So you want to throw a party, but the thought of all the work makes you cringe? Never fear: We’re here to help.

What’s your definition of a party? A few people over for an intimate dinner, or hors d’oeuvres for 200? Whatever your answer, keep it simple.

“People are afraid that if they do something too simple, it won’t be fancy enough,” says Roxanne O’Brien, a catering instructor at American River College and herself a caterer for three decades. “Keeping it simple really works. Everyone stays happy.”

Maybe it’s been years since an invited guest crossed your threshold—all the work intimidates you. But having people over has no equal in helping you to make and keep friends. If you’re used to making a list of excuses instead of a list of guests, it’s time to rethink what hosting a successful soiree involves.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve knocked yourself out to make veal demi-glace for a roast,” says Karen Holmes, a caterer and owner of Karen’s Bakery Cafe and Catering in Folsom. “The point is to have folks in.”

Take a lesson from the late, great Julia Child. Many years ago, unexpected guests showed up at her home in Cambridge, Mass. Caught by surprise, she seated them, disappeared into the kitchen and re-emerged with a bowl of Goldfish crackers. “They’re quite good, don’t you think?” she said, offering the snack as if it were caviar. The lesson: Never apologize.

I used to be a run-amok party giver. I made too much food. I made food that was complicated and expensive. Once, for a Kentucky Derby party for 80 in the days when I lived in Louisville, I made so much coleslaw that I had to mix it in my bathtub. Had I outsourced the slaw from a premier barbecue restaurant with the best slaw this side of my bathtub, no one would have known.

To help you plan your party, we’ll take you through the process step by step, using the easy route. We’ll reveal the fastest way to send invitations (bonus: it’s also the cheapest) and what ready-made foods you can buy and present so they look tempting.

We’ll offer advice from local caterers on easy, can’t-fail dishes you can make yourself. And we’ll show you how to use the caterers in your neighborhood: They’re called restaurants, and they sell everything from bread to bread pudding to go.

As for drinks, we’ll answer such questions as how much wine should you buy and what cocktails should you serve.

But before you start designing menus and decorating the table, you need to come up with a guest list. If you’re not used to entertaining, you may be wondering how many people to invite. “If you want to keep it easy, a party of 12 is about right,” is O’Brien’s advice. “You get to see a bunch of your friends without too much hassle.” A dozen guests gives you, The Entertainer, the opportunity to knock out great-tasting, high-quality, sumptuous groaning boards of food and drink. Let’s get this party started.


How To Be a Good Guest—

Bring a gift to your host or hostess. Some suggestions:

• Bottle of wine, Champagne or fine spirits
• Candle
• Potpourri
• Book personally selected if you know the host well
• Flowers
• Something personal and offbeat

What not to bring:

• Your own unsolicited dish

How To Be a Good Host—

If you invite, you pay. This is Davis etiquette expert Rebecca Black’s inviolate rule. “The guest must never have to reach into a wallet,” says Black, owner of Etiquette Now! That means the guest is never expected to bring anything or supplement the menu with food or beverages. What if a guest asks to bring something? Says Black: “The good host would decline.”

Getting the House Ready

Ask people why they don’t entertain as often as they’d like, and they’ll tell you their dirty little secret. It’s not the food. It’s not that they’re shy. It’s this:

The house is a mess. Cleaning it would be as daunting as throwing the party.

If you’re determined to entertain, be just as determined to make it happen. Don’t:
• Clean the same day as the party.
• Clean rooms people won’t see.
• Rule out other ways to get your house clean.

Hire Help

A one-shot cleaning service is worth the money. Arrange the cleaning blitz the day before the party. Pay extra to have the cleaning service assist you in expanding a table, pulling out dishes or running stemware through the dishwasher.

When you reserve the help for the preparty cleaning, ask if the service can provide someone to clean up after the party. If so, reserve immediately. If not, hire a teenager (your own or a neighbor’s), give explicit directions and wake up the next day to less mess.

Before the party, buy
• Fireplace logs
• A new CD

Planning Your Party: A Checklist
• Make the guest list
• Come up with a theme
• Finalize your menu
• Choose one starring cocktail
• Send out e-vites
• Order food from restaurant or takeout shop
• Shop for the rest of the meal

Party Math: How Much Wine?

How much wine you’ll need starts with a simple formula. It’s based on how many pours you’ll get from one 750-ml. bottle of wine or Champagne. The typical party guest will drink two glasses of wine.

Red or White?

Always have both, regardless of your menu. If you’re throwing a lunch party, buy two-thirds white wine, one-third red wine. For dinner, get two-thirds red wine, one-third white.

There are 12 bottles to a case. Many stores offer a discount when you buy a case. Ask if you can mix and match wines within the case.

Glass size 
                                                           Figure on
6- to 8-ounce wine glass or Champagne flute     5 pours per bottle
10-ounce goblet and up (balloon)                       4 pours per bottle

2 guests = 1 bottle
4 guests = 2 bottles
6 guests = 3 bottles
8 guests = 4 bottles

Setting Up the Bar
You can set up the bar on a folding table, the top of the dryer, a kitchen counter, a sideboard or a board on sawhorses (covered with a tablecloth). For your bar, you’ll need:

• Nonalcoholic beverages
• Premade simple syrup (see recipe on page 162)
• Soda water
• Jigger
• Citrus reamer
• Citrus zester
• Cocktail shaker
• Pint glass, for mixing
• Bar strainer
• Cocktail spoon
• Ice pick
• Ice bucket filled with ice
• Backup ice in the freezer
• Cutting board
• Paring knife
• Dish towels
• Muddler
• Straws
• Wine glasses
• Old-fashioned glasses

Easy Invites

Even the easiest entertaining starts with an invitation. Use your e-manners.

In Internet parlance, it’s known as the e-vite. It sails through your e-mail, making the e-vite the best way to get an invitation sent and answered, heads counted and guests involved before they show up at your door.

The e-vite is a perfectly acceptable method of alerting and gathering up your guests. “And why not?” wonders etiquette expert Black. “All etiquette should be sensible and logical.” Black loves e-vites.

“E-vites don’t put people on the spot, like phoning does,” she says. “You’re also more likely to respond, and promptly.” 

You can design your invitations online with sound, animation, colorful art and your own party theme. Once the e-vite is on the web, the party has started online: Guests can write comments that other guests can read and respond to.

Check out these e-vite sites:
• evite.com
• sendomatic.com

Getting the Food Right

The most dreaded words in all of cooking are “last minute.” They trigger stress, invite timing glitches and prevent you from going to your own party.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a few shortcuts. Who says you have to personally make every single bit of food that passes your guests’ lips?

You can buy the dip from Trader Joe’s, the olives from an Italian market, a premade deli salad from your favorite grocery store. And don’t forget ethnic markets: Try emptying an unusual eggplant spread directly out of a jar from an Indian grocery store or buying stuffed grape leaves from a Greek or Lebanese market.
Just make sure that when people arrive, they can start nibbling immediately. Arrange and set out appetizers before the doorbell rings.


You also can take advantage of restaurants to supplement your party menu. At three shopping centers within five miles of my house are restaurants where I can pick up Italian antipasto, enchiladas, lamb kebabs, Vietnamese salad rolls (always a hit), chicken saltimbocca, garlic-smashed potatoes (keep warm in a low oven), Caesar salad (order with dressing separate), osso buco, chicken curry, French bread and pastries. If one of your favorite restaurants has a dish you’d love to serve, ask the chef if it can be made in a big quantity for pickup the day of your party. Work out a price for the custom quantity, not a per-person price from the menu.

Two worst words: 
Last minute

Two best words:
Make ahead

Your Secret Caterer: Five Restaurants, Five No-Cook Menus

1. Shish kebab   •  Basmati rice   •  Yogurt dip   •  Hummus   •  Stuffed grape leaves   •  Tabouli   •  Pita bread triangles

Poke shish kebab skewers into a mound of rice, handles up for grabbing. Place everything else in individual bowls or shallow-rimmed serving dishes.

2. Potstickers   •  Won tons   •  Chinese barbecue pork   •  Chinese corn chowder or hot-and-sour soup   •  Roast duck

Transfer appetizers from takeout boxes to platters. Serve with Asian condiments: red chile sauce, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, vinegar. Shred roast duck and set on an oval platter with small bowls of plum sauce, minced scallion and coarse salt.
3. Chicken tikka   •  Biryani rice with saffron   •  Naan

Garnish the chicken tikka with cilantro and sliced lemons and serve on a platter. To keep naan warm, wrap in a towel and put in a low oven. Transfer the biryani to a large, pretty bowl and serve with store-bought mint and mango chutneys.

4. Green or red enchiladas   •  Chile verde   • Tortilla chips and assorted salsas

It’s a messy proposition to transfer enchiladas from a disposable baking pan to a presentable platter. If possible, have the restaurant make the enchiladas in your biggest table-worthy ceramic casserole dish. Bake it at home and keep warm in a low oven until serving. Transfer chile verde to a soup tureen and top with fresh minced cilantro. Serve with bowls of sour cream or queso fresca and chips and salsas.

5. Gumbo or jambalaya   •  Chopped salad or cabbage slaw   •  Bread pudding

Transfer the gumbo or jambalaya to a large tureen. Bring home bread pudding in a disposable aluminum pan; cut into squares and place on a platter. Drizzle with store-bought brandy sauce and serve with crème fraîche on the side.

No-Fail Appetizer
Caterer Roxanne O’Brien swears by this easy-to-assemble appetizer: Buy a quarter- or half-wheel of brie or Camembert and a jar of fig jam or pumpkin marmalade with orange rind. (O’Brien’s favorite brand: Earth & Vine.) Soften the jam by melting slightly in the microwave, uncovered, about 10 seconds on high. Spread the softened jam on top of the cheese and serve with spreading knives, crackers and baguette slices.

A backward timeline

•  Set the table the day before.
•  Give yourself 90 minutes to shower and dress.
• Put appetizers out before the doorbell rings.

Soup’s On

Roxanne O’Brien likes to serve soup as a simple main course. One of her favorites is this savory mulligatawny soup, which she serves with Indian bread and a green salad.

Mulligatawny Soup

This soup is great to make ahead. Gather up the ingredients the weekend before the party. At an Indian market, pick up spicy pappadam crackers to serve with a yogurt dip. Don’t forget presentation: At the Indian market, look for silk that you can use as a table runner.

4    garlic cloves, finely minced gingerroot (1-inch piece), peeled and finely minced
11/2    teaspoons each turmeric, ground coriander, ground cumin and garam masala*
1    teaspoon cayenne powder
2    tablespoons vegetable oil
2    tablespoons butter
1    large onion, finely diced
2    pounds (approx.) raw, boned chicken meat, dark or dark with white meat
1    13-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
21/2    quarts chicken stock
1/4    cup basmati rice
1/2    cup red or brown lentils
2    teaspoons tamarind concentrate*

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Chopped cilantro and lime slices for garnish

Combine garlic, ginger and spices and set aside.

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat oil and butter over medium-high heat and sauté onion until softened and light gold. Add garlic-ginger-spice mixture to the pan to form a paste and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.

Stir in chicken meat, coating well. Pour in coconut milk and simmer for 5 minutes. 

Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. At the simmer, add rice and lentils. Taste for salt and season if necessary. Continue to simmer 30 to 40 minutes, uncovered, until rice and lentils are soft. Periodically stir to prevent sticking. If making ahead, refrigerate at this point. When chilled, skim fat.

To serve, bring soup to a simmer. Stir in tamarind concentrate and season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm, covered, in a very low oven or over very low heat. Check and stir to prevent hot spots and scorches. Serve with chopped cilantro and lime slices. Serves 8 to 10.

*Available at Indian and Asian markets.

Salmon That’s a Snap

Karen Holmes of Karen’s Bakery Cafe and Catering in Folsom appreciates entertaining with simplicity. “All that matters is that you’re getting together to have fun,” she says. “When somebody puts together the amount of energy and effort it takes to have folks in their home, guests consider themselves lucky to be invited.”

Not that it takes much to impress them. Just try pulling a planked salmon out of the oven. The secret? It’s easy.

“And it’s beautiful,” says Holmes. “A large fillet of salmon always has drama. Put on a juniper berry rub, pull it out of the oven and it’s ready.”

Planked Salmon

For this Northwest-flavored make-ahead centerpiece, Karen Holmes recommends buying a whole salmon fillet (one side of a whole fish, about 14 to 18 inches long). You’ll also need a wood plank. Holmes got hers from a cabinetmaker. “I told him I needed a board of nonresinous wood. He cut me an $8 piece of poplar.” With use, the board develops a patina while contributing a woodsy flavor to the fish. Planks also are available near the fish departments at Raley’s and Whole Foods Market.

1    4- to 5-pound whole salmon fillet

Choice of rub (see recipes)

Slices of English cucumber, lemon or green onion for garnish

Soak plank in water for at least an hour, or overnight. (It must be placed in the oven wet.)

With tweezers, remove any pin bones from the fillet. Using your hands, put the rub on both sides of the fish and marinate for 1 hour at room temperature.

Place the wet plank in a cold oven. Set oven to 350 degrees and heat the plank for 30 minutes.

Place the marinated salmon directly on the hot plank. Roast about 25 to 30 minutes. Pull the salmon out of the oven a bit underdone; the heat from the plank will continue to cook the fish from the bottom.

When cool enough to handle, slide the salmon off the plank onto the back of a cookie sheet or jellyroll pan. Refrigerate for up to a few hours.

Meanwhile, wash the plank. To serve, slide the salmon from the cookie sheet back onto the plank. Garnish and serve with crackers or slices of baguette.

Dijon-Garlic Rub

1/2    cup Dijon mustard
2    garlic cloves, minced
3    tablespoons olive oil

In a small bowl, combine ingredients.

Juniper Berry Rub

6    tablespoons sugar
3    tablespoons coarse salt
3    tablespoons juniper berries, ground coarsely*
1    teaspoon black pepper
1    tablespoon grated orange zest

In a small bowl, combine ingredients.

* Grind in a spice grinder.

Using Toothpicks?

The little plate on the buffet is for discarded toothpicks. Communicate this discreetly to guests by leaving a toothpick on the discard plate before anyone arrives.