinner drinks with an old standby, cheese cookies, made with just three ingredients — a stick of butter, 8 ounces of soft cheddar and a cup of flour. I whip up the butter and cheese in a stand mixer, add the flour, roll the mixture into 1-inch balls and bake at 350 F until the edges are brown. They are best served warm, and the great thing about them is that they can be made ahead and refrigerated unbaked, or made way, way ahead and frozen.

Keep it simple

Anyone who has been cooking for a while has a good sense of what people really enjoy, and can pull off a simple but great meal as long as the ingredients are fresh and of good quality. When I am invited by friends who are less experienced cooks, I sometimes find that they go all out to prepare a meal with trendy dishes usually found in upscale restaurants. They think that just because I am perceived as a foodie I will expect complicated dishes with loads of ingredients and flavors when in fact I would be happier with something like a rich and tasty soup, a great salad and bread from a first-rate bakery. This is good, honest fare. It makes me sad to picture my friend working hard all day on some celebrity chef’s recipe without the help of kitchen crews found in restaurants.

What sometimes gets lost in the act of home entertaining is that the point of the gathering is to bring people together to enjoy one another’s company and to have fun. Good food and drink matter, of course, but dishes needn’t be complicated or pretentious, just good. And if you stick with home cooking and offer tried-and-true recipes, you are more likely to enjoy your own parties, instead of wishing everyone would just go home so that you can go to bed.

Top photo: Dinner party chicken salad with grapes, mandarin orange segments and sliced water chestnuts. Credit: Barbara Haber

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

  • Tinky 9·12·13

    Well put–although if people live far from good bakeries as I do deep in the country a simple homemade dessert (and/or fruit) may have to stand in for the store-bought one. The French, after all, live near the best bakeries in the world. I like to serve a simple soup or stew to friends wih bread and salad. As with your chicken salad, things can be cooked and/or prepped in advance, leaving the home cook free to enjoy the guests and the evening.

  • Barbara Haber 9·12·13

    I really think that if people just relaxed and served simple but good food to friends, their social life would be cheerier. But it sounds as though you know all this.

  • Patti 9·17·13

    Bravo! You’ve exposed a common flaw in many of us home cooksl. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done just what you’ve told us not to do in this piece — worn myself out so completely prepping for the dinner party that just about the time the doorbell starts to ring, I’m exhausted and bitter. My sister and I joke that our mother — who loved to throw dinner parties, and was good at it — used to silently wish that her guests would all come down with the flu and cancel! And now here I am, trying so hard to impress that I end up too tired to enjoy the visit. I’m a work in progress. All hail the rotisserie chicken! And thanks for the quickie appetizer recipe, too.

  • Barbara Haber 9·18·13

    Patti – I appreciate your response to my piece and know you will find your way to entertaining with ease while still maintaining some style. I hope you do try those cheese cookies, but keep in mind that if children get anywhere near them, they will devour the lot.