Food from the Hart

Posts Tagged ‘dinner party’

10 Questions NOT to Ask at a Dinner Party

In Features on April 10, 2011 at 2:11 pm

It might seem like common sense but it’s always nice to have a little reminder. When at a dinner party, especially with folks you don’t know, avoid getting into deeply personal issues or cracking that joke that’s just a little insensitive.  You never know how people might react and in some cases the wrong comment or question can throw the mood of a party.  Especially when you are in a small space and it’s difficult to gain distance between you, the inappropriate comment and the offended party.

Do your best to gauge the mood of the party and let the host be your barometer for where the conversation is going.  On the flip side, if you are the host think about the group you invited and make a judgement call.  How personal / political can we get? Sometimes it fun to get into a heated conversation with the right group, but again know your audience.  And if there is ever a question, air on the politically correct side of the fence.  While there could a number of questions that might turn an evening, here are a few key ones to avoid:

  1. You look different, did you lose weight?
  2. You look terrible, are you feeling OK?
  3. How much does someone in your field of work make?
  4. How much does an apartment or house like this cost?
  5. Why aren’t you drinking?
  6. Should you be eating that?
  7. Isn’t that your (pick a number) glass of wine?
  8. Why aren’t you seeing anyone?
  9. Who did you vote for? / What party are you affiliated with?
  10. When are you due? / When are you going to have kids?




Hate Awkward Silences? Make the Most of Small Talk

In Tips on March 28, 2011 at 8:31 am

Entertaining guests in a small space can be fun and intimate, but there’s no avoiding the dreaded small talk! In larger venues it’s easier to navigate around the folks you don’t already know.  Not the case when you and your guests area all in one room.  Small talk can be uncomfortable especially if you don’t have much to go on besides the age-old topic of the weather.  Here are a few tips to help you rev up any conversation:

Know your Current Events

Keep up to date on whats happening on a local, state, national and international level.  This can be a simple as reading the front pages of your local paper and a national paper like New York Times.  The evening news will also do the trick.  While events and facts are good, try to avoid sticky topics like politics.  Stick to neutral issues. Nothing ends a conversation quicker than a divisive subject like politics or religion.

Know your Guests

Think about who you’ve invited.  Consider their jobs, hobbies, interests, and accomplishments.  This gives you an endless sea of things to talk about.  Ask questions and search for commonalities.  See if you can connect guests based on these things.  Trust me, your guests will be flattered by all the attention!

Questions, Questions, Questions

Everyone loves to give their opinion. Asking questions is the easiest way to get a conversation started. Bring up pop culture topics like celebrity gossip, sports, movies, etc and instead of giving your thoughts ask theirs. The flood gates will open and you’ll move from awkward small talk to full-fledged conversation.


Focus on the person you are talking to.  There’s nothing worse than chatting with someone who is looking around the room.  Give the occasional head nod, this lets people know you’re engaged and actively listening.  If you notice a situation that needs tending to, excuse yourself, but return and try to remember where you left off.  This will make guests feel you were truly interested in what they were saying (even if you weren’t).


While there are a number of great topics for small talk, these eight subjects should be avoided at all costs. If you find yourself in a situation where one of these comes up, gently steer the conversation in a different direction, or when in dire straights excuse yourself and go to the bathroom!

  1. Finance
  2. Politics
  3. Religion
  4. Death
  5. Age / Appearance
  6. Personal Gossip
  7. Offensive / Off Color Jokes
  8. Past Relationships

Flower Arrangements 101: The Low Down on Decorating with Blooms

In Features on March 15, 2011 at 9:26 am

Adding flowers is one of the easiest ways to turn up the volume in your party space.  They take up limited room and when done right can make a big impact. Here are some simple guidelines to help simplify the arranging process.  Remember, this is a creative process.  Don’t be afraid to let your artistic juices flow. There’s no right or wrong way to create a masterpiece, I mean, centerpiece!

Keep it Low – Make sure arrangements are low enough for guests to see across the table.

Think outside the Table – Try placing arrangements in other locations besides the dining table.  Try the mantel, bookshelf, sideboard, buffet table, coffee table and even the bathroom.  Fresh flowers brighten even the smallest of spaces making them feel more alive and fresh.

Big isn’t Always Better – Arrangements don’t have to be large and expensive.  A few small grouping of flowers can be just an effective as large sprays of lilies and roses.

Quality over Quantity – Pick flowers just like you would produce in the grocery store.  Look for what is fresh, vibrant and not fully bloomed yet.  Choosing flowers just getting ready to blossom will last longer, giving you more bang for your buck.

Be Creative – A centerpiece doesn’t have to be just one vase in the center of the table.  Try scattering small arrangements down the middle of the table, or grouping several at each guests’ place.  A single large bloom floating in a shallow bowl can even make a powerful statement.  Another fun technique, use large vases and completely submerge flowers in water.  Add a waterproof LED light for extra sparkle.

Less is More – Keep the colors simple.  Choose a palette of 1-3 colors and no more than 3 shapes or textures.

Odds are Better than Evens – Odd numbers work best.  Work in groups of 1,3 or 5 of each color, texture or shape.

Color, Color, Color – Monochromatic arrangements are simple and stunning.  If you’re more comfortable blending color use shades that are near each other on the color wheel.  For instance, red/orange or red/pink.  These combinations are more sophisticated and easier on the eye than contrasting colors.

Think Seasonal – Let the season be your guide. Soft shades of pinks and greens for spring, bright vibrant yellows and oranges for summer, white for winter and deep jewel tones for fall.

There’s More than Just Flowers – Branches, leaves, and vines can all make cost-effective and long-lasting centerpieces.  Arrange in tall glass vases to create a dramatic and simplistic effect.

Make Sense of Scents – Avoid flowers with strong scents on the dining table.  The aromas can conflict with the food and overwhelm the senses.  Leave the stronger smelling flowers for bathrooms and entryways.

Steal if you Need to (no, not flowers, ideas) – Don’t be afraid to look to magazines, books and the Internet for inspiration.  If you see something you like bringing it with you when you go shopping.

Go Local – Whenever possible support local farmers and growers.  If you have access to a farmers market make an effort to buy your flowers there.  You’ll get the best quality for your money.

Tip of the Day: Closing Time, How to End a Party Gracefully

In Tips on March 12, 2011 at 9:49 am

All great things must come to an end.  Even great parties.  It’s always a good idea to have some exit strategies in your back pocket for guests who show no sign of leaving.  If you are ready to party till the sun comes up then this is not an issue.  But when you need to call it a night, follow these suggestions.

  • Close the Bar – Put away any liquor, beer and wine. Make sure you leave out plenty of water for those who might have overindulged.  They will appreciate the extra hydration before they hit the road.
  • Turn off the Music– This is usually a great way to break up a party. Once things quiet down, people will begin to filter out.
  • Start Cleaning Up– As the host, once people see you cleaning they will get the cue it’s time to get a move on.
  • Be Direct- For those guests who still aren’t getting the clue it’s closing time, try saying something like, “Look at the time! I have an early meeting (yoga class, doctors appointment,etc).  Let’s call it a night.”
  • Turn off the Lights- If all else fails, shut it down!

Tip of the Day: Sweet Centerpieces

In Tips on March 8, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Cookies, candy, chocolate, and fruit all make wonderful, whimsical, and delicious centerpieces.  Using edible decor is a super easy way to create a beautiful table that will take your guests by surprise.  And using dessert as a centerpiece saves time and money!  It doesn’t get better than that! Here are a few DIY suggestions, but experiment, the possibilities are endless.

Cookies and Meringues

Stack homemade or store-bought meringues, cookies, amaretti, candy, or chocolate on tiered or regular plates in the center of your table.  Too add some extra visual interest, scatter tea candles and flowers around the plates of sweets. At the end of dinner pass the plates around for your guests to enjoy.

Lollipop Flower Pots

Lollipops are fun, colorful and make great “flower” centerpieces.  Gather a metal buckets or flower pots and shove a piece of flower foam in the bottom of each. Stick the lollipops into the foam so each lollipop is a different height.  Fill in the space between the foam and the top of the pot with loose candy like jelly beans or gum drops.  *Photo Courtesy of Rachel Ray

Jars of Candy

Use the color palette of your table decor as a guide and fill apothecary jars with candy that matches.  Take it one step further and give your guests cellophane bags to fill with the wonderful confectionary treats they can take home.

Bowl of Fruit

Nothing is easier or more elegant than this.  Use a large wooden, glass or ceramic bowl and fill a single kind of fruit.  For instance, if you are having a fall brunch, use apples or pears.  For a summer garden party, try lemons or limes. * Photo Courtesy of Real Simple Magazine

Wine and Food Pairing Cheat Sheet

In Features on March 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm

The craft of pairing wine and food is incredibly complex, but when you get it right, both the food and wine taste so much better. Good sommeliers spend years learning the science and constantly challenge themselves to master the art of wine. But it doesn’t take a seasoned sommelier to create a good wine and food match.

Forget all the crazy rules and must’s.  Much of creating a good match is personal taste and preference.  The cheat sheet below is just a guideline, giving suggestions of varietals that mesh nicely with staple proteins. The rest is up to you and your guests taste-buds’.  Bottom line, trial and error is the best way to find the perfect pair!

Light Seafood: Vouvray, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Sancerre, Verdicchio

Spicy Seafood & Poultry: Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Chardonnay, Dolcetto d’Alba, Beaujolais

Light Pastas & Salad: Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Orvieto, Rose, Cotes du Rhone

Pork & Lighter Meat: Rioja, Barbera, Pinot Noir, Cotes du Rhone, Tempranillo

Lamb & Beef: Cabernet Sauvignon, Valpolicella, Rioja, Zinfandel

Full Flavored Meat & Game: Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux, Shiraz

Tip of the Day: Champagne Toasts

In Tips on March 3, 2011 at 10:50 am

There is something wonderful about starting an evening with a Champagne toast.  It’s fun, festive and puts everyone in the celebratory mood – even all you are celebrating is being together.

Even if you don’t want to splurge for Dom Perignon Rose you can raise a glass of bubbly in an affordable way.  Two great alternatives to Champagne are Cava (sparkler for Spain) or Prosecco (bubbles from Italy).

Here are some of my favorites:

Cristalino Brut Cava NV, $9.99

Marques de Gelida Brut Exclusive Reserva Cava, $12.99

NV Zardetto Prosecco Brut, $13.99

NV Althea – Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, $16.99

Beef Short Ribs

In Recipes on February 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Yield: 8 servings

Cooking Time: 6 hours

I know you are probably thinking this is way too much work for an Oscar Party. These do take time to make. However, there isn’t that much hands-on cooking time.  And they actually taste best if you make them the day before the party.

This is a recipe adapted from Alice Waters of Chez Panisse.  Of all the recipes I’ve tried, I think this is by far the very best! I promise you it will not disappoint!

6-7 pounds beef short ribs, cut 2 inches thick

Salt and Pepper

3 large yellow peppers, roughly chopped

Canola oil

4 leeks, white and pale green parts only, washed and roughly chopped

2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped

2 celery, roughly chopped

2 plum tomatoes, roughly chopped

8 cloves garlic, smashed

6 sprigs thyme

8 sprigs parsley

3 turkish bay leaves

2 cups red wine

5 cups veal or beef stock, warmed


Trim the short ribs of any extra fat.  Season liberally with salt and pepper.  Refrigerate for 4-6 hours.

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

In a large heavy bottom saucepan or dutch oven heat 2 tablespoons of canola oil.  Once the oil is smoking hot, add the short ribs.  Make sure there is at least 1/2 inch of space between each rib.  You might need to do this in 2 rounds. Brown the short ribs on both sides until they are dark brown.  Remove and set side.

In the same saucepan, saute the onions in a tablespoon or two of canola oil. Add leeks, carrots and celery and cook until slightly soft. Add tomatoes, garlic, thyme, parsley and bay leaves and saute for 2-3 more minutes.

Add the wine and deglaze the pan.  Add the short ribs back, bone side up, to the pot and add enough stock to cover the short ribs. If your pot is not large enough to hold the short ribs, feel free to use a larger earthenware dish. Cover the pot or dish with foil and put in the oven.  Give the ribs about 20 minutes and once they have come to a boil, loosen the foil and reduce the oven to 350 degrees.

After 2 hours being to test the ribs for doneness.  Use a fork, there should be no resistance in the meat and the meat should nearly be falling off the bone. When the ribs are tender, remove from oven and pour off the braising juices, raise oven to 450 degrees, return ribs to the oven for final browning. After 10 minutes, the ribs should be brown and have a nice glaze.  Remove and let them rest.

Strain the braising liquid using a fine mesh strainer.  Pour back over the short ribs and reheat if serving immediately or cool and store to serve the next day.

Tip of the Day: Set the Night to Music

In Tips on February 7, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Music sets the mood and tone for every good party.  I recommend creating a few iTunes playlists for the evening.  But if you feel like your music library might be lacking, don’t purchase new music for the occasion. Ask your guests to bring their iPods and rotate them through the night.  It’s a great money and space saving alternative to a DJ!

10 Tips for Stress Free Entertaining

In Features on February 6, 2011 at 10:05 am

Entertaining often seems like a great idea until you realize how much you have to do to prepare and how little time you have to prepare in.  These 10 easy tips will help take the stress out of planning your next party – giving you more time to enjoy!

1. Make a Plan

Clearly define the occasion or purpose, number of guests, and dishes you want to serve.  Also choose a party format – cocktails, sit down dinner, potluck.

2. Write it Down

Once you have a plan put it on paper.  Seeing it visually will help to organize your thoughts and preparation. Detail what steps you need to take to execute each dish.  Start with what will take the longest and move from there.

3. Choose your Menu Wisely

Think about what is realistic in the kitchen space you have.  Try to mix do-it-ahead dishes with ones that need to be made day of.  Also think about cooking methods.  Don’t choose three baked.

4. Stick to What you Know

A dinner or cocktail party isn’t the best time to try out a new recipe.  Prepare something you’re comfortable with and save the recipe testing for another evening.

5. Lists are your Friend

Now that you have a menu, make a list of the ingredients to purchase.  Include the quantities of each.  This will save you time and ensure you don’t over or under buy.  Before you leave for the grocery store give your pantry a once over and check off anything you already have.  This goes for non-food items like paper towels, garbage bags, dish soap, aluminum foil, and plastic wrap as well.  Make sure you have enough before the party starts.

6. Clean as you Go

As you’re working through the prep list, clean! After each dish is complete wash what you’ve used.  You want to start the party with a spotless kitchen.  It’ll keep you sane as the party ramps up and will certainly impress your guests!  Everyone loves to believe even the most complex dinner was whipped up in mere minutes.

7. Empty the Dishwasher

Make sure that you have an empty dishwasher before the party starts.  There’s nothing worse than having to unload in the middle of courses while dirty dishes pile up in the sink.

8. Tidy the Bathroom

Empty the trash can, clean the sink, organize toiletries.  Leave extra toilet paper easily accessible and put hand towels out.  It’s also nice to light a candle in the bathroom.

9. Get the Music Going

Turn the music on prior to guests arriving.  It’ll not only help calm any last minute party prep stress, but will set the mood when guest come in.

10. Stay Cool

95% of the success of a party is the attitude of the host.  If you’re relaxed and having fun you’re guests will follow.  Remember, it’s just a party!

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