7 Tips for Hosting a Dinner Party (Without Losing Your Mind)

7 Tips for Hosting a Dinner Party (Without Losing Your Mind)

IMG_2926So you’ve mustered up the courage, procured some extra folding chairs and have decided to host a dinner party.

First off, applause. Pour yourself a drink. Second, let’s get down to brass tacks. How, exactly, are you going to pull this off?

This past summer, one of my oldest high school friends was facing this exact dilemma and called me up for some advice. A few emails back and forth, scanned recipe attachments from my cookbook collection, and two potential menus later, I began thinking that there were probably quite a few other 20-somethings (or 30-somethings, 40-somethings…) that were facing the same conundrum. So I thought about all the dinner parties I’ve hosted since I was 14–what was successful, what dishes were total flops, what lessons I had to learn the hard way, and ultimately, what my top list of tips would be.

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good start and it’s the 7 things I keep coming back to whether I’m cooking for two or whether I’m cooking for 12. So here it is: my 7 tips for hosting a dinner party without losing your mind.

1. Set the table beforehand.
Plates, glasses, napkins (bust out the cloth ones here; bonus points for artful folding), silverware, serving platters–the whole shebang should be set up a day or two in advance. Why? Because it makes your life easier, that’s why. And it sets quite a nice scene when your guests arrive.

2. Start the night with an empty dishwasher, an empty sink, an empty trashcan.
I have learned this lesson the hard way on more than one occasion. You’re cooking all day, playing a game of dishwasher tetris–that by the time everyone arrives, you’ve eaten and it’s time to clear the table, you realize the damned dishwasher is already full! Start the night out with a tidy kitchen–clean up will be swift and you can get back to enjoying yourself and that well-deserved cocktail. Don’t have a dishwasher? Same principle applies to the sink.

3. Figure out how much time you need. And then increase it by 1/3.
I am notorious for cooking up to (and beyond) the moment people arrive. It’s my downfall. It’s my weakness. But knowing is half the battle, right? Make a to-do list, a plan of attack, a schedule for yourself. And get comprehensive here–from when you’ll need to go grocery shopping (and all the ingredients you’ll need), to what you can make one or two days ahead, to when one dish needs to come out of the oven while another goes in to stay warm. I know this will sound crazy, but I typically sketch out a schedule for myself for the 3-5 days leading up to a dinner party. That way, I’m less likely to forget something, I have a plan to stick to, and barring some culinary meltdown, there aren’t any surprises (read: you won’t realize one of your recipes calls for a 24-hour marinade or extra long prep time). And yeah: on the day of the dinner party, give yourself about 1/3 more time than you think you need.

4. As my grandmother used to say, “Go put on your face.”
You will feel far less frazzled if you’ve had time to clean yourself up, get dressed and put on some makeup (or shave and put on some deodorant, for you dude hosts out there). Plus, if you look the part of a dynamite host/hostess, the rest will follow.

5. You can use a dinner party to try new recipes.
I say this with a giant caveat: know what you’re capable of and use trusted sources. I’ve been cooking and baking long enough that I can read a recipe and get a general sense of if it’s completely whacked or if I have room to improvise. But I also know that a dinner party is not the right occasion for me to try making a Baked Alaska for the first time. What I’m saying is: play to your cooking strengths. If you make a killer casserole, casserole away! If you are confident you can cook the cover of the last Bon Appetit, give it a whirl! Similarly, use recipe sources you trust if you’re going to branch out with a new dish. For example, I have yet to be disappointed by America’s Test Kitchen or Ina Garten. So I’m willing to try a new recipe without testing it first if it’s from either of those sources.

6. Take a deep breath and let people help.
One of the best examples of this was during a Christmas party I hosted last year. In my haste, I had decided in the eleventh hour that deviled eggs would really round out this cocktail party spread for 25 people. So rather than shoo everyone out of the kitchen, I didn’t blink when four of my girl friends started peeling eggs and slicing them. It became a fun moment with eggshells flying and I was thankful that they were all trying to help me get things done faster so I could actually enjoy everyone’s company at my party. If that happens, roll with it. It’s called making memories.

7. Keep track, Jack.
After a party well done, there will come time for another one. And another one. And chances are you’ll want to remember what you served, which dishes were hits, which recipes you’d tweak and if that double batch of brownies was actually necessary. I borrowed this tip from my mom, the woman who pretty much taught me everything I know about being a good hostess: write your menus down and notes after the party. I always like to keep track of menus I’ve served in a notebook, so I can recreate the magic or swap out a dish or two.

Recipe: Deviled Eggs

Recipe: Deviled Eggs

Growing up, there were a few foods I held out on.

There was a period of time when mustard was a four letter word; dijon converted me one fateful day. When I was 12, I slurped down a single, solitary oyster and was so repulsed by the texture that I didn’t eat another one until a decade later; these days I’ve been known to consume three dozen in one sitting. Tuna salad got the side eye for who knows how long; nowadays if I’ve got a hangover, a tuna melt with white American cheese on an English muffin is the only cure. None of these food aversions were entirely irrational, but by a certain age, they had gotten ridiculous.

And so it was the same way with deviled eggs. Memories of chalky hardboiled yolks had their grip on me. And like all the other aforementioned foods, it got to a point where I was done giving the classic picnic snack my stubborn cold shoulder. Seeing a platter of them rolled out at my coworker’s pool party last summer prompted me to shelve my skepticism and finally try a deviled egg.

And true to form, I loved them. I scarfed them down with zero hesitation and was instantly hooked. So more than a year later, it was time to come up with my own recipe. Give them a try and let me know what you think of the recipe in the comments.

Marissa’s Deviled Eggs Recipe
Serves 4-6

Ingredients:
6 hardboiled eggs, halved and yolks set aside
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 ¼ teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon white wine vinegar
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon minced shallots
1/2 tablespoon finely chopped chives, plus extra for garnish
Kosher salt and pepper to taste (white pepper is optional for presentation sake, if you’d prefer)

Instructions:
1. Place eggs in a large saucepan and fill with water until eggs are completely submerged.
2. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once the water has reached a boil, remove from heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes.
3. Run the eggs under cold water; proceed to peel the eggs. Slice the eggs in half and carefully scoop out the hardboiled yolks. Refrigerate the cooked egg whites.
4. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine egg yolks, mayonnaise, mustard, white wine vinegar and lemon juice. Gently whisk together until the egg yolk mixture is completely smooth and free of lumps (back of a spoon and a fork work well here).
5. Fold in chopped chives and shallots. Add salt and pepper.
6. Transfer the egg yolk mixture to a Ziploc bag or a piping bag and refrigerate for 30 minutes so the mixture firms up to make for easier piping into the egg white halves.
7. Cut the tip off of the piping/Ziploc bag and pipe into the egg white halves.
8. Serve and enjoy.

Recipe: Meatloaf

Recipe: Meatloaf

It’s just about the end of that awkward time of year in DC, where one day it’s 70 and sunny, and the next there’s a cold snap, the mercury plummets back down to 50 and I’m left wondering why I packed away all my winter sweaters. On those chilly Spring days, I get hunger pangs for something heartier–something roasted, braised, baked. The easiest thing to make that fits the bill? Meatloaf.

Aside from sweating some onions, this recipe doesn’t take long to prep at all. And that step is worth it–otherwise you’re chomping down on crunchy raw onions, a texture I’m not all that fond of.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 lb. of meatloaf mix (equal parts ground beef, pork and veal)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup of ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2-3/4 cup of seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Instructions:

1. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add chopped onions and stir occasionally until the onions become translucent (not browned).
3. After the onions are softened, add the chopped garlic and thyme. Stir to combine and cook until fragrant (30 seconds to 1 minute). Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
4. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg, ketchup & worcestershire sauce together. Fold in the onion-garlic mixture.
5. Combine the ground meats and egg mixture well. Thoroughly mix in 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs. If the meatloaf still feels too “loose,” add in the remaining 1/4 cup.
6. Transfer the meatloaf mixture to an ungreased loaf pan. Push the meatloaf into the corners of the pan so it fills it completely and the top is flat.
7. Bake the meatloaf for 30-35 minutes or until well browned on top and the internal temperature reaches 165. Drain off any excess fat/oil after baking, slice and serve.

Being the Voice Behind the Brand

On any given day at work, I wear many different hats…photographer, marketer, writer. And I switch between more than 15 different voices online on social media…refined, casual southern, beer bro-y, bubbly and more.

Maybe it’s because I live and breathe it nearly around the clock, but I truly find my job fascinating. What makes people like our content? Did I post something at the optimal time of day? How many clicks did I get? Was the open rate higher or lower than our last email blast? Am I noticing trends among any of our restaurants and what’s the general sentiment towards each spot this week, month, quarter? And the list of questions I ask myself goes on.

So I was delighted when freelance food writer Nevin Martell emailed me about a story idea I had helped him think of more than a year ago about people that handle social media for restaurants. I was interviewed for the story and it was so much fun to talk about my job and how I go about it.

Check out an excerpt below, the full story online or pick up a print copy around DC this week.

“So, in May 2013, NRG hired Marissa Bialecki as its marketing and communications manager to oversee and create individual Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for all of their restaurants. She also writes email marketing blasts, chef bios, and web copy. For the former food blogger and occasional freelance writer (whose work has appeared in Washington City Paper), this was the perfect job. “I love restaurants. I love food. I love chefs,” she says. “They have the coolest, craziest stories of anyone in the room, so it’s great to tell those stories through social media.”

In the beginning, Bialecki slept with the phone by her ear to ensure she never missed any online drama. These days, she feels comfortable turning off her notifications while she goes for a run, though she still checks nearly 60 social media accounts constantly. “You look to see what gets liked the most, or if there’s a certain comment that stands out about a dish or place—positive or negative,” she says. “When Arsenal opened, there was a sweet potato gnocchi with duck meatballs on the menu. I tallied up all the likes and mentions it got and realized, ‘We can’t take that off the menu for a while.’” The dish is still available, in part due to all the positive feedback it has gotten on social media.”

Photos: Outstanding in the Field Dinner at Arcadia Farms

Creste de Gallo Pasta

I’m letting the pictures do the talking in this post. Outstanding in the Field came to Arcadia Farms. Our team from Birch & Barley/ChurchKey/Bluejacket prepared a fantastic multi-course meal that I was lucky enough to photograph. Great lighting, expert beer pairings and dinner out in the open field of a farm. Technically this was work, but it certainly didn’t feel like it one bit.

You can see the full photo gallery on Flickr after the jump.
Continue reading “Photos: Outstanding in the Field Dinner at Arcadia Farms”