If you’ve ever read an article or book on holiday entertaining, you have probably come across the reassuring words, “It’s not about the food; it’s about making sure your guests have a good time.” Or something to that effect.
Of course, it is about making sure your guests have a good time. But at my house it is also about the food. And why shouldn’t it be? Good food and fellowship go hand and hand.
I grew up in an Italian family, which means that I have spent a good chunk of my life around the dining room table. That is where almost all socializing happens in Italy, the place where people while away not just a few hours but entire evenings enjoying good food at a leisurely pace and lingering long after the last drop of espresso has been consumed.
So it’s no wonder that when it comes to entertaining, I am partial to the dinner party. I like to gather guests around the table and serve them food that I have made. It’s not because I am trying to show off; there is nothing chef-y or formal about my food. It is pure home cooking. Like any good Italian host, I want people to feel at once special and also like family and the best way to do that, at least for me, is to cook for them.
For most dinner parties I like to keep the number of guests on the small side — usually eight, sometimes 10 or 12 during the holidays when there tends to be more family around. Any bigger and a sit-down dinner becomes impractical, not to mention crowded.
I prefer simple appetizers because most of my effort goes into the dinner itself. Right now, one of my favorite pre-dinner snacks is the bar nuts from the “Union Square Cafe Cookbook” — a simple mix of roasted nuts seasoned with rosemary, brown sugar and cayenne. I always put out one or two cheese platters because I love cheese and also because these days there seems to be an endless selection of wonderful cheeses, both imported and domestic. Sometimes I set out a platter of crostini — toasted baguette slices topped with marinated tomatoes, chopped olives and tuna or spread with anchovy butter (the topping choices are endless). I also have a couple of favorite dips that I rely on, including an excellent smoked salmon dip from my friend Diane Morgan’s book “Delicious Dips.”
I often serve homemade pasta as a first course. Fresh pasta is a treat, and it isn’t something that most of us make for ourselves. What’s more — and this is the best part from a cook’s standpoint — it can be done ahead. I make pasta — noodles, ravioli, lasagna — several days, even a couple of weeks in advance and freeze it. If it’s a baked pasta dish, like lasagna, I defrost it the day of the party and simply pop it in the oven before dinner. If it’s noodles, I transfer them straight from the freezer to the pot of boiling water.
I am a traditionalist when it comes to second courses, especially during the holidays. I like a good, simple, well-seasoned roast, whether it’s beef, pork or a large salmon fillet. My current go-to roast is a center-cut pork loin heartily seasoned with a rub of garlic, rosemary, and crushed fennel seeds and roasted with carrots and celery.
But while meat or fish may be the centerpiece, I pay just as much attention to vegetables. At this time of year, I favor the green and orange ones, such as sauteed kale or cabbage or spinach, and roasted carrots or winter squash.
No one would ever accuse me of paying too much attention to presentation; the plain fact is that I am not that good at it. So instead, I set everything out at the table on big platters or in ceramic serving bowls and have guests help themselves. If you put out a decorative platter filled with beautifully burnished wedges of roasted winter squash—delicata, kabocha, buttercup, acorn — presentation really takes care of itself. And I find that this family-style way of serving encourages people to interact as they pass the dishes up and down the table; it makes for a convivial, relaxed atmosphere, especially when there is also good wine to pour. (This detail I leave to my husband, who is much more knowledgeable about wine than I.)
Although I don’t have a sweet tooth, I like to end my dinner parties on a sweet note, usually in the form of a rustic fruit crostata (tart) or a simple cake dusted with powdered sugar. For larger gatherings I might set out a platter of cookies and dried figs stuffed with walnuts.
Casual entertaining is not for everyone; there are many hosts who are ambitious when it comes to holiday parties. It’s really about what you feel comfortable with. For me, it’s making my guests feel like they’re family.