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Tips on Hosting Stress-Free Dinner Parties (Large and Small)

February 11, 2013 by Joan Nova in Entertaining, Finishing Touches, Latin, Menu Planning, Nuevo Latino, Party Menus, Recipe Development, Spanish/Tapas | 32 Comments

I know most people who read blogs like FOODalogue or create boards on pinterest are really into entertaining and generally on the troll for new tips to make the effort stress-free so I thought I’d tell you about 2 dinner parties I hosted recently.

Last week I hosted a dinner party to celebrate 2 family members’ birthdays. It was joyous, over-the-top loud and a wee bit chaotic. That’s what happens when four generations of family (18 people) get together.

And, it was not without a fair amount of work and some stress … who doesn’t eat/drink what? … where will everyone sit? what to put out for appetizers (at get-togethers my family likes a hearty cocktail hour)  … and then there’s lugging large quantities of groceries, etc. You get the idea.

But, this time, instead of doing it all, I got smart.

  1. To my sister, I said … do a couple of vegetable dishes to accompany my 2 roasts and rice timbale.
  2. To my son … bring the birthday cake and come early to help with chairs, card table, etc.
  3. And, in a group text …


It was a wonderful party, the room was crowded but full of good food and love.

•          •         •

But I’d been jonesing to do a different kind of dinner party … a quiet, sit-down, atmospheric, wine pairing, multiple course dinner served tasting size, with people of like interests and adult conversation.

This Saturday I hosted exactly that sort of event. My guests seemed genuinely pleased and were generous with compliments — and I was 99% satisfied (who can be 100%?) — so I thought I’d share a few tips and photos. Of course, creating lists, being organized and sticking to schedules are most important.

Clearly, there will always be a place for big family dinners and buffet style parties but, for a small group, it’s also fun to try a tasting and wine pairing dinner. It’s basically the same quantity of food, but it’s not served family style and it elongates the dining experience when you serve plated multi courses.

Menu. A tasting menu may sound complicated, but it couldn’t be simpler — and it takes over-buying, over-cooking and over-serving out of the equation.

Create a menu that will offer guests a unique dining experience whether it’s the food or presentation, or both! Make it fun for yourself and do something a little out of your wheelhouse. And my best tip is choose only dishes that you can prepare in advance with minimal last minute prepping.

• Shopping. Unlike large parties, you don’t need Costco-size quantities. A tasting dinner with multiple courses should be served delicately. I don’t know exact weights, but I’m guessing both food and pours should be in the 2-3 ozs. range.  (Like the old diet advice, it shouldn’t be larger than the palm of your hand. Remember, it’s that size x 5 or more courses.) Great excuse to go to upscale specialty shops for products.

* Everyone out of the kitchen! If you live in a space like I do with an open kitchen/dining/living room, greet everyone in the furthest area from the kitchen.

Entice them with a welcome cocktail and an amuse bouche. My guests brought the wines for dinner*, but I surprised them with a ‘champagne’ cocktail (rose cava with a splash of moscato and a raspberry) — and this delicious bite.

achiote shrimp on coconut rum glazed papaya with a drizzle of sherry vinegar glaze

Create a playlist  — not too loud or jumpy, middle of the road, old/new and varied artists.

Keep lighting ambient. Candles, lamps, and no harsh overheads. I dimmed the ceiling light over the dining table and shut the florescent kitchen light (operating by stove light and one small decorative light) while serving.

Create little vignettes where people’s eyes can travel and rest for a moment.

Table Setting. Bring out the linens, the crystal (more on that below), and go to Pinterest for inspiration. I spied this idea on pinterest when I first joined and was delighted to have an opportunity to use it. And I took it a step further by adding a place card function as well as a menu preview/napkin holder.

But, wait till you finish shopping before printing. I did mine during the week and then wound up making a few minor switches (pineapple became papaya, etc).

FlowersRather than a floral centerpiece, I like to put mini vases at each place setting so I picked up a bouquet of some berry like flowers at Whole Foods which I broke down at home. Getting my money’s worth, I reserved the stem leaves to decorate the cheese plate. (I washed them before putting them near the food.)

As mentioned in Table Setting “bring out the crystal”, it’s a great time to use old candle holders, short glasses or odd shaped mini vases to create a little sparkle on the table. The 2 on the right are a pair, but I used one up and one down. Sorry I don’t have a photo of them filled.

I also suggest you look around your home and re-purpose items, like these colorful tumblers which I used to serve cold soup as a first course. (I put them on a square white appetizer plate and decorated it with a sprig of grapes and a homemade crouton.)

Plates and Plating. Use small (appetizer size) plates, but not for every course. Though each course was roughly the same amount of food, I used the tumblers, appetizer, lunch and dinner plates, respectively.

Since you’re plating individually, use molds for a tighter presentation.
But, make a big splash with the cheese course and serve it family style. I did mine on a large cake stand and it got lots of oohs and ahs.

I served 3 good quality Spanish cheeses and a variety of fruits, nuts, crackers and my special touch — a choice of honey, white balsamic glaze and pink peppercorns to heighten the flavors.

One last treat. We could have happily ended with the cheese course but I thought everyone would appreciate a sweet ending. Since I know most people turn down coffee at night, I went with a shooter of coffee soda and the mini-est scoop of cappuccino gelato topped with a chocolate -covered expresso bean for that chocolate and caffeine fix.

It was unexpected, fun, and hit the spot.

WinesMy guests brought the wines and, so that we could have a nice pairing, I assigned each couple a course, suggested a variety and left the rest up to them.

What a great idea! I got to know 3 new wines which paired beautifully with the dinner I served. See full menu and pairing below.

The After Party Clean-Up. Set up one dishwasher load, close the kitchen light, go to bed and know this is what you’ll find in the morning.

Menu Planning Notes

Amuse Bouche
Achiote Shrimp over Coconut Rum-Glazed Papaya with drizzle of sherry vinegar glaze
a salty, peppery, sweet bite
served with a Cava cocktail (rose cava mixed with sparkling Moscato)
serve in white spoons on black slate

Ajo Blanco Soup topped with paprika salt and chives
with chorizo crouton + a couple of green grapes
a chilled soup of roasted garlic, bread and almonds
serve in colorful tumblers> White Wine

Lump Crab Meat Salad with Herb Citrus Vinaigrette over Pork Belly Mofongo
spooned over Puerto Rican mofongo
serve on lunch plate> White Wine

Chicken Fricassee, Bomba Rice and Avocado Salad
serve molded on dinner plate with splash of sauce on side> Red Wine

Spanish Cheese Course
manchego, cabrales, rosy goat, fig + almond cake, chestnuts, almonds, grapes, sliced apple, raspberries, dates, honey, balsamic glaze, red peppercorns>
decorate with herbs, serve on cake stand> Moscato

Coffee + Chocolate
Mini scoop of capuccino gelato with chocolate-covered expresso bean and Manhattan Special shooter
serve in shot glass and mini Asian cups


NOTE: Some recipes found on FOODalogue are offered without ingredient quantities. They're meant as a guide to food pairings and techniques to be experimented with … in your own kitchen … to your own spice and taste levels … to your preferred portion sizes … and to however many people you’re cooking for. A perfect meal has multiple levels of flavor and textures, bright colors and tastes, and healthy(ish) choices. It's all about enjoyment. Enjoy the process, the presentation and the just rewards...eating!


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  1. Norma-Platanos, Mangoes and Me! says:

    Definitely a party that they will be talking about for weeks. Too bad I missed it…

  2. Edie says:

    Beautiful Joan.

  3. Joan,
    What a menu, what a party!
    BEAUTIFUL! I love the menu napkins too.


  4. that is a fabulous menu Joan! your guests were seriously lucky!
    Jenn and Seth recently posted..Frost Kissed Artichokes with Honey Dijon MayonnaiseMy Profile

  5. Peter says:

    Joan, you know entertaining and how to throw a party! I’m taking some notes ;)
    Peter recently posted..Slow-Roasted Leg of Lamb (The Greek Way)My Profile

  6. Fabulous, just fabulous Joan. Your planning ideas are wonderful and I’m making notes. Great post!
    Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen recently posted..Checking InMy Profile

  7. Connie says:

    As a lucky guest at Joan’s beautiful dinner party, let me attest that it was a very special evening. Joan outdid herself and we all felt special to be catered to in such a wonderful way. Thank goodness we didn’t have to leave a tip -as judging the value of the dinner, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN BIG !

  8. bellini says:

    I love everything about this Joan, some great tips for success. If only we could all be there.

  9. I know who enjoyed it the most and as a guest, I can say it was perfectly executed and the food was very well planned and wonderful. Great hostess!
    Patricia Durr recently posted..VichyssoiseMy Profile

  10. Cava Cocktail!!!! love it! and what a gorgeous cheese board! looks like someone is giving me a run for my money! p-p-p-p-p-p-pinterest!!!! what a great party, then again it’s what you do so very well!
    South Florida Food and Wine recently posted..S.Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition MiamiMy Profile

  11. Brilliant post, Joan, in every way. Just brilliant. Your tips are perfect, your serving dishes divine (those glass plates are gorgeous), and your menu so inspired it makes me want to weep. And I am still recreating in my head those fabulous shrimp–what a great recipe concept. You inspire, as always. Please let me come to your next dinner party, even if as a fly on the wall!
    Victoria of Flavors of the Sun recently posted..Layered Italian SaladMy Profile

  12. Just make the place card and hold it for me!
    Victoria of Flavors of the Sun recently posted..Layered Italian SaladMy Profile

  13. Lori Lynn says:

    I am savoring every bite of this post Joan. So many things alike on these two coasts. I say “everyone out of the kitchen” too! In fact I remove the stools from the counter and use it for plating, everyone needs to sit in the other rooms. I also put all my kitchen lights on dimmers recently. Makes a huge difference.
    Your menu is fabulous. Love the balance, bright flavors, presentation most of all! I almost always plate the food at my parties, I want control over the composition on the plate. Happy to arrange one plate and have someone help plate the rest while I am busy with other dishes.
    Lastly, we do the same with the dirty dishes. In fact, I love waking up the next morning with a clean dishwasher and two more loads to go, a cup of coffee, reminisce about the party while I clean.
    Definitely stealing the napkin menu idea.
    Lori Lynn recently posted..A Toast to Abraham LincolnMy Profile

  14. liz says:

    Looks like such a lovely evening. Creative menu and presentation and, best of all, you look very relaxed. Great job!

  15. Marie says:

    Joan I’m taking notes, great ideas, and I love the coffee shooter at the end!

  16. One of the best posts I have read in ages! Love it! I too have taken plenty of notes Joan. That menu sounds gorgeous…everything looks amazing. And that cheese plate! Bravo!
    Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul recently posted..Beef ragu Stuffed MushroomsMy Profile

  17. Your party makes me homesick for my Orlando friends and dinner parties. Thanks for evoking those sweet memories. Beautiful spread Joan.
    Maureen C Berry recently posted..Arugula-Cilantro PestoMy Profile

  18. Robin Sue says:

    Excellent post Joan. Both parties were done with flair and style. I picked up some good tips here and will use them when I have a party again when my arm heals.

  19. Totally gorgeous with wonderful tips. I love the place settings, and the coffee dessert! And all else in between.
    Kitchen Butterfly recently posted..Cooking & Baking with Tea: The Spice, And DrinkMy Profile

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