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