Park City Home: 10 Steps to a Fabulous Family Feast
How to host a gathering that pleases everyone, elders to kids
Tanya Steel wants to feed your family. Former editorial director of the websites Epicurious and Gourmet.com, founder of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge & Kids’ “State Dinner” with Michelle Obama, and author of “Real Food for Healthy Kids,” among other books, she has concentrated as much on nourishing children as she has on tempting sophisticated palates. Now that large family gatherings are back on the menu, we knew she was just the person to help us prepare a special-occasion meal that will delight multiple generations.
1 Stick to the tried and true
You might be the kind of cook who tends to rethink the menu for each dinner party, but at holiday time, put your all-time hits on repeat. “Holiday dinners are comfort meals that everyone anticipates,” says Steel. “Kids, especially, look forward to specific dishes that you’ve always done in a specific way. If it’s not prepared that way, it’s not the holiday!” Not that you have to stay frozen in time. “Be a little adventurous and add a new side dish if you like, but keep the stalwarts.”
2 Appetizers are a must (but you can cheat)
Steel believes that appetizers are one of the keys to a real celebration. “They are always a great way to make people feel comfortable and happy from the outset and reinforce that it’s a special occasion. The key is having a nice variety of items while keeping things simple. Among her go-tos: “roasted garlic hummus and spinach-artichoke dip, with interesting tortilla chips made from things like black beans and quinoa, and cut yellow and orange bell peppers for the dipping.” For a cheese plate, “goat cheese, camembert, and a bleu or hard aged cheddar, plus prosciutto-wrapped pitted dates, and lots of flatbreads.” Add a few bowls of spicy Asian trail mix and “you’ve got yourself a fast, easy, sophisticated spread.”
If all that sounds daunting, relax. “You can definitely cheat with the appetizers,” says Steel. “There are so many good hummuses and cheeses out there, you don’t need to make it over complicated.” A visit to your supermarket’s cheese island and specialty aisle should do the trick. Then all you have to do is unwrap and display. “People get really excited about coming into your house and immediately having something to eat and drink.”
3 Don’t even think about skipping dessert
Even if you’re not a big dessert person, this is a non-negotiable part of a celebration dinner. But again, Steel says that dessert is a part of the meal you can outsource without a whit of shame. “If you’re not a great baker, cut to the chase and buy dessert. There’s nothing worse than being a guest who’s saved up all your calories in anticipation of dessert — which is what I do — and then being served some cruddy fruit mess.”
4 Find an affordable house wine
“I always have CK Mondavi wines on hand — they are very inexpensive but very good for what they are. And I always have a bottle of prosecco in my fridge for people who drop by. It’s also smart to have a decent rosé on hand — anything from southern France — and always a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.” Steel says while many people don’t like beer, and a lot of drinkers are avoiding hard liquor, those flavors will appeal to a lot of palates.
5 Keep the meat and potatoes folks happy
Steel says that no matter whatever else she’s serving, “I make sure I have one thing that I know the meat-and-potatoes folks will like, whether it’s a shepherd’s pie with melted gruyere on top, a beefy stew loaded with chunks of potatoes, parsnips and carrots and enriched with red wine, or grilled flank steak marinated in a garlic, honey mustard, and soy sauce dressing. You should always try and have one thing you know each of your guests love.”
6 Respect different generations
It’s tricky to prepare a menu that will appeal to picky kids, adventurous friends, and relatives with simple tastes. Steel feels the secret is “Having choices and not overreaching in complexity or ethnicity. Playing up people’s heritages is also always a nice way to get people eating, trying different dishes, and talking. Things like rice dishes with seafood or chicken, pastas with veggies, and big salads with mix-in proteins on the side are mainstays that everyone will eat.”
7 Let them eat soup
“Soups are also a good way to please different palates. A roasted butternut squash soup with pesto dolloped on top and threaded through into a design will fill everyone up, look gorgeous, and is the essence of autumn.”
8 An organized host is a happy host
According to Steel, maintaining sanity before hosting a big get-together is a matter of advance preparation. “Always be hyper-organized and have everything ready to go. Table set, music on, glasses and wine out, most of the food made. That way if there are any last-minute hiccups you can deal with it.”
9 The kids’ table is a lifesaver — up to a point
“If you are hosting a lot of young children, a kids’ table will help ensure an evening everyone will enjoy. It’s no fun to be focused on your kids while trying to enjoy adult company. I think it’s a great idea to feed the kids first and then have them sleepy and playing while you’re all eating dinner.” But, says Steel, it’s a matter of age. “If the kids are say, 7 and up, it’s wonderful to include them at the dining table. They can make the most charming guests. It’s also a great time to model good table manners in front of them.”
10 An impressive menu doesn’t require four-star skills
Steel’s idea of a dream menu for a special autumn occasion combines simple make-aheads (mushroom quiche, butternut squash soup), a crowd-pleasing roast chicken, and a showstopping risotto that’s not as much work as it sounds. And if you’re not up to making the luscious finale, assign it to a guest who loves to bake.
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