Last Friday, we had 17 people over for dinner. No, we haven’t moved to a larger apartment. No, my kitchen hasn’t grown to the size of a normal one (though some mornings I tiptoe in, hoping it will surprise me). No, I hadn’t really expected almost all of my friends to be able to make it when I invited them, but I wasn’t the least bit sad when I found out they’d all come, mostly because my vision of the ideal apartment gathering resembles the party scene from Breakfast At Tiffany’s. And boy, we get closer every time.
The precursor to this was when, about a month ago, I moped, as I often do, to my husband that we never entertain anymore and that we should just do it, just throw a party and have enough aperatifs around that pesky details such as cranky child up past their bedtime and who needs chairs? pull up a corner of carpet to sit on! and oops, did we invite more people than we have forks for again? would cease to matter. Wine solves everything, doesn’t it?
My husband was less confident, so I decided to tackle the roadblocks, one by one, like an adult. (Boring!) It turns out, we actually have a lot of plates and flatware because my mother once gave me the sound advice to always buy or register for more than you think you’ll need (your friends will thank you). But the other problems were still fairly easily solved. For example, not enough table space? It turns out folding tables are inexpensive and can be hidden surprisingly well under the sofa. Not enough chairs? Ikea is so on that, guys, and they fold so flat, I couldn’t even find them once my husband put them away (whether or not he didn’t just put them at the curb is a question I decided not to ask). And then I got carried away and even bought our very first tablecloths, and some tea light holders. Instant Dinner Party Kit!
I blame Susan Spungen for getting me dreaming about dinner parties again. Her new book is full of the kind of details most of us, probably not raised in a generation where hosting skills were considered as important as knowing how to set one’s hair with hot rollers, might not have absorbed, but help when you decide to burst the seams of your apartment in the name of a good time. It’s full of ideas I’d otherwise not have thought of, such as pulling up our bath rug before people come, because it’s just going to get wrecked under a parade of shoes, plus all sorts of helpful guides, such as how to figure out how much food you’ll need, how to create a back-up fridge, why brunch is the best meal to get the hang of hosting before moving onto bigger meals like seated dinners, and of course hundreds of entertaining-minded recipes, as well as wine- and cheese-pairing tips. (Jenny Rosenstratch outlines even more favorites here.)
There’s one tip she suggests, however, that I hadn’t considered but I’d like to next time, which is to put out a pitcher of signature cocktails so everyone doesn’t have to fend for themselves with a mess of ingredients in the bar area (in our case, a toddler art table, temporarily reassigned — sorry kid!). When it comes to pitchers of drinks, few make a wide range of people as happy as sangria (and are as efficient at using up mediocre bottles of wine, not that anyone we know would ever bring such things). Sangria, when it’s good — which, for me, is not terribly sweet and chock full of chopped fruit* — is about the best entertaining trick one can have and it pained me that I didn’t have a go-to recipe at home. I’ve been put off by glasses that are heavy, syrupy and full of strange ingredients, when, in fact, about the only place that makes it exactly the way I like it is this shoebox of a tapas restaurant a few blocks away and…
Guys, as if a sign from above (or just, the publishing gods) their recipe was in The New York Times dining section this week. I mean, yesterday. As in, I read it, shopped it, and we were drinking a glass at home after the kid went to sleep and before the paper even became birdcage liner. The Pata Negra sangria may not be for everyone; it’s barely sweet (although you can add more sugar) and has a longer ingredient list and bigger yield than what you might be used to. So, in the interest of making everyone happy (which is really what entertaining is about), I am also going to share Susan Spungen’s simpler simple one below, slightly sweeter (but still not oppressively so) and a more reasonable volume for those times when you’re entertaining fewer than 17 people. But really, where’s the fun in that?
* Can we talk about the fruit for a moment? I have questions! Why isn’t sangria ever served with a spoon or fork so that you can eat the fruit? I never know what to do with this deliciousness in the glass, short of reaching in and making an undignified mess. Are we really supposed to pretend it’s not there and wouldn’t be insanely delicious to eat? I am eager to hear your Sangria Fruit Management techniques.
Oh right, the dinner party menu: So, my entertaining tips haven’t changed much since I outlined them many years ago, and again in the name of brunch. In short: do everything in advance that you can and don’t make anything new or complicated. I really try not to make anything I haven’t made before for dinner parties, because nobody’s going to have fun if I’m all stressed out in a kitchen tizzy. We started with an assortment of cured meats and cheeses, sliced baguettes and I made both this artichoke-olive tapenade and the cauliflower pesto from my book in advance. For dinner, I made two lasagnas (one mushroom and one Bolognese; if you ever want to make both of these simultaneously,
email me and I will send you the document where I pulled both together into one recipe) here’s my combined recipe, which helped me only have to make pasta/bechamel/grate cheese once as well as organize my time well [PDF]) + this beloved escarole salad + roasted asparagus. On Wednesday, I made the bolognese sauce. On Thursday, I pickled onions, made the pasta, bechamels and assembled both lasagnas, keeping them foil-covered in the fridge overnight. On Friday, I had blissfully little to do except wash lettuce, prep odds and ends, and make dessert. I decided at the last minute to forgo any complicated cakes or tarts and just make chocolate chip cookies (with a couple sea salt flakes on top of each) and it was my favorite idea, yet. I made the dough early in the day scooped them onto trays and just baked them after dinner (the lasagnas didn’t even go in the oven until after people began to arrive, as they take but 45 minutes to bake) — is there anyone not delighted by freshly baked chocolate chip cookies? Nobody I want to know, at least…
One year ago: Rhubarb Snacking Cake
Two years ago: Spring Salad with New Potatoes (one of my favorites, ever)
Three years ago: Carrot Salad with Feta and Mint (and another favorite) and Rustic Rhubarb Tarts
Four years ago: Raspberry Buttermilk Cake and Slaw Tartare
Five years ago: 30 Ways To Be A Good Guest and Strawberry Rhubarb Pie
Six years ago: Cellophane Noodle Salad with Roast Pork and Coconut Pink Cherry Yogurt
The first recipe is a classic, not very sweet sangria with a moderate yield and a minimum of odd ingredients. It’s the little black dress/white oxford of sangrias. Susan Spungen recommends trying it with white wine instead of red in the summer, and adding peaches or berries too. The second is the one we fell in love with at a small restaurant in our neighborhood. It’s much less sweet (it has barely a pinch of sugar in it, though you can add more), and tastes mostly of wine, with a little pep from fizz, and it makes a whole lot. Rose is added to lighten the mixture. The chef, Rafael Mateo, recommends you let it “knit” together overnight, and only adding the fruit to each glass to serve.
From Susan Spungen’s What’s a Hostess To Do?
1 bottle dry red wine
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup Triple sec or another orange liqueur
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
Sliced peaches, apples, oranges or berries, tossed with a squeeze of lemon juice
Sparkling water, if desired
Mix the wine, sugar, brandy, liqueur and orange juice in a large pitcher. Add fruit and let sit in the fridge until needed. Add some sparkling water (if using) right before serving. A slotted spoon will help guests hold back the fruit while pouring their glasses, and spoon some on top if desired.
2 bottles dry Spanish red wine (they recommend garnacha)
1 bottle dry Spanish rosé (they recommend this to lighten the body of the sangria)
1 ounce orange liqueur (such as Triple Sec or Torres)
2 ounces brandy, preferably Spanish, such as Romate
1 tablespoon sugar, or more to taste
2 apples, cored and diced, for garnish (I used one red and one green, for color)
2 oranges, cut into wedges, for garnish
12 ounces (1 can) orange soda (they recommend less sweet brands such as San Pellegrino aranciata)
In a large vessel, combine wines, liqueur, brandy and sugar. Mix fruit and set aside. Right before serving, pour in soda. Fill glasses with ice, and pour sangria over. Garnish with fruit.