Carla's Corner: Ready, Set, Entertain!

Spring is finally here, and not a minute too soon. It was a long and harsh winter on the East coast, and unpredictable weather everywhere else, so I'm sure we're all anxious to have it behind us. It's time to start putting away those heavy winter sweaters and switch over to fewer layers and lighter colors.

I'm starting to see more and more folks out in their yards raking up the last bit of leaves and getting the soil ready for the spring planting. With the start of spring, the catering season is gearing up again after the first quarter lull. I can only imagine that those of you who entertain are on the same page. I'm going to take you behind the scenes at one of our events. If you shy away from entertaining at home, hopefully I can provide some pointers that will make your next party much easier.

The first thing is to know the purpose of your event. Who's going to be there? What do you want your guests to feel while they're there? Our event was an open house reception for a Realtor. Our role was to actually show potential buyers how their home could be used for entertaining. I thought this was a brilliant idea. In addition to showing how functional the kitchen was, we used existing furniture and other tables to display the buffet and create a bar to show how great the space is for entertaining.

Planning the menu: Plan to have dishes that hold well and will look fresh for the duration of the party. Fried items don't do well, unless you have a dedicated person frying in small batches and serving immediately. (You know, like a caterer.) Minimize dishes that take you away from your guests. Serve items that are easy to execute like soup sips (shot glass-size portions of soup) and dishes that can heat up easily and neatly in a crock pot off to the side. Your menu should have a balance of cold, room temperature and hot dishes. Most cold and room temperature dishes may be prepared in advance!

Getting ready: The more you can plan ahead the better. The bar can be set the day before with glasses, mixers, and anything that doesn't have to be on ice. Have your ice containers ready and waiting to be filled an hour before the party. If you're doing soup sips, have your soup vessels (shot glasses, or demitasse cups) next to the soup pot with a ladle handy. Place your garnished platters in a dedicated spot on the counter, ready and waiting to be filled. Remember to have at least 2 platters for each dish (or at least the popular ones), so you can easily replenish without removing the empty platter from the buffet first.

Displaying the food: Think outside the box when picking platters and containers to display your food. It's fun for you as the entertainer, because it helps define your party theme. Always use food safe containers when your food is in direct contact with the dish, but consider placing the food dish in another interesting container. Baskets are great for both breads and spreads. Terra cotta pots, pails, vases and wooden vessels are great too. When you're displaying the platters create height on the table for visual interest. A crowded table is better than a sparse table; it has the look of abundance. On our display we've stacked platters to conserve space, but also to create height and shapes. It's Spring now, so don't forget to use pesticide-free flowers as garnish on your platters. Tiny pots and bowls are perfect for this. Encourage your guests to move around by spreading the food out. We set up a bar in the large foyer (Sorry, I forgot to take a picture.) Normally we would pull the guests away from the entrance door, but we weren't expecting everyone to descend at once. It worked because the guests came in small waves. The small buffet table was opposite of the bar, and in a corner by itself. We placed the desserts and other savory nibbles on their own side table.

Smaller is better: I like to graze. I prefer to eat lots of little things, so I assume everyone else does too, especially at a reception. You want to serve food that can be consumed in a couple of small bites. Folks are walking around and talking, so don't serve things that require them to sit down with a knife and fork or will fall apart while they're shootin' the breeze with another guest. Small rolls are great carriers for a number of items. Here we've made small crab cakes. We use small plates that encourage our guests to be mobile. You want your guests to feel satiated, so pack a big flavor punch in your small bites. Good food will make your party that much more memorable.

Pots, Pans, ACTION!: To mix it up a bit, the client had me do a cooking demo for the potential buyers. Don't be afraid to pull folks into the kitchen to "see" something or "do" something.

Well, that's all for now. I will continue to share my world with you—highs and lows (well, learning moments.) I look forward to hearing about your fabulous parties.

Until next time...cook with love!


Carla Hall was a finalist on Top Chef: Season 5 and runs Alchemy Caterers in Washington, D.C.

- Carla's Corner Entertaining Tips for Your Next Party


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