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Entertaining is Fun: Soups for Lunch with Ina Garten

Martha Stewart Living, October 2000

I've always loved to give parties. Ever since my husband and I were married in 1968, I've loved to plan a gathering, cook something really special, and then treat my friends to some wonderful surprise. Those were the days when I had lots of time and my parties were elaborate Saturday -- night dinners, where the food took days to prepare and the table took hours to arrange.

Now, like everyone else's, my life is more complicated. I have a specialty food store -- Barefoot Contessa in East Hampton, New York -- cookbooks and this new column to write, a household to run, a garden to manage, and all that life with my husband has brought me. Who has time to plan an elaborate party?

Before I had a business, I could spend a week making dinner for eight. I would prepare rosemary roast leg of lamb and tomatoes stuffed with duxelles from Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Recipes had ingredients that were recipes in themselves. I would make appetizers with crabmeat wrapped in phyllo and cherry tomatoes stuffed with herbed goat cheese. I would bake my own bread. Saturday night would come, and everything for the party would click at the very last second. I'd spend half the evening in the kitchen putting the final touches on dinner while my friends had fun in the living room. The parties were terrific, but I never really got to enjoy them, and I'd always spend Sunday lying on the sofa moaning, "I'm never having a party again!" Then, on Tuesday, I'd start cooking for the next party.

Having a food store taught me three important things about giving parties. First, I learned how to make delicious food very simply. If we spent all day making rosemary roast leg of lamb, we wouldn't have anything to sell! So I've taught myself how to use good, fresh ingredients and to prepare them as simply as possible by cooking only to enhance their intrinsic flavors.

The second thing I learned is how to make dishes that can be prepared in advance. Lemon pound cake is not only okay to make a day ahead, it actually gets better as the flavors develop overnight. All I have to do the day of the party is arrange it on a beautiful plate with fresh raspberries. What could be easier than that?

Finally, I learned that the hardest party to pull off successfully is Saturday night dinner. This meal is expected to be elaborate: appetizers, first course, dinner, dessert, and coffee. People arrive at 7:30 or 8 p.m. and stay for hours -- definitely past my bedtime -- and they all go home exhausted. Drinks are always in the living room, dinner is always in the dining room -- you always know exactly what to expect. But I think a party is all about surprising your friends. So now I love to entertain almost any time except Saturday night. My favorite time is Sunday lunch. Everybody has finished their chores from Saturday, they have lots of energy during the day, we hang out for a few hours at the kitchen table, and then my friends are off to enjoy the rest of their day. And all the food can be prepared in advance.

Sunday lunch can be lots of casual things -- crab cake sandwiches, a salad Nicoise -- but my favorite fall or winter lunch is big steaming bowls of soup. I usually invite people for around 12:30 and have two hearty soups like shrimp corn chowder and lentil sausage soup, which can be made a day or two ahead.

On a nearby table, or even on the kitchen counter, I'll have a buffet with a big green salad, French breads, three cheeses (maybe Brie, Stilton, and cheddar), fresh pears, dried apricots, and an earthy cookie, like molasses clove. Everything, including dessert, is ready for people to help themselves. I serve each guest a big bowl of hot soup and then the rest is up to them.

There's something really wonderful about a party where you help yourself. Of course, first you get what you really want. But "family style" service also really encourages people to connect with one another -- "Can I get you more soup while I'm up?" or "How about some cookies with your pear?" gets the table going.

But the best news about this kind of party is for the host. Other than the soups and vinaigrette for the salad, everything else for this lunch is store-bought. I love to "assemble" delicious ingredients and serve them without a lot of fussing. I think you really stop to savor the sweetness of a perfectly ripe autumn pear and the sharpness of a deliciously runny Brie only when they're served "as is." So we all get to share a delicious meal -- and I have nothing to do after the doorbell rings except have fun with my friends. Which is, after all, why I invited them!

The Menu
Simple Green Salad
Lentil Sausage Soup
Shrimp Corn Chowder
French bread with butter
Cheeses, red grapes, and dried apricots
Bartlett pears
Molasses clove cookies
White wine and sparkling cider

The Planner
1. Friday evening: Call friends to invite to lunch.

2. Saturday morning: Make soups and champagne vinaigrette.

3. Sunday morning: Drink coffee and read the newspaper! Wash lettuce, arrange bread, cheese, grapes, pears, apricots and cookies.

4. Sunday afternoon: At 12:15 reheat soups before guests arrive at 12:30.

Comments (14)

  • 9 Sep, 2008

    I woul like to see Ina's shows again there are wonderfull. I enjoyed all her cookbooks and I cook several recipes for my family and friends .I love see Ina with her husband because they look so sweet couple; thank you for great shows, cookbooks and all the information.

  • 12 Aug, 2008

    I just love your show and wish you would do more new ones. I have all your cookbooks and I am looking forward to your next one. You have great ideas. I really enjoyed reading this article and I hope to see you on the Martha Stewart Show in the near future. Thanks for all you advice and please keep writing these articles.

  • 7 Aug, 2008

    Ina is the best! I love her show and have all her cookbooks. I am really looking forward to her new series and new cookbook- she is my inspiration for entertaining and cooking. She's just such a joy to watch, and really does make entertaining fun. I would also love to see her on your show, that would be great!

  • 29 Jul, 2008

    I love Ina - for some reason I just related to her show immediately and have been a fan a long time,. Her home is lovely and the trips around her area in the Hampton's are something I look forward to - love it!

  • 29 Jul, 2008

    I love Ina - for some reason I just related to her show immediately and have been a fan a long time,. Her home is lovely and the trips around her area in the Hampton's are something I look forward to - love it!

  • 29 Jul, 2008

    I love Ina - for some reason I just related to her show immediately and have been a fan a long time,. Her home is lovely and the trips around her area in the Hampton's are something I look forward to - love it!

  • 28 Jul, 2008

    I have served Ina's Lentil

  • 3 Jun, 2008

    I also love Ina. Her show is such a breath of fresh air. She is a class act with her ability to relate to the average home cook, she is a joy to watch. She makes entertaining less intimidating to all of us. Please tell Ina that I hope her show continues for very loong time. Thank you for featuring her on your web.

  • 30 May, 2008

    Ina, PLEASE continue doing more series of your cooking program. I enjoy the way you present the recipes, drive to the shops and have people enjoying your food.

  • 15 Apr, 2008

    Some friends once had a "Stone Soup" party, like the old story. Each guest was told to bring a soup ingredient or an appetizer. The hostess had two huge stockpots cooking with chicken stock/meat and beef stock/meat in them. As we arrived we dumped the ingredients into the appropriate pot, it simmered while we ate appetizers. By then we all were curious about how the soup would turn out, and it was delicious! More than enough for all.
    A lovely evening, we each contributed to the meal.

  • 2 Apr, 2008

    I'm so thrilled to see Ina on your sight. She's the reason I tune into Food Network. She's a class act. I have all her cookbooks!! I noticed you wrote in the cover of one of her first cookbooks. Has she been on your tv program? Love to see you and her cook together.
    Sinerely,
    Theresa Gephart

  • 2 Apr, 2008

    Love this idea! I find myself "working" during most of my parties and I don't feel like I'm enjoying myself. I'm trying to learn to make food ahead of time and this soup party is a great idea. Thanks!

  • 5 Mar, 2008

    I like this idea of having friends over on a Sunday for Lunch. It adds another dimension to the weekend. It also gives me time in the morning and evening to do whatever needs to be done around the house.
    Great show, it totally relaxes me.

  • 26 Feb, 2008

    This is really great. I'm trying this and having fun for a change with my friends!
    Thanks, Amy