I consider myself a very amateur chef, but entertaining is one of my greatest passions. I was exposed at a very young age, to the joy and excitement that entertaining brings. I remember watching my Grandmother and Mother throw parties, gathering both friends and strangers around the table. There was always something so magical about watching people create community and culture around a plate of food.
That’s why I consider dinner parties to be the most unassuming, joyful, fulfilling, and profoundly intimate reasons to gather. There’s no need to be fancy and pull out the china. In fact, some of my favorite dinner parties have been unplanned or casual.
And I have thrown my fair share of dinner parties — from just a few friends in my home, to touring with Outstanding in the Field and feeding 200 of our closest friends. Again, I’m no master chef, but I definitely know a thing or two about hosting.
The idea of hosting can be overwhelming, but if you start small, I guarantee that you will be inspired and feel well equipped to start cooking for friends!
Most importantly —
YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE A GREAT COOK to throw a dinner party.
You simply need to prep.
Preparing for your dinner party is the most important thing you can do to minimize stress and enjoy the party. After all, you aren’t truly a host or hostess if you’re stuck in the kitchen stressing about the food. ;)
So, let’s get started —
Simple Steps for dining al fresco:
Set a date. Depending on the size and formality of your envisioned dinner party, a week is plenty notice for an invitation, and ample time for stress-free prep.
Things to consider: How much time you need to prep, your social calendar & your friends & RSVP time
Invite your friends, family or strangers (can’t have a party without people!)
Snail mail, email, evite, phone call, text, tweet, dm, snap, in person… you get the idea.
Decide on a menu and make a detailed list of ingredients that you will need.
Take into account oven & grill space and the cook/prep time. Does it need to be marinated? Chilled overnight? Etc.
Get to prepping! I cannot stress this enough. Time management is key when it comes to hosting. Do as much as you can ahead of time so you can maximize time with your guests instead of slaving over the stove.
Things that can be done in advance: marinating, chopping (heartier veggies, not tomatoes or fruit that can bruise easily), setting the table and filling up water glasses. You might even consider preparing some of the dishes the day before like cooking grains or making a gazpacho!
Tips for choosing a menu:
Start by choosing a protein/main dish. This is the foundation of your meal and what you will build the rest of your menu around. A great way to find inspiration for this is by going to your local butcher or fish market to see what looks good!
Things to consider: how many people are you feeding? Grill or oven? Do you want to try something new or make an old staple?
Next come the supporting actors. Just as important as the lead, they act to enhance your main dish or protein. I like to walk to the farmers market and choose seasonal ingredients (tastes so much better too!). Simply pick out what looks good to you — The peaches you could smell from across the street, bright & textured dark leafy greens, plum tomatoes, crisp yellow corn on the cob… ok, my mouth is watering.
Next, head to Pinterest, get on Google, open up those cookbooks, or check out recipes from your grandma, a neighbor or your favorite chef to decide how to prepare your ingredients. It can be as simple as sauteing leafy greens to steeping and pureeing tomatoes for a chilled gazpacho. You decide! It’s your party after-all. The more dinner parties I host, the more confidence I gain to try new recipes, head to the Asian market to buy produce I’ve never even seen before, or maybe even make up my own!
Things to consider: Balance — in color, flavor, texture and food group. No need to overthink it, simply find variety, like protein + veggie + starch. It helps if you try to include different colors.
Still looking for a little guidance or inspiration?
Here's an in depth view of a dinner I threw recently:
When I went to the farmers market, I was immediately drawn to these ingredients:
Tomatoes // Corn // Summer squash // Stone fruit // Cucumber
From this I was able to create my menu:
Appetizer - roasted Mexican crema corn crostini
Main - flank steak — I decided on flank steak as my protein/main because it’s a classic staple and I’ve made it dozens of times. There is zero fru-fru involved, just a little olive oil & salt/pepper and 10 minutes on the grill (5 on each side).
Sides - burrata & tomato basil salad, grilled summer squash and fresh bread — I decided to pair the tomatoes with burrata because it is filling, beautiful and a good fat/texture. And grilled summer squash was an easy choice because it’s colorful and doesn’t require a recipe ;)
Dessert - grilled bourbon soaked peaches with vanilla bean ice cream — Since the grill was already hot, I decided to throw bourbon soaked peaches on for dessert as we cleared the table.
Last but not least, I am a huge fan of cocktails and always feature a specialty cocktail at all of my dinner parties. I consider it another creative outlet.
The paired cocktail —
3 oz. Hendricks Gin
.5 oz St. Germain
4 slices cucumber
1 sprig mint
top with soda water
Raleigh Clemens is a California Native who did a quick 7 year stint in DC where she grew and developed her skill and true love of entertaining. She would describe herself as a culturally influenced chef, lover of people, middle child, creative soul, adventure seeker and ultimate entertainer. She is most passionate about knowing where her food comes from, supporting local farmers, creating in the kitchen & gathering friends and strangers around the table.
@fleurandthyme // fleurandthyme.com