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Real Entertaining: Dinner for Two, From the Heart

By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 11, 2009; F01

Editor's note: Real Entertaining is a new monthly column by chef and former restaurateur David Hagedorn that teaches dinner-party strategies. It replaces his Chef on Call column.

Pundits, if you want to know the exact state of our economy, ask people whose social lives once transpired over $100-per-person restaurant meals.

They're in a severe depression over the prospect of having to entertain at home. The reason? Fear of the unknown.

Many of today's aspiring hosts grew up in families where both parents worked; the domestic know-how that used to be passed down has skipped a generation or two, and they don't know where to start.

Cookbooks and cooking shows don't always offer relief. They perpetuate the myths that entertaining is easy, that anything less than perfect is a failure, that it takes only 30 minutes to prepare delightful meals for company. When reality doesn't live up to the image, insecurity sets in, and fear replaces confidence.

I hate to break it to you, but entertaining is more j-o-b than 1-2-3, and it is not so easy to do it well. But there's good news. It's not so difficult, either, and the reward that comes from having a reputation for social brilliance is incalculable.

It's better to be known as an inspired cook than a perfect one. Polished competence is fine as a goal; if your dishes come out the same way every time, there is probably a missing ingredient: heart.

Valentine's Day presents the perfect opportunity to begin building a solid dinner-party repertoire. There's more to entertaining than just cooking, and a dinner for two is a good way to make that discovery. Starting small and working your way up is a much better strategy than the other way around.

Here's one way to think about it: If you've ever been a successful business manager, you have what it takes to entertain well.

After all, throwing a party is like entering into business. An entrepreneur (host) buys or produces goods (food and drink) the public (guests) wishes to consume, offering them at a reasonable price (free) in return for currency (amusing company) in the hope of generating a profit (goodwill).

The metaphor extends easily.

On Valentine's Day, the host's significant other is the target market. The menu should reflect the current tastes and trends of that market. Shopping is nothing more than stocking inventory to meet demand. The workspace should be outfitted to promote efficiency, with the right tools for the right job. The host should manage time wisely by setting deadlines, multi-tasking, outsourcing and dividing labor. He should be familiar with the product he is offering, which optimally has been tested before being made available to the public.

If need be, he should identify and consult an experienced mentor before it is too late.

And that's where I come in.

I gained my experience the usual way, by ignoring good advice and suffering the consequences. The most valuable admonition came from my grandmother when I threw my first dinner party at age 15. "Do as much as you can ahead of time," she warned.

Had I listened, my classmates might not have been subjected to leathery boeuf bourguignon, noodles cooked until no water remained in the pot, brown broccoli with scrambled egg sauce (Hollandaise) and melted Alaska for dessert.

Now every menu I devise centers on making as little as possible at the last minute. The accompanying Valentine's Day menu relies on that principle, but I placed extra emphasis on making sure none of the components called for much last-minute fussing. There is no one else to amuse the guest while you spend time in the kitchen, and you want to avoid anything that will detract from the romantic atmosphere.

A nibbly of smoky almonds with before-dinner drinks can be prepared days ahead. Asian vegetable salad with beef actually benefits from an overnight melding of flavors. Searing red snapper a day in advance, but waiting to roast it until right before serving, means the messy pan can be cleaned and gives the odor of cooking fish a chance to dissipate. Its do-ahead accompaniment, Thai red pepper and shrimp sauce, requires only reheating. The base of the irresistibly sexy dessert pavlova, a crunchy, chewy meringue, must be baked and left to dry in the oven overnight.

Nothing about menu planning is arbitrary.

For instance, who are the guests? I know I'll get nailed for this, but I put a small portion of beef in the first course for the men. As the main course, a big steak would have been too much; a romantic meal calls for a light touch. Call me sexist if you will, but there are plenty of guys out there who somehow don't think a meal is complete, let alone special, unless there's meat in it somewhere. If you disagree, not to worry; seared portobello mushroom makes an easy substitute for filet mignon.

It's all part of a puzzle whose pieces should have character and distinction of their own but fit together seamlessly. The Thai red pepper sauce in the main course juxtaposes nicely with the soy dressing of the first course without the two dishes seeming monotonous; a common thread, ginger (galangal, Siamese ginger, in the curry paste), ties them together.

Even before you cook, planning a party is an opportunity to refine organizational and cooking skills. Write a shopping list by separating produce, fish, meats, dairy, dry-goods items and non-edibles according to the layout of the store you usually patronize. With each menu, aim to learn a new technique, consider adding a new staple to the pantry, and think about whether a new piece of equipment, utensil or serving piece would help you get closer to the entertaining proficiency you're after. You'll find that Thai curry pastes and fish sauce, for example, are quick, bang-for-the-buck enhancements that impart intense flavor and body to many dishes. A Japanese-style slicer (much cheaper than a French mandoline) is a must-have for today's cooks; it's a real time saver.

And it's all about time, isn't it?

Relying on dishes that are made mostly ahead allows you to control the timing of an event, rather than the other way around. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: By the beginning of a dinner party, the kitchen should look as if the party had taken place the day before. The heavy-duty pots and pans have already been used and put away. The dishwasher should be empty. Try to keep up with the dishes between courses, or at least keep a small bin and pitcher of soapy water in the sink. The bin is for plates, the pitcher for silverware. (Don't fill the sink with water. You want the disposal, if there is one, to be accessible and the drain available to empty glasses into.) Keep the counters clear, and have a place designated to line up used glassware for hand-washing. Maybe I take things a little far, but I can't go to bed if anything is left in the sink.

There's one more thing to keep in mind, especially for a Valentine's Day dinner. Keep the music, the table flowers and the lights low. And on second thought, if there are a few dishes in the sink, it's no big deal. On just this one night, they can wait until tomorrow.

Do you have questions about entertaining? E-mail David Hagedorn at food@washpost.com, or join Free Range, our online chat, today at 1 p.m.

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