Throw an unforgettable -- and stress-free -- dinner party with inspiring ideas and practical tips from Martha.
While not required for an intimate family gathering, assigned seating helps any large dinner party run more smoothly. Plus, place cards can serve as a pretty table decoration. In general, a host should create a seating plan for parties of eight or more. Whenever possible, alternate men and women, with the hosts stationed at opposite ends of the table (unless you have a distinguished guest, in which case he or she may be placed at the head of the table). Couples and close friends should not be seated next to one another; after all, they talk all the time. To come up with a suitable arrangement, think about guests' personalities and mutual interests, as this will help ensure lively conversation during the meal.
To keep leftover wine fresh, store it in a cool place and limit its contact with air. Refrigeration is a good idea -- it will slow oxidation and curb the organisms that can spoil the wine. (Bring red wine to room temperature before serving.) Two products -- vacuum pumps and inert-gas dispensers -- reduce exposure to air, giving you a few extra days with whites and up to a week with sturdier reds. Alternately, fill a smaller vessel -- a clean, empty half-bottle (375mL) or jar -- with the remaining wine soon after opening. To keep sparkling wine bubbly, use a pressurized stopper made expressly for effervescent quaffs.
Keep formal dishware in good condition for many dinners to come with these guidelines: Avoid stacking dirty plates as you clear the table. Rinse the dishes as soon as possible after the meal, especially if you served acidic foods (which can damage the glaze and color), or coffee or tea (which can stain). To remove sticky food, wipe with a dishcloth or scrape gently with a rubber spatula. (Do not use flatware or an abrasive scrub.) Before washing, line the bottom of the sink with towels. Hand-wash each piece gently with a soft sponge, using warm water and a mild soap. Set only a few items in the dish rack at a time, making sure they don't touch; then dry them with an extra-soft towel. To store, alternate paper towels, felt, or foam liners with plates in stacks of no more than eight. Set cups in a single layer on the shelf, right side up.
Also referred to as a "silencer," this is a thick, soft fabric that mutes the clanking of plates and cutlery, and shields the table's surface from spills and heat. Silence cloth or similar heavyweight felt can be purchased at specialty fabric stores, and it's easy to make your own table cover. Felt won't fray when you cut it, so there's no need for hemming. Just measure the size of your tabletop, and cut the fabric to fit. If you like, attach ties to the corners to secure it to table legs.
It's easy to do -- just let the colors of the season take center stage. Dress place settings with autumnal hues: orange or yellow napkins, flame-red place cards, earth-toned candles. For a harvest-themed centerpiece, fill a few glass bowls, vases, or hurricane lanterns with seasonal apples and pears in several varieties and shades, and set them down the length of the table. To make the dinner a bit more formal, add candlelight. Place tall tapers in candleholders between the fruit arrangements. Your guests will think you spent hours preparing.