For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to entertain. This statement should not be misread as: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been good at entertaining. When I first started out, I’d choose recipes by how they looked in the photo instead of by degree of difficulty. (Which is how I’d end up serving coq au vin to my dinner guests at midnight.) But I’ve picked up a few golden rules along the way, and in honor of summer, arguably the easiest time to entertain, I thought I’d present a few…
Just Do It
I don’t know what to make. I can’t cook. My friends are food snobs. I don’t have time to clean the house. My couch is filthy. These are all valid excuses, but I’m here to tell you that they are indeed just excuses, so invite your friends over anyway, because if they are your real friends they will show up with a bottle of wine, not a pair of judgment goggles. Inviting three or four people for dinner a few weeks away is the equivalent of registering for a 10K race. Once you put down your money, you are committed, motivated, maybe even a little excited. (Yes, you could always cancel the invitation, but then you’re the person who cancels the invitation.)
Chances are, as soon as you send the invitation, one of your guests will email back, “What can I bring?” I used to reject this offer out of pride — somehow I believed that being a good entertainer was doing every single thing myself from appetizer to dessert. Then I had kids and I thought, You know what? I think I’d rather go to the playground than pipe meringue onto a fleet of tartlets. Tell your very generous friend, “Thank you! I accept your offer, please bring dessert.” It’s one less thing for you to coordinate and your guest will be thrilled to contribute. If you have a specific request (fruit salad? ice cream?), by all means, request it. (Golden Rule for Another Kind of List: We are all kids at heart who just want someone to tell us what to do.)
Make Food Beforehand
If you come to my house for dinner, 90% of the meal will be already made. If it’s summer, it means three or four healthy, fresh salads have been assembled hours in advance (one grain-based like barley or wheat berry tossed with herbs and feta, one market green salad, one in-season vegetable with “structure” like asparagus or bok choy or carrots), and one soon-to-be-grilled protein that has been marinating in yogurt or herbs or both all day long. If it’s winter, that means some sort of braised pork or short rib that has been transforming into melty goodness all day long. This way, when it’s time to wrap up the last few details of the meal, no one has to abandon their cocktail-sipping guests for more than a few minutes.
Keep Cocktails Simple
While I love and respect a good wax-stached mixologist, I have no interest in muddling or doing math at cocktail hour. We are purists in my house, preferring to serve our guests the same drinks that were probably served by our grandparents in the Eisenhower era. A Gin and Tonic. A Dark and Stormy. Both of these are simple to assemble (booze + mixer + lime), and, most important, are quintessentially summer.
Two things to do before you have people over: 1) Make sure the powder room’s trash can is empty. 2) Shove all clutter and paperwork in a closet or in the basement or in the bathtub without organizing or putting a single thing in its proper place. Seriously! Busy, happy houses are messy! So many people tell me this is what they stress out about the most before guests arrive. Why? Crash clean the rooms that count, and order Marie Kondo in the morning.
Decorate the Table
In the summer, fruit is always a beautiful centerpiece. I like it when it’s a lot of one thing, like apricots or peaches. In a modern white bowl, like this one.) Or just in a row down the middle of the table. I also really like table runners, versus tablecloths. Somehow they feel proper without being too formal.
Stock Up Ahead
If you’ve cooked for people, you know that cooking for people involves so much more than cooking for people. There are all the other little details: Do you have enough plates? Ice? Do you need to dig out a few platters from the recesses of your cupboards? Here’s what I say: If it can be done ahead of time, do it ahead time. Before families come over, I’ve been known to even stock the fridge with cups filled with water because it is The Law that one of the toddlers will ask for something to drink just as the Porterhouse goes from medium-rare to well-done.
But Save One Thing for the Last Minute
It’s nice to be holding a glass of wine when the doorbell rings, ready to shower your guests with your undivided attention. But it also creates a fun vibe to prepare something easy before their eyes, to create the illusion that you didn’t spend all day anticipating their arrival and that you’re the type of host who can just be all, Me? This? Just something I just thought to throw together for your immediate enjoyment. Guacamole is perfect for this. So is assembling a plate of snacks and starters. Lately, I’ve been favoring a big ball of burrata surrounded by prosciutto, baguette slices, spring vegetables (sugar snap peas, radishes, little carrots) and a generous drizzle of good olive oil.
Start Sparkling Conversations
Fall-back conversation for grown-ups: Travel. Especially in the summer. Have you been anywhere? Are you going anywhere? Fall-back conversation for little kids: What are you going to be for Halloween? (Doesn’t matter how far away Halloween is, I find they always have an answer!)
Always start the evening with an empty dishwasher and sink. Your post-party self will thank you, no, love you.