Jacob’s Kitchen: Entertaining with Ease (Project Food Blog – Challenge 3)

This post is my third entry for Project Food Blog, foodbuzz.com’s quest to find the next food blog star. Click here to see my contestant profile. Voting begins Monday, October 4, 2010. Follow me on twitter, facebook, or through my RSS feed to keep up to date with my progress in the competition. Thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for me in the first and second rounds, I appreciate all of your support!

Round three of Project Food Blog challenges us to host a luxury dinner party. And, while some people may think of entertaining as burdensome or stressful, it is one of my absolute favorite things to do. Entertaining is my passion. It’s in my blood. There is something so special, so personal about inviting people into your home to share a meal. Dinner parties can be as simple or as elaborate as you choose. Your friends won’t have a better time if you spend a week, and half of your pay check on extremely complicated cuisine. The truth of the matter is your guests are there to spend time with you; the food is just the excuse to get together, not the focus. A big bowl of spaghetti and meat balls, a perfectly cooked meatloaf, or your grandmother’s famous enchiladas served with a cake or tart purchased from your favorite bakery can be even more enjoyable than lobster and filet mignon. For me, it is a luxury whenever I invite my friends into my home. And I want to spend our time together enjoying their company, not slaving in the kitchen.

In my early adulthood I hosted dinner parties where I made every single thing from scratch, and worked tirelessly to ensure every last detail was beyond perfection. But when the time came to actually sit down with my friends and enjoy the spoils of my hard work, I found myself exhausted and just waiting for the evening to be over with. And while the food was delicious, I can’t imagine that I was much fun to be around. Now I take a more lighthearted approach to entertaining, allowing myself to be a guest at my own party.

No matter what they say, your guests want to believe that you threw all of this together in the twenty minutes before they arrived. And luckily, because of the make-ahead strategies I now use, that isn’t far from the truth. As a caterer I have cooked for groups of various sizes, and I can tell you that entertaining doesn’t have to be scary. Whether it’s this luxury dinner party for six, or you’re cooking for six hundred, the exact same rules apply. This is dinner parties 101: my entertaining manifesto.

Step 1 – Get Organized:

Have an action plan. Break down what you need to do day by day on the days leading up to the event, and hour by hour on the day of. Mark down when you will set the table, which dishes will be used for serving, when you will shop for your ingredients, when you will prepare different components of the meal, which recipes you will be assembling on the day of the party, all the way down to the exact times that your food needs to come into and out of the oven for final service. A little bit of advanced thought and planning will make your parties infinitely less stressful.

Step 2 – Set the Stage:

Candles- Candles always make any meal feel special, and the more the better. I prefer small votive candles in glass holders over their taller, tapered cousins. And while scented candles around your home can serve to set the mood for the party, one should never use scented candles on the table itself. All they do is steal the spot light from the aroma and flavors of your carefully prepared food, and no one likes to be upstaged.

Flowers/Centerpieces- Flowers are certainly not essential for any table. A bowl of fruit, vases filled with fresh herbs from your garden, some artfully arranged autumn leaves and decorative gourds can all be equally dramatic. Let your imagination run wild. There are probably items around your house right now that, when repurposed on your table, can create a visually interesting centerpiece. With that said, however, flowers are classic, easy, and always beautiful. I personally enjoy arranging my own flowers, first buying larger bouquets like these pink roses for this evening at my local warehouse store (for a fraction of the price!), and then separately purchasing a few filler flowers from the florist to pull everything together. If you, on the other hand, find yourself unsure about which flowers to purchase or how to arrange them, keep in mind a couple of steadfast rules. When in doubt, buy one flower in quantity and it will always look great. You can never go wrong with roses, peonies, hydrangea, or tulips: they are simple, beautiful, and elegant. Keep your arrangements small (which is to say short). I prefer to keep them under ten inches, allowing your guests to look into each other’s faces rather than catching a passing glimpse of one another through a dense, albeit beautiful, floral jungle. I like using small vases grouped together on the table. They are easier to arrange, cheaper to fill, and you can always play around with spacing to create a variety of looks.

Table Setting- I like to mix and match traditional items with newer modern pieces, and set the table in whichever way I feel looks best, and not how any text book tells me that I should. This can change dramatically from day to day, and therein lies the fun of it. Here I mixed together my everyday white dishes and flatware, silver chargers, and silver rimmed crystal wine glasses that I inherited from my grandmother. Simple white napkins with festive napkin rings, and a neutral, corresponding table cloth all come together beautifully, none overpowering the other. In setting the table what you are really doing is setting the stage for quality time with your friends and family. Do it carefully. People really appreciate every little detail. I choose to be more elaborate with my table setting because I enjoy doing so. If you do not, don’t fret. Simple, everyday dishes, silverware, and a few wine glasses are all  that you really need for a fabulous presentation. In your house you get to make the rules, so if having to wash and iron cloth napkins will prevent you from ever having friends over, by all means use paper. Some of the most enjoyable parties that I have ever been to have also been the most casual.

Music- For dinner parties, what I want is background music, and for this I find music without lyrics to be the most appropriate. A quick search online will yield a variety of instrumental versions of most of your favorite music. In this way, the songs are familiar, but not distracting. The music should serve to enhance the mood, not be the evening’s entertainment.

Step 3 – The Food:

When planning a dinner party, select food that you know how to make well. Never test out a new recipe on the day of an important event, or you might find yourself ordering pizza while the fire department airs out your house. Make things in advance whenever possible. And choose menu items that can be made at least one day prior and only assembled on the day of the party. This will keep you from going crazy, and allow you the time to really enjoy your friends and family.

Here, for example, I selected pomegranate cosmopolitans that can be mixed the night before, and a delicious appetizer that requires no cooking whatsoever (halved fresh figs, salty prosciutto, and shards of Parmesan cheese). I follow that with my signature salad (baby greens tossed with sliced fuji apples, dried cranberries, glazed walnuts, crumbled blue cheese, and a tangy balsamic blue cheese dressing) which can be assembled the night before and dressed right before serving. For the entrée I selected my pumpkin ricotta ravioli with sage brown butter (made with my homemade ricotta cheese) which can be made and frozen up to six months in advance, and boiled for two minutes right before serving along side my simply sautéed spinach. And what could be more decadent or more luxurious than an individual chocolate soufflé? With my make ahead version, you can assemble them two days in advance, freeze them, and toss them into the oven as you are sitting down to dinner for an inexpensive, yet show stopping end to any meal. (In the interest of space saving I have not included the recipes, but you can click on the links to see my full description of each.)

Two of my guests are vegetarian, and instead of driving myself mad making two separate entrées, I simply designed a menu that we all can enjoy, which makes life a lot easier for me. I have also selected two wines from my favorite local winery to pair with the meal, one red and one white, both of which pair nicely with the entire meal from start to finish (the pinot noir being especially great with chocolate). If you are unsure about wine pairings, simply select wines that you and your guests enjoy drinking, and you can never go wrong.

Part of the luxury of dinner parties is your ability to linger over the food, and really take your time from course to course. After the salad is served and enjoyed, I excuse myself for a couple of minutes (my dining room is attached to my kitchen, so I needn’t actually “leave” the fun of the party), drop the ravioli into the already boiling salted water (which I remembered to put on before my guests arrived, leaving it over medium low heat), and set the dishes out for plating. I take this opportunity to refill wine and water glasses, to collect the salad plates and forks, and to segue into my hilarious story (pantomime included) of how I once accidentally set myself on fire. The ravioli take very little time, and when they are done, I slide them into the warmed, pre-made sage brown butter sauce, plate them, place the soufflés into the preheated oven, and I’m back at the table with my guests in no time.

Dinner parties shouldn’t have to be cost prohibitive, stressful, or intimidating. A few simple preparations and some careful planning is all that you really need to be an entertaining superstar. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or exceptionally fancy, it’s the little touches that can make every meal feel like a vacation. This challenge was just another excuse for me to invite the people that I care about most for a delicious homemade meal, and to spend a leisurely evening enjoying each other’s company. Luxury doesn’t have to mean trying to impress people. It means thoughtfully preparing your food, and investing your time and energy into really pampering your friends and family. If they were impressed I hope it was not by the difficulty of the menu, or the cost of the ingredients, but by the fact that it all seemed to come together so effortlessly. More than anything, my goal is always for each of my guests to leave my parties thinking, “Wasn’t that fun!” I know I always do.

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85 Comments

Filed under Beverages, Desserts, Pasta, Project Food Blog, Salads, Snacks

85 responses to “Jacob’s Kitchen: Entertaining with Ease (Project Food Blog – Challenge 3)

  1. Jacob, this is quite the meal! Everything looks so sophisticated and refined, yet simple and straight-forward. You’ve done a wonderful job! I love your make-ahead additions, every menu needs some of those :)

  2. Please invite me to your next party. Such elegance. You definitely have my vote, again…Good luck.

  3. junebu8

    This whole meal is beautiful, and something I would want to sit down and linger over. The long rose centerpiece is breathtaking.

  4. Great post with lots of wonderful tips for entertaining! Good luck :)

  5. Beautiful tabla and lovely menu. I would love an invite too :-). I am working on my entry finishing touches

  6. Simple. Elegant. Beautiful. Perfect!

  7. Stunning. I would love to be a guest at your luxury dinner party. Great tips, beautiful photography! You have my vote.

  8. Very nice entry and some really good advice — plus I love the way you plated the ravioli around the greens. Good luck moving forward.

  9. Looks FAB, Jacob…can’t wait to give you a vote tomorrow!!

  10. Jacob – all I can say is I am impressed by every challenge you have submitted…I only wish you the best…I think you will go far in this competition!

  11. My family entertained at home a lot while I was growing up, and I love it too. Entertaining at home can be as simple, or as elegant, as you like, and for me, it’s always fun.

  12. great tips about planning in advance – I also love to throw parties and I find my most successful ones are the least complicated and the meals are simple and easy to make ahead

    I have also learned to let my guests help… when they ask 2 or 3 times if they can bring anything I usually relent and take them up on their offer for dessert or bread or wine

  13. Some people say ‘luxurious’ for you did, but I said ‘briliant’. Thanks to make new idea.

    Regards

  14. What an impressive dinner party – I am sure your friends had a wonderful time! Photos and food look amazing! Great job! Good luck with the next challenge! :)

  15. usacopywriter

    Wow. Where do you live? I want to be your friend, hahaha. Wait, I already am on Foodbuzz ;) Beautiful everything! I see a lot of votes to be cast. Good luck.

    Shelly, Nibbles of Tidbits

  16. Your centerpiece looks beautiful! I hope we can both advance to the next round #PFB2010!

  17. What a beautifully executed menu and dinner party! I love your ravioli the best, they’re too pretty to eat!

  18. Love the menu – I always have vegetarians in the mix these days so pasta is the perfect choice – and a fall one at that. Hmmmm… your signature salad sounds suspiciously like mine…

  19. I love your tips for planning the perfect dinner party! I agree…luxury doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg…it’s about being with the people you love!

  20. Thank you for sharing your wonderful tips having a Dinner Party. I have catering for many years and recently decided to embark on a new expedition with Having Fun Cookin’ with Mary….which you can find on You Tube. Dinner Parties will be a big part of my cooking life.

  21. I bet ALL your guests were overwhelmed!
    Best wishes, this is too beautiful for words.
    LL

  22. I absolutely love this Jacob! I also love the tips you gave about catering. I want to become a caterer one day and i know I have a lot to learn (from you). Thanks so much. Please keep giving catering tips..please :D I will be following you everytime.

    The party looks elegant and the food is fabulous! You sure got my vote!

  23. Gosh, you are terrible suave Jacob ;) I love the tips, I love the dinner party and I LOVE the food. It looks beautiful and sounds delicious.

    You know you’ve got one of my votes, I would’ve loved to have been a guest at your table!…and to hear that segue into how you accidentally set yourself on fire…?

    Jax x

  24. That is a very elegant menu. I love chocolate souffle cakes. Good tips, for when I throw a REAL party. Your table looks perfect.

  25. Jacob, this is a stunning dinner party. The table is lovely and the food perfection. Best of luck to you my friend! You certainly deserve it.

  26. Those figs are gorgeous!! My mind is clearly in another dimension today, as this is the 3rd PFB2010 post I’ve read today where I can’t stop staring at the flowers. Such a lovely table. Great post!

  27. Elegance indeed! You can count on my support. GREG

  28. Your menu looks and sounds luxurious, regardless of how difficult it was to prepare! Great job on round three of PFB, you’ve got my vote yet again!

  29. gingerbreadcake

    If you ever want to invite me over for dinner Jacob, I’m in Portland, OR! ;) Haha! But seriously wow wow and wow. The food looks AMAZING and the decor is just unbelievable. I’ll take about 10 of those individual chocolate souffles! Jacob you’re a genius! Best of luck fellow Oregonian!

  30. Just voted for you, first one of this round! I love the sound of pumpkin ricotta ravioli! Good Luck

  31. Congratulations on the wonderful dinner party, voted and good luck!

    Bon appetit!
    CCR
    =:~)

  32. marion Poole

    Jacob, I believe that this should not be a popularity contest. That the best man should win, not the one with the most friends. So, I looked at a lot of the entries before voting for you. Your blog has excellent photos, is concise, professional and inspiring.
    Great work. I’ll use some of your advice at my next dinner.

  33. Jacob,

    This post brought a tear to my eye! Seriously. It was everything that is fabulous about you, your food, and the experience that is a get together at your place.

    I 2nd Marion’s comment about being concise and inspiring! Keep up the fabulous work.

  34. Jacob, this looks wonderful! I love idea of soufles you can freeze! That is going on my to-do list. I love chocolate soufle. From your flower arrangements to your experience on how to throw a party were stellar! great job! Red heart, click!

  35. mAndrew

    Really great pictures.

  36. I enjoy reading your post and love all the tips. The pictures of the table setting and your food look amazing. Great job and you got my vote. Good luck!

  37. Simply elegant! Love the menu, great tips, and stunning photos as usual! Always reserve a vote for you :)

  38. Jacob, once again I am amazed at your grace in the kitchen! and those centerpieces?!?!? ugh, can i come next time?

    you get my vote for sure!

    http://whitneysamusebouche.blogspot.com/

    Whit

  39. lovely centrepiece presentation

  40. Dear Jacob… Thank you for this post! I think I would have voted on just the flowers alone.. even before I got to the food! Beautiful – you have my vote! Meg @ Foodalution.com

  41. It’s great to see everyone’s tips on dinner party planning this week. Your guide absolutely takes the cake when it comes to planning ahead. This meal was incredibly well thought-out, and everything looks spectacular. Good luck this week, you’ve got a vote of our’s!

    Lick My Spoon

  42. hello!This was a really exceptional theme!
    I come from itlay, I was luck to discover your blog in wordpress
    Also I learn a lot in your theme really thanks very much i will come daily

  43. We have similar philosophies when it comes to dinner parties – love it! Good luck in this round!

  44. Joan in Seattle

    Jacob, I’m hungry. The food on your menu is right up my alley. My favorite food, in fact. (Says the woman with entire cookbooks devoted to figs.)

  45. Your Party looks amazing, great food and beautiful pictures. Good luck and have a great week.

  46. Beautiful Jacob! Presentation and dishes are amazing. Voted!

  47. That was certainly fun! I’d love to be invited to your parties. I love flowers, candles and background music too, you’ve set the scene perfectly and thanks for all the great tips :) Good luck and fingers crossed for you.

  48. Jacob,
    The table setting is absolutely beautiful and elegant. The food looks delicious too. Well done!
    Kelly

  49. Jacob
    I’ve been following your posts (we’re friends) and every bit of advice about throwing a party. Check out my post on planning ahead for a N’Awlins dinner.
    Lexi, Lighthearted Locavore….

    Please VOTE for me:

    http://bit.ly/bjlTA5

  50. What a stunning setting! The flower arrangements were beautiful. I would die for some of that ravioli right now. YUM! I voted for you. Congratulations on making it this far :)

  51. Oh, everything looks absolutely fabulous! Very elegant…and I just want to take that fig, prosciutto, and cheese away to the corner of the room by myself… Best of luck in this round :)

  52. Just voted, thank you for your vote. To round 4 for us both I hope!

  53. Beautiful looking party….you have my vote!

  54. Kat

    Scrumptious Jacob! Got my vote :) Good luck!!!

  55. Everything looks lovely, nice job!

  56. I love your opening that friends are there to spend time with you. You are so right. Everything about this post is beautiful – the flowers are gorgeous and that table setting is absolutely fabulous! And the food ….ooh that food. I wish I was there :) Your pictures are beyond…you did an amazing job on this challenge. You took an nice approach but didn’t sound “instructional” very very nice. Watch out world Jacob’s Kitchen has arrived! Nice work – I certainly did vote for you!

    – Butter
    (from Running On Butter)

  57. Having a signature anything at a dinner party is so elegant and classy. Plus, people always have something to look forward to. Great tips in this post! Voting!

  58. AJ

    Your pictures are fantastic!! Your food looks spectacular. I would love some of that chocolate souffle!! Mmmmmm.. Voting for you right now! :D

  59. Great minds think alike: I served prosciutto and figs, too! Lovely dinner. Lovely table setting. Lovely menu! Well done. I agree, parties should never be cost prohibitive and stressful, it’s all about the great simple food and the company!

  60. Yum!! Wow, very impressive. Love the photos and love the meal!

  61. Jacob..stunning, beautiful and warm. You have my vote.

  62. Thanks for stopping by. I loved the chocolate souffle’ is calling my name! You have my vote :-)

  63. Everything looks so great! Love it! Hope we both make it to the next round! :-) You have my vote!

  64. I am swooning over the contrast in the color of the figs..emerald skin enveloping a deep pomegranate gem. And your florals..so lovely! Voted!

  65. So beautiful!!!! Voted :)

  66. What a beautiful table and delicious menu ! Figs and proscuitto are definitely a heaven made match. Looking forward to your next challenge

  67. Terrific party tips and your meal looks so elegant and lovely! I voted!

  68. As I read your post, I found myself saying ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ to each point. You did a wonderful job and will undoubtedly go on to round 4! :-)

  69. those ravioli! i wish i had some right now :)

  70. Breathtaking! I love all the beautiful fresh flowers- a perfect touch! Yours was one of the very first entries my mother read and she called to tell me how beautiful it was! You absolutely have my vote- you truly captured the essence of the challenge! Well done and good luck!!

  71. My goodness Jacob that ravioli looks just awesome. I think I might like flowers on the table once in a while if they looked like that.
    PS… thanks for the vote, matey.

  72. Beautiful table Jacob and I am stealing your souffle recipe! Who would have believe you can make souffle ahead of time?! I hope to make it with you to Round 4!http://www.foodbuzz.com/project_food_blog/challenges/3/view/1176

  73. Ed

    I am so very impressed. I love the fig pictures. I hope to see you in the next round as well.

  74. Wow!! Oh how I wish I was one of your guests!! I think that the tip to “be a guest at your own dinner” is important, I have also had so many events where I prepared so much and enjoyed doing so, only to be exhausted when everyone arrived. I also try to work the “work ahead” angle. Excellent post! Our fingers are crossed for you!!

  75. Jen

    Your party looks so elegant, but at the same time all so comforting! The ravioli in particular look stellar. Nommyyyyyyy. I’d RSVP :)

  76. Oh! I’ve loved your entries for these challenges, and this is no different! I wish I could’ve been a guest to your party. You really seem like such a loving and warm person who has so much to share. Your thoughtfulness gets translated through your posts. I also love that you took into consideration that two of your guests are vegetarians, and rather than making separate dishes, you just made things that everyone could enjoy. How it should be :D Just voted for you!

    XO best of luck!

    p.s. I agree with the music! I had wonderful Italian oldies playing at just the right volume, and my guests loved it.

  77. This post was fantastic! Your tips are so on point…. guests don’t want you to be stressed that they are coming… they just want your company! Great job with this challenge :)

  78. woman&warrior

    Wow, what a great guide for entertaining. Sometimes I forget that its all about the experience and atmosphere, and being relaxed is necessary! I’ll re-plan a menu for an upcoming party based on your tips. Though I love cooking, i’d hate to be stuck in the kitchen when my good friends are over to enjoy an evening…with me!

  79. Thanks for the Dinner Parties 101! Love all the steps and tips! Very helpful! Everything sounds delicious! Gorgeous photos! Love all the place settings and the flowers!

    Best of luck with PFB! Just voted for you!

  80. Tara

    gorgeous photos of what looks to be a delicious menu! i would love to have been one of your guests so you’ve got my vote – good luck!!!

  81. Congratulations! I’m looking forward to your next challenge post. :-)

  82. Congrats Congrats going onto challenge #4!!! Must be exciting for you! Good luck and all the best. Happy Thanksgiving to you! You’ll be getting the next vote from me :) Your awesome!

    Have a happy thanksgiving!
    jen @ http://www.passion4food.ca

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