Sunday, April 5, 2009

Guest of Honor

Growing up it seems my parents and their friends were quite the entertainers. I have such great memories of hanging out with lots of people, playing games, eating past a comfortable level and staying up late. Whether it was our home or a neighbor's, the motto "the more the merrier" really did seem to be the backbone philosophy and food was always at the center. It didn't have to be fancy — who doesn't love a grilled hotdog?! — but everything was always served with love and you went to bed wrapped in a blanket of community and comfort. 

Honestly, that's why I love to host parties. But I also really appreciate receiving an invitation to come to someone else's home to break bread, catch up, and foster that sense of a smaller world. There is a lot of work that goes into opening your home to others and feeding them (not to mention all the work required once everyone leaves). In return, I think it's nice to try to be a good dinner guest. Here are some thoughts on how to do that--and hopefully get invited back: 

1. Don't come early. Don't even come on time. Even the most organized hostess is probably not 100% done with all the preparations when the designated start time rolls around. Giving them a 10-15 minute grace period can do wonders to reduce their stress, allowing for the completion of last minute details. If it's a surprise party or you've made arrangements with the host to help set up, then of course punctuality is key.  But be wary of arriving too fashionably late for a dinner party. No one wants to be sitting around crunching on carrot sticks for 45 minutes waiting for the laggards to show up so the main course can commence.  

2. Don't come empty handed. Keep an eye out for hostess gifts throughout the year and pick up a few items so you always have them on hand. Possibilities are kitchen towels, candles, or fine food items like olive oil. Wine is almost always welcomed. [Note: the hostess doesn't have to serve your wine that evening.] I like to dress up a bottle with a pack of clever cocktail napkins or a beautiful wine stopper. It just adds a titch more to the whole presentation. There are some interesting (in a good way) spirits available that might make for a nice change. [Anyone for sweet tea vodka? It makes a wonderful base for a spiked Arnold Palmer.] You might find some beautiful fruit or vegetables to present. Just make sure they're hearty and not high maintanence. For instance, citrus has a longer shelf life than say a flat of ripe strawberries. However for the right person the strawberries may be the more thoughtful and appreciated gesture if you know they'd find great joy in making a pie with this unexpected windfall. Don't bring flowers unless they're in a container. It's a pain for the hostess to find a vase, trim the flowers, and make an arrangement.

3. Offer to help. It's nice to offer your assistance with the food prep, but most likely your host will appreciate you taking care of some of the often overlooked details of "making it all come together" like taking/filling drink orders, setting dishes on the table, getting serving utencils, etc.  One area I personally appreciate help on is clearing away the hors d'oeuvres.  While you're not expected to wash dishes, it's a nice gesture to help clear plates. You can stack plates on the kitchen counter (not in the sink) to make the clean up process more manageable and quicker. 

4. Volunteer to bring dessert. Unless your host is a baker at heart, dessert is often an afterthought or a nuisance. Elevating the dessert course is often a welcome and delicious contribution. If you don't have the time or desire to bake something, there are usually wonderful bakeries or gelaterias in most towns where you could pick up a dozen or so cookies or a few pints of various gelato flavors that are often seasonal — like blood orange or Thin Mint. Divine. But don't be daunted by the prospect of making a dessert. It doesn't have to be an all day commitment or a complicated, scary endeavor. There are some delicious comfort food desserts that take no skill and very little time to create. One of my all time dessert saviors (and favorites) is a fruit crumble. It's impossible to mess up, you can use any combination of available fresh (or even frozen) fruit, and you can bring it with you to bake at the host's home. Paired with vanilla ice cream it's really hard to beat. I have an upside-down cake recipe that might be one of the easiest desserts I've ever made. Not even a mixer is required! And no icing, which if you recall is one of my dessert deterrents. 

5. Don't become campers. Leave before you wear out your welcome. It's a sign of a good party when you lose track of time and realize you've been at your host's home longer than most people sleep in a night, but the hosts shouldn't be the ones who suffer. Remember they still have to clean up after you leave. 

6. And of course, don't forget to write a thank you note

Upside-Down Berry Cornmeal Cake
Adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

The cornmeal adds a nice texture and depth in flavor making this both luscious and homey. It's not overly sweet or filling and would compliment almost any meal.  

2 1/2 cups fresh berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and/or strawberries)
1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 Tbsp each finely chopped fresh basil and mint
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup plus 2 tsp milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
Fresh mint to garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 8 x 1 1/2 inch round cake pan and line with greased parchment paper. Arrange 2 cups berries in bottom of pan; set aside. In large bowl stir together flour, cornmeal, chopped basil and mint, baking powder and salt. Set aside. 

In medium bowl whisk eggs and then add 2/3 cup milk, sugar and oil. Add egg mixture all at once to the flour mixture. Stir by hand until combined. Pour batter over into prepared pan over berries and spread evenly. 
Bake for 40-45 minutes or until toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. [Note: I usually start checking at 35 minutes because all ovens are slightly different and you don't want to overcook it.] Cool in pan on wire rack for 5 minutes. Run small knife around edge of pan to loosen sides of cake. Invert onto serving plate and remove parchment paper. 
Combine powdered sugar, remaining 2 tsp milk, lemon juice and lemon zest in small bowl to form a glaze. Lightly brush over warm cake. Top with remaining fresh berries and mint for garnish; drizzle with honey. Yields 10 servings. 

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