When I arrived at the office the last work day before Christmas, I came in and saw my desk heaped with gifts. It took me by surprise, as it had been so long since I had worked in an office. It hadn't even occurred to me that we would exchange presents, and I had nothing planned. But it came to me quickly: I would have everyone over for a dinner party. I thought an evening together, away from the ringing phones and stress of the job, would allow us to remember the privilege it is to have such fantastic co-workers. It was just what we all needed.
A cheese board to nibble on as we waited for everyone to arrive and for the soup to finish.
Soup: French onion
Salad: A variation on this salad (I served it with bottled dressing and no avocado)
Dessert: Gelato with a pirouette cookie and a raspberry on top
My boss brought a fun gift that kept the conversation going after the meal was over:
Sample questions we discussed:
What is the fastest you have ever driven?
What is one sport you don't care about at all?
What is the best speech you have ever heard?
Lots of laughs, plenty of new insights into my co-workers. I look forward to having this as part of future dinner parties.
My keys to dinner party sanity (especially one, like this one, that is during the work week):
1) Accept help.
My youngest son has been eager to earn money while he is home on break from school, so I hired him to deep clean the bathroom, make sure the floors and rugs were clean in the great room, and to tidy up the front door deck area.
My co-worker Sarah came early to help with last minute prep. She also stayed until all the dishes were done at the end of the night. My house was spotless and sparkling when I went to bed.
2) Think through what needs to happen when. Don't serve things that will require that you be away from the party for long stretches. Your guests would rather visit with you than see you as a blur in front of the stove. A sheet pan dinner is a perfect solution.
3) Set things up ahead of time -- and go ahead and use all the pretty things. I put out the china and the silver. I used the crystal goblets. I put out the linen napkins. Simple elegance (the "simple" part can be translated in the top photograph as "wrinkles." I love beautiful things, but I am happy to have it be less than perfect. It helps put people at ease.)
4) Start the evening with an empty dishwasher and an empty dish rack. Clean up as you clear each course. I put the soup bowls in to soak, thanks to all that baked on Swiss cheese goodness.
5) Remember that a dinner party is not to impress anyone. It is to put everyone at ease and to help them relax and recuperate. As author Shauna Niequest says:
“I’m not talking about cooking as performance, or entertaining as a complicated choreography of competition and showing off. I’m talking about feeding someone with honesty and intimacy and love, about making your home a place where people are fiercely protected, even if just for a few hours, from the crush and cruelty of the day.”
6) Candles and twinkle lights make any set up feel like a party.
7) Music can be a good icebreaker. I will often start an evening with my George Winston Pandora station, letting it go quiet when the conversation gets lively.
FINAL ADVICE (as cliche as it might be): JUST DO IT. You won't regret it.