Entertaining at home is such a great way to connect with family and friends and slow down our frenzied world. For a meal that’s memorable, take the time to add some special touches, not only to your cooking but also to your table. Place cards, napkin rings and knife rests are extras that are often forgotten or just skipped. But I love arranging place cards on the table; it’s a chance to stop and think about where to seat guests in order to stimulate the best conversation. Also, place cards prevent that awkward moment when everyone arrives at the table and wonders where to sit. There are so many creative options besides traditional cards: one of my favorites it to cut a sliver in a pear and insert the card into it, then use a copper plant label for writing the guest’s name where the plant name would be. Get your children to help attach gift tags or wine labels to napkins using ribbon or raffia strands. At Easter and Christmas, the children help me make large sugar cookies, and we decorate them with the names of our guests.
If you don’t own knife rests, get creative and use flat rocks, chopstick rests or shells. Ribbon, cording and raffia work well for making napkin rings; add flowers, leaves, grasses, herbs or shells. Finally, if you really want to impress everyone, print up the menu and make a couple of copies for the table.
Friends and clients often ask me how they can give their party a more polished look. I always go back to my mantra: keep it simple. Whether we’re talking about the food, presentation or decor, more is not better. You don’t need to have six salads for a buffet dinner. Instead, have two or three really amazing ones and make each totally different. For example, you could make a grilled potato salad with crispy pancetta, green beans and dijon vinaigrette, then pair it with an oversize platter of vine-ripened tomatoes drizzled with pesto, grilled flank steak and some fabulous bread.
Present the flank steak on a huge wooden board and arrange a bunch of watercress, cilantro or Italian parsley in the corner of the board for a simple but dramatic presentation. Make sure the platters and serving bowls will hold slightly more than you have; salads present best when the contents aren’t spilling over.
If you’re having a multi-course dinner party, keep the hors d’oeuvres to a minimum. My preference is to offer two different types of olives, perhaps Niçoise and Picholine, and some warm toasted almonds. Toss whole blanched almonds in enough extra-virgin olive oil to coat then sprinkle them with coarse sea salt. Roast the almonds in a 350°F (180°C) oven for 5 to 8 minutes and serve warm. (You can also make them ahead and reheat them for a couple of minutes just before serving.) Serve the olives and almonds in interesting bowls – they don’t have to match, but try for a theme that ties them together. For example, use white dishes of different sizes and shapes, or perhaps earthenware dishes of similar colours.