Feed Your Friends

Whether you’re entertaining dozens or planning an intimate celebration for a few of your favorite pals, there’s an art to creating experiences both you and your guests will enjoy.

What scares you more: the thought of cleaning 100 shrimp; the thought of being stuck in the kitchen sautéing them while your dearest friends drink up all your wine; or the thought that you might turn your back on those shrimp for a second, only to discover that the dog has gobbled them all down?

Whatever your fears, please know that there’s every reason to charge ahead anyway. I know, for after leafing through the memoir-stuffed cookbook Serena, Food and Stories: Feeding Friends Every Hour of the Day (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2004), I chatted with author Serena Bass, caterer to New York’s fashion elite (Sigourney Weaver, Sarah Jessica Parker and Bill Blass, to name a few). And she was full of words of encouragement.

For one thing, she pointed out, shrimp these days are available frozen in bags, all cleaned and ready to go (they’re labeled “peeled and deveined” or “p & d”). “Isn’t that marvelous?” Bass mused. “I hate touching them, they’re such slithery things.”

For another thing, there are smart ways to do your cooking prep far in advance of your guests’ arrival, and Bass’s book is stuffed full of them, as well as many recipes: fancy muffin, scone and jam-tart batters that are at their best after a day in the refrigerator; fancy fillings for tea-time sandwiches that can be made well ahead; and stuffed dates, pepper-crusted steak appetizers, pork roasts and a million other things that can – you guessed it – be made the night before.

Handling Fumbles

Are you reading this and wailing, “But what about the dog eating all the shrimp? Bass doesn’t have anything for that!” Well, she kind of does: It’s sympathy. In her book, she tells the tale of Sandy, the golden retriever, and the caramelized lemon curd cake. It’s a tale that ended more happily for Sandy than for the cake and the guests. “Oh, so what if the dog eats your dinner?” says Bass. “We’re all just hanging by a thread if you really want to look at it that way – all our plans and such. I always tell people: The good host is the happy host. You just have to calm down and not worry – you’re not likely to drop the punch bowl, burn the bread and have the dog eat the cake all at the same time. And if you do, you can have a lovely time calling up all your friends the next day and saying, ‘Can you believe …?'”

Not worrying is one of those things that’s easier said than done, but Serena, Food and Stories is full of ideas on how to make entertaining go more smoothly. For instance, she advises putting silverware in bundles on a table several steps past the buffet, to keep a logjam from forming around the utensils. On that note, another idea is to use tongs instead of individual forks and spoons for buffet salads, as people will set their plates down to use individual serving pieces, but will use tongs with one hand and keep the line moving. Another idea? Test your candles days in advance, and instead of using something like tea lights, which need to be replenished every few hours, you could light maintenance-free pillar candles, letting them burn down a bit so they glow from within the candle. Furthermore, you could set those pillar candles on a tray to ensure that no wax drips from the often-inadequate saucer, and you could fill the tray with flower petals to transform it into a floral arrangement instead of just an eminently practical wax-catcher.

Do you feel a little less worried now? If so, you may be ready to tackle the recipe here – a super-simple pile of grilled shrimp meant to feed 10 as an appetizer, or fewer if served as an entrée. In her book, Bass pairs this dish with a buttermilk-dressed potato salad (see Web Extra!), cornbread, fresh succotash and other American classics, observing that this recipe is always a favorite because, “on the whole, no one can ever have too much shrimp, and the idea of a ‘pile’ is so generous and easygoing – so American.”

You could serve the shrimp with lemonade, cold beer or a slightly chilled, fruity red wine, such as Beaujolais, for a fun, easy meal.

Is “fun and easy” the opposite of “scary”? When it comes to entertaining, it is. So fear not: Tell the dog to behave, group the candles on trays, zest the lemons, preheat the broiler and let the celebrations begin!

WEB EXTRA!

Ultimate Potato Salad with Juniper and Buttermilk

Makes 10 to 12 servings

  • 2 1/2 pounds small red or white potatoes
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more for cooking the potatoes
  • 2 tbs. Grey Poupon country brown mustard
  • 3 tbs. white wine vinegar
  • 1 tbs. chopped juniper berries
  • 1/4 buttermilk
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup golden olive oil, such as Filippo Berio brand
  • 1/2 cup minced Italian Parsley
  • 1/2 cup minced scallions (using the white and the green parts)

Try to find really small, firm potatoes, and pick ones out that are all the same size. Line a sheet pan with paper towels and set aside.

Cut the potatoes into even, wedge-shaped quarters and place them in a large pot; cover with well-salted, cold water and bring to a gentle simmer. Don’t let them boil furiously or they’ll break apart. Cook until a knife penetrates a potato wedge with a little resistance — they shouldn’t be mushy. Drain and briefly rinse with cold water to stop the cooking. Spread out the potatoes on the paper towels to air dry.

To make the dressing, stir the mustard, vinegar, juniper berries, buttermilk, salt and pepper together in a medium bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until the dressing is creamy.

In a large bowl, toss the slightly warm potatoes with three-quarters of the dressing. Cover and set aside for up to 24 hours. Fifteen minutes to one hour before serving, add the remaining dressing and fold in the parsley and scallions.

Recipe excerpted from Serena, Food and Stories: Feeding Friends Every Hour of the Day by Serena Bass (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2004)

Dara Moskowitz is a Minneapolis-based food and wine critic. Nominated five times for James Beards Awards – the Oscars of the food world – she received two awards for her restaurant and wine columns in the Village Voice–owned newspaper City Pages. Her work has been included in the Best Food Writing anthologies of 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005.

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