My love of dinner parties started early. I remember an abundant bowl of fruit on my family’s Thanksgiving table when I was little. It was morning, and there were still HOURS until dinner. Still, I asked my mom if I could have an orange. “Of course!” she said. “It’s the day all day!” And that was it for me. From then on, I looked forward to days with big dinners and lots of people coming over because the party really starts in the morning. Eat the oranges! We were saving them for today.
Now, I don’t want to toot my own horn (just kidding — I do), but my dinner parties are pretty famous. I invite an intimate group of friends (six is ideal, and eight is great) at least once a month, and we sit around the table for hours, talking and eating and enjoying. I’ve got it down to a science, and the secret is… It’s the day all day. I wake up EARLY on a dinner party day, giddy about all of the prep and excited to treat my people really well. I’m going to break it down for you, hour by hour. I’m not fussy about recipes, so I’ve kept them simple for you here. The menu is less important than the experience. And the experience starts as soon as you wake up.
Wake up, and pop a bubbly. Whether or not you drink alcohol, put something fizzy in a flute. Toast to the host. That’s you! This is your day. It’s practically a holiday. It’s basically your birthday.
Cut the watermelon. You want one-inch cubes on a parchment paper covered cookie sheet in the freezer. More on this later.
Grocery shop (scroll to the bottom for your list.) Go to the fancy grocery store. Do this leisurely. Get yourself a fun drink and have a romantic stroll through the aisles. Smell all of the flowers and pluck the best bunch for your table. Ponder over the produce. Flirt with the fish guy. Ask to sample a cheese or two. You’re not in a hurry. Here’s why: You’ve hired a cleaning service to come to the house while you grocery shop.
That’s my pro tip. Even if you love to clean! Even if you never hire a cleaning service! You’ll never shop more leisurely than you will when someone is cleaning your house for a dinner party and you HAVE to be out for two hours. You may be thinking: Why would I have a cleaning service come when the party’s outside? Well, the bathroom’s inside. And you’ll feel a special “holiday” thrill while prepping in a party-ready house. Also, it’s like having a clone (who’s really good at cleaning) getting the house ready while you’re tasting cheese, so.
While you’re at the grocery store: Shop the international aisle. Pluck the prettiest packages of cookies (some of those gold foil boxes are attractive enough to serve in their original packaging) and then scoot over to the freezer aisle and get a couple of pints of fancy sorbet. Get one more flavor than there are people coming to your party: There’s a game in your future. Read on.
Welcome home! It’s time to pull out the linens. Give them a steam or a tumble dry or just throw it over your outdoor table and let the humidity do its job. Any wrinkles or folded seams have usually worked themselves out in an hour. Find a great vase and cut your flowers. Tapers are devastatingly gorgeous, but an evening breeze will keep you relighting them, so when dining outdoors, I stick with hurricane lamps and pillars.
Grill salmon. This is such a wonderful dinner party fish because it’s easy to grill, and it’s fancy. Brush oil on and season both sides of your salmon fillets. Throw them on the grill skin-side down. Flip them after 6-8 minutes (when the skin has crisped up and isn’t sticking). Finish them off for another 6-8 minutes or until the internal temperature is 140 degrees.
Throw on some zucchini. Either cut them in long planks or half-inch rounds and toss them in olive oil, salt and pepper before giving them those pretty grill marks.
Depending on which salad you choose*, grill some fruit now, too.
Arrange grilled salmon on a serving platter, douse generously with lemon juice, and tuck lots of lemon wedges around the fillets. Plate the zucchini on another favorite platter (Hot tip: Pick a platter that’s almost too small. It’ll make your zucchini serving feel even more abundant.) Cover and store in the fridge until dinner time.
Pull together this easy pasta: Chop a bunch of garlic. However many cloves fall off the head — five or six — chop ‘em all. Slice a whole thing of cherry tomatoes in half. Tear a bunch of basil. Grate Parmesan cheese until you get sick of grating Parmesan cheese. Toss all of this together with hot and steamy spaghetti. The ready spaghetti will take a little bit of the edge off of the raw garlic, but not so much that it won’t have a great kick to it. Cover and allow to come to room temperature. (Or throw it in the fridge if you’re a cold noodle person.)
Set the table with dinner plates, salad plates, and an appetizer plate. Give everyone a water goblet and a wine glass (even non-drinkers love to drink out of stemware). Set the table with elegant place cards that have thought-provoking questions on the back. This will provide hours of table talk. Here are some good ones:
Which movie is better than the book?
What do people most misunderstand about you?
Who do you sometimes compare yourself to?
What’s your unpopular opinion?
When’s the last time you lost track of time, and what were you doing?
If the world was ending in a year, how would you spend your time?
Do you feel older or younger than your age?
If you could have a second chance at one event in your life, what would you choose?
If you could have the credit for creating any piece of art — painting, or music, or movie, etc. — which piece of art would you choose?
How would you describe the idea of a color?
What is the most life-changing decision you’ve ever made on a whim?
Who would play you in a movie of your life?
Build the charcuterie board. Start with all of your little bowls and ramekins. You’ll need a savory and sweet dipping sauce — I love a spicy mustard and fig jam. Fill in the cheeses: I like a Gouda, a Manchego, and a Goat. Add a little bowl of sweet gherkins — or Peppadew peppers, for color. Be generous with briny olives. Plunk down some painterly grapes. Tuck in strawberries and cherries. Make little piles of seedy crackers and chewy bread. Add in chocolate covered almonds. (Without fail, at every dinner party, someone says, “Oh, it’s chocolate! I thought these were olives!” A delight.)
Take a quick shower, and put on fresh clothes (white jeans are both comfy and polished) and a hint of makeup. A little mascara says, “Relax and enjoy yourself. I even had time for hair and makeup.”
Light the candles.
Put out the drinks. If you’re not serving wine-drinkers, make sure there are several bottles of red and wine sparkling cider. (Ice buckets for the white.) I always stock as many bottles as there are people coming because I want everyone to hang out for a long time and help themselves to all of the refills their hearts desire.
Slide all of your frozen watermelon cubes into the blender and buzz them up with lime juice and mint leaves. If you’re feeling frisky, add a splash of grapefruit soda. Pour these into pretty coupes and arrange them on a serving tray to greet your guests. As soon as they finish hugging hello, they’ll have a drink in their hands.
Put ice water in all of the glasses and fill a pitcher for refills.
Pull the salmon, zucchini, and spaghetti out of the fridge to bring to room temperature before serving.
Cue the dinnertime playlist, and welcome your guests. Give them their frozen watermelon drink and usher them out to the table. Follow them outside with your abundant charcuterie board. Let everyone find a seat and start snacking.
When everyone’s winding down on the charcuterie board and the questions — Don’t worry; you could enjoy this for a good hour — sneak into the kitchen to make the salad. A summer salad is easy: fruit + salty cheese + nuts. I love grilled nectarines* with a wet card of Feta and pistachios. Or peaches with Burrata and pine nuts (feel free to dash a little hot sauce on this one). It’s best to put this together just 15 minutes before serving. Drizzle with olive oil and flaky sea salt.
Serve the salad and top off everyone’s drink.
Clear the salad plates, and bring out the salmon, zucchini, and pasta.
Turn your string of lights on, signaling a transition.
Serve the sorbet. These are adorable in little crystal dessert cups, and feel free to flood the table with them. (More cups than there are people!) If you’re ready to throw in the towel on serving, go ahead and populate the table with pretty pints and gold spoons. (Don’t worry — those who are not keen on sharing will claim a favorite quickly.) Pass out little golf pencils, and make it a taste-test/rating card system. Your guests can use their name/question cards for this.
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