Instead, I try to keep a well-planned, well-stocked pantry, just in case. I’ve come up with a failproof list of ten things to have on hand, all designed to satisfy even the most ravenous of spur-of-the-moment guests. Virtually all of it can be bought at a grocery store—and keeps for months.
- Tapenade or marinated artichokes—Sure, if I’m prepared I buy Brie and some snazzy pâté. But too often my purchase has gotten moldy in my fridge, and one friend barely escaped botulism when I simply ignored an expiration date (Come on, what’s an extra two weeks anyway?). Tapenade looks gourmet, and since people aren’t really sure whether they like it, you probably can get by with a small jar. Just make sure you also have toothpicks and cute cocktail napkins on hand. Modern Girls know that a harmless little artichoke can drop pellets of oil onto clothes, furniture, or worse yet, your new handbag. (Should this happen anyway, refer back to chapter 1 to help get it out.)
- Garlic-, Brie-, or jalapeño-stuffed olives—Olives somehow say “cocktail hour” and “hors d’oeuvres” in one. They’re the gourmet’s answer to the bar nut. They can prove quite filling and can either wind up in martinis or on a little serving plate. And if you buy pitted ones, even olive skeptics will dive in.
- Nuts—Go for candied walnuts, pecans, almonds, and cashews, as these look fanciest and can be served at virtually any occasion,from brunch time to cocktail hour.
- Bread sticks—When in doubt, pull these out. I like the thin Italian ones that aren’t too filling. Sure, they may be a bit phallic, but depending upon your guests this may not be the worst thing.
- Walkers Shortbread Cookies—You have to hand it to the English. They make a crusty cookie seem like the height of refinement.
They somehow convey to your guests that they’re lucky, sometime you’ll invite them to a proper dinner party when you’ve had more notice.
- Box of chocolates—If you’re like me, you’ll have to store these on a high shelf and convince yourself they don’t exist. Otherwise you’ll wind up opening them hoping some visitor—any visitor— might pop by. Assuming you can resist, chocolates are perfect whether a guest shows up at 4 P.M. or 4 A.M.
- Bread/muffin mix—If your evening visitor turns into a morning after, then nothing says prepared like fresh baked goods. Find a mix that requires neither eggs nor milk. Modern girls are gracious, but not dairy queens.
- Bottle of champagne—If nothing else, get some champagne in the house—preferably a label that will wow them, but any will do.
No matter what the time or the other accoutrements, champagne signals festivity and makes your guests feel you’re happy to see them (even if you’re annoyed because you seem to be blowing a fortune on champagne lately). On top of that, chances are your guests will leave a little too tipsy to realize you didn’t feed them enough. You can “speed-chill” wine or champagne in about twenty minutes by completely submerging the bottle in a bucket filled with half ice and half water. This will chill the bottle much faster than ice alone.
- French onion soup mix—Okay, this falls in the realm of extra credit. I’ll toss it in with plain yogurt, cream cheese, or sour cream that has yet to grow curd. Whipping up a dip is a supereasy way to satisfy guests when you have minimal prep time. What good are crackers without spread or spread without crackers? The key to maintaining your last-minute entertaining ability is to replace any item you’ve used virtually the instant you’ve used it. Keep the empty box or container out of the garbage and to the side when you’re done. That way you’re more likely to remember to refill it tomorrow
How to stock a bar
The Hard Stuff
- Vodka (splurge on a pricier one so you don’t get a hangover) and store in the freezer. That way it’s ready to go—and chances are you have more room next to the ice cream than you do in your pantry, thanks to your newly stocked cupboard, per the list at the begin-
- ning of the chapter.
- Gin (ditto above on the pricey part)
- Rum (dark rums are sweeter but light rums are more commonly
- Tequila (go for the gold label)
- Whiskey (see pages 225–28 to pick the perfect scotch)
- Imported beer
- Angostura bitters
- Triple sec
- Amaretto or Bailey’s Irish Cream
- Tonic water
- Club soda
- Ginger ale (you can get by with tonic, but it’s nice to have around
- for future tummy aches)
- Maraschino cherries
Buying Wine there are some facts that might help you feel more confident next time you buy and serve wine. While a $100 bottle probably isn’t ten times as good as a $10 one, a $20 bottle may be ten times better than a $5. So your best bet is to stick within $17 to $25 if you can afford to. Here are a few tips from Wine Spectator to follow when looking for wine:
- Don’t be a wine snob. Trust what you like and don’t get caught up in high prices or critic’s awards.
- When you’ve found a wine you like, buy it by the case. Some retailers give you a 10 percent discount, or one bottle free.
- Having said that, shop around for different styles. There are many new types of wines, and you may find one that better suits you.
- Shop for values. You can get great prices on very good wines. Find a shop you like, build a relationship with the owner or sales clerk, and ask them to alert you to new specials.
- Like you, wine should never get old. Unless you’re buying super-expensive bottles, most should be consumed within ten years.
What Wine to Serve? Modern Girls know that when it comes to matching food and wine, you should forget about “The Rules.” After all, you’ll drink most of the wine before and after dinner, so just find a wine that you like and would drink by itself.
According to Wine Spectator, the old rule about white wine with fish and red wine with meat is a bit outdated. It used to be that all
white wines were light and fruity and red wines were heavy and weighty; but that doesn’t hold as true today. It is true that hearty food usually needs a full wine because robust food will make a lighter wine taste dull. With lighter food, a light wine fits better, but you can also use light food to bring out the fuller flavor of a heavier wine. If a guest brings you a bottle of wine as a gift, don’t feel compelled to open and serve it. The guest should understand that you have probably selected the best wines for your meal, and the gift is more of a thank-you. If you think your guest is expecting it to be opened but you don’t want to serve it with the meal, serve it for cocktails. When entertaining at home, it’s up to you whether you want formally to “taste” the wine. Unless you are having a tasting, it isn’t mandatory or even necessary. But when experimenting with a new bottle that you are unfamiliar with, you may want to taste or ask one of your guests to taste it for you
Storing wine hates heat. Keep bottles out of direct sunlight (total darkness is best) and store them on their sides. If you don’t have wine cases or racks, store them as low to the ground as possible in a cool, dry space that doesn’t get much light. A low cabinet you don’t open often is ideal. Anything over 70° F will affect a wine, resulting in flatter flavors and aromas. In addition, rapid temperature fluctuations (and I don’t mean between you and your date) may cause pressure changes within a bottle, moving the cork upward and allowing air in the bottle. This can lead to oxidation, which produces a brownish color and makes it taste icky (that’s a technical term).
For most of the wines I serve, a plastic cup wouldn’t change the way it tastes. But occasionally even I splurge on (or receive) a fine bottle. In this case, the glass matters. The size and shape of the bowl of the glass will affect intensity and complexity of the bouquet. The rim matters because it determines where the wine lands on your tongue, affecting the taste. The stem of the glass should be long enough so that your hand doesn’t touch the bowl. Not only will you get unsightly fingerprints on it, but you might warm the wine when you shouldn’t. The stem shouldbe almost as long as the bowl is tall. As for the bowl, the clearer the glass is, the richer the wine’s color will appear. Unless you’re looking to get yourself and your date really drunk, fill a wineglass no more than half full. This leaves enough space to release the aromas. Many glasses are too small; few are too large. A good red wineglass will have a capacity of at least twelve ounces (that’s a full soda can). Generally, glasses for red wines are wider than those for white. Champagne flutes should hold six and a half ounces or more (smaller than your red wineglass) but should be filled two-thirds of the way up to the top. They have smaller openings to conserve the bubbles. Because port and sherry are stronger wines, they are usually served in smaller glasses. Brandy snifters have little to no stem, because your hand should cradle the glass to heat the brandy slightly.
What about that wicked hangover headache the next day? To keep you from praying to the porcelain gods the next morning,
follow these tips:
How to Prevent a Hangover
- Have a preparty meal. Before you imbibe, load up on a low-sodium combo of complex carbs, protein, and fat, which will be digested slowly. Try a whole-grain pita stuffed with grilled chicken, veggies, and cheese.
- Take a Berocca vitamin supplement before you start drinking (consult your doctor first). You can purchase a bottle of Beroccas atthe pharmacy. This gives you additional vitamin B, which can help you better combat a hangover.
- Skip carbonated alcoholic beverages. The alcohol in beer, champagne, and wine coolers is absorbed faster than in noncarbonated drinks.
- Alternate fruit juice or water in between your drinks.
- Beware of sugary libations. The sweet flavor masks the alcohol, which can make you consume more booze than you think.
- Drink lots of water before bed to help prevent dehydration.
Hot Hangover Remedies
- Mix a drop each of lemon juice, heavy cream, and powdered sugar with equal parts orange flower water (which you can buy at pretty much any upscale food store), egg whites, gin, and soda.
- Should you not have the forethought (or the damn flower water), try to stock up on the energy powder available at most health food stores. It’s typically used to ward off a cold, but can work wonders on the “too-much-partying” flu.
If you don’t have a runner (which is basically just a long strip of fabric laid down the center of your table), a quick makeshift idea is to
use a long scarf. I’ve even used a black brocade scarf of my grandmother’s before. Another option is to run a row of fabric place mats
down your table. With your flowers and olive oils and other small dishes on top of them, no one will notice they’re not all one piece.
For a formal table, splurge on a tablecloth. White is always a safe bet because it won’t clash with your plates or food. But don’t worry
about getting the finest quality. What’s more important is that it’sironed and crisp-looking. If you’d sooner have your teeth drilled
than iron, send out your napkins and tablecloth to be pressed. A truly formal setting implies having all of your cutlery, dishes,
and glassware already on the table at the beginning of the meal. What I like about this—whether I’m actually serving a formal meal or
not—is that not only does it pass the Miss Manners test, but as the hostess you don’t find yourself scrambling for more glasses during
Traditionally, cutlery is laid smallest to largest, working toward the plate. Forks go to the left of the plate, spoons and knives to the
right. The exceptions are the dessert fork and spoon, which go above the plate, spoon on top. There is great debate among my friends as to whether you should put out a full set of cutlery even if you don’t need it (i.e., a salad fork if there is no salad). My feeling is, put out whatever you think a guest might use (who knows, she might want to cut her rigatoni with a knife). But skip anything that will lead a guest to think a course is coming that isn’t.
Place the water goblet right above the tip of the knife, and set the wineglasses slightly in front of the water. For more formal parties,
preset for as many different types of wines or champagne as you plan to serve. Forget which side to put the bread plate and which side to put your drinking glasses? Make an “okay” sign with both hands—you’ll see that your left hand makes a “b” for bread, and your right hand makes a “d” for drink. Easy! Remember that all food and drinks should be served on each diner’s right (that’s why the
glasses are all on the right), and cleared from each diner’s left.
I prefer to set the napkin in the center of the plate, with a nice napkin ring. Many people like to place the napkin in the water goblet,
but after breaking a friend’s Tiffany crystal stemware trying to remove it, I now try to spare guests of mine—and my fine crystal—the
same fate. After you remove your napkin from the ring, place the napkin on your lap and the ring to the left of your plate. After you have finished your meal and get up to leave the table, you can place the napkin to the left of your plate, or once your plate has been removed, you can place it where your plate had been, but not back in the napkin ring. However, it’s proper etiquette to leave your napkin on your lap until you get up from the table… even if you’re finished eating. If everyone stays at the table and chats after the meal, it is considered rude to have your dirty napkin in sight.
Don’t have napkin rings on hand? Here’s how to fold one like a pro: Fold the napkin into a triangle. Fold in the two bottom corners
one quarter of the way. Fold both of the corners over one another so they meet in the middle. Fold the top point down and flip the napkin over, and you have a chic envelope shape. You can leave it as is, or insert your silverware, a pretty flower, or chopsticks if you’re serving an Asian menu.
The centerpiece Part of entertaining is just making things look pretty—you, your pad, your food. It’s not about spending tons of money; it’s about showing guests that you made an extra effort to have things feel a bit more festive for them. While everyone knows that flowers can make a room, unless you’re sent a magnificent bouquet, do not feel obliged to take out a second mortgage to make your living room look like the botanical gardens. In fact, when it comes to arranging flowers, here’s the best advice I’ve been given: Don’t. When possible, avoid arrangements. Truth is, it’s hard to make cheap flowers look expensive and remarkably easy to make even expensive ones look cheap. Instead, consider “alternate” arrangements that make guests think you’re far too creative to resort to flowers or have held so many dinner parties already that you’ve run through the entire botanical repertoire. Another bonus to these alternative arrangements is that they are all fairly low to the table, making it easy to talk over them.
Snazzy Alternatives to Flowers
- Fruit: Bowls or vases filled with one variety of whole fruit (GrannySmith apples, lemons, and limes are my favorites) are as colorful as most flowers but last longer . . . and certainly come in handy should your bar run short.
- Floating candles: They have varieties that look like flowers, but I prefer a single color arranged in a bowl. It adds to the mood, is safer than long tapers, and there’s no arranging necessary. You can also add a few floating single-bloomed roses or sunflowers to the bowl.
- Wheat grass: Simple flat beds of the stuff add greenery to a table, last longer than most flowers, and can be whipped into an elixirshould your party leave you feeling run down.
- Candy: Nothing is as tempting as a vase or bowl filled with multi-colored jellybeans, childhood favorites, or sweets in bright wrap-pers. The added bonus is that after dessert, you’ll have little to clean up
The Real Deal
- Invest in a nice short vase. Keep it low. While tall arrangements are eye catching, they can ruin dinner conversation. Flowers need to be low enough to allow guests to see one another. In general, flowers should be one and a half times as tall as the vase they are in.
- Go for a single bloom. One of my favorites is to put three or four low square vases on the table with one blossomed rose in each. It makes a dramatic statement, but requires little work and even less skill.
- One color is easier to make look good than many. Try to pick three similarly hued flowers for an arrangement.
- One of the easiest arrangements is a “hedged” or vase-top arrangement—in which the flowers are bunched together right at the top of the vase. Get a bunch of one type of blossom and cut the stems down so that the bud is just resting on the vase. Repeat with the remaining flowers until the vase is full. You may cringe at cutting long stems off flowers like roses and calla lilies, but it will look elegant and doesn’t really require arranging. Showcase the blooms in a short, squat vase. Big blossoms (like hydrangeas) can be donein a more statuesque vase if you prefer.
- Use that green Styrofoam to arrange your flowers. It keeps flowers in the place you want them and if the best florists use it, why shouldn’t you? But the trick is to make sure the foam isn’t visible. Use in an opaque vase, or if that’s not available, try to get a big banana or palm leaf (florists have them) to wrap around the inside of the vase. Or cut lemon, lime, or orange slices and place on the inside of the vase for cover. Similarly, use bubble wrap or newspaper to fill in areas of an opaque vase and make a few flowers seem like more.
- To get grime out of vases: Pour in ice and rock salt (or table salt if rock salt isn’t available) then rinse. It leaves the vases shiny. Alternatively, soak the vase in water and Clorox for thirty minutes.
- Arranging flowers is much easier without water. Get all your flowers in place, and then add the H2O. It’s more likely that
the buds will stay in place
Picking and Maintaining Flowers
- Don’t cut with scissors. Get a real pair of garden cutting shears. Scissors crush the stem and prevent the flowers from getting water. Invest in garden shears and use them only to cut flower stems, or they will get dull.
- Bacteria are what kill flowers fastest. Put a few drops of Clorox in the water to keep blooms fresher longer. (I know, you really should change the water every other day, but I’m lucky if I take a shower that often.)
- If it’s an extra-special bouquet, use bottled water. Or if you’re cheap like me, at least use water from a Brita-style purifier. This cuts down on the bacteria.
Tips for Particular Flowers:
- Roses: When choosing roses, squeeze them. If the petals feel tightly bunched, chances are the flowers will bloom. If they are loose, it’s safe to guess they’ll droop before dessert. Also, look to see whether the tiny leaves surrounding the bud are pointing up. As in many other situations, pointing up is a good thing.
- Tulips: To keep the stems from bending, roll them in wet newspaper, and then submerge them in cold water up to the head.
When you are ready to display them, switch to a vase with cold water and ditch the newspaper.
- Irises and daisies: Treat with three drops of peppermint oil in a quart of water. (You can buy peppermint oil at most natural
- Lilacs: Scrape the bark off the bottom of the branch, smash the end with a hammer, fray it, and soak in cold water with the
powder packet you get at the florists.
- Lilies: Add one-quarter cup vinegar per two quarts of water
The Modern Girl’s Flower Kit
Garden cutting shears
Brita water jug
Peppermint oil (if you’re a big iris and daisy fan)
Flower food (stock up on the packets you get from your florist)
- A great way to get tapers to burn longer is to pop them in the freezer for a few hours before your party. Right before guests arrive, take them out, place them in their holders, and light them. You’ll get twice the burn time out of them. Always trim all candle wicks to one-quarter inch.
- Tired of your cylindrical candles looking like lopsided mushrooms after the first few uses? Burn them for no less than three hours the first time you light them. This creates an even ring on the top. We all know notto cry over spilled milk, but what about spilled candle wax? No sweat. For hard surfaces, let the wax cool and harden, then scrape it off with a credit card. For difficult-to-reach spaces such as moldings and creases in tables, use a hair dryer to melt the wax and wipe clean. For rugs, heat up an iron and place a brown paper bag over the wax spot. Run the iron over the bag. The paper will absorb the wax. Be sure not to use a hair dryer or iron on anything flammable
- Don’t have a dining table, or your kitchen table seats only two? No problem—either buy a cheap card table and put a pretty tablecloth over it, or make your cof-fee table your dining surface and have guests lounge around it on large, cushy pillows. Wrap couchpillows in saris and scarves for an exotic look.
Like lighting, music can either make your party sexier . . . or seriously put a cramp in it. The first thing to consider is pacing: The
faster the music, the faster people will drink. So start out the night with your slowest grooves because this is when your guests will be drinking cocktails on empty stomachs. When you sit down, build to something a little more upbeat, but make sure the beats don’t go faster than a normal heart rate. Otherwise, people will subconsciously eat faster to keep up with the pace of the music—not what you’re going for! You can finish off the evening with something a little more fun and wild because this is when people are loosened up. Another tip: If you’re not into playing deejay, choose a CD without lyrics. No one will know if that Coltrane CD has been playing four times in a row. Next, consider the vibe of your menu, decorations, and guests. Are you serving sushi and sake, and talking art exhibits and indie ilms? Or will it be a rowdier, plate-sharing evening with heavy flirting and politicking? Once you can visualize the scene, choosing a soundtrack will be easier.
How to Make a Decent Cup of Coffee : Before you put the coffee in, fill your carafe with hot water and then dump the water, so
the carafe is hot. It makes a big difference.
Nothing can ruin a good meal like a bad cup of coffee. If the secret to a good martini is about being cold, the secret to a good cup of coffee is about being hot. The hotter the water, the more flavor it will extract from the coffee grounds. Many say that’s why you
should invest in a great maker (experts suggest the Bunn B10-B). Now, I hate coffee grinders and can’t see the merit in freezing
beans. It just seems so elaborate. But the truth is that if you buy preground coffee, know that it will be stale. Typically, whole beans stay fresh about two weeks after roasting. Keep a can of coffee in your pantry for emergencies, but do your best to stock up on beans every two weeks or so. Keep the beans in an airtight container. Store in the freezer over the long-term (over a month) and in the fridge in the short-term (two weeks or less). Invest in a decent grinder, but you can get away with a relatively inexpensive one. Don’t grind it too fine. That will make the coffee bitter. There is some debate over paper versus metal filters. The metal ones are reusable and you’ll never run out. Paper filters will absorb some of the oils from the coffee and make it taste less rich. However, these oils may also raise levels of LDL cholesterol. Go for the paper and if guests dare complain, tell them you’re just looking out for their health.
Start with cold water (preferably filtered). Measure two level tablespoons of ground coffee per six (not eight) ounces of water. Ideally
you should use a coffee scoop, but you may want to measure it against a tablespoon to see how accurate your scoop will be in a pinch. Rather than leaving the unused coffee on the warmer, pour it into an insulated carafe. The longer it sits on the warmer, the worse it will taste, because the coffee is actually cooking for a second time (the first being when it was brewed), which technically “burns” the coffee. So don’t get ahead of yourself and turn on the coffee when you start the appetizer. Guests would rather wait a few extra minutes for a fresher cup. Don’t clean your coffeemaker with dish soap. It’s really hard to get that last bit of detergent out. Instead, use a nonabrasive scrubber and about a teaspoon of baking soda and rinse thoroughly.
How to Gracefully Boot Guests Who Have Stayed Too Long: Never do the dishes during the party (it’s a total downer)
The cleanup: The water temperature in the dishwasher should be at least 120 degrees. The problem is—beyond the fact that few Modern Girls actually know how hot their dishwasher gets—that it’s the hot water that first preconditions the dishes for the wash cycle. So to be sure, run the hot water in your sink before starting a dishwashing cycle as this will flush out the cold water in the lines.
You shouldn’t have to wash the dishes, but at least scrape them, and a rinse is never a bad idea either. Any surfaces that are not ex-
posed won’t get clean, so don’t pack them too tightly or have plates touching or spoons, well, spooning. Items should face down. Cups, bowls, or containers that face up will simply fill with water. Wine-glasses must be anchored to something (many appliances have racks preset for them). Otherwise they will be bandied about by the water and break. And be careful. While many glasses and china patterns can go in the dishwasher, if instructions say wash by hand, do it. Otherwise you’re likely to ruin them.
There is great debate over silverware in the dishwasher. To get it cleanest, you should load it handle-down, allowing the utensil part to get the most cleaning. However, if you have small children, consider their safety, give an extra rinse, and load them handle-up. Every toddler I know has reached into the seeming treasure chest of glistening items. You don’t want your child grabbing the blade. (And frankly, I’ve never figured out how to unload without getting my hands on the perfectly cleaned cutlery anyway.) For extra credit, give each silverware item its own compartment (forks together, spoons together). This will save you time in the inevitably badly timed unload phase. Don’t overload the dishwasher. If there is no room for the grub to get out, it will settle where you are
least likely to notice it (until your mother in-law stops by and picks a bit of crusted macaroni from your serving bowl). Typically you don’t have to fill both cups with soap, unless you’re morally opposed to scraping and rinsing. But do make sure the one you fill is latched. If your glasses are spotty, try JET-DRY rinse conditioner. Otherwise, buy one of those plastic white baskets your mother
had that allows you to put in spot reducing tablets. Attach it to the lower rack. It works.
Chances are it’s around midnight now. And you, darling, have done a fabulous job of cooking, greeting, wine pouring, awkward-silence saving, wax-removing, dessert dishing, cleaning, and being an all-around dining diplomat. So go to sleep. As in, put your head on your pillow, shut your eyes, and don’t stay up all night wondering whether people had a good time or not. They did. Whatever little appetizer you forgot to serve or CD you overplayed, no one noticed. And the best part is, you’ve always got another shot to make it better next time.