When my husband and I inherited his grandmother's dining-room set a few years ago, I imagined having elaborate dinner parties at least twice a month. I pictured myself floating, swan-like, from the kitchen to the dining room, not a hair out of place, not a drop of perspiration on my brow, making comments to guests like, "Oh, I just threw this together!"
But that was all a dream, and the photographs from my first fete prove it. The guests look lovely -- calm and smiling -- but I look as though I'm about to spontaneously combust. My face is as red as a boiled beet. I'm glistening from head to toe. My hair is matted, and my plain white (and stained) apron remains on over the lovely black tunic I'd picked out for the evening. I repeated this miserable scene about a half-dozen times before admitting I could no longer sustain my uber-hostess fantasy.
(Photos Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
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After resolving to find a more fulfilling form of entertaining, I now specialize in much more casual meals. And the start of a new year is the ideal time for this type of gathering. Once the visits to relatives in faraway states are over, it's nice to regroup with our Washington family.
The perfect dish for this type of dinner? Risotto. Warm and comforting (and reasonably priced to produce in large quantities), it's an infinitely versatile crowd-pleaser. Once you learn to make the base, you can play with all manner of flavor combinations -- asparagus or sweet peas, sausage or shrimp, kale or spinach . . . the possibilities are endless.
I always keep a well-stocked supply of the five key ingredients on hand: arborio rice, onions, garlic, white wine and Parmesan cheese. When the urge to party strikes, I need only drop by the store to get one or two add-ins. This time of year, I turn to sturdier components, such as butternut squash, diced and roasted, combined with pan-fried Italian sausage.
The moral of my story? Though large-scale entertaining is grand, these smaller dinners are much more rewarding -- intimate and stress-free. Plus, the pictures of me are vastly improved! Julie Gunlock
Spicy Winter Risotto
1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds)
5 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 pound hot Italian sausage, casings removed
1 medium onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
6 cups low-salt chicken broth