Thursday, January 3, 2013

A New Year's Resolution: Forget losing five pounds and running--I resolve to party!

Not long ago, I went down to Spears Furniture and ordered this semi-custom bench to go in front of the faux fireplace in our living room. You see, we've always had a problem with seating during parties, and I figure a bench is just the ticket. I saw a photo of just such an arrangement in a magazine, and had one of those "Aha!" moments.

I do this all the time--think about making space comfortable for entertaining, that is. Hell, I tore out and remodeled an entire kitchen with it in mind. The irony is that I actually am terrified of throwing parties.

For one thing, I kind of suck at it. I'm a pretty good cook, if I say so myself, but when I try to do it for more than two people (my normal state of affairs), things begin to go awry. Casseroles are burned on the outside and runny on the inside. Turkeys don't thaw in time. Dishes are either too salty or have no flavor at all. Portions are too small, meals take too long to cook and land on the table too late, or I run out of servings too soon. The list is endless.

But it's not just the food. I seem incapable of taking care of guests' needs and visiting with them at the same time. It takes so much concentration to pull off getting several items of food and drink onto the table at the same time that I find myself irritated when people start to bother me with conversation while I'm trying to do it.

And! And! I always want to go to bed long before the guests want to leave.

I swear, I get the vapors just thinking thinking about the stress.

And yet, I love the idea of entertaining, if not the act itself. I love my friends and I want to invite them into our home. Is that so hard?

My sister Amy complains of the same dilemma and thinks that she and I were born without the party gene. Maybe that's true. I know that there are people who not only never break a sweat over inviting dozens of friends and acquaintances over to their homes, they actually appear to enjoy it. So perhaps it's like brussels sprouts--there is a small population of people genetically predisposed to dislike them, and no matter how much they try, they are never going to acquire a taste.

Or it could also be that, like brussels sprouts, some of us are not so genetically predisposed, but have never properly acquired the ability to throw a party and to do it with pleasure. (I'd settle for being able to host something without having stress that is more proportional to, oh, I dunno, averting a nuclear war.) I suspect that, like cleaning a house, it is something at which I could be successful if I just study on it a bit. A little thought, a little organization, and most of all, a little applied practice and my fantasy of having the gift of hospitality could turn into a reality. So I have decided to declare 2013 "The Year of the Party." As such, this year I resolve to do the following:

1. Throw more parties.

Practice, practice, practice may not get me to Carnegie Hall, but it might help me learn to do this. I'm not sure how many parties this needs to be, though. Is one a month too many? Too few? I'll just have to see how it goes.

2. Serve food that is stress-free.

I think the Crockpot and make-ahead items are key to this. Research will be required. I'll keep you posted.

3. Develop a party master spread-sheet.

I got this idea from a dinner conversation I had at the Garden Writer's Association symposium in Tucson this past summer with Diana Kirby (of the blog, "Sharing Nature's Garden"). Diana told me she throws an annual Christmas party for over 100 people, and thinks this is fun. She keeps a spread sheet of things to do, recipes for food she likes to serve, how much she needs, and when to prepare it. I think this is a terrific idea. I suspect that making a similar set of spread sheets will will help me prepare in an organized, timely fashion so that by the time the guests start arriving, I am mellow and relaxed, with the food practically serving itself.

Walu and I kicked off The Year of the Party on January 1st by having some neighbors over for green chile stew, which you see percolating away in the photo above. (Notice how clean and organized that kitchen looks. I planned it that way.) I did a little light housecleaning in the morning, put the stew on after lunch, threw the cornbread and brussels sprouts in the oven together about a half-hour before everyone was to come over, et voila! The whole affair was more laid back than a cat in sunlight.

I'm going to start working on my master spread sheet this week, and one the first things I'm going to enter is the easy, make-ahead green chile stew we served. It took about twenty minutes of preparation earlier in the day and tasted fabulous. I tweaked a recipe that my sister Amy gave me. The original is one called "Beef and Bean Chile Verde" from Eating Well, but I've changed it up a bit by using pork loin instead of ground beef, and adding potatoes, chopped tomatoes, and green chiles. I also slightly changed some proportions. Oh hell, I changed most of it. What can I say? I like to tinker.

Green Chile Stew

Put in large crockpot:

2 pounds pork loin, cut into 1" cubes (you can sear the outside if you like, but I just threw it in there raw; I also trimmed off excess fat)
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 sweet onion, chopped
3 red potatoes, cut into large chunks
4-6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons of ground cumin
1 16-ounce can green enchilada sauce (I used "mild" because I like taste more than heat)
1 15-ounce can red kidney beans
1 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes, drained
1  4-ounce can chopped green chiles (I used mild)
1/4 cup water

Cook on high for 4-5 hours, or low for 8-9 hours, or until the pork is tender and easily shredded with a fork. Serves 5-6.


  1. Hey Susan,
    I think you're missing the "don't give a damn" gene, not the party gene. :) I love having people over, but if they want to eat then they have to expect, and accept, a mess or two.

    1. You're better than me! Heck, if they come to MY party and expect to eat, they better be ready to WORK! ;-) (This is why I almost have at least one family member at any given party. They have to help, right?)

    2. That's the working hypothesis, Lauren!

  2. Yes, throw more parties. Love life! That is one of my mantras. I agree with all your points. I make lists to get things organized even listing the mundane such as light candles at so and so time. And let people bring a dish. They get to cook a favorite, and it is less stress for you. So many people are in this boat. They want to but are afraid to entertain, so bringing a dish lets them participate in the party. And you know as well as I do that a little wine loosens up the guests and promotes conversation. I also try to follow a no politics, religion, or money discussion rule for entertaining unless we all believe the same thing. Laugh, snort, laugh. And finally practicing will make it easier. After 27 kids' birthday parties (that is the kids' aggregate age), I can plan and throw one in one day. I am not kidding. I threw one like that for Caroline last year. I vowed to go more extravagent this year after last year's. You will do great! Deanna

    1. Yes, I think lists are going to be key. If I can figure out the order in which to do things and do the bulk of them ahead of time, I think it will alleviate a lot of the stress. My goal is to do little on the day of the party itself-- I think that will help!

  3. I admire Diana's party-throwing abilities too, but keep in mind, she also hires serving and bar-tending help so that she can actually enjoy the party for 100! My husband and I are both pretty introverted, but we did recently throw a New Year's Eve party and enjoyed it a lot. I suspect part of the reason is because we didn't try to cook all the dishes for it. I made one and then bought no-heat appetizers like smoked salmon, cheeses, crackers, grapes, etc. so that I wasn't running around trying to keep things hot or pull food out of the oven, and we were both much more relaxed during the party. My advice? Figure out what you enjoy doing and then figure out a way to reduce the non-fun parts of hosting. For me, it's about visiting with guests, not showing off my non-existent cooking skills, so I buy the food. Alternatively, if you like cooking, maybe hire a helpful teenage neighbor to help you serve (or clean up afterward) so you can enjoy the party. If you enjoy it, you'll do it more often.

    1. If I were going to throw a party for 100 people, I would definitely hire help! I get panicky when we just have a couple of people over, though. I do like to cook, so I think sticking with making a main dish and maybe one side dish, and then letting my local mart take care of the rest (and I do like your idea of smoked salmon and cheeses), then it will take a lot of the pressure off.

  4. I'm with Pam/Digging: My favorite party to host has lots of plates of nibbles. You can get the organized ahead of time and the eclectic choices mean no fancy pants coordination of courses, everyone can find something they like, and food can come out whenever it is ready - so no trying to cook touchy things while those pesky guests keep trying to chat.

    I am with you - I love the idea of entertaining but often forget to enjoy my own party. But then I remember I don't actually like parties much - even as a guest. I am happiest at parties when I find a corner and an interesting person to talk to one on one. But I do like feeding people and seeing them having a good time. So I have come to accept my enjoyment of throwing a parties is the work part not the socializing part.

    For satisfying socializing I would rather go to lunch or coffee with one or two friends - and then we actually get to talk. My favorite gatherings are when we entice a neighbor or two or three over to the deck with a drink and then I start bringing out odd plates of things to eat - anything goes, my neighbors are very laid back. Even frozen pizza is welcomed if it is getting to be dinner and that drink is still in hand. Before you know it everyone is hanging out and relaxed. I suppose that is a party.

    BTW Dave loves parties at our house because he gets to be the charming host while I scamper around and take care of things. And I do love that he likes to do that because I find it stressful. So we are pretty compatible.

    I think you are spot on with the slow cooker chili simplicity. What are your favored brands for the canned things? I know there is a great amount of variation in the tastiness of canned enchilada sauces. We like the Fronterra packets but maybe this is too flavorful as a soup base...

    Thanks for the thoughts and recipe. I love that we are sisters-in-laws!

    Susan N.

    1. Oops, just noticed that I used Hatch green enchilada sauce instead of Old El Paso. I think I probably prefer Hatch, but I've used both.

    2. I love that we are sisters-in-law, too. Walu also loves being the charming party host and I absolutely hate the small talk, so we are compatible that way as well. I'm with you as far as not enjoying parties in general; I do the same thing--go off in a corner and talk to one person. Then I usually leave.

      We throw a lot of parties for work-related reasons, so for no other reason than that, I'd like to learn to do this. For those kinds of parties I just do the nibbles. Even so, i stress out.

      The *real* parties I want to learn to throw, however, are just the kind you've talked about--invite the neighbors over, sit around drinking wine, pass around some tasty food. That's life, right there.

      Brands, let's see: Hatch chiles (if available, always go for Hatch) and Old El Paso green enchilada sauce. Everything else can be whatever brand, I think.

  5. Recipe copied out. Will probably go with a bit more spice (need to warm up somehow!).

    My biggest barrier to inviting folks over is having to clean up before hand - though if I got better at the daily tidying up it might be less daunting.

    1. The original recipe also had a 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne, but I left it out because, as I said, I prefer flavor over heat. If it is too hot, then I am focused on my pain, rather than how something tastes. (I have a low tolerance for heat.)

      The cleaning up has been a big barrier for me, too. In the past year, though, I've gotten very organized about it--so much so that it is not only fun (yes, fun!), it means that the cleaning does not feel intimidating at all. In fact, there is little to do before a party.

      I may do a future post or two about what I've figured out about cleaning...

  6. There are so many great dishes that can be prepared in advance and then presented on the table at just the right moment with a minimum of effort and a maximum of oohing and awing from guests... Slow-roasted dishes and casseroles tend to be very forgiving about getting another half or whole hour before serving, so I often make stuff like that.

    Or home-made ravioli which is made hours ahead and then when all guests have arrived they are dumped in a pot of boiling water and served up five minutes later with a drizzle of oil and some grated cheese... This one is fussy to make, but not stressful since all the work is done in advance - and it never fails to get people to think I'm a great cook, which I'm not really.

    Or for a more informal meal, lots and lots of bowls of lovely stuff - hummus, tatziki, roasted peppers, olive tapanade, pesto, whatever - and a basket of good bread... And really, it's nicest if it's all home made, but nobody will really notice if it all comes from the deli around the corner, now will they? (Just get it all out of the plastic containers and people will think it's a feast!) This is seriously one for your spread sheet because it's so easy and stress free, and it works both at a large dining table or in a lounge where the bowls and bread are placed here and there on coffee tables, mantle pieces and whatever surface there is at hand.

    Or... Yeah, you get the picture. I like to host. And for sit-down dinner parties I try to plan the menu so I'm away from the table no more than 20 minutes in total during the evening. And yes, that's possible with a 3-course meal...

    (Oh, and we mustn't forget the cocktail party where no food is required beside snacks... And I also think the pot-luck dinner deserves to become fashionable again - that way the host just has to lay the table and see what turns up...)

    I do hope you will have some lovely and stress-free parties in 2013!

  7. Yay Susan! Now that's a resolution to look forward to working on :)

    I too enjoyed the party planning conversation we had at GWA - I think Diana inspired us all that evening to just think ahead a little bit and and ask for help when needed. Cause really, who doesn't love to celebrate the daily workings of life with the people we get to call friends and family? The best part, as I found out from two (or was it three...?) gatherings we hosted this holiday season, are the compliments you get from attendees afterward - on the food, atmosphere, and crazy garden art ;)

    Wish we lived closer, I'd contribute some food & libations to your next party!

    1. I wish we were neighbors, Andrea! Wouldn't we have some fun!

  8. Diana is a pretty smart lady. I don't see her getting flustered with much of anything. Your green chili looks great! I am not comfortable with hosting parties. I do like having smaller groups. Maybe I will try to have folks over more often.

    1. Smaller groups are definitely the way to go. I'm even thinking about just having a couple of people over at a time for awhile, and serve just one appetizer with some wine, using the excuse that I'm trying out recipes on them...

  9. Oh, goodness, Susan, I love this post - I'm totally phobic about hosting large parties, but love the idea of them. Hooray for Diana for inspiring a larger gathering! I think we need to work up to that - just as you say, a few folks at a time!

    1. I've decided I'm not only going to have just a few folks, I think I'll also start out with just one dish at a time--you know, invite some neighbors over to try out an appetizer.

      I love your house in Asheville, and have thought of it often since seeing it. It is so cozy and private, I think people would relish the opportunity to just sit and be quiet in that space--you'd hardly have to do anything at all to entertain them!


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