How to Host a Perfect Party

Somewhere between Martha Stewart and Julia Child, with a fair amount of broke-twenty-something ingenuity thrown in, lies Stephanie Hagan. I first met Stephanie when she and I were fresh out of college and working our first “real” museum jobs. We had a series of grueling early morning meetings and in the early September heat Stephanie had brought iced coffee from home that included ice cubes made with coffee, milk, and sugar. She explained that that way, as the ice melted, her coffee got no weaker. I knew we would be friends for life.

On a recent winter evening Stephanie threw herself a birthday party and huge a part of what got me there, besides devoted friendship, was the promise of her homemade party-fare and excellent Southern hospitality. After happily feasting on lentil walnut burgers with caramelized onions, prosciutto wrapped sweet potatoes, veggies and tahini dip, a fine selection of cheeses, and, of course, red velvet cake to top it all off, it was all I could to get back on the 1 train and start the journey back to Sunset Park from Washington Heights.

Like many busy New Yorkers I had to ask myself, how does she do it? So I asked Stephanie to share her cooking, shopping, planning, and hostessing wisdom with the 2 Cooks readers. Enjoy!

Lentil walnut burgers, prosciutto wrapped sweet potatoes, a labeled glass, and veggies

On Cooking:

I cook all the time. Every day. 95% of what I eat has been prepared in my kitchen. And yet, a party presents a special challenge. Will there be enough food? Will there be enough variety? How do I transform my everyday eats–which go from stove to table and get gobbled up while they’re still hot–into something easy and forgiving that still befits a special occasion? Sometimes I go on epicurious.com and search for an ingredient that I’m dying to use, and see what comes up that gives me ideas. Prosciutto, anyone?

It’s a big treat to buy prosciutto at Milano Market a couple blocks from my house. It takes ages to slice a pound because they slice it so thin and then lay out each piece side by side. After one piece of wax paper has disappeared underneath the pink translucent slices, they pull out another piece of wax paper and start over with another layer. They always give me a piece of prosciutto to sample, and that reminds me it’s worth the wait!

The prosciutto-wrapped sweet potatoes are proof that just because I know how to make veggie burgers, that doesn’t mean I’m of the vegetarian persuasion. They are from Mark Bittman’s 101 Make-Ahead for Thanksgiving list. They are item #48. This is all he says:

48. Cut sweet potatoes into wedges; boil until tender. Drain and toss with olive oil. Wrap each with a prosciutto slice and a sage leaf, then roast until browned.

You might know (or notice) that Mark Bittman’s lists of 101 recipes aren’t overly specific. They’re more like guidelines. Here’s what I can add to try to make this a little more followable by a first-timer: I made 4 sweet potatoes, which made an enormous platterful of wrapped wedges. I think I boiled the wedges for about 8 minutes–but their thickness is going to To test the doneness I pulled a wedge out with tongs and ran it under cold water so I wouldn’t burn my fingers when I felt for the snap factor. He uses sage to tuck beneath the layers of prosciutto. While I think sage + prosciutto is a winning combination, I actually prefer rosemary in these. I roasted them on a cookie sheet at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. They are amazing right out of the oven but they hold up really nicely at room temperature.

If you have leftover prosciutto (as if!) that you don’t want to horde for yourself, you can buy grissini (this is the fancy word for long skinny tubular crunch breadsticks) and wrap a slice around each grissini (grissin-o?). A collection of prosciutto-wrapped grissini in a coffee mug is as alluring as a bouquet of flowers, and way more edible.

Glass, red pepper spread, apricots with goat cheese and nuts

The recipe for the Lentil Walnut burgers is here:
http://www.pbs.org/everydayfood/recipes/lentil_walnut.html
It’s from the Everyday Food cookbook. Everyday Food is a little mini-magazine, a Martha Stewart publication that’s far less fussy than Martha’s usual fare. I usually make these burger-size and serve them on egg challah rolls with a slice of tomato and a big dollop of the yogurt cilantro sauce. They’re a complete meal, but they’re also good with stir-fried green beans or sweet potato fries on the side. To turn them into finger food I made the patties smaller and then cut pitas into quarters and tucked them inside. The caramelized onions are KEY and I always make an enormous batch so I can throw the leftovers on scrambled eggs or add them to salads.

The Red Velvet cake was a Cakeman Raven recipe, though Stephanie and I discussed how the  red in historical red velvet cakes came from a chemical reaction between baking soda and lower quality cocoa powder. To be explored further on a future 2 Cooks entry.

Red velvet slice with pretty party plates, bourbon, and what remained of the lentil walnut burgers

On Entertaining:

Wear thine apron! I always, always spill on my party dress. The apron saves me. Funnily, I got all my aprons at my bridal shower. If you don’t have spoils from a wedding, go out and invest–or don’t change out of your cooking clothes and into your party clothes until the very last minute!

Don’t make something for the first time for guests. (Okay, truthfully, I break this rule all the time. For example, the little apricot bites I made, which were halved dried apricots with little blobs of goat cheese and pistachios dolloped on top, were a big hit, and that was the first time I’d tried them.) You don’t know how it’s going to turn out and you may misjudge the amount of time it takes you to prepare it. You may want to bend the recipe a little bit, and you don’t know how well it’s going to adapt if it’s your first time trying it out.

Snack selection, including crostini with caramelized onions

The glass identifiers were inspired by a party thrown by my mother-in-law. She is the ultimate party-planner. I had lots of fun flipping through magazines (mostly food magazines! *moment of silence for the loss of Gourmet*) looking for adjectives to paste on the tags. I like the idea that you get to select who you are for the evening! I can almost see picking verbs or something and turning it into a version of Charades, or maybe trying to get people to combine their tags to make sentences.

The over-ambitious hostess is a frazzled one! Choose foods you can prepare ahead of time and serve at room temperature. You can’t relax and enjoy the party if you are shackled to the oven!

Make labels for your foods. These can be little toothpick-flags. That way people know what it is even if they are embarrassed to ask, or can’t find you to inquire. You might want to list the ingredients too, to help out people with food allergies.

I like to find trays and platters at places like Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx. It can be hit or miss, but I’ve found some nice things on the cheap and I like pulling them out for special occasions.

I also like to have a signature drink, like one cocktail that’s on offer in addition to wine and beer. Right now we’re drinking prosecco with Blood Orange juice and toasting to your good health!

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About 2cooksinthekitchen

Two cooks, one from Bushwick and a passionate meat-eater, one from Sunset Park and a former vegan, and both NYC transplants, set out to share original recipes that can be made dairy free and vegan deserts; showcase culinary resources in the outer boroughs (and sometimes Manhattan) where one can find unique, specific and fairly priced ingredients; and participate wholeheartedly in the many cultures of cooking and eating that make up New York City.
This entry was posted in Cooking, Entertaining, Recipe, Special Guest and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How to Host a Perfect Party

  1. mdot says:

    This is awesome.

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