Tag Archives: dinner party

Entertaining at home with Magnums

magnums as tabletop centerpiece

How to use Magnums as a centerpiece for your dinner table.

Entertaining at home presents a fun challenge for me because I’m always looking for a way to do something a bit more extraordinary than before. I find the small touches that make a big statement, something that adds sophistication and makes the event more memorable.

“Magnums” contain 1.5 liters of wine or champagne, or the equivalent of two regular 750ml bottles. Two bottles in one! When you use magnums of wine on the table you get to enjoy the party more because you don’t have to keep jumping up and opening wine bottles as often.  But, there’s more than just the convenience of having to open fewer bottles for your gathering.

No matter how you look at it, magnums create a great party atmosphere.  Whatever the size of your gathering – large or small – when you have magnums as part of your centerpiece, the extra-large bottles immediately become fabulous additions to the tabletop and great conversation starters.

I went to a party in San Diego where the host served a double magnum of Champagne, equivalent to two magnums or four standard 750ml bottles. Just to get the cork out was a tremendous feat but, it took two guys to tip the bottle carefully to serve all the guests. That was not only a constant topic of conversation, it was also so much fun and the source of a whole lot of laughter all night long!  It really added to the party atmosphere.

There’s also a practical perspective for magnums. Winemakers prefer larger bottle size because wine ages more slowly and gracefully in larger format bottles than in standard bottles. There are several reasons for this.  One reason is that even though there is a greater volume of wine in the bottle, the amount of oxygen or “ullage” between the cork and the wine is the same as in a regular sized bottle. Corks are porous so tiny amounts of oxygen are let in (very, very slowly!) and that oxygen modifies the wine over time – aging the wine.  Too much oxygen will eventually damage the wine but if there is a lot more wine in the bottle and still the same ullage and cork size then there is less risk of damage to the wine over the same amount of time.  And, the bigger the bottle the more your wine is protected from other things that can damage it (larger bottles have thicker glass) – light, heat, changes in temperature and vibration from travel.

This is particularly true for Champagne where experts note that magnums help the wine retain a more youthful taste than when served from standard bottles. Also, due to the increased content volume, magnums tend to have slightly higher pressure which enhances the bubbles a bit – always a good thing in my opinion!

Either way, imagine one or two magnums sitting on your tabletop at your next party. You’ll enjoy the party with fewer interruptions to open more bottles and your guests will have a lot of fun passing the large bottles around the table to refill glasses. And think of all conversations that will start. But, the biggest benefit? You will be serving and enjoying wine that is closer to what the winemaker intended.

The Art of ordering from a menu

Charcoal_venice_Oysters-Josper

Don’t covet your neighbor’s dinner – order for flavor and experience!

Reading a menu at your favorite restaurant can be a lot of fun (especially if they’ve added new items that you haven’t tried) unless you’ve waited too long to eat and you’re starving! Then your eyes start darting around and you’re completely distracted by all those beautiful dishes passing you by – and at nose level! I suggest buying time with some bread so that you can actually pay attention to the dishes that the chef spent so much time creating.  Go ahead, order the drinks to start and with a few bites of bread to calm those hunger pangs you’re ready to go.

Over the more than 20 years that I owned restaurants we approached menu creation logically.  When my chefs came to me with menu ideas, our goal was to create menus that offered guests a chance to experience a particular flavor combination using what was in season, especially if one of us had just returned from travel with new ideas. I wanted our guests to enjoy the food, the friendship that brought them to the table, but definitely not to envy each other’s dinner because they thought they’d ordered wrong.

That’s where the art of ordering from a menu comes into play.

Your response might be “Ordering from a menu is art?” Depending on the restaurant, yes; just as much as it is an art in preparing the food for you to enjoy.

When I was a child, my parents had friends from China who frequented our dinner table. It was at that time that I learned how many Asian families prepare and eat food: small dishes of all kinds of different preparations, shared around the table so that everyone got a taste of something different. It was one big social experience that happened to involve food.  I didn’t realize it then but it’s the perfect way to eat a meal – tasting multiple dishes.

Mexican and Spanish “tapas” (snacks or small plates) cuisine has evolved in the same way. Everyone orders their favorite dish to share with everyone else at the table – what we used to call “family style dining.” This style of restaurant (shared plates) and type of ordering has become extremely popular.  Everyone gets to order something that has caught their eye on the menu and the whole table gets to taste different dishes that they might not have tried before.

The traditional way of ordering from a menu, what you might call the “mainstream” approach, is to order by course – appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert (if you can manage it) – none of which is shared, except for maybe a bite or two that someone else at the table might ask to taste from what you had ordered. The problem is that many people look at the entrées first to decide what they want for their main course and then they decide if they want an appetizer or salad.  That is exactly the opposite of  what I do even if I’m at a traditional restaurant and not a tapas style place.

It doesn’t matter if I’m at Sfixio, one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Los Angeles, Charcoal Venice, in Los Angeles where everything is wood-fired and delicious, or the incredible restaurant at The NoMad Hotel in New York City that I make sure I visit every time I’m there so I can indulge in as many appetizers as I can handle and still have room for “Chicken”.  I always order the same way.

Look at the menu carefully and you will see that the chef is his most creative in the appetizer section and perhaps even in side dishes.  I’ve found that these dishes tell more of the story of the chef and the type of food he wants to share than anywhere else on the menu.

If I am with at least one other person, we find at least two-three appetizers that we both are happy with, find a side dish or two that look good and then maybe share one entrée if we’re hungry.  Of course, if those appetizers look absolutely amazing then we might just add a couple more and skip the entrée all together.  If it’s a party of four, then I add at least one or two more appetizers, another side and a second entrée.

You will get to taste more items on the menu than if you just ordered by “course” and you’ll also understand better how the chef views food.  Perfect!

Then, of course, you might still have room for dessert.

Enjoy!


PHOTO: Oysters Josper, from Charcoal Venice

What bread plate is mine?

Tabletop place setting

Easy tips for setting your table, for every day!

When my kids were at home, we always ate our meals at the kitchen table, and if I was having a party, the meal would move to the dining room.  Somehow all that changed when the kids left for college.  There were times that it seemed like it was just too much effort to set the table – after all, it was “just us” –  and on occasion, we would find ourselves eating in front of the TV.

Not too long after the kids left for college, I decided that we would no longer be eating in front of the “boob tube.” We would return to the table where we could have a real conversation together, find out what went on during each of our days and get re-connected after a long day of work.

To be honest, my preference has always been to enjoy a nice meal and conversation around a table with my friends and family. That means setting the table! When you do it right, even your garden variety basic meal can be turned into something everyone enjoys. All you need to do is take the time to put everything in order on your tabletop.

Don’t be embarrassed though if you can’t remember where to put the bread plate and whether (or if) you should put out a soup spoon.  It can get very confusing and so many people get it wrong.  After twenty years of owning restaurants, the right place setting is practically tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. I still fight the urge to fold napkins when I’m at a friend’s home for dinner.

Always remember this one basic rule: set your table for the meal you’re having, not for a fancy party (unless of course, that’s precisely what you’ve planned). If you’re not having soup, don’t put out a soup spoon. If you’re not serving bread, don’t put out a bread plate. To be honest, unless you’re setting a formal table you don’t really need that bread plate anyway.

According to Emily Post, a place setting is an array of dishes and utensils and the dinner plate is the “hub of the wheel.” But, if your goal is to entertain friends and encourage conversation, don’t get too fancy.

I usually set an informal table. I like to “stack” my plates: dinner plate on the bottom, with salad plate on top (if I’m serving salad). Where I put the napkin depends on my mood – sometimes I put it under the forks (like my mother did), sometimes it’s folded on top of the dinner/salad plate, sometimes I use a napkin ring, and sometimes I put it in the water glass!  It just all depends on how I want the table to look that day.

Forks always go on the left of the dinner plate with the largest fork closest to the plate and then smaller ones next to that. Knives are placed to the right of the plate and spoons to the right of the knife. The sharp edge of all knives should be turned to face the plate.  Placing the sharp edge of the knife facing inwards dates back several hundred years when it was considered aggressive to place the sharp edge of the knife facing outwards.   The bread plate goes on the left, above the forks.

Place water, champagne, and wine glasses in a line on the right, just above the knife and spoons. And remember, the water glass is the first glass placed with champagne and wine glasses to the right of the water glass.

Remember, simplicity! Only set the pieces that you will use during the meal, but if you’re serving dessert, you can place the dessert fork above the plate (I like the way that looks). That means that if you’re not serving champagne, don’t put a champagne glass on the table.  I like to set coffee cups and dessert plates out only when it’s time – otherwise, the table gets way too cluttered, and on my table, all that extra stuff won’t leave any room for the actual food!

Just because you might be having a very casual BBQ outside, or serving hamburgers and hot dogs for dinner, and you’ve chosen to use heavy paper plates and plastic forks and knives to simplify clean up, doesn’t mean that setting all the pieces in their proper place on the table won’t make it feel special.  You might want to use string or ribbon as a napkin ring to dress it up just a little bit.  You can even make a “roll up” out of the napkin, plastic ware and a piece of string (it’s what restaurants give you when you order “to go”) to make your very casual table more fun!

By the way, there is nothing better than a little candlelight to add a little ambiance to the meal. Even if your tabletop is completely disposable, dim the lights, light some candles, and – voila – you’ve just added something fun to the experience. Never use scented candles at a table. Seriously. Who wants “country cinnamon” competing with the Pasta Bolognese that you labored over in the kitchen?

What you want is a comfortable setting that eases everyone into an enjoyable dinner experience.

 

End of Another Year, Start of New Possibilities

Enjoy around the table

Time to bring your Friends and Family together around your table!

Wow!  How did it get to be January already?  I’m always surprised by how quickly the year flies by and yet they are moving quicker and quicker and here it is – the start of another year.  And, each year I’m also surprised by how much happens. This past one was absolutely no exception.  Right?  I’m not just thinking about stuff that happened in the news or around the world – although there was a lot of that.  I’m thinking about all of the new friends that I’ve made and relationships that I started last year.  I’m thinking about all of the people who have discovered the importance of being “around the table” with people who are closest to us, or maybe people we wish to bring closer.

We can all give lip service about how dear some people are to us, but the strongest way to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk” is to gather together for a meal, a snack or even just a cup of coffee.  It doesn’t have to be a big meal or even a big deal at all – what it is, is the time spent together sharing around the table (or even a park bench at lunch).  It’s how we draw together at meals.  When it becomes a regular thing so much changes.  Maybe someone will start making new recipes and others will want to be in the kitchen helping create for the shared experience.  The main point is getting people together to share what is, for many of us, something we do well and too often alone.

Eating should be about more than just getting nourishment – you know – getting the calories in so that we can move through our day.  It should be about feeding the soul with the very thing that makes us human and feel alive: connection to one another – love.

So… let’s toast to the new year, filled with health, happiness and blessings.  Whatever last year has meant to you, make this new year the one where you draw your friends and family close together around your table!

Fran’s Party Etiquette Rules – The Host Gift (Part II)

guest gift

More guest rules – these will make you the Party Star!

I accept almost all invitations to parties that come my way. And I go to a lot of them – that’s just the way I roll. Over the years, I have witnessed some massive faux pas at parties – more than I care to remember – mistakes that both hosts and guests make. Some are bigger than others but nearly all are remembered.

I went through my top 6 Guest “rules” in my first post. This time, I want to give you a list of ideas that could make you the Party Star! Now, that’s a nice way to be remembered, don’t you think?

In the previous post, my NUMBER ONE rule, if you’re the Guest: don’t show up to a party empty handed.  In my book, it’s just rude. The host has gone to a whole lot of effort to throw this thing – show some appreciation.

Having said this, there are even a few things that you might want to reconsider.

  • Don’t bring flowers – I know it’s your “go to” but don’t do it.  The host has to stop everything, try to find an appropriate vase, cut the stems, arrange your lovely bouquet and find a place to put them in their carefully arranged party décor.  Just don’t.
  • Don’t bring wine/alcohol – Also probably one of your “go to” hostess gifts but don’t do that either.  UNLESS you know what your host/hostess likes to drink – maybe it’s a dry, full-bodied Napa Cabernet, or a 25-year-old single barrel scotch.  But, if you don’t know for a fact what it is that your host likes – don’t bring it.  I don’t drink Merlot (I don’t like my wine jammy or chewy) but that hasn’t stopped some very well meaning friends from bringing that bottle because they thought it might be a good one.  I have dozens in a closet that I will never drink. By the way, never re-gift.  Don’t do it.

Those are some big DON’Ts, but I have a few easy DO’s that’ll make perfect host/hostess gifts – stuff that will surprise and please.

  • Bring scented soap for the power room. As a hostess, I always make sure there is some, but sometimes I don’t remember to get a new one. Bring a cute dish with a small scented soap as a gift – it will be appreciated.
  • A half-pound of some great coffee. Coffee is always welcome for the host that loves their cup of “joe”.  They come in very cool bags/cans/containers now and that’s a fun gift to receive.  But, always bring GROUND coffee.  You don’t know if your host has a coffee grinder and even though those whole beans look cool if you bring them and your host can’t use them, they’re not so cool.  Always ground coffee.
  • Some fun wooden spoons! Especially if the host is a person who like to cook, but even one who isn’t. Either way, there never seems to be enough of them. Find ones that have colorful handles or are printed with words (eat, gather, etc.).
  • A jar of “Starter Sauces.” Some stores (I find mine at William Sonoma) have a great selection of starter sauces.  You can get them for all kinds of proteins and they have the instructions for usage on the jar label.  It’s very convenient and easy to use for the host/hostess.  And the best part?  They’re delicious!  William Sonoma has all kinds of things like this, dipping oils (for bread) in cool tall bottles, dry spice rubs for all kinds of things – some great stuff for the host/hostess whether they are a cook or not.
  • If they love to travel – find cool luggage tags. I found some fun ones at a fun stationary store.  Everyone needs them and if they are unique (read colorful) they are the perfect way for your black luggage to stand out on the carousel while you are searching for your bags.
  • During the holidays, bring mulling spices.  I find mine at my local William Sonoma. If you bring those and an infuser ball (like something you use for loose tea) and some basic apple cider, your host has the perfect ingredients to make their house smell wonderful at a moment’s notice.

Fran’s Party Etiquette Rules – For Guests (Part I)

Guests at a party - party on!

6 Guest rules to keep you from becoming the party joke.

I love good parties, both throwing them and coming as a guest.  They can be great fun (at least for me)!  The most amazing thing is that with all of them that I’ve attended and many I have thrown, there’s always someone who ends up being “that guy.”  You know, the one that everyone talks about the next day either because of something they did or didn’t do.  They’ll make some faux pas by loudly making an inappropriate remark and then repeating it all night, or showing up with their “posse” when the invite clearly was for just them – it could be any number of bad moves and will be memorable depending on just how spectacular the fool decides to be about whatever he (or she) has done.

As carefree as we want to be at parties, there are some cultural rules – etiquette – for both Guest and Host. I’ve collected a few over the years. Call them “Fran’s Party Etiquette Rules” (catchy, don’t you think?). The list has gotten rather long, so I broke them down a bit over several posts (stay tuned!).

Let’s start with the rules that I hope will keep you from becoming the long-remembered party joke:

  1. Never show up to a party empty handed – it’s kinda rude, so don’t do it. Some  cultures have a very strong tradition about this – the Japanese even have a special name for such a gift – they call it “Omiyage.” The host has gone to a whole lot of effort to throw this thing – show some appreciation.  Having said this there are a few guidelines about gifting that I’ll go through in a later post. Read it!
  2. DON’T bring your own playlist of music unless the host has specifically dubbed you the party DJ. You don’t know what the host has planned and unless you want to wind up being disappointed (or embarrassed) by being asked NOT to mess with the music, just don’t do it.
  3. If you spill something – tell the host/hostess IMMEDIATELY. Don’t run and make pretend you didn’t do it.  The sooner it can be cleaned the better the outcome.
  4. If your babysitter bales on you – DON’T bring the kids. Call with your apologies.  Your kids don’t want to come to the party and the other adults there won’t be that comfortable either.  Even if your host insists you bring them (unless it’s a BBQ in the afternoon) don’t do it.  You will need to watch them all night – not great for you either.  Just don’t.
  5. Unless you’re are intending to help with the clean-up, and I mean really help not just follow the host around while they’re doing it, then leave before the party is over. My rule of thumb is that if there’s only about 20% of the guests left – it’s time to go.
  6. Don’t look in the cabinets or closets – stuff is put away in there for a reason and it’s not for you to know.
  7. DO NOT GET DRUNK! I know that one seems obvious but, as we all know, there’s always one.  Don’t be the one.

Maybe you have a few of your own set of rules? Wanna share? Let me know! Remember, though, it’s not about the rules. To me, a party is just another table to gather around– maybe bigger than your average get-together but it’s always about “around the table” – coming together and showing appreciation to one another that counts most.

 

5 Rules for Throwing a Dinner Party That Never Ends

photo-dave-lastovskiy_dinner

Have a party that they’ll be talking about for years.

One of the best dinner parties I ever went to started at a normal hour, 7:30pm, but no one left until well after 1am!  Nobody wanted to leave.  The best part?  The host didn’t want anyone to leave either!  If you follow these very simple rules you can have a never ending dinner party that your friends will remember with love for years.  If you get really good at it, you will be known as the dinner party queen/king and the envy of everyone you know.

  1. Be careful of your guest list. That doesn’t mean to keep it to a specific number of guests but to pay attention to the mix of guests.  Be aware of any tension between any of your friends and make sure you don’t stir that hornet’s nest-it won’t bode well for a convivial evening.
  1. Serve dinner “family style.” When you try to create individual plates everything becomes more formal and that’s the exact opposite of your goal.  You want everyone to be comfortable.  When people need to “please pass the potatoes” it gets people talking to each other – a great way to encourage conversation.  When you serve “family style” on large serving platters your guests are encouraged to have seconds or even just another bite of something.
  1. Plan your menu with food that doesn’t need to be a certain temperature – food that is perfectly fine served at room temp. If you’ve ever had a large group over for a meal and you’ve tried to make sure that the last person served gets food that’s as hot as the first person served you will know exactly what I’m talking about.  This way the food can stay on the table as long as you and your guests are at the table (which you want to be a long time!) and still taste great.
  1. Make sure there is plenty of wine on the table for your guests to serve themselves. Don’t be precious with it – you don’t want to have rules about what is being poured when during the meal.  Stick with bottles that are similar in flavor and body whether they are red or white – but make sure to have both opened.  Leave those bottles on the table for easy refills by your guests.  Be careful to not run out!
  1. Candles are key. Atmosphere is the quickest way to turn your dinner with friends into a real party and candles do that effortlessly.  Use candles of different heights on your table and light them ALL.  The lighting changes as your night progresses from fresh candles that are newly lit to a soft glow from those that burn the longest.  Be sure to have a lot of them as they will burn at different rates – only some will last all night but that just contributes to the wonderful atmosphere you want to have.

I promise that if you follow these 5 simple rules your next dinner party will be a greater success than you could have ever wished for.  Enjoy!