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The Best Laid (Dinner) Plans: Plan and Prep

Blueprint, March/April 2007

So what's the holdup on throwing a grown-up dinner party? With our simple strategy and maneagable menu, you'll see that it's child play.

Step 1: Invite Your People
Six is the golden total here. Two fewer guests and it turns into a double date (or an awkward rendition thereof), two more and the conversation divides and you miss out on half of it. The easiest way to fill a table is with an established group of friends, but when you want to mingle groups or make introductions (say, your best college guy friend to your cute, single work friend), start by inviting one or two lively talkers, and then figure out the remainder of your guest list from there. Balance is everything; not everyone has to be a Stephen Colbert (heart, sigh).

E-mail or mail invitations at least two weeks before the date (or a month in advance if the day falls near a major holiday). Ask guests to RSVP within a week. Convey the mood of the party in the invite, but stop short of imposing a dress code. (If your best friend's boyfriend shows up in that faded Dr. Pepper T-shirt, hes her problem, not yours.)

Step 2: Set the Table (and the Tone)
Good news: This style of party celebrates your everyday dishware (even if it's not as formal as the scalloped style shown above). For a sleek tablecloth update, fold and iron the long sides under so the cloth is only as wide as the table and doesn't hang over.

Don't worry that your guests may think you're a stiff -- arranged seats actually set people at ease. Go with name cards when you want certain people to sit next to each other (wink, wink, college friend; nudge, nudge, work friend). Or, for a fun riff on that formality, opt for cards that simply read "boy" and girl," as we did here.

Please suspend judgment as we talk about silk flowers. They're a fresh -- yet wilt-free! -- way to gussy up the table. And you can pack them up to use again and again (no last-minute babys-breath-and-leprechaun-ornament-removal from the grocery-store arrangement). We clustered faux magnolias around and on top of fabric-covered plastic-box picture frames (wrapping paper and cardboard boxes would also work). For soft lighting, we placed low votives around two traditional tapers.



Step 3:  Fold the Napkins
Make a place-card pocket by folding a square napkin in the following manner:

 The Menu 

What to Drink
When guests arrive, pour Cava Avinyo Brut, a crisp, sparkling Spanish wine that's an inexpensive (and less predictable) alternative to Champagne. For dinner, serve a Cotes du Rhone or Syrah, and a smooth, non-oaky Chardonnay.

Starter Course
The best predinner appetizers stimulate your appetite; they don't stuff you to the gills. Set out bowls of delicious store-bought marcona almonds, veggie chips, and a platter of carrots, cucumbers, and yellow wax beans. Serve with whipped feta and pepper dip.

Whipped Feta and Pepper Dip

Dinner Course
Think of these recipes as dinner-party building blocks: People-pleasing and delicious, every one will become your "signature dish." To switch up the recipes without risk, introduce seasonal ingredients. For example, we paired the Cornish game hens with spring's early arrivals: new potatoes and asparagus. But they can also be partnered with summer's fresh-sliced tomatoes and sugar snap peas or roasted root vegetables in fall.

Herb-Roasted Cornish Game Hens
Garlic-Rosemary Mashed Potatoes with Crispy Pancetta
Roasted Asparagus

Salad Course
A modern dinner party needs a traditional twist. Serve this palate-cleansing salad after the main course.

Green Salad with Radishes and Manchego

Dessert Course
Chocolate is always ooh-and-ahh-inducing, but this dense, single-layer cake is especially easy because it's supposed to look imperfect and requires no frosting. The cake may be served with coffee ice cream, if you wish.

Rich Chocolate Cake

Stick with this Strategy
Two Weeks Before the Party:
Send the invitations.
Load up your MP3 or CD player with plenty of dinner-party-friendly albums.

Two Days Before:
Clear off your counters, maximize the space in your refrigerator, and go to the grocery store.
Take a chill pill.

The Night Before:
Set table, create centerpiece, put out cocktail napkins, and gather serving platters and utensils.
Prepare game hens, but do not roast; refrigerate.
Make dip and mashed potatoes; refrigerate both.
Stop freaking.

The Morning Before Guests Arrive:
Wash and dry greens; slice radishes, shave manchego, and refrigerate.
Bake cake and set aside to cool.

Two Hours Before:
Pour marcona almonds into a bowl.
Assemble crudites on a platter and refrigerate.

One Hour Before:
Remove dip, mashed potatoes, and hens from refrigerator.
Make vinaigrette.

As First Guests Arrive:
Bring out starters and pour sparkling wine.
Put game hens in oven.
Relax and mingle.

When Hens Are Done:
Let rest for 15 minutes; warm up potatoes and roast asparagus.
Enlist two guests to help serve.
Eat! After main course, assemble and serve salad, then dessert, as the night pleasantly progresses.