Fancy and fabulous: All you need is planning and prep to throw an elegant dinner party

On a recent Saturday night, I hosted a dinner party. A REAL dinner party complete with candlelight, flowers, crystal, china and linens. No buffet or family-style serving. No potluck or asking folks to bring a salad or dessert. I even hired my teenage daughter, Anna, to pass hors d’oeuvres, plate and serve the courses, and load the dishwasher while we dined and enjoyed the company and conversation.

My friend was having a milestone birthday. As a gift, a friend and I hosted the intimate evening for 10. You know what? It wasn’t that much work, and the rewards were well worth the few hours of prep. The evening was leisurely and the food, of course, fabulous. Unlike a celebration at a restaurant, we could hear one another across the table and not feel rushed. We lingered for hours — spacing out the courses. I was relaxed and could fully experience the evening. Best of all, at the end, I was energized, not exhausted.

The actual preparation time really didn’t take much longer than a more casual evening, just a bit of careful planning and timing. For this menu, I relied on recipes and entertaining tips from Janice W. Thomas, chef and owner at Savory Spoon Cooking School and Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese shops in Door County, Wis. Thomas suggested as an appetizer Cranberry Apple Port Tartin served with an Aged Marieke Gouda cheese, followed by Apple and Fennel Soup, Warm Cabbage Salad, White Fish En Papillote with Lemon and Herbs, and Apple Clafoutis with Nutmeg Cream. She and I prepared most of these dishes together when I attended her cooking school a few years back (www.savoryspoon.com).

The holidays are the perfect time to showcase Wisconsin’s agricultural bounty of artisan cheese, Montmorency dried cherries, cranberries, apples and maple syrup. Wisconsin is well-known for cheese and is the nation’s leading cheese producer, accounting for 25 percent of total production. But less known is that the state tops the charts in cranberry production and is fourth in tart cherry and maple syrup crops. The deep red cranberries and cherries and bright green apples make for a festive table. For a more Texas-centric flare, December is prime time to showcase the state’s citrus and pecan crops. Use a glass bowl or vase brimming with a jumble of brilliant tangerines and the earthy look of in-the-shell pecans for a celebratory centerpiece.

When selecting the menu, Thomas says, “Have fun and have dishes that can be put together fairly easily and at the last minute.” She likes to create a convivial atmosphere with a bit of the unexpected, using menu items for decorations. “Apples figure prominently in the menu. So, why not use an apple with a slit in it to hold the placecard. Or, if you are having a flower arrangement, you can fill your vase with red and green apples (or fresh cranberries) and still have the flowers on top,” Thomas says.

Using different style dishes for each course is another idea. “Serve soup in a demitasse cup (or tea cups) as a starter instead of a large soup bowl. This is fun and not too filling,” she adds.

My goal is to get as much as possible done ahead of time and avoid last-minute surprises. A few days before, I read and re-read the recipes while I make shopping lists. I am big on Excel spreadsheets and checklists to keep organized. I use the spreadsheet to list out each course and last-minute prep instructions. It’s also nice to be able to go back and see what I’ve served in the past.

Think through table decorations, serving pieces, dishes for each course and garnishes. Set the table the night before or early in the morning. Then set out dishes and serving pieces. Use sticky notes to indicate which dish goes with which course. Label each garnish, too.

Thomas suggests chopping and prepping in the morning, “Be your own sous chef.” Relaxation and focus are a must. “Turn on your favorite music while you cook, and don’t answer the phone! It’s very stressful to answer the phone when you are getting into cooking,” says Thomas.

Think of garnishes as a way to add flavor or texture dimensions to a dish or to let guests know what they are eating, she says. For the Warm Cabbage Salad, mound a few dried cherries and whole toasted hazelnuts over the salad and top with a strip of bacon. Thomas also likes pairing raw and cooked ingredients — “I love having cooked something and raw something.” For the dessert, finely diced apples tossed in brandy sprinkled on the whipped cream adds crispness to the clafoutis.

So, I challenge you. Host a holiday dinner party. You and your friends will love it.

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