A few days ahead of the dinner, spend a half hour during your commute to work (or whenever your mind tends to take a cat nap) and focus on the number of guests, the food, the cooking facilities, and the working space in which you will be cooking. Picture yourself preparing the dishes you intend to make and serving them in the manner you have chosen. If the act of visualizing the preceding steps causes butterflies in your stomach, select alternative recipes, simplify the menu, and/or plan to do more of the cooking in advance.
If you are a certified dinner party phobic attempting to overcome your anxieties, select a recipe that can be prepared earlier in the day, i.e., a curry, and serve it with a simple salad of baby greens. Buy a finger food and a dessert or, more simply still, ask two guests to bring them. In so doing, you can put the mental block of food preparation behind you and focus on the deep-rooted source of your phobia.
pre-production . It’s not always possible, and never crucial, to prepare all of the food during the last 90 minutes before your guests arrive, or in their presence. Most of my recipes can be prepared, at least partially, one day in advance. The flavors of some foods, such as soups and curries, actually improve after sitting for a day. Other foods can be prepared in advance and frozen — although I confess to having little experience in this area because the freezer section in my aesthetically pleasing fifties refrigerator functions exclusively as a frost factory.
The corollary to food improving with time is that some foods lose their zest if prepared too far in advance. Before serving any food, taste it. If necessary, “refresh” it with salt, pepper, lemon and/or a generous portion of the same herbs that were used originally to flavor the dish.
sizing the servings . Unless you have specifically asked how hungry individual guests are, it is desirable to make all portions equal. The first phase of portion control takes place when shopping for ingredients. Sometimes a little hardball may be required. For example, if you were to request twelve 1-inch-thick salmon steaks from your local fishmonger, he would probably cut them from a single salmon. Unfortunately, the cut from the middle of the fish can be twice as wide as the cuts nearest the head or tail. There’s always almost another salmon “in the back” and you must stand your ground to get what you need. After all, you are the customer and, per the retail credo, that makes you always right.
To avoid running out of food, prepare a little extra — even at the expense of having leftovers. When planning for casual parties where additional guests may drop by, or arrive in tow with your invited guests, it’s always wise to prepare extra portions of the main dish. At least be sure to have lots of something i.e., salad, bread, veggies, etc.
If you are assembling plates for a seated affair, don’t let any plate out of the kitchen until you are certain that you have enough of everything to complete the remaining dishes.
timing is everything . Having settled on a menu and decided which items to cook in advance, slide back into the visualization mode for a moment and imagine that it’s 15 minutes before showtime. Will everything be ready at the same time? Are the garnishes prepped? Did you put the rise on?
Return to the present and create a “critical path” by establishing the sequence in which each dish needs to be started, refreshed or reheated. When in doubt, scribble out a running order and stick it on the refrigerator.
When showtime arrives, wait until the last minute to put the finishing touch on delicate foods. As a rule, begin steering your guests toward the dinner table before tossing the salad, adding shrimp to a sauce or steaming vegetables.
the accelerated assembly line . Assembling a large number of plates quickly is a challenge for professional chefs and amateurs alike. Before you begin, think about how you would like the food to look on the plate and how the colors, shapes and textures will interact. Create a blueprint in your mind and plan to assemble each plate identically. Then: