Stuart and Shana Smith, a two-career, thirtysomething couple with an adorable 18-month-old son, Maxwell, were on the right track when they chose brunch as the way to start entertaining their friends at home. For their first attempt several months ago, they invited six friends, including me, to their newly restyled rambler in Washington's Crestwood neighborhood.
The party quickly derailed.
"Poor menu choices translated into poor quality," Stuart conceded after brunch. "And I wasn't able to spend any time with my guests."
Indeed, Stuart had bitten off more than his guests cared to chew. His overambitious menu featured made-to-order omelets and blueberry pancakes. The unopened packages of fancy pancake mix and omelet-filling ingredients lined up on the granite countertops of the open kitchen indicated to arriving guests a lack of preparation. My chef's eye discerned that the two pans on their sleek, stainless steel stove were not suitable to the tasks at hand.
Stuart, a personal trainer, trudged forward, headstrong.
"After many failed attempts, Stuart finally presented the first omelet to me," recalls Georgetown resident Robert Dick. "He beamed with pride until I pointed out to him that omelets were supposed to be yellow, not brown." Blackened pancakes enjoyed the same popularity and were withdrawn from the menu.
I was pressed into service, cranking out omelets one by one and passing them around the kitchen island to be eaten standing up. The dining room table did not go unused; Stuart's friends gathered there to roast their host before going home to eat.
The Smiths needed help. We made a deal that day to restage their brunch several weeks later.
Brunch is the least stressful meal to offer when entertaining at home, especially for families with young children. It takes place over a defined period of time that can be readily scheduled to coincide with a child's internal clock (or a lawyer's workload, as in Shana's case). Moreover, brunch demands less real cooking expertise and expenditures of time and money than a dinner or cocktail party.
The cornerstones of a successful party are a well-planned menu and an organized host. Here are my guidelines for the Smiths' menu:
* Make it easy: Do the shopping and most of the preparation the day before, if not sooner. This minimizes "day-of" tasks and maximizes the amount of time spent with guests. Use store-bought foods liberally and, as much as possible, serve the food cold or at room temperature.
* Make it balanced: Serve enough items to satisfy vegetarians while maintaining balances: fatty/healthful; sweet/savory; spicy/mild; smooth/crunchy; acidic/smooth.
* Make it pretty: Understand the "halo" effect of food; attractive dishes, like some attractive people, give the impression of being interesting without necessarily being so.
* Make it yours: Jazz up store-bought foods and recipes by adding a personal twist.
Stuart and I devised a menu for his second brunch with these guidelines in mind. It balanced richness, flavors, textures and color: two appetizer "smishes" (cream-cheesy spreads combined with whimsical bits and pieces of what-not), a chicken sausage and three cheese egg casserole, chilled asparagus with roasted tomato vinaigrette, a bright assortment of fruits and berries and individual lemon pudding souffles.
Although the use of lower-fat foods is now glorified, to me a brunch worth eating must be exempt from that constraint. I acquiesced to more general tastes by substituting chicken sausage for pork. Those who insist on discipline can easily avoid the egg casserole and lemon pudding and still be satisfied; there are plenty of vegetarian items, and the fruit offers something substantial for dessert-deniers. Sweet and salty pumpernickel fruit and nut crisps from Marvelous Market and mini-bagels, de rigueur at brunch, rounded out the bread offerings.
The menu planned, Stuart and I constructed an efficient plan-of-execution of what to do and when to do it (see "Organized and Easy").
The Smiths' second brunch went off without a hitch. "I thought about eating something first because I had heard stories about the first brunch," said guest Bob Horvath of Kalorama. "I was pleasantly surprised. Everything was ready; the food was tasty and well-presented. Stuart and Shana were . . . calm, so Max was, too. It was a great party."
"The second brunch required more work upfront but was a lot more fun," Stuart said. "That the food was edible was a nice touch."
Former chef and restaurateur David Hagedorn last wrote for Food about public perceptions of the restaurant business.